In this world there will be tribulation

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Sermon for Trinity 25

Isaiah 49:12-17  +  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  +  Matthew 24:15-28

Our thoughts turn today toward the end of the Church Year, and also toward the end of the world. What should Christians expect in this world in the days leading up to Christ’s coming?  Jesus tells us today.  He tells us beforehand so that we’re not surprised, so that we’re not afraid, and so that we can be properly prepared.  In this world, there will be tribulation.

Tribulation, affliction, distress—that’s what Jesus foretells for this world. But not necessarily the kind most people think of.  Here’s what Jesus says:

Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. What is this “abomination of desolation”? An abomination is a hateful thing, a detestable thing.  The prophet Ezekiel describes the abominations that filled the temple in Jerusalem even back in his day, which was about the same time as the prophet Daniel.  The abominations were idols and idolatrous practices, set up right there in God’s house. False worship and unbelief, turning away from God’s Word. It caused desolation in the land of Israel even then.

But Daniel saw beyond those abominations to a future time. One of those times was 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The Jews by that time had firmly rejected Jesus as the Messiah sent from God to save them.  Jerusalem had been given 40 years to repent of their sins, even their crime of crucifying the Son of God.  But they wouldn’t. They trusted in their own works, not His. They trusted in their own religion, not in the Gospel of Christ. They trusted in their own sacrifices made in the temple to make atonement for their sins, not in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for their sins.  And so what they were left with, by following a Jewish religion no longer pointing to Jesus Christ, was a false religion—the same false religion that is Judaism today, a false worship and idolatry right there in their own temple.  Their idolatry was an abomination before God. And it eventually brought about the desolation of the temple at the hand of the Roman armies in 70 AD.

But the Jewish Christians, the believers in Jerusalem, escaped the destruction, because they took Jesus’ words seriously and fled before it came.

Still, Jesus wasn’t only talking about the abomination of desolation leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction. He was also talking about the state of the Church in the world as the Last Day approaches. He spoke of an abomination—a great idolatry—right in the midst of the holy place, which is the Church on earth. You see it in the development of the Roman papacy into the Antichrist it became—as the Gospel of salvation and forgiveness by faith alone in the blood of Christ was replaced with the “gospel” of earning God’s favor with your works, or buying it with the merits of the saints.  You see it in the Roman papacy as the Word of God was placed beneath the word of men, and manmade worship turned people away from Christ to gods of their own making.

Flee to the mountains, Jesus says, and that’s what believers have been doing ever since the time of the Reformation. They have fled the false Church—whatever its name may be.  We’re not talking about a single denomination here, but wherever the teachings of man have become more important than God’s Word.  Believers have fled from the doctrines of men and the worship of men in order to escape the desolation that is coming on those who have believed a lie, on those who have not loved the truth.  Here we are, hiding in the mountains, as it were. We have fled from Rome, fled from all false doctrine, as all true Christians must, because the Word of Christ is too precious for us to remain where it is not given its full honor.

So the Holy Christian Church on earth is a fleeing Church, a remnant of true believers in the huge mass that is called Christianity, a remnant fleeing from all the idolatry that is performed in the name of Christianity. That’s why outward prosperity and numbers and glory can never be marks of a church’s orthodoxy. Those who are faithful to the Word of Christ are in flight. When you’re in flight—when you’re fleeing from doom and destruction, you’re not worried about how you look. You’re worried about getting to safety.  Christ and His Word—that’s where safety is, that’s what counts, that’s what matters. Where the Word of God is preached in its truth and purity and where the Sacraments are rightly administered—that’s where the true Church is, no matter how small it may appear to be.  Faithful churches in these last days will not look prosperous and glorious.  Faithful churches will struggle to survive. We’re fleeing, after all.

Some—some are unwilling to flee from the idolatry of manmade doctrines; they don’t listen to the urgency in Jesus’ words when He says, “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.” But others—others are hindered from fleeing. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath.  You can understand how those situations made it hard for some people to flee from Jerusalem before its destruction. What hinders people—what makes it hard for people to flee from the idolatry that has set itself up in the false Church today? Family ties, perhaps. Financial impediments. Geographic obstacles.  In some parts of the world, there is no orthodox presence within traveling distance. The true Christians who remain there are stuck.

And why is it so important to have the pure doctrine of God’s Word in these latter days? 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. Jesus describes this “great tribulation.”  But it’s not the great tribulation of a shaky economy or high unemployment rates or even war.  It’s the great tribulation—the great distress under which believers in Christ are made to live in this world.  It’s the tribulation of a surrounding culture that wars against the teachings of Holy Scripture and attacks the Word of God at every turn.  It’s the tribulation of a Christianity that is so full of false beliefs and false teachings that it’s hard to know where to turn or where to go or whom to believe. It’s the distress of the devil as he seeks to drag you away from Christ through false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. 

Jesus says that it will get so bad for believers that no one—not even the elect would be saved, if God didn’t shorten those days.  Even the elect will start to lose hope, will begin to despair, and will be tempted to throw up their hands and give up.  But, Jesus promises, but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.  God will not allow the devil, the world, or our flesh to defeat us, if we “adhere to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s grace, and faithfully use the gifts received.” (FC:SD:XI)

The gifts we have received from God to sustain us through the great tribulation are the Means of Grace, the ministry of the Word—the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.  That’s where Christ gives Himself to us to forgive us our sins and to strengthen us.  In the Means of Grace—and nowhere else.  So Jesus warns, Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  You want signs and wonders? You want programs and numbers? You want a tent revival with the healing power of the Spirit? False christs and false prophets will be offering such things, says Jesus. Every peddler of religion will be glad to help you find Christ somewhere—within yourself, in self-affirmation and self-help, in your works, in your righteousness, in your feelings.  And many are deceived.  But don’t you be deceived.  If you’re looking for Christ, for His mercy and forgiveness, find Him in His Word and in the ministry of His Word.  That’s the only place you’ll find Him, until He returns in glory.  At that time, no one will be able to miss Him, because as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  Until then, do not seek Christ or forgiveness or salvation in the desert or within yourself or anywhere else.  Seek Him in His Word, and you will find Him.

Because, as God promised His Church in the Old Testament lesson today, He will never forget His people.  During the great tribulation, Zion, the Church, believers may well say,  “The LORD has forsaken me, And my Lord has forgotten me.”  But God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child,  And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually beforeMe.

God will not forget or forsake His children—those whom He has called to faith in His Son and adopted as His own.  On the contrary, just when everything looks hopeless, then the prophecy of the Apostle Paul from today’s Epistle will be fulfilled. 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.

But before that day, in this world there will be tribulation.  Let the words of Christ be your comfort throughout this great tribulation in which we live: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” And you have overcome the world, too, not by your strength or power or goodness, but by faith in Christ Jesus, who overcame the world for you by His death and resurrection to prepare a kingdom for you and an eternal home.  As John says in his First Epistle, For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.  Amen.

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