This sermon was originally delivered in the days immediately following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you. (Psalms 55:22-23)
When did you hear and where were you when you heard Tuesday morning? You’ll probably never forget! Anne and I had just returned from Europe Monday evening. Unbeknownst to us, we were among the last to make it home, as in that one long day we flew from Rome to Brussels, Brussels to Chicago, and Chicago into Orange County Airport.
I’ve discovered the best way to fight jet lag is to exercise. So I got up early Tuesday morning to take my aerobic walk, took a bit longer route than usual, smarting from the pain of having been pick-pocketed in the Rome subway Sunday night and having had my luggage lost on Monday. I usually make it home from my walk to catch the 7 o’clock news on the Today show. But I consciously thought, It’s been a slow news summer. I’ve heard all I want to hear about Gary Condit, and an extra fifteen minutes of exercise before our first staff retreat of the year would be of greater value than the top of the news.
When I arrived home at 7:20 a.m. I was surprised to see both Janet and Anne riveted to the television. As they tried to tell me something, I saw an airliner crash into a building. I then saw another instant replay. At that moment I, like you, became riveted to the news, obsessed with our national tragedy. Everything else, including stolen wallets filled with cash, credit cards, drivers licenses, family pictures and other valuables, along with a suitcase stuffed full of clothes and personal affects, seemed incidental to the horrendous loss of life and shock to our American psyche.
I must admit that after a half hour of watching those outrageously bizarre events with those four planes crashing, I wondered if the commentators would stop and sheepishly declare that this was a contemporary update of the old Orson Welles’ “invasion of the planet” deception of decades ago and it would be revealed that this was a computerized simulation of a fictional terrorist attack meant to momentarily shock the nation, and then relieve us as we discovered our vulnerability to such technological trickery. But no such announcement was made. And the horror settled in as all air flights were canceled, key government buildings were evacuated, and for a while we did not even know the whereabouts of our President.
I don’t know how close you’ve come to a personal connect with this tragedy. We’ve all empathized with the stories of passengers having those touching last phone conversations with loved ones. We’ve witnessed the relief of those who would have been on those planes or in those towers but for some reason were delayed. We’ve been amazed at the stories of those who made their way down ninety floors, escaping all injury, and one who even apparently fell a great distance in the implosion, coming out relatively unscathed. Then the dark side is filled with the horror of business firms who lost hundreds of employees, families that are shattered, and even the tragic story of a child who lost one parent, a passenger in the plane, and the other parent who worked in the Trade Center.
Yes, there has been a quantum change in the way we, as Americans, look at life. Never again will we live in a perception of isolation that has given us such security in the past. Those horror stories of distant terrorist bombings in the Middle East where U.S. embassies were blown up in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania or Nairobi, Kenya have now come close to home. The federal office building devastation of Oklahoma City, which seemed like such an isolated aberration, becomes a simple precursor to this week’s fast-moving events that put our whole nation on alert. As one building after another crumbled in New York, the Pentagon continued to burn in Arlington, Virginia. Even the White House became vulnerable.
As we watched that Friday noon service of prayer and remembrance in the National Cathedral, as representatives of all faiths participated, our national leadership gathered in that one house of worship, and as we listened to a frail, elderly Billy Graham speak with such great biblical insight into the moment, I could not help but become convinced that our American preoccupation with entertainment was going to seem increasingly shallow. Worship services that are human-centered and preaching that is appreciated for the stand-up comedic gifts of the communicator will no longer carry the day as one insightful writer has reflected — we are a nation of people who are “amusing ourselves to death.” I doubt that we’ll be able to do that any longer. Oh certainly, Jay Leno and David Letterman will be back in business in a few days. And God help us if we completely lose our sense of humor.
But, frankly, what you and I need is a biblical perspective, a Word from God to help us face the national tragedy at the present and its implications for the future. So let me share with you some biblical insights that are God-given to help us cope, as hurting men and women endeavoring to face the reality of our own questions in a broken, hurting world.
Insight one: At the deepest level, all life is filled with mystery.
Be wary of any human leader who claims to have all the answers, myself included.
I, and people like me — your pastors, teachers, theologians, philosophers — will and should wrestle with the deepest issues of life. But remember what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12: For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection conies, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
God is the only one who understands. And even He has His heart broken by what He sees.
Each of us views life from our own limited perspective. We react on instincts developed over a lifetime of handling the expected and the unexpected. And we all crave answers.
That’s why the churches have been so full this week and why entertainment-oriented talk shows and sporting events have been canceled or postponed. There’s something in each of us that in moments of tragedy opens up yearning for a eternal perspective, a divine insight, that makes some kind of sense out of life in all of its confusion.
