Jesus, grilled by the Pharisees on when the kingdom of God would come, answered, "The kingdom of God doesn't come by counting the days on the calendar. Nor when someone says, 'Look here!' or, 'There it is!' And why? Because God's kingdom is already among you."
He went on to say to his disciples, "The days are coming when you are going to be desperately homesick for just a glimpse of one of the days of the Son of Man, and you won't see a thing. And they'll say to you, 'Look over there!' or, 'Look here!' Don't fall for any of that nonsense. The arrival of the Son of Man is not something you go out to see. He simply comes.
"You know how the whole sky lights up from a single flash of lightning? That's how it will be on the Day of the Son of Man. But first it's necessary that he suffer many things and be turned down by the people of today.
"The time of the Son of Man will be just like the time of Noah— everyone carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ship. They suspected nothing until the flood hit and swept everything away.
"It was the same in the time of Lot—the people carrying on, having a good time, business as usual right up to the day Lot walked out of Sodom and a firestorm swept down and burned everything to a crisp. That's how it will be—sudden, total—when the Son of Man is revealed.
"When the Day arrives and you're out working in the yard, don't run into the house to get anything. And if you're out in the field, don't go back and get your coat. Remember what happened to Lot's wife! If you grasp and cling to life on your terms, you'll lose it, but if you let that life go, you'll get life on God's terms.
"On that Day, two men will be in the same boat fishing—one taken, the other left. Two women will be working in the same kitchen—one taken, the other left."
Trying to take all this in, the disciples said, "Master, where?"
He told them, "Watch for the circling of the vultures. They'll spot the corpse first. The action will begin around my dead body."
This is one of the most difficult passages in all the Scriptures. Because it is so difficult it is one that has been misused and abused by people over the years. It has been used to manipulate people into fearing for their eternal souls so that they won’t be “left behind.” The damage that this passage has done is remarkable. As I continue to mature in my faith and grow in my relationship with Jesus it frustrates and infuriates me to see passages become weapons against people.
From the outset, I don’t claim to have a firm or full grip on this passage in Luke. It’s tough. There are many layers. So, when I come to passages like this one I have a simple principle that I fall back on. This principle of interpretation is to let the clear interpret the unclear. The simplest, clearest reading of the passage is what I go with until I am convinced that there is something less clear or less simple that the passage is trying to communicate.
Interestingly, the Message, the NIV, and the NRSV almost all handle this passage exactly the same. What Eugene Peterson does in the Message is to make one line more explicit than the other translations. I wonder if Peterson had the same sense as me with this passage being used to manipulate and wound people? The biggest difference between the three translations is in the last verse where Peterson adds, “The action will begin around my dead body.” Why does he add this? We will get to that shortly.
The clearest moment in this passage is when Jesus says, "The kingdom of God doesn't come by counting the days on the calendar. Nor when someone says, 'Look here!' or, 'There it is!' And why? Because God's kingdom is already among you." This, in my opinion, sets the context for the passage. Jesus is not talking about the “second coming” or something far in the future. He is talking about the here and the now. Too much of American Christianity has missed the reality that God’s kingdom, according to Jesus, has already come. It’s here. Jesus inaugurated the in-breaking of the kingdom of God at his baptism.
Everything was set into motion.
With the coming of Jesus the kingdom of God became present. Jesus argues through the rest of the passage that this in-breaking of the kingdom is as obvious as the flood, the judgment of Sodom, and the circling of vultures. I wasn’t around for the great flood or the judgment of Sodom but when I see vultures circling I know what that means. The point Jesus is making is that it is obvious.
At the end of Peterson’s translation he makes it clear that this is a bookend of what Jesus started with by adding the sentence, “The action will begin around my dead body.” This is really helpful because it calls us back to what Jesus says at the beginning about the kingdom of God being in their midst.
So, this passage is ultimately not about the second coming of Jesus. It is about the very real and immediate in-breaking of the kingdom of God, right here and right now. The same kingdom of God that was in their midst with Jesus is the same kingdom of God that is in our midst right now.
So what do we do with all this?
I think if we take it seriously that the kingdom of God is here we will take a couple of other things seriously. First, we we will celebrate seriously. Yes, read that again. We will celebrate seriously! The reality of the kingdom of God being in our midst is cause for real celebration! This means that the powers and principalities have been defeated. It means that life and life abundant are present. It means that grace, mercy, justice, reconciliation, and redemption are here! If this isn’t reason for celebration I don’t know what is.
Second, it means that if we are at this party and celebrating it means that we also get to invite others to the party. This is our “work.” When we do good and let our light shine before people it is an invitation to the party. I have a group chat with some friends and when they want to gather someone drops this in our chat, “Bat signal! 7 pm tonight on my patio!” Our lives, living out the reality of being at the party are “bat signals” for the rest of the world to come join us. As we do so, we are spreading the kingdom as it continues to break into the world.
We become what we celebrate.
The kingdom is in our midst! It’s time to celebrate!