The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
If you remember back a couple of weeks ago (Reformation Sunday), I started off that sermon by commenting on how it’s hard not to believe that our world is coming undone at the seams and going to hell in a handbasket. If you also remember, the rest of that sermon made clear that there is nothing new under the sun, and that God is our mighty and unshakeable Fortress, and He is in complete control, and we have nothing to fear. It’s always been this way, and it always will be this way, so stop worrying.
Well…then we hear the words of Jesus in our Gospel lesson for this morning. “The abomination of desolation;” getting out of Dodge and fleeing for the hills because things are so bad…almost sounds like much of what half our country has been saying since last Tuesday night. Jesus is warning about this stuff…and it certainly appears to be happening. Maybe now it is time to panic. O…but it gets worse. Jesus goes on to actually lament the plight and struggles of pregnant women during this terrible, trying time. Planned Parenthood would certainly agree, right? “You better pray that it doesn’t happen in the winter, because that will make it even worse!” All the eco-nut jobs will tell you that the “polar vortex” is real. “This is what Jesus was talking about! Woe are we! The end is upon us!” It will be so bad that you shouldn’t even take those extra couple seconds to go down to your kitchen and grab some supplies. If you’re on your roof or working out in the fields, do not pass go. Do not go inside. Do not stop home. Put as much real estate as you can in back of you! Sounds like what you might hear from some folks today.
Here’s the thing: All of what Jesus said here MUST be put into proper context. We’re so quick to hear these words and immediately apply them to us and our present-day circumstances. Clearly Jesus is referring to us! Clearly we are living in the last days. Armageddon and the abomination of desolation is right around the corner, if not already upon us!
Sorry…but NO IT’S NOT! Are things bad right now? Sure. Is it easy to be a Christian in this culture of ours? Nope…but when has it ever been easy being a faithful Christian in this fallen and sinful world? Keeping these words of Christ in proper context, we see that Jesus is speaking specifically to His disciples about a very specific and terrifying event in their immediate context/future. We see from chapters 22 and 23 of Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus had already made it very clear that not one stone of the Jewish Temple would be left standing upon another. Jerusalem would be sacked and utterly destroyed, and the great and mighty temple would be razed to the ground. The disciples, upon hearing this terrifying prophecy, ask Jesus, “When will this happen? What will be the warning signs?” Basically, “When should we abandon ship?” Jesus tells them that this time is not for them to know; it’s not even for Jesus to know. How’s that for faithful humility?! Only the Father knows the exact time that He will pull the plug. In the meantime, remain faithful. Trust in Him.
Jesus then proceeds to tell them that when they do see the Holy Place of God in the Temple defiled by pagan minions of the devil; when the pagans overrun and take control of the Temple—the abomination of desolation…standing in the Temple’s Holy Place—it’s going down. God’s judgment against the Temple and the works-righteous, Christ-rejecting fools within her walls is being made manifest. God is dropping the hammer! Think about that for a moment. We know from history that in 70AD, a mere 35 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Roman military went in and utterly destroyed the temple. They gutted it! They leveled it! And Rome was pretty indiscriminate in their barbarism. They killed EVERYONE in their way. This is why Jesus talks about fleeing from Judea (a very specific locale) and fleeing to the mountains surrounding Judea. This is why He talks about praying that this doesn’t happen during the cold and rainy season of winter, which would make that mountainous, wilderness escape that much worse. Pregnant women having to try and escape this? Roman soldiers had no qualms about butchering a pregnant woman and her unborn child. That would’ve been sport for them. I mention all this—again—because Jesus is speaking very specifically about very specific events and instructions to His disciples in their immediate context and future.
Jesus then goes on to tell them that whenever things do heat up and get rough between now and then, people will claim that the end is upon them. “This is it! It’s the abomination of desolation!” Whenever things get rough, false christs and false prophets will undoubtedly arise, attempting to lead and sway and direct and deliver God’s people from the current affliction. There will be no shortage of people claiming to have special inside knowledge. There will be no shortage of people who claim to have the fix; the remedy; the solution. “Don’t trust them. Don’t believe them. It’s not true. You’ll know when the end is here. It won’t be a mystery. Just like lightning flashes in the east, and it’s seen in the west; just like you can tell that there’s something dead off in the distance because you can see all the vultures circling and gathering, so it will be when the Son of Man returns in all His glory. There will be no mystery. Everyone will know.”
Folks: As I’ve said countless times before, there is nothing new under the sun. Let the reader understand: We, too, will experience our very tough and trying times. We, too, will experience things that are dreadful and terrifying; things that will cause us to wonder if this is maybe the end. I think of all the things that have happened in the past fifty years, and this has been a very common (and recurring) theme. The Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis of the late 70’s, multiple recessions and joblessness and bad economies, Gorbachev and the threat of global nuclear war (and those are the “good old days” that we long for). Let us not forget more current events like 9/11 or Al Qaeda or Isis. Let us not forget the utter indecency, immorality, and corruption that passes for “good government” and “good family” nowadays. Let us not forget the countless natural disasters and terrors that affect us on a daily basis—earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, Zika…just to name a few. It’s all very terrifying and faith-shaking. I’m not in any way saying that Jesus isn’t speaking to us too in this Gospel lesson. He is, which is why it says, “Let the reader understand.” But…let the reader understand the context of what Jesus is saying.
