When Oops is Part of your Religion

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For October 22, 201If you are looking for the birthday of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this is it. October 22, 1844.

In the early 1800s, a man named William Miller was studying the Bible, especially the prophecies about the end of time. As he studied he came to believe he had deciphered prophecies which gave an approximate date for the Second Coming of Jesus. He couldn’t believe this was really true, so he restudied the passages and double-checked his calculations. Every which way he approached it, he came up with the same answer. Jesus was coming back to earth in 1843, give or take a year or two.

He was amazed that no one else had seen this. How could it be that he was the only one? If it were true surely he should tell people. But if he was wrong, it would be irresponsible. So he kept quiet about it. But he experienced an intensifying inner conviction that he should tell others the good news. Finally, in an attempt to get the monkey off his back, he made a deal with God:

“You want me to tell people—you set it up.”

He figured that would take care of things. It was up to God. He was off the hook.

Shortly after he prayed this prayer, his nephew showed up at the house with an invitation to come preach at their church. Uncle William was not too happy about this, but a bargain was a bargain, so he preached. And the rest is history.

Other people got excited about his discovery. Invitations to preach started coming in. Over the next few years a huge movement sprang up as thousands, then tens of thousands of people caught Advent fever. Jesus was coming soon. In 1843, give or take a year.

Eventually, the entire nation was abuzz with Advent fever. People either believed it and thought it was the most wonderful truth they had ever heard or people dismissed it as fanaticism, fundamentalism, and a flat contradiction of Jesus’ statement that the day and hour of the Second Coming was a mystery known only to God.

Sometime in 1843 someone came up with a refinement of Mr. Miller’s prophetic scheme. This new interpretation pinpointed a specific date—October 22, 1844. That was the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, according to one Jewish calendar, 2300 years after a decree made by a Persian king providing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. According to the Adventist interpretation, Christ was supposed to return on that day.

Among the true believers the excitement was almost unbearably intense. Jesus was coming again. Farmers were so certain of this prophecy they left their potatoes in the ground unharvested. Why have a barn full of potatoes if Jesus was coming back. They could use their time more profitably sharing the good news with their neighbors.

Finally, the day arrived. It was like Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. It was the best day ever. Jesus was going to come. War would end. Sick people would be released from pain and suffering. Crushing debt would disappear. Arthritis would quit hurting. The scourge of addictions—in those days that would have been alcoholism—would be solved. Life would be happy. People would be holy and healthy. What a day!!!!!!

The day passed. Nothing happened.

It was a great big OOPS!

It was utterly devastating for the true believers. It shook their entire religion to its very core. In the weeks and months after this Great Disappointment, the true believers went back to the Bible trying to figure out where they went wrong. They came up with new interpretations of the passages they thought had predicted the Second Coming. These new interpretations were still full of complicated calculations and leaping interpretations of obscure Bible verses, interpretations that don’t do very well under the microscope of biblical scholarship.

The mistake was so painful, so embarrassing, the natural tendency would be to sweep it under the rug, pretend it never happened. But there were some interesting side effects of this massive disappointment.

This “oops” unsettled those early Adventists to the very core of their beings. They questioned the very foundations of their religion.

What kind of God, they asked, would keep people alive for billions of years just so they could be tortured? The obvious answer—God would be a monster—had been obscured by centuries of Christian tradition. Because of the upheaval caused by their great oops, these early Adventists were enabled to reject this venerable tradition. They rejected the notion of eternal hell.

They rediscovered the Jewish Sabbath.

They rejected the belief in predestination. Even though it had been a popular doctrine for at least 1700 years, the shattering of their religion allowed them to ask the obvious question: How can it be just for God to give people life just so God could damn them. That’s crazy. Insane. Unacceptable. They rejected predestination.

These theological advances were the fruit of the big oops. Their theological confidence had been so shattered, they were able to question all kinds of certainties and traditions. If the thing they had believed so happily and enthusiastically was wrong, what else could be wrong? It was a great question.

Because of this big oops, we learned humility. And never again, did we imagine that we had it all figured out. We shared our faith with others always aware that we could be wrong.

—I wish.  🙂

Early Adventists were humans. Very quickly, they created a new list of doctrines that were absolutely true. They imagined that their new Bible interpretations were the only possible interpretations for righteous, intelligent people. We imagined that if people disagreed with us, they were either unintelligent or unrighteous. That is, people who disagreed with us were either not smart enough to see the truth of what we were saying or they were wickedly refusing to admit what they could see.

Which brings us to today.

In politics we cannot help ourselves. We are certain that people who support the other side are either stupid or evil. Or both. It is not possible that an intelligent person with a good heart could possibly advocate voting for the other side.

It is the same in religion. Whether we are talking about the ordination of women or the age of the earth or God’s blessing on faithful relationships between homosexuals or in other circles our theories about the Trinity and eschatology and networks of evil, whatever view we take seems to us to be the inescapable conclusion that everyone would come to, if they were just sufficiently smart and righteous.

What to do? Let’s remember that our religion includes a Big Oops. Our own name for the birthday of our religion, October 22, is “The Great Disappointment.” We should just call it the Big Oops. We knew we were right, but we were wrong.

And it is not just our own particular denominational history that includes big oops. Christianity itself is full of “oops” on the part of venerated leaders.

