Preparing or Preparedness?

At seventy-six, I am over the biblical three scores and ten. I was born into a minister’s home and all my life I have gravitated around the church in different capacities. From the kindergarten sand box, to childhood flannelgraph, to teenage Sabbath School class, and eventually into adulthood, I have always been exposed to the Seventh-day Adventist view of end-time events. Indeed, there was a time when the Sabbath School editing team of the General Conference followed a five-year cycle, which meant that every five years the same topics were revisited. Things are not so structured today but unfailingly, every so often, the topic of preparing for the Second Coming is the theme of the Sabbath School quarterly pamphlet, drawing attention to the fulfilment of the signs in Matthew 24 as the reason for spiritual revival. I confess as a minister of having used the topic in many revival sermons as well as in public evangelism

As I look back over the years, I remember the fervor and excitement that gripped the church in my country of Mauritius whenever the Review and Herald (Adventist Review today), the Youth Instructor, and other Adventist publications informed about events in some part of the world or other, that were interpreted as sure signs of the end.

On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik into space and the Adventist world began to preach about the threat of a third world war that would usher in the end. In 1960, John Kennedy became the first Catholic President of the United States and our thought leaders (unwitting mind shapers) saw in the event the fulfilment of Revelation 13. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in four different cases Sunday blue Laws. In each case, spiritual effervescence gripped Adventists the world over. Christ was coming very soon and we had precious little time to get ready. Sometimes, stories about individuals encountering angels in the guise of men, who solemnly informed that the end of the world was at hand, was added like a QED after solving a geometry problem.

It is undeniable that the church has repeatedly used the last day events theme to flog the membership into a frenzy of spiritual preparation. I dare say that each time, every Adventist believer mentally went over long lists of deficiencies and sins, identifying those that had to be confessed, forgiven, and overcome. The weekly prayer meetings were eagerly attended. The Sabbath School attendance and study check cards were faithfully ticked, as well as the personal weekly witnessing and service rendered card.* For a while.

Over time, the people’s fervor abated, and Laodicean lukewarmth set in again. Dare I say that today’s Adventist youth do not show much more than a mere passing interest, if at all, in the fulfilment of the signs. The “boy who cried wolf” story is repeated all over again.

Who does not remember the colorful charts that every seasoned evangelist unrolled, eloquently identifying the events that were supposed to occur in an orderly sequence? I cannot resist a jibe: for years, the church has used the signs of the end as some kind of performance-enhancing drug that would jolt a lukewarm church to wake up and begin to prepare. Maybe even to this day in some countries. (I believe that Pastor Randy Roberts of the Loma Linda University Church once used the expression “eschatological caffeine.”)

It is puzzling that nobody seems to realizes that inviting the church to prepare for the advent/judgment by doing a couple of spiritual exercises daily, or following a certain lifestyle, are a subtle way of giving in to the ever-present temptation of salvation by personal effort.

So, when the second quarter of 2018 proposed another series of lessons on the same theme, I guessed that at best, it would be like a musical variation on a well-known tune. And, so far, it has proved to be just that. Please forgive the cynicism.

On reading this article, some may wonder whether I believe in the predictions of Christ as recorded in Matthew 24. I certainly do, though not as signs that indicate the proximity of the end. However, before I share my understanding of the significance of the signs, may I say why I believe that signs are not meant to be used the way the church does: that is, to use them as leverage to get the believers to shape up, and toe the party line on those issues that are sometimes divisive. Two reasons come to mind.

The first one is a question of logic. It is impossible for anyone to provide signs as a clear timeline of predictions about the occurrence of an event when the exact time the event will occur is not known. In other words, the signs in Matthew 24 should not be interpreted as road travelers do for the signs that indicate the distance to a location. The road planners could place such signs along the way because they knew the exact distance between cities. Not so for the Second Advent because no one, including Jesus, knew the day or the time (Matthew 24:36), hence the impossibility of defining the proximity of the event. Jesus did say that he was coming soon. However, one may wonder how soon is soon when one considers that the words were uttered two thousand years ago. I believe that there is no link between the signs and the question “how soon?”

The second reason is Paul’s statement to the church in Thessalonica. In his first epistle to that church, Paul talks about the advent, and about how the believers should live while they wait. Answering a question about those that have died in the faith, Paul explains that they will be called back to life when Christ returns. But then, Paul adds this puzzling statement: “According to the Lord’s own words, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the lord…

In as much as no one knows the time of one’s death, it seems never the less obvious that Paul believed that he would possibly be alive when the Lord returned. Not only him but those to whom he addressed the letter. What is interesting is that Paul wrote the epistle to the Thessalonians around the year 52 CE. That was just about twenty years after the Ascension. One can readily admit that there were people still living (like the apostles) who had heard Jesus talk about the signs and had shared his teaching with Paul. Assuming that Paul knew about the sermon of Christ on the signs, he nevertheless felt that he might see Jesus coming within his own lifetime.

