The following sermon was preached by Rev. Kurt Lantz in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel on Wednesday, 15 November 2017. The text is Matthew 24:1-14.
Herod the Great had started building the temple in 19 BC. It was still under construction at the time of Jesus and was not completed until AD 66. That makes 84 years of construction, and I thought the three year project on St. David’s Rd. was going to be long. King Solomon’s grand temple in the Old Testament was completed in just seven years. Solomon’s temple may have been more ornate but was no comparison in size to the temple built by Herod. The buildings of Herod’s temple had to accommodate tens of thousands of people who visited Jerusalem for the annual religious festivals. Indeed, the upcoming festival of Passover was the occasion of Jesus and the disciples’ visit. This temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world.
It was an emotional boost for the Jews when they were able to see the temple, the centre of their religion, as they reached the end of their pilgrimage, much like we sometimes feel when we see beautiful stained glass windows and massive churches on our travels. The castle-like St. Thomas’ Church here in St. Catharines still catches my eye every time I drive down Ontario Street or see it from one of the other nearby avenues.
Pictures of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas, are still regularly circulated on the internet. They prove that even North American Lutherans are capable of building an impressive church building. In the very middle of the three tiered surrounding nave is an immense altar held up by three carved cherubim. Suspended overhead is a ten-foot crucifix. There are steps up to the lectern where the lessons are read beside a life-size statue of the angel Gabriel with his arms around two little children. The pulpit is ascended by even more steps, where the preacher delivers God’s Word overlooking a statue of Michael holding Satan underfoot in chains. In the baptistry is a huge eight-sided stone baptismal font with continuously running water around a statue of John the Baptist.
I toured another awe-inspiring place of worship with a massive building and with the statue of an angel covered in gold at its pinnacle. The rooms inside had wall to wall mirrors so that it seemed you were looking into eternity. The baptismal font was a huge bronze cauldron supported on the back of twelve life-sized bronze bulls. It is the Mormon temple north of Toronto.
These are amazing examples of religious architecture and design, yet with different purposes. One is intended to draw us to the true God and the other to deceive us into following a false god. But the common element in both that grabs attention is not the glory of God, but the glory of man and what he was able to do. What causes us to drop our jaws is not the divine majesty but the human accomplishment. Does the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel cause us to think about our heavenly Father or about Michelangelo, or about what we may be able to do if we set our minds to it? There is truly no more glory of God in a huge and ornate Lutheran Cathedral in Germany than there is at Resurrection Lutheran Church down the hill from here. The majesty of our God and His accomplishments in our churches is all the same.
King Herod built the temple in Jerusalem as a permanent memorial of himself. He knew that the nation was not going to miss him after he was dead, so he set out to construct a building that would bring his name to mind every time the Jews came to celebrate a religious festival. In response to the disciples’ awe at the sight of the temple, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). We must be willing to say the same about Our Savior Lutheran Church in Texas, and Resurrection Lutheran Church in St. Catharines, and our beloved seminary chapel too.
In AD 70 the Roman soldiers who put down the Jewish rebellion hesitated, but they did in fact destroy the temple. That temple that took 84 years to build, that was an inspiring sight to tens of thousands of Jews, was obliterated. The completed temple had stood for only six years. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there was nothing left to indicate to later visitors that anything had ever been there (Jewish Wars, 7.1.1). Now, in Jerusalem, on the site where the temple used to stand, you will find the Mosque of Omar, a holy place of Islam.
To the awe-inspired disciples Jesus gave a solemn warning. “See that no one leads you astray” (24:4). Don’t let the magnificent temple deceive you into thinking that the kingdom of God is to be found in the amazing efforts of men. It is not found in their architectural feats or the in their religious works. The time will come when it becomes obvious to everyone that salvation is not to be found in human accomplishment and it is the dire events of the end times that will make that clear to all.
We are too easily led to gape at the accomplishments of men and equate them with the kingdom of God. There can be an inordinate emphasis put on how smoothly the liturgy is conducted, how beautiful the building is, how friendly the people are, and even how much the pastor has had to suffer. It is not that we should neglect these things. After all this is the place where we come before almighty God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). Everything should be conducted with care and reverence. But as to the disciples, so to us our Lord points out that these things will pass away.
