What’s in the Box?

Scripture:  Mark 13:24-37

This time of the year is one that is absolutely infused with traditions.   Because the holiday season rolls around annually, we tend to have dozens and dozens of things big and small that we build into what we do every year around Christmas.   It seems this time of year has more family traditions, more things that we do a certain way “because we always do it that way”, than any other time of the year.  I know this is certainly true for my family.  We even have traditions when it comes to something mundane like Christmas decorating.  For instance, it is tradition that the very first ornament that goes on the tree (and eventually the very last one to come off) is a small spider ornament.  This is a tradition that my wife grew up with and we have continued.  A less formal tradition, is that within hours of the Christmas tree being up and fully decorated there will be wrapped presents under the tree.  This is something I insist on and do.  For the most part I am mostly neutral on decorating for Christmas, but wrapped presents under a tree, that is my favorite part.  Growing up, wrapped presents showing up under the tree was the part about all of the Christmas hoopla that I enjoyed the most.   It was not just the idea of getting presents, it was the expectation and anticipation of getting presents.  I loved sitting under the tree, meticulously trying to figure out what was under there.   Come Christmas morning, I loved the satisfaction of knowing that I was right or the surprise of being wrong and getting something completely unexpected.  For me the best part, the most fun part of Christmas, was not opening presents it was the expectation and anticipation.  So if we are going to go through the trouble of decorating, then I am going to make sure that part of that decorating and preparation are presents under the tree for people to begin wondering, “What’s in the box?”

Doing this is also oddly liturgical.  In the calendar of the church we are in the season of Advent.   Honestly, Advent is a bit of a weird time for us.   Advent is not meant to be pre-Christmas.  It is supposed to be more than that.   Advent, as it initially emerged in church tradition, is meant to be a unique season in the church.   Advent is a season in church life that is to be marked by expectation and anticipation.   Because of that we end up with Advent readings like this morning from the gospel of Mark.  This scripture focuses on not very festive topics like false prophets, dark suns, and falling stars.   In a time of the year where we like to focus on the positive, on being of good cheer, and on being merry this scripture does not seem to fit.  Yet, it is the perfect scripture for Advent because this scripture reminds us that even if we do not know the time or the place, Jesus is coming back again.  This scripture reminds us that we should be looking forward to that time, whenever it is, with expectation and excitement.  This scripture reminds us that where there is expectation, there is hope.

In this morning’s scripture, Jesus is certainly encouraging a healthy sense of expectation by starting off with phrases like “in those days” and “at that time”.  As well as concluding with “What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch”.   In doing so, this morning’s scripture joins a great biblical tradition of expectation, because t the bible is full of expectation.  It was with great expectation and anticipation, that the Israelites awaited delivery from Egypt.   After a long and painful journey in the wilderness, it was with expectation and anticipation, that the Israelites stood on Mt. Nebo looking to inherit the promise land.   Psalm after Psalm is written to evoke deep feelings of longing and expectation for God’s presence and deliverance.  The prophets fall just shy of making up half the books in the Old Testament, and page after page of the prophets are filled with expectation and hopeful prophecies pointing to the coming of the messiah.   The gospels paint a picture, that at the time of Jesus’ life this anticipation had hit a boiling point.   People were expecting the messiah, and they saw the great need for the savior during their life time.   In a lot of ways, the idea of advent is to get us into that mindset.   There was much anticipation and expectation for the messiah to come, and at Christmas we celebrate just that.

Remember, Advent is more than just pre-Christmas because expectation in the bible did not cease once Jesus came.   This morning’s scripture shows that even before his death, Jesus himself was pointing to his expectant return, and the apostles who shared the good news with the world, followed this theme.  We find a sense of expectation throughout many of the epistles that are found throughout the New Testament.  As an example of what we find there, we can look to 1 Corinthians 1:7 where Paul wrote: ““Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.  He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on that day of or Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Because advent is a season of expectation, it is a season of hope.  Hope is one of those words that is brutally hard to define.  The dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and a desire for a certain thing to happen.”  That kind of works, but that does not really get across what hope is does it?  Hope is more than just a desire and a feeling.   It is a hard to word to define and while his definition is a little wordy, I think former president Barack Obama defined it well when he said, “Hope is not blind optimism. . . Hope is that thing inside of us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.”

