Definite Signs of Christ
Can you believe it? The long season of Pentecost is almost over. We've spent almost one half of a calendar year, 25 weeks to be exact, in this Season of Growth. This is the Third Last Sunday in the Church Year, and the clock starts ticking down to the end of the world, to Judgement Day, the Second Coming. The Church is like NASA launching a shuttle. Our last 3 Sundays are 3-2-1, and then blastoff. All things are fulfilled, completed, ended here yet just beginning in the hereafter. So in these latter days, in these end times what are definite signs of Christ for Christians to hold on to?
The first thing we can say is what the definite signs are not. Great signs and wonders are not signs of Christ. Jesus plainly warns us: false Christs and false prophets will appear, not might appear and they will, not might, perform great signs and wonders. St. Paul too warns in 2 Thessalonians that the mark of Satan's work in the end is miracles, signs and wonders.
Could Jesus make this any plainer to us? Could we be any clearer warned about running after those who call us to see a bleeding statue or picture of Christ? Could Jesus make it any more obvious that we are to stay away from the Roman Catholic Church which officially invites us to the miracles of Medjagore or bids us listen to what the Virgin Mary says at Fatima? Could it be any more manifest that the Pentecostals and Charismatics who claim for themselves miraculous healings, knowledge, and languages are false teachers that we are not to follow after?
Ah but you're troubled. There's doubt in your mind. What about the miracles and signs mentioned in the New Testament? What about St. Paul defending his apostolic ministry by saying, "Did not I work the signs of an apostles among you?" What about the favorite passage of the Pentecostals, Mark 16:17,18 where Jesus says, "These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick and they will recover."
It is true that in the first 2 centuries of Church history there were still a few miraculous signs such as the apostles did, but the Church fathers report them as becoming less and less common. By 400 St. Augustine said that while the Holy Spirit did at one time give signs He no longer was doing it in his day. Even in the New Testament you see a decrease in the gifts. In I Corinthians, written in 56 AD Paul lists miracles, healings, and tongues, but in 57 AD when writing to the Romans and in 60 AD when writing to the Ephesians he doesn't list them. In 67 AD when writing to Timothy he gives evidence that he himself no longer did them. In 69 AD the Book of Hebrews refers to those miraculous gifts as being in the past.
The signs of Christ are not the miracles and wonders that can come from Satan too. For example, tongue speaking is common among non-Christians, like Mormons and Hindus. Miraculous healings are claimed by witches. Such things are dark and obscure. They're hardly definitive signs of Christ. In our text Jesus points us to things we cannot miss. The signs of Christ are as clear as lightening that ignites the whole sky and as clear as the sign of vultures circling in the sky. Every rancher knows what vultures circling in the sky means. That's not an ambiguous sign.
So what then is a sign of Christ? He points in our text to the abomination that causes desolation standing in the holy place which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet. St. Luke, writing for non-Jews, explains this in his Gospel with the phrase, "When you see armies surrounding Jerusalem." The Roman general Titus surrounded Jerusalem with armies in 70 A.D. This says Jesus would be the time of "great distress, literally "tribulation" unequaled from the beginning of the world until now - and never to be equaled again."
I hate to disappoint some of you, but a sign of Christ in these end times is NOT going to be unheard of physical suffering by Christians. Jesus plainly says here that the great tribulation would be when Jerusalem fell, and such tribulation would never be equaled again. My mom always looked for great physical suffering as a sign of Christ. TV preachers do this all the time, but they forget Jesus words in Luke 17. There rather than saying intense physical suffering will be a sign of His in the end, Jesus says the days will be like those of Noah and Lot. The days before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Flood were great days, humanly speaking. People were marrying and partying, buying and selling without a care in the world.
Although the fall of Jerusalem happened over 1,930 years ago, it remains a definite sign of Christ for us Christians. In Jesus' earthly ministry, He taught "salvation is of the Jews." He directed the Samaritan woman at the well away from the false teachings of the Samaritan religion and back to the Jews. When Jesus healed lepers, He sent them to Jerusalem to be received back into the Church there. He pointed the multitudes and His own disciples to the scribes and Pharisees because they occupied "the chair of Moses" and should be listened to. Jesus went regularly to the temple as the visible dwelling place of God on earth.
Christ showed great deference to the Jews and Jerusalem until it was clear they rejected Him as the fulfillment of all God's promises. Then He wept over Jerusalem saying she was left desolate because she didn't recognize the day of her visitation from God. He predicted that she would fall horribly and violently. Salvation was no longer of the Jews, but of Jesus Christ. God's presence no longer dwelled in a cloud in the holy of holies but now all the fulness of the Godhead dwelled bodily in Christ. The abomination of desolation standing in the holy place, the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem was the sign that God now wished to deal with all men only through Christ.
