James 1C – The Re-Thought Identity

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on August 19, 2012.  To listen to the audio, just click on this link – James 1C.

Bringing the Gospel into Our Identity

James 1:9-11  9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heatand withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

Who Are You?

Thinking about the Subtle Question of Identity:   The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10 But the rich man should take pride in his low position—since he will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

James  is talking about something here that is so automatic – so assumed – that we don’t often consciously think about it – and yet we talk about ourselves – our identities – in very specific ways.  We give out certain information – sometimes in a certain order – so that we will be known in a particular way.  What are the markers we use?   We begin with the things we are proud of – the things we want to boast about – feel like we can boast about.   We begins with statements that we feel we need to make about ourselves that best describe who we are.  We are not one thing, (e.g. “The rich” or “The poor”), but many things, (“fathers, mothers, writers, EMT’s, retired, republicans or democrats or independent,  caucasian, asian, african american, students, graduates, over 18, protesters, athletes).

James’ Comment on Identity:  This idea of identity hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. James, speaking to people who are moving into new situations – re-establishing themselves in new communities – calls them to think of their identity in a new way.

In ancient societies wealth was extremely important.  Wealth meant that you had standing – importance – influence.  Poverty meant that you had nothing.  Middle class did not exist.   James, speaking mainly to the wealthy believers who were going into new communities – under the pressure of persecution – tells them to boast in a particular way.   The poor, he calls to boast in their wealth, the inheritance of the Kingdom of God that is theirs because they belong to Christ Jesus.   The wealthy, he calls to boast in their poverty – the fact that their riches cannot buy for them anything that is truly important – (eternal life, forgiveness of sins, God’s favor).

Contextualizing the Passage:   On the one hand, we need to see how culturally distant this passage is from our everyday lives.   We live in a middle class society.  Some of us have more wealth and some less – but all of us know where our next meal is coming from.  We own things.  We have rights under our government.  Our lives are nothing like the poor of James’ time.   Nor are we, in a sense, above the law like the rich of James’ time.   We probably have more in common with the rich, but we live in a very different world where wealth is relative.

So how do we look at a passage like this and understand and apply what James is saying?   The core of this passage is about identity.   One of the challenges in a world where identity is so subtle and assumed, is to take up a Christian identity – which is harder than it might at first seem to be.

Our Culture’s Christian Identity:   Our society has a certain cultural understanding of what it means to be “Christian”, which is less than Biblical.  To be Christian in American culture means that you take a certain political stance (which varies depending on race), suggests a certain respectability to which even our Presidents are subject (just as political leaders have always  been subject to the religious demands of the people).  To be Christian in America suggests a particular way of looking at intellect – a fear and suspicion particularly in regard to science – in fact a whole culture of experts and studies which are separate from “secular” studies.

But none of these things have anything to do with Christian identity and the things we are called to “boast in”.  They are, in fact, ways of trying to make Christian culture seem respectable to the world – to Christianize  the things our culture thinks of as respectable.   We offer a practical Jesus  who is good for government and better for a true understanding of 20th century science – who keeps society wholesome by offering good values.

But this is not the boast of Scripture.   The Gospel is meant to change our identity – who we are and the way we talk about ourselves. – the way James uses it in this passage.

Re-Think Your Identity in Light of the Gospel.

How Do yo Talk/ Think About Yourself?  What do you boast about?  What is important to you?  Before we can talk about what our identity is in  Christ, we need to see what we have taken hold of as our identity.  James identifies “rich and poor”, but we need to ask ourselves – what are the things we boast about – our children, our achievements, our possessions, our abilities, our professions?  Here are some examples…

I am a Doctor or an EMT or a Nurse:  I have been through a lot of training   and I manage people’s health – save their lives – am the one who is there in an emergency.  And the way I care for people can be redemptive – I can show Christ to people in my words and compassion.  I can be a tremendous blessing to people in their worst moments.   And I should see myself as doing something that blesses the world – someone who helps people endure physical suffering – who gives hope.  More than that, I should be  up front about that mission to do good in the name of Christ.

But I should also recognize that, for all my knowledge, skill and sacrifice, I can’t die for people’s sin – I cannot give health to their souls – often, even, to their bodies.  And I am as needy  as the most desperate person I care for.  I need grace.  I myself will face death.  I cannot give myself eternal life.  My boast is that I know Christ and he is able to create life where I can’t.

I am A Missionary or a Pastor or a Christian Author or Teacher:  I have studied – gone to grad school or trained.  I have gifts and abilities.  I have x number years of experience.  I know how to give wise counsel – how to expound on the Scriptures…   I can point people to Christ.  I can be present with people in a crisis.  I can say what is true about God.