This means that either the signs were being fulfilled at a fast pace, which is intellectually and factually hard to accept, or Paul’s understanding thereof was different than ours. In any case, whether Paul’s statement was meant to be understood literally or not, one can surmise that the immediate audience would have understood that they might be alive when Jesus returned. The basic biblical rule of interpretation specifies that one must try to find out what the early readers understood a statement to mean. They most probably believed the Second Coming to be imminent.

In the second epistle to that church, Paul rectifies the initial misunderstanding. He writes that an entity that he calls the man of lawlessness is to appear on the stage of history prior to the Second Coming. At the time of the writing, the appearing of that individual was being prevented by the presence of another power, which later scholars interpreted to be Rome. In any case, it seems acceptable that the early Christians looked to the Second Coming as happening in their lifetime or soon after.

Today’s theologians circumvent the problem by suggesting that Paul was not referring to himself and the immediate audience, but to the believers who would be living when Jesus returned, whenever that event took place. He was simply talking about the Christian family over the centuries, all waiting for the Second Coming. That conjecture may be correct but no one knows for sure. Eventually, one generation — the last — will witness the event.

Focusing on predictions that indicate the proximity of an event with the intent of preparing for it does not produce the expected result. Many theologians suggest that there are 353 Old Testament predictions concerning the coming and the mission of the Messiah dating from all the way back to Eden, to the last ones given to Zachariah and Mary. Nevertheless, the first advent caught the nation unawares except for a few. Jesus very often reminded of these predictions when he made statements like “Scripture testifies of me.”

What if the message of Matthew 24 was not about preparing for the Second Coming but about being in a constant state of preparedness because he would one day come in a manner not unlike that of a thief in the darkness of the night? The dictionary defines preparedness as a state of constant readiness to face a defining situation: for instance a natural disaster, a war, etc.

Viewed in that light, watching for the signs make sense. They do not tell the reader when, but what, to expect while they wait. It seems that the point that Jesus was making was that the believers should expect difficulties while they wait. A good illustration would be the signs along the highway, which indicate the difficulties that will be encountered. Signs like “slippery road,” “steep incline/decline,” “icy conditions,” “winding section,” “narrow bridge,” “watch for cross winds,” etc.

Readiness requires constant wakefulness. And alertness. It is about not being caught off-guard. The careful driver is ever-alert, especially when driving on an unknown road. Even so for the true disciples who look forward to the coming of their Lord and Friend, but the hardships need not deter the purpose nor make them faint-hearted.

Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; and trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3 NIV).

In the second part of the discourse (24:36—25:46), Jesus speaks about preparedness, not about preparing. He does so by telling four stories or parables. (I changed the sequence).

1. The Master entrusts his servants with responsibilities until he returns. The first story is about two possible attitudes that a waiting servant can have. Either fulfill his mission with faithful assiduity, for which he will be rewarded, or adopt a laid back and reckless attitude justified by the Master delaying his return. Preparedness is about not focusing on time but on the mission.

2. The Master equips the servants to do their work. The second story is about the Master endowing his servants with natural talents and aptitudes, learned skills, and spiritual gifts. Their number and significance are irrelevant so long as they are all used to accomplish the mission that the Master has entrusted them with.

3. The third story describes the kind of work that the Master wants his servant to do. Serving the needy no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter what their need is (physical, emotional, spiritual). The key is to constantly remind oneself that the Master identifies himself with them. Servanthood is the true attitude of the disciples. Not servitude.

4. The fourth story (second in Matthew) is perplexing. It does suggest that the delay can cause weariness to set in. It seems that the Master is not so much concerned by the fact that a time may come when the long wait causes heavy spiritual eyelids to droop and sleepiness takes over. What matters is that the true disciples’ preparedness keeps them ready to get up and go the moment the herald announces that the Master has arrived. Their preparedness was evident from their conversion and stayed alive and vibrant all along.

To conclude, may I suggest that interpreting Matthew 24 as above prevents the surge of unhealthy spirituality, quickly followed by deadly indifference, until remedied by the next shot of stimulant. Furthermore, it defines the state of preparedness as active involvement in the Master’s business without allowing oneself neither to be distracted by the delay, nor by working at preparing in the sense of getting ready. It is all and only about delightful service, even when the going is rough and the soul gets weary.

