We may all agree that the first presidential sermon delivered by Elder Ted Wilson was very Adventist in content. In fact, it would be difficult to present traditional Adventism any better. Wilson commenced by proclaiming the soon advent of Jesus in over ten languages. This was followed by his request for people to proclaim ‘amen’ instead of applauding any points of agreement. Many cultures clearly welcomed and approved this request with a chorus of fervent ‘amens’ reverberating around the stadium.
Wilson went on to present a very pessimistic description of the state of the world, from which God calls out the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This movement is characterised by four distinctions; the Sabbath, the salvation story, the Spirit of Prophecy and Christ-like humility. Although such characteristics are widely accepted as truly Adventist, my generation expects more than a retrograde description of how Adventists were identified in the 1920’s. In other words, if our ‘Present Truth’ is to remain both ‘present’ and ‘true’, we must strive to discover new reasons to be part of this movement.
Wilson emphasized Ellen White’s ministry, which was very positive. Contrary to common belief, when her writings are balanced, today’s generation do not resist her counsel. Entire books such as ‘Ministry of Healing’ and ‘Christian Service’ have a clear mandate to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the homeless, visit the prisoners and comfort the afflicted. Both Ellen White and the Gospels describe the kind of life Christ lived - a rabbi who spent His ministry showing the world what true compassion is. Jesus called His disciples to be peculiar and different in how they should care for the world around them and this resonates deep within our present generation, Christian and secular alike.
Therefore, my frustration is not with what the newly elected president said or how far he went. His words were brilliant. I am frustrated because he didn’t go far enough! Let me be specific. He mentioned ‘Ellen White’ 7 times, ‘church’ 42 times, ‘people’ 36 times, ‘Bible’ 25 times and ‘forward’ 23 times.
However, not once did he use the word ‘poor’ or ‘sick’. Similarly, none of these words made it into the sermon: ‘healing’, ‘homeless’, ‘oppressed’, ‘prisoner’, ‘hunger’, ‘environment’, ‘nature’, ‘poverty’ or even ‘justice’.
I will go farther in this analysis and indicate that the love of God was only mentioned once, in the conclusion. It could be argued that these themes were implied when he talked about the character of God. However, since Jesus described the distinctive of His church as ‘love’, I wish more of this had been mentioned.
Wilson emphasised that we should be a peculiar people, different from the world. I am quite certain that our generation would fully agree with this. If we are to be the same as the world, why would God set us apart? However, his sermon presented these differences as doctrinal. In other words, we are different simply because we interpret the Bible differently, which is true, but I wish this point had been further pursued.
I would argue that the present generation would like this movement to be known: not only by what we eat, but by whom we feed. We would be proud if this movement was known: not only by how we dress, but by whom we clothe. Perhaps this generation would be more committed if we were known: not only for being different, but for making a difference in the world around us. Known: not only for proclaiming the Gospel, but delivering good news to the oppressed. We are desperate for new causes worth dying for but I am afraid this first sermon has simply reiterated the same old ones.
At this stage, I would clearly reiterate that all Elder Wilson said was important and true. This is our heritage and our history of which I am immensely proud. His mention of faith whilst captive in Egypt was very relevant to our present day varied struggles. The reminder of what God has done and what He is doing in us was incredibly powerful. Furthermore, few could speak as ably as Pr Wilson on the subject of God’s grace, the proclamation of which is the 59th Session’s theme. Such a message is essential if we are to go forward in this global movement because without doubt many of our brothers and sisters around the world are still trying to earn salvation by their own efforts. Praise God for Wilson’s call to proclaiming God’s grace.
One of the most controversial aspects of the sermon was the call to stop reading material from outside the Adventist church.
Wilson added that we should not depend on scholars to read the scriptures. The problem came as this was suggested seconds after promoting the “Biblical Research Institute’s new book on hermeneutics which helps us know the correct way to interpret the Scriptures.” He also called for us to ignore megachurches and even the emerging church movement as non-Biblical. Another major contentious issue was his condemnation of contemplative prayer and emotional worship services. Although these cannot nor should not be regulated, they are merely a superficial means to reach this generation. Contrary to common belief, this generation is not reached through attractive services but by challenging their understanding of the world. Ellen White would call it ‘Present Truth‘ but this has to be ‘present’ and it has to be ‘true’.
Wilson’s conclusion is the perfect example of what ‘Present Truth’ could look like, if we took it farther. Like most Adventist leaders in the world, Wilson’s understanding of the climax of this movement is in the second coming of Jesus Christ. In his own words, “Jesus is coming soon! Soon we will see in the eastern sky a small, dark cloud about half the size of a man’s fist. It will get larger and larger and brighter and brighter. All of heaven will pour out for this climax of earth’s history.” It is my belief that this over-emphasis on the second coming is the most significant hindrance to the expansion of the Gospel in a Western context. Before you label me a heretic, let me explain.
