Last week we saw James speak to a group of wealthy people who were exploiting and taking advantage of the poor. This week, James turns and speaks to the poor who are being oppressed and encourages them. And here is what he encourages them with: Jesus is coming soon. And because Jesus is coming soon, we need patience, hope, and trust.
James repeatedly speaks of the “coming of the Lord” – it is the central theme of this passage. This could mean two things: it could speak of Christ’s second coming, where Christ will return at the end of times and establish His Kingdom in its fullness, judge the living and the dead, and then remake the heavens and the earth. Or, this James could be referring to the concept of Christians dying, and being brought into the presence of the Lord, which could happen at any moment (see James 4:13-16).
What was the last thing you were told to “be patient” for? Whenever we are told to be “patient”, we are usually told to do so because there is some kind of reward that will come from it. “Good things come to those who…wait.” Whenever Christmas season begins, my wife goes into mega-Christmas mode. And if I ever hint at the fact that I may have gotten her a present, she comes after me like a hyena coming after a steak “What did you get me, what is it, what did you get, how much did it cost, where did you buy it, can you tell me what kind of present it is, is it clothes.” But then, as soon as I cave and start to tell her what I got her, she goes from Jekyll to Hyde, “Wait! Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know! It will ruin the surprise!” Three years into marriage, and I’m still trying figure this out. Hillary loves surprises, but also loves knowing.
Here is what I do know – patience is fueled by future joy. We always manage to exercise patience by thinking forward to something better that will come out of your patience. Hillary knows that if she exercises patience, the surprise on Christmas morning will be better than if she knows months ahead of time what her gifts are.
James tells this group of Christians, who are being taken advantage of by the wicked employers, to “be patient” three times – that is stunning. It is easy to think about being patient when it comes to presents, but James is asking these Christians to be patient as they swelter under injustice. They are being taken advantage of, and James has the audacity to tell them to “be patient”. What could he mean by that?
Remember, last week, James warned the rich that they had fattened themselves like cows who were about to be slaughtered (5:5)? James leads straight from that and says “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7). James encourages Christians to know that at the coming of the Lord, justice will be served. No one will get away with anything, therefore be patient. It may sound gruesome, but James is saying the “coming of the Lord” is the “day of slaughter” – it is the day of judgment, when the wicked shall reap what they have sown.
Friends, when Jesus comes a second time, it will not be like the first. He will not be the meek, lowly lamb – He will be the conquering lion, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will come with a sword and eyes blazing with fire. The edges of His robes will be stained with the blood of His enemies. And He will judge the living and the dead. This is the Day of Judgment that James says is coming, and why the oppressed can be patient.
Paul echoes this teaching in Romans 12, where he encourages us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21). What an amazing passage. Paul tells us not to seek out revenge, not because we don’t care about equality or justice – but because we trust God to administer it more completely than we could. On the contrary, we are called to love our enemies, not judge them. God will take care of the means of vengeance, but He calls us to be His agents of love and forgiveness.
At this point, we need to make a very important aside: this does not mean that when someone commits a crime against us, we don’t report it to the police – we will look at this more in our small groups, but in Romans 13 Paul explains that God has given his sword of judgment to the government to administer justice in this present age. So, if someone robs your home or assaults you, you should go to the police. You don’t say, “Well, I shouldn’t seek out vengeance here, I’ll just let them rob me.” When I was on a mission trip to Mexico in high school, we travelled to a place that had been known to have high percentages of kidnappings happen. So, were discussing what we would do if one of our girls on our trip was kidnapped, and one friend, being a little snarky said, “We would do the Christian thing, turn the other cheek, and give them another girl.” That is not what Paul is talking about. What Paul is saying in Romans 12 isn’t contrary to what he says one chapter later; he is saying that we are not take vengeance into our own hands. In other words, we don’t become Batman, and try and settle the score by subverting God’s means of justice. We trust that God will be the one who balances the scales of justice, and we strive to be obedient to God’s command to “love our enemies” and “be patient”.
Maybe right now you have someone who has hurt you, and you feel like they are getting away with it. What do you do? How could you possibly love them? Here is what you do: trust God’s justice more than your own. Our craving for justice isn’t wrong – we crave justice because we are made in the image of God, and God is a just and holy God. But our craving is meant to be satisfied not by our own feeble attempts to settle the score, but in the far more serious, full and total justice of God.
Take comfort in this: No one will ever get away with anything. Every crime will be judged. Every sin accounted for. Every wrong will be righted. That is why James encourages them to be patient while suffering unjustly – not because justice doesn’t matter, but because it does. If I trust that the Lord will right all wrongs, I can patiently endure suffering.
Strengthen your heart
And while a knowledge of God’s satisfaction of justice does help, often we still feel so deflated and overwhelmed while we suffer. – but James doesn’t stop there. After James tells the believers to “be patient” he exhorts them to “establish their hearts” – what does that mean? What does he mean by “establish”?
