Warnings and comfort for times of tribulation

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Sermon for Third to Last Sunday after Trinity

Exodus 32:1-20  +  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  +  Matthew 24:15-28

Today our thoughts begin to turn toward the end of the Church Year, and at the same time, to the end of this world and to the coming of Christ.  Last week as we celebrated All Saints’ Day, we saw the saints wearing white robes.  These, said the angel, are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation—those who die in faith and whose souls are even now before the throne of God in the presence of Christ, the Lamb, washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed in sparkling white.

But that means that the great tribulation they were coming out of, is here and now.  It means that these are the last days, and that you and I are living in the midst of the great tribulation.  Jesus speaks of it in the Gospel, and Matthew weaves back and forth between Jesus’ predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world.  The Evangelist Luke separates Jesus’ sayings, especially in Luke 17 and Luke 21, so that you can easily tell when He is predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened about 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection in 70 AD, and when Jesus is predicting the events leading up to the end of the world and the return of the Son of Man.  Why does Matthew tie them so closely together?  It’s no accident and no mistake.  The Holy Spirit wanted those two events to be connected for us, so that we learn some things about the great tribulation of the end times from the great tribulation that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus warned His dear disciples and Christians about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and taught them how to survive those troubling times.  But today we won’t spend much time talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.  Instead, we’ll focus on this great tribulation in which we still live, and we’ll listen as Jesus gives us Warnings and Comfort in Times of Tribulation.

Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place…”  An abomination is something that is detestable—hated and despised by God.  This abomination enters the “holy place” and brings with it “desolation.”  “Desolation” is devastation, to turn a place into a wasteland, either by causing the inhabitants to flee or by wiping them out.

Throughout the Old Testament, the thing most hated and detested by God is idolatry—the worship of idols, false gods.  You heard this morning about that abomination called the golden calf and how God almost wiped out—desolated—the entire Israelite community because of it.  Over and over again, the idols of the Old Testament caused desolations in Israel.

But the greatest idolatry Israel ever committed was its rejection of Jesus as the Savior sent from God to redeem them from their sins.  The Jews at the time of Jesus didn’t bow down to images of silver or gold.  But when the majority of them rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they turned away from the worship of the true God and turned toward the abomination of works-righteousness—trust in themselves and their own goodness.  From that time on, all their priests and all their sacrifices became an abomination in the sight of God, because instead of promoting faith in Christ, their worship now pointed away from Christ. The desolation of Jerusalem by the Roman armies was God’s severe punishment for such idolatry.

Idolatry is all around us in the world today as people worship false gods.  Sometimes images of gold or silver or stone, but more often things like money and comfort and pleasure, the idol of self and self-reliance and self-service.

But see!  Jesus is not warning us in this Gospel against all the idols that may exist in the world.  He speaks of “seeing the abomination of desolation” standing “in the holy place.”  The holy place is no longer Jerusalem. There’s nothing holy about Jerusalem anymore. No, the holy place is the Holy Christian Church, the communion of holy ones—the communion of saints.  And the abomination is still idolatry.

Yes, it’s true, the Lutheran Church has, for the last 500 years, identified the papacy in Rome as the very Antichrist that sets itself up in the Church above the Word of God, that exalts man and puts man in the place of God in the hearts of the people, and that condemns the teaching that sinners are justified by faith alone in Christ.  The abomination is epitomized—summarized in the papacy. But the abomination extends beyond the papacy, and just because the Lutheran Church has separated from Rome does not mean that the Lutheran Church is immune to the abomination.  No Christian church is immune, hence Jesus’ warning in our Gospel.

Where the word of man is made equal to or even given priority over the Word of God in the Church, there is the abomination that causes desolation.  Where faith alone in Christ for salvation is replaced with the works of man in the doctrines of the Church, there is the abomination that causes desolation.  Where men and councils and synods pretend to speak for God apart from His Word, or where they demand our allegiance above our allegiance to the Gospel of Christ, or where they condemn the teaching and the teachers of justification by faith alone in Christ, there is the abomination that causes desolation.  See it for what it is!

See it for what it is, because on the outside, it doesn’t look like an abomination.  Nobody, not even the pope, comes out and says he denies Christ.  And he can twist the Scriptures and quote from the Word of God and make it sound like he must know what he’s talking about.  And he has so many supporters and so many intelligent men to back up his doctrine and so much history and so much glory on his side, and he teaches so many things that are true and right and good.  Who could see an abomination of desolation behind the papacy?

Luther could.  And so could all the faithful who took to heart the simple Word of God and compared it to the teachings of Rome.  The abomination that causes desolation will not be removed from the holy place, from the Christian Church, until Jesus Himself returns and destroys it with the breath of His mouth, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians.  The abomination is an integral part of the great tribulation in which we live. Keep your eyes open and see it for what it is!

And when you see it, Jesus says, flee!  Flee and don’t look back.  And pray that your flight may not be hindered by anything.  Don’t go down to take anything out of your house. Don’t go back to get your clothes.  Or as He says in Luke, don’t look back as Lot’s wife did while Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed.  Her hesitation to leave the idolatry behind cost her her life.

But it’s not as simple—and in some ways, not as difficult!—as fleeing to the mountains, as the Jews in Judea were warned by Jesus to do when they saw the abomination in Jerusalem.  The holy place, the Christian Church, extends now into all the world, to every nation, tribe, language and people.  And wherever the people of God gather, there the abomination will threaten to take hold.

So what’s the answer?  Leave the world?  No, God Himself will take each one of us out of this great tribulation when He sees fit and bring us safely into His heavenly kingdom.  What, then?  Leave the Church itself where Christ Himself has given pastors and teachers to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments?  Wouldn’t Satan have his victory then!

No, you don’t leave “the Church.”  But you may need to leave “a” church or even a church body if the abomination is allowed to set up shop in the denomination.  We have some experience with that, don’t we?  Jesus’ admonition to flee and don’t look back still applies.

But as you leave and as you flee, be on your guard there, too, because false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  As you run away and flee from the abomination of desolation there will be church salesmen trying to drag you into their dens. Look, here is Christ!  Look, he’s in here!  Come on in! Come to my church!  Don’t believe them, Jesus says.  It would be like hopping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And so it is that, ever since Luther led the flight away from the Roman papacy, countless denominations have formed, one sect after another, and you know what almost all of them have in common?  They invite you to come and find Jesus where He isn’t, and they turn you away from where Jesus is.

What am I talking about?  I’m talking about the separation of Christ and His Spirit from the preached Word and the Sacraments.  When Jesus returns, every eye will see Him.  It will be like lightning flashing from one end of the heavens to the other.  Until then, Jesus is not found out in the desert or there in the inner room.  He isn’t found in your feelings or in your heart or in your prayers or in a certain kind of music.  Until His return, Jesus has promised to give Himself to us for salvation, for the forgiveness of sins, only in the Word, only in Baptism, only in Holy Communion.  And ironically, or maybe just in fulfillment of prophecy, the vast majority of denominations in the world today that have separated from Rome deny the saving, forgiving power of Holy Baptism, and they deny the real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar for the forgiveness of sins.

Well, doesn’t this all sound frightful?  Abominations, desolations, false christs and false prophets and danger on every side.  What is our comfort in the midst of this great tribulation?  Our comfort is sure and certain.  Our comfort is Christ Himself and the Word of Christ that will not pass away, even though heaven and earth pass away. Our comfort is that Christ has preserved His Word among us.  His Spirit has gathered us here today around the Gospel and has enlightened us with His gifts.  Here He has given us shelter from the storm.  Here He forgives our sins and strengthens our faith and nourishes our bodies and souls with the body and blood of Christ, so that even in the midst of this great tribulation, God has not abandoned His children but has given us all we need until Christ returns, even the warnings and admonitions in today’s Gospel.  The Lord Jesus hasn’t sent us off into the great tribulation to fend for ourselves.  He has given us His Spirit and has promised to go with us.

The final words of our Gospel are also comforting, although somewhat cryptic.  For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.  Strange as it sounds, that’s Jesus referring to Himself and His people, even as He says to His disciples in other place, I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. Even now we gather around Jesus in the Sacrament.  But when the times of this great tribulation are finally over and past, we will fly to Him like eagles, as you heard in the Epistle today: For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

All of Jesus’ prophecies have come true up until now.  Why would we think that this one wouldn’t—this prophecy about the abomination of desolation and the great tribulation that His people would experience in the time before His return?  But if the great tribulation is real, then so is Jesus’ promise to sustain us along the way and to return to rescue His people. Pay attention to His warnings.  And take comfort in His promises.  And let us each be a blessing to one another along the way, in these times of great tribulation.  Amen.

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