The Abomination of Desolation
The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 20, 2011| St. Matthew 24:15
“Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand) . . . St. Matthew 24:15
As we come to the end of the Church year we consider those portions of God’s word that point us to the end of our lives and the end of the world. The Epistle and Gospel lessons for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Trinity both deal with the return of Christ. Jesus provides us with many signs of his return. There are signs in nature: famines and earthquakes. There are signs in the world: wars and rumors of wars. And there are signs in the Church.
It is the signs in the Church to which we turn our attention today. As Jesus describes the end of the world he points us to two other cataclysmic events. The first was an event foretold by the prophet, Daniel. Daniel wrote of when the pagan emperor Antiochus Epiphanes would desecrate God’s holy temple. Antiochus, of the Seleucid Empire of the second century B. C., had declared himself to be a god. Blaspheming the true God of Israel, he forbade the true worship of the true God and ordered pigs’ blood to be poured out on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. He was the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place.
Second, Jesus points to an event that would take place about a generation after his death, resurrection, and ascension: the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus in 70 A. D. Again, the abomination of desolation stood in the holy place. The holy of holies was desecrated.
What does this mean? What is this holy place? What is an abomination of desolation? And what does this have to do with us today and the times in which we live?
The holy place was just that. It was a place in the temple where the holy God met his people. But how can a holy God meet sinful people without destroying them? To be holy is to be sinless. Holiness and sin are incompatible. There is no synthesis between them. For once holiness is compromised by sin it is no longer holy. But God is holy and will not be compromised. God is incapable of sin. He cannot sin and sin cannot touch him. This is why the meeting place between the holy God and sinners was always there in the temple where the blood was shed. The sacrificial blood had to be shed. That’s because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness and sinners remain sinners. But with the shedding of blood there is forgiveness. Indeed, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, washes away all of our sin.
The holy place in the temple was a place where reconciliation between the holy God and his sinful people took place. God himself pays for their sins. He becomes incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and is made man. He suffers for us under Pontius Pilate. He is crucified. In his crucifixion, the holy God suffers the punishment that all sinners deserved. In this suffering he removes their sin. He pays for it and thus he takes it away. He bears it and forgives it by bearing it. He does this by his suffering and death. There is no other way it can be done. Only God can take away sin. God takes away sin by bearing the curse and punishment that sin brings. He sheds his blood on the altar of the cross. He makes peace with sinners by taking their sins off of their shoulders and bearing it on his own. There was no other way for sinners to be forgiven and rescued from death and hell.
The holy place is where the holy God meets his sinful people and forgives them. No sin remains unforgiven. Thieves are forgiven. Jesus bore the sin of theft. Adulterers are forgiven. Jesus bore the sin of adultery. Abortionists, liars, homosexuals, cheaters, disobedient children, abusing husbands, fornicators, idolaters, child molesters, selfish and narcissistic egotists who use others to pleasure themselves – they were all forgiven of all their sins where the innocent blood of Jesus was shed for them. And make no mistake about it: Jesus shed his blood for everyone without exception.
All you need is the blood of Jesus. And you don’t do it. You don’t suffer it. You don’t shed it. You don’t offer it, as if it is a sacrifice that the pastor or the congregation must offer up to God. No! The sacrifice on Calvary’s cross was offered up once and for all and takes away all sins of all sinners of all times. When we eat and drink we receive. We aren’t making an offering for sin, we are receiving the body and the blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins and in receiving the body and blood we are receiving forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
All you need is the blood of Jesus. The abomination of desolation standing in the holy place is when the blood of Jesus is taken away from the holy place. It then is no longer the holy place. It then is no longer where God meets his sinful people to forgive them their sins. Antiochus Epiphanes and General Titus removed the blood of Jesus from the holy place in a most graphic, public, and crass manner. They deliberately blasphemed the temple. They killed unclean animals and tossed their blood in the holy of holies. They set up altars to idols. They were about as “in your face” as they could be in showing utter contempt for the religion of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
But crass or subtle, open or secret, “in your face” or surreptitious, idolatry is idolatry and it takes place in the temple of God. It takes place where the holy God meets his sinful people to forgive them. Idolatry is the abomination. It causes desolation. That is, it drives God out.
Now obviously, it is impossible to drive God anywhere. God is almighty and he is omnipresent. He is where we are and we cannot go where he is not. But the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, the salvation he alone can provide are bound to where the blood of Jesus Christ is shed to forgive us our sins. When idolatry enters into the Church at this point it replaces the true worship and there is no grace from God.
