FLEE TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE GOSPEL
Sermon Text, St. Matthew 24:15-28.
Prayer: Lord, keep us faithful and watchful in a world spinning out of control, that we may be kept from following those who would deceive us so we receive and hold onto the salvation You’re preparing for us.Amen!
Dear fellow watchers for the Bridegroom’s coming: Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Matthew 24 is where we hear what Jesus said about the “signs” of His second coming, or as this period is sometimes called, the “last days.”
Jesus said to “flee to the mountains [in] those days.” That sounds good about now, with all the trouble out there. Fleeing the world is tempting. But what does Jesus mean with His words about fleeing? Well, first He is speaking of some biblical history that took place in the city of Jerusalem.
“The ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place,” had happened 200 years before Christ, when a pagan king had pigs sacrificed on the altar in Jerusalem – just to defile the temple. But Jesus says here, something like that would happen again. And it did, 30 or so years after this. During the Jewish rebellion against Rome, while the Jews were fighting amongst themselves, they dressed up a fool and had him act the part of the high priest in the Holy of Holies. Jesus’ apostles must have told all their fellow Jewish Christians Jesus’ words: “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”
The Christians didn’t wait around. As soon as they were aware of this new “abomination of desolation,” there was a mass exodus of Christians “to the mountains” – the nearby hills of Pella. When Rome’s army came and surrounded Jerusalem, no disciples of Jesus were there. When they set fire to the temple, and people in the city began crying out, a loud cry came from the hills, where the Christians who had fled saw the city in flames.
They had all “fled to the mountains.”
This isn’t just a history lesson. It isn’t just that Jesus was speaking to them. Jesus is speaking: to us too. Here Jesus is foretelling the destruction, the end, of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The 1st-century Christians took seriously what Jesus was telling them. They fled to the mountains and were safe.
But Jesus also is foretelling the end of the world, when only those who believe in Him are safe – saved – for eternal life. What are the mountains for us to flee to? The Bible tells us. God’s always talking about mountains.
Listen to what it says in the Old Testament: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in His holy mountain” (Ps 48:1). This isn’t an earthly mountain but something holy.
And: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people” (Ps 125:2) … “I will lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord” (Ps 121:1). So the “mountains” here are God Himself, who is our Help.
Also: “I will feed My sheep in good pasture, and their fold shall be in rich pasture on the high mountains of Israel” (Ezek 34:14). So the “mountains of Israel” are where the Good Shepherd feeds His sheep.
So what are the “mountains” to flee to? The Old Testament clearly tells us it’s a holy place, where God Himself is, where God feeds His sheep. But it isn’t clear yet. Until one day, great crowds are following Jesus of Nazareth, and what does He do? He goes up “on a mountain” (Mt 5:1), and teaches them. Sometime later “Jesus went up on a mountain” again, the crowds find Him, and He feeds them with five loaves and two fish.
Sometime later, “Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured.” Finally He ascended the Mount of Olives on a donkey, riding into Jerusalem. Five days later He was led to Mount Calvary. There the Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. This was the “help that comes from the hills.”
So the “mountains” which Jesus says to “flee to” – this is the Gospel! It’s where your Good Shepherd feeds you. He comes into the deep valley and dark pit where your sin brings you, and carries you to this high peak, the mountain where you’re safely out of the enemy’s reach. That’s the picture.
One problem with this is that mountains seem so far away, such a high climb, so hard to get there. Jesus has this in mind, I think, when He says, “Woe to those” who might be hampered. He brings up examples of those who work in the field, or are pregnant, or the winter makes travel hard.
Jesus then says these frightening words: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” This isn’t in the future. It’s now. The time of “great tribulation” began when Jesus ascended. We’ve been in the “last days” ever since. Every baby is born into a world that’s in its “last days.”
And how Jesus describes it! Earlier in this chapter He speaks of “wars and rumors of wars … famines, pestilences and earthquakes …,” that we’ll be “delivered up to tribulation,” that people will kill Christians, and that we’ll “be hated” for His sake. These are the fears that we pray about.
Jesus’ words about fleeing to the mountains might then lead us to a wrong conclusion that we need to flee our problems, that the mountains are an escape. We think if not for such suffering and troubles, then we could be safely on the mountaintop. We look for mountaintop experiences.
This is why the greatest danger of the last days that Jesus highlights is actually not war, plagues and pandemics, being hated and persecuted, or even death itself. It’s false doctrine, the “false christs and false prophets [who] will arise,” that is, false teaching in the church.
It’s no coincidence that false teaching in our time often is in some form of the “prosperity gospel,” which is that if you believe in Christ, life will be easier and go better. It’s got to be a more positive message, so it’s going to ignore sin and not mention it, and the same thing with suffering. It’s the idea that your suffering and troubles mean that God is far away.
The false teaching that Jesus warns about is false teaching that takes away the Gospel. If you ignore sin, it doesn’t go away. If you redefine sin, it doesn’t change it. Our sins need God’s forgiveness. You can’t wish away your sufferings, they’re real. Our sufferings need to be acknowledged, and in Jesus God does just that. If you take away the truth of God’s Word, you take away Jesus, the One who forgives you all your sins, the One who suffered for you, who promised to be with you in your suffering and to take you to be with Him where there is no suffering.
This is why the greatest danger is not death – which can’t separate you from Christ if you believe in Him – but false teaching, which by listening to it you can lose eternal life. We learn then to repent of our apathy toward God’s Word, or being uncareful with what’s influencing our faith.
Despite our failures to use His Word as we should, despite how we obsess over the problems of this world and how we keep our heads down, what does God do? He has preserved His Word and Sacraments among us. These are the mountains He has us flee to. This is where God is with us. This is where we are safe with Him, where He feeds us and saves us.
There are two mountain peaks in the church service. The first is the preaching of the Word, the sermon, when the Gospel is preached to you and you receive faith. The second is the Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, when Christ Himself, His body and blood that forgives all your sin, is just given to you – into you, and you are strengthened in the true faith. So we pray God to preservepure to us His saving Word and Sacraments.
They’re given to you not for when you get away from troubles. They’re given to you in the midst of your troubles – for the troubles. You can flee to them, right where you are, in the midst of troubles. Through the power of His Word and His presence in the Sacrament, He will still your wild emotions. He will steady you. He will give you peace.
In His Supper, Jesus comes to us in our noisy world – He comes to you – takes you by the hand and says: “Come with Me, I will give you rest.” When we’re going through such fearful stuff as this world gets worse the closer it gets to the end, you want the Christ who’s really there, really present. We don’t look for Him to come back and rule an earthly kingdom of peace, as some false teachings say; we look for Him to come to us here and give us peace and safety in the Sacrament. We flee to Him in His Word and Sacraments, on this mountaintop, to be held firmly by Him forever. Amen!