“The Great Disappointment”
Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44
December 2, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
I want to share a little story with you today from the year 1844. There was this guy who used to be a Baptist lay minister in New York named William Miller. But he had gotten himself into some trouble and he left the Baptist denomination to form his own group. They became known simply as the Millerites. Now these Millerites were an interesting and large group of folks. By 1844 his group had grown to over 100,000 members. And there was one central theme that Miller and his followers centered on—the “second coming” of Jesus.
Miller believed that Jesus was coming back that year. He had tried to use the Bible as a tool to predict when Jesus would return, and according to his calculations from Daniel and the Book of Revelation, he bellowed from the rooftops that Jesus was coming back to earth on October 22, 1844.
His followers had joined with him in proclaiming to everybody they met that Jesus was coming back on October 22, 1844 and to get ready, which many did. A lot of people in the movement sold their farms and their houses; they quit their jobs. When the big day finally arrived, they all put on white robes and stood on their rooftops awaiting for Jesus to come back and take them all to heaven. Well, as you know, October 22, 1844 came and went, and Jesus never showed up. You can imagine the fun that the rest of the townspeople had that day laughing and pointing at them on their rooftops all dressed up in white robes with no place to go. In history, this event would become known as The Great Disappointment.
The Millerites didn’t go away though. After such an embarrassing “miscalculation,” you would think that people would have come to their senses and realized that this William Miller guy didn’t know what he was talking about, but the movement went on and developed all sorts of complex theology as to why Jesus didn’t show up that day. And there are still Millerites around today, but they go by different names. The two major religious groups that came out of the Millerite movement were The Seventh-day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to name but two. But in their defense, they’ve now started showing up at doorsteps instead of on rooftops, so we have to give them some credit.
It’s a shame that William Miller tried to read the Bible so literally. The Bible is not a history book even though there’s a lot of history in it. The Bible also is not a science book, even though there are some scientific elements to it. The Bible is not a tool whereby we can predict major events in history either. The Bible is the book of the Church.
It’s a shame that William Miller and those who followed after him never read our gospel lesson for this the first Sunday of Advent. The first verse of this section (Matthew 24:36) for today in speaking about the return of Jesus clearly says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” How much clearer can the Bible make it!
When will Jesus come back? The angels in heaven don’t know. Jesus doesn’t even know. Only God the Father knows. Please hear these words from Matthew’s gospel. You can go home and turn on the television right now and probably hear some televangelist talking about Jesus coming back soon. But if you simply read what it says in the Bible, it says that Jesus doesn’t even know when his return will be! So, either those who preach about such things are smarter than Jesus, or they are misguided and they are misguiding others.
It’s tempting some times to structure a complex theology around one verse of Scripture. I think most of us just don’t believe that most of the Bible is as simple as it is. Jesus is coming back—that’s for sure. But only God knows when. That’s a pretty simple message is it not? There is not a more important lesson to be learned about reading the Bible than this—to read what it actually says and not to read what it doesn’t say. We don’t need to add to the Bible, and we don’t need to take away from it. We just need to read it—and to read it as a whole. You can take one verse out of its context and read all sorts of stuff into it and make it mean whatever you want it to mean. But it’s better to read what it actually says. That way you don’t wind up on your rooftop.
So, when you hear these words about the return of Christ, listen to them and to what they mean. But do not listen to what you’ve heard somebody in the past or somebody on TV tell you they mean. The meaning of this passage is clear—Jesus is coming back at an unexpected time, and you should be ready. It’s almost too simple: Jesus is coming back one day. We don’t know when that day will be. Jesus doesn’t even know when that day will be. God the Father is the only one who knows. But, when Jesus does return, it will be unexpectedly.
One more story. When I was living in England, I ran out of paper one day for my printer. So, I hopped in my 1990 Volvo hatchback that a church member over there had gotten me for around $400, and I drove to the office supply store in town. When I got to the parking lot of the place, I opened my door to get out, and the door just fell off! I calmly opened the back door of the car and put the driver’s side door in the back seat, got my paper, and drove home with my pants leg flapping in the wind amidst several suspicious glances. You never expect your car door to just fall off! It’s unexpected. I imagine Jesus’ return will happen in much the same unexpected way. I just wasn’t ready for my car door to fall off. So, I’ll close with the words that end this story in Matthew. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Amen.