God will not be gracious; God will not forgive; God will not save; except where the blood of the eternal covenant is shed for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus alone can rescue us sinners from the destruction that is coming upon this world. The abomination that brings desolation is the replacement of the true gospel with a different gospel. The abomination of desolation drives the gracious God away. The pure and saving gospel of the free forgiveness of all sins for the sake of Christ’s innocent suffering and death is replaced with a gospel that direct sinners elsewhere. And the abomination of desolation rises up from within the visible Church.
The enemy is not Islam, with their violence and fanaticism and vengeance seeking. The enemy is not secular atheism, with its snotty dismissal of the miraculous and all things sacred and holy. The enemy is not a culture of nihilism that rejects all permanent values and celebrates nothing more than the feelings of the moment. These may be threats to the faith or to our wellbeing in this world, but they are side distractions from the chief enemy of Christ and his Christians. That enemy always arises from within the Church. He is in the temple. He goes into the holy of holies. He removes the blood of Jesus and puts something else in its place.
He wears a robe or a three piece suit. He stands at the altar or out on a stage. He preaches from a pulpit or walking back and forth. He’s high church, low church, and everywhere in between. He preaches. But his preaching does not expose your sins. And his preaching does not reveal to you the blood and righteousness of Jesus. It does not direct you, in humble repentance, to embrace in simple faith the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, it teaches you to do this or that or the other thing to make your life better than it is while talking about giving God all the glory.
The abomination of desolation standing in the holy place is a bloodless Christianity that holds to the form and denies the substance of the Christian faith. Jesus is a good luck charm, beneficial mostly for his example of love and acceptance. There is no more sin. There is rather dysfunction. There is no more repentance. There is rather therapy. There is no more forgiveness of sins coming to you from the holy God. Instead, you are to accept and love yourself as you are.
Ah, but you are a sinner and you love yourself more than you love God and that is what keeps sinners out of fellowship with the holy God in this life and forever. Your troubles in life are not on account of evil out there in the world of which you are an innocent victim. No, the problems you suffer are your own fault. But the abomination that brings desolation who is standing in Christ’s Church and preaching as if he is Jesus himself doesn’t want you to see this. He goads you to get your back up and rail against the truth that condemns you and your desires to hell. This fake Jesus will deny there is a hell or divine retribution against sinners. This counterfeit Jesus – whom the world adores and lionizes as pure and true and faithful – has one goal in mind: to keep you away from the blood of Jesus.
He will convince you that once you believe in Jesus it’s a done deal and you can’t fall away so you don’t really need to hear the gospel or receive the sacrament of his body and blood to sustain you in the true faith. He will attack the biblical teaching that Jesus’ blood has pacified God and taken away his anger. He’ll say that teaching this makes God into a brutal bully who must be pacified, as if the holy God demanding justice is unfair and cruel. He’ll say that the blood of Jesus does take away sin but only if you do your part and then, of course, your part becomes the focus of your faith and life and before you know it your faith is in you instead of Jesus. Or, he’ll comfort you with a false universalism that says a loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to hell because if he did he wouldn’t be loving and so you end up trusting in a blind Santa Clause god who doesn’t care what you do wrong or know what to do about it.
False Christs sit in the temple of God. But the abomination of desolation does not drive Christ out of his Church. The true cannot fall away. She cannot deny the faith. God will preserve her against all assaults of the devil. But she is hidden. She’s hidden under the pure gospel and sacraments of Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the truth matters. Indeed, in the end, it is the only thing that matters. And the truth is that we are forgiven of our sins, declared righteous by God, and made holy by the Holy Spirit where the blood of Jesus is shed for us. There is where the holy God meets us, forgives us, receives us, declares fellowship with us, rescues us from death, and takes us to himself in heaven where no sin or death or sorrow or pain can enter. All christless, bloodless religions of human achievement are lies, delusions, and idolatry. All glorying in our flesh is vain and self-destructive.
There is only one way to prepare for the end of our lives and the end of the world, and that is to take refuge in the suffering and death of Jesus our Savior, and to rest our souls in his grace. Let us pray:
O Holy Spirit, grant us grace
That we our Lord and Savior
In faith and fervent love embrace
And truly serve Him ever,
So that when death is drawing nigh,
We to His open wounds may fly
And find in them salvation. Amen