When I’m told “be patient,” I squirm. For someone I love notices I’ve been squirming, wondering what will happen, and trying to make something happen. Perhaps we associate patience with being nice or good, yet it usually hurts.
“Be patient,” James writes. Along with the original hearers, I squirm. Be patient like the farmer who waits with a precious crop for the early and late rains to nourish mature growth. The farmer waits not simply for the rains to come but for the crop to survive in the meantime. Insects, weeds, and sun may harm or kill, and the farmer cannot control these.
To be patient is to tolerate or endure discomfort or suffering. The farmer does not know and cannot control what may eat, choke, or scorch the crops. Patience is hard, sometimes excruciating. I have also experienced that “be patient” helps prompt my renewed attention. Perhaps you have too. It is like the psalmist saying: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”[i] Wait patiently by slowing down from squirm to stillness, from noisy chatter to silence. As anxiety lessens, we can see and hear more, including graced surprises. God comes in unexpected ways that may at first confuse us.
In today’s Gospel text we hear John the Baptist confused. John sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John has good reason to be confused. Jesus’ actions don’t seem to fit the radical prophetic voice. John has been spreading a call to repent and turn around; the kingdom of heaven is coming. God is changing the big picture, upending social structure, bringing long-awaited justice and freedom.
In contrast, Jesus calls a few simple fishermen as followers and invites them to catch people not burn the world with fire. In his long Sermon on the Mount earlier in Matthew, Jesus says his followers will be persecuted and will need to endure suffering. Jesus does not lead a revolution to overthrow occupiers by force but rather teaches obedience, mercy, purity, and gentleness.[ii]
John is confused: Are you really the long-awaited Messiah? Rome is still in charge and pressing down on us. I’m in prison. Where is the vengeance, the movement for rebellion, the big upset?
Jesus replies: Listen. Look. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers and 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.”
John and everyone listening to Jesus know this list. It is part of our text this morning from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Jesus quotes Isaiah to say: Yes, I am the One.
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Blessed are you, John, if you don’t take offense at me, if you stick with me even though I’m not acting as you expect.[iii] Stick with me though I confuse you.
Take courage. God surprises and confuses even the greatest prophet, John the Baptist. God often works slowly, like a seed silently maturing rather than a loud, sudden storm.
“Strengthen your hearts,” James writes, “for the coming of the Lord is near.” Isaiah says, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! … God will come and save you.’”
The season of Advent invites us to wait patiently—lacking knowledge or control—without fear. How do we strengthen hearts, moving from squirm to stillness, even amid the pain? Look and listen for Jesus who is here and keeps coming slowly, surprisingly. Here are two ways: look back and look forward.
Look back. Review previous requests. What have you been praying for? What were you longing for last week or last month or last year? It’s easy to forget what we’ve received, moving onto the latest issue or task, overlooking gifts. We may not recognize because it didn’t come or look like what we expected. It may not have be the neat, tidy closure wanted, the problem solved, the wound healed without a scar. God’s response may include or prompt new challenges, new requests. It may come from the least likely person or place.
For what are most thankful? How have you received love? God is in each of these. Look back. Remember mercy. Give thanks. Hold onto those memories as hope for what is yet to come.
Look forward. Behold, God is waiting patiently with love. Surprise! God waits too, for you. God waits patiently as we wander, rebel, go our own ways, and in various forms get lost. As in the Second Letter to Peter: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” [iv]
As a loving heavenly parent, God waits patiently for us “to come to our senses,” waits patiently “for the eyes of our heart to be enlightened.”[v] Like the parable of the extravagant father and his lost sons in Luke 15, God suffers, waiting in patient anticipation for the lost to return home. God is there scanning the horizon for the first glimpse of you and of me. Finding first sight of us, God runs wildly to welcome the returning home.
As in the words of a hymn: “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. See, on the portals, he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.”[vi]
[i] Psalm 37:7
[ii] Frederick Dale Bruner (1987) Matthew: The Christbook. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, p408
[iii] Ibid, p409
[iv] 2 Peter 3:9
[v] Luke 15:17; Ephesians 1:18
[vi] “Softly and Tenderly” by Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909)
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