(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(3rd Sunday of Advent @ Pereaux Baptist Church)
We live in an instant society, don’t’ we? We drink instant coffee while we enjoy our instant porridge. We buy now and we pay later. For lunch, we use the drive through at a fast food restaurant so we can chow down faster without having to take the time to get out of our car.
Indeed, sometime ago, someone once appropriately suggested that the most fitting symbol for our society is the Polaroid camera; press the button, pull out the picture and that’s it. But we have bettered that with digital cameras which have made Polaroid cameras obsolete because they are too slow. With a digital camera, the picture is instantaneous and instantaneously beamed at a push of a button to friends scattered across the world.
Christmas is a great example of our society’s lack of patience. No sooner is Halloween over than the stores start decorating for Christmas. Advent, that season of waiting, is abandoned because we want to celebrate and celebrate now.
We have lost the art of patience and to speak of patience in such a society as ours is to speak of something which is the characteristic of a fool or a weak‑willed person. As Lord Lansdowne once cuttingly remarked, “patience is the virtue of an ass that trots beneath its burden and is quiet.”
And yet, when one reads the New Testament, one finds that patience is of all virtues the most highly prized. Luke writes, “In patience possess ye your souls. Paul comments, “Love is patient and kind,” and he admonishes us to “run with patience the race that is before us.” Jesus speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who brings the gift of patience. And our morning lectionary reading from the Epistle of James encourages us “to be patient, until the Lord’s coming.”
Why did the early Christian community value patience so greatly? Perhaps it was because life was so difficult that they had no other choice but to learn the virtue of patience? Dietrich Bonheoffer certainly seemed to have learnt the virtue of patience as a result of the imprisonment he was subjected for being part of a German plot to overthrow Adolph Hitler. Writing from his prison cell, Bonheoffer stated:
It is noticeable how much significance the New Testament attaches to patience. Only he who is patient receives the promises; only he who is patient truly bears fruit. A faith which does not issue in patience is neither genuine nor effective.
As one who has much to learn about this spiritual quality of patience and not as an expert by any means, I would invite you to reflect on four questions this morning.
First of all, are you patient with God? In Nikos Kanzantzakis’ novel entitled Report from Greco an earnest young man visits an elderly monk on a remote island and asks him:
Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father? To which the monk replies, “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old and he has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.” “With God!” exclaims the young man in astonishment. “Do you hope to win?” “Oh no, my son,” the monk replies, “I hope to lose.”
It is easy to lose patience with God, with God’s slowness, with God’s hidden quietness, with God’s apparent weakness. Indeed, the background to our Epistle Lesson this morning was the impatience which the early Christians had concerning the Lord’s return. And so James advises them, “be patient until the Lord’s coming . . . do not lose heart, because the Lord’s coming will be soon.”
Yes, it is easy to lose patience with God. And out of our impatience we try to force God’s hand, to wrestle with God. But like the monk in the story, we had better hope to lose, for God’s grace is in his longsuffering. The majesty of God is in his mercy. The power of God is in his patience. Where would most of us here today have been were it not for the patience of God calling and recalling us, giving of His Holy Spirit to fan the embers of our faith into a brightly burning flame?
One of Christ’s best known parables concerns the growth of wheat and the growth of weeds together. The servants come to the landowner and ask:
“Sir, did not you sow good seed in your field? How then that it has weeds?” The landowner replies, “An enemy has done this.” The servants respond, “Then do you want us to gather them in?” The landowner states, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
In justice may seem to linger for far too long but then God’s timing is not be our timing, but because our perspective is not God’s perspective.
In Alan Paton’s moving novel, Cry the Beloved Country the village priest who has suffered much says to Father Vincent, “it seems God has turned against me.” Father Vincent replies with calm assurance, “that may seem to happen, but it does not happen. Never, never does it happen.”
We must be patient with God.
Secondly, are you patient with God’s Church? When I was growing up, it was fashionable to be anti‑institutional. The institutions which had been such an important part of people’s lives were losing their positions of respect. Government, business, the church, the schools were viewed in negative terms. The challenge in the air was this ‑ “are you a part of the system or are you a free thinker?” This has reached a high point today with atheists like Christopher Hichens having great fun attacking the institution of the Christian Church for all its many sins.
