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Do You Trust the Story? A Weekend with Leonard Sweet

Leonard Sweet was the guest speaker at the Florida Hospital SDA Church retreat in Camp Kulaqua on March 30-April 1, 2012. His invitation comes on the heels of the release of his latest book Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who is Already There which was presented to all leaders at FHC. Sweet has written dozens of books, including the best seller “Jesus Manifesto.”

Sweet’s name has become synonymous with Christianity’s current struggles to stay relevant in a postmodern world. My first contact with his writing was in 2008 when I was deciding on the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation and picked up a copy of The Church in Emerging Culture. His analogy in the introduction of the Christians as denizens of four landscapes (garden, park, glen, meadow), offers an extremely helpful metaphor for the challenges facing the church today. 

To break the ice, Sweet described Florida Hospital SDA Church as a “G.O.O.D” church, i.e., a “Get Out of Doors” church and said that he does not do “retreats”, only “advances”. He set the stage for his talk by describing what he called “versitis”: Christians like to memorize verses, frequently out of context instead of looking at the big picture. He asked what John 3:16 said, most responded in unison. Next he asked what John 3:17 said; what about John 3:15? Few knew. He then established the principle that postmoderns are attracted to stories and metaphors. And there’s no doubt in his mind that Christians have the upper hand on this one. He set out to exemplify this by drawing on powerful details of the line running from the Old Testament to Jesus’ life and death. 

I was struck by the simplicity of his approach. There were no philosophical fireworks, no convoluted theological statements. He simply told the story of Jesus enhanced here and there by a well-informed exegesis of OT Passover typology in the New as well as historical background of first century Judea. He tapped the Hebrew meaning of Bethlehem, lit. “house of bread”, while pointing out that in Arabic, the roots would refer to “house of meat” or “house of blood”. As a small village perched on a hillside, Bethlehem provided the lambs for the Temple sacrifices. He didn’t provide interpretations; he simply let these details speak for themselves and asked “Do you trust the story?” 

Sweet stressed the fact that Jesus’ life was full of paradoxes: the shepherds who first came to him were the lowest of the low, wandering around in fetid clothes, while the magi were some of the highest in their society. Baby Jesus was surrounded by the pungent smell of animal excrement mixed with the aroma of myrrh and frankincense, some of the most expensive substances of the day. Sweet followed this powerful imagery again with the simple question: “Do you trust the story?” 

He explained how young Paschal lambs were wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger right after birth in order to avoid blemishes in the form of broken legs or other defects. So, when the shepherds saw Jesus lying on a manger in swaddling clothes, Sweet posited that they immediately understood Jesus as the Paschal lamb of God. Jews were required to live with the lamb for four days before it was sacrificed (Ex. 12:3). At the time of the sacrifice, the Priest asked each participant three times: “Do you love your lamb?” Sweet tied this to Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?” (Twice with the verb agape and the last time with fileo). 

Yet another poignant moment on Friday evening was when he described how young lambs that lost their mother during delivery had to be cared for by a new mother ewe. Ewes are specially wary of lambs that are not their own and shepherds have to go to great lengths to make sure a match occurs. As a last-ditch effort, the shepherd has to bathe the young lamb in the new ewe’s own blood. Sweet again asked: “Do you trust the story?” 

I personally thanked him at the end for the message and, because I had answered some of his questions, he was thankful for my participation. He asked me if I was a theology student, I said I was and that I had studied the last week of Jesus’ life in depth in preparation for writing an article on the day of the month and the year of the Crucifixion. I mentioned that the chronology of Passion Week was important to Adventist theology; he let out a mischievous laugh, put his hand on my shoulder and signaled with his hand something to the effect that such concerns should be irrelevant. (I agree, the four Gospels are quite ambiguous on precisely when Jesus died, with the majority of scholars today siding with John’s chronology of Passover week which puts the crucifixion on Nisan 14). I asked him if he’d be willing to be part of a documentary about Adventism I’m filming; he declined. I wasn’t fazed, he probably has bigger fish to catch. But the mere fact that he accepted to be with a group of Seventh-Day Adventists from the Bible Belt spoke volumes on the breadth of his thinking and the size of his heart. 

On Saturday morning, the high point of yet another powerful message on the life of Jesus was the idea that he sang Psalm 22 from the Cross. Sweet asked all to stand up while he read this Messianic Psalm to an engrossed audience. Even though I prefer the image of a whispering, labored speech with short utterances on the cross as probably more accurate, still the imagery present in Psalm 22 was powerful and Sweet’s use beautiful and pertinent. The power of the Cross was clearly expressed.

On Saturday evening in a brief interview during a “vegan version” of Saturday Night Live, Sweet was asked how he views the fact that Adventism’s approach to evangelism and outreach is based mostly on propositional truth. (I was glad the question was asked.) Sweet said Christians in general should stop stressing the peripherals of Christianity and focus on its core, the story of Jesus. He compared our doctrines and propositional truths to the trellises that hold a vine. They are not the vine, they should only contribute to the vine’s mission and not become the center of the message. Enough said. 

(In the spirit the evening’s comedy show, Sweet volunteered his best joke by telling of a boy who asks his mom if his Sunday school teacher—at which point the host introjected “Sabbath school”—was Jesus’ grandmother. The mom asks why, the boy says “Well, she brags about him all the time!”)

Much more could be said on the impact of his ministry to us, but I keep this to the point:

At a time when Adventist leaders are being urged by their superiors to shun non-Adventist speakers, Leonard Sweet’s presence with us was a breath of fresh air. All present were deeply appreciative of the message, his points were frequently met with hearty “Amens” and hugs at the end. We were blessed, I’m sure he was too.

We Adventists will benefit greatly from hearing the story of Jesus told by people who are passionate about Him, irrespective of the fact that they may not to fit a certain “remnant” stereotype. To this participant, it was completely irrelevant whether Sweet was well versed in The Great Controversy theme (or our own protective, corporate version thereof) or not. All that matters is that Jesus was boldly and passionately lifted up. Ironically, after all was said and done, it became clear to us that focusing on Jesus provides the very best framework by which to understand our own personal “great controversies.”

The weekend with Leonard Sweet was the perfect example of the motto: Jesus. All.

—André Reis has a B.A. in Theology from the Adventist University in São Paulo, Brazil, an M.A. in Music from Longy School of Music and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in New Testament. He is an active member of the Florida Hospital SDA Church.

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