Back when I was in seminary, I had the chance to watch a video of the great preacher E. V. Hill. The Rev. Dr. Hill, who died not long after that, was one of the greatest of the great black preachers in this country, a fine example of a preaching tradition that I truly admire. I’ll never preach like an E. V. Hill or a Gardner Taylor, but I’d love to be able to. Dr. Hill was a Baptist, the long-time pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and the sermon I got the chance to see was delivered to the general convention of some Baptist denomination or another. I don’t remember which one, but I do remember this much—it was one of the historically white Baptist denominations. The choir stood behind him on the stage, and their robes were white, too, so you can well imagine that Dr. Hill appeared as an incongruous figure up there. It didn’t bother him any—this was a man who’d marched with Martin Luther King, he was a friend of Billy Graham and a confidante of presidents—but he was clearly aware of the incongruity; so he started off with a joke.
As Dr. Hill told it, there was an old black farmer out with his mule, working not far off the side of the road, when a half-drunk cowboy came riding by. The cowboy stopped, looked at him, and said, “Hey, old-timer, do you know how to dance?” The old man said, “No, sir, I don’t.” The cowboy responded, “Well, you better learn quick,” pulled his revolvers off his belt, and began firing into the dust at the old man’s feet. The old man, of course, began capering around as the cowboy fired off a dozen rounds, laughing himself silly. When both hammers clicked down on empty chambers, the cowboy, still laughing, looked down and re-holstered them. A moment later, he looked up to the sound of another sharp click—and found himself looking down the barrels of a double-barreled shotgun. The old man asked him, “Mister, you ever kissed a mule?” The cowboy answered, “No sir, but I always wanted to.”
Dr. Hill segued from there into talking about how he’d always wanted to speak at his fellow Baptists’ general convention, which never exactly seemed to me like a compliment; but the joke has stuck with me for a different reason. They say that the thing that makes jokes funny is the sudden reversal of expectations at the end—you get hit with something you didn’t see coming—and that’s certainly the case here; but what makes this joke particularly satisfying, I think, is the way that that reversal of expectations moves from injustice to a sort of rough justice, as the old black man is humiliated by a younger white man, but then gets his own back. That’s not just a joke, it’s a morality play of a very old type, which expresses an impulse which we might even call biblical in its essence.
Though James isn’t joking, we see that same reversal in our passage from chapter 5 this morning. “Therefore,” James says, “be patient until the Lord’s coming.” In other words, “because of this”—because of what? Look back up the page, what do you see? You see James laying out God’s judgment on the arrogant; in particular, right before this passage, you see judgment pronounced on the rich who have oppressed the poor and the vulnerable. During my time in Colorado, one of the restaurant owners in Grand Lake closed down for a month during the spring for inventory—nothing new about that, every restaurant did it; they staggered things a bit so that someone was always open, but the spring was so quiet in town that even if we were down to one restaurant, they still weren’t all that busy—but what was new was that he told his employees that they weren’t allowed to file for unemployment during the month he was closed, and if they did, he’d fire them. They couldn’t afford to lose their jobs—it was one of the few really stable businesses there—so they did as they were told, and our food bank was even busier that month. That’s the kind of thing James is talking about in the first part of chapter 5—and he makes it clear that God will not tolerate it, that his judgment is coming and cannot be stopped.
Therefore, James says, be patient—because you can trust God for what he’s going to do. Be patient in the face of suffering, be patient in hard times, be patient in dealing with injustice, because it’s all only temporary; the Lord is coming, and his justice is coming with him, and all will be made right. This is a new development in the thought of this letter. It ties back, of course, to what he says in chapter 1, but there his focus is on the rewards of patience under trial; as we read again this morning, he tells them—and us—that having our faith tested helps us develop the ability to persevere, it builds up our spiritual endurance, thus helping us grow to maturity. In verse 12 of chapter 1, James adds to that the promise of reward: blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because “when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” Different focus, same basic idea: yes, trials are hard, but if you don’t give in, the benefit you get out of them is more than worth it.
Here, though, James goes further: be patient and strengthen your hearts, because the Lord is coming—and he is coming not only to bless us, but he is coming as the one who will judge the world. We will not be immune from his judgment, for even the best of us are sinners—this is why James says, “Don’t grumble against each other,” for if we let our frustrations in hard times turn us against each other, we are liable to judgment for that—but for those who follow Jesus, though the day of judgment will not leave us unscathed, it will be a time of joy nevertheless, for it will be the time of our vindication, and the time when all that is wrong will be set right. We can be patient in dealing with trials and suffering, we can endure the injustice of this world—though not without doing what we can to create justice, but in the understanding that even our best efforts will be both flawed and limited—because we know that perfect justice and an end to all suffering are coming. As such, we are to work actively for what is good and right in every way that we can, trusting that God is coming, and when he comes, everything will be put right, and our efforts will not have been in vain. Like Paul, James encourages us not to lose heart in doing the work God has given us.
