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1 Thessalonians 14:13-18
Today’s Gospel seems to leave us with more questions than answers. We’ve been through the cycle of the Church Year enough times that we know that once we pass All Saints Day our focus turns to the End Times. The next two weeks will explicitly deal with the return of Jesus for the final judgment and close of this present age. But we know today’s Gospel deals with this as well since Matthew introduced Jesus’ words by telling us that what he records is Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about the end of the age. But it helps us unpack the Gospel if we back up a little bit from the assigned Reading. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus tells the Disciples that the Temple will be destroyed. Unable to fathom this because of its size and beauty, the Disciples assume the destruction of the Temple must mean that Jesus has returned to bring the new heaven and earth. But these two things do not go together; they are separate events separated by a number of years known only to God. So, in love, Jesus sets about preparing the Disciples and those first Christians for the unspeakable evil and devastation that will come with the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70. This gives us the most important key to unlocking today’s Gospel: Listen to it as first century Jews. This is practical preparation for a time with unspeakable evil that has not been from the beginning of the world nor will there ever be again. What the Jews would experience in those days would be worse than Egyptian slavery, most Jews dying in the wilderness wandering, and even the Holocaust.
So, how would they know this was coming? Daniel (11:31) said that an evil emperor would, muster forces… “and they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. And this is exactly what happened. A few rulers tried to desecrate the temple, but it was ultimately Tiberias who successfully infiltrated the Temple and erected a statue of himself in the Holy of Holies. He defiled the Temple, ending the sacrifices and leaving it desolate. This was the final warning sign , explaining Jesus’ urgency: When these days come don’t try to go home to grab a forgotten item. It’s why He speaks words of woe—really, statements of pity—for pregnant and nursing mothers—because their flight will be nearly impossible. And heaven forbid you must flee in winter or while trying to keep the laws of the sabbath. When the sign was seen, the day of destruction was there with no more time for escape.
Every word of Jesus prophecy came true. When the final destruction of Jerusalem came there was no escape from its swiftness and completeness.
The ancient historian Joseph records the sickening conditions of the fall of Jerusalem, events that make the most heinous of concentration camps look like Disney Land. The destruction was so widespread that other lands housing Jewish refugees murdered them there as well. If God did not bring this to an end it would have brought about the annihilation of the entire Jewish people. But God mercifully shortened those days to allow the Jews time for repentance and conversion.
So, if this Reading speaks to first century Jews, what is there for us twenty-first century Americans? To understand the significance for us today we need to rightly understand two parts of the Gospel: First, the “Abomination of Desolation,” and, second: the false christs that will appear at the close of the age.
“Abomination of desolation” is a confusing term. Both Greek words have a lot of baggage. The word translated as “abomination” can also mean ‘something disgusting that arouses wrath,’ to make abhorrent,’ or ‘something totally defiling.’ The word translated “desolation” can also mean ‘not to destroy but make uninhabitable,’ or ‘depopulating.’ The easiest way to translate “Abomination of desolation” that tries to bring all of these concepts into play is to say, “something fully defiling that makes a place completely uninhabitable.” Once we look at it in this way our minds start to get it. How did God make man in the beginning? He made Adam in His image and likeness and declared him to be “very good,” that is, perfect, and holy. His holy place, his soul, was the dwelling place of God. But sin, the real abomination of desolation, destroyed that. By the fall into sin, man was no longer holy; his soul was no longer pure. Sin was fully defiling and made his soul completely uninhabitable. God could not dwell there for God cannot dwell in unholiness, nor can unholiness dwell in the presence of God. But God has decreed: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So, the sacrificial system was introduced, the shedding of blood to make free of the abomination of sin, the soul purified, once again inhabitable. For us, the abomination is our sin. Our sin should terrify us and make us as outraged as an idol in the Holy of Holies would make a first century Jewish hearer of Jesus’ words that we heard this morning. We should flee from our sin as quickly as possible, realizing the destruction it brings, both for body and soul.
And this is where the second application for us comes. We take God’s longsuffering, His time of grace in which we live, this time for repentance as His being okay with sin, that He winks at it and doesn’t take it seriously. But when we look at sin this way we end up with a false christ where the true Christ calls all to repentance.
Another false Christ held up by our culture is the one who sees us as having an inherent goodness, an ability to free ourselves from sin. But this makes Him unnecessary, His death and resurrection nothing more than a tragic event in history with no real significance.
Do not be deceived by these false christs and false prophets. Believe the Words of Jesus calling you away from your sin, away from that defilement that drives Him from His rightful dwelling place in your soul. This means that as long as you’re in the flesh, in this body and life there must be active warfare, engagement in the battle against the devil and your sinful flesh. It will be relentless. So, we sing in bold determination: “Farewell I gladly bid thee, false, evil world, farewell.” We can sing that and mean it because we’re rightly troubled by sin and its consequences, but chiefly because of the promise Jesus made us: “unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” For you, the elect, chosen in the receiving of faith and the gift of Holy Baptism, these days were cut short. At the Font you were given forgiveness for all your sin. You were made an heir of heaven. Though your body may still be in these evil days, your soul is safe, hidden in the wounds of Christ the Crucified. Your soul is inhabited by the Holy Spirit. And soon even your flesh will be inhabited by the Body and Blood of Jesus. He will pull you back from the desolating abomination of sin, and when you fall into it, He will forgive you. Our prayer, then, is that God mercifully cut these days short, that He come quickly to save us from the abomination of sin and bring us to His side soon, but that until He does so He keeps us safe from all that would harm us in body and soul, from sin and false christs, keeping our hearts and minds fixed on Him and His saving work alone.