April 18, 2014

Chester Clark III: A magnificent disappointment

Could this really be happening?

Three-and-a-half years earlier their hearts had stirred when they first heard his call. Centuries of Greek and Roman brutality had deepened their desire for the promised Deliverer. Their desires for temporal deliverance had colored even their reading of the Scriptures, until they had convinced themselves that the Messiah’s primary mission would be to deliver them from Rome.

And it’s not too hard to imagine how their hopes continued to rise. Heeding the call of the Master to become fishers of men, they left their trades to follow. Hearing him preach that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” they would not have doubted as to which kingdom he spoke.

It was to be a glorious revival of the throne of David, the promised ascension of Judaic power and authority, an overthrowing of the heathen oppressors, and the establishing of Jerusalem as the center of the civilized world.

Oh yes! There were few things more thrilling than to think that the prophesied time had come, and that these expectations would be fulfilled in their lifetime.

But even more breathtaking was the realization that they were finding themselves at the center of this glorious renaissance. They had been called to be his disciples. They would be closest to his throne. They would be an integral part of his kingdom. They would be the heroes of their entire race.

Listening to Jesus preach the “gospel of the Kingdom” they found further evidence to fuel their hopes. Jesus indeed fit the description of the Messiah that was to come! The time was right, and his ministry matched the prophecies. Bringing sight to the blind, causing the lame to leap and the mute to sing — even raising the dead back to life — Jesus over and over demonstrated that he was indeed the Promised One. Their hopes became faith, and ultimately became settled belief as doubts were displaced and confidence soared.

And then Jesus sent them to preach. The gospel of Luke records that Jesus sent the 12 to “preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:2) What kingdom would they have possibly been preaching? Certainly it must have included their temporal expectations.

And it wasn’t just the disciples. There was a wider circle of followers, referred to as the Seventy. In the tenth chapter of Luke these too were sent on missions for the Master. Again the gospel writer records that Jesus instructed them to give the message that “the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” (Luke 10:9)  

I can just imagine their sermons. They undoubtedly began with the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah and demonstrated how Jesus fulfilled them, each one. Born in Bethlehem, born of virgin, and of the Tribe of Judah. The massacre of the infants, the wondering worship of the wise men, the star in the east and the profound wisdom of the Christ child.

As they built their case verse by verse their audiences must have thrilled with the knowledge that the One predicted had come as promised. And the disciples had firsthand testimonies to share. They had watched him turn water to wine, heal blind eyes, raise the dead. These weren’t just rumors, the disciples had seen the miracles with their own eyes! “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

Everything seemed to be going even better than they might have hoped. The nation seemed about to burst into a spontaneous coronation. On that Sunday before the Passover Jesus allowed the burgeoning crowd to give him a triumphant entry into the city.

But on that dark and desperate Sabbath day, these events seemed like ages ago, from another world. With the Promised One’s lifeless body resting in a borrowed tomb, the disciples had no idea what to do next, and simply “rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment.” (Luke 23:56) But while they may have physically rested, delaying the embalming of Jesus’ body, their hearts were anything but at rest. How could this have happened? The betrayal, the trials, the scourging and crucifixion — it was all like a nightmare, from which they could not awake.

Just how discouraged and desponded were the disciples after the cross? On the road to Emmaus one of his followers blurted to an unknown fellow traveler, “But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel.” (Luke 24:21) “Trusted.” Past tense. Their hopes dashed, their disappointment unspeakable, the disciples were now confident that their faith had been in vain. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die!

Patiently, Jesus walked along that road to Emmaus with his followers. In the growing dusk of eventide he began explaining to them the prophecies of the Old Testament they’d misunderstood or neglected. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to tell them before, they had just never wanted to listen. (See Matthew 17:22 and 20:18; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:44-47.)

Now with new and wondering eyes they understood the prophecies. The Promised One was not to deliver from the bondage of Rome, but from the oppression of sin! The deliverance was not to be temporal, but eternal! The prophecies had not failed after all, but in their blindness they had failed to understand the true meaning of redemption and salvation. The stinging disappointment of the cross became the glorious good news of the gospel! The Messiah was supposed to die after all.

But even better, incredibly more wonderful, was the realization that the tomb was empty. He’s alive!

From this story comes a litany of conundrums. A death that brings life. An instrument of execution and torture that becomes a symbol of love. A magnificent disappointment, indeed.

Jesus is alive!

 Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. His column appears on the third Saturday of the month.

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