If the climax of our faith is in the second coming, our main hope lies in leaving this world to a better place called heaven. The immediate implication of this is that our main objective here on earth is to ‘tell’ people that there is a better place and if they get ready and accept God’s grace they can come there too. Once our main emphasis is only in the future our daily lives become irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter what we do during the week, as long as we come together once a week to talk about this hope. A typical Adventist under this faith model believes the Kingdom of God will come only when Jesus comes and so they hope and gather once a week to talk about this hope. Beyond this, if they get involved in feeding the poor or healing the sick, the main objective is to preach to them afterwards! This earth is almost irrelevant as heaven is our home. If you’re thinking - ‘you are describing my life’, please consider the alternative that follows.
A simple reading of the Bible and especially Ellen White will present a different climax to our faith. This is particularly true in the book The Great Controversy, mentioned by Wilson as the book that should be most distributed around the world. The climax presented by the book of Revelation is the moment when heaven will crash onto earth. The biblical climax is not in leaving this world, but in the new creation presented in Revelation 21 - the ‘new earth’. When we have this climax as our vision we start to behave in a very different way. First of all, heaven is not our home - earth is. God created it for us and after our temporary absence, we will live here for eternity - this is home! If that is the case, we immediately start to care for the environment and nature.
Once our emphasis becomes the new earth we may ask: ‘Will there be anyone homeless in the new earth?’ Surely the answer is ‘no’, which begs another question: ‘Why are we allowing it now?‘ If we understand that, as Christ stated, the Kingdom of God is already here, among us and within us, (Luke 10; 17:20-21), everything changes. Our calling today is to leave the beast of greed and capitalism and provide freedom to the oppressed. If our climax is the ‘new earth’ we will feed the hungry, help the homeless and visit the sick now and not only ‘proclaim’ the Gospel because this IS the Gospel. In other words, Adventism becomes a global movement of people that anticipate the new world and partner with God to start making it a reality in the midst of this old one. Evangelism becomes an invitation to the world around us to join us in feeding, healing, visiting, freeing, clothing and protecting our environment because this earth will be our home once God puts it back together.
I often feel that we have ‘sold out’ and copied other Christian churches in accepting Jesus as a ticket out of this world. Churches which exist amidst extreme poverty naturally find it more attractive to think of our eternal home as a better place somewhere else. However, if we stay true to scripture, the climax of our faith will be the new creation when God makes everything new (Revelation 21). It is time to go back to true Adventist eschatology and call this present generation, my generation, to give everything to a movement that is anticipating the world to come by making it real for people today. New reasons to die for. We understand that Jesus didn’t die for a doctrine or a system of belief. Jesus died for people and if this generation, both Christian and secular, is challenged to do the same, we will. I am certain that Elder Wilson, along with most Adventist leaders, would agree with this viewpoint in which case it is time to start preaching it.
On a positive note, we can expect great emphasis on media investment for the next few years. Wilson didn't seem to care where the Bible was read, as long as people were reading it. He even mentioned the iPhone and iPad as great devices for the Bible. We can even expand these devices to the hymn book. This shows great emphasis on the message itself, regardless of the medium. He also mentioned HOPE TV in a very positive light. There are still many developments that need to take place before Adventism can claim a global media evangelism strategy. We also have a long way to go in terms of effective communication. It takes years for global initiatives to ever be known by local church members. At an age of text messages and social media there is no excuse for this. I am certain that Wilson will empower the use of every technology for the proclamation of the gospel - praise be to God!
In summary, Pr Wilson showed that he is a true Adventist, in deed and action. He presented a very coherent and powerful presentation of our identity and calling. His call to ‘go forward’ is rooted in God’s grace which he presented as our best gift to the world. This sermon was the perfect description of how Adventism has developed. However, if we are to reach a post-modern, globalizing world with the eternal Gospel, we need to go farther. Adventism needs to rediscover ‘Present Truth’. We need to rediscover a cause worth dying for and it is my firm belief that this will manifest itself when we see that the Kingdom of God is here around us. Beyond this, when Adventism becomes a movement that anticipates the new earth breaking into old one, we will awake a generation of secular people to become citizens of the Kingdom of God.
***** Sam Neves is the pastor of Wimbledon International Church in London, England. He is also the director of EdgeTV, a supporting ministry that resources churches in the UK to stream their services live online. Photo: Gerry Chudleigh/ANN
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2497