Text: Matthew 24:23-28
When I was six or seven years old, my mother gave me my first real bible. Not a picture bible. Not a kid’s story book. A real bible. Yes, it was marketed to children, but the only thing that made it different from any other New American Bible published in the early 80’s was that it had a picture of Jesus with a racially-diverse group of kids on the cover. As the Sunday School song says, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red, and yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight.”
I don’t remember how old I was when I actually tried to read it on my own. I remember one attempt starting in Genesis and getting bogged down halfway through Exodus when the Tabernacle laws get introduced. But I distinctly remember trying to read through Revelation as one of my first complete books. Over the years as I’ve talked with other Christians about their early experiences with Scripture, I find that I was pretty typical in both of those attempts!
What is it about the end of the world that makes us so curious? Even if you didn’t start reading Scripture with Revelation, chances are you’ve read Hal Linsey’s famous book The Late, Great Planet Earth. Or you have been in a youth group that sang Larry Norman’s song “I Wish They’d All Been Ready” (if you’re my age, it was probably the D.C. Talk cover version). At the very least, you know about the Left Behind books, or the film adaptations starring Kirk Cameron or Nicholas Cage. Christian Pop-Culture loves to speculate about the End Times.
Today’s Gospel is from one of the key passages about the “End of the Age.” But today we won’t spend much time on the specifics of the End Times. With all the charts and speculative fiction, it can be easy to focus so much on the minutiae of the events and their potential order, that we fail to see what these End Times passages tell us about Jesus himself. Without going into all the details, in the greater context of this passage, we know that the end was inaugurated when Jesus ascended into heaven. Since the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, there isn’t anything absolutely necessary for Christ to come back that hasn’t already happened. Jesus can come back at any time. Therefore, the most important thing we need to know about the End Times is to know the Jesus who is going to eventually come back. So, with that in mind, please open your bibles to Matthew 24:23, page 118 in your Prayer Book:
Then 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 arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
Jesus tells us to expect counterfeit Christs, counterfeit Messiahs, fake Jesuses. As early as a generation after the Apostles, we see this already coming to pass. In the early 2nd Century, a Jewish revolutionary named Simon bar Kokhba was proclaimed by many of the then-leading rabbis to be the Messiah. The revolt he subsequently led against Rome resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem and was a key factor in the ultimate estrangement of Christianity and Judaism.
But early on there were also many false teachings about Christ that presented a false Gospel. There were those who said that Jesus was never truly a human but was simply a divine spirit pretending to be human. There were others who said Jesus was an angel or other created godlike being but was not God himself. Still others said that Jesus was merely a human prophet who tapped into God’s wisdom or energies. But a Jesus who is not truly and fully human cannot truly represent humanity and cannot therefore redeem us. And a Jesus who is a created being and not truly and fully God cannot represent God and therefore cannot reconcile us to God.
And, of course, this continues to go on today. Counterfeit Christs are all around us. Even people who check the “Christian” box on the census can fall for fake Jesuses. Usually these will take something that is true and twist it into an attractive lie. Perhaps, for example, you’ve heard that the essence of Jesus’ mission was to show us how to live, to give us the perfect example. Friends, that’s a false Jesus. While Jesus does show us a perfect example, we need much more than that. We need a redeemer, someone to take our place and pay our price. The biblical Jesus died for us, and gives us his righteousness because we have no righteousness of our own.
Perhaps you’ve heard that the essence of Jesus’ mission is to love and include everyone, passing no judgement on us. Again, that’s a false Jesus. Jesus certainly does love us. He loved us enough to take on flesh and die for our sins, as if he was the sinner rather than us. But Scripture also says that he will come again to be the judge of the world. Those who insist on trusting in their own flawed attempts at righteousness, who insist on the wide road of their own judgements will find themselves under Christ’s judgement. Jesus himself said he will say to them “depart from me, I never knew you.” Jesus certainly offers eternal life to all, but it’s on his terms, not ours. His terms are certainly gracious. He paid the price for his terms. But they are his terms.
