For a moment, let me take you back to the months preceding the Babylonian captivity of Israel in the latter part of the Old Testament.

First, I call to your attention physical conditions. The Jewish people were living a secure, good life. The temple Solomon built was standing in Jerusalem. The priests were doing "the right things" in "the right way" as they conducted sacrificial worship. Business was great! Money flowed and people lived "the good life." Situations were so prosperous and opportunities for business so abundant that successful people struggled to endure "doing nothing" on the Sabbath. They could not wait for the Sabbath to be over so they could get back to making money. It was increasingly profitable to be dishonest. Lying and cheating were just a part of "doing business." The more they made they more they wanted to make. Life's number one priority was to support a good lifestyle. As far as they were concerned, they had a powerful king who successfully made good alliances. Life was good, and nothing was going to change that!

Second, I call your attention to the prophets. Basically, there were two kinds. The first kind told people what they wanted to hear. "Life is good! Life will continue to be good! God is happy with us the way things are! Anyone who tells you differently is a liar! Nothing will change!" The second kind told people everything they enjoyed was coming to an abrupt end. "Jerusalem will fall! The temple will be destroyed! Your "correct" worship makes God sick! Your personal values are totally distorted! You love things and use people! Soon you will be slaves and your 'good life' will be just a memory." These prophets were deeply resented by the leaders, the king, and those who lived the "good life."

Third, I call your attention to what happened. Jerusalem fell. Their powerful alliances with other nations proved ineffective. The temple was looted and destroyed. The priest had nowhere to conduct sacrificial worship. Starting with the powerful and the influential, the surviving Jewish people became slaves. The more they tried to improve conditions, the worse conditions became.

Fourth, I call your attention to the question. The question: "What happened?" That question was expressed in many ways. "How could God let this happen to us?" "How could God let His temple be destroyed?" "Did not God know the priest would not have a place to offer sacrifices?" "How could God desert His people and let them suffer such deplorable conditions?" "Sure, we made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of things wrong, but we are not as evil as the people who conquered us. How could God let people who are more wicked than we are destroy us?"

Listen to a comment made by Paul to the Christians at Corinth.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.

My paraphrase of Paul's point would be this: "Never think that God has so much invested in us that He will ignore the evil of rebellion."

    Last week Joyce and I visited the San Francisco area.
    1. We had a wonderful time for many reasons.
      1. The temperatures were wonderful, and the sun shone every day.
      2. The flowers were breath-taking.
      3. Seeing family and friends again was wonderful.
      4. And we also thoroughly enjoyed playing tourist again.
      5. People were friendly and helpful everywhere we went.
    2. But as is true with me virtually everywhere I visit, there were some things that captured my attention and overwhelmed me.
      1. There were some things that overwhelmed me with the church.
        1. Joyce and I visited that area seven years ago, and on this visit we worshipped with the same congregation.
        2. Seven years ago there were two congregations within a mile of each other; now there is one (I have no comment to make on what that means because I do not know the circumstances).
        3. Because of difficulty locating our bus, we were a little late for Bible class.
          1. We were graciously welcomed (this is a very friendly congregation!).
          2. We went to the auditorium class (the auditorium seats approximately 500 people) to join four (4) people in Bible study; last time the auditorium was about 1/3 full for class.
          3. For worship, the auditorium was approximately 1/3 full with the majority of people assembled above retirement age; on our last visit it was well over 1/2 full with a more diverse mixture of ages.
        4. These observations are in no way intended as a judgmental evaluation (and they may not even be an accurate assessment), but merely an observation that changes are visible in our culture and in the church.

  1. To me, there are two major, visible groups within the church: those who see our world through the eyes of loyalty to an institution, and those who regard institutions as dangerous.
    1. First, consider Christians who view our culture primarily through eyes of loyalty to institutions (which likely includes at least 50% of those assembled here this evening).
      1. Consider the institutional view of the world:
        1. Bottom line: "people should respect authority."
        2. Government may go in the wrong direction, but people must respect the government as an institution.
        3. A corporation may be misguided, but people must show loyalty to a corporation (don't bite the hand that feeds you).
        4. Marriage should be preserved even if you are miserable in your marriage because you need to preserve the institution of the home.
        5. The church needs to be respected and supported as an institution; do nothing that would weaken the institution.
      2. There was a time when institutions were basically good, were basically people focused, and basically had the best interest of people at heart.
        1. When World War II began, there was no exodus to Canada to avoid the draft.
        2. If the government said it, it was to be obeyed and trusted.
        3. A person could spend his entire work life with one company and retire with confidence that the company would take care of him.
        4. No matter how bad a marriage was, rarely would divorce occur.
        5. Whatever it took to protect the institution of the church, you did it; faith in Jesus Christ could not and must not be separated from the institutional aspects of the church.
    2. Do you realize that Christians under the age of 40 never consciously lived in a period of time when institutions were good?
      1. Just think about it.
        1. The older of them remember the Watergate break-in (1972), the resignation of Spiro Agnew (73), and the resignation of Richard Nixon (74).
        2. Their war of reference is Vietnam, not World War II--and they remember that war in critical views.
        3. Their parents lived through the collapse of some of the great corporations (like the telephone company) at a time when jobs stopped existing for a lifetime.
        4. Their skepticism became cynicism with fiascoes like Enron when corporate greed ruined the lives of many people.
        5. Whereas their grandparents endured almost any degree of dysfunction in marriages or any abuse or neglect in a home, their parents would not tolerate suffering in a marriage or home--so the divorce rate rose and many of them were children in single-parent families or blended families.
        6. The combination of birth control becoming easily available and the hurt of failed homes made living together arrangements attractive.
        7. The decline of Christian morals and values in the American society reinterpreted the understanding of what was acceptable and good.
        8. They have seen all the divisions in the church, all the control tactics in congregations, and all the stances that were more about theological issues than about God's interaction with people.
          1. They have seen the suffering caused in the name of "being faithful to the church."
          2. They have seen the ungodly attitudes in the power plays in the church.
          3. They have witnessed godly men and women subjected to hurt.
          4. Often to them the institutional aspects of today's church are a symbol of what is wrong with the church.
      2. To many of those under 40, institutions are the symbol of all that is wrong and dangerous in our culture and in our world.
        1. This group is looking for meaningful relationships--which have been in short supply in their life experiences.
        2. Their concept of relationship and the institutional concept of relationship are distinctly different.

  2. I want you to consider two of Jesus' concepts and make one point from each.
    1. Begin by considering this understanding:
      1. Jesus was not what the Jews expected--they regarded a crucified King over a spiritual kingdom as too ridiculous to be seriously considered, and the first century Jewish nation was more isolationist and institutional than we ever dreamed of being.
      2. The pagan environment of the first century world was horrible by Christian standards--homosexual affairs, adulterous affairs, and divorce laden, drunkenness, exploitation of people. Paganism regarded a resurrected Savior and living for a world to come as stupid. They also were very institutional in focus.
      3. These two thoughts from Jesus were extremely unpopular concepts in the first century world, a world that respected power and control.
    2. First, I call your attention to a parable given to help explain the nature of God's kingdom. It was embedded in a series of parables that illustrated the nature of the kingdom God was to establish--Matthew 13:33.
      He spoke another parable to them, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened."
      1. The kingdom will spread by contagion.
      2. It will not be quick, but it will be steady.
      3. Point: if the kingdom is to achieve God's purposes, there is no substitute for Jesus' cross and God being the focus of the Christian's personal life.
        1. It is not a matter of the success of the institution.
        2. It is a matter of the personal commitment of the individual.
    3. Second, I call your attention to a parable in this same set of parables on the nature of the kingdom--Matthew 13:47-50.
      Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
      1. The kingdom will contain all kinds of people--any "fish" can be caught by the "net."
      2. The "sorting" is God's responsibility, not ours.
      3. Point: the church will never be "perfect" on this earth--that is the reason there will be a "sorting" in judgment.
        1. God did not give us the mission of "keeping the church pure."
        2. God gave us the mission (1) of personally belonging to Christ and (2) calling others to Christ.

All of us have seen unthinkable changes in this society and culture in the last 60 years. Things those of us above 50 regarded as permanent were clearly not permanent. Now change is occurring more rapidly than ever.

Most of us will live to witness and experience changes we never thought could occur. It is possible many of us will live to see a time when the American church is no longer an institution with buildings, and property, and the structure many are so familiar with today. That is not a prediction, but a statement of possibility.

If what we consider the unthinkable occurs, we desperately need to remember one thing: the cross of Jesus and God still exist. Our faith is in Jesus' sacrifice and God, not an institution. Our hope is in Jesus' death and God's resurrection. No change will ever remove that if it is the focus of our personal existence.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 3 October 2004
 Link to related sermon: Daily Focusing on Jesus and the Cross by Chris Benjamin

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