The abomination that causes desolation is still in Jerusalem today. The Jews never have regained control of Jerusalem or the temple mount. The dome of the Rock, a Muslim structure, now occupies that site. This is the sign to us that we are not to return to Jerusalem to find Christ. As the disciples in the text were warned to flee and not to return to Jerusalem when they saw the Roman armies advancing, so we are not to think Jerusalem is our holy place, has a role to play in our salvation, or in the return of Christ.
Contrast this view with the millennialist or the Christian political right. These persistently try to drag us back to Jerusalem. They continually tell us that what is going on in the Middle East is intricately connected to God's plan of salvation. The future of God's Church is connected to the future of Jerusalem. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 30 A.D. Jesus declared that Jerusalem was being left desolate by Him. In 70 A.D. the abomination that causes desolation, the Roman army, came and did just that. So what is going on over their right now has nothing to do with our salvation or the Church's well-being.
What God did in Christ over there centuries go, that's what counts. Jerusalem is special to us because of what Christ did there in the past not because of what He is doing now or will do there later. Jerusalem is the site of His suffering for us men and for our salvation; Jerusalem is where He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. Jerusalem is the site where He poured out His blood to cover our sins and drank the last dregs of God's cup of wrath against sinners. Jerusalem is where God in Christ forgave our past and rescued our futures from the political plotting of men and governments. We don't have to anxiously scan the news as if what happens in the Middle East somehow impacts our salvation. When Christ said "It is finished," on Mount Calvary, Jerusalem was done playing it's part in our salvation.
Jerusalem is no longer the place where God dwells on earth. Where is He today? "Wherever there is a carcass, there vultures will gather." That's what Jesus says. What on earth does this mean? Kretzmen, a LCMS commentator of the 20's calls this a "striking though homely admonition" meaning "where Christ is there shall His elect also be." Luther said this figure goes with the one right before it dealing with lightening. Jesus uses the figure of lightening to indicate that the sign of His presence cannot be mistaken. The figure of a carcass and vultures answers where specifically Christ is, i.e. where His Body is.
That offends us, doesn't it? How could Christ compare Himself to a carcass and us Christians to vultures? Really, what Jesus is doing is wrapping the figure dealing with where He is today around the one that deals with where He is no longer. Jerusalem is no longer a sign of His presence. When the Roman armies surrounded and utterly demolished her, they left, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, 1,356,460 corpses in their wake. It was a well known fact that literal clouds of vultures followed the Roman armies wherever they fought waiting to feast on the abundant carcasses left behind. Just as you knew then where the Roman armies were by those huge clouds of vultures circling them, so Christians know now they'll find Christ where they find other Christians gathered around His Body.
Yes, we gather around Baptism which St. Paul says joins us to the crucified and buried Christ that we might rise with Him. We gather around the preaching of the Word whose main content says St. Paul is not to be Christ and Him risen, but Christ and Him crucified. And we gather at the Lord's Table, and as often as we eat His Body and Drink His Blood, what does St. Paul say we proclaim? Not His life, but His death!
Describing Himself as a "carcass" is the direct opposite of what false Christ's and false prophets do. They speak of the power, miracle working ability, vibrancy and life of Christ. The true Christ works through suffering and hardship, by things we want no more part of than we do a dead body. He works by weak things like Water, Words, Bread and Wine that can easily be dismissed as ordinary and lifeless. Contrary to all reason or expectation it is a crucified Christ that draws people to Himself. That's what Jesus said in John before He suffered, and that's what we see in Luke. As He's dying miserably, the thief on the cross is drawn to Him. As He's hanging their dead as a carcass, the Roman centurion confesses Him to be the Son of God.
Just as a crucifix, a cross with a body or corpus attached to it, offends a large part of Protestant Christianity today, so Christ speaking of Himself as a carcass does, but to those of us who have cherished pictures of Christ kneeling in agony in the Garden, images of Christ suffering on the cross, and hymns that speak of the blood, sweat, and tears of Christ, this is a precious sign. Why? For the same reason vultures flock to carcasses: this is our meat and drink, the substance and sustenance of our faith. A Christ who suffered all the way to death and hell for my sins, a Christ who gives me His Body and Blood for eternal food and drink is the only One who can save me in the end. I find not only Christ, but forgiveness, life and salvation where His Body is. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Last Sunday of the Church Year (11-10-02), Matthew 24:15-28