December 9, 2019

The Unwrapping

She had no interest in the actual gifts, but was fascinated by the crinkling, crackling sound.

Gerald A. Klingbeil

Packaging is key to sales. Major technology brands such as Apple or Samsung invest millions developing sophisticated boxes that promise high-end content. There are seemingly endless unboxing videos on YouTube—and people watch them.

I remember the first Christmas with our oldest daughter, Hannah. She couldn’t yet walk but enjoyed rolling around on the carpeted living room floor. She loved the wrapping paper—any wrapping paper. She had no interest in the actual gifts, but was fascinated by the crinkling, crackling sound and feel of the glittering packaging.

She had no interest in the actual gifts, but was fascinated by the crinkling, crackling sound and feel of the glittering packaging.

When Jesus came the first time the packaging didn’t look very promising. Rumors about the acceptability of Mary and Joseph’s marriage swirled around. They had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and couldn’t find any respectable place with family or rent a decent place in an inn. Mary finally gave birth in a dirty hovel used as a barn. There were no gloating grandparents or joyful family celebrations. Instead, a bunch of smelly shepherds came to welcome the Messiah and became ambassadors of the news of His arrival (Luke 2:8-20). No one would have made an unboxing video of that moment. Instead of a hearty official welcome appropriate for a king, Jesus and His family had to flee to Egypt for safety following Herod’s death decree (Matt. 2:16-18).

John captures this moment poignantly: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). The wrapping didn’t look promising; expectations weren’t met; the outward appearance didn’t coincide with the content.

We often wonder why most people steeped in the Torah and living in first-century Palestine could get it so wrong. We sigh at their unrealistic expectations; yet we too can suffer a similar fate. Adventists love to talk about the second coming of Jesus. That’s part of our theological DNA and enshrined in our name. We carefully study Scripture to discern God’s timetable. We dig deep into Ellen White’s writings to understand the sequence of final events. We know what should happen. The special outpouring of the Spirit, the shaking, the mark of the beast, a time of trouble, or the seven last plagues figure prominently when we talk about the Second Coming. But could it be that in our search for the signs of the times and our yearning for the blessed hope we look for the wrong packaging and forget to keep first things first?

Jesus talked quite a bit about His second coming. Beyond signs and final events, however, He talked about unity (John 17:20-23) and our ability to stay focused and awake (Matt. 25:1-13). In Matthew’s Gospel the last story He tells, the one Jesus doesn’t want us to forget, is about the final judgment. It’s a simple scene: there are two groups, sheep and goats. We definitely want to belong to the sheep, for they follow the Good Shepherd. What makes the difference between these two groups in Jesus’ story? You were engaged in this world, Jesus declares. You took care of Me when I was hungry, when I was thirsty, when I was alone, when I was naked, when I was sick, even when I was in prison.

The sheep (now called “the righteous” in Matthew 25:37) don’t get it: We never saw you like this, Lord, they announce. Yes, you did, Jesus responds. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

We don’t want to be sidetracked by the packaging.