We’re going to be in James 5 tonight—we’re nearing the end of our series exploring this ancient letter. Before we read the text, I thought I’d ask you a thought-provoking question. I dare say it might be the most challenging question you’ve ever been asked: When was the last time you desperately wanted a bad situation to end?
Some of you are really going to have to think about this one. Maybe it was some kind of circumstances—struggle—hardship—crisis—that felt out of your control… that was causing fear and stress… and that was dragging on longer than you wanted…
Whatever it is, try to give it a name. Maybe give it a number if that’s appropriate. And if it’s the same number twice—like the number 20—that’s perfectly OK. What was the last bad situation you desperately wanted to end?
That question tees us up nicely for what James—early Christian leader—brother by blood of Jesus—is saying as he’s winding down his letter:
(James 5.7-11, NASB) Therefore be patient, brethren, until the parousia of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the parousia of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.
James begins by telling his original hearers—and everyone living through 2020—to “be patient.” He says it three times in two verses—verse 7-8. I hated hearing those words as a kid, and I don’t think I like them any better as an adult. It’s like someone adding awful words to awful feelings.
When I was a kid I had awful feelings because that Ducktales Nintendo game was months away. I brought those feelings to my mom and she added awful words on top of those awful feelings.
And—I know it’s hard to imagine—but some of the awful feelings I have as an adult are even bigger than Ducktales. I’m thinking about my job and the economy and viruses causing global crises, about keeping the lights on and keeping loved ones healthy, about how to resist societal injustices. Some of you are thinking about maintaining payroll for employees and grieving someone you’ve lost, and navigating some impossible choices. Maybe you’re like me… and hearing the words “be patient” just sounds awful.
So let’s stop saying them and say something more fun: “makrothumeo.” That’s the Greek here. Makros meaning “large” or “long.” And thumoō meaning “to get angry.” One scholar has described it as the opposite of being “short-tempered.” The word literally calls us to be “long-tempered.” To have a long fuse.
The Old English used to translate it as “long-suffering.” Being willing to wait—willing to carry something—willing to endure something—for a long time. The hardship might be hurting and aching and burning like a fuse. And when our fuse is short, we blow up and attack others (v9). Or we blow up and destroy ourselves.
So keep your fuse long. Strengthen your heart (v8). Endure (v10). Because why? What’s the point in delaying the inevitable? If the bomb’s gonna blow, why lengthen the fuse? Why not just let anger or despair just consume us? James’s answer, of course, is this: we keep our fuse long because we’re looking for something.
We hope in suffering because God is arriving. The Greek word here is parousia and we typically translate it as “coming” or “arriving.” It’s a special word—like, a technical word—in the Roman Empire for when royalty would arrive and grace you with their presence.
This is why we hold on—why we endure—why we keep a long fuse. Because “the Lord” is arriving. “The Lord” is a title that James is happy to use for the ancient covenant God of Israel as well as his brother (1v1, 2v1). The Lord is arriving. Like… super soon.
And James uses a cluster of images to get at this reality. Verse 7, it’s a farmer. Verse 10 it’s the ancient prophets of Israel. verse 11, Job, scratching his sores with pottery.
And they’re all willing to wait, to push through, to endure, for different reasons. For the farmer, waiting is just part of the natural rhythm of things. Every year—ya just gotta wait. There are seasons of hard soil and dryness and then there are seasons of rain. Part of life is working through the dry while you wait on the rains. The prophets, by contrast, were willing to suffer on the margins for the sake of doing the right thing—speaking “in the name of the Lord” (v10).
And poor Job—we stand in his shoes most of the time. Job never gets to peak behind the curtain. Job never understands why he was suffering. But eventually he chooses humility before mysteries too great for him. And hopefully you remember how Job’s story ends… It’s got an Easter ending. Job goes down into the ashes before God… and God raises him up. The LORD arrives, and Job finds himself more prosperous—more alive—than he was before his suffering.
It’s like the Enemy arrives with a tank, and God thinks to himself: “I can steer a tank… I can even make new roads with it.” God arrives with Job—climbing into what the enemy meant for evil and steering it toward to a good outcome (v11)—a good “telos”—a good goal.
We get confused, however, when we read James’s encouragement. This word—parousia—has become synonymous with the second arrival of Jesus at the end of history to judge the living and the dead. And that—thank God—IS the church’s ultimate hope. (That’s the world’s ultimate and only hope!)
But James has more than just the end of history in mind here, because he keeps using what are called “perfected verbs.” Verse 9: He says the Judge “is standing at the door” like already right there, on the threshold. Verse 8: The arrival of the Lord “is near”—“at hand”—”engiken.” It’s the same word Jesus used when he said “the kingdom of God is near.” Like… it’s stupid close. Like that trick when you hold your finger near someone’s forehead. It’s so close you can feel it.