My 26-year-old-daughter, Janet, confronted me with this reality. Wednesday evening, Anne, Janet and I had a quiet dinner on the tenth anniversary of our daughter Suzanne’s death. Our other daughter, Carla, was going to join us, but all flights had been cancelled and she could not get here from Seattle for our evening of commemoration. Even as the three of us were musing on the mystery of Suzanne’s death at age 23, Janet suddenly looked at me and said, “Dad, why isn’t St. Andrew’s having a special service in honor of the national tragedy?”
I defensively responded, “Our chapel has been open. We’re having a candlelight vigil all day for any who want to come and pray. And we’ve redesigned three services this weekend to concentrate on this theme.”
“That’s not enough,” she responded. “People need a place to come and pray and express themselves out loud to each other.” I went home and barely slept on Wednesday night, tossing and rolling until I sensed the Holy Spirit saying, “John, though the Session isn’t meeting again, you’re the pastor. Announce the service, 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, where people can come and simply pray and hear the Scriptures read, express themselves, and perhaps even sing a hymn or two in a candlelight vigil.”
I came to the church Thursday morning, announced it, and only later discovered that Friday had been set aside as a day for prayer and remembrance. I was stunned to see this sanctuary fill up with people at 5 o’clock. By 6 o’clock perhaps half of them had left. But almost instantly, as some would leave others would come and take their seats and their candle, and the sanctuary was still full. Many of these people I don’t remember ever seeing before. We all were there seeking perspective and even answers to the mystery of terrorism and the apparent random nature of life and death.
Insight two: The God of all creation is the only one who has the answers.
Billy Graham, at the National Day of Prayer service, made one statement that, in my estimation, stands out above everything else I’ve heard this week. He said, “God is sovereign even in things we don’t understand!”
Take this God seriously. Open His Word, the Bible. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Or another way of saying it is that the Bible is God’s written way of communicating to you and me, as His Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles of old, to tell you and me not everything about God, ourselves and each other, but enough about himself, about ourselves and each other, to get along with Him, ourselves and each other.
How sad is the person who wanders through life isolated from God, soured by life, yearning for something more, yet not realizing that that “something more” is available through a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
I know it’s so easy to get caught up in life that you don’t take the time for daily Bible reading and prayer. I know that even when you do read the Bible, at times, it seems boring, lest we come to it with the same kind of attention that we give to our business activities, our social life, and our sailing, our tennis swing, our golf game.
By the time I got to our staff retreat at 9:30 on Tuesday morning I had not yet opened the Bible. I had sat, mesmerized, in front of the television set, then only shaved and showered just in time to make it to the meeting. With great confidence, I opened the One Year Bible. This particular version has a daily reading from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, from the Psalms, from the Book of Proverbs. With great confidence, I shared with the staff, “I’m going to read from the Psalm for today, believing that God has a Word for us in our puzzlement.”
Let me read the opening and closing verses:
Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of my enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest — I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.” Confuse the wicked, O Lord, confound their speech, for I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they prowl about on its walls; malice and abuse are within it. Destructive forces are at work in the city; threats and lies never leave its streets. (Psalms 55:1-11)
The psalm then closes with these finals words:
Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me. I trust in you. (Psalms 55:22-23)
Insight three: God’s truth is multi-dimensional and never simplistic.
There are multi-dimensions to truth, God’s truth. Some of these multi-dimensions seem to be in competition with each other. We would rather see this as the dynamic tensions of truth that is not simplistic.
If you read the Bible carefully, you will see, on occasion, a call to peacemaking, which could cause one to become a pacifist. At the same time, there are other passages that call us to act decisively in military response, to crush the enemies of God and those who would bring injustice, destruction to the innocent. There are passages that call us to turn the other cheek, forgiving our enemies, to function in dynamic tension with those passages that call us to annihilate evil, living in separation from the evil doer.
There are passages that emphasize the sovereignty of God and the fact that He is in control of the universe that exist in dynamic tension with those passages in the Bible that talk about the freedom He has given to human beings to make their own choices and to live with the positive and negative consequences of those choices as they impact us and as they impact others. You will read passages in the Bible that encourage you to see that everything God created is good and to use all He’s created to celebrate life existing in dynamic tension with those passages that call us to pick up our cross, follow Jesus, and live lives of self-denial.
There are Bible verses that urge us to pray for God’s healing of our physical, emotional, and spiritual diseases. We have case examples of those who have been instantaneously, miraculously healed as well as those stories of men and women who lived with their “thorns in the flesh,” praying for deliverance, but finding a different kind of healing than the one for which they prayed.
You take God’s biblical perspective seriously and you will live with the reality that life is messy, it’s not simplistic. God’s truth is multi-dimensional. You and I legitimately raise the question, “How can a good, all-powerful God allow evil in this world?” “How could He have allowed those four planes to have crashed in those diabolical ways with such horrendous loss of life?”
