May God give you all much grace and peace through the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.
Brothers and sisters beloved in him, our precious Savior!
There are now not a few who maintain that man is by nature good or that when he is born he is just like a blank uninscribed slate, upon which afterwards either good or evil is written through teaching and example. Therefore in no way is the root of the evil to be found in a natural corruption of the human heart but only in a bad upbringing. However you bring up a person, right or wrong, that's how he will be.
No extensive argumentation that these claims rest on error is required. Daily experience sufficiently refutes them. We not only daily observe how sin stirs already in the littlest children already before they are of the age to understand and imitate the examples of others, we also often find that even such children who enjoy the most careful upbringing and whose parents protect them from all offenses and opportunities for temptation still often turn out absolutely evil and all parental rearing and vigilance is lost on them. Oh, how many pious parents sighing look down on their child whose wickedness defies all their still so strong warnings! How many children of Christian parents there are who were not moved even by the bitterest tears of their faithful father and their tender mother! Already at an early age their obstinacy grows into a strong, unbendable oak tree. All parental warnings and lures are useless. Crying, the parents must leave their sons and daughters to their fates and see them go irrecoverably down the way of death.
However since this is irresistibly confirmed by experience, it can also not easily be denied that the power of a bad example is great and terrible and that the majority of those within Christianity who are unbelievers and godless became so through the temptations of others. Who can count the unfortunate souls who now fall as sad victims of temptation every day! Ask someone who impudently blasphemes God and mocks his Word about the history of his life and he will almost always tell you, "When I was a child, I bore faith in a God and Savior in my heart. With childish timidity I considered the Bible to be the Word of the heavenly Father. I listened to the holy histories of revelation with full faith and sincere joyful admiration. But I came out into the world. Then I heard what was so holy to me boldly mocked as fables, and writings came into my hands in which the faith of Christians was laughed at as childish foolishness. Then I first became restless. Then my soul was first seized by doubt which initially I intended to combat as an enemy of my salvation. Yes, I was frightened before the abyss to which I believed myself to have been led. But finally I couldn't resist anymore. Carried away by the mob of mockers, I finally joined in the bold mockery myself without feeling any unrest anymore."
Furthermore ask a depraved person who no longer pays attention to his conscience and quietly serves every sin how he came into this deep corruption and he will tell you, "When I was a child, I had a tender conscience. Blush colored my cheeks when someone questioned me about even the most insignificant of my sins. I feared God. I feared his punishment in eternity. But when I got to know the world, when I saw how everyone pays no attention to God's commands and goes along according to the desires of their hearts and fears neither God nor eternity, then I too lost the fear of sin and I now think, 'wherever the great crowd goes, I also will go.'"
Tell me, my friends, is it not so? Don't unbelievers and corrupt people leave mostly on the example of the crowd? Doesn't one always console himself with the others? Isn't it temptation into whose nets most fall?
Yet there are still so many finer nooses of temptation which threaten even the experienced Christian with the highest danger to his soul. Let me now speak to you more about this.
Text: Matt 24:15-28
"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel―-let the reader understand―-then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now―-and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-―if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.
"So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather."
The Gospel lesson we just read, my friends, deals with the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. But both of them are so mixed together with each other that it is very difficult to say which words apply only to the destruction of Jerusalem and which apply only to the last times. But this mixing occurs intentionally because the destruction of Jerusalem is a picture of the destruction of the world, and in both great events the same things shall come first. Christ describes the one time just like the other, namely, as such a time in which the danger would be so great, that they would "deceive even the elect--if that were possible!" Accordingly, I will speak to you:
About the constant great danger of temptation.
And to be sure:
That this danger has constantly been great and still is, and
How you can still escape it safely.
Our text begins with the words, "So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel-―let the reader understand." In these words Christ clearly describes the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, for he adds, "Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." By the abomination that causes desolation which will stand in the holy place it is to be understood that the emperor Gaius Caligula had his own image set up in the Temple in Jerusalem for idolatrous worship. Therefore this should be a warning sign for all believers that the ripping down of the temple, the leveling of the holy city, and the downfall of the entire Jewish kingdom was at the door.
Now following this in our text is the warning to flee promptly and then the description of the signs of the last times which will follow it. It says, "For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now-―and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect―-if that were possible."
See here the true picture of the actual conditions and fates of the church of Christ in the last times from the destruction of Jerusalem until the end of the world. Most Christians who are still weak in knowledge and experience commonly make for themselves an entirely false notion about it. They think that in the true church things must always go peacefully, pleasantly, cozily, and delightfully. Whoever has found truth, forgiveness of his sins, and peace with God must also have a life which flows forth in peace and undisturbed blessedness as a brook in which the sun of grace is reflected.
