Be an "Unbeliever" in the End
Today is the Third-Last Sunday in the Church Year and the Church begins pointing her people to the end of all things telling them to prepare. But how? I'll tell you "how." Be prepared by being an unbeliever in the end.
For example, don't believe that the fall of Jerusalem is the end of the world. Our text is specifically about the fall of Jerusalem. Christ spoke these words around 30 A.D. Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D. Don't believe the TV preachers who read this passage and frighten their viewers with how dreadful the end of the world will be.
I can prove this is not about the end of the world. Christ tells His disciples they will see "standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation." Luke writing for non-Jews explains this with the phrase, "When you see armies surrounding Jerusalem." The Romans surrounded Jerusalem with armies in 70 A.D. Also how would it help to warn people to flee to the mountains and not to go back into their houses if Christ was speaking about Judgment Day? And how would the end of the world be harder on pregnant and nursing women than on others? Neither will it matter if Christ returns in winter or on a Sabbath day.
Jesus prophesies of Jerusalem's fall, and His words were fulfilled. It was a time of "great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world" until then and hasn't been equaled since. The Romans crucified as many as 500 Jews a day outside of the besieged city while famine killed thousands daily inside of the city. Men ate the leather off their shields. Women were driven to eating their own children. When the Romans finally did breach the city, the slaughter was unimaginable. 1,356,460 is Josephus' official count. Blood ran in the streets so deep the Roman horses and soldiers lost their footing.
Jerusalem's physical fall is a type of the world's end. As the fall of Jerusalem was marked by physical suffering, so the end will bring suffering for Christians. However, the mark of the end times is not the physical suffering that TV preachers tell you to look for, but spiritual suffering, not bitter physical pain, but sweet false doctrine.
What does Jesus say in Luke 17 the days will be like before He returns? He doesn't warn you of intense physical suffering. No, He says, "Just as it happened in the days of Noah and Lot so shall it be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man." The days of Lot and Noah were great days. People married, partied, bought, and sold without a spiritual care in the world while false doctrine reigned. Noah's day had no problem with the faithful marrying unbelievers. Lot's day openly accepted homosexuality. Spiritual apathy not physical suffering is the mark of the end of the World.
Be an unbeliever in the end. Don't believe the fall of Jerusalem is the end of the world, and don't believe Jesus will return secretly before the end of the world. When He returns no one will be able to miss it. It will be as visible as a lightening strike across the sky. But isn't Jesus here right now? Didn't He promise to be with us always even to the close of this age?
Yes, the issue is where? Don't believe that He is present wherever there are great signs and miracles. Jesus says here and in other places that Satan's work is marked by his performing all kinds of "counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders" (2 Thess. 2:8). Don't believe that every miracle, sign, or wonder is from Jesus. Don't believe just because a person can heal, speak in tongues, or even raise the dead that he or she is from Jesus or even knows Him. Jesus promises "false Christs and false prophets will appear and will perform great signs and miracles."
Who calls you today to miracles, signs, and wonders? Do I? Do I show you a picture of Christ that weeps or bleeds? Do I point you to apparitions in the sky? Do I ask you to accept nonsensical sounds out of my mouth as the words of God? Do I tell you God spoke to me in a dream? Do I claim that I can heal diseases by the touch of my hands? What throws many people off is the enthusiasm of those who claim to have Jesus' power to do signs, wonders, and miracles. They are so sure they have Jesus. They boast of their joy, peace, love, and confidence. They must know where Jesus really is.
How can you be sure where Jesus is? What is the mark of His presence? Not wonderful, powerful signs and miracles because Satan can do those things too. Not enthusiastic, confident people either. Who was ever more enthusiastic or confident than the prophets of Baal who opposed Elijah or the Scribes and Pharisees who opposed Jesus?
How can you know where Jesus is? He is present where He promised to be. He promised to be where sins are being forgiven in His name. He promised that the forgiveness you receive from the pastor is His own forgiveness. When you hear the Words of forgiveness, you're hearing the voice of Jesus. Jesus promised to be in Baptism. He said all who have been baptized have put Him on. And what about Communion? How could Jesus make it any plainer where He would be than, "This is my Body; this is My blood?" Do you want to find Jesus today? Look no further than Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. In these, He promised to be. How could anybody miss this?
But billions do because until Judgment day Jesus clothes Himself in weak, ordinary things. The absolution is weak and ordinary compared to someone claiming to speak the tongues of angels. Baptism looks like nothing but plain water; how much more dramatic is someone laying hands on you to drive demons out and the Spirit in? And the Lord's Supper looks like nothing put plain bread and wine. How can that compete with healings, miracles, apparitions, and dreams?
In the end the odds are against us. Our only hope is to be unbelievers: Don't believe the fall of Jerusalem is the end of the world; don't believe Jesus is anywhere but where He promised to be, and don't believe your faith will preserve you in the end.
What? I'm not to have faith in my faith? Nope. As we get closer to the end, things will grow spiritually worse. Paul says in II Timothy: "There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control...lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God."
Who can say their faith will survive that? Who can say their faith won't follow seducing spirits giving heed to the doctrines of demons? Paul says in I Timothy: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons." I can say that I don't want or intend to fall from the faith, but I can't comfort myself by saying: I believe my faith will never fail. Peter, you'll remember said that.
What comfort did Jesus give Christians facing the fall of Jerusalem? Did He point them to their faith saying, "Don't worry you believe so you will be saved"? Did He point them to how sincere they were about living the Christian life? Did He say, "You are so committed to the Christian faith that you'll be able to endure these horrible things"? Did Jesus say, "You guys are so firmly grounded in the faith you'll never be deceived?" No, the only comfort Jesus offered them was their election. He said, "If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened." And He said, no matter how bad it would get, it was impossible for the elect to be deceived.
As the end comes, the comfort I have for you too is your eternal election in Jesus. I can't comfort you with your faith because, like mine, yours is weak. I can't comfort you with your understanding of Christian doctrine because, like mine, yours is foggy in places. I can't comfort you with your works of faithfulness because, like mine, yours are tainted by sin.
I can comfort you by the fact that God chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world. He said, (In Christ, I will save this one.( And then God worked out everything so that His choice of you in eternity came true in time. He showed you how you can't keep His Laws, and how Jesus kept them perfectly in your place. He showed you how you deserve temporal and eternal punishment and how Jesus endured both in your place. By Word and Sacrament He caused you to trust that the 10 Commandments no longer hang over your head condemning you and that Jesus paid off your debt of sin.
"For the sake of the elect," God shortened the appalling days of Jerusalem's destruction. For your sake, Christian, God shortens, lengthens, shapes, and molds, the hardship, the happiness, the good times and the bad times of your life. For your sake elect children of God everything in your life the good, the bad, and the ugly works for your eternal salvation.
(But spiritual deception is everywhere; sometimes I feel myself straying.( How did Christians at the fall of Jerusalem console themselves? Did they say: "I believe"; "I have faith?" No they said, "I'm God's elect. I've been chosen by God in Christ before the world began, and He promises it's impossible for the elect to be deceived unto damnation."
An image often used for believing is holding on to God's hand., but this is no comfort to Christians who know how weak and sinful they are. The image of election is God holding you in His hand. This is the picture Jesus gives in John 10, "I give [My sheep] eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand." I can let go; Jesus can't.
Be an unbeliever in the end. Don't believe this description of the fall of Jerusalem is how the world will end; don't believe Jesus is present today anywhere but where He promised. And don't believe your faith will preserve you in the end, but believe God's election will preserve you in the faith until the end. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year (20081109); Matthew 24: 15-28