Flee the apostate church and focus on Christ’s coming!

Sermon for Third to Last Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 25)

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  +  Matthew 24:15-28

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We’re approaching the end of the year—the year of the Church, that is. We’re counting backwards now from the end. Today is the third-to-last Sunday in the Church Year. Then we begin all over again with Advent. Each week, for the next three Sundays, the Holy Spirit directs our attention to the end of the world, to the second coming of Christ. “Be ready!” He says. Know what’s coming, and be ready.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving some final, private instructions to His disciples during Holy Week. He shows them what’s coming, so that they and all their hearers can be ready. It’s the end of the Jewish nation to which Jesus points, first and foremost, but the end of that nation also has a symbolic fulfillment in our time, leading up to Christ’s second coming. The message to Christians back then is the same as the message to Christians now: Flee the apostate church and escape her destruction!

Jesus begins in our Gospel by foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem. That would happen in the year 70 AD, about 37 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But before that destruction, there would be a sign to warn Jesus’ followers to get out. Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

The prophet Daniel wrote of this abomination of desolation in chapter 9 of his book, and here Jesus highlights the importance of knowing your Old Testament, and specifically the importance of this chapter of the book of Daniel. Now, if you think some of the prophecies in the last half of the book of Daniel are hard to understand, I’m right there with you. People have wondered about those prophecies for a long time. Some of them are easier to understand than others. But since Jesus Himself directs the reader to understand something about chapter 9, we should at least understand the basic meaning of it. I’ll read part of it now, based on Luther’s translation. These are the angel Gabriel’s words to Daniel after Jerusalem was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar:

Seventy weeks are determined upon your people and upon your holy city, for putting an end to transgression, and for finishing up sin, and for making atonement for iniquity, and for bringing in everlasting righteousness, and for finishing up vision and prophecy, and for the Most Holy to be anointed. Know therefore and understand: from the going forth of the commandment to rebuild Jerusalem until the Christ, the Prince, there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. The streets and walls will be rebuilt, although in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks, Christ will be eradicated and will be no more. And a people of the prince will come and destroy the city and the holy place, so that it comes to an end as through a flood; and until the end of the war desolation will remain. But He will confirm the covenant with many for one week. And in the middle of the week, the sacrifice and offering will cease. And at the wings will stand abominations of desolation; and it is determined that it will be poured out upon the desolation until the end.

Again, it’s hard to figure out some of the details of the seventy weeks of Daniel, but a few things are very clear: Jerusalem’s days were numbered. Within those “seventy weeks,” Jerusalem would be rebuilt, the Christ would come, atonement would be made for sins, righteousness would be ushered in, the Christ would be rejected, the abomination of desolation would stand in Jerusalem, and the holy city would be destroyed. Well, even if some of the details are foggy, the rebuilding of Jerusalem happened shortly after the time of Daniel, just as the angel said, and Jerusalem and the Jewish nation were definitively destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Those two events are like bookends, with everything else foretold by Daniel happening in between.

You see the significance of that? The Christ must come and do all His work on earth before Jerusalem is destroyed. The destruction of Jerusalem was God’s terrible message to Israel and to the world that the Christ had already come, and had been rejected by Israel. Expect no other Messiah, no other Christ, no other Savior but Jesus!

As for the abomination of desolation, the hated thing that lays waste, it’s most likely a reference to the Roman armies that came against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. When you see that abomination of desolation, Jesus says, flee to the mountains! And let there be urgency to your flight! Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. That’s just what the Christians did as they saw the Roman threat against Jerusalem taking shape. The bitter warnings of Jesus in this Gospel saved His people from being included in the horrors that happened in Jerusalem and to Jerusalem at that time. The Christians lost their homes in the holy city, but their lives were saved!

At some point in His instruction, Jesus switches from talking about the impending destruction of Jerusalem to talking about the impending destruction of the world at His second coming. There would be some similarities to what happened to Jerusalem. Just as Jerusalem, the home of the Old Testament Church, would become apostate—that is, would fall away from true faith in the true God and become an idolatrous, false church—so the outward form of the New Testament Church would also eventually become apostate—would fall away from true faith in the true God and become an idolatrous, false church. And just as Jerusalem would be destroyed, so the apostate church of the New Testament will be.

This is the warning about Antichrist, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God…whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming, as St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians. The Antichrist sets himself up in God’s temple—in the Christian Church! —and will be a plague within the Church until Christ comes at the end of the age. Martin Luther rightly applied the Holy Scriptures about the Antichrist to the Roman papacy. Just as Rome was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem, so Rome is also responsible for the desolation of the Christian Church.

The “abomination of desolation”—the hated thing that lays waste—is the idolatry that filled the Church and corrupted it over the ages: the idolatry of human works, of human merit, of the worship of human beings, of the supremacy of human teachings over the Word of Christ. Luther and many others saw that abomination of desolation and obeyed Jesus’ word. They fled.

Was that a happy thing? A pleasant thing? By no means! Neither was the flight of the Christians from Jerusalem. It was a hard time, a time of great tribulation and mourning. And we see just how scattered Christians seem to be today, no longer united under an earthly ruler or human institution. We know how hard it is to “live on the run,” as it were, to live as those fleeing from their spiritual home. But it’s all part of Jesus’ prophecy. It’s all part of Jesus warning, of His merciful, heartfelt command to “flee!”

Jesus compares the tribulation of our time to the tribulation following Jerusalem’s destruction: For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. The tribulation for those who fled from Jerusalem was more physical than spiritual. But the opposite is true for us. Our tribulation in these last days is more spiritual than physical. Our faith is under attack. God’s Word is under attack. It’s hard and growing harder to live as Christians in the world, with all the spiritual temptations that surround us.

In this time of great tribulation, when Christians live as those who are fleeing and living on the run, what are we to expect? False christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Beware! Do not believe it, Jesus says.

What should we do? Hold onto what is certain! Hold onto God’s Word! Not just in theory, either. Know your Bibles! Know them well! Know your Catechism—the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer! Cling to that which is solid, to that which is dependable. What else? Remember your Baptism! And wear it like a cloak wherever you go. You have been bathed in the blood of Christ. You wear Christ before God. Now wear Christ also before men. Let them see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. What else? Feed on the Sacrament of the Altar, where Christ accompanies us here in this wilderness, here in our flight. And use the strength it gives to fight against sin and temptation and a worldly mindset.

And what does the Lord want you to know as you live in this time of tribulation? For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together. Jesus will certainly come, just as He promised. He’ll come at just the right time, when things look to be falling apart all around you. He won’t come in secret. You won’t miss His coming. No one will. Every eye will see Him when He comes. And all His people, like eagles, will fly to Him where He is, even those who have fallen asleep. It’s the very thing St. Paul describes in our Epistle today: For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

In summary, see in today’s Gospel the Lord’s genuine concern for the welfare of His dear people. His urgent warnings to flee the apostate church, and then to watch, to pray, and to wait patiently and hopefully for His return, are meant for you, and He will keep you firm to the end through the means that He Himself has provided. Through all the trials and tribulations of this life, which Jesus told us about beforehand, keep looking forward to that other thing He told us about beforehand, His blessed return at the end of the age and the eternal life He has graciously prepared for all who believe in Him! Amen.

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