Third Last Sunday Sermon 2007
St. Matthew 24:15-28
“The Coming of the Son of Man”
When our Lord Jesus preached about the end of the world he brought together two events: the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. He spoke about the “abomination of desolation standing in the holy place.” He predicted that the Roman government would destroy Jerusalem and desecrate the temple of God. His prediction came true less than forty years later. This is history. It happened over nineteen hundred years ago. But the “abomination of desolation standing in the holy place” was not just a reference to the desecration of the physical temple in first century Jerusalem. Jesus’ words apply also to the Church as she exists today. Even today, false and unchristian doctrine parades as the truth. False teachers claim the mantle of orthodoxy. Within the center of Christ’s Church on earth blasphemous denials of Christianity are commonplace. Indeed, the truth itself is seldom recognized and the true Church is difficult to find.
False Christs and false prophets abound. The angel told Mary that her baby would be called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. This Savior of sinners is twisted beyond recognition into Jesus the social reformer, Jesus the political activist, Jesus the therapist, Jesus the source of health, wealth, and peace of mind, and the list of false Jesuses goes on and on.
We are told that the Church must learn to relate to the felt needs of the people. But what people feel they need is not necessarily what they need. Seeking to meet felt needs is how the false Christs can worm their way into the religious affections of the people. The pain of repentance is deemed too much to bear, but folks will bear just about any kind of lie. It is as if all of Christendom is crying out to be conned. Make us feel good about ourselves! Promise us anything except what we need the most because we want to be lied to and deceived.
Just talking about false doctrine seems quaint – a relic of a bygone era when religious conviction was still fashionable. But Jesus was speaking with clarity and earnestness when he warned us of the false Christs and false prophets that were to come. He said that they would deceive, if possible, even those whom God had chosen. So let us beware and learn to identify these imposters so that they may not deceive us.
Note how Jesus identifies false teaching. He speaks of the “abomination of desolation standing in the holy place.” The holy place was in the temple. It was where the blood was shed. It was where God met his people. An abomination is idolatry. It is false worship. The abomination of desolation is when and where false worship has replaced true worship. The place where God has chosen to meet with his people has been taken over by false gods and false worship. God meets his people where the atoning blood is shed. This means he meets us where Jesus dies for us. He meets us where the Holy Spirit testifies to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He meets us where we confess our sins and cast ourselves on his mercy, for there it is that our broken and penitent hearts are cleansed by the blood shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins. There it is that we are reconciled to God. There it is that true faith and true worship are born. God chooses to be gracious to us and to make us his children and to deliver us from all evil of body and soul. He chooses to do this for the sake of Christ’s vicarious suffering and death. This is why St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
When some other Christ than Christ crucified for sinners is preached, then the Christian Church leaves that place. So does God. True, God is omnipresent. He is present everywhere. He is there in the Mosque where Christ is denied. He is there in the false church where Christ is ignored. But God is not present with his grace and favor except where the blood of his Son is shed for the forgiveness of sins.
The true Church cannot fall. We have our Lord’s guarantee. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) But this does not mean that the false Church cannot succeed in replacing the true Church in the affections and faith of people. This happens every day. And this is what our dear Lord Jesus warns us of in today’s Gospel Lesson.
“Look! He’s in the desert!” No, he’s not. “Look! He’s in the inner rooms!” No, he’s not. You know where he is. He is where he promised to be. And where did he promise to be? Where there is the washing of his baptism, the preaching of his gospel, the eating and drinking of his body and blood for the remission of sins, there he is and there he will be until the end of the world.
The false Christs and false prophets will show great signs and wonders. This is why we must base our faith not on what we see but on what is written in God’s word. Deception is the devil’s business. He is an expert in presenting a lie as the truth. How does he do it? Consider how the con artist succeeds at his trade. He gets you to look in the wrong direction. He distracts your eye with a flourish with one hand while the other hand is doing the deception. You never see the con because you’re looking in the wrong place. The simplest way to avoid the devil’s con is to avoid being distracted. We must look stubbornly at the words written down in the Holy Scriptures and take our stand on the plain sense of the biblical text and refuse to consider anything else.
We must learn to judge by God’s word. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15,
It does not matter how holy the preacher appears to be. The only way you can learn to judge the teaching you receive is to learn God’s word. You cannot learn to judge the false Christs and the false prophets by learning loyalty to a synod or to any other manmade organization. Loyalty to a particular minister won’t help either, for even if he is faithful, sooner or later he’ll be gone.
But how can the people possible learn enough of God’s word to be able to withstand the deceptions employed by men far more knowledgeable than they? It is not a matter of knowing many things. It’s a matter of knowing what you need to know and knowing it well. There is no substitute for being grounded in the chief parts of Christian doctrine set forth in the Catechism.
When you see churches questioning the truthfulness of the entire Bible, teaching evolution, ordaining women to preach, condoning homosexuality, refusing to insist that Jesus is the only Savior of sinners and the only way to heaven, you don’t need to be a Bible scholar to know that these churches should be marked and avoided by faithful Christians. It’s not just a matter of knowing what is right and what is wrong or true and false – for the Bible is quite clear on the things I just mentioned – it’s a matter of being willing to stand up and be counted for the truth. It’s a matter of courage. It’s a matter of being willing to confess. Or do we remain silent in the face of error upon error because we don’t want to take a stand that may cost us something? Is social acceptance within a religious climate of anything goes more important to us than the truth? What about the truth by which we are saved eternally? Can we reduce everything we believe to a gospel core that will save us as we willingly barter off everything else? Or will not the spirit of doctrinal compromise leave us with no gospel at all and prey to every religious con artist that the father of lies decides to foist upon us?
At the very heart of all false doctrine is the satanic lie that we can to this or that degree rescue ourselves from our own sin. The holy place is where God forgives us by the blood of Jesus. That God forgives unworthy sinners freely entirely by his grace for the sake of Christ’s vicarious obedience and that this forgiveness is received through faith alone is the very heart of the gospel. It is therefore always the devil’s target. As love for the truth grows cold the truth will be lost. And if we lose the truth we lose our own souls.
The signs of the end and of the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead are all around us. The signs of warring nations, familial love rejected, and the rise of every kind of brazen wickedness are more and more evident. People care nothing about the truth, but they heap up for themselves teachers to scratch their itching ears with fashionable lies. People are more and more enamored by glitzy appearances while the divine truth is despised. Those who preach it and those who confess it are despised as well.
But all this means just one thing. Jesus is going to return. The Son of Man is coming and he is coming soon. He will not leave his Zion ashamed of what they confessed. St. Paul bragged that he was not ashamed of the gospel because it was the power of God to save everyone who believed it. And so it remains. Every attempt to falsify it will ultimately fail because God’s truth abides forever and ever. And when this world is destroyed and all its promises shown to be vain the promise of eternal life that Jesus gave to his sheep will be seen and known as the truth. For that day we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Amen.”
Rolf D. Preus