He was, on this morning, a young man in a hurry. Preoccupied with an important meeting, he skipped up the escalator two steps at a time. At the top he made a quick left and hurriedly exited the door of the World Trade Center out onto the street. He glanced at his watch: a few minutes past 8:30, Tuesday.
A green light at three intersections. Good! This will help, he thought. He was making his way to his office at Salomon, Smith, Barney on Greenwich Street when the unusual sound of a low-flying jet diverted his attention to the sky. What he witnessed next would never, ever be forgotten — seared in his memory by a mind that tried to tell his eyes they were lying. He grabbed his cell phone and called his mother. His voice was so excited, she hardly recognized it. “Mom”, he told her, “This isn’t on the news yet, but it will be! An airplane just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers!”
Daniel Johnson, son of Len and Lin Johnson, and a member of this church, had just witnessed the first in a quick series of the most catastrophic events in American history. It was 8:48AM, Tuesday, September 11, 2001. A date none of us will ever forget. Daniel will tell his grandchildren what he saw. For the rest of us, the news came over television, or, in my case, over the radio. We glued our eyes and ears. It stunned us, not just once, but over and over again.
A second jumbo jet — a 767 — slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. A third commercial airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington. Then came news of still a fourth jet, crashing just south of Pittsburgh, amid reports that it was headed for the White House or the US Capital.
But the horror wasn’t over yet. First one, and then the other, of the Trade Center towers crumbled to the ground in a hideous cloud of smoke and fire.
The attack upon America by nameless and cowardly terrorists this past week was unprecedented in its destruction, unimaginable in its scope, unyielding in its hatred, unfathomable in its evil and unmitigated in its tragedy and its grief. Its horror staggers the human imagination.
More than 5,000 people are dead, including all passengers and crew aboard four commercial jets, hundreds of policemen and firefighters, including the fire chief of New York City, the deputy fire chief and the beloved chaplain of the New York City fire department — entire units wiped out. And thousands lie this morning under hundreds of thousands of tons of steel and concrete rubble that was once the proud citadel of American economic power. The World Trade Center, which has graced the New York City skyline since the 1970s, is now only a memory.
The terrorists, not content with that destruction and death, have also assaulted the symbol of American military power, the Pentagon. Nearly 200 more of our fellow Americans are also dead. The President told us yesterday that we are at war, and that justice will be served, that those responsible for this horrendous act against civilization itself, will be, in the President’s own words, “Smoked out of their holes” and brought to account and judgment.
Symbols of American strength and security have been destroyed and severely damaged. This has been a shock beyond words. But, as we have seen in the past few days, America’s resolve and patriotism have been kindled anew. And yes, millions of our citizens have turned to God for divine comfort and for hope and deliverance. Thousands have prayed for God to perform a miracle and rescue their loved ones who are trapped: pleading with an almighty providence to graciously intervene, even though hope dims with each passing hour.
I must frankly confess that I have found this entire catastrophe incomprehensible. Like most of you, I have shed tears. How can one not weep at the sight of husbands and wives, of fathers and mothers, of brothers and sisters and friends, recounting the cell phone conversations with those who mattered the most to them on this earth — some saying their last good-byes, professing their undying love in their dying hour? It has been a sadness impossible to identify with.
We come together as a church family — as brothers and sisters in Christ — to encourage and comfort one another. To give thanks for the safety of our families. To mourn those who have been lost. And to pray for those whose grief is too much to bear. We come also to remember our leaders, and to lift them up to God’s throne of grace and to say a prayer for our beloved nation, for never before has she had to endure a calamity of such devastating magnitude.
We come here also to seek answers to the unanswerable, to make some sense of this senseless national tragedy. Our hearts are heavy. Our minds are startled and even confused. Again, as in tragic times before, we ask “Where is God?” Has He no power to stop evil? Why does He, if He is truly a God of love and justice, permit such horrible things to happen to good and innocent people? If He is a God of infinite power, why does He do nothing when bad people, filled with evil and hate, successfully execute an elaborate and well-planned attack that kills thousands and seriously wounds the world’s beacon of democracy and freedom? Why is it that we are so often forced to look upon, in the words of James Russell Lowell, “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne…”?
How can a just and all powerful and holy God allow the triumph of evil? We are saddened and hurt when bad things happened to good people. But we are troubled, mystified and yes, angry, when good things happen to bad people; when we see our fellow citizens crying for their families buried alive last Tuesday, while the supporters of those who did this to us celebrate in the streets, handing out candy.
Doubts. Yes, let’s admit it: this incomprehensible tragedy has created doubts. And questions. Many questions.
A long time ago, a man named Asaph had similar doubts. He could not understand why God permitted the wicked to do so well, to accomplish so much. The triumph of the wicked flew directly into the face of God’s supposed omnipotence and justice. Asaph couldn’t figure it out. It simply didn’t add up.