I don’t know. I’m human. But God does know. Isaiah declared it so succinctly when he said: Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:6-8)
Insight four: Don’t be afraid to argue and even be angry with God.
God wants to have honest conversation with you. Adoration of God and reverence of Him is very important in prayer. At the same time, God does not want someone to go through phony, fake, verbal gyrations to try to win His favor. He knows our hearts. He knows our questions. He knows our anguish. He is touched with the feelings of what we feel and wants us to express ourselves honestly to Him.
Just imagine how superficial would be a parent-child relationship if the child constantly flattered the parent, trying to make Mom or Dad feel good in an ongoing effort to get more gum, candy, an increase in allowance, in favored position over the other siblings. We have some unflattering labels for people who are constantly “kissing it up” to people in power positions over them. God is as nauseated with that kind of false flattery as are you and I.
There’s a virility to the Psalms. Today’s Psalms 55 opens with this heart-felt, demanding prayer of David: Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger. (Psalms 55:1-3)
Remember, Jesus Christ, on the cross, cried out in anguish, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” You say well that was God in human form, the Son of God, he’s entitled having emptied himself of his divinity to, in His humanity, cry out in that demanding way.
Never forget, Jesus, on the cross, was simply quoting from that Old Testament Psalms 22 in which, once again, David cries out in a demanding, almost angry, argumentative way, these words: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Psalms 22:1-2)
God wants honest communication. The “laments” go all the way through the psalms. The questioning of God is a sign of virile faith, declaring that we are in relationship with this One, that we do take Him seriously, that we yearn for our answers, that we are able to argue with Him — always in the context of beginning with a prayer acknowledging we are creatures and He is Creator, though, at the same time, taking Him seriously enough to engage Him in virile, vital, strong conversation.
Insight five: Accept the fact that life is not easy and that there are wicked people in this world.
Back in 1978, M. Scott Peck catapulted onto the American literary scene with his best-selling book titled The Road Less Traveled. It was labeled a “new psychology of love, traditional values and spiritual growth.” I’m convinced that the key to its success was embodied in the first sentence which simply reads: “Life is difficult.”
Accept that fact, and everything else sort of falls into place. We are fallen men and women living in a fallen world. The Psalmist nails it with these words: My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger (Psalms 55:2-3).
There are wicked people in this world. The Psalmist is aware of it as he writes: Confuse the wicked, O Lord, confound their speech, for I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they prowl about on its walls; malice and abuse are within it. Destructive forces are at work in the city; threats and lies never leave its streets. (Psalms 55:9-11)
Three thousand years later, it’s the same thing. We shouldn’t be surprised. Life is difficult. There are wicked people in this world. Sometimes the wicked person is someone else. Sometimes I’m the wicked person. More often there’s a strange alchemy in which there’s a mix of wickedness and goodness in both the other and in me.
That’s why the Apostle Paul made it so clear in Romans 3:23 when he writes: “… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” We are all in this boat together!
Insight six: Be aware of our tendency to flee to an illusionary safe place.
Tuesday morning’s Los Angeles Times, prior to those ghastly plane crashes that same day, had an article describing how we here live on the Newport-Inglewood fault. We’ve forgotten that last Sunday there was a 4.2 earthquake that shook large parts of Los Angeles and appears to have involved the north end of the Newport-Ingle wood fault, “one of the most dangerous in Southern California,” three leading quake scientists said Monday. It begins just off the Orange County coast by us and goes 50 miles northwest through Long Beach, Inglewood, and into west Los Angeles and is “capable of generating a quake in the magnitude 7 range and has been the subject of dire quake scenarios because it runs directly under some of the most densely populated areas of Southern California.” Articles like that make me want to move to a safe place.
Then comes our national tragedy, and we discover that smoldering cities do not belong just to the bombings of World War I, World War II, and those countries which today are involved in wars. We, too, now are vulnerable. And my heart cries out with the Psalmist: Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest — I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm (Psalms 55:6-8).
But where is that place? You can move to Montana and find out that some crazy mail bomber is living in the cabin just down the road. And there are drugs there, too, as well as natural disasters.
I love those words of Psalms 139 which both warn the person who wants to flee from the presence of God or those of us who are desirous of getting to a safe place somewhere else. The fact is, God is with us wherever we are: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Psalms 139:7-10)
I’ve had friends that have uprooted and moved to the San Juan Islands or Hawaii or to that cabin in Montana. Some have come back, discovering they had fled to an illusionary haven. Others have stayed, acknowledging that there is not a more perfect place than that of being in the center of God’s will, which is determined by relationship, not by place.
Insight seven: We all need each other.