As followers of Jesus, we know the better that awaits us.  Our reasons for hope and reasons to watch expectantly are the same:  Jesus is coming again and when he does the kingdom of God will be fully realized.  As followers of Christ hope and expectation can be bundled up together, and a Christmas present is a good analogy for this.  When a wrapped present is under the tree we full of expectation and hope of what it might be.   The feelings of expectation and hope are magnified because the present is right there in front of us.  We can see it, we can feel it, and we can wonder what is in the box?  In a similar way, The Kingdom of God is here but not yet.   On Christmas, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God invaded this world.   God set into motion a new age.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death was defeated, eternal life was offered, and people had the path to be forever reconciled with their Creator.   The Kingdom of God had begun, but the old age-the age of sin and death, has not yet passed away.  This is where we still exist.   The perfect love, the perfect forgiveness, and the perfect savior are all present and can be experienced.   The Kingdom of God is here and now.  However, the old age has not yet been done away.  People still suffer.  There is still evil and corruption in the world.   The early Christians were full of expectation for the day when all of creation would be made new, the old, broken ways of the world would fall way and the kingdom of God will be fully realized.

We have such a great reason for hope, but you may not know that just from reading this morning’s scripture.  Yes, this morning’s scripture does contain powerful, inspiring parts like verse 26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”   Yet, the overall tone of this scripture is a little foreboding.  The multiple admonishments to stay on guard and keep watch can kind of put us on edge.  The quote from Isaiah about the sun darkening, start falling, and heavenly bodies shaking all do not sound good.   This says nothing about the part of the scripture we did not read.  We started in verse 21, but the rest of chapter 13 is about the same time and it talks about wars and rumors of war, persecutions, and desolation.   This morning’s scripture does promise that Jesus will return at an unknown time but it also makes it a point that things may get worse before they get better.  For that very reason though I think this scripture ultimately points to hope.   Hope is not delicate and ephemeral, hope is hardy and hope is stubborn.   It is fitting that the tone of this morning’s scripture is somber, even though it is about hope because hope can weather any storm.

This can be true in our own lives.   At various points we all can go through a lot.   The “a lot” can be different for each of us.  Sometimes it can be a dramatic event that turns our world upside down.  Other times it can be an unexpected set back that makes a long road even longer.   Other times it can be a thousand little things that pile up so that the to do list is longer than there are minutes in the day.   It is during those times that hope does not disappoint.  Because it is hope that reminds us the night is darkest just before the dawn.  It is hope that reveals that the darkest storms create the brightest rainbows.   It is hope that can stand when everything else seems to be falling to pieces around us, because again our reason for hope is not just blind optimism.  Our reason for hope is the promise that whatever we are going through will not endure.  It is the promise that heaven and earth will pass away but His words will never pass away.   Our reason for hope is the truth that the kingdom of God is both here but not yet, and even if we are currently having bad days we have hope that there will be a day when Jesus come back.  There will be a day when the kingdom is fully realized.   There will be a day when the death and that was defeated on the cross will be eradicated one and for all.   There will be no more death, no more tears, and no more sorrow.   We will be God’s people, God will be our God and the perpetual light of Christ will shine on us forever and ever and ever.  If we truly believe that friends, then there is no power in this world that can knock down the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

Advent is a meant to be a season of hope, and the hope it celebrates is that when Jesus returns the kingdom of God is going to be fully realized.   Perhaps the best way that we can celebrate hope this advent is to try and spread it.  God’s kingdom has not been fully revealed but it is realized in part.   When the lost are found, when disadvantaged are cared for, when the forgotten are called by name, when the hopeless find hope, and when the unloved experience love then the kingdom of God is made known here on earth.   When as disciples of Christ we act as the body of Christ then we spread hope.  Through our loving actions, our works of mercy, and our attitude of compassion we can communicate to people that there is a reason for hope.   We can communicate to people, that the best is yet to come, and when it comes to the great of gift of God’s kingdom what’s in the box is more than we could ever possibly dream.

So as we begin advent, may we not just treat these next several weeks as early Christmas, but may we embrace the season.  May we approach it with a sense of expectation and may we embrace hope.   May we take hold of the great hope we have in Christ as we keep watch for the day when he returns.  More than that though, may we spread hope by joining with God in making God’s love known so that in some small way the kingdom of God is made known here on earth.

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