As we turn to the Psalms 73, we see in the psalmist’s perplexity our own doubts and incomprehension about the ways of God and the way of evil in the world. We see also the psalmist’s choice — and a similar choice that you and I have to make in the face of a reality which cannot be explained. And so too, as the psalmist concludes this 73rd Psalm with an expression of his hope, we are invited to anchor our own confidence in the midst of uncertainty.
The Psalmist’s Perplexity And Ours.
Asaph says in Psalms 73:12, “This is what the wicked are like.” And he has, in fact, described them previously: arrogant, successful, without regard for God, “always carefree”, that is, always committing sin with impunity. He says that his own attempts at goodness, at living righteously are “in vain”. He says it not once but twice. In Psalms 73:14 he writes, “all day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.”
On Tuesday morning, the wicked delivered a punishment of monumental proportions — a plague of desolation and destruction. Among the dead are undoubtedly those who loved God, who loved and served Jesus Christ, loved their children, were good providers, faithful spouses, servants in their church and in their community. And it may be said that those they leave behind, suddenly grieving and asking “Why?” are of the same quality of character. Of the same faith. The same devotion. Is it any wonder that the psalmist said, “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold…” (Psalms 73:2)
Ascendant evil and unexplained tragedy can — and often do — rock our faith. We begin to doubt. We begin to turn away. We pray and He is silent. We ask “Why?” and He gives no response. If we are totally honest with ourselves, we even begin to wonder if there is a God after all. Then we feel guilty for doubting, failing to remember that God realizes that we are, for all our professions of confidence and trust, still human. And He does not judge our human frailty, because He loves us and because He gave His Son up for us, and because He is, as the scriptures remind us in so many places, a God full of compassion, mercy and grace. No, we may not always understand God, but we may be quite certain that God always understands us.
The psalmist writes in Psalms 73:16, “When I tried to understand all this it was oppressive to me…”
What would Asaph say about what happened last Tuesday morning? Would he not cry out, with millions of Americans, “Oh my God!” Would he not stake his head sadly as he watched TV and say, “Why God? Why? Why do we have to have pain and suffering and evil? Why did you let them get away with this?”
During a television interview, together with her family, a young woman was asked what might have happened if her husband, Jeremy, who had bravely struggled with the hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside instead of hitting the White House, had gone ahead with his plans to delay his flight. She immediately responded “I just don’t want to go there.” The interviewer then suggested, “It is possible that your husband may have helped to save the White House.” “I know,” she responded, “but I just can’t talk about it.”
“When I tried to understand all this it was oppressive to me.” It is too much to take in, to even think about.
The psalmist was perplexed — and so too are we often confounded, shaken, amazed and emotionally “oppressed” by what we see and hear, and sometimes experience. It is beyond comprehension. It is beyond explanation. It is beyond words. It is even, on occasion, beyond our contemplation. It’s just too much. And we “don’t want to go there.”
Not only was the psalmist perplexed, as we often are. He also faced a choice, as do we.
The Psalmist’s Choice – And Ours.
In Psalms 73:17, Asaph writes that things didn’t make sense “until I entered the sanctuary of God.” The sanctuary of God. That’s where we gain a clearer perspective. That’s where we begin to form a larger context. For “in the sanctuary of God” we find God. He’s waiting there patiently for us to come to Him so He can take us in His arms and hold us and hug us tell us that He loves us. We don’t need to go to a church building to find God, of course, although thousands of Americans attended church services all across the country on Friday. People from all walks of life, all faith traditions and religious practices, united in a desire to seek an eternal perspective; a divine framework within which they could place a national tragedy.
Who knows what they all believe about religion and God. Not the same thing, undoubtedly. But still, it is amazing how a national crisis binds our nation together, not just politically, but, in a strange sort of way, spiritually. People seeking after God, which they are created to do — in the awareness of their own, and even their powerful country’s, sudden vulnerability. Asaph chose to go to the sanctuary to find understanding; he sought the wisdom that God has promised to those who ask Him for it. Acknowledging his own weakness and limitations, he prayed and asked God to help him, to give him strength — to grant him wisdom, courage, peace, and even joy.
You and I have that same choice. We can go our own way and try to figure everything out apart from God. We can suppose that we really are, in our puny human strength, sufficient for these things. But even as the towers of the World Trade Center could not withstand the impact of a 767 jet loaded with fuel, neither can you make sense, obtain strength, get wisdom or find meaning in life apart from God. It is not possible.
