December 11, 2016, Grow Some Patience – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Unfortunately there is no recording available for this sermon.
James, the half-brother of our Lord, wrote:
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
The season of Advent reminds us that being the people of Jesus Christ means being people who are waiting. As children, we used to practice by keeping Advent calendars where we would open a little door or window each day, and there would be a little picture or Bible verse, or maybe even a little piece of candy or a tiny toy. And day by day, we could watch the long-awaited day of Christmas getting closer. Those calendars helped us, at least a little bit, to be patient in the days that seemed like they would stretch out forever.
Nowadays, we are older, and I don’t know if you have noticed this, but somehow the laws of physics have changed so that time moves at a much, much faster pace than it did when we were 6 or 8. The days that used to plod heartlessly along 50 or 60 years ago now absolutely fly past us, and everytime we walk into WalMart and see the days until Christmas getting fewer and fewer and fewer we – or at least I – feel the pressure of all the things we need to get done, all the shopping and decorating and sending out of gifts and cards, all the baking cookies, and for me, all the planning of services and writing of sermons – we’ve all got our long to-do lists at this time of year.
But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us aren’t a whole lot better at being patient now than we were when we were little kids. Now, as adults, we understand that what we are waiting for in Advent is something a whole lot bigger and more important than one day of presents and colored lights and gingerbread men: Advent is about being ready for the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth. But as Helen reminded us two weeks ago, we don’t have a count-down calendar to help us mark the time until the Big Day. Jesus might return this very afternoon – indeed, we should live every day with that expectation – and then again, it might be another two thousand years before he returns. No one knows – Jesus, the Son of God himself, didn’t know – the day or the time of his return. And so we wait. And James tells us, “Be patient.” And that isn’t something most of us are very good at.
But James gives us a picture – as his brother so often did – that helps us to understand what it means for us to await our Lord’s coming patiently. James uses the image of the farmer, waiting patiently for his crops to grow and bear fruit. It was an image Jesus used all the time. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “It’s the smallest of all garden seeds, but it grows up into a tree with room for all the birds of the air to nest in its branches.” “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who went out to sow his seeds,” Jesus said another time, “and some of the seed fell on rocks and some fell among thorns, but some fell on good soil and bore a huge crop.” And another time, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, and an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.”
The kingdom of heaven, then, is not something that comes to our door like the check from Publisher’s Clearing House. The kingdom of heaven is something that grows. It started with the smallest event: the birth of a little boy to a poor carpenter and his young wife in a cave outside of Bethlehem where animals were stabled and fed. That was the strange and unlikely seed of the kingdom – but it grew. When John the Baptist, sitting discouraged and anxious in prison, sent a message to Jesus to ask, “Are you really the one? Or do we have to wait for somebody else?” Jesus sent this answer, “Tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind see and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised back to life, and good news is preached to the poor.” The shoots of the kingdom had begun to sprout up, just exactly as Isaiah had prophesied centuries before, when he wrote:
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.
Sometimes, when you buy a packet of seeds, they have a little drawing on the back that shows you what the seedling will look like when it first breaks out of the earth. It’s very helpful, because the first sprout never looks exactly like the full-grown plant. But if you know, for example, what a bean or a carrot, or a parsnip, or a marigold seedling is supposed to look like, then when you see those tiny green sprouts you know at once that they aren’t just weeds, and you know that it is just a matter of time – and patience – before the harvest. When John heard the things that were happening – not the huge, glorious, cataclysmic events that so many people were expecting to see when the Messiah came – but the seedlings of new life: a blind man who could see again here, a mother whose dead son was returned to her there – he knew at once what was happening, because he remember God’s promises spoken by the prophets. And so when John heard Jesus’ message, he knew that the kingdom of heaven was truly on the move.
If you’ve ever grown a garden, you know that once the seeds are planted the gardener doesn’t really have a lot of control over when and if the seeds actually grow. Putting those tiny seeds in their furrows and burying them with dirt is truly an act of faith. All gardeners know that gardening involves waiting; that gardening takes patience. Only God can create life. Only God can stir the life that lies dormant within the seeds and bring them up out of the soil and into the sunlight. But there is much that a gardener can do to help or harm the growth of the seeds, to nurture or to neglect what has been planted.
Like John, we need to be looking to recognize the seedlings of the kingdom. As full of hurt and hopelessness as our world is, if we look for it we will always find the kingdom sprouting up. Patience and hope go hand in hand. Every act of compassion or kindness, every healing or reconciliation: these are tiny sprouts of the life of the kingdom. And as citizens of that kingdom, patiently awaiting the harvest, we can nurture those sprouts now. Isaiah tells us: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’”
Tending the first seedlings of the garden requires patience, and it also requires extreme gentleness, because it is so easy to crush what has only just begun to grow. It is surely one of the most remarkable things about the God that we serve that he is not only a God of power and glory – that’s the kind of God anyone would expect; look at the gods of Greek and Roman and Norse mythology – but the true God, the God we worship, is a gentle God, so tender that Isaiah wrote: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” The God we worship has the hands and the heart of a gardener. And we are his apprentice gardeners.
Peter wrote about patience, writing to the churches as he sat in a prison cell in Rome at the end of his life. Like normal human beings – like us – the Christians of the early church were already growing anxious about how long it was taking for Jesus to return. “Listen,” Peter told them, “God doesn’t do time the way we do time. For God, a thousand years pass by like a single day. And one day has as much time in it as a thousand years. God isn’t being slow the way we human beings count slowness. He is being patient – toward you. Because he isn’t willing that any should be lost.”
We read these words from Isaiah today: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” These and other beautiful promises fill us with such desperate longing sometimes; they seem so impossibly far away. A few weeks ago the 10-year-old son of someone we know committed suicide. Last week my niece’s mother, who was barely in her 40’s, died of a drug overdose. The news is so full of suffering and the violence of man against man every single day that it is even too hard to listen to, sometimes. It is very hard to have hope. It is very, very hard to be patient. But if we know what to look for, we can see the green sprouts of the kingdom among the ashes of death – good people, acts of kindness, healing, life. And we can be sure of the harvest, because our Lord himself is the one who sowed the seeds.
We recognize the seedlings of the kingdom in those who are peacemakers; in those who value every life as sacred because every person was created in the image of our Father. We recognize the seedlings of the kingdom in those who are caretakers of the creation, because it is God’s plan to heal and restore the whole creation when he returns. Mr. Rogers, who had a children’s TV show, once wrote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” We should be always on the lookout for every sprout of kingdom life, ready to nurture it, eager to work with it, rejoicing in our hope and patient in the assurance that the full-grown kingdom will surely appear at the perfect time.
The heart of the Great Gardener is that every seedling, even the tiniest sprout, is a life worth nurturing. And that the bleakest, barest, rockiest patch of ground can be brought to life. The desert will bloom like the crocus; waters will break forth in the wilderness; the thirsty ground will become springs of water. It takes hope, and a lot of patience on our part. It takes a gentle touch, something we need to learn from the Master Gardener himself. And I think it involves spending a lot of time on our knees, like every gardener – at least metaphorically. Maybe the greatest danger for us, facing this season of Advent, is just to grow weary and give up. But the brother of our Lord encourages us today: “Be patient! Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near!”