In 1831 a Baptist preacher from New York announced that careful study of Scripture revealed that Jesus Christ would return to earth sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. Before long, William Miller would draw over 50,000 followers to his cause. Dubbed "Millerites" by a skeptical public, the group would spend the next 13 years preparing for Judgment Day.
Miller’s first two projected dates for the Apocalypse (March 21 and April 18) passed without incident. Undeterred, he recalculated and prepared his followers to expect Christ’s return on October 22, 1844. This time, he said, he knew without a doubt.
People made final arrangements, gathered together, and waited to be raptured.
But October 22 came and went like any other day, and as soon as the sun set the devastation among Miller’s followers took hold. As one Millerite reported, "Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before... We wept, and wept, till the day dawn."
They called it The Great Disappointment.
Now it looks as though history is about to repeat itself.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, Family Radio broadcaster Harold Camping has garnered quite a following by predicting that the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011. (That’s tomorrow, my friends!) Many of his followers have quit their jobs, emptied their bank accounts, and travelled the country handing out tracts and pamphlets to warn others of their impending doom, news reporters in tow.
The nice thing about completely crazy religious people is that they make slightly less crazy religious people like you and me feel better about ourselves. Oh I’ve had some fun at Camping’s expense—retweeting jokes about requesting pagan airline pilots on Saturday, sharing weather reports that include “rapture” in the weekend forecast, giggling at the plan to leave empty pairs of clothes at notable places around the country, and speculating on what Camping and company will do on Sunday morning when the sun rises once again.
And yet, deep down, I know the difference between us is not so great.
I confess that beneath my playful derision lies a hint of fear, not that I’ll be “left behind” but that I’m already caught up—in a delusion, in false hope, in a God of my own making…and perhaps, in a looming Great Disappointment.
Like it or not, Harold Camping and his followers make us laugh because we see a small piece of our faith in theirs. They are exaggerated caricatures of ourselves.
We too are guilty of projecting onto God our expectations and desires.
We too can get overconfident in our interpretations of the Bible.
We too expect God to judge the way we think he should judge, act when we think he should act, be who we think he should be.
And, you gotta admit, there’s a chance that we too might be absolutely, devastatingly, irrecoverably wrong.
If disappointment is about thwarted expectations, then we have all been disappointed by God at one time or another. My hope is that when the sun rises on May 22, Harold Camping will repent of his overconfidence and delight in a God who is bigger than his expectations and whose plans for this world far exceed anything he could ever ask or imagine.
My prayer is that I l do the same.