August 7, 2011
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we’re told in Romans 8:25 to be patient – but this bothers us! And that’s because in large part we agree with Martin Luther King Jr. in his book, Why We Can’t Wait (1964), that justice delayed is justice denied, which then obliges us to make things better and not just sit around, waiting for someone else to do it for us. And so we feel that we have to seize the day – carpe diem!
But Martin Luther (1483-1546) for one – who is our most eminent teacher [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576] – can’t leave it at that. He goes on to say that “the impatient man is not yet a Christian” (Luther’s Works 25:290). Surely this adds insult to injury because it radicalizes patience – making it integral to Christian identity itself, instead of leaving it as only a value-added option. Patience isn’t therefore left to the especially holy but is a requirement of every Christian in every walk of life.
Why this is so is given to us in Psalm 62:1-12 where we read:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;…. He only is my rock and my salvation…. Trust in him at all times,…. [for] power belongs to [him].
The reason given in this psalm to be patient is that God alone has the power that is needed to get things done. So we are to rely upon him and not on ourselves. This places patience squarely in the camp of faith – so no wonder Luther makes it an essential Christian characteristic or fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22).
But there’s also another reason for the centrality of patience, and that has to do with us – screwing things up. So Luther advises that
the godly [are to] wait for God, even when He takes His time…. [For] everything would turn out alright, if you could only wait. Therefore, in all trouble let us wait for God, and we shall be blessed (LW 16:261).
This says that patience is good because it keeps us from making things worse by trying to help! Luther knew full well that we can change things in life, but he also thought that only God can change things for the better (LW 13:217)! Therefore we should wait on him. That’s because our efforts are reckless and founded on ignorance. We see this in families. One approach takes the bull by the horns and tries to set things straight. The other approach waits to see how things work out – fearing that if you pull on the string too soon the knotted-up ball will only get tied up all the tighter.
But wait – was Luther really patient when he reformed the church? He doesn’t look like it – unless you accept his account:
I opposed indulgences,… but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorff, the Word [reformed the church]. I did nothing; the Word did everything (LW 51:77).
How irreverent of Luther! But because he’s out to make such a contested point, he feels he has to be swashbuckling – saying that Christians fight best when they “fight least” (LW 16:90)! And perhaps because of his love for Aesop (LW 2:159, 13:200), he also refuses to balance patience with some well measured act – since he, like the patient tortoise, has nothing to learn from the hare in their famous race [Aesop: The Complete Fables (1998) §352]!
God’s Performative Word
But all of this admonishing seems lost on us – for we still think we have to solve our own problems, since that’s the only responsible way to live! Unadulterated patience, then, seems like a cop-out.
Now if that’s the way we think, then it’s no wonder that none of us can turn ourselves into patient people all on our own – to whatever degree. For we quickly and easily revert to action, even when we’ve started down the path of patience. We cool our jets only to fire them up again as soon as we can. This hold that controlling our lives has on us is truly remarkable. John Hockenberry has written a wonderful book about this – explaining how the accident that made him a paraplegic was the best thing ever! And so he writes that “it is the keenest insight gained from a loss of sensation to discover that the icons of control over the body are illusions.” No wonder then that he adds – “Why we should so fear losing control in a world that we have no control over anymore is one of the central questions of America culture” – and human life itself, I would add [Moving Violations: A Memoir (1995) p. 101]!
So it is important that we hear Isaiah 55:11 saying that God’s word will succeed. For just as the rain doesn’t zoom back up to the skies without moistening the ground first, so God’s word will help us in spite of ourselves. But we balk at this because we think words are inert – and can’t get things done without us appropriating them first. But Isaiah disagrees – for God’s word is powerful. His words can strike us and change us when we least expect it.
I remember a wedding when the bride was less than excited about getting married. When I pronounced that they were now husband and wife by virtue of the vows they had made to each other, she winced! My words seemed to have struck her right between the eyes – and it had nothing to do with her appropriating them. If anything, she seemed to reject them, and yet they had an impact on her all the same! Philosophers have called this the performative nature of words (John Austin, How Do To Things With Words, 1962). But long before our time, Isaiah knew the same.
Christ’s Sweet Sacrifice
And what that word does to us is tell us about Jesus long before he ever walked the face of the earth. In Isaiah’s great book he says of Jesus – or so the Church believes – that he endures “our griefs and [was] smitten by God,…. he was wounded for our transgressions,… and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 55:4-5). Luther, more than any, rejoices in these words of divine sacrifice – even though he has long been thought not to have done so [Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (2009) pp. 118-124; contra Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor (1969) pp. 101-122]. And when he does, he sings out about the glories of this doctrine:
With gratitude and with sure confidence… let us accept this doctrine, so sweet and so filled with comfort, which teaches that Christ became a curse for us, that is, a sinner worthy of the wrath of God…. [And] because He took upon Himself our sins… of His own free will, it was right for Him to bear the punishment and the wrath of God… for [us] (LW 26:283-284).
Comfort, yes! Gratitude, yes! For this sacrifice mysteriously draws us (John 12:32; Romans 11:33) to Christ our Redeemer. It convinces us that God is on our side and that our disobedience and rebellion against him no longer count because of Christ’s sacrifice. For his death frees us from the consequences of our sins. So give thanks today and receive him in the Lord’s Supper – knowing that the bread and wine are his very body and blood, and that by receiving him in this way, he builds up our faith in him (BC, p. 449).
But fast upon the heels of our faith and rejoicing in Christ’s death for us, we also hear the additional call to do good works in his name (Colossians 3:17). Matthew 13:8 tells us to be good soil so that we can produce good fruit – and Matthew 21:21 says that prayer is some of that fruit – which can even cast down mountains! So while we’re waiting patiently on the Lord to clarify our problems and lead us through them, we can and should pray. It’s the greatest thing we can do, after all (LW 24:389, 44:61)! – even though it’s only passive. So don’t give up on prayer (Luke 18:1)!
A woman once told me she used to pray all the time but then figured out that it didn’t work and so she quit. But what she really wanted to say was that she used to pray but when she realized she couldn’t get what she wanted by praying, then she quit. But why should God give us a poisonous snake just because we ask for it – thinking it’s really a bunny rabbit, when it’s nothing of the sort! That’s why Jesus taught us to pray – in his great prayer – “Thy will be done,” and not my own (Matthew 6:10, 26:39), so that “submitting to God’s will” might finally control us (BC, p. 429)!
Call on God then to give you the courage and foresight you’ll need to pray as you ought. Trust in his mercy, that he’ll answer you. Then pray – seven times a day, we’re told (Psalm 119:164). They don’t have to be seven long prayers. Luther thought prayer should be brief, intense and frequent (LW 7:324; 21:143). That’s good advice. I’ve posted seven short prayers with instructions on how to use them on our church webpage for your consideration and instruction (under prayers at flcws.org). Use them if you wish to set up your own daily prayers. But however you do it, be sure to pray. That matters most. For by so doing God will bless you and strengthen your faith in the sacrifice of Christ and then finally – somehow – even help you to, yes, slowly become patient. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)