The disciples in first century Judea would have terrifying, faith-rattling tribulations of their own. They would see the words of the prophet Daniel fulfilled, and pagan abomination would profane the Holy Temple of God. And when it all starts going down, they are to heed His Word and flee for the hills. The Temple was no longer a sanctuary. It was now desolate; an empty shell; a tomb. After Christ’s death and resurrection; after Pentecost, God no longer dwelled in the Temple. The Temple was now where unbelief and works-righteousness and rejection of Christ dwelt. The Temple was the lightning rod for God’s wrath against the Jewish rejection of their own blood and Messiah.
This is the “abomination of desolation,” properly understood. This is what the disciples were to flee. Jesus was NOT—I repeat—NOT teaching His disciples that they should try and flee from the Last Day; Judgment Day. Just think how utterly foolish and contradictory to Scripture that sounds! Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joel (among others) all talk about the Last Day. There’s nowhere to flee on that day! There’s nowhere to hide. When Christ returns, that’s it—game over. And that day will come. Do not be deceived, O Cinderella. The clock will strike midnight…but not before God says so. But…that’s not what He’s teaching His disciples here. He’s not teaching them (or us) about Judgment Day here. When the terrible, terrifying, troubling things start happening to them in their immediate locale and context; in their immediate and present-tense lives, flee. Get away from this sin and wrath and tumult and destruction. Heed the Word of the Lord and flee!
Again, do we have terrible, terrifying, immoral, unholy, unfaithful things happening in our day and age? Yes. And, just like Jesus said, there is no shortage of people proclaiming that the end times are upon us, and they have the answers that will save us and get us through; answers that will help us so that we’re not left behind or anything stupid like that. There is no shortage of people—even good and faithful Christians—who want to punch out of society and flee for the hills, leaving all this behind. Well…what does our Lord command us about such things? He says that we are to be in the world, but not of the world. Are we to flee sin and depravity and all this faithless foolishness? Absolutely! But…where do faithful Christians flee? Where have all faithful Christians at all times always fled? Answer: Christians flee to Christ!
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking first-century Christians fleeing Roman soldiers, or 16th century monks fleeing Roman pontiffs and their hitmen, or 21st century American Christians fleeing terrorism, infidelity, corruption, scandal, politics, greed, and the culture of death and depravity that we call “home.” It doesn’t matter! Christians flee to Christ! Let the reader understand: What is true for the first century disciples in their tribulations is true for us 21st century disciples in our tribulations. Flee to Christ. And where is Christ? Where His Word is rightly taught and His Sacraments are rightly administered, there He is. Where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is.
Folks: Christ doesn’t command us to flee to the wilderness. He doesn’t command us to be Amish or hermits, nor does He tell us to go the opposite extreme and simply join in and take part with all the other sinful buzzards as they gorge on death. He calls us to be different. He calls us to be truly counter-cultural. He commands us to flee to Him, right where He reigns and rules victoriously among His people.
There’s an old saying that says that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. Look around! Listen to what you hear! How many people are foolishly fleeing to rotted corpses and carcasses? How many people are storing up their treasures and putting their trust in things and people in which there is NO SALVATION? You can see the vultures gathered around all this, can you not? You can see and hear and smell the corpses of sinful death, and you can see and hear all the people calling you to follow and partake and join them as they feed on these carcasses. If you’re hanging out with the vultures and acting like the vultures and feasting with the vultures, doesn’t that make you a vulture too?
Dear baptized children of God: Turn and flee to Christ! Flee and hold fast to the Lord of Life, who calls you into His sanctuary; His holy house of peace; to His holy table, in order to feed you and nourish you with His blood-bought gifts of grace, mercy, and peace. Turn around and be gathered into His loving arms. He’s right there, reaching out to take you into His tender and loving embrace. Be gathered by Him into His holy household. Look around you! You are among people who are bearing crosses and suffering and struggling and going through tribulations too. You are in the company of baptized children of God. You are not alone. You are among those who flee to Christ and cleave to Christ, trusting that He meant what He said when He victoriously declared, “It is finished!”
My fellow saints of Christ: You are in the Lord’s holy house. The Son of Man comes to you today, bringing His glory and His victory to you! You are in His loving embrace, and He holds you in the palms of His hands. Nothing and no one can harm you. No matter how bad or dark things may seem, you belong to Him! May this be your peace, your joy, and your blessed assurance, all the remaining days you dwell on this side of eternity.
In His most holy name; the same almighty name that you bear upon your head and your heart, marking you as one redeemed by Him….AMEN.
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