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Where was God on 9-11?

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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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:11-12

A good friend in our church recently showed me a travel brochure she picked up years ago while visiting in New York City. It is from the World Trade Center, and describes the twin towers and the view from the topmost observation deck. The brochure’s cover pictures the towers beneath these words: “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.”

This Wednesday our nation and world will remember the day more than 3,000 souls met their deaths in the worst act of terrorism ever committed against America. We’ll mourn with the surviving families. We’ll think of the 63 babies born after 9-11 to mothers without husbands. And we’ll ask “why?”

It is appropriate today for Christians to ask and be asked three questions. First, where was God on 9-11? Second, how are we to handle the crises of our own lives when they come? Third, how are we to feel about the enemies of our nation today? We’ll seek answers this morning from the most famous Sermon ever preached.

Where was God on 9-11?

First, where was God on “the day everything changed”? While the towers burned and collapsed, the Pengaton was attacked, and Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania soil?

If God is all-powerful, he could have prevented the atrocities of that day. If he were all-loving, he would want to. If you or I were God, 9-11 would not be the most notorious numbers in American history, but just another day. Why did he allow it?

Jesus’ Sermon points to this explanation for 9-11: mankind is free to choose evil.

Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Jesus tells us, “Do not resist an evil person” (5:39). He instructs us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44). Jesus expects us to meet with evil people and enemies in life. Why must they exist?

God created us to worship him. But worship requires freedom of choice. And we can choose to misuse this freedom for atrocity. Cain did. David did. Saul of Tarsus did. So did Hitler, and Osama bin Laden. Tragically, though in ways far less destructive, so have I. So have you.

Could God have intervened on 9-11? Could he have prevented the planes’ attacks by miraculous means? Of course. But only if he would likewise prevent the results of every sinful choice on the part of every sinful human. Only if he were to remove consequences from our choices. In the final analysis, only if he were to strip us of our freedom. And this he will not do.

So where was God on 9-11? Mourning with us, and more deeply than any of us. Grieving as only a Father made to watch his child die could grieve. Hurting with every hurting spouse, every lonely child, every aching parent’s heart.

In the same way he mourns with us every time our freedom leads to failure, our choices to crime, our sins to suffering. He is “God with us.”

Elie Wiesel’s books told the world of the Holocaust atrocities he survived. No passage is more horrifying than his account in Night of the small boy hanged by the Nazis: “For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

“Behind me, I heard [a] man asking:

“‘Where is God now?’

“And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows….'”

His suffering soul was more right than he knew.

How are we to handle hard times?

Now let’s make 9-11 even more personal. How does the Christian faith prepare us for the crises which come to our own lives? You may have known not a single person affected directly by 9-11, but you’ve had your own problems and you’ll have more. Jesus was a realist: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). It’s not “if” but “when” 9-11 comes for us personally.

What can we do to be prepared? The entire Sermon will help us this fall. Today we’ll explore briefly three simple principles.

Don’t live for today (6:19-21).

It’s a fact: moth and rust do destroy all the treasures of earth, and thieves “break in and steal.” Today is uncertain. Its possessions are not secure, its promises often unmet.

No one but the terrorists knew that September 11 would be a day different from any other. People went about their normal morning until the terror began. None of us expects this day to bring catastrophe. Or tomorrow. Neither did they.

And so Jesus advises us, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (v. 20).

Live every day for eternity. Be ready today to meet God. Make sure your sins are confessed, your soul right with your Lord. Make your money and resources, your time and talents a means to the end of doing the eternal, of building God’s Kingdom on earth. Don’t live for today, because one day “today” will be gone.

Don’t worry about tomorrow (6:34).

Then you can obey this word from our Lord: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (6:34).

Jesus says of our daily needs, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (v. 32). His word promises: “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

“Tomorrow” doesn’t exist. It’s just a word, not a reality. So plan and prepare for it, but don’t worry about it. Put your needs for tomorrow in the hands of God, today.

Trust the word of God (7:24-27).

Third, Jesus promises us: “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (7:24-25).

This “rock” is trust in God’s word. We must hear the words of Jesus, but also “put them into practice.” When we study it every morning and live its truths every day, we build on its truth. Then when the storms come, we will stand. God says so.

How should we respond to our enemies?

Here’s our last 9-11 question for today: how should Christians respond to these enemies? To those who hurt us personally? How do we reconcile forgiveness with justice, the gifts of grace with the rule of law?

Jesus says about the crimes of 9-11: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'” (5:21).

Murder is typically defined as the willful taking of innocent life. God condemns it. The sixth commandment forbids it (Exodus 20:13).

The operatives of al-Qaeda broke this command, and the Koran’s prohibition against murder as well, by the way. They will be “subject to judgment” when they stand before God.

And stand before him they will: “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Without exception: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

The murderers of 9-11 will face the justice and judgment of Almighty God. His word promises that it is so.

So how are we to feel about them? Listen to these hard words from our Lord: “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (5:44-45).

They had enemies, to be sure. Every disciple who heard these words lived to die at the hands of Christianity’s enemies but John, and he was imprisoned and exiled.

Despite such suffering, they were commanded by Jesus to “love” their enemies. Not to like them or their deeds, but to love them. And to put such love into action: “pray for those who persecute you,” literally “as they persecute you.”

We are to pray for America’s enemies, today and every day. To pray for their repentance from sin, for their conversion to Christ, for their best and God’s will in their lives. This is the word and will of God.

Does this mean that we are not to fight back, to defend our nation? That we are not to seek justice for the criminals behind these atrocities? Not at all.

No words of Jesus’ famous Sermon have been more misinterpreted than these: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (5:39). Jesus here refers to personal insult, not bodily injury or threat to life.

The Bible consistently upholds the rule of law and the expectation that a just society will live by justice. For instance, as commentary on the sixth commandment just stated, the law of Moses adds: “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 20:12).

Ours is a just God. He is love, mercy, and grace. But Hebrews 12:29 also says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”

When I am insulted, I am to respond with grace and mercy, choosing to forgive, to pardon, to refuse to punish. But when I am attacked, I am to defend myself. As the Jewish nation did throughout its history. As America must today.

So there is this difficult balance for the Christian: do not punish those who insult, but defend ourselves against those who threaten our lives and nation. And in both, act in love.

Conclusion

Love alone can change the human heart. Trust the love and presence of God in the hardest times. Trust the love and word of God now, before the hard times come. Trust the love and justice of God when others bring injury and pain to you.

And find ways to express that love to those who question it, to those who need it most.

Max Lucado is pastor of the Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio. Not long after September 11, a large group of members from his church went to New York to serve the devastated people there. When they returned home, some shared their reflections with Max and their church family. A friend in our church gave me a recording of that service. Here is the last story told that night.

One of the returning missionaries told of meeting Mark, an officer with the New York Police Department. He was a strong and passionate Christian, with a kind and gentle heart.

He told this church member of his experience on 9-11. He had been on duty at the World Trade Center when the attacks occurred. He helped move bystanders back as debris began falling from the burning towers. Then a large object fell, and he saw it was a human body. He looked into the sky, and saw to his horror other people jumping from the burning buildings. Many of them.

Risking his life, he ran back to the base of the towers, braving the falling debris and bodies. He began shouting to these people as they plummeted to the earth, “God loves you! Jesus loves you!” Mark wanted the last words they heard in this life to be the Gospel. He wanted them to have one last chance to know God’s love.

Where was God on 9-11? Could it be that he is asking us the same question?