February 15, 2006

The Pilgrim's Journey

Editor?s Note: Pastor Jan Paulsen, General Conference president, presented the following devotional on October 29, 2005, for the North American Division year-end meetings held at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland. Some elements of oral delivery have been retained.


I?m coming to a subject this morning to which I find myself drawn frequently. I?m drawn to it because it finds its resonance in something that is embedded very deep within me. It pulls me like a magnet. It has much to do with who I am, with what I am, and with what I have chosen to live for. It has to do with being an Adventist.

As a people we have always seen ourselves as pilgrims. And the journey is not over yet. As we make our way through time and history, we pass much that is unattractive, foul-smelling, threatening, and unsettling. We are disappointed by the irresponsibility of governments. We are disappointed by their threatening each other, and questioning each other?s right to exist. We are disappointed by the corrupt men and women in business and government who sell their integrity for greed. And we cry out, ?Is there no one who is not for sale? Is there no faith core of values deep within you that you would rather die for than sell??

No, we look at the landscape as we pass through, and we know that this is not the place in which we want to stay permanently. We are pilgrims, and a very different future is being prepared for us. For while nations make plans with wars and threats of war, God is making His own plans.

In the words of the psalmist, ?The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations? (Ps. 33:10, 11).

We wait in hope for the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in You. For God is the one who owns the future, and who decides finally how it shall look and who shall be part of it.

1505 page8But until that moment comes, we must attend to our personal readiness, and make sure that we are not corrupted by the environment through which we pass on this pilgrimage. And we must attend to the mission given us by our Lord, for that is our purpose as a church.

When I say we must attend to our personal readiness, I mean precisely what I find so clearly stated by the Lord?s servant when she writes, ?The solemn impressions made upon my mind as the truth was laid out in clear lines before me, I tried to bring before others, that each might feel the necessity of having a religious experience for himself? (Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 113, 114). Of having the knowledge of the Savior for himself. Of seeking repentance, faith, love, hope, and holiness. That contains the personal readiness that we must attend to.

We are also reminded of the words of the Lord in Matthew 24, from verse 6 onward, in which He said there will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation. And because of the increase of wickedness, the love of many will grow cold. But to My people I say that the gospel of this kingdom must be preached as a witness to the whole world. Seventh-day Adventists must go and tell the world! Tell them that the future will be better. And when you have done that, He says, I will come.

Our personal readiness and our mission--these two are what we must attend to while we complete our journeys as pilgrims.

Charting the Course
I invite you to let your thoughts dwell on the subject of being a pilgrim, on the last leg of the journey, for that is where we are. When our Lord prayed for us and said that while we are in the world we are not of the world, that is precisely what He had in mind. And heaven?s constant call down through the ages has been ?Come out of her, My people.? A call to consolidate our loyalty to Christ as our Lord.

A pilgrim is always conscious of his or her destination. It may be in the distance, but it is never out of focus. And an indescribable longing lies deep inside--too deep to be open or explained. Do you not sense it inside of yourself? The longing for when our Lord will come back? It is the longing that draws us into God?s future, into the destiny that God has for His people.

A pilgrim becomes very bold, and unashamed about saying ?I don?t belong here.? I?m on my way to the future that God has designed for me. If I had wanted to go back to where I came from, I could have done so. But I?m finished with what I have left behind. I have made my choice. I?m on my way to something better. And in harmony with the decisions that you and I have made as pilgrims, we have stepped out and have chosen our values and lifestyles accordingly.

Abraham is the prototype of a pilgrim. The strength of the word ?faith? as it describes the mentality of the pilgrim is so well illustrated by Abraham. By faith he obeyed the call. By faith he chose--he made a decision--to live as a stranger in a foreign land. He was just traveling. He was just passing through. By faith he was destined for a city whose architect and builder is God.

And I am struck by the words of ?faith? and ?obedience?: two words that often cause dispute. But they belong together. Faith has no way of expressing itself except by obedience. The very acceptance of salvation in Jesus Christ is an act of obedience to the Lord.

Faith does not pause to protect itself against all the unknowns of tomorrow. It was as clear to Abraham as it is to all of his spiritual children that he was on a journey, and that God?s destiny for him was much better than anything he could encounter along the way.

Road Markers
Arising out of this sense of pilgrimage come important truths that we need to identify and hold on to.

A pilgrim cannot live without hope. No one can live without hope for a better future. Whether you face a Hurricane Katrina or a tsunami, or a war, or a walking human bomb, or when possessions that one would otherwise rate as valuable are in minutes reduced to dust, the only thing that matters is the ability to find hope and a future. The trauma of being without hope is the trauma of emptiness. It is the trauma of fear that paralyzes your life. The fear of not knowing where you go from here, or whether in fact there is anywhere to go. Hope is the lens through which we look to the future.

A pilgrim remembers that hope must be nurtured.

