Be patient therefore, brothers, to the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth…
It is a matter of common remark that Christian missions are often looked upon somewhat coldly even by well-disposed people. The main reason for this coldness is, at least in very many cases, a mistaken estimate of what missions can be reasonably expected to achieve. Now the first point to be observed in this estimate of what missions can be expected to do, is that it is the natural product of one feature of the temper of our day. The human mind is largely influenced by the outward circumstances of the successive forms of civilisation in which it finds itself; and within the last half century railroads and telegraphs have successively altered human habits of thought in more respects than one. We assume that the rate at which we travel and send messages must necessarily have its counterpart in all meritorious forms of human effort; and in this way we accustom ourselves to regard rapidity in producing results as a necessary test of good work — a test failure to satisfy which is not easily, if at all, atoned for by other tokens of excellence. This impatience of delay in production may have its advantages in certain limited districts of activity. But is it not a mistake to assume that all forms of human effort are improved by this acceleration of pace, or, indeed, that they will adapt themselves to it? Take art, and consider the old and true saying, "Time is short and art is long." Do what we will, art cannot be hurried. Even if a painter or a sculptor creates with great rapidity this or that masterpiece, the rapidity is limited to the moment of production; the real preparation which has enabled him to project the idea, and has perfected the methods of expressing it, is the work of a lifetime, and rare, indeed, are the occasions when even a great artist can produce rapidly and to order. Or take literature. As a rule, the composition of a great poem, or history, or treatise, which shall live extends over many years, not because the mechanical labour involved formally in writing out a considerable work requires a great deal of time, but especially because to produce anything that shall have on it the stamp of maturity requires time stilt more urgently — time for redressing, so far as may be possible, some defects which necessarily attach to the first effort at production, time to reconsider what is ill-judged, to supply what is deficient, to anticipate in some degree the sentence which an impartial posterity would pass upon a composition in its original crudity. Now, to-day, we are remarking how this impatience for immediate results which marks our time extends itself beyond those activities which are mainly or wholly human, and claims to mould and to govern undertakings in which God is the main agent, and man only God's instrument. Only here the impatient demand is apt to meet with a different kind of reception from there. Artists and men of letters adjust their work to the temper of the day, but the Eternal Workman heeds not the varying moods and fashions of the creature whom He has made, and, in spite of the demand for rapid production, is at this hour as slow and as sure in His work as at any past time in history. A mission is essentially a work in which man counts for little, although his active exertion is imperatively necessary. In a mission, the influences which fertilise human effort, and the date at which this fertilisation shall take place, are alike in the hands of God. When this is felt, it will be felt also that an order, so to describe it, upon a given mission for so many converts, at least, within such and such time, is an indefensible thing. But St. James in the text supplies us with an illustration which may enable us to see this more clearly. What "the coming of the Lord" certainly means in this passage may be open to discussion. Our Lord comes to us in blessings and in judgments, and St. James may be thinking of some political or social event which would put a stop to the oppressions of which his correspondents had complained; or he may be thinking of our Lord's second coming to judgment: But either coming, St. James implies, is in this respect like the natural harvest — that while man's activity leads up to it, it depends on agencies which are beyond man's control. When St. James points to the presence and operation of God in nature, every countryman in Syria would have understood him. The corn was sown in September; in October there came the early rain, which made the seed sprout; the latter rain fell, as a rule, in March or the beginning of April, in time to make the ears swell before they ripened. In a soil of remarkable fertility, but generally of no great depth, spread as it was over the limestone rock, everything depended on the two rainfalls. The husbandman could only prepare the soil and sow the seed: the rest he must leave to God; and St. James dwells on the long patience with which, as a rule, a Syrian peasant waited for the precious fruit of the earth, and for the rainfall which was so necessary to its growth. And his language illustrates an old observation, that, as a rule, people who live in the country are more religious — by which I mean more constantly alive to the presence and the working of Almighty God — than are people who live in towns. The habit of Watching God in Nature is of itself a lesson in the school of faith. If anything is clear about God's work in nature, it is that it proceeds gradually, that it cannot be precipitated. This truth finds, perhaps, unintentional expression in the modern word of which we hear so much — evolution. One period in the earth's earliest condition introduces to another; one phase of natural life leads on to the confines of another; this epoch of human history is the parent of much that first emerges to view in that — the truth being that the one presiding and controlling Mind is throughout at work, never ceasing from, never hesitating about His task, and that eternal wisdom which reaches from one end to another mightily and sweetly doth order all things. And in nature, so, as St. James implies, it is in grace. Man does his part; he sows the word of life, he prepares the soil, he plants with St. Paul, he waters with Apollos, but he can do no more, and God, who sends the early and the latter rain, alone gives the increase. So it is in the history of individuals when that great change takes place which is called conversion, whether from error to truth or from ungodliness of life to obedience of Christ. St. tells us that long before the change which was precipitated by his reading the passage in the Epistle to the Romans he had met with teachers, events, examples which had set him thinking. He put those thoughts aside, but they returned. He again dismissed them; again they came back to him. He was, in truth, ill at ease; his Manichean creed, his dissolute life were the husks on which this prodigal son long fed, but those husks had a work of disenchantment to do, though time was needed in which to do it, and at last this preparatory process was over. The hesitations, the misgivings, the yearnings, the relapses, the near approaches to grace, and the shrinkings back from grace had all come to an end; the fruit had ripened, whereby the Christian Church received the greatest of her teachers since St. Paul. And so, too, in the history of societies. It took three centuries to convert the Roman empire to Christianity, if, indeed, we may rightly so describe the numerical superiority, for it was not much more, on the part of the Christians at the end of the first quarter of the fourth century of our era. And yet even so described what a wonderful work it was! Three centuries before such a result would have seemed impossible to any man of sense and judgment. In view of these natural analogies, and of this history, let us turn once more to the modern demand that so many missionaries shall produce in such and such a time so many converts, and to the impatience, if not the indignation, which is felt or expressed if this expectation is not realised, as though something had taken place which was akin to a commercial fraud. What is this modern way of looking at missions but an endeavour to apply to the kingdom of Divine grace those rules of investment and return which are most properly kept in view in a house of commerce? Do you not see that this demand leaves God, the Great Missionary of all, out of the calculation? God has His own times for pouring out His Spirit, His own methods of silent preparation, His own measures of speed and of delay, and He does not take missionaries or the promoters of missionary societies into His confidence. He has a larger outlook than they, and more comprehensive plans, and whether He gives or withholds His gifts, of this we may be sure, in view of the truest and broadest interests of His spiritual kingdom: we appeal to His bounty, but we can but do as He bids us, and abide His time. Not that this reverent patience in waiting for God's blessing is any excuse whatever for relaxing the zealous activity with which missionary efforts should be prosecuted by the Church of God. The husbandman does not the less plough the soil or the less sow the seed because he is uncertain whether his labour will be followed by the early and the latter rain. If he does not plough and sow he knows that the rain will be useless at least to him. It is quite possible for a secret indifference to the interests of Christ and His kingdom to veil itself under the garb of reverence, to refuse to help the work of Christian missions because we do not know how far God will promote a particular mission; but that is only one of the many forms of self-deceit which we Christians too often employ in order to evade Christian duties. Duties are for us, the results with God.
Parallel VersesKJV: Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.