This was presented at a New Year's Eve church service.
Periodically, someone will ask me why I am (still) that quirky kind of Christian called Seventh-day Adventist. Every time I am asked this question, I give a different answer. My answers range from simplistic—“my mother raised me Adventist”—to fatalistic—“Even if I tried not to be, I would be an Adventist”—to theological—“I found Jesus in Adventism, and am therefore committed to the Adventist community.” None of these answers are untrue, and I realize that none of them satisfy ears which yearn to hear me say that Adventists “have the truth(1),” and boiled down to twenty-eight fundamental beliefs, no less.
Even so, I think that it is appropriate that, as we begin a new year, we revisit this question: “Why should a person still identify her- or himself as a Seventh-day Adventist, and what does it mean to be an Adventist living in the world today?” After all, it has been almost 2000 years, and Jesus has not come. If this is central to our gospel proclamation—that the Lord Jesus lives and reigns and is soon coming again—and if this gospel we proclaim is what forms our church(2), then our gospel is a witness against itself, and we always run the risk of an identity crisis. That is, though we may argue that it is reasonable to believe in God, though we may argue that the Bible is reliable, and though we may argue that our doctrines are consistent with that Bible, it remains that we must demonstrate that the gospel we proclaim is meaningful for our lives and our world; we must demonstrate that the gospel matters, that the gospel makes a difference, that the “word of the cross” is the word of truth. That our proclamation is consistent with the words of the Bible is not enough; the truthfulness of gospel that we proclaim can only be demonstrated by how it is lived(3).
So to answer the question of what it means to still be Adventist in 2011—when “soon” just doesn’t seem like the right word anymore when we talk about the coming of Jesus—we must go back the gospel we had once heard, so that we may discern the gospel that we must now speak and live for our own time and place(4). If we are to be Adventist Christians today, we must listen carefully to the voices of our spiritual parents and grandparents, but if the good news is to remain news then we must also learn to speak the gospel in our own words and to live it for our own time(5).
Let us begin with our name. We are called Seventh-day Adventists. A simple examination of this name reveals that the “seventh-day” part of our name is the adjective, which modifies the noun, “Adventist.” That is, we are not seventh-day observers who happen to be Adventists; we are Adventists who happen to be seventh-day observers. The Sabbath is not unimportant to us, but there is something else that is more central to our identity; namely, the Advent.
Most Adventists will agree, saying, “Yes, we are a people waiting for the Second Advent.” For this fact I am happy and am in full agreement, but I would like to slow us down. Before we rush towards our future, let us remember our past; because when we say that the second coming of Christ is central to the gospel, what we are really saying is what Paul said to the Philippians: “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6, NRSV). We are confident that God will one day finish not only the work begun in our individual lives, but that God will one day complete this work in all the world. This means that our future hope is not only based on the words of promise written in the Bible—“he will come again”—but, more importantly, our hope is based on the conviction that what happened two thousand years ago in Jesus has radically altered human history, and has directed us toward a new future for which we now hope. As time passes, and we move towards that future, we must go back to that history-altering event two thousand years ago, that first advent, so that we can discern how we ought to live as we anticipate the second advent. In this sense, an Adventist is not just a person who looks forward to the second advent, but a person who takes seriously the meaning of the first one.
There are, of course, infinite ways to talk about the meaning of God’s action in Jesus. For now, let us consider just one: God became human. The Word became flesh.
It is our basic instinct to agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9-10). For all of our innovation and supposed optimism, we don’t really believe that anything is actually going to change. Anticipated disasters like global warming come to be recognized as just more of the same; we know that new technology does not actually make our lives simpler; we don’t actually expect politicians to make a significant difference. We say the only constant is change, but more often than not we really believe in “the constant,” and it is the illusion of change that keeps us from real change. So the train keeps on moving, but we know it’s on track.
And then, in the world of “nothing new under the sun,” Jesus appeared. Something new happened.
The event that is the life of Jesus of Nazareth is an apocalyptic in-breaking from without that alters everything within. God, who is the Creator, became a man, who is a creature, and because of this creation will never be the same again. This world is forever wedded to God, because in Jesus God has forever been wedded to this world.
This is one of the most basic truths of the gospel. Whatever else we may say about God, one thing is certain: In Jesus, God is identified as God with us.
Now, if it is the case that, as I suggested a moment ago, an Adventist is a person who takes the meaning of the first advent seriously, in what way are we to take this truth seriously, that the Word became flesh? How does this make us Adventist? And most importantly, how can we with our lives demonstrate that this gospel is the truth?
