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The Preaching: Heaven Still on Our Minds (Earth Not So Much)

Heaven is your ultimate home.

Jesus transforms your mood and spirit, even your face.

One thing matters and that is crossing the (“figurative”) Jordan, making the journey—very soon—to heaven. 

So said three preachers over the week, the last one Ted Wilson, now eight days into his second term as General Conference president.  The General Conference session was turning toward its finish.  Heaven was still closer to consciousness than the earth God created and blessed at the beginning.

The “preparation day”—a phrase used both weekends in San Antonio—began with Ron Smith at the podium.   The much educated (Oakwood University, Andrews Seminary, two doctorates from two other schools) and widely experienced (pastorates in Los Angeles and New York City, editorship of Message magazine, several administrative posts) president of the Southern Union Conference in North America, took the theme of heaven, our “ultimate home.”  Invoking Revelation 21, with its vision of a “‘new heaven and a new earth’” and of a Holy City “coming down out of heaven’” to be God’s “‘dwelling place,’” he made three points.

    Heaven, he said, is “real.”  Though no human has seen, heard or conceived of what God has prepared for the faithful, heaven is not “fairy tale” but a “real place.” Secondly, heaven is a “roomy place.”  Global population is exploding, but, he said invoking Revelation 21:16, the Holy City will accommodate all.  Then he declared that heaven is a “restful place”—not a mere “rest stop,” where you recover from fatigue, as when you are driving, but a destination.  “You and I don’t belong here,” Smith said, beginning a litany of protests against the evils of the world.  “I am sick and tired of this old world”—of its guns, its shootings and its “urban blight,” of its “empty political campaigns” and its “disproportionate wealth.” 

    He did not want a new “strategic plan” but a “New Jerusalem,” a world “under new management.”  As the sermon ended Smith, who is tall and strong-voiced, authoritative and a tad severe, leaned into the microphone and said again: “Heaven, my ultimate home.”    

    With movement from “preparation day” to Sabbath on Friday evening, Artur Stele, general vice president of the General Conference and director of the church’s Biblical Research Institute, addressed the delegates and ever-larger crowd.

He went straight to scripture, and a part of it that does not focus on heaven.  As any one of us may do, the writer of Psalms 42 and 43, he said, feels depressed—feeding on his own “tears,” thinking he is “forgotten” and even “cast off” by God.  His mood goes from bad to worse.  He wonders why and asks: Where is God?  Finally the Psalmist prays for help: “O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me.”

    In accented, excellent English, Stele—who was born in Kazakstan and speaks German as well as English and his native Russian—noted that with this prayer the Psalmist’s feelings change, turning toward hope and praise.  The keys, he emphasized, are God as source of light and truth.  Then, without attending to details of his life and message, he linked the prayer with Jesus: as the Gospel of John asserts, he is God’s “light” and “truth.”   Alluding to Psalm 43:5, Stele said that just as God renewed the Psalmist’s spirit, and even, as some Bible versions suggest, his “face,” so God, through Christ, can renew us.  Indeed, all our “initiatives” as a church must, he declared, take Jesus as their “goal.”

    Stele told no stories until the end, holding the audience with the vigor and conviction in his voice and face.  At the end, though, he described the brainwashing he had had to endure under officers in the Soviet military.  Only the weak and fearful believe in God, they said repeatedly; you are alone here.  But when a unit he was unfamiliar with showed up one day, he saw a face that struck him as different, and the man behind that face saw his and felt the same.

   Christ, Stele said, had transformed even their faces.  They found one another, and in their friendship they found encouragement to persist in faith.  “Our faces told us that we belonged to the same heavenly father,” he said, moving his audience as the sermon ended.

    This morning the Alamodome was all but packed, floor to top, except for the end-zone sections behind the platform.  Ted Wilson, the Sabbath service preacher, stood tall before some 60,000 Adventists after an admiring (and humorous) introduction by G. T. Ng, one of his vice presidents.  Our church is “God’s remnant church,” he said as the sermon began.  The “time prophecies” have ended, and although we are “almost home,” we are “still” here, “Laodicean” and needing “humble ourselves.”

    He then told the story of Moses’ experience on Mount Nebo, where he saw the Promised Land but (“having sinned that one sin”) learned that he could not go in.  Joshua replaced him and heard God’s admonishment to keep the law faithfully.  Showing the audience three Bibles—one his grandfather’s, one his father’s and one his own—Wilson asked the church to read it daily, along with “the Spirit of Prophecy.”  What these writings say is true—the world was created “recently,” Christ is now ministering in the Most Holy Place—and if we are “sanctified” by their light we will “see wonders.” 

    “Cross the Jordan! Don’t Retreat!” That was the morning mantra.  We can be God’s “landmarks” on earth if take up our mission daily, and go forward without fear.  “Evangelism,” he said to clarify, “is the life-blood of the church,” and applause rang out when he remarked that it “is not dead.”  Alluding to remarks from Ellen White, he said that when church members unite their efforts those of “the church’s ministers and officers,” the church’s work will be “finished.” 

    “It’s time to go home.  It’s time to cross the Jordan.”  Elaborating, he went on: It’s time to “put away differences of opinion,” time to win people over, including those with “special needs,” time to steer clear of “contemporary ideas” about theology or the reading of Scripture, time to look heavenward for the “little black cloud” that will signal our “figurative” crossing of Jordan, our journey through “space” to the heaven where we will be with God “forever.”

    As the Sabbath morning service neared its end, Wilson brought listeners to their feet for a commitment prayer, which would “continue,” he said, through a performance of the Lord’s Prayer.  Given the focus of the morning and most (but not quite all) of the week, it was almost jarring to hear the soloist’s plea that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, which publishes Spectrum Magazine, and a member of the General Conference reporting team in San Antonio, Texas.

Photo Credit: Kenn Dixon

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