“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ – do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.”
And then things get very weird.
Most of us have little to no idea what to do with terms like “desolating sacrilege,” so just a bit of context may help. The book of Daniel uses a similar phrase (9:27, 11:31, 12:11) to describe an altar to Zeus set up in the Jerusalem Temple by Israel’s Greek rulers (who were eventually overthrown in the Maccabean rebellion). After those events, it may have become a term that was used to describe any great threat to the integrity of Jewish and, later, Christian belief. In this light, it may refer to the statue the Emperor Caligua declared should be erected to himself in the Temple (which was not completed before he was assassinated in 41 AD).
More likely, though, it describes the event of the Romans surrounding the Temple and eventually destroying it completely in 70 AD. As we’ve mentioned before, this was a cataclysmic event not only for first-century Jews but also for the fledging community of Christians, many of whom were themselves Jewish. While some interpreted this event as a sign of God’s punishment of Jerusalem for rejecting Jesus, others saw it as the beginning of the end of the world itself, and they looked to stories like this one to put that event into a larger context.
Hence the stark, strong language of the passage and the dire warnings not to stray in belief toward false messiahs. The words “be alert” and “I have already told you everything” lend comfort to those who are experiencing the turbulence, terror, and phenomenal uncertainty of the age.
As it turned out, the world did not end. So what do we do with these words today? One brief possibility: we might ask what are the desolating sacrileges of our day. Seriously. What are those things that are so offensive to God that it’s hard to imagine God not getting involved to rectify them? There are likely many answers to this question. I would offer just one: how is it, in a nation of such phenomenal wealth as in the United States, that one in 5 children live in households that fall below the poverty level? How is it that one in four children are at risk for going hungry each night? How might these realities square with the Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me” (Mark 10:13-16)? (I’ll limit myself to my country, but we could and should certainly ask these questions about the larger world God loves so much as well.)
Yes, I know, now I’m not just preaching I’m meddling. But it seems to me that it’s really hard to follow Jesus and identify ourselves with his “anti-kingdom” without calling into question some of the practices of the present kingdom that most grieve God’s heart. Certainly there are other issues we might name; this is the one that comes to mind today.
Are these dire statistics signs of the end of the world? Probably not, but those who bear the name of Christ can certainly reach out to those in need, not attempting to save the world – we will leave that to God – but perhaps to take better care of the little corner of the world in which we live. And, by doing so, we might just change the world of those we encounter and simultaneously introduce them to the Lord and messiah we claim to follow.
So, is there a soup kitchen or food bank near you? Why not call it up and see what they need or how you can help. Or perhaps donate or get involved with a movement like Bread for the World, a non-partisan Christian group dedicated to ending hunger. Do these suggestions seem far removed from the concerns of this passage. Perhaps at first glance, but I think if you try them out you’ll be surprised by how much you receive through your act of faithfulness and by how much more you find yourself thinking about how to live the ethic Jesus preached. Not only that, but you’ll also be acting out of the courage and confidence this passage promotes.
Dear God: Bolstered by your words of warning and promise, let us find the courage to reach out to all those in need, recognizing them as your children, the ones you have created, loved, and promised to redeem. In Jesus’ name, Amen.