Trinity 25, 3rd Last Sunday in the Church Year
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
The temple area in Jerusalem was a rather impressive display of architecture and engineering. In the years before Jesus’ birth, King Herod had engaged in a multi-decade project to turn the entire temple mount into a place rivaling the glories of Rome, with dozens of huge colonnades and porticos and archways and structures surrounding the temple. And the temple itself was a sight to behold–renovated and upgraded by Herod. Because it was a building of white marble and gold, with bronze entrance doors, it was said that you couldn’t look directly at the Temple in full sunlight or it would practically blind you. The disciples were impressed by all this glory, and they point it out to Jesus.
However, Jesus bursts their bubble. The glories of this present world, even of the temple itself, were passing away. Jesus, who is the eternal temple, the dwelling place of God in the flesh, tells them that those huge, expertly-crafted, marvelously-placed stones would all be destroyed and thrown down, not one stone left upon another. This must have been a shocking thing for the disciples to hear, and it gets them to thinking about big apocalyptic things, like the end of the age.
That’s what Jesus wants us to do, too, especially as we begin to wind down to the end of the church year. Now is the time for us to ponder ultimate and eternal things and not just what is impressive in this world. We, too, can rightly marvel at amazing feats of architecture, like the ancient pyramids, medieval and renaissance church buildings, modern stadiums and skyscrapers. We, too, can be amazed at technological wonders like GPS and artificial intelligence. But lest we get too full of ourselves and what humans can achieve, Jesus bursts our bubble and gives us a dose of reality. It’s all going to be thrown down and destroyed–including this building, including the things you’ve built up in your life–all of it. Don’t get too caught up in temporary wonders and accomplishments, or you’ll go down with them.
Jesus gives several signs which are intended to keep us focused on the main thing, the big picture of life with Him. The events that led up to the cataclysmic destruction of the temple are a microcosm of what will happen to the whole world in the last days. And so Jesus talks about both of these things together.
First, Jesus says that in the last days, you should watch out for false Messiahs and false prophets so that you are not deceived by them. Whether it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon “latter-day saints” or Muslims or Hindus or generic spiritual gurus, they all present a false Christ–not the historical person who is truly God in the flesh, who died on the cross as the sacrifice to atone for all sin, not the one who is the only Lord and Redeemer, but some person of their own invention. Even within the church there are many who lead away from the Christ-centered truth of Scripture to the deceitful wisdom of man. So be on guard; pay attention to doctrine. Be sure that you are taking in the Bread of Life and not the carcinogens of false teaching.
Next, Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, of famines and pestilence and earthquakes. Sounds a bit like our nightly newscasts, doesn’t it? Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas, other conflicts brewing from the far East to right here at home. And nature itself is often in upheaval. Yet all these things, Jesus says, are just the beginning of the birth pains.
Now when labor pains come, what do the parents do? They get everything ready for the delivery. They head to the hospital. They focus on the new life about to come into the world. So what do we do when we see these signs? When everything looks like it’s coming apart wherever we turn, too often we get anxious and fearful and cynical. But Jesus gives us the signs of the end not so that we’ll focus worriedly on those troubling events but on Him whom the signs are pointing us to. Just like birth pains, these signs are meant as a wake-up call. Get ready! New life is about to come. We don’t know exactly when–labor is sometimes short, sometimes long. But one thing we know for sure: Jesus is returning soon. And that’s a good thing! So you’re in the right place, this hospital, this divine service. Do the spiritual lamaze of breathing in and breathing out His holy words. Receive the medicine of immortality in the Sacrament of the Altar to strengthen your hearts. Don’t dwell on how everything is crumbling down. Rather, keep your eyes fixed on Him who is building up and bringing in the new creation for you, even in this moment.
It’s important to do this, because Jesus says that Christians will be hated and killed for the sake of His name. How’s that for an evangelism message? “Come and die with us.” Those who love the lies and the false promises of this world hate those who hold firmly to Christ and His words of truth. So don’t be surprised at how violently irrational this could get. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me first.” You are given to be like your Lord and to walk the way of His cross.
