Where do I belong? Where do I fit in? We all want to know the answer to those questions. For some, it is a lifelong pursuit. I remember my high school days with pain, because I really didn’t know where I fit in. In my school there were five groups. At the top of the food chain were the popular kids. Some were athletes or cheerleaders, others were not. But they were the kids everybody else wanted to be like, and to hang out with. I remember a recurring dream where one of the popular guys would see me carrying my tray in the cafeteria at school, and he would call over to me: “Hey, Fox, come join us!” Then I would wake up.
Next in the pecking order were the jocks. You didn’t have to be the quarterback or the starting point guard, but if you were on the football or basketball team, you were cool and got invited to all the parties. Tennis? Umm, not so much. I played tennis in 9th and 10th grade, and we even won a city championship. But tennis didn’t cut it with the jocks.
The third group was the brainiacs, the smart kids. They were the ones who, if they even bothered to show up at the football game, brought their chemistry book with them. But at least they belonged to a group, and I wasn’t in it.
Then there was the group that we called the druggies, the ones who wore Black Sabbath t-shirts and were always smoking cigarettes in the bathroom and talking about their latest party. Those guys scared me.
Finally, we must not forget about the rednecks. These were the good ol’ boys who drove their pickups to school and backed them into a parking space in the gravel lot. They couldn’t wait for lunch break because they would eat their sandwich and Fritos outside, gathered around one of their trucks, “talking boss,” whatever that meant. I, uh, didn’t have a truck, and didn’t have the nerve to back my dad’s 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass into a parking space next to them. So, I didn’t fit in with those guys, either.
That was it, the five groups in my school. Oh, wait, there was one more: “others.” That’s where I hung out: with the rest of the losers. And to be honest, that’s where the majority of the Christians fit in. Still do. We are the “other” guys and girls. We ate together, went to church together, and sometimes prayed together early in the morning before school started. And though we knew where we fit in, sort of, mostly we knew where we didn’t fit. I had Christian friends who would have done anything to break into one of the other groups.
Maybe some of you feel that way, whether you are 17 or 37. You are still trying to figure out where you belong. I have great news! All who come to Christ by faith belong to him. We are accepted in the beloved. We are called by Christ to know him and to help others to know him, too. But our citizenship is in heaven; that’s where we will fully and finally and forever belong. I have thought about having a passport made up that says “Heaven” for my citizenship status, but my impression is that the guys at passport control are not known for their sense of humor.
Who are you? Where, really, is your identity found? That question, at least in our culture, is perhaps more confusing than it has ever been. But the Bible makes it plain. Our identity is not found in our race, or our gender, or our politics, or our education, or our athleticism, or our economic status, or our marital status, or our children, or anything else. Our identity is found in Christ: that is where we belong. In Him.
And, you know what? If there’s a football team in heaven, I’m showing up for tryouts with my new and
Peter greets the readers of his second letter with, “to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing,” reminding us of three foundational truths about our faith foundation. First, the faith that we have was obtained. The word picture there is of someone who has received his or her apportioned share of an inheritance. They did not earn it nor do they deserve it. They are the beneficiaries of another’s grace and mercy. God has given us faith, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8-9, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Have you seen the commercial where Mr. Marbles the Cat is in the room when the will of his deceased owner is read? The cat is given a lifetime supply of Chewy cat food. He says, “I always loved that old man.” But then it is revealed that Mr. Marbles was also left the summer house. While the family members are groaning in unbelief, Mr. Marbles says, “You got a train set, Todd!” Ok, it’s a commercial. But this verse stirs up my mind by gentle reminder that God’s gift of faith in Christ is better than a whole universe of summer houses or train sets.
Second, the faith we have obtained is the same faith that the apostles obtained. The New King James Version says, “To those who have obtained like precious faith with us.” Spurgeon wrote, “He tells us too, that faith is ‘precious;’ and is it not precious? For it deals with precious things, with precious promises, with precious blood, with a precious redemption, with all the preciousness of the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The same precious faith that was given to the Jews, Peter says to the elect Gentile believers, was given to you! You have equal standing with us. Every sinner saved by grace has equal standing with every other sinner saved by grace.
Third, we stand on and in “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” That righteousness was given to us, imputed to us by Christ’s death and resurrection, and we are in Christ because of God’s grace.
