S. Advent 1.19 “First and Last” Matt. 24:36-44
If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, if you’ve ever stood on the temple mount (from which you can see the Mt. of Olives across a steep valley, barely a mile away) this passage from Isaiah in our Old Testament reading will seem a bit strange to you: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it…”
Because, while the topography of Jerusalem is quite hilly, with lots of little mountain peaks and sharp valleys, semi-desert, and while it is the highest peak in the surrounding area, affording excellent views of distant desert mountains, with the loveliest, most refreshing evening breezes wafting over you, Jerusalem’s temple mount is not quite 2,450 feet above sea level. Hardly Mt. Everest. The mountains in Banff National Park are much taller and more impressive, as is the Matterhorn and Swiss Alps. Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak even more so, because of course: everything in America is bigger and better, right? Right!
So you scratch your head a little and go “Can this be right? It’s just hard to see how Mt. Zion could ever be recognized as the highest mountain. I mean, Everest is always going to be 12 times taller, right? And even if we’re talking metaphorically the highest mountain, it’s not like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in particular and Christianity in general seems likely to draw huge crowds. Christianity, especially of the orthodox variety, is really struggling and declining in the world these days… Jerusalem seems more like the last and least rather than the first and highest of mountains, geographically and metaphorically.”
Isaiah finds your skepticism wearying, and so do I. But we’re here to help you with that today.
God’s Word does what He says, just by His saying so. That’s how the whole universe came into being! God said “Let there be…” and there was! He doesn’t need our help to build a universe, to raise or lower mountains, to judge the nations, to move them here or there, to attract or repel, as He pleases. He doesn’t need your help to build His house, to make it small or great. He doesn’t need you to get the Word out about Jesus, to go chasing pagans, peddling the Gospel.
No. The Game comes to us by God’s Almighty Word alone. If you take away nothing else from our readings today, take away that little nugget!
It surprises most people to learn there is not a single passage in the Old or New Testament where God says He needs us to make Him known or revered by the nations. The so-called “Great Commission” of Matt. 28:19-20 (and as near as I can tell, no one called it that before George Whitfield in the 18th century and he was a nut) does not command us to go out and seek unbelievers or try to convert them. No! Luther and the church before him noted that the only imperative verb is “make disciples”. It’s not “Go!… make disciples of the nations” but rather the Greek is “having gone [where Jesus has sent them, which in Matt. 10 clearly excludes the Gentiles or Samaritans as target destinations] disciples get made through Baptism and Gospel teaching and that is not really our doing but the Lord’s as Jesus promises He is with us always as the Lord through all time—the One doing the doing, as it were…
This passage from Isaiah actually shows the biblical flow: the nations flow to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob and not the other way ‘round. The Law, the Word of the Lord goes out from Jerusalem. By the Holy Spirit’s mysterious power, the Gospel is preached to every creature under heaven by Him, with us only as convenient instruments that He deigns to use mainly to please us, make us feel a part of things. The Church doesn’t go begging and pleading for converts or hearers. The Church has eyes only for Jesus. We sit enthroned with Him on His Holy Mountain, like elite climbers, like Mary, sitting at His feet, hearing His Word—we let the Game come to us. The nations will find us and our God, not vice versa…
What did Isaiah see? Well, he makes it plain. He saw, “in the latter days” that the mountain of the house of the LORD would become the highest mountain, lifted up above the mere hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, many to learn the Ways of the Lord as their own.
So, very plainly: there will come a day when literally the earth will quake, the ground will be split and the mountains of Jerusalem will miraculously and spectacularly go shooting up way higher than 30,000 feet, dwarfing Everest and all the other “mountains”. This is is why the Day of the Lord will be so awesome, as we said a couple weeks ago. Earthquakes, wars, pestilence, the Zombie Apocalypse, hectic and disturbing for unbelievers but awesome and thrilling beyond telling for Christians. The only thing difficult about the Last Day will be pretending we’re not excited. And not the least of the special effects will be the mountain of Jerusalem (temple and Mt. of Olives together, I think) shooting up to heaven as we’re standing on it with Jesus, going “This is so cool!”
Because the faithful from all the nations (a minority, but a far larger and mightier one than we’ve yet imagined, so far!) will have come streaming from the corners of the earth to see Jesus in Glory standing on the Mt. of Olives. We’ll have been drawn from our graves or corners of the earth to Jerusalem at Last. So it will be an awesome sight! as that mountain shakes, quakes, soars above all the earth all the way up to the heavens. And you and I will be there to see it and experience it. The best ride ever! And you won’t need a range finder to see now Jerusalem is the highest mountain, the holiest and coolest City. Literally, (and metaphorically).
But when will this Day be? And will it be the First or the Last Day? Well, that last question is easy for Lutherans. “Yes!” It will be the First and the Last Day, the Day that has no end.
Jesus tells us more about it in our Gospel: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” And I have a little secret for you, that Isaiah knew well: the Day has come many times in history, will come many more, before, at Last! everyone will see it is here, now, with Jesus’ Glorious Return. The Faithful see, as no mere metaphor, but as the deepest, Truest Reality: that the Day came when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the Dead—the First Last Day. For those with eyes made to see by ears that hear His Word, it’ll be plain, on that Day, that Jerusalem is the highest mountain, the holiest City, the Place to Be.
You’re standing on that Holy Mountain, in that High, Heavenly City, right now! Wherever Christ comes by His Word and Sacrament, that is the House of the Lord, the Highest Place. And we don’t make it so. There’s nothing we have to or can do to make it so. It’s like the days of Noah: God put Noah & Co. for safekeeping into the ark; when the flood came, God drowned the evil world and lifted us above the mountains to heaven.
Baptism does this for us! It’s a Free Gift as today we ride the wave, soar on the mountain (by Faith alone) to Heaven with Jesus, even now, by Word/Sacrament, so Peace, surpassing understanding, guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.