Summary: The church should be like a free medical clinic, open to all who will come to the great physician.

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“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” These famous lines open Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. All of human history is summed up in those lines. Throughout history there have always been births and funerals. There have been terrible plagues and miraculous cures, heroic sacrifices and barbaric cruelty.

Every year we see evidence of mankind’s nobility and mankind’s depravity. Every year we see evidence of nature’s majesty and nature’s brutality. Just this last week, we saw news reports on the unprecedented Tsunamis that devastated thousands of miles of coastland. We’ve heard amazing stories of miraculous escapes. And we’ve seen the terrible grief of thousands who lost their loved ones. Last year we could surely say, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” And you can be sure it will be the best and worst of times in 2005.

Does that also hold true for the condition of the church here in the USA? Is it the best of times or the worst of times for American churches? It seems that in terms of sheer numbers, the Christian community in America is having good times.

· A recent poll indicates that over 75 million American adults classify themselves as Evangelical Christians (Just as a basis of comparison, the same poll listed about 8 million Jews, 5 million Mormons, and less than 2 million Muslims.)

· Of the 75 million Evangelical Christians, about 65 million attend church every week.

· About 40 million say that they engage in regular personal Bible reading

· And about 35 million attend weekly small-group Bible studies.

In some ways it may be the best of times. But other trends indicate the worst of times.

· For one thing, Church attendance has been on the decline for more than 4 decades in America. The most dramatic period of decline was in the 90’s where the trend among adults in their 30’s and 40’s declined by more than 15 million in a five year period.

· In spite of the work of groups such as Promise Keepers, only 28% of adult men attend church compared with 46% of women; and men are far less likely to read the Bible, pray, or become involved in the church.

· In the early ‘90’s 53% of church-attendees were non- Christians (what we today would call “seekers”); more recently, that figure has dropped to 38%. The change is not due to conversions. It means non-Christians have simply stopped coming to church. Many seekers have stopped seeking at church!

C.B. Hogue (who is one of the foremost experts on missions) recently said, “The center for world evangelism has moved away from America. We expect the next great awakening to occur in Africa or perhaps South America. Without some sweeping changes it won’t happen in America.”

So is 2005 the best of times or the worst of times for our church? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter, because it is the ONLY time we have. This is OUR time. And if we want to build the Kingdom of God in our time, we have no time to waste.

Like us, Jesus lived in the best of times and the worst of times. The Jewish people enjoyed a certain amount of religious freedom under the rule of Rome. But it was a time when the Jewish leaders were desperately trying to maintain their distinction as God’s Chosen People.

And it was in this time that Jesus boldly challenged all their rules about who was welcome in the Kingdom of God. You see, Jesus had accepted an invitation to have dinner at the home of a tax collector. And the religious leaders saw this as completely unacceptable.

Look again at our Text in Matthew 9: 10-11 10While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

Before you get too impatient with the Pharisees, think how you might react in a similar circumstance. Suppose you were walking by a Sports Bar and you look through the window to see someone with the religious status of … let’s say … Billy Graham. Then you notice he’s at a table with a crooked politician and a shady business man who was recently indicted for fraud. Across the table are a few of notorious gang members and a couple of prostitutes. Billy Graham is not thumping his Bible and preaching at them, either. In fact, he’s leaning back in his chair looking relaxed. He’s smiling, talking and even laughing. In fact, for all appearance, he seems to enjoy spending time with those no-good scoundrels.

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