The music of the church choir will give way to the music of the angelic chorus and the saints in glory. The pastor’s chanting will be replaced with the voice of the Lord Himself. The church buildings will be left in rubble when we are in the New Jerusalem where there is no need of a temple. And the strained smiles that bravely mask our inner pain will be exchanged for the true bliss of eternal joy.
Many things of this world will pass away. It must be so until all of man’s glory is destroyed. It must all come to naught until it becomes obvious to everyone that we are not saved by our accomplishments (not by our buildings or our sufferings or our works or our worship). Like the temple in Jerusalem, all of our accomplishments must pass away and give way to the glorious salvation of our God through Jesus Christ, His Son.
We are such a stubborn, hard-hearted, and prideful people, like those to whom Amos prophesied (Amos 4:6-13) that this is going to take wars and famines and earthquakes and persecutions and mass apostasy. We will still not give up on our glory until the betrayals, false prophets, lawlessness, and absence of love cause us to crumble. Only after the complete destruction of the temple of our prideful hearts will the testimony to all nations be proclaimed clearly that our salvation is in Christ alone and that we have had no part in it whatsoever.
At the destruction of the temple in AD 70 God brought an end to the sacrifices of the Jews. They no longer offer sacrifices for sin because they no longer have a temple in which to offer them. That is what needs to happen to us so that we will stop offering our own sacrifices to try and undo our sins. At the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, God brought an end to the sacrifices of Christians. If we had a true faith, we would no longer offer sacrifices of religious works for our sins because the one sacrifice of the Son of God has done the job.
The danger to the disciples was that they were awestruck by the works of men and could be led astray from the great work that the God-man, Jesus Christ, was about to do at the upcoming Passover. So, preaching to them on a Wednesday like this, Jesus told them not to be led astray by the accomplishments of men, nor by the signs of the end of the age.
It is only when we give up entirely on our own works and depend solely on Christ alone that we can endure to the end, enduring wars and earthquakes and famines. It is only when we stand on Christ alone that we survive the horrors of persecution and the apostasy of our loved ones. It is only in Christ alone that we can make it through the ever increasing lawlessness of our times and the betrayals by our closest friends. For there is nothing that we can construct that will protect us against such devastation. There is no other mighty fortress, shield or bulwark never-failing.
These end times in which we live are going to prove that to you. These times will bring you to an ever surer and firmer faith in Christ alone such that you could not construct for yourselves through any pilgrimage, crusade, or course of study. No stone will be left upon another, so that you will look to the One upon the only thing still standing, the cross of Jesus for you. That will be the only thing left that is not reduced to rubble and that is your only sure salvation.
The times that Jesus saw ahead for His disciples are the times in which we now live. They are hard times, but they are also times of promise. God promises that in these times the Gospel of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ will be proclaimed. God promises that we will not have to rely on our own works. In fact, He warns us against doing so. He tells us not to be led astray, not to be distracted away from the source of our salvation. He tells us that because this source of our salvation is the only thing sure and certain. That is good news.
He has endured for us. He was not spared any of the attacks of the devil, the world, or sinful humankind. He endured the false teachers and the denial of family members. He endured the betrayals, and earthquakes, hunger, and thirst too at the time of his persecution, beating, and death. He endured it all as the just punishment of your sins, and having endured it, He conquered it, and conquered, these things fall around us like rubble.
At the mention of our Saviour’s name, the devil and his temptations crumble. At the declaration of forgiveness by His authority, our sins disintegrate. At the eating and drinking of His body and blood our death dissolves so that we endure to the end and are saved. We confess our sins of trying to build monuments to our strength and He makes haste to be our salvation even as the jaws drop around us to gaze at the divine majesty which has such mercy on me, a poor miserable sinner.
When you are at that point, then your sermons will sound forth. Your life will be an epistle. The Gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world. Every one in your circle of influence will be directed to the true Saviour as a testimony is made to all nations that you are rubble and your salvation is in Christ alone, Christ alone, Christ alone.
Then the end will come.