Road trips. Our kids grew up in an era before smart phones and iPads, so there was no electronic entertainment for the back seat. No screens, just windows (with a lower case “w,” please). There was no such thing as GPS, no Siri to tell you how far to drive and where to turn. Just maps, on paper, that were a challenge to fold.
And yes, even now, we still keep maps in the car. With all that experience, we’re more adept at folding them now.
Our highest-tech achievement back then was to listen to Books on Tape (remember cassettes?) as we traveled the long hours. It may be hard to imagine now, but listening to good books (thank you, J. R. R. Tolkien) was so successful with everyone that even when it was time to stop for a bite to eat, we’d sit in the parking lot listening until the chapter was finished.
It was the best means we had at our disposal to avoid the dreaded, whiny question, “Are we there yet?”
The real problem with the question was that we were tired too. Their question was our question, and we were supposed to be the adults, people who didn’t whine even when we felt like it. It was a test of our patience as parents. The road was long, and we wanted to arrive at our destination even more than the kids did, because we had a better idea what awaited.
“No, we’re not there yet,” we’d say, with whatever love and patience we could muster. “Soon.”
When John the Baptist arrives on the scene near the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, he comes preaching — in the classical King James Version — “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). More contemporary translations like the New International and New Revised Standard say that the kingdom “has come near,” which is a better rendering of Matthew’s Greek. The Common English Bible is more colloquial: “Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” And whatever the translation, the same message can be found on the lips of Jesus after John is arrested and Jesus begins his public ministry (Matt 4:17).
So when John and Jesus preach that the kingdom is at hand, within reach, close by, did they mean that the kingdom had already begun, or that it was about to begin? The people who heard their preaching would have wanted to know: “Are we there yet?”
I believe the right reading is that the kingdom of heaven was already present in the person and ministry of Jesus. But the coming of the kingdom isn’t one and done, all at once. Yes, the journey has begun. We’re on the right road, the parables of Jesus give us a map (“For the kingdom of heaven is like…”), and the Holy Spirit provides us with something of a Godly Positioning System. But we won’t arrive at our final destination — i.e., the kingdom won’t be complete — until the king returns in glory.
The kingdom has begun, but the king has not yet returned. In the meantime, loyal subjects of the kingdom are to live in a way that demonstrates the character of their sovereign. Like the bridesmaids of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25, they are to stay in readiness for the coming of the bridegroom, because they don’t know the hour of his return (Matt 25:13). They are to live as the first two servants in the parable of the talents did (Matt 25:14-30), anticipating their master’s return and doing what they know will bring him joy.
It is in that spirit that James counsels the poor believers who are being oppressed by the rich to have patience, like the farmer anticipating a bountiful crop:
Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. (James 5:8, NRSVUE)
The language is the same as in the preaching of Jesus and John the Baptist: the Lord’s return is “near,” or “at hand.” Clearly, of course, James is not saying that Jesus has already returned. But how near is “near”? Can we set a date?
The question is understandable. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, for example, suggests that some believers were anxious or disillusioned because Jesus hadn’t returned yet, and scholars argue whether Paul or James believed that the Second Coming was right around the corner.
But even if the question is understandable, it’s unanswerable and frequently wrongheaded. Paul, for example, told the Thessalonians that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2), and therefore the thing to do is to stay alert and faithful. And Jesus himself, when the disciples essentially asked him “Are we there yet?” replied that the timetable of the kingdom was the Father’s business, not theirs; their business was to get on with the work of witnessing to Jesus (Acts 1:6-8).
Believers will suffer injustice; that’s a fact of life in a world in which the kingdom is not yet complete, in which the crucified and risen Lord is not fully and everywhere acknowledged as sovereign. Strengthen your hearts, James says. No, beloved, we’re not there yet. But soon.