Notes & References:

*A word of explanation for those readers too young to know. Every Sabbath, the Sabbath School teachers asked each class member the number of days that they had studied the lesson during the week. They also totaled the number of outreach activities such as pamphlets distributed, services rendered, Bible studies given, visits to the sick, etc.

Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.

Photo by Lachlan Donald on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8813
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I found your point of view very refreshing. There is an openness in your approach, which comes across as very inclusive, (not exclusive). One of the other points that dovetails your points about having the “preparedness” mindset, very much connects with “servanthood”, … if your focus is on looking for ways to acknowledge God in everything you do, say, think and put your interest in … your preparedness… has more to do with your thankful attitude… which in spiritual terms… is the antithetical pendulum of “complancency”,… doctrine, knowledge, and correct understanding of a given creed, doctrine (or the LGT thinking of perfection) really doesn’t “connect” … on a relational scale… bringing into specific relief the opportunity of servanthood, servants (with a proper attitude/motivation)… arent “trying to be perfect”… they are attempting to add value to whom they wish to serve (and worship).

with kind regards,

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What is this ‘preparation for the Lord to come’ that ADventists like to talk about? This harks to works that one DOES to make one "ready for the Lord to come. i.e. salvation by works - deeds that will make one “worthy” of salvation. That kind of thinking makes it clear the ADventists do not understand neither do they preach the GOSPEL that they love to talk about. The true Gospel is too simple for ADventists.they need to add heaps of things to the finished work of Christ. Chief among them the Sabbath. No keeping of Sabbath no salvation! Never mind the denials that one must keep the Sabbath to be saved. Of course, that means that one must to keep the Law to be saved - and by the Law they mean the 10 commandments not the LAW.

I could go on. Suffice to say that the ONLY preparation the ADventist needs is for him to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. To maintain a personal relationship with Him. To live in the Spirit. To make Christ plus nothing the center of his life. That’s it… That’s the preparation needed.

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2 Peter 3:3-7 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:
But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

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Preparedness is basic but it’s the how that many of have struggled with. Maybe we need to analyse this passage from Ephesians 4. We have here the source of a new self that makes us ready to meet our maker at any moment following this new birth experience.

20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

If our new self is now in the likeness of God (and Paul says it is) and our new self has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth, (and Paul says it has) what we have is a new creation and again the familiar words are true. It is finished.

God has never created a new spirit of the mind in righteousness and holiness of the truth that is defective. His finished work is a perfect work in the spirit/heart of the born again believer. A born again believer in Jesus Christ is as ready for heaven as he will ever because God has been at work in us. Yes we grow but that does nor change the fact that we already have a new heart.

It’s in the flesh that we struggle with sin because that’s where sin lurks as a virus and too often we give in to it.

Our new self, our inner spiritual self responds to the ever present Holy Spirit to teach us how to live. We still have our old habits, emotions and coping mechanisms of the flesh. We are slow learners and too often we sin. But such sin never satisfies us for long and it wars against our new spiritual nature, our new heart. The Holy Spirit empowers our new self. He patiently works through our new hearts to teach us how to live in the flesh. This is grace at work and we never stop growing up into Christ.

Our lives are hid in Christ and nothing or nobody can snatch us out of His hands.

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Human nature has a short attention span. Life concerns tend to crowd out spiritual issues and intellectual pursuits - like a friend once commented, “You can’t stand on tippy-toes for long periods of time.”

We tend to romanticize the “call” to the ministry in the Adventist culture, as some mysterious spiritual force that makes it impossible to ignore. Having known a few pastors in my life time, the decision to to become a pastor is more often than not, a practical career choice for certain personality types. That’s not to say, there are pastors who take the job more personally than some.

The church, too, has some non-spiritual operational issues that are at there bottom of its “modus operandi” in order to keep the spiritual fervour going, - especially in a denomination that has to live up to its name on the billboard. The ebb and flow of life must not be allowed to take over when, according to our scenarios, we live on the precipice of the end of time itself. I’m not sure it’s healthy to live in constant expectation that the world is going to end at any moment - even when we least expect it. To keep this state of mind going; and to keep its members ever engaged, the church has built in a pre-scheduled cycle of events to keep its membership on its toes. There is probably nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it comes across as simply an advertising gimmick, having little to do with anything religious or spiritual. Like advertisers that have to come up with ideas to keep their products front and centre as people watch TV, travel on our roads, and subways, participating in some very mundane aspects of life, the church has to weekly “rally the troops”. There is no better motivation to “be faithful” than the thought that the world might end tomorrow, or even, later today. Children living under those kind of “threats” can’t grow up totally unaffected. That should be a big concern. I can see its affects in adults who have been fed this kind of stress since they were toddlers in the 'mother’s room".