President Bush, in his message yesterday at The National Cathedral, used these words to describe people sacrificially helping each other: “Inside the World Trade Center, one man who could have saved himself stayed until the end and at the side of his quadriplegic friend. A beloved priest died giving the last rites to a firefighter. Two office workers, finding a disabled stranger, carried her down 68 floors to safety. A group of men drove through the night from Dallas to Washington to bring skin grafts for burned victims.”
Psalms 68:6 reads: “God sets the lonely in families….” Some of us are privileged to have nuclear family — a father, mother, brother, sister, parent, child. For some, that’s never been a reality. God’s given us the church, the gathered people, the family of God, where we can be in relationship with each other. That’s why, instinctually, people crowd to churches looking for relationship and answers when the artificial props are pulled out from under them. Thank God for communities in which we live where we have friends and neighbors.
Galatians 6:2 reads: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” That’s communitarian talk.
Where would we have been this week without those heroes in the New York Fire Department and Police Department. These men and women have been much maligned in recent days. How can a community function without each other? We need doctors, coaches, teachers, garbage collectors, police persons, firemen, salespersons, the waitress, school volunteers, and the list goes on.
Insight eight: Life at the longest is brief.
Tuesday morning, every one of those men and women got out of bed, dressed, went to work, went to the airport, assuming it was just a normal day in a slow news week. Few of them ever dreamed that Tuesday was the last day of their life on earth.
Look into their faces as you see them on television, as they’re pictured in the newspapers. All next week we’ll see them in glossy photos in the news magazines. They were vital, alive, Tuesday morning And now they’re gone.
I look around this sanctuary. I see the faces of people no longer with us. Special people, valued persons of all ages, now in heaven with Jesus.
At just about every memorial service I do, I read these words from Psalms 90:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalms 90:1-2)
For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning — though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered, (Psalms 90:4-6)
The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. (Psalms 90:10)
Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom, (Psalms 90:12)
May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands, (Psalms 90:17)
In a way, all of us are living on borrowed time. Part of the grief we experience in a week like this comes from what is called “survivor’s guilt.” Why them, not us? Why am I alive at age sixty-one when my precious daughter died ten years ago at age twenty-three? Yet, most of us don’t think of these things until a tragedy hits. Then we wallow in momentary awareness of the finite nature of our human existence, only to innoculate ourselves against it as life gets back to its ordinary pace. And it will, as the memories of this week begin to dull with the passing of time.
Insight nine: We dare not become the evil we deplore.
There’s a tendency for revenge that makes the persecuted the persecutor.
Our immediate instinct to events such as those of this week is to declare war. The only problem we have now is we do not know for certain who is the enemy. A woman called this week and asked the question, “What position does our church take on the retaliation to terrorists?” She relates how she’s tried to be a voice of moderation and restraint from her Christian perspective, but family and friends raise the question, “How can you think like that?” Her own father declares, “We should just bomb them.” The question is, “Who is the ‘them’?”
Afghanistan is an impoverished nation. I’ve been there. They’ve been in a decade war against Russia, followed by a decade of civil war, the last four years of which have been a drought bringing an increased devastation on an already impoverished nation. This terrorist threat is much more sophisticated, than this historic warfare between nations. There are underground, anonymous cells right here in our own country. We wouldn’t think of dropping a bomb on a block in Brooklyn or a suburban neighborhood in Florida in the hope of getting a few terrorists before they attack.
Let’s be careful of guilt by association. Over the years, I’ve tried this on group after group, speaking a word and seeing what word comes immediately to mind. And a few words down the line I say “Palestinian” and the immediate reaction is “terrorist.” Most of the Palestinians I’ve known through the years are gentle, loving, sensitive, and in many cases well-educated persons — not terrorists.
Let’s never forget, God is a God of justice. Revenge is His, not ours. Jesus Christ is victor.
If we know, without doubt, who the perpetrators of these crimes are, we must bring them to the bar of justice and hold them accountable. But let us not inadvertently become, in vindictiveness and retribution, the very hate-filled evil that we so deplore.
Insight ten: Cast your cares on the Lord.
That’s the bottom line, final statement. Psalms 55:22-23 reads: Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.
Do you believe that? Can you say that?
Remember, God loves you, and He loves every single person who has been impacted by this national tragedy. The clearest statement of what Christianity is all about is in those words of Jesus: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
God created you with purpose and intentionality. God knows that something has gone wrong in your life and my life. God has taken the initiative to come in human form, to die on the cross for your sin and mine, through His resurrection to offer you and me forgiveness, meaning, and the strength to live in this world, equipping us to live in the life beyond this life in heaven with Him.
If you have never repented of sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, do it today. Let this national tragedy be a wake-up call. Come to Jesus. Join the family of God called the church of Jesus Christ. Live for Him the rest of your life here, whether it be fifty years or twelve more hours, knowing He offers you eternity in heaven with Him if you’ll put your faith in Him — casting all your cares on Him.