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The Verge of Extinction
Clarence Sexton, 50, is everything a Baptist preacher should be: charismatic, commanding, tall, accessible, patient, and righteous. And when he talks about the rapture, and the Apocalypse, and the anti-Christ, and the last days, it is with equanimity, reason, and a firm grounding in the Scripture. A Blount County native, he's even got a life history that backs his pulpit personason of a professional gambler, he transformed his life at age 14 when he was born again, leading himself and his family to the Lord.
He is the pastor of Temple Baptist Church, as such presiding over a congregation of 5,000 members, a K-12 Christian day school, a Christian college (Crown College) with an enrollment of 588, and facilities that encompass 170 acres of land in the rural area that lies between Powell and Halls. For the past year, he's been actively preparing his flock for the difficult times aheadfor the Y2K crisis (which he views as the evangelism opportunity of a lifetime) and the tribulation period the Bible forecasts will lie beyond.
As he relaxes into an armchair in his study, he lays out the situation: "Our worldview has to do with what we find in the Biblewe believe the Bible is God's word, and we take it literally," he explains by way of preface. "And the Bible teaches that there is a climax to human history, and that is with the second coming of Jesus Christ. Some people associate that with the millennium. I do not, because Christ himself said that no man knows the day and the hour that he will returnI feel that if we pin a date on it, we're going against what the Lord has said.
"You're looking for someone to say that this is the end of the world," he says to the journalist perched rapt in a neighboring armchair. "I don't even think that the dating is an exact thing, I can't even say 2000 is 2000. I'm not into that."
Still, Pastor Sexton acknowledges signs that seem to be pointing to the imminence of the "last days," the time of trials and tribulations that will foreshadow the return of the Biblical Christ. "We're not fatalists," he explains, "but we believe in prophesy and prophesy being fulfilled. We believe that there will be a period of time called the millennial reign of Christ during which the Lord Jesus will actually reign himself on the throne of his father David [an expression the Bible uses] and from Jerusalem will rule the world for 1,000 years."
"Prior to that, anti-Christwhich is a person who is a substitute for Christwill attempt to make a one-world rule during the seven year period of the tribulation. What we think is happening with all the political things taking placeeven the idea of the millennium and all of these thingsis developing a mindset for this one-worldness. The Lord has told us that national barriers will break down, and we'll move to an international economy and an international government, and that's the thing we're looking for. And we're seeing those signs, without a doubt."
The signs, Sexton explains, are both tangible and intangible. The advent of the Eurothe new monetary unit of the European unionmight be construed, for instance, as a tangible sign of impending one-worldness. But equally as ominous, he says, is the mindset of the people, a mindset which is, again, spelled out in the Bible. "This is a theological thing, but in second Timothy chapter three, the Bible actually says that certain things will characterize the last days. And it uses that expression: 'In the last days, perilous times will come,'" he continues, then begins to rattle off the list: "'Men shall be lovers of them own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce...'"
He pauses on this one to illuminate. "The word fierce, for example, means ravagely violent, and this is an age of violence," he says. "And God says one of the things that will characterize the last days is that violence will become commonplace, and violence has become commonplace. The Bible says perilous times will come and I say perilous times are here. And the sobering thing is that they're here to stay. Our world is not going to get better, it's going to get worse."
Anyone who's passed the most cursory eye over daily headlines in recent months has no doubt drawn a similar conclusion. But like the powerful evangelist that he is, Sexton possesses the ability to draw on these headlines to drive his point home: "All of this business of violence in schools, there's only going to be more of it, not less of it. We have kids shooting kids in schools, and people don't even know what the problem is. We live in a Biblically illiterate society. People behave a certain way because they believe a certain way. When you turn the calendar back, deny creation, teach kids a philosophy of life that embodies atheistic evolution, you've not just taught them something academic, you've substituted atheistic evolution for God. So, they have no anchors, they're drifting. And when we deny the creator, then God says this kind of behavior is going to follow."
Played out to its ultimate worst-case conclusion, this rudderlessness in the ocean of life can lead only one direction. "Things are so out of controldoes anyone have an answer? Will anyone step forward and lead us out of this morass? We are looking for leadership, and there is going to be someone who will step on the stage of human history and say, 'I will lead you out of this.' And the Bible says that person is the anti-Christ." (Insert your favorite passage from the soundtrack of The Omen here.)
The good news, for Christians at least, is that the rapture is nighthe time in which, according to the Bible, God will take the Christians out of the world to spend eternity with him. "I believe we'll see the rapture in our lifetimeI'm convinced of it. It seems so obvious that there is a convergence of things that will lead to things we're going to find during the tribulation period. It seems like the tribulation period may just be a day away."
Like Lambert, Sexton sees the impending Y2K problem as an opportunity. "I think the computer only calls attention to the crisis of the human heart. When we look deeply at this crisis, it's more than two digits that weren't put into a computer. We're imploding as a nation and as a world. It's caving inward. The streets aren't safe, aren't you afraid? Aren't you afraid of a dark parking lot? When you go into a restroom, haven't you changed the way you wash your hands? Don't you use a paper towel to open the door? And the whole world is that way. We're implodingsomething is happening to us as a society, and I think the computer glitch just calls attention to it.
"We try to speak to the vacuum that's in the human heart with the gospel. We're convinced that the gospel is the only thing that fills it. Now is a time for bold faith. We should be outspoken for Christfind a box, stand on it, and tell people: Jesus Christ is the hope of the world."
As such, he's stepped up the already impressive roster of evangelistic activities at Temple Baptist. Already, the church reaches out to every county in the country with its paper, The Baptist Vision, which is distributed to 12,500 independent Baptist churches around the nation (one among his 120 full-time employees does nothing but work on developing the mailing list, he explains). He's divided Knox County into a 200-block grid, and sent his parishioners forth to evangelize each of those areas. He's not trying to cram religion down anyone's throat, he explains, but expose people to the gospel so that they might make the decision to be saved. In the end, remember, God helps those who help themselves.
"In this crisisit has to be localized to the individual," he concludes. "How does the widow deal with the power shortage, or boiling water, or needing food? This can bring families and communities together. It can bring a benevolent spirit about in people that we've lost because we're so self-centered. We need one another. If this calls attention to that then some good can come out of itmaybe a lot of good. We try to help one person at a time."