Gospel of the Disappointment

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Every year, October 22 marks a teachable moment for those of us who have lived in hope of something that hasn’t yet happened — and that we may have begun to doubt ever will.

The day is, of course, the anniversary of what we Adventists call “The Great Disappointment.” According to their interpretation of prophecy, early Adventists were fully expecting Jesus to return on this date in 1844. To call His failure to appear as expected a “disappointment” is perhaps a grave understatement. More accurate names might be “The Great Annihilation of Hope” or “The Great Theological Mistake Big Enough to End the Whole Discussion” or “The Great Challenge That If It Doesn’t Break You Will Make You Stronger.”

And yet, as great as this disappointment might have been for those living through it, two fundamental challenges faced by first century Christians were much, much more disappointing.

The first extraordinary disappointment was the execution of Jesus Christ. Their beloved leader was killed. Dead. Pretty hard to come back from that. (Cue the resurrection and the restoration of hope.) The second disappointment, the same one later faced by the early Adventists, was that after the miracle of His resurrection and ascent into heaven, Jesus didn’t come back. Even though He had promised that He would. And even though His followers — and this is important — were doing everything they could to cause Him to return. Their actions seemed to change nothing.

For some, this disappointing set of circumstances meant cutting their losses, bailing out of the faith, and never looking back. But for those persuaded that Jesus was unlike anyone they had ever encountered before and utterly worth following no matter what, abandoning the faith simply wasn’t an option. So they tried to make some sense of their disappointment.

The various apostles and writers of the New Testament dealt with disappointment differently.

For Mark, writing nearest to the death of Christ, it was an opportunity to understand the dynamic of the messianic secret and to embrace the mystery of this extraordinary and unprecedented occurrence: God with us. Matthew focused on the importance of followers living lives that were so enthused with Christ that they became Christ to the world and had the same impact on those whose lives they touched as Christ had had on theirs. For Luke, disappointment created the opportunity to search for meaning in history and the ultimate redemption of humankind. Paul, who was not one of the Twelve, saw the paradox of the gospel: Jesus’ death was a part of God’s mysterious plan; the weakest moment is actually the strongest; through His death, not His life, He has saved the world. For Peter, it was coming to a profound understanding of God’s true purpose. Peter’s emphasis is my favorite and is demonstrated through what the New Testament calls the bride of Christ (the church), for which Peter had special responsibility. Finally, John resolved his dissonance and disappointment in the personal search for meaning in the knowledge of Jesus Himself, creating a framework through which those who believe in Jesus were to present His claims of Lordship, and His gracious love, to the world in which they live.

What was then the original “Great Disappointment” can be seen as transformational. It brought about a defining spiritual moment in the lives of individuals who had to confront their disappointment and make something meaningful from it. We can draw lessons for our own lives from the positive way the diverse individuals who were with Jesus — not just the disciples but all those who followed Him as the One in whom they had placed all of their hopes — dealt with their despair.

Mark and Martha both call us to embrace the unknown circumstances of our journeys as disciples. Matthew and the woman at the well call us to exemplify the gracious character of Christ in our own lives. Luke and Mary the mother of Jesus ask us to look beyond the present moment to the horizon of our hopes, treasuring in our hearts that which is unattained but not unknown. Paul and Mary Magdalene call us to treasure the mystery of salvation in our hearts, valuing the upside-down-ness of a world in which the weakest are actually the strongest and the shadow of death is vanquished not by the sword but by the unquenchable, passionate light of love, however small its flicker might sometimes be. Peter calls us to be the church of Christ’s imagination — the bride who waits with patience and fidelity. And John, the beloved, reminds us that our life in Christ announces His saving grace to the whole world — even those who are experiencing disappointment and disillusionment.

So while October 22 is not a celebration, it’s not exactly a disappointment either. Call it a milestone. The journey of hope continues.

 
Ray Tetz is the director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference. This essay originally appeared on Living God's Love, a blog by the Pacific Union Conference. It is reprinted here with permission.
 
Image: Unsplash.com / Hannes Wolf

 
 
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