It took, then, some determined nudging by God for me to become a part of the system, a small cog in the institution of the Church. And even though I sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that I am a part of the Christian Church nonetheless, most times, I know that I am in God’s will.
Robert Frost wanted engraved on his tombstone these words, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” Perhaps we should all have a lover’s quarrel with the Church, remembering, as Paul noted, that love is patient and love is kind.
We must be patient with the Church’s hypocrisies. Constantly, I hear and read the condemnation of the Christian Church for being hypocritical. But we must learn not to judge the church too harshly, for what we condemn in the church, we calmly accept elsewhere. Everywhere you will see pettiness, self‑seeking, lack of vision, divisiveness. And the Christian Church is no exception because it is hewn out of the rough material of human nature. It is to the God’s glory that sinful, struggling people such as we are are accepted and used to spread the message of God’s love.
In my first church in Richmond Hill, Ontario an elderly widow with a good income would criticize my church and would praise the television evangelists, sending her tithe to them. She felt that the television evangelists cared for her while the church didn’t. Yet a member of the church would cut her lawn. Another member would take her grocery shopping. Still another member always did her income tax for free. It’s not in the unreal world of the television set, but where people are gathered with all their failings, all their idiosyncrasies that the church really shines forth. The church is not a hospital for saints but a shrine for sinners. We must be patient with the church’s failings.
We must also be patient with the Church’s decisions. They are not always our personal decisions. Unfortunately, they are not always God’s decisions. It is sometimes easier for an individual to determine God’s will than it is for a community. It takes patience to live with decisions which you believe to be wrong. It is a mark of maturity and of faith to have patience with decisions which are not the ones that you would have made.
Are you patient with the Church, with her failings, with her decisions?
Thirdly, are you patient with others? In the New Testament, the word for patience is ‑ makrothumia. Most often it is used to describe the attitude that Christians should have towards one another. As James advises, “do not grumble against one another” or more positively be patient with one another. How does that little saying go, “be patient with me God isn’t finished with me yet?” And it is true isn’t it? We are all in process and we must be patient with one another.
How much resentment and hostility could be avoided within our families if we practiced a little patience? Not just in ignoring wrongs, but in the more active sense of forgiving wrongs and of seeking to understand the other. How many families, how many marriages would still be together if we recovered this lost art of patience?
We must show the patience that does not retaliate, but we must also go beyond this and show the patience which understands. Perhaps this is easier for the elderly for they were once young, but all of us, young and old, are called upon to show patience, patience which will not retaliate, patience which seeks to understand.
We must be patient with others.
And finally, are you patient with the hardest of all persons to be patient with. Are you patient with yourself?
I’ll always remember one evening service at the Blythwood Road Baptist Church where Cathy and I served for some three years. It was not a well attended service, but it will always stand out in my memory. The preacher was a Jamaican pastor who reflected on his youthful desire to be a Christian saint. Needless to say, he was often discouraged with himself and so he went to the saintliest person he knew, an elderly women who had been his Sunday School teacher and he asked her what was wrong with him. Bulging out his eyes like a black Marty Feldman he mimicked his teacher, who replied to him with these words, “Sonny, you’re too young.”
Chuckling to himself, he confessed to us “she was right, one cannot expect to be a saint so young, why saints just don’t grow that quickly.” Indeed, even the Apostle Paul after a lifetime of seeking to be like Jesus still had to claim:
Not that I have already obtained this [that is the imitation of Christ] or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own because Jesus Christ has made me his own. Friends I do not consider that I have made it my own, but own thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of god in Jesus Christ.
Are you patient with yourself?
I have had to learn to have of patience with myself. To remind myself that the tortoise who patiently plodded along out‑paced the hare who ran in fits and starts.
William Carey served for seventeen years in India without having even one Christian convert to show for it. He could have given up but he showed remarkable patience and it is out of Carey’s work that the modern missionary movement began. As a result today there are more Christians in Africa alone than in all of North America. And more Christians in Third World countries than in the rest of the world combined.
Are you patient with God?
Are you patient with God’s Church?
Are you patient with others?
And, hardest of all, are you patient with yourself?