Search

The Best Sermon by a General Conference President - Annotated

Reuben Figuhr's 1957 Spring Council Sermon

I haven't ready every sermon by a General Conference president, but what makes Figuhr's 1957 sermon so great is how well he reads the trends of the world around him. There is no Adventist chest-beating and no cheap shots at soft, cultural targets. It's a thoughtful and well-considered critique, reflecting Figuhr's broad-mindedness.


The text is taken from Ministry's archive and I haven't bothered to check it against any other sources. All of the annotations are my own.


 

Let us read this morning these appropriate words of Acts 2, verses 1-4, Revised Standard Version, "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, dis­tributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."


Often we have thought and preached on these verses. Yet there is a great deal more that can be said about them. Notice es­pecially the second verse—"a sound came from heaven." Unmistakably it was a divine sound and signal. Now the disciples were ready to speak their message. They were Spirit-filled and spoke in a different way. Just how different we do not know. Doubt­less there were different intonations, differ­ent emphases, as well as a different ap­proach. It was a new way of self-expression. Peter's remarks no longer hurt John, nor did James wound Andrew with his thought­less, sharp words. They said the right things in the right way. How important that is! They spoke thus because they were Spirit directed.

Reuben Richard Figuhr (1954-1966)

The "sound came from heaven." That started things. It was a sound as of a mighty rushing wind. Everyone who was in the room was affected by it. Many of the sounds we hear, like the songs of birds, delight us. The sounds of nature often soothe us. But other sounds we hear are created by man. We have locomotives whistling and rattling as they rumble along. There are sounds of human voices, angry voices, arguing voices, discussing voices. If we could listen to some markets in the world—especially in the Orient where there is a good deal of haggling over prices—we would hear the seller demanding that the buyer pay more, and the buyer insisting on paying less. Then there are the world's alluring and enticing voices. But over it all there comes a sound from heaven that means so much to the children of God.

You will remember that when Jesus was baptized there was a sound from heaven, a voice saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Before His baptism He had not yet preached a sermon, nor had He healed any sick, as far as we know. The only indicating record we have of Him is that He was a carpenter's son, a carpenter pleasing God. On another oc­casion, He addressed the Father and asked that the Father glorify His name. A sound came saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." It was God's voice, but not all ears were attuned to understand it. Some said that it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken. It was a strange sound to them.

There are many other sounds to which the Bible refers. The Philistines were com­ing out against the Israelites. David mar­shaled Israel's armies against the enemy. The Lord said, "Thou shalt not go up; but fetch a compass behind them." This meant more time, the use of more energy, seem­ingly useless motion. A direct frontal attack would seem to have been much more simple and easier. But "fetch a compass," the Lord said, "march around them and attack from the rear when I so indicate."

Some cynical people ask, "When was the Lord leading you—yesterday, when you voted thus, or today when you reversed your action?" For the man of faith the answer is simple—"Both yesterday and to­day." The cynic simply does not understand the technique of fetching a compass.


To David, God said, When you hear the "sound of a going in the tops of the mul­berry trees," then bestir yourselves and go into battle. God guides in many ways, and in ways we cannot always explain. But He guides. In the midst of all earthly sounds there is a voice from heaven, the indication that comes from above. May it always make the impression intended. There is a danger —the danger that human devisings may take the place of God's plans, that human noises shall drown out the sound from heaven.


A traveler was once talking with a kulak in Russia. The farmer said, "In the old days we invited the priests [to them the servants of God] to bless the fields in the springtime that they might be fruitful. We do not need the priests any more. We have tractors now." That spirit is the most men­acing to religion to be found in Russia or anywhere else. The idea is that if one has penicillin he does not need prayer. If he has psychology he does not need salvation. If he has science he does not need God. Earthly sounds may take the place of the indications that should come from heaven. As people are overwhelmed with earthly sounds they become less and less certain of the direction God indicates.


How characteristic this is of humanity today. Referring to our ancestors, one writer says: "In the last five centuries, prob­ably twenty generations, 1,048,576 persons have contributed to your personality." He points out that all these have passed on something to you, some tendencies for good, but mostly for ill. We are enslaved to the weaknesses of our ancestors. Thus we need the direction of the Lord Jesus in our lives. To His voice and the divine indication from heaven we must listen more, for the sounds of the world would drown out the heavenly sound.


"Christ put the church in the world. Satan seeks to put the world in the church." The world gets into the church and the unguarded human heart.


It is becoming increasingly popular to be religious. According to many it is the thing to do. Only it must be geared to one's own way of living. I was impressed by something the other day in a restaurant. A little card on the table suggested that those who wish to pray might find an ap­propriate prayer on the card. There were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish prayers. Now in many ways this suggestion is good, especially for people who are not accustomed to saying grace at meals. And while we would encourage every effort leading peo­ple to prayer, we might wonder how truly effective this convenient method is. A plan of this kind may well suit people who be­lieve in religion as long as it does not materially inconvenience them. Genuine religion on the other hand can become a very inconvenient thing at times, at least from a human point of view.

W. R. Beach's summary of Figuhr's sermon

As leaders we have been called of God to lead a people into a deeper experience with the Lord. We must never fail of in­creasing our emphasis upon spiritual living. All of our problems must be looked at from that point of view.