James isn’t just encouraging us with the very really truth that Jesus will come one day in the future. Yes that’s the good future, but the “arrival of the Lord” is “engiken”—it’s at hand—and it’s about more than just the END of history. The arrival of the Lord in our suffering happens WITHIN history too.
I’m not a fortune-teller, so I cannot share specifics about the future, but I can share specifics from the past. As hard as 2020 is, it actually doesn’t hold a candle how hard 2017 was for us as a family. 2017 was brutal—like, the hardest year of our lives.
It began with excitement—we celebrated our oldest daughter’s first birthday in January, and we were thrilled as anticipated our second daughter being born in February. It was fun, it was exciting, we went to the same hospital we had just been in 13 months earlier—we had the same midwife—we had our punchcard.
But as soon as our youngest, Daisy, was born you could feel concern growing in the room. Her breathing wasn’t strong, her voice for crying was almost inaudible, and she was awake but barely moving. Pretty quickly she was moved to ICU for babies—the NICU. And then a couple of hours later I was in the front of an ambulance because they were transferring her to the NICU at Children’s in Denver. Turns out she was born with a genetic condition that affects her muscles.
We were so relieved to finally know what was going on when we got that diagnosis… 15 months later. Fifteen months of wondering—of sitting in the dark. Of watching her struggle to do normal things like lift her head. Or eat.
And in those months of heartache and worry—with a one year-old running around our feet, while medical equipment arriving at our house, we experienced misfortune after misfortune. I was pastoring a church and experienced deep betrayal and we had to set away from the ministry. But we were in a parsonage, so stepping away from the ministry didn’t just mean leaving our community and familiarity it also meant leaving our house. So we threw some rugs down on concrete and moved into my mother-in-law’s unfinished basement. I took my master’s degree and returned to my high school job for $15 an hour. I injured my foot and wound up working on crutches. Joy had a root canal. Daisy had throat surgery. My brother-in-law had a heart attack. Our car broke down on side of the highway. I sent out nearly 200 resumes and cover letters nationally… and had 2 interviews. Daisy wound up in ICU two more times before the end of year.
And then in December, I landed a dream job at an amazing church. Life was good. And then 24 hours later—due to a complicated circumstances—the job offer got rescinded. We were back at square one.
I found out on a Wednesday morning—Wednesday, December 6th—and I had a ten hour shift that day. When I clocked out for the night, I walked out into the winter air, and sat down in front of the steering wheel. All day I had been furious. I had expected to get in my car and beat the steering wheel and scream.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was just deflated. Like the all fight and spirit had just gone out of me. 2017 had won. 2017 had beaten me—and had nearly beaten every prayer out of me. The only prayer I had left was this:
“I don’t understand.”
The suffering had gotten too much—too crushing—and that was all I had left: I don’t understand, I don’t understand.
And then God spoke. It had to be. With my head on the steering wheel, I was suddenly pierced by four gentle words:
“You don’t have to.”
It was like a weight had been lifted. Those words were mysterious—they did NOT tell me any of what I wanted to know—they did NOT magically transform any of what was going on. But the Lord had suddenly arrived. In the middle of history—in the middle of our mess. I was suddenly aware that God was “engiken”—God was at hand—and he’s had been present the whole time. Even when I was unaware, God had been arriving.
I still don’t understand all of what God was doing in 2017—how he was making new roads with the Enemy’s tank… but he was. I still don’t understand how God uses the weapons of the Enemy for the sake of good… but he does.
You don’t have to understand to endure. You can trust—God knows what you don’t and holds on when you can’t. Especially when we can’t cling to him, God is clinging on to us.
That’s the gospel, by the way. The Lord arrives while all of humanity is unaware, climbs onto the cross—turns evil towards good—and clings to us at our worst.
Maybe you’re like me, and someone who wants to understand everything. You want to understand the specifics of what’s happening at this moment in history and why it’s happening—to you—to your loved ones—to the world. You don’t have to understand it all. You’re relieved of the soul-crushing burden of trying to be omniscient.
Our heads are not made for omniscience; our hearts are made for trust. We’re NOT created to know everything. We’re NOT made to understand everything. We’re NOT all-knowing—we’re not omniscient. We’re made for childlike love, for childlike wonder, for childlike faith.
This evening, Jesus is inviting you to trust… even when you can’t understand. We can trust Jesus with the Enemy’s tank. You’re invite to trust that because of Jesus, your story ends in Easter. Trust the unconditional promise of the gospel when things feel like crucifixion.
The Lord is compassionate and full of mercy (v11). He’s at work right now. He’s saving right now. The Lord is arriving, and it doesn’t depend on you.