It is common for Christians to imagine that the very best version of Christianity was “apostolic Christianity.” But the apostles made big oops.

The disciple John reported to Jesus: Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name. But he did not have authorization from you or even from one of us. So we told him to stop.

Jesus said, “What? You stopped him? How could you? He was helping people. And helping them in my name. And you stopped him? John, don’t you understand that he is our ally?”  Mark 9 and Luke 9

Another favorite story, one that we rehearse every time we dedicate a baby: The disciples officiously asserted their authority to control access to Jesus. On this occasion, they used their status as the official assistants of Jesus to relegate mothers and children to the status of negligible people. Men mattered. Men needed to be taught, instructed, responded to. Men were spiritual leaders and as such, they especially deserved the time and attention of Jesus. Perhaps there would be time and place for women and children after all the men had been served. But the disciples were crystal clear on priorities. Men first.

Jesus was crystal clear. Children first. Children mattered. In fact, they are the very essence of the kingdom of heaven.

The disciples imagined it was their job use their position of authority as members of the inner circle of Jesus to enforce the natural ranking of their society and make sure Jesus served the important people first. The disciples were wrong. It was a big oops.

Just as we say Black Lives Matter because in our society, Black people have been pushed to the edges and denied equal access and equal justice, so Jesus insisted that children’s lives mattered because in his society, they were regarded as unimportant. They had diminished rights.

The apostles were wrong. It is still very easy for us who occupy prominent positions in the church to mimic the apostles and imagine ourselves as gatekeepers for Jesus. If we do, we will probably be wrong. We will go Oops!

Nearly everyone around Jesus misunderstood his mission. As far as we can tell only the aged priest Simeon had any inkling that Jesus’ mission included heartbreak. People believed in Jesus with fiery passion. They wrapped their entire hope around the triumph of God in the mission of Jesus.

Then Jesus was killed. Executed. What happened to their prophetic interpretation? Oops.

We heard the story in our Scripture reading.

On the Sunday after Jesus was crucified, two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to a nearby village called Emmaus. Somewhere along the road a stranger joined them and asked what they had been talking about so intently.
One of them, Cleopas, said, “What do you think we’re talking about? Unless you’re from out of town. We were talking about Jesus of Nazareth, of course.”
“Tell me about him,” the stranger said.
“He was a mighty prophet, a spell-binding teacher and incredible healer. The whole nation was stirred by his work. Then, just this past Friday the chief priests and our rulers handed him over to the Romans who crucified him.
“We had trusted he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. He was the Messiah. We were absolutely sure of it. And now, here we are. He is dead. We are devastated. Luke 24

They thought they knew what the work of Messiah was. They were sure. They could quote chapter and verse. They were wrong.

Our Old Testament reading today was from Jeremiah.

He lived through a time of devastating loss for the Jewish people. The City of Jerusalem was besieged. Then captured and 10,000 people were deported to Babylon.

Just like religious people today, people in Jeremiah’s time listened to prophetic voices, to preachers, hoping to learn how these catastrophic events fit into the grand scheme of history. The conservative preachers kept promising that God was going to intervene. God would never let the wicked Babylonians triumph over the Jewish people, the special people of God.

Jeremiah disagreed. He insisted the Jews did not have a special claim on God in contrast to the neighboring peoples. He told the people get ready for doom. How? What were the people supposed to do?

Over and over Jeremiah gave the same answer:

Do not trust in prophecies that proclaim God’s favor on this temple or this city. Instead do this: Provide for justice. Be careful to protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood.

That is chapter seven. In chapter twenty-two, Jeremiah comes back to the same theme. This time it is couched as advice to the king.

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. Jeremiah 22.

If we follow Jeremiah’s counsel, our theological and eschatological theories won’t matter all that much. Errors in our prophetic interpretation, even errors in Bible interpretation will become insignificant.

Jesus made the same point in Matthew 24-25. He talked about end times and prophetic speculations. Then he told the story of the sheep and goats. The smart people were not those who understood prophecy, but those who served.  Let’s be smart.

I tried to grow a variety of seeds I came across, grape seeds, seeds from dates, seeds from apples I ate. One problem with growing these random seeds was that I never knew if they would actually sprout. And if they took a long time to sprout, I would forget to water them. The soil would dry out and any seed sprouting below the surface would wither.

Then I stumbled on a technique to manage my interrupted interest. I planted the seeds in a pot that already had a plant in it. I would simply take care of the plant that I could see, and that care meant the unseen seeds hiding in the soil got the care they needed.

Our theological and prophetic theories are like slow seeds. Some will sprout. Some won’t. It’s hard to predict which will bear fruit. But if we will devote ourselves to the work outlined by Jeremiah—if we will seek justice for those at the margins, if we will remember that Black lives matter and that poor people matter and that children matter—if we will give care to these things, we can leave our theological and prophetic notions to work themselves out over time. Some of our doctrines will thrive and bless us. Some will wither and disappear. No problem. When we devote ourselves to justice and peace, to care and reconciliation, our theology will take its proper place and we will find our lives in harmony with the divine mission revealed in Jesus.

Over time our ideas will be winnowed, and we will be left with convictions and doctrines that are most helpful in our cooperation with Jesus in his divine mission. And our lives, which have been poured into service will not have written after them, Oops.