I suggest three things for how this should shape our understanding of Adventism, and what this means for speaking and living the gospel, and for demonstrating the truthfulness of the gospel in our world today. Three things: (1) family, which should shape how we understand Adventism, (2) freedom, which should define our speaking and living the gospel, and (3) future, which is how we should orient our understanding of the truthfulness of the gospel.
First, family. When we say “God,” we mean by that the one who raised Jesus from the dead, the God of Israel whom Jesus called “Father (7).” Jesus, the Son of the Father, has made himself our brother, and because of this we have been adopted as children of his Father, and have received in our hearts the Spirit of adoption, through whom we may cry, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4-6). We have been adopted into God’s family because God has become a part of our human family, and for this reason God’s gift is for all people; the whole human family is the family of God, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, political party, ideology, or anything else that divides us. Though we are sometimes at war with one another, God declares to us that Jesus himself “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14), and that through his broken body God has broken down the walls that divide us, creating in Christ “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15). And we must insist that this family of God in Christ is as real as the very flesh of Christ. Here, we must insist family cannot be an empty word, that if we are God’s children, then we are sisters and brothers, and are held together as family not by what we say or think or do, but by who we are in Christ.
An Adventist is a person who takes this reality seriously. In our world of cell phones and Facebook and television, where every day we think of new ways to connect to one another and yet we find ourselves more and more separated from one another, where person to person interaction is becoming less and less bodily, being an Adventist means taking seriously our responsibility to be a real family, a connected family, a family of bodies—bodies that eat well and rest, bodies that respect other bodies, bodies that care for the physical world that God has made home. This is one way that we can be Adventist in our world today.
Second, freedom. I suggested that freedom should define how we speak and live the gospel. This is not to say that we say and do whatever we want. That is not freedom. Rather, by freedom we mean the freedom of God. God is “the one who loves in freedom(8),” and because of our participation in God through Christ, we too may love in freedom. To live and speak the truth of the gospel is to recognize that Jesus is the very condition and guarantor of our freedom; that is, without Jesus we could not be free, but because of Jesus we have the assurance that we are free. Again, in our world of “nothing new under the sun,” the message of the gospel is one of newness and possibility. Our proclamation of the gospel must never be that there is no hope for the world, that because prophecy will be fulfilled there is no real responsibility for what is happening in our world; rather, because God has come, we have been freed to be truly human, freed to hope, freed to live in the world and take responsibility for what happens, freed to participate in what God is actively doing in the world.
An Adventist is a person who takes this reality seriously. In our world of hopelessness, and in the midst of a “free-market” this has fewer and fewer options and isn’t truly free, in a world dominated by scientism and determinism, an Adventist is a person who boldly proclaims the gospel of freedom, and who lives in that freedom.
Finally, future. Just as the gospel is a gospel of freedom, so also is the gospel good news about our future. Because God is committed to us and to our world, because God is active and present in the world, we are free to hope, and to hope actively. The promise we are given in Christ is not that we will be taken out of the world, but that God will always be with us in the world, and so we don’t sit around waiting for some predicted future to happen to us; no, having been brought into God’s life and work, we participate with God in bringing about that future for which we hope. The question of the truthfulness of the gospel hangs on this one point: are we living in such a way that the reality of God’s presence among us is becoming evident in our lives and in our communities? That future for which we hope, do we see its light on the horizon? The work of God is not yet complete, and so we are a people who are eagerly waiting for its completion at the second advent; but have we been so gripped by the first advent that the promise of the second advent can be considered trustworthy?
An Adventist is a person who takes this reality serious. In our world which sees only one future—cosmic death—an Adventist is a person who actively hopes and lives life towards the future promised to us in Christ. This is the kind of Adventist that our church and our world needs today.
This year, 2011, let us resolve to be Adventist Christians. Let us resolve to take seriously the truth of the gospel, that something radically new has happened in Christ, that the Word has indeed become flesh, and that this changes our lives and our world. Let us resolve to believe that we are one family in Christ, and to act as one family. Let us resolve to believe that we are free, and speak and live the gospel freely. And let us resolve to hope actively, sharing it what God is now doing in the world until the time when God finishes the work at Christ’s coming. Amen.
Image: An undated glass slide of the interior of the Jesselton chapel, a Seventh-day Adventist church in Borneo courtesy of the General Conference Office of Archives and Statistics.