This phrase could also be stated as, “strengthen your hearts”. James is telling them that their hearts, in light of the injustice and suffering, need to be strengthened. But what does James mean by strengthening our heart? In the Bible, the heart is where the affections and the will both are created based upon what the heart believes, cherishes and hopes in.
I haven’t used a Lord of the Rings reference in quite some time, so I think its fair to now. In The Two Towers, at the battle of Helm’s Deep, there is a gate that serves as the main entry way into the fortress, and the orcs are trying to batter it down. The King notices that the gate is creaking, bending and splintering, so he calls his men to rush over and “strengthen the gate”. So Aragorn leads a troop of men to fight the attackers on the outside, while men on the inside repair and reinforce the gate. This is what James is saying we need to do with our hearts – the hinges are creaking and the wood is cracking; we are disappointed, frustrated, joyless, and feel confused in the midst of difficult times.
And when those times of difficulty come, often what we do is turn to other good things in our life as our source of strength: we look to our friends, we look to our family, we look to our achievements, or we look to romance. But James is warning us, that we need to strengthen our hearts in light of the Lord’s return (5:8) – in other words, we need to put our hope in what will still matters beyond the grave. In Psalm 73, my favorite passage of Scripture, we read, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (73:25). Really? Nothing else in all the earth that he desires more than God? Why? The world has some really good stuff in it. What does God offer that nothing else can? “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (73:26). My flesh and my heart may fail – I could lose my very life – but God is the strength of my heart. Astonishing. I could lose everything, but if I have this One thing, I have everything.
When we are going through hard times, we all call out for something to come “strengthen the gates” – to keep us from slipping into despair, to comfort us, but the question you must ask yourself is this: is it strong enough? Can it endure the blows that life gives? Will it always be there for me when I need it? Look at me friends, there is not one of us in this room that couldn’t lose the one thing we cherish most, in an instant – it all can fail you. The majority of the worst kind of pain we experience in life comes from when we have relied on the wrong thing to be our strength, and it fails us. But if God is the strength of your heart, if He is the one thing you hope in most – He can never be taken from you. He will never leave you, never forsake you. The more suffering you endure, the more you rely on Him, and the stronger you become. That will keep you afloat in the storms of life, I promise you.
You know that you can trust Jesus because He went to a bloody cross, and had his flesh ripped off of His body – so you could be His. If Jesus didn’t abandon you on the cross, then He won’t abandon you now. If I believe that the Lord will never abandon me, I can strengthen my heart in Him in the midst of suffering.
Trusting in the Lord.
Lastly, James wants us to put this all into action. James tells us, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9). When we are in hard times, it is more tempting to complain, and become snippety towards one another. And James tells us: don’t – why? Because the Judge is standing at the door, and when we grumble and complain we act like those who will be judged. In other words, James says, “Don’t complain, the Lord is coming to set everything right very soon.”
Here is how Paul explains it, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14-15). Paul tells us not to complain, so that we may stand out from the rest of the world, and shine. Like stars twinkling against the murky black sky, our lives radiate with the light of Christ when we abstain from complaining. But what does that have to do with trust?
When you and I complain, like the rest of the world, we are revealing that we (1) are not patient because we feel like we can’t trust God to make things right and (2) are not hoping in Christ as our deepest roots of hope and joy. Look friends, God is sovereign – that means that He is in control of everything. From your barista messing up your coffee, to hurricanes – nothing happens outside of God’s sovereign plan, and my complaints reveal that I don’t really trust that plan, and I don’t think its good – I trust my own plan, but I’m just frustrated its not working. When I grumble and complain I am just taking a megaphone and announcing to the whole world: I essentially believe in and live for the same things you believe.
But the inverse is also true – when I walk through suffering and refuse to become bitter and complain, when I have patience and hope, my life is shouting, “Jesus is enough for me, Jesus is good and is worth hoping in.” A Christian is someone who trusts God, and that means that we trust His plan – in good times, and in bad. Paul says we shine brightest for Christ when we have ample opportunity to bicker, and whine – but don’t. This is what makes us look so strange to the world around us – when we walk through seasons of suffering with peace, patience and hope, it broadcasts to the world around us that this world is not our home, and we trust God’s good plan. If I am patient, and strengthen my heart in the Lord, I will fight against a spirit of grumbling.
The Coming of the Lord
And what is God’s plan? What is the end of the story? It is called the New Heavens and the New Earth, let me read it to you,
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new,”” (Rev. 22:1-5).
That is the end. That is where our story is headed. Our whole life, good and bad, plenty and want, blessing and suffering – is leading us to that sweet, lovely place. A place of beauty, and joy, and freedom – this is what the coming of the Lord will bring. When we see that, we find the ability to be patient in suffering. When we believe this, we will find a hope that strengthens our hearts. And when we trust this plan, we will fight against an urge to complain and grumble, knowing that God is leading us, with bumps along the way, to that glorious place.