The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity, 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
If I asked you, “Who is ‘The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost?’” You would say…that’s God. And, hear me out, that’s wrong.
Let the reader understand.
Let me ask you the same question a bit differently: “Who is ‘The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost’ when I say it this way: ‘And the three men I admired most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast. The day the music died’?”
Letting the reader understand, in that specific case, “American Pie” by Don McLean, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost is actually Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper who died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959. That was, to McLean, the day the music died.
That’s how important it is to add the words, “Let the reader understand.” It clues us in to the fact that there is necessary information that might be missing from our common understanding. So, we have to read, listen to, and study things very carefully so that we understand.
In our Gospel lesson today, these are the first two verses: “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16).
It’s impossible to go on without understanding what the abomination of desolation is.
It’s worth noting that we don’t speak this way anymore; those words are kind of strange to us. To us, the only things abominable are snowmen, and I honestly don’t know when I last used or read the word “desolate.”
But when Jesus uses the phrase “abomination of desolation,” it has an exact reference, and He supplies us with the author of that reference, the prophet Daniel. There are three relevant verses in Daniel that we should have in mind:
Chapter nine verses twenty-six and twenty-seven: “Desolations are decreed…and on the wing of abomination shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (cf. Daniel 9:26-27).
And chapter twelve verse eleven: “From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days” (Daniel 12:11).
These prophecies were fulfilled in part in the second century before Christ, when the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, erected an altar to Zeus on the temple mount in Jerusalem and offered swine upon it. To put that in perspective, Hanukkah is the Jewish festival that celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after these events. So when you see a menorah, in a way, it has something to do with the abomination of desolation.
Prophesied by Daniel and fulfilled in time of maybe the great-grandfathers of the disciples, everyone would’ve known that the “abomination of desolation” was when the holy place was treated as and made unholy.
So when Jesus says, “When you see the abomination of desolation…standing in the holy place…let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16), what He means is: the time is coming when the holy place in Jerusalem will be made unholy. There will be a time of devastation, and you will need to get out of Dodge. Just a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, 70ad, the Roman armies desecrate the temple and destroy Jerusalem. In the same chapter as today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says, regarding the buildings of the temple, “You see all these…? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (cf. Matthew 24:1-2).
And the words of the prophet and the words of God, Himself, are fulfilled.
But…so that the reader will understand…we must clarify a few things about what all this means.
First of all, none of this yet has to do with the Last Day, our Lord’s return. It all has to do with Christians fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem.
It can’t be about the Lord’s return, because hiding in the mountains won’t protect you when Jesus returns. That has to be said first. And listen to the rest of the warning: “Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak” (Matthew 24:17-18). Jesus warns the disciples to flee the coming destruction or they will be destroyed. In a way, that can be true of the second coming of Christ, but Jesus means for us to understand these things in terms of the actual destruction of Jerusalem.
He continues His warning: “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!” (Matthew 24:19). Any journey is arduous for a pregnant woman, how much more are things complicated when you’re fleeing destruction!
And “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath” (Matthew 24:20). Now, I haven’t lived through a winter here yet, but I assume it’s gonna be like anywhere else: when winter is at its worst, you don’t want to travel anywhere. So, Jesus exhorts the disciples to prayer regarding safe travel while fleeing destruction. And regarding the Sabbath, Christians would stand out easily if they’re the only ones doing work and fleeing. This is another prayer for safe travel.
After these words of warning, Jesus says, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:21-22).
These are, in my opinion, the most comforting verses in today’s gospel lesson.
The reality of the destruction of the temple in 70ad is that it was a bloody massacre. An account of the destruction of the temple used to be read in church to remind people that God has not promised us earthly buildings and nations but heavenly peace and worship of Christ.
So, it was comforting for the disciples to know that those days were cut short for the sake of the elect.
But it’s also comforting for us all if you look at the grammar of it.
Jesus says, “When you see the abomination of desolation…” It hasn’t happened yet. But you will see it. And when you see it, remember these things. That’s the gist of the first few verses.
But then Jesus says, “If those days had not been cut short, no flesh would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:22). They already have been cut short. And they will be cut short.
What you need to know is this: God has set a limit to evil. The days of evil and murder and grief are numbered. We don’t know the number, but God does. This is the same as saying, “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The days of evil are numbered. God knows them all such that He provides for your escape from them. That was true for the disciples prior to the destruction of the temple and the abomination of desolation, and that’s true for us all today. Knowing all things, God does provide for you.
With all this in mind, that’s how the reader is to understand the “abomination of desolation,” the times in history when the holy place was desecrated and God provided for the safety and continuance of His Church.
It’s fulfilled prophecy. We’re not waiting for the abomination of desolation to stand in the holy place. It’s happened. Jesus said these words so the disciples would be prepared for and comforted in the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.
That’s what you need to know before you hear and understand the rest of it, which does apply to the Church today.
Jesus says, “Then 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. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:23-27).
Some things happened only to the prophets and disciples and apostles. And some things are common to the whole Church.
Miraculous healings, raising the dead, speaking in tongues, those things don’t happen anymore, not like they did. Claims of great signs and wonders occur, but those great signs and wonders only seek to lead astray.
So, look out for false christs, look out for false prophets, and here’s how:
Look out for anything that stands in the holy place.
Look out for anything that is abominable.
Look out for anything that tries to make desolate the house of God.
See, what the disciples needed to read and hear and understand helps you, too.
If you know that an altar to Zeus is abominable…
If you know that God is found in Christ and not in temples made of stone…
If you know that idolatry is the abomination of desolation…
Then you can easily identify false christs and false prophets.
And you must.
Whenever you confess the Creed, you confess what you believe. You’re confessing what is true. And you’re confessing against what is false.
In 1 John, it’s written: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore, they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:1-6).
Let the reader understand: we’re not waiting for the abomination of desolation. That’s come and gone.
But there is still this abominable and desolate fact of the devil. He seeks to lead you astray by replacing Jesus with the things you love.
So with God (and against the devil), confess what is true.
The last verse of today’s gospel lesson helps us do exactly that: “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather,” (Matthew 24:28).
When Jesus returns, you’ll know. As you know the location of roadkill by the circling of vultures, so you will know the return of Jesus.
But there’s also this:
If Jesus’ corpse remained, the vultures, the idolatrous Jews, would have gathered around it. The one bit of proof that would break Christianity is the still-dead body of Jesus.
So with God (and against the devil), we confess the resurrection of the body.
Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (cf. Romans 4:25).
As He lives. So will all who believe.
The days of evil are numbered. The days of joy are not.
Let the reader understand.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!