Advent III

Jimmy JoAdvent, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Last week, we looked at the New Testament passage from the Revised Common Lectionary, from Romans 15.  And we talked about the notion that God is bringing about His salvation.  He is bringing about the redemption of creation.  And we, as the people of God, the Church, are called to participate in that – we are a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste.  But we also know that the church is not yet what we are called to be, what we are meant to be.  We know that the Church, and churches, are made up of fallen and broken people who, as often as not, don’t really get along and fit together all that well.  That how we live together and how we live together is more often a testimony of our selfishness and our hypocrisy than it is of God’s mercy and goodness and His ultimate intent and purpose for us.   

But we know that God is faithful to bind us together and to bring us to redemption together.  And that through us, God can demonstrate the fullness of His redemptive purposes. 

So, we live in the in-between time, seeking to live out the fullness towards which God calls us. 

Our passage today is also the New Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary – James 5:7-10.

Our passage today is selected in such a way that the context is not obvious. And we also know that it is an Advent passage. But how is it related to the Christmas season? Firstly, in the verses as we have them, we notice the “then” in verse 7.  What is this referring to?  Well, as last week, we want to take a look at the larger, but immediate, context of these verses. 

5:1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

James 5:1-11

So chapter 5 begins with this warning to rich people.  And James is essentially issuing a warning to rich people who use their wealth and power as a means of oppression.  These rich people are not merely using their wealth to, for example, get richer.  They are getting richer by means of keeping poor people poor. 

At this point, I want to try to give a very brief overview of the book of James to, I hope, give us a framework for understanding what’s going on in this passage.  James is one of those books of the bible that tends to divide Christians.  A large part of that is because the theology of James seems to appear, to some, contrary to the theology that we get from Paul, who looms so large in Christian theology.  So, for example, Martin Luther appears to dislike James because he believed that James argued for a justification by works which is opposed to Paul’s justification by faith.  This, as we know, was one of the hallmarks of Luther’s theology – justification by faith through grace alone.  (It’s for the same reason that Christians who tend towards a sort of legalism typically really like James).

Generally speaking, this attitude towards James comes from verses like 1:22 and 2:14

1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

James 1:22, 2:14

But I think that this kind of perspective miss the point of James.  In a nutshell, Paul and James are exploring the relationship between faith and works from different points of view.  Paul is looking at what justifies us before God – that is, faith in God’s grace alone.  James is looking at the kind of life that faith produces – that is, if we have faith in God, what kind of life would result? 

Let’s take a slightly deeper look at what’s going on.  (Note that, by necessity, this will be a very brief overview.  And also, I am looking at it from a particular point of view – that is, how can we make sense of James in the light of some of the things we’ve been talking about over the past several years). 

In a nutshell, I think what James is getting at is how to live out the kingdom life in the context of a godless world.  Or, put differently, James is talking about the importance of living out the kingdom life in the world.  In other words, if we are kingdom people, we can’t live as if the kingdom doesn’t matter. 

When I was young, I thought that the above mentioned verses meant something along the lines of, “if you truly believe in God, then you will follow the rules.”  That’s a little bit hyperbolic, but that’s essentially how I understood it, and how I was told to understand it.  Now that may be partially correct (depending on how you understand, “follow the rules”), but I think it misses what James is actually talking about. 

1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:22-27

Without getting too deeply into it, James closes with the words: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows…”

Let’s look at another example: 

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James 2:14-17

What James is concerned about here is a professed faith that does not care about the state of others in the world.  What James is talking about here is essentially the “thoughts and prayers” of the modern world that doesn’t actually engage in the sufferings of the world. 

There are plenty of other examples we could talk about. But I think what you’ll see is that James is not interested in espousing a set of rules that Christians must follow which constitute “true religion.” Rather, in extremely short form, I think James is encouraging Christians to live a way of life – one that entails caring for one another, having integrity, being kind, and being humble – in the midst of a world in which an entirely different kind of life is the only way to get ahead.  In that world – which I would argue is very much like our world – everything is about pride and position, everything is about stepping over others to get ahead, everything is about being the strongest, being the biggest, being the brightest. 

So I don’t believe that James is talking about, “if you believe in God, follow the rules.”  I think that James is saying, “if you are part of the kingdom, live as kingdom people.” 

So, that’s a very long introduction to our passage today, yet a very short overview of the letter of James.  What does that have to do with our particular passage today?  Remember our Advent verses, which are: 

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

James 5:7-10

And these verses take place in the context beginning at 5:1

5:1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

James 5:1-6

So, in short, James is talking to, or giving the example of the rich who use their wealth to oppress the poor.  Specifically, the rich pay their workers the bare minimum so that they increase their own wealth, but keep the workers in poverty and need. 

Then, in our Advent verses today, James says to those in that situation, those who are victims of the injustices and inequities endemic to this world, be patient and stand firm.  Don’t grumble, don’t argue, don’t feel sorry for yourselves, or hate or curse your oppressors (of course, I’m elaborating here).  Don’t fall victim to the ways of the world.  Rather, put your faith in God because His peace, His justice, His kingdom is coming. 

What James is concerned about here is the kind of living that demonstrates, or flows out of, the kingdom life of which we take hold, through Christ. 

Now why is this an Advent reading?  Why do we think this was selected, as we think about the first coming and the second coming of Christ?  Well, last week we talked about Christmas as not a celebration of Christ’s birth, per se, but rather a celebration of the arrival of the Messiah.  In other words, Christmas is the recognition not of someone’s birthday (not even someone as important as Jesus Christ), but the recognition of the fulfillment of God’s long-awaited promise.  It’s the realization of everything that the people of God have longed for and hoped for.  It’s the acknowledgement that light has finally arrived at the very long tunnel of sin, rebellion, and exile. 

Living in this world is a hard thing for many of us.  We live in worry, doubt, fear, anger, resentment.  We hold on to pride, ambition, competition, and power.  And we’re surrounded by people who are beset with the same things.  And we know, we hope, that this is not how things are meant to be. 

But for the people walking in darkness, we have seen a great light.  For those of us who live in a land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.  Jesus Christ is the light that has dawned.  He is the light that shows us that we don’t have to live according to the ways of the world any more. 

So, while we wait for Jesus to come again, we try to do better.  We try to be better.  We try to walk in light, and love, and grace.  And we do this, not because we are trying to show that we are better.  (And it’s really important that we understand what “better” means in kingdom terms.)  But merely to proclaim that, in Christ, there is a better way, a kingdom way, a kingdom life. 

So, I know it’s hard.  And I know we’ve been waiting for a long time.  I know it feels like we sometimes want to give up and give in.  But let us not grow weary in doing good.  For at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 

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