Then Peter says, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” There is a constant push by those in the world to increase in knowledge without acknowledgement of God, who is the source of knowledge. Or to increase in truth without obedience to the one wo said, “I am the truth.” Or to increase in “faith” without recognizing the only immoveable object of faith, our God and Savior Jesus Christ. If we have knowledge without God or truth without Christ, what good is our faith? I remember when I was training for my first triathlon in my early 50’s and I was a terrible swimmer. Still am. But I went to Beck Pool at Elon a number of times to swim laps because there was hardly ever anybody in the pool. I would start at the deep end and swim to the shallow end, back and forth, trying to get to the conditioning level where I could swim a mile without stopping. Sometimes I would be swimming in near-darkness, early in the morning. What if I had walked in one day when they were doing maintenance on the pool and it was dark and I didn’t know the pool was empty and I dove off the deep end…my faith in water that was not there to hold me up would be as profitable for me as those who believe in knowledge without God and truth with Christ.
May you and I grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
What weighs less than two ounces, works almost constantly for 16 hours a day, and cannot be controlled by either man or woman? The mighty tongue. I know what Charles Wesley meant when he wrote “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” but we just couldn’t survive it. 999 of them would be gossiping or backbiting or complaining, while the one would be singing “our great redeemer’s praise.” No thanks, Charles. One is plenty.
A family sat around the table for breakfast one morning. As was his custom, the father prayed and thanked God for the food. Immediately afterwards, as was also his habit, he began to grumble about the food and how it was prepared. His young daughter said, “Daddy, do you think God heard what you said when you thanked Him for the food?” “Certainly,” replied the father with confidence. “And did He hear you when you said bad things about the food?” “Of course,” the father replied, hesitantly. His little girl said, “Daddy, which did God believe?”
James illustrates the power of the tongue to direct, destroy, and to delight (or deceive) in his third chapter. The first word picture compares the tongue to a bit. A bit is put into a horse’s mouth so that a 60-lb kid can direct a 1,000-lb horse. One of my dad’s decisions when I was growing up was to buy a Palomino and keep him pastured offsite. I remember going over to ride Sundance on occasion. Every time I did, the horse would obey my instructions given through the bit and bridle for a little while, and I could set my watch by what happened next. After ten minutes, he would get tired of the whole thing, because he knew somehow that I was really not in charge, and he would take off for the trees. Gaining speed as he got closer, all while I am pulling back on the reins and yelling, Sundance would go straight for the low branches to try to knock me off. That horse was evil. No, he was just like me as a young man, and sometimes as an older man. He did what he wanted to do; he was not going to be controlled by someone else. When the horse submits to the bit, then the rider has control over the horse’s whole body, and the ride is a pleasure for both. So it is with the tongue.
The tongue boasts of great things, James says, and it can be used to direct a nation toward good or evil. On August 20, 1940, Winston Churchill said to the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” He said this to praise the courage of the Royal Air Force in their ongoing battle against German warplanes engaged in nightly bombings of the city of London. On his way to give the speech that day, Churchill was going over his speech. He had planned to say, “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few.” His chief military assistant, Pug Ismay, said, “What about Jesus and His disciples?” Churchill smiled and said, “Good ‘ol Pug,” and he changed his speech, to “Never in the field of human conflict…”
The tongue of one man, Churchill, directed a nation, and gave them courage in the face of an enemy. On the other hand, someone has calculated that for every one word of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in WWII.
Only God can tame the tongue.
Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We exist to pursue God. And we pursue God if and only because he has put that urge in our hearts. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” What does it mean to pursue? Interesting first definition in the Oxford American Dictionary for “pursue:” “to chase in order to catch or kill.” We certainly want to have that measure of intentionality and energy in our pursuit of God. Good news, we don’t have to catch him, though, because he has already caught us. We are his and he is ours. But as AW Tozer said, “To have found God and still to pursue him is the soul’s paradox of love.” In other words, our relationship with God is not a static or completed experience but a dynamic, lifelong relationship. The pursuit of God involves a deepening understanding, a growing intimacy, and a continuous commitment to spiritual growth. We do run after him in our desire to know him, hear him, learn from him, walk with him, and be fully his. The Psalmist said it like this: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Our hearts are restless and our souls are thirsty because we were made for God, to know him and to be like him, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Jesus invited any who would be his disciples to “deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” To pursue Christ, then we must first stop pursuing ourselves. The Greek word here for deny means ‘refuse, repudiate, disown someone or something.’ It is the same word used by Jesus when he said to Peter, “you will deny me three times.” How can the same disciple who said, “You are the Christ,” call down curses on himself at Jesus’ trial and swear, “I never knew the man!” Because the heart is easily given to self-protection. We don’t want to take up our cross. Oswald Chambers said, “All heaven is interested in the cross of Christ, all hell is terribly afraid of it, while men and women are the only beings who more or less ignore its meaning.” The call to take up our cross indicates an absolute claim on the allegiance of the disciple to Jesus, and an absolute surrender of all that one is and all that one has, all of our resources, given gladly to the Lord. We often think of that in metaphorical terms and sing “All to Jesus, I surrender” without blinking. But not the people who first heard this call. The people living in the first century would understand, as James Edwards writes, “that their adversity under Nero was not a sign of abandonment but rather of their identification with and faithfulness to the way of Jesus himself.” When they sang, “All to Jesus, I surrender,” they meant all. Life, limb, reputation, property…all. Billy Graham used to say, “Salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you everything.” But as Jesus said, the one who tries to save his life will lose it but the one who takes up his cross, dies to his self-will and his agenda will find the life he was made for!
