This Advent series we’ll be focusing on three virtues that we especially need as we look forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus. Patience, Courage, and Joy. But before we talk about virtues at all, we need first to talk about what we direct these virtues toward. It is one thing to be patient, another thing to be patient for a good thing. The thief who waits patiently outside your house for you to leave and then robs you of your stuff may be patient, but he uses that patience for a bad end, to steal your stuff. And we have this sort of thing going on all the time in our day. People turn virtues into vices by directing them to the wrong goal. If your goal is to store up more and more money for yourself or to have more and more power and influence over others, no matter how much patience and courage you use in getting your goal, since your goal is bad, you’ve turned these virtues into vices. But if your goal is beautiful and good and holy in God’s sight, then God will fire your virtues, your patience, your courage, your joy, with His own Spirit.
So this is the first thing we need to stress above all and clear our minds and instruct our souls to truly believe this Advent, that Jesus, seeing Him face to face on that last and glorious Day, being His and Him being ours now and forever, this is our greatest goal. Be patient for the coming of the Lord, St. James says. You can have all sorts of other goals in the meantime, but they should all in the end feed into this one goal, that you and yours see Jesus Christ your Savior face to face and are with Him forever. Our patience, our waiting and our suffering, this we direct toward this great goal. We are waiting for Him. Whatever we suffer, we suffer for Him and His Church, looking forward to the fact that He will finally relieve us of all suffering.
Job is the picture of Christian patience. St. James picks him out in particular as our example. God let the devil take from him his children and all his wealth, and when Job patiently bore that and didn’t blame God – The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord - then God let the devil take his health and his comfort, inflicted painful boils on his skin, so that Job was now not only poor but sickly, pained, and ugly. And his friends, when they came to him, told him he must have done something wrong to deserve this, that God was punishing him, so that Job is not only now poor and in pain and ugly, but he’s lost his reputation, people mock him, children spit in his face, they tell lies to him and they say God is against him.
Job denied this with all his heart. God wasn’t punishing Job for something Job had done. Even if Job had sinned, God would forgive it: “Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O Watcher of men? Why have You set me as Your target, so that I am a burden to myself? Why then do You not pardon my transgression, and take away my iniquity?” Job bears the pain, the suffering, the lies, and the false teaching of his friends, by talking about God and confessing his hope in Him. That’s the patience of Job. It isn’t simply that he suffered. It certainly isn’t that he didn’t complain. Most of the book of Job is Job complaining. It’s that Job waits for God, gives his complaints to God, sticks to the truth of God’s Word, confesses it and applies it to himself as he suffers – insisting in the face of suffering that God does forgive him for Jesus’ sake and He does not punish those who trust in Him.
Job’s patience is found in those words we so often quote and should have on our tongues too when we suffer, “For I know that my Redeemer lives and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me.” What can we not bear, what can we not suffer, when we know, know for certain, with Job that we will see our Redeemer with our own eyes and so will have an end to all sorrow and pain and doubt and questioning, that God is therefore, even now, no matter what pains us, with us and for us.
Job teaches us that patience for the Christian consists of constant thought and talk about God. As you wait and deal with the pain, the temptation, the persecution, the grief, whatever it is, you assert that God is in control, that the God who sends pain also knows how best to end it, that God is not punishing you because of your sin, but as a father chastises his child, so your Father disciplines you, and as a child may not understand it or like it, you do not understand it or like it, but you know that the God who took on your human flesh, the Son of the Father who became your Brother, your Redeemer who suffered your hell and laid down His life for you, He lives and He lives for you and loves you and forgives you, so you will not listen to the lies of enemies or even of friends that tell you to curse God or doubt God or disregard His promises. No you will stand before Him and see Him face to face and when that happens all will be clear. This was the discussion Job had as he suffered. It is the discussion we need to have daily. This is Christian patience. Waiting and dealing with sin and pain and uncertainty and lies by reading, speaking, talking, praying and even complaining God’s Word.
This is not a dismal picture of the Christian life. God gives both joys and sufferings in this life. The question is not whether you will suffer but how you will deal with it. Christian patience is that God-given habit of confronting our suffering and all the doubts and fears that come with it with the Word of God and the end goal of seeing our Lord Jesus face to face in glory. The alternative is to try to escape the pain or the dishonor by sinning or denying your Lord. Like Solomon who listened to his wife and left the Lord for idols so he didn’t have to suffer his wife’s nagging. Like the Lutheran boy who abandons the faith because he falls in love with a Mormon girl. Like David who couldn’t suffer a momentary fit of lust for another man’s wife. Like the Christian today who won’t suffer through his fits of lust and keep himself from the filth of self-defilement. Like Saul who because of his fear of the Philistines couldn’t suffer the discomfort of waiting for Samuel to sacrifice. The list is endless. These tried to deal with their suffering by sinning against their God. And all they ended up doing is replacing one suffering with a far worse one.
Sometimes God shows us the reason and goal and fruit of our patience already in this life. We know we will see the fruit in heaven, but we see glimpses of it here on earth too. This is the case throughout the Old Testament – with Job who sees God come down in a whirlwind and vindicate him in front of his friends, with King David, who suffered and wandered and was persecuted for years before he finally reached the promised goal of becoming king. It’s also very obvious with Zechariah. Zechariah and Elizabeth suffered because of no fault of their own. God didn’t give them a baby. God opens the womb and God shuts it. They prayed for a baby. God didn’t give it. I have always thought it a bit unfair that the angel gets angry with Zechariah and disciplines him by making him mute and unable to talk till his son is born. Zechariah asks the same question as Mary – how can this be? But Zechariah needed what he got. He needed to learn patience. God gave him a good thing by chastising him. It’s no good suffering if all the suffering does is produce bitterness and resentment that you haven’t gotten what you wanted. But suffering when you know and trust in the good outcome that God will give, this produces patience. And Zechariah for nine months held his mouth, couldn’t speak, bore the discipline, knowing now that the promise of God was true, that he would see a son born to him, and more than this, that this son would prepare the way for the Lord, for the coming of God in the flesh. So that when Zechariah comes to the end of his time of patience, gets to the goal of seeing his child and naming him John, he has no complaint, but pure joy and the confession of God’s word – Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people Israel and has raised up a horn of salvation for us. Because this, again, is how Christian patience works. You assert against pain and doubt and temptation and lies, you assert that God loves you, that He knows what is best, that you cannot question His wisdom, that His promises are sure, you let God be true and every man a liar, and then your suffering produces patience, and patience, character, and character hope, and hope does not put to shame, because you will see what God promised you and the Spirit is given you as your guarantee – you will not only hear your forgiveness but see it, not only trust in God’s mercy, but see it in your Savior’s face.
It is the goal that makes patience what it is. The farmer, James says, waits for the harvest. It’s the harvest, the fruit of all his labors, that spurs him on to work hard and suffer the heat. The mother’s goal of seeing her baby and holding that baby spurs her on to bear the pain of labor. And she is not disappointed.
We have the greatest goal imaginable before us. We’re going to see God. We’re going to see our Savior who has loved us so much. And it is this goal that spurs us on to patient endurance of all challenges in life. It is this goal that makes our sufferings seem light. And more than this, our God gives us continual, constant foretaste of this goal and answers our patient faith with His words of truth, the forgiveness of our sins, the delight of eating and drinking the body and blood that has redeemed us from death and unites us to our God even now. Keep this goal always before you, run the race with endurance, and look forward to receiving the crown of glory that will not fade away. Amen.