During the past 20 years the level of Lake Powell, a human-made reservoir straddling the Utah-Arizona border, has been steadily, and ominously, shrinking. Overuse of the water supply and a dramatic lack of rainfall mean that an area of land seven times bigger than Manhattan that was once underwater is now dry ground. Consequently, remarkable geographical features that have been hidden from view have in recent times reappeared. When the Glen Canyon Dam opened in 1966, arches and canyons were inundated. But now they are back in view, as a serious drought enables us to see what is hidden beneath the surface.
The same could be said for 2022. It might be that the past 12 months have enabled us to see some of what had been hidden beneath the surface. If we allow it to be so, this might be the greatest gift granted us by the year we now bid farewell.
In many ways 2022 was a year like most others. Planet Earth said goodbye to numerous notables, such as Queen Elizabeth II and former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The sports world lost basketballer Bill Russell and commentator Vin Scully, while entertainers Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Olivia Newton-John, Meat Loaf, and Sidney Poitier went to their rest.
We learned in 2022 that in economic terms, there really is a “down” as well as an “up.” We discovered, after years of a robust economy, that the economy is, in reality, a fragile creature. Mimicking the call and response of a preacher and a congregation, the economy called, bad news responded.
As inflation soared, shoppers experienced pressure in their pocketbooks, and investors watched investments shrink. The net worth of Elon Musk (of Tesla and Twitter fame) is said to have dropped by a staggering $100 billion. Belt-tightening was a familiar theme of the past 12 months.
The year 2022 was, like most years, a year of tragedy. In late September more than 100 people lost their lives in Florida during the devastation caused by the deadliest hurricane to impact the Sunshine State in more than 85 years. Hurricane Ian claimed even more lives further up the Atlantic coast. In August 43 died in cataclysmic flooding in eastern Kentucky. Three months earlier 21 lives were brought to a senseless, premature end in a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, just 10 days after 10 were shot dead at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
And, of course, the question will be asked, “How close are we to the return of Jesus?” It isn’t an insignificant question. Jesus Himself, speaking of His return, told us that “when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors!” (Mark 13:29).
The answer to the question is obvious. We’re close. Closer than we have ever been. But rather than attempt to know the unknowable—the same Jesus assured us that no one knows the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36)—it would be wise to focus on the known.
If you were traveling on Interstate 75 from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia, you would notice a sign just outside Chattanooga that says something like “Atlanta, 75 miles.” Sometime later another sign will say, “Atlanta, 52 miles,” and so on. At each point you know precisely how far you are from Atlanta. But on the road to Atlanta there’s another sign, which says, “I-75 South.” This sign doesn’t tell you how far you are to your destination. Instead, it tells you what road you’re on. You’re on I-75. Specifically, I-75 South. As long as you know you’re on I-75 South, you know you’re on the road to Atlanta, and with every mile that passes, you’re a mile closer to your destination. The sign that says “I-75 South” informs you you’re heading in the right direction.
In March an Academy Award-winning actor physically assaulted an awards show host on live television, while yelling obscenities heard around the world. In 2021 the executive director for the National Institute for Civil Discourse stated the United States was at a turning point for public discourse.1 A year later, based on what is witnessed in society, we have to conclude that society has rounded a bend. We can’t know what that means in terms of the precise timing of Jesus’ return, but it does suggest we’re on I-75 South, as it were. A monkeypox outbreak sickened people in 75 countries. Crowd crushes killed approximately 150 people in South Korea and 125 in Indonesia. I-75 South. A heat wave in Europe, deadly flooding in Pakistan, Australia, and South Africa, and hurricanes in the Caribbean. There were a total of 29 billion-dollar weather disasters in the first nine months of the year alone.2 Do they tell us how near we are to the return of Jesus? No, they don’t. But what they do tell us is that we’re on the right road. The second coming of Jesus is just up ahead.
But from a personal perspective, it’s probably more important to consider what 2022 has told us about what lurks beneath the surface.
In September of this year President Joe Biden announced that the COVID pandemic was “over.” After more than two years the great majority of COVID-related restrictions were rolled back in the United States and around the world. Planet Earth reopened for business, people were able to freely visit family members after being long unable to do so, and again tourists traveled the world. As the fog of COVID began to lift, the death toll slowed dramatically, and many businesses began the arduous journey back from the economic doldrums. While debate will long linger regarding Doctor Fauci and politicians and community health boards, the church can now assess how the church handled COVID.
While some congregations were models of Christian cooperation, others, in the words of many pastors I have spoken to, “will never recover.” COVID allowed us to see beneath the surface of our Christian experience. As Ellen White wrote in Christ’s Object Lessons: “It is in a crisis that character is revealed.”3 If anger, debate, and disagreement characterized attitudes and behavior during COVID and the COVID thaw, we saw stark evidence of our great spiritual need. History has taught us there will always be issues. How one reacts to an issue is where the rubber meets the road for the believer in Jesus. Christians whose experience was exposed as wanting during the COVID emergency were given the opportunity to consider their words and actions, and to inquire how they might stand during earth’s last great crisis. As Jeremiah wrote: “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses?” (Jer. 12:5).
