Matthew 24:15-28 – Third-Last Sunday-a

To Whom Shall We Turn In The Day Of Evil

I am sure we have all done something like this. But, instead of speaking in a general way, I’ll give you an example from my own experience. One July 4th holiday family and friends sat in Chicago’s Grant Park eating good food and waiting for night to fall, the Symphony Orchestra to begin playing patriotic songs, and the fireworks over Lake Michigan. Everything is going great until we notice the sky begin to darken with storm clouds in the west. This is a once-a-year event. We ignore them. Surely they will go away. The wind picked up, and we ignored that too. Some of the people picnicking around us packed up and left. But what do they know anyway? It will blow by and they will miss a great show. Thunder rolls, but that could have been a passing truck. Then with a fury that could not be ignored lightening flashed across the sky and a level 3 thunderstorm descends over Grant Park and before we can bundle things up, small rivers of runoff overtake our ground cloth. All the signs were there, we just wouldn’t believe them. We ignored them until it was too late.

The signs of the end time—the signs of judgment—are all around us. We have earthquakes, wars, and rumors of war constantly in our world. Many choose to ignore these signs, Judgment will never happen, all this will surely blow over, But as the blot of lightening comes ith a fury that now one can ignore, so will the Son of Man come in all his glory—quickly and with unmatched power. All who believe will be saved, and all who do not believe will be condemned. We need to be ready because this world will come to an end quickly. The signs are here; the time is short.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord layers together two different historical events, making it seem as though they are one and the same. The first event He speaks about is the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, about forty years after our Lord’s death and resurrection. The Romans finally came and waged war against the city, and the devastation was so great that one ancient historian described the carnage as “a sea of flame” and “an ocean of blood.” “Nowhere could the ground be seen between the corpses, and the soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives” (Josephus, The Jewish War).

In prophesying this loss, Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!”—those for whom flight will be impossible. (Matthew 24:16-19) And when Jesus speaks here of “the abomination that causes desolation standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15), He is referring to the Roman general Titus, the man who not only destroyed Jerusalem and made it desolate, but who also violated the Temple by entering into the Holy Place.

But the destruction of Jerusalem is not the only event that Jesus prophesies here. He prophesies the destruction of the whole world as well using the destruction of Jerusalem a type for the end of the world. He says, “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:22). And this, dear Christians, is a reference to the growing hardship and strife that we will continue to face as our Lord’s return grows nearer.

Yet who knows exactly how things will come about at the end of all time? Who knows how much more terrible things in this world will become? Our Lord previously warned us of “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew 24:6), and these things have been a regular part of human life for centuries. He speaks of famines and of earthquakes (Matthew 24:7) and of the persecution of Christians (Matthew 24:9), and these, too, have been commonplace since our Lord’s ascension. Earlier in this same chapter, Matthew records Jesus description of end-times conditions that are chillingly similar to what we frequently see in today’s visible Church: “At that time many will turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other,” He says, “and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10-12).

We need to keep in mind that there is no predicting our Lord’s return. We know that very well. But there is a common thread that we can see between today’s Gospel and the conditions of the Last Day. Jesus makes this common thread clear by combining the destruction of Jerusalem together with a prophecy concerning the end of all time. And the thread linking these two events together is this: both in the destruction of Jerusalem and in events of the Last Days, people will be desperate to find comfort for their fears. And Satan will prey upon their desperation by sending them false Christs and false prophets, “to deceive even the elect, if that were possible” (Matthew 24:25).

In Jerusalem, it was the desperate desire to escape the bloodbath of the Roman assault. In these ever-worsening last days, it is the same desperate desire for an escape—escape from the terrors and fears and persecutions that the Church has already begun to face.

But as the Church seeks comfort from her fears, she must pay careful attention to Jesus’ warning in this Gospel: “At that time, if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible. See I have told you ahead of time” (Matthew 24:23-25).

We already know that our enemy, the devil, seeks to destroy as many of God’s people as he possibly can. We know that he is a deceiver and a liar, that he loves to dress himself up like a Christian preacher or an example of righteousness, and in this way, to “deceive even the elect, if that were possible” (Matthew 24:25). Satan regularly sends his preachers out into the visible Church—preachers who proclaim false messages and who offer false comforts; preachers who claim that you can look to the Bible to find the right way to live, the right combination of things to do to be saved; preachers with syrupy lips, who suggest that your Christianity may be lived in whatever way you please. According to Jesus’ Words here, Satan even sends miracle workers into the Church, who supposedly speak great prophesies and perform various healings and even resurrections from the dead. But Jesus also says of them, “They will deceive even the elect, if that were possible.”

And to be honest, it looks very much like the Great Deceiver can have an easy time of us, because so many in the Church have so willingly dropped their God-given defenses. Relatively few parents take their children to Sunday School any more. Many parents do not teach their children the value of regular worship, many parents neglect their duty to teach their children to pray or to read the Word—but in many cases, through their life and conduct, they teach their children instead to regard the Ten Commandments, the Sacraments, and the Word itself as of secondary importance. The theological integrity of many congregations has been left solely to the pastor and to a few wise laymen, when the whole congregation ought to be concerning itself with the details of God’s Word—when Bible studies should be filled to capacity with laymen desiring to know more of the riches contained in God’s Word. What Martin Luther saw in the Church back in 1529, when he wrote the Small Catechism, is still evident yet today: “The layman… knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach” he writes. “Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament, [but all they have mastered] is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds” (Small Catechism, Preface).

And so the hard questions today’s Gospel poses for us are these: To whom shall we turn in the day of evil, if in this day we ignore, even despise our Lord and His mercy, clearly expressed for us in His Word? How shall we guard ourselves against the inevitable deceptions of the evil one, if we will not carefully and daily attend ourselves to that which God has spoken? How shall our children cling to the strong arm of Holy Baptism if we do not devote ourselves to nurturing within them the knowledge and understanding of all that Holy Baptism brings to them? How shall we survive that coming day of evil, if we have not invested ourselves today in the powerful gifts that God gives?

“At that time, if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ! ‘ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible. See I have told you ahead of time” (Matthew 24:23-25). With these words, Jesus speaks to each and every one of us, and He calls upon you to find comfort, strength and solace in the only places such things are to be found: in His Word, as you carefully listen to it and take it to heart; as you cling to your Baptism, where you and all the saints of God are immersed in to new life with Christ; in His Holy Supper, as you participate in the life-giving body and strength-giving blood of Jesus, offered for you at His crucifixion and distributed for you at this table. These are the comforts God has given! These are the strongholds that will protect you in the day of evil! These are the strong medicine for your own mortality and one source of truth by which you will be able to resist all deceptions.

You have been called into the presence of the Savior who has invested his Church with the gifts that will protect you from deception and overcome the evil which threatens you. When you position yourself squarely upon God’s Word and upon His Sacraments you will be able to discern rightly between genuine promises and false teachers—you have God’s promise on that. It is true that we do not live in safe or comfortable times, and it is true that things will only grow worse for us. But your Christ has, by His blood, already redeemed these times and already overcome Satan and all his forces for you. And your Lord will not give you more than you can bear, for He also swears to you in this Gospel, “for the sake of the elect, those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:22).

And your Lord Jesus does not proclaim these prophesies to you in order to drive you to fear, but to spur you on to confidence and trust in His Word. And by His powerful Word, He shall “strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).

Until then; the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

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