23rd Sunday after Pentecost – 11/13/2022
As we approach the end of another church year, our appointed Scripture readings focus our attention on the final days and our Lord's second coming. This morning we hear the apostles of the Lord seeking some assurances and security from Jesus in the wake of His alarming prediction of the devastating destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He had said, "As for these things that you see..." that is; the "noble stones" and the finely appointed furnishings of the temple, such as the ornate tapestries, golden doors, and golden grape clusters all given as votive offerings by wealthy patrons (Just, p. 783) "The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." In their total shock and fear of such a devastating turn of events, Jesus' disciples begged Him, "Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?"
Such a panicked inquiry was only natural. The holy temple was not some local haberdashery. It was the very heart and soul of their connection to God and their worship of Him. It contained the Holy of Holies, the place of the LORD's promised presence among His people. There before the Holy Place in the temple courtyard was the great altar upon which all their sacrifices, sin offerings, and thank offerings were being offered. There the priests ministered on their behalf before the LORD, Yahweh, the great "I AM".
In the minds and hearts of these disciples, the temple also stood as a monument to Israel's greatness. It embodied the pride of their nation. Built as a replica of the great temple of Solomon by Herod the Great over 40 years, it dwarfed even their king's palace. It stood in testimony that the people of Israel were God's chosen people, His holy nation. There was hardly another building in the whole Roman Empire that could rival its expanse or its beauty. In the mind of these men of Israel, as the temple went so went their nation.
The prospect of the temple's destruction, therefore, terrified Jesus' followers. It made them feel insecure and fearful of what would become of them. "Perhaps" , they wondered, "Jesus could give them some warning." At least if they could have an idea when this destruction would take place, they could be prepared for it, or even, on the off chance, do something to prevent such a terrible thing from happening.
You and I can certainly relate. We all crave certainty and security in our lives. We like to know what the future holds, especially if it is bad news. We imagine such knowledge would give us a sense of some control... a feeling of security that we can be prepared and, perhaps, even alter the course of events about to happen.
However, in this world rocked by sin and its consequences, there are no worldly assurances. No one can guarantee you and me that everything will be fine tomorrow or that we will even be here tomorrow. Our spouse can not give us his/her assurances, no matter how much they might promise us, that they will be there for us tomorrow. Our doctors cannot ensure that we will get well and stay well. Our government leaders cannot guarantee that we will not be a victim of some terrorist attack, no matter how hard Homeland Security works. Our president in the Missouri Synod cannot stave all heresy and heterodox practices in our church, regardless of how confessional and well-intentioned they may be. Perhaps the only thing we can be certain about is that there will be no end to trouble, disappointments, hardships, failures, and losses. For these are the norm in our fallen world. Any stability, good times, or successes are only graces of God.
Jesus' sober prediction of the Jerusalem temple's destruction, however, was not just a forecast of bad times to come. It was a warning of God's impending judgment and, as Jesus further elaborated, the coming of God's wrath against His rebellious people (v. 23).
Jesus was simply putting flesh onto the prophetic bones long before given to Israel by all her prophets that the Day of the Lord would come. As the prophets proclaimed, this Day of the Lord would be a day of reckoning for peoples' sins and unfaithfulness. None of their self-conceived works of righteousness... none of their religious ceremonies that they looked upon to justify themselves before God... none of their appeals to their heritage as sons of Abraham... none of their marvelous monuments to human engineering would protect them from the Eternal Judge's righteous condemnation for their rebellious ways and unfaithful hearts.
You and I have the historical advantage of seeing that God's terrible day of reckoning for Israel did come. It came with such utter devastation that, as Matthew records, Jesus also said, if those days had not been cut short by God's grace, even the elect (the true believers among the people of Israel) would be lost in the destruction (Matt. 24:22).
That specific day of the Lord arrived for Israel in a most dramatic and cataclysmic way in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans. The Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem and cut her off from the rest of the world and all help. The siege lasted for years.
The resulting famine and starvation within the city were unparalleled in human history. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who lived and wrote in the first century, chronicled in vivid and gory detail the horribleness of Jerusalem's destruction with what he claims were eyewitness accounts. These have been preserved to us in his works: The Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews.
What is of special interest to me is that coinciding exactly with Jesus' prediction of the "terrors and great signs from heaven" that would accompany this day of the Lord, Josephus even describes "terrible signs from heaven" that preceded the pillage of Jerusalem. Josephus maintains these signs foretold the Jews of their future desolation (p. 582). Among these he notes, there was a star that resembled a sword that stood over the city. a great light as bright as daylight that shone around the altar and temple one night for half an hour. The great massive eastern gate of the city that on one occasion simply opened by itself during the sixth hour of the night, as if to suggest that God was going to let their enemies in.
Josephus further mentions that on another occasion at dusk "chariots and troops of soldiers in their full armor were seen running about among the clouds and surrounding cities"... One Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner court, they felt a quaking and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, "Let us get away from here!" ( 6.5.3)
One of the most startling of these signs recorded by Josephus, however, was the mention of a man named, of all names, "Jesus." He was Jesus, the son of Ananus. He was dismissed by the people as a crazy man. For seven years and five months, he went about the streets and alleys of the city day and night proclaiming Jerusalem's destruction over and over again. The people tried in vain to shut him up, but he persisted. In desperation, he was once arrested and whipped until his bones were exposed. He didn't cry nor curse his tormentors. He simply cried out all the more, "Woe, woe to Jerusalem!" He didn't stop until he was hit and killed by one of the projectiles hurled at the city by the Romans.
