January 16, 2009

Great Disappointments

2009 1502 page32 capn February 1, two teams will meet for the culmination of American football’s premier annual event: The Super Bowl. While the rest of the world yawns and wonders why America had to go out and invent its own weird brand of football, time virtually stands still in the United States. On Super Bowl Sunday all other concerns are laid aside, and groups gather together to worship before huge TV screens in drinking establishments, church basements, and family rooms, consume massive quantities of food and drink, and express themselves in generally bacchanalian behaviors.

One of the more predictable outcomes of these televised spectacles occurs toward the end of most of these games, when it has become clear that one of the two competitors has won the day. As the final seconds of the game tick away, at least one of the TV cameras makes its way to the bench of the losing team and focuses mercilessly on the faces of the players in defeat: dazed, exhausted, unbelieving—some even tearful.

A similar scene occurs in the latter half of Peter Jackson’s film The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the first of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film series, like the J.R.R. Tolkein books on which it was based, chronicle the exploits of a beleaguered band of persons trying to do good in a time of great moral darkness. At one point, the fellowship of characters emerge from the mines of Moria, utterly bereft and helpless over the apparent loss of Gandalf, the unquestioned spiritual leader of the fellowship. They throw themselves to the ground, immobilized in crushing grief, unable or unwilling to go further. Their quest appears to be over almost before it has begun.

2009 1502 page32To a Christian, both scenarios—the players on the losing team at the Super Bowl and the various members of the fellowship of the ring—remind us of a much more important story. We see images and hear echoes of what the disciples of Jesus must have experienced on the day after His crucifixion.

For three intense years, this motley band of miscreants had been trooping all over Palestine on the heels of one whom they had come to consider the Son of God. Over and over they had caught unexpected but breathtaking glimpses of the Kingdom that He had promised. Now, however, the One in whom they’d invested their every hope and dream was dead. Only a few days before, they’d been squabbling among themselves over prestigious positions in the coming Kingdom. Many had doubtlessly envisioned themselves as the center of a legendary rags-to-riches story. Now it appeared that there might be no Kingdom at all.

To varying degrees, each must have felt the inevitable disillusionment that seeped into their company. Two of Jesus’ followers were stumbling along the road to Emmaus, utterly consumed by their dismay. “Conflicting, perplexing ideas . . . brought to their minds the thought, Can this Man, who suffered Himself to be so humiliated, be the Christ? Their grief could not be restrained, and they wept.”1

With two millennia of scholarship and hindsight, the account of the disciples’ feelings of loss may bring today’s reader a false sense of superiority. Knowing the end of the story as it’s told in the four Gospels can dispel somewhat the feelings of dejection and defeat. But for the disciples on the day after Christ’s crucifixion, the disappointment must have surely been palpable.

Disillusionment, of course, conjures a more recent event in Adventist history. It is called “The Great Disappointment.” When a great portion of those who later formed the Adventist Church were disheartened after October 22, 1844, because Jesus’ second coming didn’t materialize when it had been expected, the feelings must have been as raw as those of the disciples upon His death.

Both of these cases of disappointment, however, bear out an important spiritual principle: True faith through such a time will result in an even greater confidence in God’s leading. The Great Disappointment of 1844 led the faithful Millerites to an even greater understanding of the doctrines of the Second Coming and of the Heavenly Sanctuary. It helped to bring on the establishment of the Seventh-dayAdventistChurch, with its unique and compelling mission to prepare the world for Jesus’ coming.

Similarly the disciples’ disappointment just after Jesus’ death on the cross, coupled with His astonishing resurrection, galvanized them into the development of the early Christian Church.

Though some of those whose faith was less well developed doubtlessly deserted Jesus’ followers, there were others for whom His death was a defining moment in their spiritual lives—before they heard of His resurrection.

2009 1502 page32“On that Sabbath, when Christ lay in the grave, Nicodemus had opportunity for reflection. A clearer light now illuminated his mind, and the words which Jesus had spoken to him were no longer mysterious. He felt that he had lost much by not connecting himself with the Saviour during His life. Now he recalled the events of Calvary. The prayer of Christ for His murderers and His answer to the petition of the dying thief spoke to the heart of the learned councilor. Again he looked upon the Saviour in His agony; again he heard that last cry, ‘It is finished,’ spoken like the words of a conqueror. Again he beheld the reeling earth, the darkened heavens, the rent veil, the shivered rocks, and his faith was forever established. The very event that destroyed the hopes of the disciples convinced Joseph and Nicodemus of the divinity of Jesus. Their fears were overcome by the courage of a firm and unwavering faith.”2

What causes disappointment for some may bring conviction for others.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, while most of the group are wallowing in heartache and disillusionment, Aragorn alone has become even more convicted that the quest must go on. Over the objections that they should be left alone for a while to deal with their grief, he rallies his unwilling companions, prods them to their feet again, and urges them onward. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, Aragorn’s faith enables him to look beyond immediate events to the fulfillment of a mission.

In this respect disappointments—even the great disappointments—are crucial moments of truth to which all are subject. And the Christian’s prayer is that faith will be the substance that fuels the flickering hope for the coming Kingdom. 

1The Desire of Ages, pp. 795, 796.
2Ibid., pp. 775, 776, emphasis supplied.

Gary Swanson is the associate director for the General Conference department of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries.