Our Gospel lesson is actually a chunk taken out of the middle of an answer Jesus gives his disciples, which takes up the entire 24th chapter of Matthew. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed. His disciples then go up to him and ask a flurry of questions, "When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" And in our Gospel lesson Jesus answers these questions in one big mesh.
Jesus addresses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which was actually destroyed in the Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70. This is the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel in chapter 7. Roman troops burned the temple and killed hundreds of thousands of people in Jerusalem. The temple was never rebuilt and sacrifices were never offered on its altar again. Jesus warns his disciples to flee when they see these things beginning to place.
Jesus also addresses his coming and the close of the age. On the Last Day, Christ will return on clouds of heaven with power and great glory and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt. 24:30-31)
So, it might seem like this Gospel lesson doesn't apply to you that much. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed nineteen and a half centuries ago, so you don't need to heed the warning to flee to the mountains. And the return of Christ and the closing of the age seems so far away. Every generation of Christians is told to expect it, but they die before it happens. But do not be mistaken. This warning Jesus gives applies to you and me today.
We are living in the end times. In the 24th chapter of Matthew Jesus perfectly describes what it is like to live in the end times. Lawlessness will be increased and the love of many will grow cold. False christs and false prophets will arise to deceive the people. There will be wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, Christians will be persecuted and killed, and people with betray and hate one another. Does this sound familiar?
We're an impatient people. Just like the children of Israel, we think Jesus has been delayed for too long, so we go after other gods. Sure, we may not worship a golden statue, but we fear, love, and trust in things that are not the true God. We worship money, fear the influence of people, love our friends and family more that Christ, we trust in ourselves, in our own jobs, and our government instead of the God, who has promised to continue to take care of us.
Christ warns that false christs and prophets will lead astray, if possible, even the elect. The elect! Those, who are chosen before the foundation of the world to sit at the feast of salvation! Satan and his false teachers will go after you. It doesn't matter if you are a life-long Lutheran or your father was a charter member of the congregation or you go to church every Sunday, those are exactly the people these false christs and false prophets will seek to lead astray. And so, you must never put down your guard.
False prophets will lead people astray with great signs and wonders. How many times over the centuries and still today do people flock to a statue or grave of a saint, because it is claimed that it provided healing remedies. Roman Catholics and those in the Eastern Orthodox Church continue to put their trust in saints instead of Christ alone, because they are convinced by a supposed miracle. While their devotion is certainly religious, it is not centered on Christ, who alone saves!
And I'm sure you've seen them on television: faith-healers. People flock to churches that promise to heal various diseases. Many are fooled into thinking others are healed or even that they themselves are healed of an illness they may or may not have had. And even perhaps, by some satanic power some are even temporarily healed from actual ailments. And they'll claim to speak in tongues, saying they have the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that is why many flock to these healers and tongue speakers: they want to have the Holy Spirit. Yet, God's Word promises the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and in the Lord's Supper with Christ Jesus, himself! Yet, these churches reject Baptism as a work of God and the Lord's Supper as the true body and blood of Christ. So, they look for some other assurance of the presence of God. And they are led astray by faux wonders instead of the true means of grace given by God and promised in Scripture.
Of course, these false prophets will lead many astray even without wonders, as many probably wouldn't even believe in Jesus' miracles if they saw them. So, they lead many away with smooth talk. They scratch the itching ears by giving the people what they want to hear. "Let's not talk of sin, that makes us uncomfortable. Repentance is so archaic. The Church really needs to get in step with the 21st century, doesn't it? Let's not talk about true and false doctrine, that's so divisive." So, many are willingly led astray, because they don't want to deny themselves and follow Jesus.
And of course, if miracles and rhetoric won't work, Satan will try violence, which is actually the least effective weapon against Christ's saints. We saw this last Sunday, when people gathered to worship Christ were gunned down in their church building. Twenty-six people died and twenty more injured. It outraged the nation, because church should be a safe place to gather in this free country. It was a horrible and wicked action that was no doubt instigated by the evil one.
Yet, even in that moment of horror, God was able to do good. The most persistent warning Jesus gives concerning his return is to stay on guard. You do not want to be caught unawares when the Master returns, lest you be found unfaithful. The Christians greatest fear is to die with an unrepentant heart or in the state of unbelief. In the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to "deliver us from evil." Certainly, this would include delivering us from a mad man shooting up our church. Yet, much more, we pray that God would deliver us from an evil death. An evil death is to die a sinner without repentance and without faith. So, we thank God that he was patient with us, so that we did not die when we had a hateful or unrepentant, or unbelieving heart, but has turned us back to him. And we pray that God would continue to keep us repentant and trusting in Jesus, so that we are ready to die or Christ's return, whichever comes first.
And so, God did deliver even those shot and killed in that church in Sutherland Springs, Texas from an evil death. They died trusting in Jesus. To die a Christian is the greatest way to die. To die confessing Christ is to die well. And no amount of bullets or bombs can make the Christian death evil. The murder is evil. But the death of his saints is precious in God's sight (Psalm 116:15).
You do not know your dying hour. And even more, you do not know the hour of Christ's return. He will return like a thief in the night. And so, you must be prepared today to meet your God. You are prepared by trusting in Christ and his death for your sins.
When the temple was destroyed all sacrifices stopped. The Jews trusted in the sacrifices, because through them God forgave their sins. Of course, the sacrifices of animals didn't forgive their sins, but the sacrifices pointed to Christ, who has once and for all died for all sins. This is why God has not and will not have the temple be rebuilt. Christ has replaced the temple. The temple was where God's presence was. The destruction of the temple was called the abomination of desolation, because it removed God's presence from his people.
The warning of the abomination of desolation is still valid today. The abomination of desolation is the removal of God's presence from us his people. It is the removal of Christ from us. "Christ's over here! He's over there! This is what Jesus really says." These are the cries we will hear. And they'll be accompanied with signs and wonders and sweet talk. But Jesus says not to listen to them. Christ is only where his blood is offered to his Christians; where the forgiveness he won on the cross is faithfully proclaimed. False christs and false prophets, they all have the same goal: to take you away from the sacrifice of Christ for your sins. You identify these false christs and false prophets by what they teach. They teach contrary to God's Word. And their aim is to take your focus away from Christ and his work of forgiveness.
No one can predict when Jesus will return. So, if anyone claims to know when, you can mark him as a false prophet. Yet, when Christ does return there will be no mistake what's happening. Just as lightning lights up the sky, everyone will see it and it will be too late to prepare when it happens. But those gathered around Christ will be prepared. They will not be caught off guard. And so we continue to gather where Christ promises to be, where his sacrifice for our sins is proclaimed and where his forgiveness is administered to us in both Word and Sacrament. Right here, we are prepared to die well. And right now, we are prepared for Christ's return. Oh, Lord, Keep us steadfast in your Word and Faith. Amen.