A Word on September 11, 2001

Hebrews 11:13 “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”

Well, if you’re anything like me you have probably felt something like an alien and a stranger on earth this week, maybe not for all the same reasons that the writer to the Hebrews meant that, but certainly that’s how I’ve felt. I know that I’ve been distracted this week. I’ve had a hard time concentrating on things since Tuesday. And I know that many of you have felt similar things. Some here this morning work in the executive branch, others in the judicial, others in the legislative branch, and others are in the military. Most of us, if we don’t know people who were directly affected by the events on Tuesday, know people who do. Some sitting here this morning do.

As the pastor of this church since I’m not going to preach this morning, I thought it was appropriate that I make some statement publicly before we pray together about the events of this past week. I’ve been deluged with emails from friends around the world saying that they’re praying for us—from a church in Lusaka, Zambia to churches in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, Australia, the continent of Europe, and certainly around this country. Tonight when we gather again for prayer perhaps I’ll share some of those, and we’ll also share some other things from this week, and we’ll pray together as a congregation.

I wanted to make a few comments given the things we’ve seen this week, and some of the questions that I know must be running through our minds. The events of these last few days do bring up some difficult questions: How could God let this happen to America? Or, more to the point, if we believe that God is good and all-powerful, how could God let this happen at all anywhere?

People around the world have struggled with this problem as things like this have happened in their countries. But for this to happen on this scale and in our country presses these questions on our minds even more. I don’t have time this morning, even if I were to take my normal time preaching, to fully address these questions. I don’t know that I could. We have included for you this brief essay “The Problem of Evil and the Scars of Jesus.” It’s in your bulletin. You may have noticed it already. Do take that away with you. If you want to take extra copies, please do so. You may find it helpful to share with people at the office. That might be one way that we as a Christian church could serve other people that we work with, particularly if you notice people who seem unusually frenzied, or harried, or desperately worried. Perhaps sharing this would be the beginning of a good conversation with them. Do consider also coming back to the sermons we have lined up the next few weeks, Lord willing. It looks like they’ll be timely in ways that we hadn’t even planned.

Amidst all the calls for hatred and revenge, we need to keep clearly in view that vengeance is not for us as private individuals. In our own actions and our own prayers, we need to remember what we read in Romans 12:19, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

Having said that, some kind of retribution is essential for justice in this world. I do not understand that to be in tension with what we believe as Christians. I understand that to be part of what the Bible teaches about the role of government. I want to make two brief observations.

First, about the need for justice in this world. So many here are involved in the government. I’m aware of that. I see your faces. I know who you are. Many of you I don’t know. You also probably, given where this church is located, are involved in the government in one way or another. If you’re a Christian, you may well wonder, what is to be our response.

If you read Romans 13 when you go home this afternoon, you’ll find there, that among other things, it says that the state, the authorities do not “bear the sword in vain.” And what Christians have reasoned, largely, for the last two thousand years from that passage is that we understood that, with the exception of immediate self-defense, lethal force is only to be used by governments, not by private individuals, and then, only to further justice. So, if you will, the public authorities have a monopoly on the use of lethal force. In some ways that’s part of what we mean by the word “civilization.” And that’s why, even if they haven’t known all the history of it, some of our commentators this week have reached for words like “uncivilized” and “barbarity” when they try to describe the acts of the people who did these terrible things on Tuesday.

With these terrorists, we see a return to a kind of barbarism, where, for private ends, non-combatants are targeted and innocent people are killed. This is wrong. Our leaders would be at fault if they did not seek to put an end to such immoral violence. They are responsible before God for the protection of innocent lives. As best I can understand it, that is what the Scripture teaches about the role of our government and of our nation.
Therefore we need to pray for wisdom for our leaders. We need to pray for our own courage, because this conflict will not involve them only. It will involve all of us in ways we don’t yet know. We must pray to God that He supply us what we need.

So much for the justice that we need in this world.

