From Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews: But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.
We can grow closer to Christ even in times of trial and when we come through trials and tribulations, we will know the joy of the Lord.
What is Jesus talking about when He is warning Peter, James, John, and Andrew to watch for the desolating sacrilege? It must be pretty bad! It is a sacrilege and not just a sacrilege, a desolating sacrilege. On top of that it is going to be, as He describes, …set up where it ought not to be. This sounds redundant because what kind of sacrilege would ever be where it is supposed to be? This is a sacrilege that means something of God is made to be completely unholy and profane. More than this, it is desolating, as if to say it is so bad that anything having to do with holiness is decimated. We hate to think of something that can be that bad and we certainly would not want to be around to see it. Yet Jesus tells the disciples they will see it and they should look for it. The desolating sacrilege will begin the season of great tribulation. Plan on it.
The profaning and desolation of sacred things brings to mind a scene from the Maundy Thursday liturgy at the stripping of the Altar. A number of parishioners complained to the Rector of an Anglo-Catholic parish about the behavior of their sexton during the stripping of the Altar. It seems that the sexton, a truly devout, practicing Catholic who adored everything about the liturgy, took it upon himself to be the one removing the high Altar Cross as the last dramatic scene in the stripping of the Altar. In his old age he would take his rickety wooden step ladder and painfully, slowly, place it in the middle of the footpace, climb with his mud-caked work boots up the ladder, crawl onto the Altar, grind dirt into the fine cracks of the marble Altar, grab the three-foot tall Cross and then slowly make his way down the ladder with everyone praying that he and the Cross made it to the footpace, down the Altar steps and barely make it off to the sacristy with him and Cross in one piece. The parishioners lamented to the Rector that this whole thing was unseemly, disrespectful, and he, the Rector, should stop it. “Don’t allow him to ruin the whole thing. We don’t come to Church on this holy day to watch things be destroyed and ruined.” The Rector said, “But isn’t that what the stripping of the Altar is all about? It should be complete and utter desecration. There is nothing left, everything is ruined because there is no Godly presence there.” The Rector was right and that reflects but is not even close to as bad as the desolating sacrilege.
Jesus has the disciples begin looking for a time when the worship of God is put to an end. This would be accomplished by a foreign political force that would not only stop the religious sacrifices of the Jews, but would replace their halted religious practices with forced pagan rites and ceremonies. Jesus said, ‘When you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. He then describes the urgency and the severity of the time when it happens and gives examples of how immediate and intense the desecration will be. He concludes with a stern warning, But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand. The community to whom He is preaching and teaching knows well the history and tradition of desecration so powerful that even the worship of God is stopped. There is a long tradition of this type of desecration in the religious lives of the Jewish people. Jesus knows about it and the disciples and the people to whom He is teaching know about it.
A number of times in the history of Israel there have been pagan political powers take over holy places like Jerusalem and made worship impossible. The armies desecrated holy places of the Jews and made them places of worship to other gods and not theGod of Israel. The first desolating sacrilege was in 167 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes took over the Temple in Jerusalem and placed an altar to Zeus over the altar intended for the offerings of the Jews. This is the abomination of desolation we read about in the twelfth chapter of Daniel. And from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days. In His teaching on Mount Olivet Jesus is privately warning Peter, James, John, and Andrew of yet another desolating sacrilege that will take place as part of the great tribulation at the end of time. Whatever shape this coming abomination takes is not revealed but Jesus warns them to be ready because when it happens it will be a sign that the Christ is soon coming again.
There are times when some of us wonder whether we are seeing signs of this great tribulation before Christ says he will come again. Every time there is a big event that has monumental proportions, with the backdrop of the battle between good and evil, some will wonder whether this is part of the great tribulation and that encourages us to look for an accompanying desolating sacrilege. In retrospect none of these signs or events has turned out to be a sign of the end of time. Most recently, the turning of the annual calendar from 1999 to 2000 was supposed to result in chaos and the beginning of the end. Eighteen years have brought us here safely, so we know that it was not the beginning of the end. The Hale-Bopp Comet passing so closely to us in 1997 was to trigger massive occurrences in nature and societies around the world that some predicted the end on its arrival. Nothing happened except great glee for some amateur and professional astronomers over never-before-seen pictures. I suspect some other 20th century events like the two World Wars with their battle of evil political and ideological forces and the enormous scale of armies involved gave rise to predictions of the Great Tribulation. Again, we are still looking for and attempting to interpret signs of a sacrilege that will leave us desolate and put us at the beginning of Jesus’ predicted tribulation.
