Did you know that kids actually ask, “Are we there yet?”
That’s not just something that happens in movies and on TV. It’s a real thing, and I know this because of our recent Thanksgiving road trip to Georgia. We were twenty miles out of town when I heard it for the first time:
“Are we there yet?”
Are you kidding me with this? How can that question be for real? “Yes, we’re there, but I’m continuing to drive because I love reaching back to hand you snacks or pick up a toy every ten minutes.” No, we’re not there! If we were there, the car would be stopped.
“Are we there yet.” Sheesh.
Although… As ridiculous as the question is, I do understand why my kids are asking it: they have no idea how long this car ride is going to be. They have no idea how long any car ride is going to be. That happens when you have no concept of time or distance. I can’t tell them, “About 200 miles.” That would have about as much meaning to them as, “About 15 parsecs.” And although my five-year-old can (kind of) read a clock, she does not clearly understand the difference between seconds and minutes and hours. So – true story – although I explained that the drive would take about four hours, she became infuriated before we even left the state because she claims I said, “Four minutes.” Honey, no drive is four minutes long. Sorry.
“Are we there yet” is a one of those questions that makes complete sense to a little kid but no sense at all to adults, because we adults know how far “there” is and what it looks like when we arrive. We have GPS systems and road signs to mark the way. We have a good guess at how long this trip will take, and when we should start putting on our shoes and collecting our things because we’re about to pull up Grandma’s driveway.
An adult would never ask, “Are we there yet?”
Except, maybe, if we’re talking about a spiritual journey. If we’re waiting on God to act, then we’re about as clueless as a back seat toddler.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 sounds like an answer to an Israelite “Are we there yet?” They were waiting for their suffering in exile to end, waiting and waiting and waiting. “The days are surely coming,” he reminds them. A day when God will keep his promise, when a descendant of David will rise up for justice and righteousness. No, we’re not there yet. But it’s coming.
Luke 21 also sounds a lot like an answer to this same question, not just from the original crowd Jesus was speaking to but also from the original audience that Luke was written for. Right at the beginning this gospel acknowledges that it’s not an eyewitness account but was written to compile those accounts in an orderly fashion for a guy named Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4). Most Biblical scholars think it was composed around 80 to 100 AD / CE. That means it’d be about fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’d also be about ten years after the Romans destroyed the Temple. Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus predicts that destruction: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). So once the Temple was destroyed, I bet that left early Christians wondering, “Are we there yet?” Is this when Jesus will return? “There will be signs… distress among the nations,” Jesus says. Then we’ll see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” You can hear the anticipation in today’s lesson: “Be alert at all times,” “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” (Luke 21:36, 32).
Are we there yet? Is Jesus coming back like he promised? Is it now?
We know – some two thousand years later – that those early Christians were not “there” yet. Here we are, waiting still, asking the same question from time to time.
And now is one of those times. If there will be “wars and insurrections” (Luke 21:9) that lead up to Jesus’ return, then look around: terrorism in Paris, planes bombed over Egypt, refugees with no refuge in Syria, mass shootings with disturbing frequency here in the United States. As we watch the news, how could we not wonder:
Are we there?
It’s tempting to speculate, isn’t it? But then we remember Matthew 24:36: ”But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” And remembering that we’re reduced again to backseat passengers on a mystery road trip. We could be “there” – seeing Jesus’ return – tomorrow, or ten years from now, or another two thousand years from now.
Because we don’t know when this will be, it’s tempting to be passive waiters. Jesus identifies two ways we might be tempted to wait in 21:34: through drunkenness or anxiety. They seem like opposites, but they’re really two sides of the same coin. When bad stuff happens, we can respond by saying, “Forget it!” and turn to overindulgence. We can get drunk, binge eat, spend all our money. We can live it up now because obviously everything’s going wrong. Or, we can be consumed by worry. We can watch the news and freak out, talk about it to anyone who will listen, lay awake at night feeling afraid. Both of these reactions are unhelpful and unproductive. Both result in kind of passive waiting that contributes nothing to the problems at hand.
What Jesus calls us to instead is to “be on guard,” to live each day like this might be the day. This is hard to do since we’re working on our third millennium of waiting, but this is the kind of active waiting that we must do as God’s people. We’re called to be like basketball players sitting on the bench, dressed to go, ready to jump into the game at any moment. Or, to continue our road trip, we’ve still got our shoes on – we’re ready for the car to stop at any moment. We must actively wait like that.
Which means, if we think we’re almost “there” and Jesus might come back soon, we keep doing exactly what he said we should be doing.
So we love God, every day: We go to church, read our Bible, spend time in prayer. And we love our neighbors, every day: We feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those who are sick and in prison. We follow Jesus’ example and his teaching, every day, so that whenever Jesus comes back he’ll be proud of what we’re doing.
“Are we there yet?” I don’t know. No one does. But I’ll tell you what: from the sounds of it, it’ll be really obvious when we get there. So until then, we are actively waiting.
Advent is a perfect time to practice this, because we’ll spend the next four weeks looking toward Christmas Day. We’ll light candles and read Scripture to mark our progress, Sunday by Sunday, to Christmas Eve. We are waiting for Jesus Christ.
There’s a difference with Advent, though – we know when it ends. We know that on December 24th at 7pm we’ll gather here to light all the candles, and go home to open the presents and celebrate. On December 25th, we’ll be “there.” That’s not how waiting on God really works… but it makes for a good chance to practice.
So let’s practice in a specific way: From now until Christmas, every time you see something on the news that makes you want to say “Forget it!” or makes you so scared you want to hide in bed, I want you to do neither of those things and instead… pray. Turn off the TV, put down the paper, look away from your Twitter feed and pray. Pray for the situation, pray for the people involved, pray for God’s grace and love and peace. And then, listen. Listen for how God might be calling you to respond. Listen for some way you might be able to love your neighbor right here.
Another challenging back seat comment I get on our family road trips is this: “You’re not going the right way.” As though my five year old knows better than I do how to get to LaGrange, GA.
This spiritual road trip we’re on has a destination, people. We are heading toward a “there” when Jesus Christ will return. So keep your shoes on and be ready for the car to stop. Keep loving God and loving your neighbors with all you’ve got.
We’re not there yet… but we will be.
Thank you, Pulpit Fiction, for getting my wheels turning on this passage in a different (but better) direction than I originally planned.