Second, about the certainty of God’s justice. Our hold on our own lives is so uncertain. That’s been brought home to us this week. Many people have died this week, who, like all of us, would one day of some immediate cause or other, die; but in the mysterious providence of God this week, they died suddenly and violently. We need to understand, and we need to tell others as Christians that the terrors of this week do not challenge the idea that God is real, that He is present, that He is sovereign, that He is good. These are difficult things to think through and we can’t do it right now, but we hope that the article may be helpful, and the sermons that are to come.

The thousands in the buildings, and the hundreds in the planes had their lives taken this week. As Christians we understand that they would have had to die at some point in the future. From Scripture we understand that we all die because we are all under a divine sentence of death because of our sins. But God decided that this was time for some to be brought to judgement, and for others to be brought home. These are the inscrutable ways of God.

The handful of evil men who commandeered these planes gave up their lives to take others’. They were sincere in their actions, but we see what a thin veneer of virtue sincerity is. For sincerity in wrong is no virtue. They were terribly, tragically wrong in what they did. What they did was evil. Like the people whose lives they took, they too would have died at some point in the future. They could have died in a car accident in Delray, Florida, where some of them lived. They could have died in the country they came from. They would certainly die someday. They have now died also.
And though we may feel that they are beyond the reach of justice from our government, I promise you that our government’s justice pales compared to the justice of almighty God. That is certain.

I’m struck that only one person has died who did not need to die, and that is Jesus Christ. He alone was under no sentence of death. He too laid down His life, but He did it not to take the lives of others, but to give life, to hundreds and thousands and millions of others who would turn and trust in Him. He died not to kill people, but so that we might live.

So many things have been destroyed this week: tragically, the lives of many people; certainly some important buildings; symbols and securities. I hope some other things may have been destroyed this week: our wrong financial and military security, in which we trust in things rather than in God; our wrong commitment to sin in our own lives; our wrong, false, deceptive sense of security which is not real apart from God.

Friends, as your pastor, as I’ve prayed about what to say to you this morning, I feel I must tell you that we must be prepared to die. You must be prepared to die. You should never live in the illusion that you know, because of your age or your doctor’s report, that your health is yours, or your next year, or decade, or even week. These things are not in our hands. We realize that this world does not last forever, and this life doesn’t. And whether our lives are ended quietly and calmly many years from now, or in horrible, evil injustice, our God is sovereign, and we will face Him. And when we face Him, we will not give account for the sins of some other terrible people who may have taken our lives. We’ll give account for our own sins, and we must be prepared for that.

The quest for worldly justice is right. But our ultimate hope for ourselves lies not in justice alone, but in God’s mercy, and in His forgiveness of our sins. God has so loved us that He took on our nature and lived a life deserving no death, committing no sins. Jesus died on the cross in our place for our sins. If we repent of our sins and turn and trust in Him, He gives us new life.

God’s judgement for our sins is certainly poured out either on us, or on Christ. So we must repent of our sins and believe in Christ. We should make sure that we have this new life in Christ, and we should share it with others, and pray for them. Oh friends, I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed this week a difference between Christians and non-Christians. It is not that we Christians don’t grieve; we do grieve. But we grieve as those who have hope, and so many of our friends and family members grieve as if their worlds have been most fundamentally changed forever. This cannot be true of us if we are truly Christians. Oh friends, talk to them about the hope that we have in Christ. Share this with them. Serve them in love.

May God use these tragic events in our lives, and in the lives of those around us, to remind us of the brevity of this life, and the certainty of judgment. But like those people written about in Hebrews 11, we too should live, regardless of the circumstances in this world, knowing that the future is bright in Christ. Friends, I don’t know of all the terrible things that are about to come upon us, but I do know that if we’re Christians, our long-term forecast is absolutely wonderful. Our hope is in Christ, and we must not be ashamed, or even shy about presenting this hope to others. Our friends now are wanting to talk to us about the things we’ve been wanting to share with them all along. Let’s pray that God makes us ready for this work.

Let’s pray together.

–Mark Dever