A pilgrim never loses faith in the future. God has a good future ahead, and it is worth everything. The journey is never too long, and the attractions to give up are never valid. Shortcuts and compromises are unacceptable. They are distractions. As Enoch walked with God, so a pilgrim is ever conscious of the fact that God is at his or her side.

A pilgrim is never alone.

A pilgrim has no desire to go back to where they came from. Yes, I grant you there are days when the smells from the meat pots of Egypt will tickle your nostrils a bit. For a fleeting moment the memories may be sweet, but that?s all. Going back to where we have come from has no lasting attraction because there is no future in it. A pilgrim is destined for God?s future.

A pilgrim has already tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, and going back is folly. No, our course is set. Our intention is to keep going. And yet I suspect that many of us carry within us an open sore that does not want to heal. We carry within our hearts someone whom we love deeply, but who is no longer traveling with us. What happened?

Was Egypt really that appealing? Did the future become so unreal and somehow too distant? Or was I too busy with my own things for the Lord that I didn?t have time to talk to my friend about hope? About the future? And the prayer in my heart, and maybe in yours, too, cries out, ?Lord, forgive me for my failing. Please go back and look for my friend, look for my son, my daughter; look for my husband, my wife.?

A pilgrim is someone whom God claims as His. A pilgrim belongs to God now. It?s not a promise for the future. It?s a reality now! Tell our people. Let them be sure that they are already children of God, and destined for a secure future. It?s not an uncertain thing. We are God?s, and God has made a commitment to us.

That?s the truth for today. Abraham?s journey out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and Israel?s exodus from Egypt, were events in history that in the New Testament became symbols of the believer?s journey through life. The two--the exodus and the journey ahead--they belong together. Once you have taken the step, you are in a sense already a marked person. You have an identity. ?You are Mine,? says God.

1505 page8Maybe at times the walk is a bit wobbly. Maybe we are unsure of ourselves. Look, we are human, all the way. Until the moment of translation humanity will be with us. Maybe we are ashamed of some of the baggage we carry. Whatever it is, the fact is that you heard the call of the Lord, and you said, ?Yes.? And you stepped out and became a pilgrim. You belong to the Lord, and no one can take away from you the inheritance that He has promised you.

As pilgrims, let us encourage one another along the way. Some people carry a heavy load. They need some help. Let us seek ways in which to lighten the load and make the journey lighter.

Discouragement is the devil?s most effective instrument to destroy our pilgrimage. I?m reminded of the inspired counsel on how we should treat one another, our fellow travelers, on this journey. She writes, ?You will often meet with souls that are under the stress of temptation. You know not how severely Satan may be wrestling with them. Beware lest you discourage such souls and thus give the tempter an advantage. Whenever you hear or see something that needs to be corrected, seek the Lord for wisdom and grace that in trying to be faithful you may not be too severe. It is always humiliating to have one?s errors pointed out. Do not make the experience more bitter by needless censure. Unkind criticism brings discouragement, making life sunless and unhappy. My brethren, prevail by love rather than by severity. When one at fault becomes conscious of his error, be careful not to destroy his self-respect. Do not seek to bruise and wound, but rather to bind up and heal? (Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 265).

Rather than be instruments of discouragement, we owe it to each other to bring some hope into each other?s lives. And to bring a sense of being wanted, a sense of having values, a sense of feeling safe in the church.

We are in this together. We share a common journey, and our destination is the same.

Peter says that we are going to have to learn to live our lives as strangers. But this should not be understood as though he is suggesting a minimal quality of life. The life of a believer is different because he or she is different. But it?s a rich and happy life--full of energy, full of hope, and full of future. It is different because it belongs to the Lord.

Paul then admonishes us travelers to get dressed for the journey.

Ephesians 6 speaks of the dress that we are to put on. He begins with the belt of truth. Yes, I believe true doctrine. But I also believe in honesty and truth.

The breastplate of righteousness is the protection that comes from knowing that you are covered by Christ. What an enormous sense of strength and dignity comes from having this knowledge. Frankly, when you know that, you have nothing to prove.

As we scale the mountain bringing good news and proclaiming peace, the shield of faith deflects the fiery darts of the evil one. The word that Paul used for the shield is not the round little shield that would hardly hold against any dart. He used the word that describes the oval one that covers virtually the whole body, and without which we would be very vulnerable. But if the community with that sort of a shield would hold together, we are strong. Together we are strong. Alone we are exposed, and we are vulnerable. Words come to mind that are very familiar to Adventists: ?Press together, press together.?

God also says to put on the helmet of salvation, by which we are assured that we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us.

You will also need the sword of the spirit on this journey. This is the Word of God. Jesus went to battle with the words ?It is written.? That is still the most effective way to do it. Forgetting the Word of God will leave us with only our own faintly flawed wisdom to fall back on. And it will not do for the journey. Keep the sword sharp!

Will We Make It?
Can He who calls us on this journey see us through? Oh yes. The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.

Tell our people.

Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.