Sunday, November 9, 2014

Homily for The Third-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25)

Matthew 24:15-28; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Exodus 32:1-20

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The theme of these last three Sundays of the Church Year is very similar to that of the beginning of the new Church Year in Advent: The faithful are to wait and to watch for Jesus’ return. Now, the return of Jesus means many things, but primarily it means two things: Judgment and redemption. Thus, Jesus’ return will be a fearful thing for those who have rejected Him, for it will mean their judgment and condemnation. However, for you who place your faith and trust in Him, even though the world itself is passing away, there is no need for you to fear, for the coming of the Lord means your redemption is complete. Your Lord Jesus Himself says to you: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The Lord is coming. That is a promise and a fact. The Lord is coming at a day and an hour you cannot know. Therefore, you must be prepared for His coming at any time. However, this is not a new situation, indeed this has been the situation for Christians ever since Christ’s ascension into heaven, when God’s holy angels promised, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” Now, if this seems like a long time to be waiting and watching, be grateful, for “the Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
And so, even when you hear a Word of judgment from the Lord, like today, and the next several Sundays, the Lord’s Word of judgment is typically mixed with words of mercy and compassion. For instance, in todays Gospel lesson, Jesus mercifully provides an advance warning for the faithful to watch and to flee. The judgment that was coming was specifically upon Jerusalem and Judea, namely, the siege and destruction of that city by the Romans that would occur less than a generation later. In 66 A.D., the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus laid siege to the city until the Roman army finally invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and her temple in 70 A.D. The suffering and the horror were beyond imagination, as the Romans had prevented food, water, and fresh supplies from entering the city for more than three years while also preventing garbage and waste, and the sick and the dead, from leaving the city. Thus, when the Roman army finally entered Jerusalem in 70 A.D., they found entire families dead within their homes, the dead decaying in the street, evidence of cannibalism, and horrors beyond imagination. And, anyone who remained alive, they ran through with the sword without mercy until the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood.
However, Jesus’ words of warning concerning judgment are also filled with compassion for His people: “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.” These words of our Lord parallel those in St. Luke’s Gospel as Jesus wept over Jerusalem because of her impending judgment: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Additionally, Jesus warns the faithful of false christs and false prophets who will arise in those days to lead the faithful astray. Such figures always arise in times of stress, and, in desperation, people follow after them to their own destruction. This is true in the twenty-first century even as it was in the first. Such false prophets and false christs will often sound prophetic and inspired, perhaps they will appeal to reason and appear full of wisdom, some may even have powers of prophecy, hidden knowledge, and may perform wondrous signs and miracles. How will you know if they are true or false? You will know them by their fruits: Do their preaching, teaching, and works accord with the Holy Scriptures? If they do, then there is nothing to fear. However, if they do not, the Spirit cannot lie or contradict the Word of the LORD; therefore, you will know that they are false. Beware of them and flee from their poisonous doctrine.
The judgment upon Jerusalem and Judea was the result of their apostasy. For fifteen centuries God patiently dealt with Israel. But most of that time Israel was stiff-necked and hard hearted. After many warnings, the northern ten tribes were taken into captivity by the Assyrians. Then, after many further warnings, the southern two tribes were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. While many of the people repented and were allowed to return years later, the people soon proved to be impenitent once again. Finally the Savior came unto His own, but His own received Him not. God became a man and tried again and again to call His covenant people to repentance. Most of them refused. Even after Jesus ascended into heaven, God granted the covenant people another forty years of grace. But then the time of mercy was gone.
Interestingly, and comfortingly, Jesus says that the judgment upon Jerusalem would be tribulation “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” This means that neither the Great Flood, nor the end of the world, nor any other judgment in history was, is, or ever shall be as severe and awful as was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jesus also says that “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.” Thus, whatever tribulation you may face, you can be certain that it will not be greater than your strength to persevere in faith. St. Paul teaches the same when he writes: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He 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.” The faithful, the elect of the Lord, you – you will face temptation, trial, and tribulation. That is a promise and a fact. However, do not be afraid. Your Lord Jesus will see you through it if you trust in Him. He will see you through financial problems, problems with your children, health problems, marital problems, wars and terrorism, the death of your loved ones, and through your own death if you trust in Him. He is your Good Shepherd, and He will Shepherd you through the valley of the shadow of death into His Father’s house. He has already passed that way Himself, and, in His death and resurrection, He has knocked down the gate that would keep you in suffering and death. Now that gate is an open door to eternal life. It is your life even now, through faith in Him. No one can take His gift from you. Only you can reject it.
Therefore, do not permit your Enemy Satan to make use of a good crisis. When you face trial and tribulation, suffering and death, do not be anxious and fearful, but turn evermore to your Lord and His Word. Do not listen to the voices of false prophets and false christs. While they may impress with their rhetoric and charisma, their works, power, and wealth, and their great number of followers, you will know them to be false prophets and false christs by the fruits they bear – their teachings and their works. Do they accord with God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures? Do they proclaim the Law and Gospel of the LORD? Do they proclaim Christ and Him crucified, God’s free gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation for all who believe? Make no mistake, when the Lord returns there will be no mistaking and no second-guessing of who He is, from whence He has come, or of what He has come to do. “For as the lighting comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” On that day, every eye shall Him, every tongue shall confess Him, and every knee shall bow before Him in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and God the Father will be glorified. That is a promise. That is a fact. Believe it, for Jesus’ sake and for your own sake.
Therefore, as we near the end of another Church Year in God’s grace, let us strive to be more vigilant and watchful for Jesus’ Second Advent and Parousia, His coming on the clouds as King and Judge. Let us not live like those uninformed brothers who have no knowledge, no faith, and no hope. For we have heard the Word of the Lord and have been raised from the death of sin to life in the Spirit. Therefore, as the vultures of false prophets and false christs gather around us as a corpse, let us gather like vultures around the corpse of the Son of God who died, who is risen, and who lives and reigns at the right hand of His Father in heaven, who will return at a day and an hour only the Father knows to raise our bodies from their graves to be reunited with our eternal souls and live with Him forever in His kingdom in heaven. Let us put no trust in our own merits, but let us trust in the Word and promise of our Lord fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the true temple, built without hands. He is our rock and our fortress that cannot be moved. In Him we have hope and plenteous salvation. “Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

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