Groaning without Grumbling Against One Another (James 5:7-10)
By Dr. Christopher T. Holmes
For many of us, the last several weeks have been a time to groan and to listen to the groans of others. We hear them on social media, in op-ed pieces, in classrooms, and around dinner tables. If nothing else, this year's presidential election has revealed the deep fissures that still divide this nation. It has revealed the distrust, anxiety, and isolation that are felt in all quarters of this country. It shows us there is a lot of work to be done. And there's a lot to groan about.
We groan, not at the results of the election alone, but at the consequences of a campaign and an administration that threatens to undo the steps toward progress made in the last decades. We groan at the reviling of marginalized communities and the targeting of ethnic minorities. We groan at the unequal burden put on persons of color to "deal with" racism in America, easily shifting the responsibility from those who really need to do the most work. We groan at the number of African Americans killed at the hands of police officers, at the news of corruption and cover-ups, at the report of another murder of a police officer, at the profound emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds that many communities are experiencing, and at the deafening silence among many folks in the pews and behind pulpits.
We sigh heavily at tropical storms and rising sea levels. We cry out involuntarily at the rising number of civilian causalities in Syria and the use of innocent people as shields in Iraq. We can exhale heavily in light of hundreds of years of exploitation, murder, and displacement of Native Peoples in this country and around the globe, most recently on display at Standing Rock, ND. We groan for policies and practices based in greed, commodification, and profit that rob us of our shared humanity and our common dignity.
And maybe groaning is just something that comes with the dynamic patience that Advent demands. Elsewhere in the New Testament, groaning describes our response as we await the redemption of our bodies and our adoption as children (Rom 8:32) and our longing for the mortal to be swallowed up by God's unending life (2 Cor 5:2, 4). Groaning, then, is a characteristic of in-between times, of active waiting.
Our lectionary text for this third Sunday of Advent may strike some as somewhat jarring. For many, Advent is oriented to the past. We remember God's decisive arrival on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Our expectations for Advent are the sorts of things that make up nativity sets: a doting mother covered with light, angels singing in heaven, shepherds and their sheep, foreign travelers with their gifts.
James imagines another Advent, however, another coming of the Lord. It is not the Lord's coming in swaddling cloth but the Lord coming as judge. For James, Advent is not oriented to the past so much as it is to the future.
Many may find such an orientation to the future hard to stomach. Speculation about this future coming of the Lord has, at least since the Middle Ages, generated elaborate time tables and ill-fitted analogies between the images of Revelation and contemporary events. More often than not, these speculative renderings give the impression that passively waiting and observing the signs are all that is needed.
James 5 provides little to satisfy our more speculative interests. It provides nothing like a timetable, no signs to decipher, no beasts to identify. It refers only to the nearness of the Lord's coming. The emphasis falls, not on speculation or a timeline but on a single conviction: the Lord will come.
And James 5:7-11 suggests that there is a certain sort of activity in our waiting, what I would call a dynamic patience. The text then provides a number of examples to demonstrate the sort of patience required of us, the hearers.
The first example is that of the farmer who "waits for the precious crop from the earth" (v. 7). Now, I'm no farmer, but I know enough about farming to assume that such waiting is never merely passive. There's a lot of work to be done between planting and harvest, between the early and late rains.
The active nature of waiting in James 5 is even more apparent in verse eight. James repeats the command to patience and adds, "Strengthen your hearts." The strength demanded of the readers of James is the same sort of strength that activates good works (2 Thess 2:17), equips those doing the work of ministry (Rom 1:11, 16:25, 1 Thess 3:2, 13; 2 Thess 3:3), and energizes those facing hardship (1 Pet 5:10). It is the strength that Jesus demonstrates in Luke 9:51, when he strengthens himself to go to Jerusalem, to face rejection and suffering and death. His resolve represents an unwavering commitment to move forward, to keep moving.
The final example James lifts up is that of the prophets who model the sort of patience required. Theirs too is a dynamic patience that requires endurance and steadfastness. They were oriented to the future as well: to the coming Day of the Lord, to the fall or rising of nations, to the righting of economic injustices, and to the elimination of religious hypocrisy. It is from the perspective of that promised future that they speak "in the name of the Lord." In tangible ways, they speak that future into existence as they call for repentance and justice, speak truth to power, identify with the lowly, and proclaim God's surprising and often disruptive presence in the world.
This Advent season, James calls us to practice a dynamic patience, following the example of Jesus and of the prophets. Waiting is not passive. It is adopting that same resolve of Jesus and the prophets, to keep moving, to keep working, to keep speaking in the name of the Lord. Given the demands and costs of this dynamic patience, the command in verse 9 is understandable. Yet James commands those who share in the orientation and disposition of Jesus and the prophets not to "grumble against one another." It is not hard to see how our groaning, our longing for God's promised future, might turn into grumbling against one another. In fact, the same Greek word is used for both groaning and grumbling against. We grumble when we fail recognize the image of God in some, even as we fight for the dignity of others. We grumble when we question the commitments or responses of our coworkers in the gospel. We grumble when we fail to uphold the "royal law" (Jam 2:8) of loving all our neighbors.
If we're honest, active waiting with an orientation to the future can be exhausting work. And perhaps some of the hardest work lies before us, as we seek to practice welcome and hospitality and neighbor love, as we work to rebuild the fractures that this election has revealed. And, no doubt, we will continue to have occasion for groaning. But the question that James puts to us is this: can we groan without grumbling against one another?
Christopher T. Holmes is a Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow and visiting assistant professor of New Testament at McAfee School Theology in Atlanta. His research interests include the Epistle to the Hebrews, Paul's letters, the history of New Testament interpretation, and New Testament Theology. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.).
Bible Study Questions:
What is one way that God might be calling you to "dynamic patience" this Advent season?
Where do you sense people groaning in your community?
Who might you grumble against? How might the passage from James be calling you to respond?
For Further Reading:
"Red Neighbor, Blue Neighbor" by Joshua Rothaman
The Search for Common Ground by Howard Thurman
"Fifteen Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era" by Christena Cleveland
Like ON Scripture on Facebook
Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture