The Tribe and The City
The story is told of a jungle tribe that had never been exposed to the material “advances” of civilization. Theirs was a simple life. Their daily routine involved searching for and preparing the basic necessities of life itself. Food, clothing and shelter in the most primitive forms provided a peaceful satisfaction for the tribe that was impossible for government officials to understand.
The setting sun brought about the end of each day’s activities. The last event each day was a communal meal, followed by the telling of tales and stories by the tribe’s elders. Although having nothing like books or even an alphabet, the tribe’s history had been conveyed over the centuries, generation to generation, by this evening ritual of story telling. It gave the tribe its sense of being and identity in a forested environment that was unpredictable, capricious and often changing. The tribal elders’ story telling reproduced the meaning of existence itself for each succeeding generation.
In a well-meaning effort to bring this tribe “into the twentieth century,” government officials directed that they would make electricity available to this tribe. They wired each of the tribe’s huts for a single light socket, equipped with a 40-watt bulb. At evening as the sun was setting, they turned on the electricity for the tribe, providing several hours of light for each hut. The light produced by the single light bulb enchanted the members of the tribe.
As in days gone by, just before the sun’s rays dropped below the horizon the tribe would gather for the communal meal. After that, however, the tribe would disband, each family entering their now well lighted huts. They would sit in a circle around the single, magical glowing bulb and silently stare at it until the electricity was turned off.
This incredible device that put “fire” into such a small object without the need of burning twigs and wood mesmerized the minds of these tribal members as nothing else had ever done. So powerful was the grip of this modern invention on the tribe that they abandoned the usual story telling by the elders. Now, the image of the glowing light bulb energized each day’s activities. At sunset, the family could again gather to gaze silently at it.
Unknown to the government officials or the tribal leaders, the invasion of the tribe by the electric light bulb began the decline of the tribe’s identity of itself. As the tribe gradually lost its own history, the future began to fade into an illusion. With the loss of tribal identity came also the collapse of the family as members sat quietly around this icon of modernity.
At this point, we could well shift into a discussion about the invasion of the American home by television. We might draw an analogy between the tribal light bulbs and T.V. picture tubes. Both have redefined the meaning of “family life” in their own deadly way. As forceful as that argument is, the tribal fixation with the light bulb conveys an even stronger message. It is a parable about the present-day church.
The Tribe and the Church
The church today finds itself in a culture captivated by changes as dramatic as the electric light bulb was to this aboriginal tribe. We have seen mechanical and technological advances in everything from transportation to house cleaning. Within this century, the horse and buggy have been left behind in the exhaust of the automobile; the steamboat and train were silenced by the vapor trails of jet aircraft; the drippy icebox melted away, replaced by the frost-free, electric freezer/refrigerator.
Few Americans do not foresee the discovery of a cure for cancer or hope for a lawn grass genetically engineered to grow only two inches, eliminating the need to mow the lawn. More efficient cars, computers, can openers and copy machines are just around the corner. We have all been ushered into an age of modernity. That kind of desire for material “advances” is influencing the processes, programs and products of the American church. We fail to recognize until too late that our technical advancements result in consequences not intended or imagined. This reality holds true for spiritual as well as physical conditions.
The principle of material obsoletism has been applied to the spiritual dimension. We have been awed and overwhelmed by scientific and mechanical advancements that make everything of yesterday out-of-date for today. Today, new and novel and innovative are in. Transposing this thinking into the evangelical church, bigger and newer and bolder are better. Accordingly, small, old and modest just won’t do anymore! This has created a new kind of church—the Church of Modernity.
Like the jungle tribe, the Church of Modernity sits in a circle with eyes glazed as we are losing our true spiritual identity. We are using methods never dreamed of by the Apostles! But these new and novel methods have the “trademark” of human effort stamped upon them. That is in great demand, these days. Big egos have big appetites.
In the process, has the church discarded the Truth of Scripture for the novel techniques from our secular culture? Has the world enticed us? Are we now convinced that modern methods and techniques can prevail against “spiritual forces of evil?”
The answers to these and other questions we will consider are in the Scriptures. It is God’s will that we look to Him and to His Word before we do anything.
“You have exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2
If our inquiry reveals that we have forsaken God’s will and plan for His Church, what will be the concequences? Are we without hope? Can we recover what we have lost? The story of a sinning city and its experience with the Grace of God can give us hope.
God’s Grace to a Sinning City
In the ocean of human history, movements that ignore God come and go like waves of the ocean. Some of these we often overlook. At other times, secular humanism (that rejects supernaturalism) develops into a raging storm with waves crashing against the landscape of all religious belief. It appears almost everything connected to God and the Supernatural will be washed away into a sea of unbelief. When we see this kind of disaster, recovery appears remote. But periodically, fresh spiritual vitality appears. Genuine repentance and turning to God on His terms deliver us from these destructive waves.
God’s dealing with a great city of Old Testament times represented tidel wave conditions to Israel. With brutal and godless rage, the Assyrians had plundered the Northern Kingdom. Many other nations had fallen under the same tyranny. In its capitol city of Nineveh, there was no fear of God. This city was ripe for judgment. God called on one of His prophets to deliver the message to the people of Nineveh.
