The Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, St. David’s Church, Nashville

“Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (Jas. 5:8).

Our reading from the Letter of James points us to the heart of the matter: in fact, it points us to the human heart itself, as the problematic integer in the human equation. The Epistle has a fine sense that we as human beings are divided against ourselves, on multiple fronts. In the first chapter the Letter talks about people who are “double-minded” (Jas. 1:8), those who don’t know their own mind because they are of two minds, divided against themselves. To be double-minded is to be at war with one’s self; to work against one’s self, against one’s best self.

In the third chapter, the Letter expands on this division within our hearts. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth” (Jas. 3:14). As we look into our hearts, we see things that do not jibe with what we believe in, with what we aspire to be. The Letter of James talks about envy and ambition, but there’s more there, more that could be said about the wayward human heart.

If each of our hearts is divided, then we are also divided one against another. The Letter of James keeps returning to the divisions that exist between people, between members of the church, and members of the human community. In the third chapter of the letter we’re reminded of the damage that can be cause by the human tongue, by malicious slander. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (Jas. 3:9-10). We’re at war with each other. Then again in the fourth chapter, “Do not speak evil against another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law…” (Jas 4:11). These challenges have only grown worse in the age of social media: or perhaps have only been given more scope and scale. The divisions between human beings undermine human community, and our own integrity in the eyes of God.

Thus, we come to the human heart. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (Jas. 4:1). So, the conflict between people is, in the last analysis, rooted in our own divided hearts. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Gulag Archipelago). We’re reminded that the fault line of sin lies within each of us. We’re divided, one against another, because each of us is divided within ourselves. We want to blame others, to demonize them, but we can’t. We’re all implicated in the human problem, and the fault lies within ourselves.

Our reading today from James sets this fact of enmity between people within an Advent frame. In our own day, our hearts are still wayward, having gone off the track, and we are still at war with each other, maybe more so now than in the past. “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (Jas. 5:9). James is setting our existence against the coming day of the lord, within a common and final judgment that sets aside all of our judgments about others. “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”: time to put our own house in order.

The Letter also tells us, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (Jas. 5:8). Here we find the best medicine, which is grace. It says earlier in the fourth chapter, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” (Jas. 4:5). In other words, if our hearts are divided and at war within us, there is also God’s spirit at work within us. The seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to us, in Baptism and Confirmation, and they are still at work in us, strengthening our hearts. Again, it says in James, “But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” (Jas. 4:6). The gift of God is grace, the power and presence of God within us. If it’s true that the Judge stands at the door in Advent, then it’s also true that he has already entered in, into our hearts. He’s made his dwelling within us, and given us the gifts that we need. He’s strengthening our divided and wayward hearts, stitched them up again, and prepared the way for the coming of Christ.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee