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Biblical Wisdom For Daily Living

Sermons by Peter J. Gomes
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The man Time magazine hailed as one of America's finest preachers presents a collection of forty timeless addresses to guide us through the year. With his characteristic eloquence and compassion, quoting from scripture as well as from T.S. Eliot and Woody Allen, Gomes offers us the tools we need to understand the wisdom of the Bible and the joy and inspiration it can bring to everyday life.

HarperCollins; March 2009
256 pages; ISBN 9780061751493
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Title: Sermons
Author: Peter J. Gomes; Henry L. Gates

Chapter One

Advent I

The Art of Impatient Living

Text: Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.

-- James 5:7

I am going to ask you to do a very difficult thing, and that is to forget all the seasonal trappings that surround you and seduce you into thinking that Advent has anything at all to do with Christmas as you and I understand it; I wish that there was a way that I could make this all disappear. I want you to clear away all of the "let's get ready for Christmas" stuff, all of this manufactured cheer and happy expectation of something that once happened; clear the decks, rather, and get ready for something that has not yet happened, for that is the agenda of the entire season of Advent.

Having asked you to do that, now I ask you to think about an extraordinary set of verses from the Epistle of James: "Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord..." The Lord is coming, not in retrospect, not in a rehearsal of things that happened once long ago. The Lord is coming in a way and in a form that we have not yet experienced. We wait for that which we have not yet seen. We work for that which has not yet been accomplished. That is the Advent agenda, and it is so often thrown off course by Christmas as simply a recollection of something that happened long ago and far away. The world is welcome to Christmas; we Christians hardly have any claim on it at all anymore; but Advent and its expectations, its call for patience, its earnest waiting -- that belongs to us, and how we reconcile the patience of Advent with the impatience of human, modern living is the problem and the opportunity of the moment.

Now one of the reasons that the Bible and the Christian faith lack credibility to most of us, one of the reasons that they are both unbelievable and uncompelling, is that they ask us to do things that are manifestly undoable. They ask us to believe things that, if not believable or true, are at least unlikely. One of the reasons that the Advent season is manifestly an unsatisfactory season for Christians is that it, too, is based on assumptions too difficult to accept, expectations too unreal to contemplate, a phantom of truths that do not conform with the facts.

We know what we are meant to believe; the lessons tell us, the prayers tell us, the hymns are full of it. Light over darkness, hope over despair, gentleness and meekness over might and power -- these are all the clichés of Advent. We know that Advent is not meant to be merely a retrospective of things past but an anticipation of things to come. Advent is not Christmas but judgment, not cheap synthetic joy but divine and ultimate justice, and we know that as well.

Somehow we hope that the church will be that place where our impossible expectations and our manifest needs are met and reconciled. That is presumably why we keep coming week after week and year after year. We know that Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the earth but we do not believe that that is likely, or likely in any reasonable time. We know that we are to forgive those who have hurt us, but we also know that except in rare and wonderful circumstances it is very difficult to bring ourselves to do it. Today in James's epistle we hear that we are to be patient unto the coming of the Lord -- yet one more case of a faiththat is too good to be true, of human aspirations flying in the face of human nature.

It is not our nature to be patient. I know this, for I am among the most impatient of people. Patience, some would say, like modesty, belongs to those who need it, and most people who need patience are people who have not yet succeeded in their ambition or their enterprise, people who have not yet achieved, either by their own standards or by our standards. In other words, patience is for failures, for losers, for wimps, for those who have to take the long view because they cannot succeed in the short run. Notice that it is always the achiever who tells the less-than-achieved to be patient, and how patronizing and silly it sounds. First it sounds patronizing and silly to the one who wants to succeed and who has not, and to whom the counsel of patience is discouraging. all piano students, for example, know this. Someone who is wonderfully adept at the piano says, "Oh, be patient. It will come." You don't believe it, and it is not a counsel of encouragement, it is a counsel of discouragement; and to the one who is not interested in achieving the skills in the first place, a counsel of patience is a further irritant and hardly a stimulus. All bad students of mathematics and arithmetic, for example, and all bad students in Hebrew, in Greek, in Latin, and in French know this. If you don't care, and you're not good, and someone tells you to be patient, that is an insult and an irritant.

Patience implies passivity, and we wish not to be passive, we wish not merely to be spectators at somebody else's spectacle of achievement. We want to do what it takes to get things done. We want the more agreeable counsel of James earlier in his epistle where he says, "Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only." That we can understand, for practical, sensible, questioning Christians like ourselves want always to know what we can do. We don't want to hear what we must endure or bear or suffer through. We don't want to be told to wait. We want to get on with it...