Unfortunately, even such signs as these, if they did indeed occur as Josephus records, still did not bring the Jews of Jerusalem to repentance nor turn them from their rejection of Jesus as Christ. They ignored such signs. Their false prophets explained them away as signs of God's favor which would be coming upon them instead of His wrath.
Is it any wonder then that Jesus graciously gave these insecure disciples the following advice: "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled."
Now, that all might have been in the very distant past, but you and I are likewise warned. Jesus grammatically connects the day of God's wrath against Israel with His second coming, the end of the world, and the final judgment of all flesh. Israel's day has come and gone. The whole world has witnessed it. She has been "trampled underfoot by the Gentiles" Those who survived were hauled off into captivity among the nations.
Jerusalem's fall, however, continues to stand as a sure sign to the whole world that the day of the final judgment of all the nations is just as sure to come when God determines that the "times of the Gentiles are fulfilled."
The uncertainty, stress, and turmoil of our days are likewise proclaiming the same message: "Repent, for the day of the Lord... the day of God's eternal judgment... is at hand!" Jesus predicted so much. He said there will be the coming of false christs and false prophets, wars, and rumors of wars, nations, and kingdoms rising and opposing each other. Great earthquakes, famines, and other pandemics in various places. As well as a great upheaval in the heavens and on the earth.
What generation has not experienced these "signs?" It has been happening since the Son of God's advent as the Son of Mary. In the last decade alone there have been more than enough cataclysmic events to persuade even the most hardened persons that something is up; hellish forest and grassland fires decimating hundreds of thousands of square miles across Australia, parts of Europe, and even here in the western portions of North America... horrific hurricanes devastating parts of Florida and earthquakes all over the globe. We are now witnessing another seemingly unending war in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine. Our world with its so-called securities is crumbling at the seams. Things are not going to last. These are God's announcements of the day of the Lord's coming in judgment.
Are we learning from Israel's experience and repenting or are we dismissing these signs as irrelevant? Are we ready to meet our Eternal Judge in repentance and faith? Is our spiritual house in order?
Once again, to give us all a sense of surety that all these sorts of occurrences are not simply random accidents of nature, Jesus draws all our attention to some personal trials with which His first-century followers, the holy apostles would encounter. He warned that for His name's sake they would be persecuted... delivered up to the synagogues and prisons, and brought before kings and governors. Even though elsewhere Jesus warns all Christians of every age that they will face persecution for His name's sake, The Book of Acts records that all of these specific trials Jesus predicts here have already been fulfilled in the lives of Jesus' first-century apostles. They were hauled before the synagogues, as well as secular leaders. They were threatened and beaten and killed for preaching the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus had poured out the promised Holy Spirit on them (Luke 24:49)...to give them the remembrance of all that He had taught them (Jn 14:25) and to empower them with irrefutable testimony (martyreo) to the truth of Christ (Jn 15:26,27).
What does all this tell us, then, in the uncertainty of our days? It tells us, first of all, that we can be assured that we are living in the last days of this world. This world and its old order of things; sin, wickedness, suffering, and death, are passing away.
But this also means that we can be fully assured that everything else Jesus has said will also be fulfilled. The new order of things in God's kingdom is being firmly established. The chain of events signaling the end of the world and the final day of the Lord's judgment was begun already at Jesus' cross. There God's verdict was already declared. "It is finished!" Jesus said. The innocent were condemned to death and the guilty were all declared not guilty so that all who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior have already passed out of judgment and into eternal life (John 3:16-18). Our redemption from sin and its effects stands completed. At the same time, in all solemnity, Jesus is telling us through His Word and the chaos and devastating signs of our time that those who do not believe in Him as their God and Savior will very soon join disobedient Israel and receive the condemnation under the wrath of God for their sins. You cannot reject God's gracious verdict in Christ and expect to escape the rightful judgment of God!
Jesus' words here therefore not only stand as a warning to all sinners but also give us needed instruction so that we will not be deceived by all these goings on but be assured with the knowledge that all is going just as Jesus predicted. The tribulation of these days signals that by God's grace the end of evil will come to an end. The old order of things, infected with sin and its consequences as it is, will pass away.
Nothing that is happening is beyond God's control. We have no reason to panic, no matter who is president or which party controls Congress, no matter which kingdom rises or which one is deposed. No matter what natural disaster occurs.
Instead, all of these events provide you and me opportunities to witness to our neighbors and our world that just as Christ's words of judgment are being fulfilled, so His words of grace and salvation for all who love and trust in Him will also come to pass.
In the insecurity of our days on this earth, we who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and who lament our sins and cling to God's grace in Jesus Christ, are gifted with solid and wonderful hope. Jesus' coming means our final redemption from all of sin's effects in our lives is at hand. When we see the signs: the weird and strange happenings in the sun and moon and stars...the distress and perplexity among the nations of the world because of the roaring of the seas and waves...people fainting away from the fear of what is about to befall the earth... we can lift our heads in anticipation, excitement, and real joy. For it all signals that "The Sun of righteousness is arising with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:2)". The One who has redeemed us with His blood from sin, death, and everlasting punishment, is leading us out of this vale of tears and uncertainty into His realm of eternal joy! This is our security in these uncertain times!