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A mighty fortress is our God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Psalm 46

President Bush calls the tragedy of this week “the first war of the twenty-first century.” This has been a week of horror and shock of a kind our nation has never experienced. As long as you live, you will never forget where you were or what you were doing on September 11, 2001. But a mighty fortress is our God.

The World Trade Center towers in New York City stood 1,368 feet tall, comprising 110 stories each. Costing $400 million, they were the tallest buildings in the world when they were completed in 1973. A person could see for 45 miles from their observation decks at the top. They were actually designed to withstand an airplane collision, but the fires from the attacks of September 11 destroyed their infrastructures. If they could collapse, anything manmade can. But a mighty fortress is our God.

Martin Luther wrote Christendom’s most famous hymn in the midst of a world in collapse and change. Reformation and Renaissance were shaking the very foundations of his culture and nation. Psalm 46 became his anchor in the hurricane, his shelter in the storm. He wrote his hymn to claim its promises, to seize this anchor. His hymn has been translated into 183 languages. We will grasp its hope today.

Here our gravest and greatest questions are answered. Let’s ask them together.

Why did this tragedy happen?

The first question any human asks in a crisis like this is, Why? Why did this happen? Many have asked me that question this week, from young people to older adults. As they ask themselves and each other the same question. Why?

There is a political answer to the question, of course. If it is confirmed that Islamic terrorists planned and executed this act of war, we know that they did so in retaliation for our nation’s support for Israel. Please remember that this act would then represent only an extreme, radical fringe within the Arab Muslim world. Please do not associate all Arabs or Muslims with this outrage. Shooting at a mosque in Dallas is terrorism as well. There is a political reason for this assault on our country, and we will know it in time.

But there is a spiritual answer to the question as well, and it deserves our focus today. Our text promises that God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). If he is such a help in trouble, why did he allow this trouble, this tragedy? If he is our refuge and strength, why did this atrocity happen at all?

You know that God made us with free will, so we could choose to worship him. As we remembered just last week, we exist to worship and glorify our Creator. Freedom of will is necessary to this purpose.

And so God has given us free will, and he will not take it away from us. Could God have stopped these terrorists? Yes, by removing their free will. But then he would have to remove yours and mine as well. He would have to prevent every human attempt to sin and attack others. We could no longer be free to worship God or love each other. We could not be human. And this God cannot and will not do that.

As long as there is life on this fallen planet, there will be misused free will and its sin. Not because this is the will of God, but because it is the will of man.

A second spiritual reason for this atrocity is just as clear: Satan is very, very real. Peter called him “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus warned us that he “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Luther was right: “Still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”

So America has now joined that tragic list of nations which have experienced the atrocity of terrorism on our own soil. From Israel to Ireland, from the Balkans to Indonesia, from Lebanon to Somalia, much of the world knows the grief and outrage we feel today.

Last Sunday we never dreamed we would see the week that has been. But our nation has lived through it. What do we do now?

What do we do now?

Our nation faces tragedy and crisis. So do many of you.

Some of you have family and friends directly affected by this atrocity. Some of you have family and friends scattered over the world, trying to get home. Some of you work in vocations which will be directly affected by this week’s events. We all grieve in shock and pain, as we wonder how our lives will be forever changed.

And some of us face other crises which are very real and personal for us. In the midst of the horrors of these days, I’ve also walked with members of our church family who are in marital crisis, financial crisis, health crisis. Surgeries await; diseases progress; funerals have been held; many are hurting in ways less visible than the tragedy in New York City but no less real.

What do we do now? Our Psalm has the answers.

First, run to God (v. 1).

“God is our refuge and strength,” his word promises us. A “refuge” is a place where we go to escape, to be sheltered and safe. But we must choose to go there. A refuge is no good unless we use it. If we think we can stand the storm, the crisis, the tragedy alone, this refuge cannot help us.

So run to God. The Hebrew word for “refuge” is literally “a place to which we flee.” Don’t walk—run to him. Run to his help, his power, his love, his grace. And seek the strength he offers. His power and help can be yours, if you will ask for it from him.

Sometimes God calms the storms, and sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child. A troubled saint said, “I prayed for less wind in my sails, and God gave me more sails for the wind.”

Luther is right: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; Were not the right man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.”

For we cannot. But he can. When it seems hardest to trust in him, that is the time we need to trust in him the most. Run to God.

Second, refuse to fear (2-3).

We can only refuse fear after we have gone to God. This is impossible in our own strength and ability. But if we are in God’s refuge and are empowered by his strength, we need not fear anything the world can do to us. No matter how frightened we feel about the present and the future, about what this week will mean to our lives, we can refuse to fear.

The Psalmist says it is so: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (v. 2-3). Earthquakes were the greatest natural disasters the ancient world knew. They could not predict them or prevent them. But though the earth itself give way, we will not fear.

Mountains were the highest structures known to that day. They could not build 110-story structures, so they were awed by the mountains they saw. But even if the mountains fall into the sea, we will not fear.

The seas were a present fact of life to most of the ancient world, as it was built along the oceans’ edges. But though your world “roar and foam” like the waves of the seas, the tossing of the tides, and though your mountains “quake with their surging,” we will not fear.

We can refuse to fear. Scripture says, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Someone said it well: Fear knocked at the door, faith answered, and there was no one there. Run to God, and ask him for his help as you refuse to fear.

Luther continues: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.” Run to God, and refuse to fear.

Third, release your hate (9).

This is the hardest thing for humans to do. Don’t you wish for vengeance and long for punishment? Every time you see the faces of those who probably committed this atrocity of cowardice, doesn’t your heart wither with anger and hate? Mine does as well.

But hating America’s enemies doesn’t hurt them—it only hurts us. They don’t know our names, or care about our lives, much less our feelings. Hating them only poisons our souls and grieves our hearts.

And God promises to bring them to justice, to righteousness, to retribution. The Psalmist is clear: “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire” (v. 9). God will destroy all unrighteous people and nations, to the ends of the earth. There is no place to hide from his righteous anger and retribution. And no military power can stand against his.

The New Testament makes the same promise and asks of us the same commitment: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-19, 21).

Run to God, refuse to fear, and with his help, release your hate.

And last, rest in faith (10).

“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth,” our Lord promises.

“Be still” means to be at rest, at calm, at peace. How is this possible in such a crisis as this? Scripture is clear: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). God can give us peace which understanding cannot produce. So long as we know that he is God, and trust in him.

Then our future is certain: “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” One day these days will be gone. One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and no more death or mourning or crying or pain. One day there will be no more sin or terror or war. On that day when there is no night, that joy when there is no pain, that victory where there is no defeat, that light where there is no darkness, that day when there is no night.

Until then, rest in faith. Listen to Luther: “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” Rest in faith.

Conclusion

So we say with the Psalmist, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 11). Make your choice today: run to God, refuse to fear, release your hate, rest in faith. And know that God is still on his throne. He was yesterday, he is today, and he will be forever.

Now we close in prayer for our nation, her leaders, her victims and those who care for them, and even for our enemies. We pray for ourselves in the crises we face personally. And we pray to the Lord Almighty who is with us, who is our fortress. Enter that fortress with me, right now.