But how greatly they deceive themselves with such thoughts! Whoever is a living member of the true church cannot sleep in the church as in an unscalable castle, secure and unconcerned about the enemy. To lead a Christian life in complete peace and quiet is a dream. Rather this hymn speaks the absolute truth.
Once the pearl is your possession
Do not think you now enjoy
Vict'ry over the aggression
Of the evil which destroys.
Trembling, guard o'er your salvation
Fearful for your precious soul,
For in daily tribulation
Hang you over a deep hole.
Firmly hold your crown and surely
True persistence is the best
Grasp whatever's yours securely.
Relapse is a wicked guest.
Whoever has found the truth may not view himself therefore as a peaceful possessor of a jewel which no one will dispute. No, the triumphant church, the church at rest, is not on earth, but in heaven. Here we are still in the land of testing and of faith, not of crowning and of sight. Here the Kingdom of Light must unceasingly stand in battle with the kingdom of darkness, for Satan and his kingdom oppose Christ on the field uninterruptedly. Here therefore the offences, the scandals, the abominations, the temptations never stop in which our souls can easily lose again what they have acquired and finally still go lost themselves. Here there is a constant danger, always new tribulations and always new temptations. The church is a fortress in which the truth lies as a treasure to be guarded and in which the Christians stand as a defending battalion. But enemies attack it from all sides, yes, even inside the church's walls traitors are found who also shame the church before the world with their unchristian works and who are bent on causing unrest in it and delivering the divine building into the hands of the enemy. The Gospel is a light which to be sure the world and hell can never entirely extinguish with all their hurricane winds but which the individual Christian can easily lose that it no longer illuminates him.
But in our Gospel lesson Christ tells us in what the danger for the Christians of being led astray has always consisted and still consists. He says the abomination that causes desolation will stand in the holy place, which means, just as formerly a lifeless idol had been set up in the Temple in Jerusalem, a living idol will set itself in the middle of the Christian church. This has happened through the Roman bishops who falsified God's Word and forbade people from reading it, mutilated Christ's institutions and prescribed for the church laws which conflict with the clear commands of God, and have themselves worshipped as Christ's and God's Substitute. Oh, how innumerable are those who have already fallen victim to this great and terrible seduction! How many millions of souls have lost their salvation through the errors of the papacy!
But Christ still has more to say. He speaks again, "So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it." With this Christ means to say that soon after the apostles the Gospel of his grace would no longer be preached purely. They would no longer teach that Christ with all the salvation he purchased is to be found and obtained everywhere on earth. Rather, they would say, "Only here, only there is Christ to be found. You must come here. You must do this and that. Only then can you be saved." What Christ foretold has also come into fulfillment to the letter. Barely had three centuries passed since Christ's death before the Gospel had already been adulterated and darkened in many places of Christianity. The hermitic and monasterial life arose. That was the time when they cried to the people, "There he is, out in the desert (in a hermitage). Here he is, in the inner rooms (in the monastery, in the holy place of pilgrimage, and the like)."Oh how many souls were led away from Christ through this! Yes, there are almost no church fathers and ecclesiastical writers who should not have been somewhat infected by this error of the secluded life of a monk. Even the elect, as Christ says, such as Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, and similar holy illuminated men, were mixed up in this error of false sanctification and work righteousness, out from which God often could not help them until the hour of death.
But my friends, we cannot be of the opinion that the idea of the great danger of being led away from the true Christ and pure Gospel concerns just the past. In our Gospel reading Christ warns us also in these very last times. For also now, what do all the various denominations of our day call to the Christians with one voice other than, "Here is Christ, there is Christ"? Those opposed to organized religion cry, "Here is Christ! For the enlightenment, the downfall of all religions and thrones, the denial of God, the denial of a future punishment, of heaven and of hell, and full freedom, independence, and equality―-all this is the true redemption of the world." The Papists cry, "Here is Christ! For wherever the Pope, his substitute, is, only there you find Christ and his true church. See how many beautiful churches we build. See how many crosses are erected among us. See how much we kneel, fast, pray the rosary, venerate the saints, and hear mass. See how great, how universally widespread, how united, how old our church is. Therefore believe that Christ is here." So also, however, cry all the other modern sects. They say, "See how hard we work ourselves for heaven. See how we pray, fight, struggle, and quarrel for the Kingdom of God. See how zealous we are for Christ and his Word. See how we sense and feel Christ in our hearts. See how holy we live. See how we make great arrangements to send the Gospel to the heathen. Therefore see! Here, here is Christ!"