Be prepared for this, so that you don’t stumble and fall away from the faith. Jesus says here, “Many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.” Former Christians will turn on their former brothers and sisters. And on a larger scale our Lord says, “Because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.” Sometimes lawlessness is accomplished (ironically) by using legal levers of power. What greater example could there be of love growing cold than the majority voting to legalize the killing of innocent unborn children? And yet this was a major theme of our nation’s elections this past Tuesday, even in supposedly conservative-leaning states like Ohio. Why are people so motivated to maintain this “right” to slaughter helpless human beings? Because of the sexual lawlessness that abounds in our porn-saturated culture. When it comes right down to it, sexual freedom is more highly prized in this country than the human life it inevitably conceives. Lawlessness and cold-heartedness go hand in hand.
However, not all of Jesus’ signs are bad news. The last sign He speaks of is very good news, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” Missionary work is a sign of the last days! Even in the midst of the chaos and disorder of this fallen world, the new world is already breaking in through the preaching of the Gospel. The kingdom of God is coming right now by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. His kingdom is in our midst wherever two or three are gathered in His name, assembled around His words and body and blood, receiving His forgiveness and life and salvation by faith. The fact that you have gathered like this today is a witness to the nations of the presence of God’s kingdom and the sure hope you have in His mercy. In this world of upheaval and constant change, you know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. You can count on Him who is your Rock and your Fortress. Jesus gives you this promise, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.”
That’s what you are called to do: endure. Continue to hold on to Christ and His promises. For they will come to pass. Wait with patience for His return. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. When you see all these signs that He speaks of, know that Jesus is close at hand. The very gates of heaven are about to be opened in the sight of all. His glory will soon be revealed to us and in us. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church of the living God. You can endure with confidence because our victory is assured in the crucified One.
And that brings us finally to this mention of the “abomination of desolation” in the Gospel. Israel, of course, was under Roman rule in Jesus’ day. And the Romans demonstrated their dominion by placing their image upon the lands they ruled, the image of the eagle. The eagle insignia was even attached to the front of the temple. For the Jew, these graven images were an abomination and idolatry. Eventually a large Jewish rebellion arose against Rome in 66 A.D., one which would be crushed in the following years. Jesus said in Luke 21, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.” The sign of the eagle arrived in force with these Roman armies. They entered into the temple, burned it, and tore it down in 70 AD–the abomination that brings desolation. Wherever the carcass is–the dead bodies of war–there the Roman eagles were gathered together.
And yet we can see that there is a greater meaning to these words of Jesus. For just as the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadows Jesus’ return in glory, it also points back to Jesus’ death in dishonor. “Wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” Didn’t Jesus die at the hands of the Romans–Pontius Pilate who condemned Him, the soldiers who flogged Him, the centurion who stood guard at Golgotha with his troops? The sign of the eagle was certainly there as the dead carcass of Jesus was taken down from the cross. The real abomination of desolation was that God incarnate was crucified under the authority of Caesar. And the holy of holies, Christ’s body, was violated as a Roman spear pierced Him and the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God was poured out. And yet precisely because Jesus endured this great tribulation, because He underwent this greatest of suffering at the hands of the powerful for you, the tribulation that you must endure will not be your undoing. Your powerful enemies, Satan and sin and the grave, have all been conquered by the greater insignia, the sign of the cross. Marked with that sign in baptism, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:28). For the sake of the elect, the days of tribulation have been shortened–for your sake. They are temporary. Then have an end in Christ. “See, I have told you beforehand,” Jesus says. He has prepared you for this. He will see you through it.
So it’s no longer about carcasses and eagles for us. Now we rejoice to say, “Wherever the risen body of Jesus is, there the sheep will be gathered together.” We assemble at His table where our hearts are warmed and stirred up to love by His forgiving presence. His coming is hidden now, but not on the Last Day. “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Remember how the angel at Jesus’ tomb had a countenance like lightning. When he descended from heaven there was a great earthquake as he rolled away the stone. Imagine, then, what an earth-shaking, radiant event it will be when the Lord returns with the whole angelic host, when your grave is opened, and you share bodily in Jesus’ resurrection. So it is that we pray with the whole church, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit