February 17, 2018

Not a Drill!

One Saturday morning last month, thousands of Hawaiians received on their cellphones an incoming missile alert that gripped the islands in a panic for which they were unprepared. In all capital letters it read: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

In the 38 minutes it took for the warning to be rescinded as an error, tunnel roadways were jammed with people seeking cover, tearful goodbyes were expressed by phone to loved ones in the mainland United States, and others made pathetic attempts to shelter at home. A state congressman said he and his family jammed into their bathtub and prayed.

A few days later, a similar alert was sent out in Japan, but retracted much sooner. The credibility of these false alarms was rooted firmly in the irresponsible and euphemistically termed “sabre rattling” that has been bandied back and forth over recent weeks between North Korea and the United States. Thousands of terrified Hawaiians thought, This is it!

Now the self-examination has begun over the issue of preparedness. For the public, there has been, of course, a generally overlooked plan in place for this kind of cataclysmic threat. However, few—very few—had given much serious thought or effort to preparation. Too often, if asked about what one would do in a missile attack, the response was some kind of fatalistic gallows humor, akin to “Kiss myself goodbye!”

From the limited perspective of a Seventh-day Adventist, the coming of a missile may have sounded some uncomfortable similarities to another coming. Interesting, for example, that this happened for our people of faith in the hour before regular Sabbath morning worship is usually scheduled to begin. Did the Sabbath School teacher maybe set aside the regular quarterly lesson on stewardship for some serious discussion of the meaning of the word “adventist”? Did the speaker for the morning sermon seize the moment to change the subject to the immanence of Jesus’ return and what may have been learned that very morning about being ready? It is surely possible that more than a few of those who had not attended church for some time showed up that morning, shaken and grateful.

Though the disclaimer was issued through all the official channels, as may be surely expected in this time of social media, there was also a tweet explosion of epic proportion.

Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, soon disclosed that the whole unfortunate debacle was the result of “a mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift, and an employee pushed the wrong button.” He announced further through mainstream media that there would be a thorough investigation into how such a thing could have happened and how it may be prevented in the future. The unnamed employee who mistakenly pushed the button has been reassigned. And, in the usual nature of social media, John Carroll, Governor Ige’s chief political rival, called him “Doomsday David” and demanded that he be called to account.

Too soon the fear and the furor of the whole incident has been pushed aside. But it left behind the haunting question: how to be ready for the realization of such an actual, dreadful event.

This is also a question for Adventists living in the expectation of the Second Coming. One significant difference, of course, is that the parousia, as theologians refer to it, is not expected as a disaster at all.

Or is it?

Accounts and interpretations of the biblical prophecies of the end-times are often terrifying in themselves. Visions of the impending end of humankind are a grimly fascinating genre in books, music, and film. “I’m out here in Babylon / Waiting for the day / Are you ready?”

Popular culture has sometimes parodied the oracles of the Second Coming in the depiction of white-robed, bearded men with the searing eyes of Elijah, wielding hand-scrawled signs: “The end is near!!!”—the more exclamation marks, as any third-grader knows, the greater the impact.

Yet, truly, the coming of Christ, as Scripture clearly and consistently describes it, is the ultimate event in hope—the only hope, the blessed hope—for humankind.

“Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord,” wrote the apostle Paul, “will be saved. How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:13, 14, NASB). He uses these forceful words in preface to an exhortation to proclaim the word to unbelievers. “How shall they hear without a preacher?” (verse 14, NASB).

May there not, however, also be a kind of slow erosion of belief, even among believers, that may lead to an attrition of readiness for Jesus’ coming?

This is where the planned Sabbath School lesson on stewardship may have been especially relevant on that particular frightful morning. Jesus told the memorable story of a man who, about to travel to a far country, left his affairs in the care—the stewardship—of three trusted servants (Matt. 25:14–28).

Much has been written about the quality of each of these three servants’ readiness as seen in the balance of their return on his individual investment in them. But this was more than a mere matter of “wealth management” or “annual percentage rate.” The proof of the servants’ fulfillment of that stewardship was truly reflected in their readiness for his return, their respective heart conditions. The servant who failed in his stewardship summed up his defense with the words, “‘I was afraid’” (verse 25, KJV). Fear was at the root of his unreadiness.

An even more relevant parable of Jesus may be that of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13). All 10 of them were part of the wedding party. All 10 were aware of the need for lamps in their impending time of festivity. “These lamps were the personal property of the virgins,” writes Herbert Lockyer, “so that each one was responsible for the due preparation of her own lamp. . . . The wise were wise because they knew what to expect and therefore made every preparation for future needs.”[*]

The aim of Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins was to show the importance of personal, internal preparedness. “Watch,” He said. This kind of preparation calls for a readiness of heart. When that is realized, there will be no alarm, no dread, no panic—and we can look forward with the words, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20, KJV).

Gary B. Swanson is editor of Perspective Digest, an online publication of the Adventist Theological Society.

[*] Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963, p. 240.