Living as refugees of Jerusalem

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Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity

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

In those days leading up to His crucifixion, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 20-25, Jesus taught His disciples many things about the coming days—what they should expect to happen after His resurrection, both during their lifetime and all the way up to the end of the world. In today’s Gospel Jesus covers the entire New Testament period, from the destruction of Jerusalem that would happen in 70 AD, all the way up to His second coming at the end of the age. It’s a tragic prophecy of the apostasy and destruction, not only of earthly Jerusalem, which once was the beloved city of God but then rejected its Redeemer, but it’s also a tragic prophecy of the apostasy and eventual destruction of the spiritual Jerusalem—the Visible Christian Church on earth.

Of course, mingled with that tragedy is also the lovingkindness of Jesus who warns His true Christians about all this ahead of time and provides for His true Church a way of escape from the destruction that is coming. That way of escape is for us to flee from Jerusalem and to live out the remainder of our days on earth as her refugees.

Jesus mentions the “abomination of desolation,” which Daniel, too, had prophesied. An abomination is something that God despises and hates, and it was a common word used in the Old Testament to describe idols and idolatry in general. False worship. False doctrine that depicted a god who does not save sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. False doctrine that depicts a divine spirit who deals with men, not through the Word of God, not through the ministry of the Word, the appointed Means of Grace, but directly and inwardly.

That abomination was firmly set in place in Jerusalem and in her temple in the decades after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Some of the Jews listened to the Gospel for a while, but eventually the city rejected it. They rejected their Savior, who was the true Temple where God is to be worshiped. They kept looking for an earthly savior who would save them, not from sin, death and the devil, but from the Romans. So God caused those very Romans to bring destruction on Jerusalem and her earthly temple.

But all who heeded the warning of Jesus and His instructions, let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, were spared from Jerusalem’s demise. But a time of great tribulation came upon those Christians for the next 250 years. They were spared from the wrath of God that was poured out on Jerusalem, but the cross they bore for following Christ was real, and living as refugees of Jerusalem meant that they had to keep fleeing from one place to another as the Roman empire ramped up its persecutions, and many Christians became martyrs for the Christian faith.

According to the promise of Jesus, those days were cut short, even though 250 years is a pretty long time. In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine became a Christian and ended the bloody persecution of Christians throughout the world. The “great tribulation” came to an end. But Christ hadn’t returned. So Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 still had a spiritual meaning and a spiritual fulfillment that would yet take place. They should expect another “abomination of desolation” to be set up in the holy place, in the holy city.

Now, the days of earthly Jerusalem’s importance are past. It will never again be called by God “The holy city,” and “the holy place” will never again be located in a Jerusalem temple. The holy city is now the Holy Christian Church, and the holy place is the hearts of Christians, whom God has sanctified for Himself through Holy Baptism. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.

The abomination that would be set up in the Christian Church is summed up in the Roman papacy. We’ve known that now, in the Lutheran Church, for nearly 500 years. It doesn’t matter who the pope is, or how different he is from other popes that came before him. He represents all the false doctrine that has invaded and now desolated Christendom, every teaching of man that obscures or darkens the work of Christ and faith in Christ. That all have sinned against God and deserve His wrath, that Christ has come and suffered for all sin and risen from the dead, that God offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to sinners for the sake of Christ alone, through faith alone, apart from all our works and obedience, that God sends His ministers to call all men to repent of their sins and believe in Christ Jesus, and that God the Holy Spirit will work forgiveness of sins, life and salvation through Word and Sacrament—that is the simple Gospel of Christ. Wherever human works are added as a cause of our salvation, wherever sinners are directed to seek peace with God apart from Christ or apart from His Means of Grace—that is of the devil. It’s an abomination in the sight of God. It causes desolation—devastation within the Christian Church.

The first Lutherans recognized that abomination within the Roman Church. And when their efforts to bring reformation to Rome failed, they realized that they had to heed Jesus’ words and “flee to the mountains,” to flee from the pope’s doctrine, first in their hearts, and then, as necessary, with their feet. They couldn’t, in good conscience, remain under the Roman bishops. They couldn’t hold onto the earthly safety and prosperity that came with loyalty to the Roman pope.

They not only had to leave the safety of Rome behind. They had to be continually living as refugees of Jerusalem, continually watching out for the false prophets and false christs who would distort the Gospel and get them to turn their eyes away from Jesus and away from His Word and Sacraments. Fleeing from Rome wasn’t a one-time thing for them. It was an ongoing way of life. And the life of refugees is a messy business, full of instability and confusion and uncertainty.

So it is also for us. As Lutherans, we have fled from Rome. But it’s not over yet. We’re still living in the midst of the “great tribulation.” But this tribulation is more spiritual than physical. False doctrine has filled the world, has filled our country, has filled our culture. (To be honest, our country, as a whole, has never known true faith-alone, Word-and-Sacrament-based Christianity.) The spirit of antichrist still calls out all around us, “Come back! Come back! And don’t let doctrine get in the way! Come back to the safety of Jerusalem, the safety of Rome, the safety of the one big Church—you can even call it Lutheran, if you want to! Think of all the nice things you and your children are missing out on by your picky doctrinal positions. Think of all the good you’re failing to do for the poor and for the oppressed by remaining in your tiny little church.”

That’s all part of the great tribulation, and it’s the life that we refugees of Jerusalem, we refugees of Rome, will continue to live until Jesus comes for us. We’re constantly surrounded by false prophets who are always shouting, either, “Come back to Rome!” or “Here’s Jesus, over here! There’s Jesus, over there!” “Over there, in the desert, by yourself, away from organized religion!” “Over here, in the inner room of your heart, in your feelings, in your emotions, in your dreams! That’s where you’ll find Jesus!”

Do not believe it, Jesus says. You won’t find Jesus attached to Rome or its pope, or to the big synod, or the big church of any kind. You won’t find Him out in the desert, or alone by yourself apart from His means of grace. You won’t find Him in your heart or in your prayers or in your imaginations. You won’t find Him on earth, except as He comes through His Spirit, where two or three are gathered in His name, where His Word is rightly preached and His Sacraments are rightly administered. There is Jesus. There is His Church. There are His elect, living the life of refugees until Christ comes again.

And when He comes again, there will be no doubt about where He is. 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. The eagles don’t think to themselves, let’s go find a carcass over in such and such a place. Instead they’re constantly flying around, flying around without knowing where the carcass will appear, waiting and watching until it does. Then they know where to go. Then they know where to gather.

Such is the life of Christians, living as refugees of Jerusalem. We don’t expect to find Jesus in Jerusalem or in Rome or in any human institution, and so we cannot be permanently tied to any human institution, including this church building, including this diocese. Instead, we follow where the Word of Christ is preached in its truth and purity. And then, when Christ appears in the clouds with all His saints, we will fly to Him and gather to Him, to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Amen.

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