“Then”, says Asaph, “I understood their final destiny” (Psalms 73:17) Whose final destiny? The wicked. You see, the hijackers only thought their mission had been accomplished, but the American giant has been aroused in a mighty and righteous anger. God may yet choose our nation as His appointed instrument to pour out His wrath upon these radical terrorists and their suppliers. But regardless of what happens — whether or not there is war — God is still on His glorious throne. He rules, proclaims the book of Revelation, as “King of the flood forever.” The Pentagon may be bombed and burning, the World Trade Center may lay in ruins, but the Almighty Creator and Ruler of the universe — the King of kings and Lord of lords — has not been caught off guard by this attack. His divine arm has not been slackened, His glory has not been tarnished or dimmed, nor His power wounded or diminished in any way. He is now, and will be in all of eternity, our great, triumphant, victorious God!
So these hijackers did not, in fact, reach their final destination when they hit their intended targets. But they surely will. They surely will.
And our choice to choose God and His sanctuary will help us to also remain loving, even as we seek justice. Let us remember, as followers of Jesus Christ, that the entire Arab population did not commit this atrocity. When we enter into the presence of God, when we seek His face and His wisdom, we understand that the heart of humankind is, as Jeremiah tells us, “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?’ And when we go to His sanctuary, when we come honestly before Him, we also understand that this human depravity includes us all. C. S. Lewis was right: “We are fallen creatures living in a fallen world.”
And yet, in the wake of this disaster, the incredible displays of courage, heroism, kindness, compassion and generosity by our fellow citizens, remind us that we are, even in this fallen condition of humanity, created in God’s divine image. His unmistakable Imago Dei is stamped indelibly on every human heart, no matter how desperately and despicably we may sometimes behave. To God we are nonetheless redeemable. Let’s not forget that and, as difficult as it is in this case, let us find a place for forgiveness, for we have been forgiven much.
So let us seek justice but leave vengeance and eternal judgment to our God Who is, as the psalmist reminds us, “altogether just.” Let us seek Him and “we shall surely find Him, though He be not far from every one of us.” Let us, like the psalmist, choose to know God in His sanctuary. And He will grant us wisdom and true understanding. And courage to face a tomorrow that is very uncertain.
The psalmist faced perplexity, and so do we. The psalmist had a choice and so, too, do we. The psalmist found a hope…. And so can we.
The Psalmist’s Hope – And Ours.
In Psalms 73:21-22, Asaph describes his situation — and his emotions — with words that ring true in our own hearts: “my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered; I was senseless and ignorant.” That sounds like a lot of Americans this past week — including many Christians. Grief-stricken and bitter, angry, resentful, bent on revenge. But the psalmist moves quickly, in the closing verses of this profound expression of his experience, to proclaim his hope in God, Who is — for Asaph and for you and me — an ultimate hope, an eternal hope, our true hope. In Psalms 73:23 he writes, “yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.”
God is always with us, so we may dwell and abide always with Him and with His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has promised never to leave us, no matter what. And in every situation, He has promised us His strength and His grace to take us through. He will do that for the thousands of grieving Americans who place their faith and hope in Him. He will do the same for you and for me. “Those who fully trust Him find Him fully true.”
God wants to take us by the hand and lead us through whatever it is we may have to face. God can do anything, except fail us. He is faithful, Paul told Timothy, even when we have no faith left. He is our strength when we are weak. Our comfort when we are sad. Our refuge when we are frightened.
Thousands fled the twin towers — and thousands did not make it out in time. Once thought impregnable, they toppled like Legos. But Proverbs tells us: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10)
In Psalms 73:25, the now praising Asaph says, “whom have I in heaven but you?” Then he says this: “in being with you I desire nothing on earth.” You see, my friends, God is all you and I need. And He will meet, He will provide, all our needs. He will give us what we need in this hour of trial. For even in the darkest hour; even through the longest night; even under the most desperate and ominous of circumstances, whether those be personal or national, He is the God Who is there — and He is not silent.
Listen to His still, small voice whisper to your heart, and speak “peace, be still” to your mind. “I’m here,” He says. “I know you need me, and you have me. I am with you. I will guide you and afterward take you into my glory and my heavenly kingdom. You are mine. My only Son purchased your redemption with His own blood, so you know that I love you. Take my hand; we’ll go through this together.”
“My flesh and my heart may fail,” concedes the psalmist in verse 26. After all, we are in the final analysis only mortals. “But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
In this our hour of great national despair, when our hearts may fail us and our human strength be insufficient, God — and God alone — is our hope. Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was the long-time pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, once wrote a hymn entitled “God of Grace and God of Glory.” It is appropriate that on this occasion we close this message with the words of that great hymn:
God of grace and God of glory, on Thy people pour Thy power;
Crown Thine ancient Church’s story; Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.
Lo! the hosts of evil round us, scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways!
From the fears that long have bound us, free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days, for the living of these days.
Cure Thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to Thy control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.
Set our feet on lofty places; Gird our lives that they may be
Armored with all Christ-like graces in the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not man nor Thee, that we fail not man nor Thee.

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