Perhaps you’ve heard that Jesus came so that you could have your best life now. He came so that you could be rich, healthy, and prosperous. This is another false Jesus. The Jesus of the bible says to take up your cross to follow him. He says that you will have tribulation in this world. He says that you can expect to be hated and mistreated, just as he was. All but one of Jesus’ apostles died bloody martyrs’ deaths. And the exception, St. John, spent a good part of his old age exiled for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus does offer you abundant life, but that’s often in spite of troubles in this world rather than an escape from them. And ultimately, he offers eternal life in a resurrected body and renewed creation, proving that all the sufferings of this world are nothing in comparison to the world to come. So, if anyone offers you the Prosperity Jesus, the Health and Wealth Jesus, realize they’re a false prophet.
In Verse 24 that we just read, Jesus says that the false Christs and false prophets may even perform signs and wonders. Miracles are no guarantee of a true prophet or a true Christ. So, how do we know the true Christ from the counterfeit? Pick up at Verse 25:
See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
First, we see that he told us beforehand. Where? In the words of Scripture. Everything we need to know about Jesus is right there in the bible. The Holy Bible is the witness of the Apostles and Prophets to who Jesus is. It is God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as we just confessed in the Creed. And speaking of the Creeds, the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed are time-tested summaries of what the Scriptures tell us about Jesus. By all means get to know your bibles. Even if you’ve read the whole thing, do it again and again. The Holy Spirit always uses the Scriptures to speak to us, to bear witness about Jesus. But we all know that the bible is a big book. In fact, it is more accurately described as a collection of several dozen books! The Church gave us the Creeds as a summary of the essential teachings of the bible, with a special focus on the person and work of Jesus and on the Holy Trinity.
In verses 26 and 27 he tells us that he will not come back in secret. Jesus doesn’t hide himself. On the one hand, his story and teaching are to be proclaimed publicly, and distributed freely. On the other hand, his return will also be public. You won’t be able to miss it. It’ll be like lightning brightly shining across the whole sky. So, don’t look for “secret knowledge” or “hidden Gospels.” There is no such thing. There are false gospels. There are false teachers who know how seductive a supposed secret can be. But Jesus doesn’t work that way. Jesus and his Gospel are nearby for any who would seek him.
What about verse 28? “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” On the one hand this may be a simple 1st Century Jewish proverb, like our saying “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” On the other hand, the word that the ESV translates as “vultures” is more accurately rendered “eagles,” like in the King James of your prayer book. The ESV and many other translations say “vultures” because of the context; we all know that eagles aren’t carrion birds. But the Church Fathers saw “eagles” as hinting at something more noble. They saw this as a statement that the true Christians, described in this passage as “the elect” or in other passages as “the saints” (in a general sense, not just those folks who have icons on the walls), would gather around the Body of the Lord. In fact, Luke’s Gospel uses the word “body” rather than “corpse” in the parallel passage. That is, you can find Jesus in his Church, which gathers around his Table.
Our Anglican Formularies say, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance” (Article XIX). In other words, you won’t truly find Jesus as a Lone Ranger Christian. You need a church where the Word is preached as Law and Gospel, and the Sacraments are administered, specifically Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Without the Word and Sacrament in community with other Christians, your faith will wither and die. You will eventually walk away from Christ and become apostate. The “just-me-and-Jesus” gospel is a false Gospel. The “just-me-and-Jesus” Jesus is a false Jesus. This can be tough in our culture. These days we’re expected to make everything a priority over going to church. Realize that the world, the flesh, and the devil do not want you to come to church, but you nevertheless need to come. You need spiritual nourishment just as much as you need physical nourishment. And it is only in church that you can receive the pure milk of God’s word. It is only in church that you can come to the Christ’s table to eat of his body and drink of his blood.
Ultimately, this is why we do what we do. This is why I became a priest. As much as I like funny hats and robes, as much as I love the Prayer Book, chanting, and incense, the reason I’m here and All Saints is here is so that you can hear the Word of God and partake of Christ’s Sacraments. We want you to know Jesus. We want to be an outpost of his Kingdom, witnessing to the world that he has come as Lord and is coming back to put everything under his rule. So, if you are a baptized Christian, united to Christ by faith, repenting of your sins, in love and charity with God and your neighbor, come to the Lord’s Table. Taste and see that he is good, proclaiming his death and resurrection until he comes again. And if that doesn’t describe you. Come talk to me or one of the other priests. Come talk to one of the Christians worshiping here with you today. Let us introduce you to the true Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.