Or, maybe it’s OK to be constantly reminded of our mortality, since realistically, that is when the end of our world happens. I have never understood the urgency to look for the “signs of the end” since we all come to that point naturally. We are all part of “the last generation”. The fantasy that the “last generation” (of Adventists, especially) has to be in some heightened state of perfection doesn’t do much for the spreading of the Gospel.

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I agree…SDA’s often operate under the premise that Sabbath keeping is the talisman which will give them entrance to heaven. When in reality, our recognition of the corollary facts that God is powerful enough to have created us and He is powerful enough to save us…and the Sabbath ‘reminds’ us of those facts. To operate from the motivation that Sabbath keeping is required by law makes as much sense as to say we stop at red lights only because it’s the law.

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Another reality is that Christians have believed that God was powerful enough to create them, and powerful enough to save them, without a whisper of Sabbath/Saturday in their lives.

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God is powerful enough to save us. And, the evidence is that Jesus died and then rose from the dead. What reminds us of these facts is what he said about the communion table and supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We testify of his death and resurrection, remind ourselves of it, and in faith can taste his power to not only recreate us individually, but to join us in the unity of his new creation, whenever we partake of the one loaf together.

We only do this four times a year or less in most Adventist churches.

Thanks…

Frank

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Frank. What are your Adventist convictions beyond what you have demonstrated to be a Christian? You have great NT clarity IMO. If you care to share I would appreciate.

Paul…

The Adventist emphasis on religious liberty is something that resonates with me. I also appreciate the rhythm of work and rest with a weekly Sabbath, but don’t buy anymore that it is a requirement for Christian fellowship and belonging. Let every person be convinced in their own mind… which harmonizes with Christian freedom. I also think that teaching about a holistic approach to health and well being is good, that God desires for us to flourish in every way, but minus the clean/ unclean distinctions used as a badge for belonging.

Regarding the more esoteric distinctives, I think there are real problems. That includes the problems not only with the usage of and status accorded to the writings of EGW, but also the writings themselves, the tone, content, and means of production.

I have my hands full with the task of trying to responsibly read, interpret, and apply the biblical text to my life, and to share that when called upon, let alone worry about another 100,000 pages, some of which is good, and some of which I think is crazy.

That’s about it in a nutshell. Where do you stand in relation to all this, if you don’t mind sharing?

Thanks…

Frank

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Frank, @frank_merendino, I appreciate your direct summary and honesty, for my case, and this might be just specific to me,… during my 40+ (while an Adventist until a few years ago) years… it was always impressed upon me that their was “intrinsic value” in the SDA truth, and I think that is psychologically tied to the “separatist” … remnant concept which permeates and dovetails the “rally the troops” thread above.

This “intrinsic value”… or reading over the multiple and varied presentations of EGW (in all the pamplets, COAS, and other compiled publications) gave one (myself specifically) … a “heightened” sense of “knowledge/spirituality”…

The main trouble I ran into is the labyrinth of the ever increase “box of perfection”… by the time you think you have “arrived” at truth there is yet another “assimilation” … in LGT terms… “more strict obedience” yet for you to “acknowledge and conquer”. And this, while instructive, does NOT lend itself to providing assurance of salvation. It all comes back to modeling, and the creedal model, if people are mainly focused on “getting right with the Lord” because He is coming soon, and they look forward to His appearing…

Well that brings me to the motivation point, I always ended up feeling “obligatory” in my regard to obedience… it ended up being… “i am doing this because I don’t want to go to hell, and fear is a pretty strong motivator when you are a teen” — and the SDA culture lends itself to acceptance of others based on their “state” as SDA and not based on their singularity in “search of truth” …

I guess it all comes down to boundaries… how can I convey to someone else that I love God and show genuine interest in them as a person,… Jesus did that and drew people to Him… while i was an SDA…most of the time I was encouraged to and modeled to “convince others of the truth”…

I cringe to think of the times where my focus was on “convincing others” vs really trying to listen and understand what they are saying and looking for ways to build a solid, unique and bridge points to engage and make new friends…

Which brings me to the final point… you can’t give someone something you DONT “already possess”… if Jesus is truly in your heart, your renewed heart, with God’s urging, provides us a restful peace, and assurance and others see … that and want to know and are drawn…