LGBTQ+ issues were prominent in 2022. While people learn how to deal with issues that have not long—or not ever—been central to the church’s experience, it is to be remembered that LGBTQ+ poses no risk to the church. The church has weathered talking movies, television, rock ’n’ roll, prohibition, free love, hip-hop, and TikTok, and will certainly survive evolving moral and lifestyle sensibilities. What will affect the church is how the church relates to changing perspectives. Irrespective of the reasons an individual may identify as “they” or “them” or “bisexual” or “transgender” or “nonbinary,” what 2022 has reinforced is that Christians are going to have to learn how to carry themselves in the spirit of Christ. The church is being forced to learn how to demonstrate to people—especially young people—that they are loved, even when their beliefs and actions do not meet with universal approval. One ministry leader told me abortion is increasingly common among college students who fear pregnancy would bring ostracism and condemnation. Even those who don’t follow God’s Plan A—perhaps, especially those who don’t follow God’s Plan A—must feel love and acceptance from those who claim to closely follow Jesus.
Speaking to people who “thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear,” Jesus told them they should “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:11, 13, KJV). In the parable, Jesus’ emphasis is not on the timing of His return, but on what His people are doing as His return draws near. As the sixty-first General Conference Session convened in St. Louis, Missouri, this year—two years late, courtesy of COVID— church membership had grown to around 22 million, double what it was as recently as the turn of the millennium. Five months later the population of the world surpassed 8 billion.4 As natural disasters proliferate and tragedies unfold and political controversies swirl like campfire smoke and the love of many waxes cold (Matt. 24:12), Jesus’ voice is still heard saying, “Occupy till I come.”
In September 1894, residents of Hinckley, Minnesota—about halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth—were aware that forest fires were heading in their direction. The summer had been especially hot, and tens of millions of board feet of tinder-dry lumber was stacked at the local lumber mill (located in suitably named Pine County). Responsible citizens that they were, the people of Hinckley prepared for the possibility of fire by filling barrels with water. The lumber mill secured the use of a garden hose and filled barrels with approximately 1,200 gallons of H2O—the equivalent of 25 bathtubs—as their defense against what turned out to be a ferocious firestorm. The people of Hinckley were, understandably, completely overwhelmed. Officially, 418 people died in the awful tragedy, although many claim the number was much closer to 500. Today a monument on Fire Monument Road in Hinckley testifies to the grim reality that while the people of Hinckley prepared, they were woefully underprepared.
The events of 2022 tell us that we are heading steadily toward the glorious day when Jesus returns. Our parents’ generation, and our parents’ parents’ generation, believed the same thing, and yet here we are. But we remember that “the final movements will be rapid ones.”5 Recent history has proved to us that things can happen quickly.
Throughout His ministry Jesus urged us to be adequately prepared for His return. The parable of the 10 virgins demonstrates that while five of the young women were wise and five were foolish, all 10 were asleep. The night before His crucifixion—in His most trying hour—Jesus implored His three closest friends to “watch with Me” (Matt. 26:38). “Watch and pray,” He urged, “lest you enter into temptation” (verse 41). Three times He appealed to them, and three times they slumbered. There was no watching and no praying.
The church of the end-times must not find itself unprepared, while, Bible in hand, it knows the name of Jesus and agrees with the 28 fundamental beliefs. In the book of Revelation, God’s people declare, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (Rev. 3:17, KJV), while entirely ignorant of their true spiritual condition, and completely unprepared to meet Jesus at His return.
That we might be truly prepared for the great events lying just before us, Jesus offers His people gold tried in the fire, white clothing, and eyesalve, the graces of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. He speaks to Laodicea and says, “Be zealous therefore, and repent” (verse 19, KJV). In other words, Be surrendered, and truly converted.
In 2022 the sound of God’s voice, urging His people to prepare for eternity, grew even louder. We know not what 2023 will bring. But we do know Jesus is soon to return. How soon? Soon enough. Eternity beckons. God graciously invites us to allow Jesus the primary place in our lives.
1 Tony Perkins, “Political Strife, Pandemic Causing Public Discourse to Plunge Even Lower,” National Institute for Civil Discourse, https://nicd. arizona.edu/blog/2021/02/04/political-strife-pandemic/.
2 Jeff Masters, “World Rocked by 29 Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in 2022,” Yale Climate Connections, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2022/10/world-rocked-by-29-billion-dollar-weatherdisasters-in-2022/
3 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 412.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, p. 11.