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I invite you to turn to Matthew 24 either in your Bibles or the service folder as we study the signs that Jesus gave us to help us be prepared for the last day.
The disciples had just called Jesus’ attention to the temple. They were likely commenting on how grand and beautiful everything was. They were still in good spirits because it was the week of Passover and just a few days earlier Jesus had been welcomed by the crowds as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. They must have been taken aback by Jesus’ response. He told them that those grand and beautiful buildings they were pointing to would all be torn down and completely destroyed.
As we hear Jesus explain what he meant to them we too might be taken aback. What he tells us seems so negative, such a downer. But hold on. There is good news at the end.
Jesus must have stopped for a rest as he headed east out of the city on his way back to Bethany for the evening. His disciples took the opportunity to ask Jesus to give them some more details about his surprising statement that the temple and the beautiful buildings of Jerusalem would all be destroyed. They asked, Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?”
It’s important for us to take note of the questions Jesus is answering in the verses that follow so that we understand that he starts with things that would happen during the disciples’ life time, the destruction of the temple; but then also speaks of the more distant future, the time of his Parousia, his second coming, when not just Jerusalem, but everything on the earth will be destroyed.
Look at verses 4-8. Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Because many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will deceive many people. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because all these things must happen; but that is not yet the end. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. But all these things are only the beginning of birth pains.
Jesus doesn’t give them the day or the hour when these things will happen, but he gives them, and us, things that are constant reminders that this world as it now stands will come to an end. Nations at war with each other are a constant reminder of the result of sin. Sinful man lets jealousy, anger, greed for power, and hatred rule in his heart the way Cain did, and that only leads to evil actions and destruction. It was hoped that WWI would be the end of wars and rumors of wars. Today is the 100th anniversary of its end, but the fact that even worse conflicts followed and continue today is a sign, a constant reminder that this world will not cleanse itself. It will need to be cleansed by God. This is only a surprise to those who deny the Biblical account of the fall into sin and the doctrine of original sin.
Another constant reminder that this world as it now stands will come to an end is the fact that there have been and always will be famines and earthquakes here and there around the globe. As Paul says, the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
The evil that people do to each other and the reporting of natural disasters are the beginning of birth pains. They let us know something is about to happen, that it’s sure to come, there is not stopping it, so be ready. If it were the birth of a child, you would get the hot water and the towels. Since it’s the end of the earth as we know it and the birth of a new heaven and a new earth, make sure you get your heart ready.
Jesus points out how important it is that your heart is ready. It’s important because there will be false Christs who will be very persuasive, even doing things that seem to be miraculous. They will be able to deceive those who have not kept in close contact with God’s word because it is only through the word that their deception will be evident.
It is important that your heart is ready, that your faith is constantly strengthened by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace because verses 9-11 They will hand you over to be persecuted, and they will put you to death. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away from faith. They will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.
People who hate God, who despise the name of Jesus and anyone who confesses his name, who think that Christianity is the cause of all the world’s problems, will put pressure on you. That’s what the word persecute means. They will put pressure on you to deny your faith, or at least to keep quiet about it. And if you don’t, as has happened in many communist and Muslim countries, Christians will be put to death just because they confess the name Jesus. Those who have not had their faith constantly strengthened by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace will give in to the pressure and turn against even family and friends betraying them to those who are seeking to silence or kill them.
But what’s even worse than death? Being deceived by a false prophet. As one commentator wrote about these verses, “seducers are more dangerous than persecutors.” Jesus says we are not to be afraid of those who can take our physical lives. The one we are to fear, in the sense of respect and honor above even our lives, is the one who decides where we spend eternity. False prophets may not harm your body, but they can rob you of spending eternity with Jesus. The same commentator wrote, and he lived well before the time of televangelists and mega churches, “neither miracles nor multitudes are signs of the true church.”
As we get closer and closer to the last day more and more people will fall away. They will choose the idol of personal comfort and safety over God, and more and more will be deceived by false Christs, false teachers, and the Antichrist Paul warned about in our second reading today. Because of this we can expect what we see today, the increase of lawlessness, and the love of many growing cold. If God is not Lord and you reject Scripture as truth, then your sinful nature rules. Then you will be turned in on yourself and willing to justify any sin, any lawless act, just to get your way.
Do you feel like the disciples must have felt as they sat on the Mount of Olives and listened to Jesus? Were you thinking today that your life was going pretty well? Were you hopeful that now that the midterm elections are over some sort of peace and civility would return? Are you thinking, “I thought being a Christian would help me have a positive outlook on life? But, these words of Jesus are so negative!” He’s saying it’s only going to get worse, in fact, you might even be persecuted or killed for your faith! So why continue to follow Jesus?
Watch out that no one deceives you… whoever endures to the end will be saved. Whoever endures the pressure of the trouble caused by sin and the persecution that comes because of Jesus; whoever is not deceived by those who say that if your life isn’t all you want it to be it must be that you are not a true believer; whoever stands their ground like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, Abednego, Peter, Paul, John and many others who didn’t love their lives more than Jesus; whoever continues to be strengthened daily by the Holy Spirit through the word and sacrament so that they realize that eternal life with Jesus is the most important thing; whoever endures to the end will be saved. They will stand before God in the judgment clothed with the white robe purchased by and given to them by Jesus. They will hear the best words that could ever be heard, come blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you. It’s in this promise of Jesus that we have hope and peace in the midst of a world that is literally falling apart before our eyes. It’s in the promise of Jesus that we find the strength and determination to endure anything, even death, rather than lose what he has purchased for us.
Jesus’ promise of salvation is good news, but there is even more good news at the end of what seems so negative. This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. In spite of all the attempts to silence the proclamation of the Gospel of forgiveness and salvation only in Jesus; in spite of all the hatred and persecution his followers will face; in spite of all the worries that people have about their children and grandchildren being able to hear the gospel in its truth and purity; God will see to it that the gospel of the kingdom reaches the entire inhabited world. The gospel of the kingdom will continue to be proclaimed until Jesus returns in glory.
This is a great comfort. It’s also a great reminder of our responsibility. God uses us, believers, to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. He has given us much, not only spiritually in that we have the treasure of the pure gospel, but physically. He has given us more ability, more money and more tools to us to spread the gospel than any group of Christians who have ever lived. Yet the desire and support of mission work among us pales in comparison to what was seen in the 1700 and 1800s. God wants all to be saved and, as his witnesses, so do we. How can we fail to do all we can to make sure the gospel is proclaimed to all nations!
Watch out, Jesus says. The signs are fulfilled. You live in the last days. You live in trying times. You live at a time when false teaching abounds, when there is lawlessness and hatred of Christians, and persecution is increasing. Look at yourself closely every day. Confess that there are times when your love has grown cold, toward God and toward your neighbor. Confess that there have been times when you have given in to pressure and failed to stand firm. Then listen to Jesus. Listen to him remind you that he loves the unlovable- that’s you with all your sins and shortcomings. Listen to him remind you that he stood firm in your place, that he paid for your lack of love and your fears. Listen to him remind you that, even though you don’t deserve it, he is preparing a place for you with him in glory. And, strengthened by his gracious promises, give witness to the gospel of the kingdom no matter what. Endure to the end and rejoice in his salvation.