Jesus tells us what signs will accompany the End Times. We know well what Scripture says about physical signs, and we are no stranger to them. How many of them have we seen in just the last few months—wildfires, a mass shooting, public hatred of prayer in the aftermath of disaster. In addition to these events, Jesus tells us of wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famines, and earthquakes. As bad as it is two thousand years after Christ’s Ascension, Jesus Himself says “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mt. 24:8). And, anyone can see the evil of these days, whether they are Christian or not. Anyone on the streets can tell you that natural disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency. They can tell you that the divisions between people are worse than anyone has ever known. However, our Readings that prepare us for the End Times don’t focus on these things because the Church is more concerned with our spiritual life. So our attention is placed on the spiritual signs that come with the end of the age. Our Lord tells us what to expect so that we will be prepared, and He reminds us that the only comfort we will have is to be found wherever His Body is present to strengthen us.
The first thing Jesus warns us of is the “abomination of desolation spoken of by the Prophet Daniel.” So, what does Daniel say? Speaking in symbolic ways about the End Times, he writes, “After the sixty-two weeks, an Anointed One shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (Dan. 9:26-27). In other words, the Messiah will be put to death, and those who hate Him will appear victorious, eventually outlawing right worship of God. Though they may seem victorious, they will be destroyed in the end.
Immediately, what Jesus speaks of is the destruction of the Temple, which will come in the year 70 A.D. But God’s city and His Temple were no stranger to destruction. The Assyrians seized Jerusalem. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Antiochus Epiphanes erected a statue of Zeus inside the Temple. The emperor Caligula installed a statue of himself on the altar. And in the end, the Romans leveled Jerusalem, not even leaving one stone atop another.
What all of these represent is the spread of false doctrine. Remember what Jesus said: “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 arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” False doctrine always comes from something using the guise of the truth, represented by the abominations being set up in the Temple of God. The devil, the Desolator spoken of by Daniel, wants to do his work in the Church. He wants to stand in the place where God’s Name is called upon and His Word is spoken so he can lead astray those who do not have faith in God by seeming like he speaks for the true God. At first he wants to be the statues of Zeus or Caligula—merely coexisting with the truth. But in the end he wants total destruction, not just of our bodies, but of our souls as well.
Satan attempts to lure people away by secret revelations of the truth, someone claiming to have knowledge that no one else does. They say Christ is tucked away in their inner rooms of special revelation and try to reel you in. But Christ is never revealed by private revelation. St. Peter teaches that “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” Our faith is not built on “cunningly devised fables,” but on the Word of God which makes us “eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pe. 1:16-21). Jesus’ coming to us today and Jesus’ return on the Last Day will not be like His first coming in Bethlehem, in a little corner of the earth, unknown to all. Rather, He comes openly. Just as lightning needs no one to announce it, but it is seen plainly by all, so it is when Jesus comes today in His Word and Sacraments and then in His glory. He is visible, plainly, to all at once. (Chrysostom)
Jesus ends this section of His prophecy by saying, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” A better translation of “vultures” is “eagles,” a Scriptural abbreviation for believers. The Church has always understood this saying of Jesus as reference to the Faithful being gathered around Christ. Wherever Christ Crucified is preached plainly and openly, there the people of God gather. Where the Lord’s death is proclaimed, both in preaching and in Sacrament, He is present to give His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
The only hope, the only consolation we have in these latter days is Christ Crucified. As people try to lead others astray by false doctrine, we must look to Christ alone. He tells us to flee from this false doctrine when it confronts us, not stopping to gather clothing or other possessions. So, flee to Christ. Gather around His crucified Body, from which we receive forgiveness, salvation, and deliverance from the ever-worsening spiritual and physical horrors of this world.
No matter how difficult these latter days are, God is faithful. He delivers those who have faith in Him. He has promised to be with you in any persecution you face, proven when He endured the greatest persecution of all. The One who is God and Man allowed Himself to be mocked and denied. He spoke only the truth but was arrested as a liar. He gave life with a Word but went silent to His own crucifixion. He endured the horrible terrors of Calvary’s darkness. He was alone and forsaken, and though some pointed to Him and said “There is the Christ,” He was rejected along with the salvation He came to give so freely.
Despite His rejection at Calvary, He continues to give His salvation freely to open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. He gives Himself to you today for forgiveness and salvation, so you can bid this false, evil world farewell. He gives you the faith to pray the Church’s greatest prayer, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” He sends His Holy Spirit to you who keeps you in the faith and makes you eager for that Last Day, when you will no longer be attacked by the evils of false doctrine and the Evil One who seeks you demise. Despite his plots, you have nothing to fear. You have the forgiveness of your sin, the promise of the Gospel made your by Holy Baptism and renewed by the Holy Communion. When the world points to its false christs, look to the true Christ, present here in water and Word, in bread and wine, His crucified and risen body, exactly where He has promised to be until the end of the age.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.