As we near the end of the church year we turn to those passages of Scripture which speak of God’s judgment upon this sinful world. In our Gospel text, Jesus prophesies concerning two parallel events: The judgment and destruction of Jerusalem, and the final judgment and destruction of the world. The first judgment has already taken place; the second is yet to come. Jesus told his disciples that time was short, that the fall of Jerusalem was near. Brother would be turned against brother, and father against son. Not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another. The devastation and slaughter would be unprecedented in the history of the world. And all these things, Jesus said, would happen before the current generation passed away.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, who was not a believer in Christ, nevertheless records the fulfillment of Jesus’ word. Roughly thirty years after the Crucifixion, the Jewish people, stirred up by religious fanatics and false prophets, rebelled against Rome. The Roman response was swift and brutal. And as the rebellion began to fail, the Jews turned on each other. The temple ran with the blood of thousands who were slain, brother by brother and father by son. In 70 AD the Roman army broke through the walls of Jerusalem and completed the slaughter. The city was burned and the temple was torn down stone by stone to its foundation. To this day, scholars aren’t certain where the temple once stood.
Just as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah served as a picture of God’s judgment throughout the Bible, so the fall of Jerusalem foreshadows the even greater destruction of the Last Day. On that day, God will withdraw his merciful hand and this dark world will be brought to an end. Indeed, had God not restrained and limited evil, the world would have consumed itself ages ago. But out of mercy, God has delayed the final judgment until all His elect are gathered in the ark of the Holy Church. Then God himself will shut the door, and the long day of grace will come to a close.
Jesus gave us a sign to know that the end is near: “When you see the abomination of desolation… standing in the holy place” (Mt 24:15). What does this mean? What is the abomination? The abomination is idolatry. It’s false worship done in the holy place that God has designated for His true worship. It’s false doctrine that supplants the truth of God’s Word, for Jesus says, “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:22). The abomination of desolation doesn’t come from outside the church; it comes from within. Look around the church today and you’ll see false teachers everywhere. They’re in the church. They twist the Scriptures to their own ends. They preach a counterfeit gospel that is not Christ crucified for sinners. And people love to have it so. St. Paul tells us, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Ti 4:3-4). But this is nothing new. From the time of the apostles until now, there has never been a day when the church did not contend with lying prophets and deceitful doctrine. The signs are clear. We are living in the last days which began with our Lord’s Ascension and will continue until His triumphant return.
The abomination of desolation will stand in the holy place. What is this holy place? This is the temple, the place where God promises to meet sinful man. We can’t just meet a holy God anywhere, for He is an all-consuming fire and we would be burned up before Him as chaff. In order for us to come before God, blood must be shed, for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22). In the old temple, sheep and goats were sacrificed morning and night, yet this was never enough. Blood had to be offered again and again. But when our great High Priest offered Himself as the sacrifice upon the cross, His blood atoned for the sins of the whole world. The true temple isn’t in Palestine; it’s wherever Jesus has promised to be. And where is this? He comes to us in His Word and in His Sacraments. Where these gifts are found, there is the true church, there is the holy place where God meets man.
But when we despise the gifts of Christ and chase after false messiahs that promise comfort or success, the true God is driven out. Where the offensive cross of Christ is exchanged for an pleasing idol, there can be no forgiveness and no salvation – there is only the abomination of desolation. To be desolate is to be empty, uninhabited. Of course, we can never actually drive God away. He’s everywhere; he’s all powerful. But He only reveals Himself to us in mercy through Jesus. Wherever Christ is, there we will find the God and Father of all mercies. But where Christ is not, we will find only the God of wrath and judgment. Jesus is the way to the Father. His blood is the only mediation between God and man. He is the truth and the life.
If you despise the truth of God’s Word when it calls you to repentance, your house will become desolate. If you choose to continue in willful sin, thinking, “I can always get forgiven later,” you will grieve the Holy Spirit. Many Christians have turned their backs on their baptism, choosing to live according to the lusts of the flesh – and the Holy Spirit has departed from them; their house has become desolate. Jesus lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ ” (Mt 23:37-39). And what is the name of the Lord? The name by which He is called is the Word of God (Rev 19:13). He is Jesus our Lord. And there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Ac 4:12).
Jesus is the chief cornerstone, and His Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the Word of God. But often we look at declining membership rolls and panic, thinking that we, not God, are responsible for building the church. And so we try to build on a new foundation of social programs and worldly gimmicks. We replace our altars with drum sets, and substitute lyrics that manipulate our emotions for hymns that confess the faith. Herds of Christians migrate from one church to another, chasing a spiritual high, hoping to experience the latest move of God. Our focus turns away from Christ and His gifts onto ourselves, our needs, and our works. Thus the church becomes desolate, a barren and lifeless wasteland.
Therefore, hear the command of your Lord: When you see the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place, flee! If your pastor doesn’t proclaim Christ crucified and raised for your salvation, flee! Run! Don’t stop to grab your stuff. Never mind that you love singing in the choir. Never mind the great children’s program. Leave your coat and flee. Flee from the wrath of God and run to that place where the mercy of God may be found. Flee to Jesus. Flee to where His Word is preached. Flee to where the Gospel is taught in its truth and purity. Flee to Christ’s altar to receive His body, where his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of your sins. There is no other sanctuary from the coming wrath. But here, in the ark of God’s house, you will find refuge. In this Christian church, the Holy Spirit will keep you and all the elect in the faith until the final Advent of our Lord Jesus. Amen.