How many, especially when they come into this new homeland of ours and see the many religious denominations often with their sanctification prominently on display, how many do not know then what they should say? First they are caught up in unrest and doubt, but what is usually the end? One joins himself to the crowd of mockers, a second seeks refuge in the great and splendid temple of the papists, a third abandons the old faith of his fathers, becomes a victim of the enthusiasts and now considers only a powerful excitement of his feelings to be true Christianity. Poor casualties of seductive spirits! May God himself look upon this.
Therefore let us now hear secondly how you can still escape all these great dangers of temptation safely.
In our Gospel lesson Christ advises an immediate flight and says, "Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house." The roofs of the inhabitants of the East were flat on top, and external steps led from them to the street. The Lord says further, "Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath." With all this Christ demonstrates that a most hurried flight is necessary and every obstacle, every hesitation is most dangerous. But this is true not only about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem but also about the present in a spiritual sense.
But Christ also specifies in what this spiritual flight of souls and hearts consists. He speaks first about the prophecy of the prophet Daniel, "Let the reader understand!" and then later on, "See, I have told you ahead of time." Understanding the Word of Christ and of the Prophets is therefore the first thing through which you can escape the danger of being led astray.
For will you take offence, will you be greatly amazed, that now such a great confusion rules and that the church and the pure true teaching are so very troubled from both inside and out? If you crack open your Bible, then you'll find that it has gone in the world exactly how Christ and the prophets have prophesied it centuries ago. So can the modern universal unbelief and the countless denominations which all cry, "Here is Christ!" make you err in your faith? On the contrary, they must rather strengthen your faith in the truth of the divine Word. You will say, "Even if it still gets worse and worse, still darker and darker, even if they rage still more and more, the Lord has already said that it must happen in this way. So he who foresaw this with the eyes of his omniscience will also keep his word through the hand of his omnipotence and protect his church. The Bible, whose truth is confirmed by the modern apostasy, will also be true when it says Christ is with his own until the end of the world."
But understanding the Word of Christ is also therefore the right means of remaining protected from temptation, because the Word of God is the united and certain touchstone of all truth and all error. If you understand the Word, then you will answer the preachers of the false Enlightenment with Peter, "These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error." If you understand the Word then you will answer the papists with the Revelation of John, "The angel of God speaks, 'If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury.'" You will further answer them with St. Paul saying that we Christians are built not on popes and bishops, but, "on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone."
If you understand the Word then finally you will answer every sect as St. Paul says, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a Gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned." Therefore what does your holiness help me, what does all your work righteousness help me, what do your zeal, deeds, and activities help me since your Gospel is not pure? Wherever the pure word is, there alone is truth. Wherever the truth is, there is Christ and his church. Wherever Christ is, there is God. Wherever God is, there is salvation. That is what I seek. That is what I hold on to. That is where I remain. That is what I die in. In that I am and will be saved. So lure me as sweetly as you want. Frighten me as fiercely as you want. Christ says, "Let the reader understand." Therefore I will understand God's Word, by which I orientate myself and no appearance shall deceive me and no temptation shall catch me. Even if they may cry, "There he is," or, "Here he is," the Lord says, "Do not go out, do not believe it." Therefore nothing shall tempt me. With the torch of the Word I will walk through the darkness of this time confidently. With it I will be lowered into the grave and also appear before his strict judge's seat confidently, even joyfully, relying on God's Word. Even if others may look to something else, I shall place my bets on the Word of my God which shall never pass away even when Earth and heaven do.
Of course, when Christ says in conclusion, "For as the lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man," he is encouraging his Christians to never be complacent but to keep themselves ready at every hour to receive him, the Lord, with joy, for just as quickly and as suddenly as lightning flashes from one end of the earth to the other, Christ will one day enter through the doors of the world and, to be sure, in an hour when no one thinks, appear in the clouds of heaven accompanied by all his holy angels.
Therefore we should always think vividly about this great moment, now, when we are bombarded from all sides to abandon the pure Gospel and are in danger of falling to this and that temptation. What will we wish to have done when God's Son comes to judge the living and the dead? Only then will we be able to stand before him with a joyful conscience when we can say, "Lord, we have not asked men. We have judged ourselves only according to the Word which you have given us. We have remained in it. We have not denied it, but have believed it and confessed it before the world. On it we have placed all our hope and because of it we have divorced ourselves from the world. So let us then find grace before your face."
Oh, it is impossible for Christ to be able to cast us away. He cannot reject those who have held strong and fast to his Word. He cannot contradict himself. Therefore be confident, all you who hold the Word of the Lord in honor, for the world with its desires, its goods, its honors and wisdoms pass away, but whoever does the will of God remains forever. Amen.