The first image he offers is that of the farmer who “waits for the land to yield its valuable crop”—but not passively! No, we might say the farmer is actively patient, waiting for God to provide the early and later rains, waiting for the land to respond to the rain with a crop, but at the same time hard at work to do everything possible so that the crop will come, and so that it will be large and healthy. The interesting thing about that language of early and later rains, which the NIV translates as autumn and spring rains, is that this is Old Testament language, used in a number of places talking about the faithfulness of the Lord to provide for his people and keep his promises. In the way he phrases this, then, James is reinforcing his point: God is faithful to do what he said he will do, he is faithful to take care of his people, and we can trust him to do what he has promised. As such, we can persevere, we can hold fast, we can keep going, trusting that Jesus is coming, that the work to which he has called us will not be in vain, and that though the wicked seem to prosper now, their victory will not endure.
James also offers examples from the history of the people of God, first of the prophets, then of Job. Both of these are interesting. The prophets, of course, are strong examples of active patience—none of them passively waited around for God to do something, or simply endured suffering, but all actively and stubbornly went about proclaiming God’s word, often to people who really didn’t want to hear what they had to say. Indeed, for most of them, that was the cause of the suffering they faced—if they’d just been willing to shut up and go hide in a corner, they could have had much more peaceful lives. They would not. They saw injustice, and they spoke out against it; they saw unrighteousness and disobedience of the will of the Lord, and they would not be silent. Because they condemned injustice, they suffered it, and because they did the will of God, they faced significant trials; but that did not cause them to give in. Instead, it only strengthened their resolve, and their commitment to be faithful to God who called them to be his messengers, trusting that he would vindicate them—as, indeed, he has.
And then there’s Job. People will often talk glibly about the patience of Job, and I’ve said more than once that anyone who can do so has clearly never read the book; I wouldn’t particularly call him “patient.” However, that’s not what James says. He talks, rather, about the perseverance of Job, about the fact that Job endured suffering. If you’re familiar with the book, stop and think about that for a minute. Job as we see him in the book isn’t an especially pleasant man, though certainly he has reason not to be. He has a great deal to be angry about; he lived a righteous life, he followed God faithfully, and all of a sudden, his entire life was destroyed; and then, to make matters worse, his three best friends come along and start telling him it’s all his fault, that obviously he was really a terrible sinner in disguise. You could see why he’d complain. But complain he does—at God, to God, about God, to his friends, about them, and all in a rather self-righteous way—again, understandable, but still, a little grating.
But what’s the one thing Job doesn’t do? He doesn’t follow his wife’s bitter counsel to “curse God and die.” He doesn’t change sides, and he doesn’t give up. The one thing he has left to him is the faith that somehow, someway, God is still out there and still good, and that God can be called to account to Job for what he’s done to Job. It’s bedrock faith stripped down to the absolute bedrock, nothing left standing on top of it. I think James holds the endurance of Job up as an example because Job’s endurance wasn’t particularly pious, or pretty, or meek and uncomplaining, but it was uncompromising. It didn’t look holy, and it gave his friends plenty of room to criticize him, but he never let go of God. Job didn’t understand, and he raged about it, but he raged in faith . . . and God loved him for it, and blessed him for it.
And as a consequence, James says, “You have seen what the Lord finally brought about” in the life of Job—which is twofold. First, through his trials, God refined Job, bringing him to greater maturity and a deeper understanding of and relationship with God, which is the sort of thing James is talking about in chapter 1. And second, God vindicated Job and restored his fortunes, giving him back everything he’d lost. As such, the example of Job reminds us that our present suffering and our present struggles are not the end of the story, and do not have the last word. When Christ comes again, God will transform our situation for good. Why? Because the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. He cares for us, he suffers with us in our suffering, and his love for us never fails; he is absolutely faithful to us, he will never let go of us, and his commitment to us never wavers. This explains his forbearance with the unjust, for he loves them, too, and is at work seeking to bring them also to repentance; but he will only let them go so long before at last his justice comes. We will be vindicated in the end, and all that is wrong will be made right, because our Lord is faithful, and he loves us.