The Prophet Jonah
The specific message Jonah was to deliver was: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:1-4). Being true to the Israelite people, Jonah at first refused to preach to the people of Nineveh. They were still a powerful military threat to Israel. He would just as soon remain silent and allow God’s judgment to consume Assyria’s capitol city.
Jonah had an additional motive for not going. He had already prophesied that God was going to restore the good fortunes of Israel (II Kings 14:25). If Nineveh were to repent and thus escape God’s wrath, might not a secure Assyria return to its old, warring ways and spoil Jonah’s predictions about Israel’s coming prosperity? So rather than obeying God’s instructions to preach in Nineveh, Jonah boarded a ship bound for Tarshish. That happens to be in the exact, opposite direction from where God had told him to go.
Soon after setting sail, a violent storm develops—a storm so severe that seasoned sailors despair of life. They are terrified. The storm, they believe, must be an omen of displeasure from some god. The sailors cast lots and it falls on Jonah. They uncover his mutiny against God (Jonah 1:5-15).
Upon realizing Jonah was the focus of God’s attention, they seek alternatives. Jonah suggests, “Throw me overboard.” Still, they continued to row but the storm worsened. As a last resort, the sailors throw Jonah overboard. The sea suddenly becomes calm. Rather than drowning, however, a great fish swallows Jonah. Three days of residence in this fish (Jonah 1:17) changes Jonah’s perspective. He repents of his disobedience and the great fish deposits him on the beach. Now, Jonah travels to Nineveh and delivers God’s message.
The People of Nineveh
Nineveh was a large city, requiring three days to pass through. Still, on the very first day of his preaching in the city, the response to Jonah’s message is swift and startling:
“The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the King of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Emphasis added) Jonah 3:5, 6
Until the time of Jonah’s preaching, human standards and values had controlled the lives of the people of Nineveh. The might of their own armies had given them military victory. The God of Israel was not a part of their culture. Their pride in human achievement had led to God’s assessment that judgment was necessary. Yet, upon hearing God’s word directly, they responded immediately. The conclusion we reach is that just as history is influenced through godless nations, history is also altered when people abandon their own ways and turn to God. Here, when they threw human pride aside God deferred judgment.
While not part of the text, we surmise that the conditions in Nineveh that led to Jonah’s mission must have taken some time to develop. Little by little, the people of Nineveh became more bold and outspoken in controlling their own lives outside the boundary of God’s standards. They felt successful. They lived in comfort and security. They were confident. They had achieved success by their own means apart from God. They came to believe and live as though God was unnecessary. Why change when things are going so well? Although thinking they were in control, they were enslaved to self-will.
Nevertheless, God saw an opportunity to bring this people to Himself. His concern for the people of Nineveh led Him to dispatch His reluctant prophet to this great city. But before He could confront the people of Nineveh concerning their self-directed lives, He had to overcome Jonah’s opinion of how to run the world.
The transformation in Nineveh would be as abrupt as what happened to the prophet Jonah. Snugness and smugness in the bottom of the ship suddenly gave way to the darkness and dampness of the great fish’s belly. God gave Jonah a command. He did not agree. He refused to obey. He went his own way, opposite to God’s instructions. That is human sinfulness in action. Despite that, God was able to turn him around. Jonah’s journey modeled what God wanted to do with the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4:10, 11).
When the people of Nineveh from the king to the lowliest citizen repented, they were accepting God’s assessment of their lives. The text says, “The Ninevites believed God.” What was God’s message? Judgment is on its way! He didn’t say, “If you do not repent—you will be overturned.” Nothing in Jonah’s message suggested that God’s judgment was conditional.
Repentance by the citizens of Nineveh was a repudiation of their proud, self-centeredness. Their decision did not depend on whether or not God would deter judgment. They simply took God at His word. They were sinners. They needed to repent. This they did. Their response was appropriate to the nature and source of the message. Just as Jonah had changed his direction, so did they.
As we noted, it took strong medicine for Jonah to get over his rebellion. But once he returned to his prophetic role, the entire population of Nineveh turned to God. Jonah’s message created an enormous wave of conviction that brought down the monument to themselves that the king and people of Nineveh had built. They accepted God’s opinion of themselves. As one, they repented. The idea of repentance is to “turn around.” That is exactly what the king and his subjects did.
When God spoke through Jonah, the people of Nineveh turned around in repentance. They left their own way of thinking and accepted God’s way. As an outward sign of their inward repentance, the king ordered everyone, including animals, to be covered with sackcloth (Jonah 3:7, 8). The text records God’s response:
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” Jonah 3:10
No matter the time or place, God always asks people and nations to begin with what He has said. Act on the information and light you have received from Him, directly through Scripture and the Holy Spirit or indirectly through circumstances or the witness of believers. Over the centuries, His voice has delivered this consistent message. The question is always: What is our response? How are the American people, as they near the 21st Century, responding to what God has said? In evangelical churches, how is God’s Word being followed? Is it still the rule and guide for faith and all conduct? Or have we allowed the secular culture in which we find ourselves, to dictate our priorities and control our methods?
To understand the influence that secular culture can exert on our thinking, we want to spend some time examining its power. That is not to say that everything in a given culture is rotten. What we can say is that anything not centered on God and His Word is an unreliable mooring for our lives.