St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.4-9; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
In my younger days, my personality was far more type A. I was impatient. I wanted to be in control; I wanted things to happen on my schedule. If we were on a trip, I had the stops and the mileage all scheduled in my mind, and woe be it to anything that interfered. I was much like one of the two vultures sitting on a tree limb overlooking the desert. One turns to the other and says, “Patience my ass! I am going to kill something!”
I recently read of people’s reaction when a transatlantic flight was delayed an hour. Many were upset; they knew they were going to miss their connection. They treated the airline representatives with hostility. I used to get worked up over flight delays, but one day I realized this response only made the situation worse. I now carry a book with me, hunker down, and make the best of a bad situation – it is far less stressful. By the way, the delayed flight made up the time and arrived at the gate three minutes early!
It’s the third Sunday of Advent! Our theme is “Peace.” We find ourselves waiting for the coming of our Lord. Today’s readings confront us with two questions: When will our Lord come bringing peace? When our Lord comes, will we recognize him?
James tells us to be patient until the coming of the Lord. He gives us the example of the farmer who waits patiently for the early and the late rains then tells us we must be patient. James exhorts us to strengthen our hearts for the coming of the Lord is near. We see this sentiment reflected in the beginning of today’s collect: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” But even here, we do not see all that much patience, for we are asking God to speedily help and deliver us! Lord, give me patience! Now!
Our collect and James reflections on patience may be grounded in Psalm 80.2-4: “Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your peoples’ prayers” (NRSV)? As noted before, this Sunday is often referred to as “Stir-up” Sunday.
Having noted the farmer’s patience, James provides a second example when he writes, “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Going a verse beyond our assigned reading, James continues, “Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5.10-11). Yet even Job had a bit of trouble with patience, for he ended up having to repent. Lord, give me patience! Now!
Let’s face it – no one except the Father knows when the Lord shall come, but in the meantime, we are to wait patiently and to endure.
Now for the second question: When our Lord comes, will we recognize him? John the Baptist was imprisoned for having criticized the king who had married his brother’s wife. John’s ministry was now limited to preaching from a prison cell! His condition was precarious, to say the least, and he began to have his doubts: Would the Messiah permit this state of affairs? If he is the Messiah, why hasn’t he overthrown the king and established his reign? Did I deliver the wrong message?
Thus, John the Baptist sent word through his disciples asking Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” (Matthew 11.2-3; NRSV)? Jesus did not give him a “yes” or a “no” answer, nor did he give him proof. He pointed to the signs which identified the Messiah as set forth in Isaiah 35.5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (NRSV) and in Psalm 146.7-8, “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked” (BCP). Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11.4-6; NRSV).
Even though Jesus was performing such miracles, it was hard for anyone to rationally accept that he was the Messiah; as St. Paul later noted, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a to stumbling block Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1.23; NRSV). Many take offense at the name of Jesus Christ.
And what about us? Can we have faith, can we trust, that Jesus is the promised Messiah? Isaiah speaks of a journey in the wilderness; in many respects, our life consists of a journey through the wilderness. When we encounter Christ, we begin to journey on the Holy Way. Let’s note what Isaiah has to say about this way through the wilderness:
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people . . . the redeemed shall walk there And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35.8-10; NRSV).
Undoubtedly, the “ransomed of the Lord” refers to those who had previously been carried off into captivity. In the Old Testament we frequently encounter God liberating the captives, e.g., the Exodus. In the New Testament, our liberation comes through Jesus Christ, who is the Holy Way, the Truth, and the Life.
As Christians, we are traveling the Holy Way. Much like those on the Road to Emmaus, we do not always understand, but we come to trust as Christ walks with us and we recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Walking the Holy Way is an extended journey – it may last a lifetime. We tend to become impatient. In moments of frustration we often pray, “Give me patience, Lord! Now!” It is so natural for us to want things our way and in our time. We must remember, Christ joins us on our Emmaus Road and patiently explains things to us. Some of us are slow learners, but Christ is patient. St. Paul also tells us “love is patient, love is kind.” As God slowly molds us into God’s image, as our love increases, as we journey the Holy Way, our patience should increase. Paradoxically, our patience increases as our ego decreases; if we would have more patience, we would have less of self and more of Christ. Our prayer for patience is a prayer for transformation, and that involves waiting for the Lord.