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President Ted Wilson’s Sermon: A Preview

“I know that some of you are holding your breath.” —a General Conference Vice President, earlier this week

While he was still a college student at what is now Washington Adventist University, I partnered with Ted Wilson on the planning for a special weekend at Takoma Academy. A few years later I interviewed him for a magazine article while he was working in New York City. Because my son taught his daughters, I know his family is easy to enjoy and admire.

But like nearly all members in North America, I’ve never heard Ted Wilson preach, nor have I seen much (if any) of his writing. Except for second-hand reports, he’s little known here, and better known in countries elsewhere.

The second-hand reports suggest passion for the church, managerial competence and a kind of bone-deep conservative solidity. The latter, as I think everyone knows, reassures most Adventists. But some—who admire the dynamism of the pioneers, and think the period after Ellen White’s death became too cautious and too settled—worry that conservative solidity may stand between us and the teaching function of the Holy Spirit (John 16).

Earlier this week one newly elected General Conference vice-president stood before a constituency with a particular eagerness for the “new things” God’s people, as the prophets say, are meant to hear (Isaiah 48:6). It was before this group that the official spoke of Ted Wilson’s new role and said: “I know that some of you are holding your breath.”

Sabbath morning will be a great opportunity for Elder Wilson to help Adventist members, including those who may be holding their breath, to breathe more easily. He will be preaching before 40,000 or more of us, not including the television audience, and if he achieves three goals, he will energize the community.

First, will he make it clear that Adventism is a true home for broken hearts and struggling minds?

A preacher remembered (as one writer put it) for “parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ” would generate a gratitude so vivid it would brighten our eyes and quicken our steps.

A loving heart, after all, is the heart of the Jesus story. Here you find an unfailing welcome for the fallen, the aching, the desolate. The prodigal father, in Jesus’ famous parable, ran out to receive his son, the son whose anxieties and pride had tortured his family into sorrow and shame. The son, even this son, was welcome home. It is that way in the father’s house, that way in the family of God.

What is more, the sense of “home” provides healing even for those who struggle to understand, who know what it is to doubt. When Thomas doubted the resurrection, he was met not with a scolding but with help. And at just the moment when Jesus laid out the Great Commission, so Matthew tells us, “some doubted” (Matthew 28). But the Gospel does not make this the occasion for a reprimand. Instead, the call to make disciples in every nation goes forth, and goes forth immediately. Again, those who struggle to understand hear no exclusionary words. They hear instead the words of the Commission; they simply hear the summons to embrace an exciting mission.

The Gospel’s welcome is not, of course, the mere “tolerance” of postmodernity. It is a welcome whose purpose is transformation—transformation of the self and of whatever the self can help repair. But it is still a welcome, and the community that offers it is still, as in Jesus’ famous parable, a home.

Second, will our new president resist the temptation to make doctrine an end in itself, and instead see it as light for the path of discipleship?

One unfortunate tendency in Adventism is blinding doctrinal fussiness. I say “blinding” because our appetite for theological discord, and our seeming inability to forgive one another when we differ, distracts us from the deep truths of scripture.

I rarely, for example, meet an Adventist who understands that the creation doctrine is the biblical basis for divine-human partnership in the keeping of God’s earth and the making of human culture. On the other hand, Adventists who have strong, or even implacable, feelings about when and how God created are commonplace. Debates ensue, but differences about, say, the age of the earth generate hardly a flicker of light. All to often, such debates generate heat, but say nothing about how to live. They say nothing, that is, about the substance of our call to be the Remnant.

Teaching matters, but arguments about teaching are vain unless they contribute to a truer obedience. The test, and the point, of teaching is always practical. Will we be a people who face down evil in Christ’s name? Will we repair hearts and re-build communities? Will we widen the circle of disciples and thus widen the reach of both divine and human love?

Those are questions of true substance for the Remnant.

Third, will Elder Wilson declare unmistakably that he intends to lead a prophetic movement?

An unhappy Adventist tendency, developed during the 1920’s to the 1950’s and widely evident today, comes close to equating prophecy with prediction. In the Bible prophecy is hope, and it does involve a perspective on the future. But it is also God’s judgment against greed, violence and I injustice. In addition, prophecy is also God’s announcement of change, of new things that may (as for the disciples themselves, Jesus said) be hard to bear.

Jesus declared that the Holy Spirit’s job (John 16) is to mediate these announcements, and some of them would occur after he was longer on earth. They would be true to the spirit of Jesus, but they would be surprising to us. (One of these changes, it turned out, was Christian conviction that the institution of slavery, which is nowhere condemned in Scripture, should be abolished.)

One test of our new leader will be whether he can resist the tendency toward the narrowing of the prophetic idea into “inside information,” and embrace instead the dynamism and forthright courage the pioneers—who changed their minds, who fought slavery, who resisted state violence, who embraced a woman as their singular prophetic voice.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gospel musicians from the American Deep South, have it right. They sing a song that says in part: “Jesus gonna be here, gonna be here soon. / I’m gonna leave this place better than the way I found it was. / Jesus gonna be here, gonna be here soon.”

Prophecy is not mere prediction. Prophecy is revolution—a message that upends ordinary human thinking, a vision that changes hearts and changes the world as well. Such a message is what we will be hoping for on Sabbath morning.

Then even those who are holding their breath will breathe easier.

Photo: Gerry Chudleigh/ANN

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