Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 2 Peter 3:14
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” Mark 1:2-3
I bristle at the admonition to “have patience” in the face of suffering. I am thankful that Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote in her message following the readings that patience in this context may not mean simply sitting quietly and waiting.
As Peter puts it, we wait for a new heaven and a new earth, in spite of all the forces that stand in the way. We wait patiently, confident that God is working his purposes out. Yet patience does not mean total passivity. Perhaps surprisingly, passive originally meant that one was capable of suffering; today it often implies that one is unfeeling and unresponsive. To live as Jesus did is to embrace the world’s suffering — in as full a way as possible — and yet to endure, knowing that God is still in our midst, and in the heart of the pain. Patience in this season of waiting is not just about putting up with delay, but having deep compassion for all who wait for justice, healing, and peace. It is about solidarity, and suffering-with (which is the literal meaning of compassion).
John the Baptizer is announcing the presence of compassion in the flesh — and reminding his hearers that God’s road builder toward that future is coming. Not only will a fellow sufferer stand with you, but he will help unfold that path to a healed world. The pathway isn’t finished yet, but if you’ll turn around, you will see it and become part of it.
In this way, patience is a virtue in that it re-centers the individual within the larger world with its suffering and its grace, placing the focus on hope. By remaining centered and aware of the larger problem, we can offer compassion freely, with the strength to resist despair, which is the absence of hope.
And it is hope that allows us to continue forward on on our task to prepare the path toward righteousness.
I worry that the word patience is sometimes used to stop that forward movement by those who are afraid of what they believe they will have to give up in order to live in a truly just world. People in positions of power have long turned to those they oppress with advice to “have patience” to dissuade them from taking meaningful action. We see it even now when some misuse the words of Dr. King to calm angry protesters, claiming they are tarnishing his legacy.
But patience has its limits. And the patience that Peter is advising is not the passive kind that does not push forward. We are told to wait for the coming new world by making sure we are the very best we can be, “without spot or blemish.” I would argue that passively allowing another to abuse and mistreat us is a type of blemish, and that standing up to that kind of treatment is not only a matter of self preservation and/or solidarity, but one of incredible patience as well. Patience in knowing that while we may suffer additional abuse, we are working for the betterment of ourselves and the betterment of our world.
“We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience… But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, December 5, 1955
I am struck by the phrase “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Many of the images we have of Jesus or John the Baptizer have them quickly being surrounded by throngs of excited, accepting people. We forget that they were seen as kooks and frauds by many in their day, forced to go out into the literal wilderness to pursue their cause. We are viewing them through the lens of over 2000 years of history, and compressing their lifetimes into a few moments as we read through their stories, it becomes easy to forget that they had to face the daily abuse of those who wanted them to simply be quiet.
Lone dissenters in modern times are rarely viewed so charitably. And yet, to stand up against oppression we may have to stand alone at times in what is surely a kind of social wilderness with hostile forces all around us. Solidarity is not guaranteed, and we need to have the strength of our convictions to do it anyway. By the same token, when we see others making a stand toward the same goals, we must support them however we can, in whatever way they need.
This is our task. This is the road to the future. We are the ones who must build it, “through the wild and fearsome darkness.”