I do not really wanna be at rung 99 (non meat eater, non-pork eater, dont eat sugar, completely obey all 10c’s, read the bible every day, dont eat cheese… meet all temperance requirements, kind or person)… tbh it “turns people off”… I am totally ok with being at rung 55 and on my journey… if you get satisfaction with being ready for translation at rung 99 have at it… I dont… and i’ve seen some VERY offensive things IVE SAID and watched others say… just because “EGW – wrote it and it’s used as a club on others”…

People dont care how much you know … until they know how much you care…

I think with a renewed heart, as I continue to “grow in the Lord” (from where I am at)… I will get to know more and more… how much God cares for me, I will be thankful and will want to honor him with true obedience…

Hope this makes sense…

with kind regards,

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Love this turn of phrase, i laughed so hard I snorted ginger ale all over my laptop.
Undoubtedly it is like holiness, carbonated.

Back to the OT…I, like you, climbed the perpetual Addventist ladder, rung by rung.
My understanding of this changed, however, when I realized when my employees loved what they did, they did not keep looking at the clock every second moment, wondering if it was quitting time yet.

How do we instill zealous love within our faith community?
I posit it will not occur while we keep trying to conjure up 5 o’clock.

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Today is World Refugee Sabbath, and I just read the article about that here on Spectrum; the author kindly reminds us at the end just what Jesus will be looking at on that Great Day. Matthew 25:34-36 says it very succinctly, and Jesus elsewhere often mentions specific barriers to participating in the kingdom of heaven: the love of money as the root of all evil, the love of stuff, selfishness, materialism (everyone’s false gods) - not mentioning sabbath-keeping at all. Revelation 14’s seven angels discuss Babylon, and the characteristics of Babylon are listed thoroughly in Revelation 18 - no mention of days of the week there either. To me, the Babylon which is ‘fallen’ is the system of materialism/greed/power which invades all cultures, all peoples, and all times. This is the alternate false god which it is good for everyone to Come Out Of, and then to practice continual preparedness each day, remembering Matthew 25.

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The bible never really made sense to me in my 3rd gen Adventist upbringing and schooling. Only after the Ellen-induced eisegesis was unscrambled and contexual exegesis used did I realize why my parents could never answer bible questions without referring to their church leaders who were not clear either. To this day, decades later, i still at times have to unravel the engrained “I was shown” from the actual scriptures.
Foundationally the Adventist church was built on sand with the concocted IJ coverup which refutes the atonement at the cross and disallows any form of assurance in faith alone salvation. That and the incongruance of a day of rest as a seal for the “remnant” but a “mark” against those that “worship” on another day. None of it makes any sense from the bible alone. There is a reason why they do not teach or preach verse by verse as Paul alone would be a quagmire to get through.
Imagine going to church each week and the pastor praying for another pastor and their church in the area as one body of Christ. imagine a monthly update on the persecuted church worldwide every month. That does not happen in SDA churches nor will it. It happens in mine. I take great offense to the head of SDA missions admitting that they use 91% of their resources targeting those “already Christian”. I grew up in an Adventist community that now has a financial center named after the largest independent abortionist in CA on its college campus. But all I hear from my life-long SDA parents is how the Jesuits are infiltrating. I wont go into here how their replacement theology completely garbles Romans 9-11.
But the people are wonderful…

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I hear you, Paul. Adventism and its message work against true Christian unity. It demonizes other denominational bodies rather than looking to engage and work together with them. Ecuenism is treated as a dirty word, because of its view of law and one single commandant, to which it has attached an entire, extra biblical, eschatological scenario.

Paul’s major letters, such as Galatians speak poignantly to such issues, concerning community, unity and the basis of true belonging to Christ and the people of God. The recent Sabbath school quarterlies on these books were absolute disasters, slaughtering what the messages of those letters are truly about. But, if they were to really go there in an unvarnished way, Adventism’s entire reason for being on its present basis would be challenged to its core.

Meanwhile, lives, especially those of many conscientious thinking people, continue to be damaged. I stay because I want to be a voice for change in my little corner.

But I’m not blind to the realities, either.

Thanks…

Frank

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Here is another viewpoint on that…
http://biblestudiesforadventists.com/2018/quarter2/index.html

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Always on point, Frank. Always on point.

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In my observations I have concluded that fellow, maybe impressionable, SDAS whipped up the soon return of Christ when there is a catastrophic event or events rather than the SDA church. In recent years I do not believe that the church per se gave an undue emphasis to current events.

It is reasonable, however, to point to the increasing wickedness and instability of our own country.