Sermon for Trinity 25 - Matthew 24.15-28 - November 9, 2014
1) Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem in today’s gospel lesson. At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus remarked that a day will come when the Jerusalem Temple will be torn down stone by stone. The destruction of the Temple would amount to a complete destruction of the Jewish people. Jerusalem was a fortress. The Temple, with its Most Holy place, marked the gracious presence of God amongst the Jewish people. No Temple. No people of God. No more sacrifices for sin. No more cleansing from ritual defilement. No more mercy. The Temple had been destroyed before. Solomon’s temple was torn down by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 586 B.C. The Jews were carted off to Babylon for a seventy year exile, punishment for their continual backsliding and willful idolatry of the heart. The Lord allowed them to return and the temple was rebuilt by the Davidic governor Zerubbabel. That temple was defiled by Antiochus IV of Syria, when he took Jerusalem and slaughtered a hog on the bronze altar and set up his own image to be worshipped in the Most Holy Place of the Temple. The Lord raised up the Maccabees to defend the Old Testament faith and restore Temple worship so that the Christ would have a Temple to enter, as the prophets foretold. Zerubbabel’s temple is what would have stood in Jesus’ day, with some remodeling and updating done by Herod the Great. This spot, this temple, had been razed to the ground, defiled, and filled with unclean blood before. Now Jesus tells His disciples that this will happen again but where the exiles returned to rebuilt the Temple, where there were divinely inspired Maccabees to cleanse the Temple, this time the destruction would be complete.
2) This destruction would come about 40 years after Christ’s ascension in the form of the Romans. The Romans were just the instrument though. Just as Nebuchadnezzar was the instrument in God’s hand for Judah’s judgment in the Old Testament, just as Antiochus IV was God’s instrument for bringing the Jews to repentance in the intertestamental times, the Roman general Titus was only the tool in the hand of God Almighty to punish the Jews for their complete rejection of the Christ. They rejected His teaching. They murdered Him. They denied His resurrection. They put some of the Apostles and at least one deacon to death. They did everything they could to suppress the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners. Jesus lamented their fate already in Matthew 23:37, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Unbelief is the mother of all other sins of thought, word, and deed. Unbelief, rejection of Christ and His Gospel, is what brings judges sinners to condemnation, or rather unbelief is the sinner’s own self-condemnation before God. St. John writes, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:17-18) Christ comes to bring mercy. But most sinners do not want mercy. They want self-vindication and self-righteousness to save them. This brings judgment.
3) So Christ teaches the apostles how they are to respond to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and their people. When the abomination that causes desolation is placed in the temple, the only response is to flee. This happened when Tiberius, Roman Emperor, placed his own image in the Temple to be worshiped as God. In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus mentions this abomination but also the approach of the Roman army as a sign that the desolation is near (Luke 21:20). There is no escaping this judgment. Nor is there any way to turn it back or to make the Lord God repent of this condemnation. The faithful Christians left in Jerusalem and Judea are to flee. Don’t get your garment if you’re working in the field. If you’re relaxing on your rooftop (Jewish roofs were flat), don’t get any belongings on your way out the door. Pray that women aren’t pregnant or nursing in that day, or they may be slowed down in their escape. Pray that it won’t happen on the Sabbath so that some are mowed down because they think their observance of the Sabbath is more important than their lives as they did in the days of Antiochus IV. Flee the destruction that is coming. Do not hear false Christs or believe heralds which point you to hidden messages from god “in the desert” or “in the inner rooms.” Just flee. Jesus tells them this is all the sign they will need. Just as lighting flashing across the sky does not need a herald to make itself known, and just as when you see the birds of prey circling, what’s going on is self-evident. Flee.From the histories we know that this happened. Christians, hearing the words of Christ in the written Gospels and preached from apostolic lips did just that. They escaped to a small city called Pella. Hearing the Word of the Lord in faith, they saved their lives.
4) We may hear these words of Jesus and wonder if there’s really anything in them for us today, or for Christians in any age after 70 A.D. We cannot flee the destruction of Jerusalem. We don’t live there and the Jerusalem that exists today is not the true Jerusalem anyway. So what do we do with Jesus’ words almost 2000 years later? The answer is in St. Matthew’s parenthetical comment in verse 15, “Whoever reads, let him understand.” St. Matthew wrote his gospel and recorded this for us because he knew that Jesus’ word about Jerusalem’s fall would have implications for Christians of every generation. The reason? The fall of Jerusalem is a prototype for the end of the world. By teaching about the fall of Jerusalem in this chapter Jesus answers the disciple’s question about when the Temple would be destroyed. But they also ask a follow up question, “And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3) Jesus answers both questions in this discourse, which is why St. Matthew urges us readers to understand that this still has meaning for Christians living post-70 A.D.
5) So how is the end of the age similar to the fall of Jerusalem? There is an abomination that causes desolation standing in the holy place today. Not the holy place of the Temple, for the Temple does not exist nor will it ever exist again. The holy place is the church for the church is the spiritual Jerusalem. The Lutheran Reformers rightly pointed the finger at the Papacy and called it the Antichrist. In Jesus’ day “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.” (Matthew 23:2) That means that they held high office in the church as teachers of the church. Yet they led sheep astray by their false doctrines, teaching men to rely upon their own works and merits rather than looking to Christ in faith. The papacy did this in Luther’s day and still does it in our own day. The man and the entire apparatus works to misconstrue the true teaching of Scripture. But not only do we see this idolatrous abomination in the papacy but we see it sitting on altars all over the world (if the newer churches build altars to begin with). St. John reminds us in 1 John 2:18 that there are many antichrists in the world, many false teachers putting themselves in the place of Christ, promising special spiritual knowledge apart from what God reveals in Scripture. All false teaching, even in the smallest bit, is dangerous to man’s soul, even as a trace amount of poison in food puts a man’s physical life in peril. False teaching, like poison, may not kill immediately, but if imbibed enough, the changes for death increase greatly.
6) Seeing so many abominations throughout the churches in our own day we are to flee from them. We are not to have fellowship with those who hold to or tolerate such false teachings because of the danger to our souls. So many think they can frivolously remain in fellowship with error and not be affected by it. But this is impossible. We are flee from such abominations and perversions of the Word of God wherever we find them, whether in a church, a church body, a book, a website, and the like. To where to we flee? It is not always physical flight (though in the case of belonging to a false teaching church or church body it should be a physical flight away from that place). When confronted with novel teachings about Christ and the faith we are to, as Christ says, flee to the mountains. Psalm 121:1-2 says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills -- From whence comes my help? My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 48:1 says, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised In the city of our God, In His holy mountain.” Where is His holy mountain? It is His pure Word. His pure Word and Gospel are to be our refuge from the abominations that cause spiritual desolations in this life. His Gospel is our fortress from the antichristian preachers preaching that you must earn God’s favor or that you’re conquering of sin is a sure sign of your salvation. His Gospel of the forgiveness of sins is to be your rock to which you cling in the storm of an evil conscience of guilt, anxiety, and worry. You are commanded to flee to His pure, precious promises He gives you in Christ Jesus. Flee to the mountain of the Word and its promises, not the plains of a so-called triumphant or victorious Christian life that is based on your works instead of Christ’s promises. Flee to the Word when you see these abominations.
7) In this way, the Fall of Jerusalem is a prototype for the end of the age. False christs will appear and have appeared already. False teachers loom around every corner, luring us out in the deserts or into inner rooms to learn their version of truth. But false teaching is false teaching and false teaching is not the Gospel but works against the Gospel. We are to flee all of this as we live in these last days of sore and great distress. In this command to flee we also see Christ’s mercy for His faithful. “Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened.” (Matthew 24:22) The Lord continues to watch over His true church wherever it is found. He will not allow His faithful baptized children to undergo more than they are able to bear as the time draws short. He is watching and guiding all things and events so that we are not consumed but may continually flee away from lies into the truth of His Word. For in that holy mountain of the Gospel purely preached in every article of faith, not just some, perfect remission of sin if offered, salvation granted, and life everlasting bestowed. Amen.