Waiting in the mountains for Christ’s return

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Sermon for Trinity 25

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

The Apostle Paul took us into the future in today’s Epistle, to what will happen on the Last Day when Jesus returns. He comforts us about our fellow Church members who have fallen asleep in faith. He assures us that they, together with all believers who are living on earth when Christ returns, will be raised to new life and will spend eternity with the Lord Christ. That’s a vision of the future that God always holds before our eyes, so that we’re thinking about it, focusing on it, and drawing comfort from it.

There’s another vision of the future that Jesus holds before our eyes in today’s Gospel, and it’s less pleasant. It’s about certain future events and circumstances leading up to His second coming, and He describes that time as a time of “great tribulation.” But as always, Christ gives us this information and these instructions, not to scare us or worry us, but to help us get through those difficult times, so that we can persevere in faith all the way up to His coming and be included in that joyful number of the elect, being caught up to the sky with Christ and His whole Church of believers on the Last Day. For now, we’re waiting in the mountains for Jesus’ return.

Our Gospel begins with a warning from Jesus about the “abomination of desolation.” An abomination is something disgusting, something that God hates and His true Church should find despicable, deplorable, detestable. This particular abomination is “of desolation.” It lays waste and causes destruction. It “stands in the holy place,” which, at the time of Jesus, was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. The prophet Daniel had referenced the “abomination of desolation” in his Old Testament book, and Jesus says, Daniel’s prophecy will certainly be fulfilled.

He was referring, first, to the events leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70. God would give Jerusalem time—about 40 years! — to repent of their rejection of Jesus the Messiah, and of their crime of crucifying the Son of God. But God knew the Jews would not repent, for the most part. And so He would bring His wrath down on the Jews, as He warned them throughout the Old Testament and again through the words of Jesus. God would rain down wrath on Jerusalem, not at the hands of His Christians, but at the hands of the pagan Romans, who came in to squash the Jewish Revolt that took place between 66 and 70 AD. The Jews themselves turned bloody violent against one another, and then against the Romans. The rebellion reached Jerusalem and even the Temple, until eventually the Romans came in and burned it all to the ground.

Jesus told His disciples, when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ standing in the holy place, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Jesus warned His Christians about the impending doom of Jerusalem, giving them time to flee after they saw the Jewish Revolt reach the holy place. They were to flee quickly, without looking back. Jesus didn’t call on the Christians to stay and fight for Jerusalem. Even though it had so much history for God’s people, so much significance for the kingdom of heaven leading up to that time, it lost its significance when it finally and permanently rejected Jesus as the Christ. The Christians were not to stay and defend Jerusalem. No, Jesus said. Get out. Leave it. Abandon it. Don’t try to save it. And don’t worry about its history. Don’t worry about it as the place where you grew up, or as the place where your fathers grew up or as the place that God once chose to reveal Himself. As soon as you see the abomination of desolation take its place in the holy place, don’t wait. Get out. Flee. Or you will perish.

Jesus saved His disciples from physical death with that warning, and with Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70, Jerusalem ceased to exist as the Biblical city of God. How strange, then, that modern Americans in the Evangelical camp seem to think the city of Jerusalem or the nation of Israel still has some special connection with God or with the Holy Christian Church. These false-teaching Millennialists or Dispensationalists will say things like, “If you stand against Israel, you stand against God.” Or, “God will bless those who bless Israel.” They’ll make a big deal about the Jewish religion or about Jerusalem, as if it had some Biblical purpose yet to fulfill or some special place in God’s kingdom. It doesn’t. It’s filled today with the same unbelief and the same rejection of Christ, and thus, the same idolatry, as it was in 70 AD. And it stands as a perpetual reminder of the coming judgment against the apostate Christian Church.

That’s the other part of today’s Gospel. Jesus wasn’t just talking about the city of Jerusalem. In the New Testament, the Israel of God is the Christian Church. The City of God, the New Jerusalem, is the Christian Church. The holy place, God’s Temple, is the Christian Church. And from within the Christian Church, according to Scripture, there will come another “abomination of desolation,” the Antichrist, who pretends to be a follower of Christ and a spokesman for Christ, but in reality teaches against Christ and leads many astray, to the point that the outward, Visible Christian Church becomes apostate.

The Roman pope is the most prominent representation of this abomination of desolation. He stands in the Church and pretends to rule over it. He sets up manmade traditions and exalts them above Scripture and above Christ. He robs Christ of His glory and steals it for himself and for others, like Mary and the saints. He robs Christ of His glory by teaching works-righteousness. He sets up a blasphemous sacrifice on the altar of God as he turns the Mass into a re-sacrificing of Christ and as a human work that’s designed to earn God’s favor and make payment for sins, which is why the Lutheran Reformers often referred to the papal Mass as an “abomination.”

When you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ standing in the holy place, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Get out! Flee! Don’t try to stay and save Jerusalem! Don’t try to stay and hide out in Jerusalem. And don’t hesitate. Leave.

When Luther and the other Reformers identified the pope and his false doctrines as the Antichrist, they did flee to the mountains; they left the fellowship of the Church of Rome. They left the safety and the comfort of that great and glorious Church. They separated themselves from it and simply preached the Word and administered the Sacraments here and there and wherever they could, without the pope’s consent or approval. Thank God they did! They heeded Christ’s warning.

So have we tried to do, up to this point, too. In our generation, in our time and place, we continue to flee from Rome. We also continue to flee from the Reformed doctrine of Calvin, from the Revivalist doctrine of American Baptists, from the liberal immorality and godlessness of the ELCA, and from the synodicalist sectarianism of the WELS with its official rejection of the chief article of the Christian faith, justification by faith alone in Christ alone. We continue to shun the glory and the pandering of the megachurch and of the “One Big Synod,” as a wise man once referred to it. Here we are in the mountains, as it were, in our tiny congregation, in our little diocese, mourning over the great city perhaps, mourning over the corruption of the Visible Church and over its imminent destruction, but glad and thankful to have escaped. We’re like spiritual fugitives, the Church’s refugees. All of this is part of the “great tribulation” Jesus spoke of.

But that’s just it. Jesus spoke of all this ahead of time, this corruption of the Visible Church, this spreading of idolatry and false doctrine within the walls of the New Testament Jerusalem, and this refugee-lifestyle that Christians in the last times will be forced to live as we flee from the glorious Church with its corruptions and abominations. This is not out of the ordinary. This should not be unexpected. So it must be in the days leading up to Christ’s return. Rejoice as you see Christ’s words being fulfilled all around you!

But also, remain vigilant. There will still be false teachers telling you to go looking for Christ in the desert, in the inner room, in this place or that. There will still be the threat of idolatry all around us and the evil desires of the sin that lives within us, and the temptation to look back with longing at the great city, the glorious Church, with all its history, with all its splendor—and its bigger numbers!, where, maybe, some of you even grew up and enjoyed all the nice things the glorious Church has to offer. And we can’t grow comfortable or overly secure here, either, in our congregation or in our diocese. It’s not as if we’re immune to false doctrine or idolatry. We, too, could allow ourselves to be led astray.

As always, only Christ can save us. Only Christ can help us and fortify us and defend us during this great tribulation, and He promises that He will. For the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. Or elsewhere, I will build My Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. He is our mighty fortress. He is the Church’s one foundation, and His Word is our sure and certain guide. His blood shed for our sins, and given to us in His Holy Supper for the forgiveness of our sins will continue to plead for us before the throne of God, keeping us safe from sin, death, and the devil, even in the midst of this great tribulation.

There’s no room for pride here, no room for hatred, no room for self-pity, no room for despair. There’s only room for humility on our part, and for daily repentance, and for devotion to God’s Word and Sacraments, and for thanksgiving, and for loving one another, here in the mountains, as we wait for Jesus to come again, as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, as the Lord gathers all His elect to Himself in the sky on the Day of Resurrection. Let us live for that day. Amen.

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