Sunday, 12 December 2010

Advent 3 – Justification by Works?

Reading James 5.7-10

Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Gospel Matthew 11.2-11

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”


Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. First words of snippet we read from James. Appropriate for mid Advent – season of expectant waiting.

Being patient sounds like advice to be quiet, accepting, unresponsive, or inactive. Not so – unless you read what comes before and after today’s little passage, you’ll misinterpret what is being said. Unless you add in all the things James requires of us to do, you’ll miss the point completely.

James is a doing book. So much so, Martin Luther questioned its status as scripture at time of Reformation. He said it appears to contradict Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone. Yes it offers a counterbalance, which is why so many Christians are fond of James – to say it contradicts is going too far.

James has been said to be a little like a Christian version of the Wisdom literature in OT, like Proverbs. Offers us practical morality. Echoes teaching of Jesus himself – like Sermon on Mount. Probably written early on, well before Gospels.

James is faithful to the Law. Not characteristic marks of Judaism like food laws and Sabbath day observance, but is full of general good advice on how we should act. If Advent is time of expectant waiting – active not passive – so patient waiting for second coming is all about doing and not just being – works of the law and not just blind faith.

Faith without works is dead – that’s the whole thrust of chapter 2. And the works James is talking about is how we act towards each other. Judgemental? Critical? Colluding with ways of the world, or holding to a higher morality in our affairs?

Here’s a good description of banking crisis:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted. Your gold and silver have rusted.

2 weeks ago I talked about two strands of Advent. Waiting for Christmas. First Coming. Waiting for Kingdom. Second Coming. But if we see face of Jesus in everyone who is our neighbour (unexpected – like Good Samaritan) then we experience the coming of Jesus again and again throughout our everyday lives. So how do we act – faced with this constant second coming of Messiah?

Not with passive faith, but active works underpinned by faith. One springs from the other.

Here’s a few examples. Like SM, not worrying overly about our lives. God will provide. Patient waiting is acting in a way that is filled with Holy Spirit. Patience deeply rooted in faith. Working towards personal goals. Not grumbling and grousing against God or our neighbours. Not judging, because our own Judge stands at the door.

Show patient endurance in suffering. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. In this, and so many other ways, set yourself apart from the ways of the world.

One theologian sums it up like this:

In fact, it would seem that a characteristic of this is precisely a deep compassion and love towards the other as if James is writing, "slow down, seek first the kingdom of God, be attentive to one another, let all things happen in and for God, then all else will be given. God will grant all in God's time."

When John the Baptist had doubts – in prison – hearing about Jesus’ ministry – not sort of Messiah John had in mind – sent to ask “Are you really the One?” Jesus did not send messengers back with theological exposition. Did not fill them with teaching. Did not call upon them to have faith. No – tells them to see his works:

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

So as in this Advent season of Expectant waiting for Christmas, and Second Coming, Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming but let your patience be active not passive, action based not laid back, full of the Holy Spirit, for by their works ye shall know them, and by your works, underpinned by your faith, will you be known. Amen.

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