But the truth is that for all my wisdom and training and experience I cannot create conviction or true understanding of grace in any heart, or even my own.  I cannot make or find peace or joy on my own.  I cannot love people on my own.  I am as needy as anyone I talk to – anyone I meet.  I cannot accomplish anything eternal on my own.  I am a beggar who tries to show other beggars where the bread is.  My boast is in Christ who does all these things – through me – for me – in me.

I am a Businessman – or a Professional:  I manage wealth.  I have an intuitive sense for business – I am successful – competitive.  I actually provide services that help people.  I can financially help and bless people.  I can have integrity and compassion in a world where those things are rare.

But the truth  is that my success and wealth will all pass away and it cannot buy anything for me that is truly important – life, God’s favor, joy.  My boast is in the true riches of Christ Jesus.

 I am a Father or a Mother:  I have tried to raise my kids the best way – I have avoided the flaws of my parents.  I have good kids.  I have sacrificed to have a loving healthy family.  I can be a godly Father or mother and that will have a lifelong influence on my children.

But what really matters, is that my kids need to be in conversation with a Father who alone can really bless their lives and help their souls.  And even if I think I am wise, I can never do that for them.  But my heavenly Father knows exactly what my children need – and has the power to do for them what I could never do.

I am a Republican, Democrat or Independent:  I believe that I know what this country needs – what people need. I believe that I understand better than other people – or that I am more compassionate than other people – or that I have a solution to the problems of the nation.  I can call and work for justice or responsibility or truth – in politics where those things are not always practiced.

But my boast, what really matters, is that I can only influence a temporary earthly kingdom.  I can never meet the needs of all the people in my country – or even in my county.  I can never bring about peace on earth, or the prosperity of people’s souls.  But my God is going to establish a kingdom – has already begun to establish a kingdom  – that can address and meet the deepest needs of people and create a society that is good.

Recognize the Poverty of Your Boasting Apart from Christ:   We need to begin by being willing to see the poverty of the things we boast in apart from our standing in Christ.  Whatever your talents, abilities, efforts, good deeds, gifts, strengths, intelligence, can or has accomplished… in whatever way it is or has been praiseworthy… is temporary.  All our beauty, ability, strength, truth, will fade and pass away – even as we go about our business.  We can accomplish nothing that is eternal – nothing lasting.

But in Christ  our identity is transformed.  We become people who have a mission to bless the world.  We become representatives of Christ and of what he is doing in the world.

Boast in The Riches of the Gospel – Eph.1:1-14:  Our boast is not that Jesus is practical – a worthwhile thing to add to our lives – to make us more successful, or intelligent.  Rather, Jesus is the door – the way – into a whole new understanding of life in which the blessings of God are given to us and become increasingly real to our lives.

  • Where God claims us as his own – claims that he has always known us.
  • Where God chooses to see us as pure and blameless – and makes our holiness his mission.
  • Where God has adopted us  as privileged sons and daughters.
  • Where God is redeeming and remaking our broken lives into meaningful lives, past and future.
  • Where God has abundantly forgiven our sins because of Christ.
  • Where God is bringing us to a new inheritance – the New World – His eternal kingdom.
  • Where we have been marked out by God and sealed with his favor – the gift of His Holy Spirit.

These are the things that are eternal – our boast.  This is really who we are, and our identity has been re-made in Christ.  Our boast, in Christ, is that both our position as people before God – and the mission of our vocation, parenting, abilities, convictions, is about what Christ has done and is doing through us.

All the things that we are proud of about our identity, apart from Christ, are less than adequate in comparison to these blessings that are ours in Christ.  And all the things that we are ashamed of – our poverty – our sin – our failures – our inadequacies – are replaced by this new identity.  We can boast in Christ who takes our shame – who makes us wealthy – who uses and redeems our failures – who lavishly forgives our sin – who uses our weaknesses and is strong through them.

Take Pride in Your Identity.

Take Pride in Your Position in Christ:   This is the one command of James 1:9-11, and it sounds unusual to the ears of Christian people.   Take pride!   How do we begin to change the way we talk about ourselves?  How do we begin to take up this new identity – not only in our minds, but in our words and actions?

James is very insightful here.   He tells us to take pride in our position in Christ.  We talk about the things we are proud of – new jobs, relationships, achievements.   Our conversations are full of boasting about who we are and what we have done.  What James is asking these believers to do is something that all of us do, already, all of the time.

This morning the Scriptures are calling us to become aware of what we have been boasting in, to re-think our identity, and to take pride in a relationship – our relationship with Christ, all that he has done for us.

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