Going through a predicted tribulation or enduring a present form of tribulation does not sound inviting. No one looks forward to disaster, or struggle, or destruction of anything; materially or spiritually. We should want always to have the joy and privilege of worshipping our God and we do not want that taken away. We do not like to think of calamitous or destructive times. For the Christian, though, we know from Jesus there will be those times. They may be at the end of time or even through times of struggle in our lives here in the world. When we look at these predictions from the Bible; apocalypses they are called in Biblical language (a word that simply means revealed or uncovered) we find that there is always the good triumphing over the forces of evil. It takes a trial, a tribulation, to be lived through or overcome, but in the end there is great joy, even exultation.
The trial is there for the Christian and the tribulation is always worth the reward that comes after the endurance. It’s much like the trial of exercising our muscles to get them fit and stronger especially if we are to achieve a goal. The pain and strain of the body must be endured in order to achieve the desired goal. We might not like the trial of exercising but we find joy and delight in the results.
Notice that we have this building to a great crescendo even in the Church Year. The readings for today are intended, I think, to be a preparation for celebrating The Feast of Christ the King next week. The liturgical calendar parallels the course of our lives. We end the Church Year with Christ being honored and praised and exalted as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is Resurrected, Ascended, and Glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father at the end of our Church Year. Today our Scripture readings purposely cover the warning by Jesus to be ready for Him to come again, because He will keepHis promise to return. Our lives here in the world are intended to be a preparation, a trying out, a tempering and forging of a life hid with Christ so that we can be ready to meet Jesus when we die or when He comes again in all His glory.
So what do we do in the meantime? We heed Jesus’ warning. We move forward through any trials and tribulations given us. The good news is that progress can be made in our lives even through times of trial. This is why Saint Paul is so encouraging to the Hebrews. There is a reward for the faithful who endure and remain steadfast followers of Christ here in the world. Saint Paul knows the hardships they have endured and encourages them with these words, But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.
Continue to be faithful to the Church while we are waiting. This is a place that will prepare us for eternity. We are given the Word of God written to reveal to us what God expects of us and to show us the love and grace He has for us. It is here that we have the graceful Sacraments to aid us and sustain us through the tribulations and, yes, in fact, also the joys of this life. In Thomas Cranmer’s brilliance he wrote our opening collect as a thanksgiving for the salvation that comes to us even in the Bible. The Word of God in the Bible has the saving knowledge for our souls. According to that prayer if we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s Holy Word, we can hold fast (endure) the hope of everlasting life. So it is indeed God’s Word that we have to be about through this world, but that’s not all the Church has for us.
The grace of the Sacraments is there for us too and we use this time well to avail ourselves of them. Think of the Sacraments as kinds of crutches, supports, aids to make it through this world of trials to get to the next world. We do not need the Sacraments in heaven. We need them here. We need to be sustained daily by God’s grace so Holy Communion is offered daily. We need healing and in the Sacraments Jesus is healing us according to His will. We need all the means of grace the Sacraments have to offer and when we receive it faithfully we will be making good use of this time of tribulation before Christ comes again. We will be well prepared for that Second Coming.
Christians look forward to Christ coming. We may have to look forward with fear and trembling because we are in a time of trial, but we know and rely on Christ’s promise to come again. We could not have a better dedication for our parish church than The Church of the Advent. Our Church dedicated to Christ coming reminds us every time we say the title, every time we enter here, that our hope for the end of time, and our reason even to make it through each day is the Coming of Christ. We will be kept strong and faithful by God’s Grace in His Word and Sacraments so we will not be those, in the words of Saint Paul who shrink back and are destroyed. We will be of those who have faith and keep their souls. So Come Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.