Through the weekdays at the General Conference session, one preacher a day stands at the podium. One of these sessions is like camp meeting—old friends, sweaty weather, crowds like rivers—yet it’s not camp meeting. Church business is the main course; music and homily are side dishes.
If the preachers this week have shared a script, it is focus on the next world and the church’s evangelistic job in light of it. The one exemption was the one woman who spoke, Mathilde Frey, a Romanian-born biblical scholar who has taught in the Philippines and is now joining the faculty of Walla Walla University.
On Tuesday morning, July 7, Frey dug into Jesus’ farewell message, as recorded in the Gospel of John. Her focus was the assurance that in the “comma,” or “interlude,” between Jesus’ leaving and return, the disciples would not be “orphans.” Citing Beatles’ singer Paul McCartney’s question about all the “lonely people,” she called ours an “age of loneliness.” And to this age, she said, Jesus’ message is the promised presence of the Holy Spirit—the comforter, counselor, advocate and helper. Through the Holy Spirit, the same presence as came to the aid of Nicodemus, of the woman at the well and of others whose story John tells can come to us. The same presence as mirrored the very being of God can touch and heal human loneliness today.
Frey took loneliness to be a challenge inside the church as well as outside. She had begun her remarks by invoking African wisdom to the effect that if you would go far, you must “go together,” and she returned to that idea at the end. To experience the presence of God today, she said, we must walk together, “go into the deep inner need of one another.” Only thus can members—she singled out pastors in particular—bring healing to the “lonely and the shamed-filled” in our society. If we “walk far and walk together,” she declared, we can have communion with Christ during the time between his leaving and his coming back.
At 8 a.m. as the week began on Sunday morning, the Alamo Dome—a covered football stadium—was practically empty, people entering in thin streams. Half an hour later, after songs and scripture, Neale Schofield, CEO of Adventist Media Network in the South Pacific Division, began the morning sermon began with eye-popping video of New Year’s Fireworks in Sydney, Australia.
“Now imagine,” the speaker said, “the Second Coming of Christ.”
The sermon subject was the “manner” of Christ’s return. Schofield’s said that knowing “how Jesus returns protects us against deception and shows us God’s love.” He noted that other traditions—both world religions and varying expressions of Christianity—speak differently than we do of coming deliverance. Many evangelicals, for example, advance the theory that a “secret rapture” precedes the final resolution of evil. Citing Matthew 24, he said that according to Scripture Jesus will return “personally, visibly and globally.” There will be no “secret” rapture, it turns out, nor, as he said a few minutes later, any “second” chances.
Schofield, who stood, sat and paced the stage as he spoke, now advanced toward a framed copy of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, “The Scream,” with its alarming image of human desperation. He put it forward as an evocation of “the terrible realization of the lost at the Second Coming.” For the saved, however, the prospect, he said with the help a yet another painting, is joy and beaming faces.
The speaker finished with an account of his own childhood Second Coming nightmare, when he awoke in a “cold sweat” at the sudden grasping of his own un-readiness. “That night,” he said as his sermon was ending, “I accepted Jesus.”
Monday morning Shian O’Connor, president of the Cayman Islands Conference in the Caribbean, began by saying that the “just elected” new General Conference officers “may very well be the last.” He thus lent urgency to his theme, “Faithful End-Time Living: Preparation for His Return.” As a story for “end-time people,” he spoke of the man in Matthew 19 who asked Jesus what “good thing” he should do in order to “have eternal life.” Hearing mention of the commandments, the man declared that he had “kept them” all his life. But he was still unsure about his salvation, so he asked, as the preacher put it, for “one more check” on himself: What, he said, “lack I yet?”
O’Connor then argued that the “last-day church” needs to focus on this question. Referring to the Laodicea motif in Revelation 3, he said the church today has the same problem as the young man: it does see its own lack. What we need is more faith, more “work” on our righteousness, more openness to the “Holy Ghost.” A “false sense of security” threatens, and unless we do better we “cannot pass through the pearly gates.” He allowed that “someone will enter the kingdom,” and asked: “Shall you? Shall I?”
On Wednesday—the morning of the vote on divisional choice with regard to women’s ordination—Alain Coralie, the Associate Executive Secretary of the East-Central Africa Division, turned to Joshua 4. The story involves a stone memorial erected after Israel’s crossing over into the Promised Land. It was the same day of the year as the Passover, the tenth day of the first month. After forty years of “fickleness” on the people’s part, God had been good, and twelve men shouldered large stones from the “middle of the Jordan” and set them up as a reminder to Israel and to all peoples that the Lord is “powerful.”
These stones invite reflection today, said Coralie. “We are here,” he exclaimed. “God has been good to us.” The point for Israel and for us—he made the point twice—is that a church which “wants to move forward cannot remain locked in its past.” Then he moved directly to the cities and villages Adventist evangelism has yet to reach. Jesus lives, Jesus is coming again, and people need to know. “Tell them,” he said repeatedly, “tell them.” That is how we embrace our mission. “I can hear the rustling of angel wings,” he confided at the end. “Can you hear?”
A young evangelist, just 15 years or so out of high school, strode to the podium on Thursday morning. Hawaiian by birth and now an evangelist in Central California, Taj Pacleb began with an “Aloha” greeting, then interpreted Paul’s charge, in 2 Timothy 4, to his young protégé, Timothy. In fluid speech and a voice and manner and uncannily—and impressively—reminiscent of Joel Osteen, he concentrated on a single phrase: “Preach the word,” contrasting the true word with “smooth, feel-good” approaches to the Gospel message. “Compromise,” he said, “leads to corruption, and corruption leads to damnation.” Turning to Revelation 14, he described the Three Angels’ Messages as God’s “last warning to a perishing world.” Although attention to others, even “social justice,” do matter, they must not get in the way of Adventism’s “distinctive” message.
There are many things that are important and deserve our time and attention. Standing up for social justice is important. Caring for the sick is important. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, & cheering the discouraged are all important. But let us never forget that as we do these things in the name of the Lord, that there is also a distinctive message that God is calling us to give to the world…We live in a world that is broken beyond repair. And so no matter how much we stand up against social injustice, there will still be injustices in the world. No matter how much food we give to the poor, people will continue to starve. No matter how many people we heal, disease and death will continue to take people’s lives. We live in a world that is broken beyond repair. No amount of practical ministry will bring us back to the perfection of Eden. And so while we continue to extend the healing ministry of Christ let us keep in mind that the only lasting and permanent solution to the problems of our broken and bleeding world is the second coming of Jesus! It is only when our Lord returns that all the injustices, poverty, diseases, and every other problem of our world will be finished. Our message is an evacuation message. So while we continue to move forward in meeting the felt needs of our communities and ministering to the suffereing, let us remember that that is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. It is a means of connecting with people that we might connect them with Christ. And so, no doube, we are to offer the world a practical present solution to the problems people face. But in doing so we are also to point people to the permanent prophetic solution promised in the coming of our Lord!”
Watch video: Taj Pacleb, "Preach the Word in all the World"
Pacleb told his own story of conversion—how he went from drug-addled youth to evangelism, first in his own high school and then in public meetings, all “without formal education.” He also told stories of conversions that have come out of his own evangelistic work, including that of his own grandparents, who, though separated, returned to God by way of baptism and then resumed their marriage. To appreciative chuckles, he remarked of his grandfather that “he held me when I was born, and I held him when he was born-again.”
Let us preach was his admonition, and the Second Coming was his message. “Thank God almighty,” he said as the sermon ended, “we will be home at last.”
Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the publisher of Spectrum Magazine, and a member of the General Conference reporting team in San Antonio, Texas.