Jesus also said to those who would follow him, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Why would Jesus say this? Because he knows that one of the greatest temptations we face is to substitute a pursuit of material gain, stuff, money and status for the pursuit of God. I pray through part of a list of prayers for pastors and church leaders written by Tim Challies every morning as part of my prayer time. This list is good for anyone to use and pray through. One day a week this one comes up under the heading, “Not a lover of money,” which comes from the list of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3. The prayer goes like this: “I pray……that I would not make material possessions the ambition of my life. … that I would refuse to pursue financial gain above eternal things, preferring to store up treasure in heaven than on earth.… that I would not sacrifice my family or my spiritual health on the “altar” of my job.… that I would not be greedy or covetous, but instead be generous and quick to give to those in need.… that I would give a generous portion of my income to the church and rejoice when doing so.”
Jesus said we cannot serve God and money.
We cannot pursue God if our heart’s greatest treasure is material gain. Or anything or anyone else.
On January 5 of 2023, I wrote some thoughts about the elders’ prayer service we had the night before. This is where the elders pray over families or singles who ask for it as we enter the new year, and we will do the same at the beginning of 2024. I was struck last year by three recurring prayer requests from the 30 or so households we prayed for that evening and on subsequent Sundays.
One request that many repeated was, “I want to be able to really read the Bible and not just check the box. I want to better understand what I am reading and grow in my knowledge of God and his word.” I love the heart behind that prayer request and agree with it myself. I don’t want to just read the Bible in the morning because that is part of my routine. I want to be changed by it. Good news on this. First, God said in Isaiah that the fact that his word will change us is as reliable as the fact that rain and snow from heaven water the earth and bring forth fruit. “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God is at work as you read the Word, as you share it with your family, as you sit under it on Sundays or at the women’s Bible Study or at home group. And remember, he delights in giving us what we ask for when what we ask for is his will. His will is for us to know him and follow him by living in and walking out his word!
A second recurring prayer request was for sons and daughters who once professed faith but are no longer walking with the Lord. I have never lost a child and cannot imagine the pain and grief that some have suffered. But there are many in churches everywhere who have living sons and daughters who are in the far country. Jesus knew about that, didn’t he? I think our best hope for our sons and daughters who are estranged from the faith is to do what the prodigal’s father did. Though it is not stated, we must believe that he prayed his son would return. And I believe he prayed with hope, with expectation, because when his son did come back, remember what happened? “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him.” Sounds like he was looking for him every day! You know the rest of the story. The father ran to his son to welcome him home. One of the encouragements for me is the knowledge that God holds the heart of kings in his hand, and “he turns it wherever he will.” It is a reminder that there is no way we can force any of our children to follow the Lord. But the Lord holds their hearts in his hand, whether young or old, and he turns them wherever he will. Our job is to pray and to love and to keep looking down that road for them to return.
A third recurring prayer was for boldness in witness. I remember one young man in his teens who asked the elders to pray for him about this. That thrilled my soul. It reminded me of Acts 4 when Peter and John had been arrested and spent a night in prison because they had been preaching Jesus after healing the lame beggar in Jesus’ name. They were brought before the high priest and the rulers and elders and scribes the next morning to give an account of the healing. Peter told them it was Jesus who healed the lame man. Then he added, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” You might be thinking, yeah, but this was Peter and John. They were apostles! Read what Luke wrote next in Acts 4: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” That’s the source of our boldness as well. We know Jesus. We spend time with Jesus. We know He changes people’s lives because he has changed ours. We know he is the only one who can change a life. That gives us boldness.