Photograph (c) Katherine Brown
[Jesus said:] ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Are we there yet?’ It’s a familiar phrase. Perhaps heard by some of us as we braved the highways for Thanksgiving reunions. Along with its close relation, ‘How much longer?’ Or our own family’s peculiar version: ‘How many more ‘Almosts’? As in, ‘Are we Almost There, or almost Almost There, or …?’ When our girls were small, the Almost was a variable measurement, not directly correlated to miles or time, although obviously linked to both and affected by traffic. Besides this, the Almost adjusted to accommodate conditions inside the car: shorter tempers could mean shorter intervals between Almosts, as the quicker countdown suggested swifter progress towards the goal. On the other hand, the official Almost tracker (me) was known to deliberately hold a particular Almost an inordinately long time when the question was asked just-too-often.
Are we there yet? It’s a biblical question. It’s a universal question.
The disciples in Matthew’s gospel ask their own version. ‘Tell us,’ they say privately to Jesus, ‘when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt 24:3). That is the question that Jesus answers in the beginning of this passage when he says, ‘But about that day and hour no one knows.’
Actually, Jesus’ speech is longer than that. The disciples’ question is back at verse 3, and Jesus talks for 33 verses, telling of false messiahs and heavenly portents, of betrayal and suffering and steadfast commitment, of the birthpangs of the world, before looping back to their query with a response that is not really an answer. ‘When?’ they had asked. ‘No-one knows,’ Jesus replies. I suspect it’s not the answer desired; I trust it is the answer needed.
The disciples are on a journey with Jesus. They have repeatedly re-calibrated time-till-arrival. They ask ‘When’ and want to hear ‘Almost’ because they don’t want the ‘Now’ they’re living to continue as it is.
We know that. ‘How long?’ we ask when our present is being endured, rather than enjoyed. We can face the journey if we’re actually almost there. Or almost Almost There. When we are fully present, connected, immersed in the experience — sharing meals or telling stories or singing songs along the way — then we look up, surprised at how the time has flown, and we say ‘Already?’ rather than ‘When?’
‘When?’ the disciples ask. Because life in an occupied land is hard. Because they are tired of oppressive division and injustice. Because they are eager to see God’s promises of salvation realized. Because it is so close. Isn’t it? Matthew’s gospel is 28 chapters long, and the disciples are already in chapter 24 — they must be Almost There!
Some 2,000 years on, Jesus’ disciples still live in a time of uncertainty and uneasiness, of oppressive division and injustice, still read tribulation and know pain and cry out in protest. When are you coming to make it all plain, Lord? When are you coming to save?
‘About that day and hour no one knows,’ Jesus replies, re-timing our attention from ‘that hour’ to this one.
This is the hour we are to heed; this is the hour we are to live.
We are not invited to endure this time — waiting with breath held, jaw clenched, fists gripping so tight our knuckles pale — nor to escape it — reverting to some fictional past, dreaming of a pie-in-the-sky future.
Jesus invites us to know this time. Eating and drinking and marrying. Working in the field and in the house. Or the office or the school. Living in the here and in the now. Busy with and alongside of others. Jesus does not just re-direct attention to this must-be-lived present, he describes a busy-ness that joins people together. Dividing lines are not drawn until the ‘when’ of which Jesus does not tell us. That end comes in God’s time, at God’s judgment, in fulfillment of God’s goal of intimate presence and ultimate salvation (Matt 1:21-23). Meanwhile, there is work to do. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, welcome the stranger (Matt 25:31-46)
Are we there yet? No. Christ’s return will be unexpected but as unmistakable as lightning streaking across the sky, as irresistible as a flood that comes or a thief that breaks in to take.
How much longer? I don’t know. I don’t know if I could bear to know.
Maybe that’s why God doesn’t tell. Because we are too small to bear it rightly. Because we can’t live just counting down to the future, holding on until it comes. We have to live in the present. Deeply. Devotedly.
Devoted to God. Devoted to our neighbor. The neighbor I know and love, and the one I don’t yet know or don’t yet love. Not drawing lines that divide but sharing burdens among — seed time and harvest, grinding and baking. Feeding the hungry. Tending the sick. Welcoming the stranger. Working diligently and watching vigilantly until that day.
How many more Almosts? Fewer than when Matthew first wrote. ‘Therefore you also must be ready.’ And awake.