What holds our denomination together? We cannot by force hold a single individual in the church. It is all voluntary. Our peo­ple are united because they believe in God's church and in the leadership, be it president or church pastor. We must retain this con­fidence by our example, by the life we live, the way we act, by what we say, and the way we say it. And remember what we say is always tempered by what we are. We must be one hundred per cent in our dedication to the cause of God. We must be earnest, but never extreme, neither fanatical nor overliberal.


It is a wonderful privilege to be a worker in God's cause. I am so grateful that in spite of all my wanderings and mistakes, God has watched over me patiently and led me along His way. And this morning, fellow workers, I would like to express to Him my deep gratitude. Perhaps others would like to express themselves in praise to our heavenly Father.



 

NOTES:


SPIRIT > DOCTRINE

Peter's remarks no longer hurt John, nor did James wound Andrew with his thought­less, sharp words. They said the right things in the right way. How important that is! They spoke thus because they were Spirit directed.

Figuhr does not speak of a doctrinal unity being exemplified in Acts 2 (though he doubtless believed in it), but a spiritual unity that manifests itself in harmony and kindness in the church. Figuhr's emphasis on spiritual unity in an increasingly complicated world is reminiscent of Ellen White's emphasis on a conversion experience following the 1888 General Conference.



NO MERE TRADITIONALISM

Some cynical people ask, "When was the Lord leading you—yesterday, when you voted thus, or today when you reversed your action?" . . . . God guides in many ways, and in ways we cannot always explain. But He guides.

It's unclear if Figuhr has a concrete event in mind here or whether he is speaking generally about how skeptics charge Christians with claiming divine leading in seemingly contradictory situations. Regardless, Figuhr is arguing against mere traditionalism, where a thing must be done simply because it has been done in the past. To use his metaphor, sometimes God orders frontal assaults on the enemy and sometimes God tells his people to sneak around behind. The important thing is that Christians have their compass (presumably the Holy Spirit) to know what their orders are for today. This is a progressive approach to God.



TECHNOLOGY IS NOT EITHER/OR

The farmer said, "In the old days we invited the priests [to them the servants of God] to bless the fields in the springtime that they might be fruitful. We do not need the priests any more. We have tractors now." That spirit is the most men­acing to religion to be found in Russia or anywhere else. The idea is that if one has penicillin he does not need prayer. If he has psychology he does not need salvation. If he has science he does not need God. Earthly sounds may take the place of the indications that should come from heaven. As people are overwhelmed with earthly sounds they become less and less certain of the direction God indicates.

When we study history, we often find that modern problems are not as modern as we thought. Though we see the 1950s as perhaps the most religious (Christian) decade in American history, Figuhr already senses the challenge of an increased reliance on technology poses to faith. He argues that it is harder to hear the signal of God's voice through all of this noise. In 2022, anyone whose plugged in to cable news or social media understands the metaphor of being in a noisy room. (Interestingly, Figuhr adds that some of those voices clamoring in this metaphorical room belong to our own ancestors, who speak through the genes and proclivities they passed down to us.)


Yet Figuhr rejects the "either/or" mentality of the Fundamentalists and some of the skeptics. Why can't you have penicillin and prayer? Or, why can't you have a computer and church?



WELCOME TO A SECULAR AGE

It is becoming increasingly popular to be religious. According to many it is the thing to do. Only it must be geared to one's own way of living. . . . Genuine religion on the other hand can become a very inconvenient thing at times, at least from a human point of view.

Hello, "spiritual but not religious"! Figuhr shares a story about finding three versions of a prayer (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) in a restaurant (Chuy's still does this in Nashville) and takes it as a sign of the growing religious marketplace. While Figuhr sees some value in this, he worries that it will only encourage the attitude that it doesn't matter what we religion you belong to as long as you pray. Figuhr responds to this by insisting upon a Christianity based on the cross - we should not expect Christianity to always be convenient.



WHAT BINDS US?

What holds our denomination together? We cannot by force hold a single individual in the church. It is all voluntary. Our peo­ple are united because they believe in God's church and in the leadership, be it president or church pastor. We must retain this con­fidence by our example, by the life we live, the way we act, by what we say, and the way we say it. And remember what we say is always tempered by what we are. We must be one hundred per cent in our dedication to the cause of God. We must be earnest, but never extreme, neither fanatical nor overliberal.

All churches are voluntary organizations. Perhaps the dawning secular age made it clear to Figuhr that guilt and institutional loyalty and "because it's the truth!" are not the strongest ways to retain church members. Church leaders cannot take church membership for granted. They must focus on living humble, dedicated, faithful lives. And, above all, not be too fanatical (too far on the right) or over liberal (too far to the left). (This word "overliberal" seems to allow for some room to the left.)


In the end, Figuhr places the burden of retaining members on the care of church leaders (his audience) and in the mercy of God for those leaders. This, he declares, "is a wonderful privilege."


IN CONCLUSION

While there were far better evangelistic and revivalistic preachers in Adventist history, Figuhr's 1957 Spring Council sermon remains a fantastic sermon from a man seeking to lead a diverse, global church. Figuhr shows a careful and considered awareness of the modern world and presciently points out the challenges he sees - challenges which remain. Yet Figuhr doesn't waste his rhetorical powder by firing into the winds of change. Rather, he focuses on what his audience needs to do to navigate these winds: walk humbly, seek unity in the Spirit, and be willing to be lead in new ways each and every day by that Spirit. This was a masterful sermon by a church leader and it could be preached today without losing any relevance.

58 views0 comments