Five thousand, one hundred fifteen times, the earth spun on her tilted axis – night and day, day and night. Five thousand, one hundred fifteen days ago, I remember where I was. Most of the day is hazy – most of my memories are – but one flicker is anchored in my mind. I was an eighth-grader at Ephrata Middle School. In my English class, we'd been working on an assortment of creative writing exercises. A portion of our class time had been set aside to mill about the room, describing our ideas to one another, sharing feedback with each other. And I remember standing by the wall and overhearing two of my classmates talking. I only caught a snippet of conversation, but I heard a reference to an airplane flying into the World Trade Center. The first thought I had was, “What an oddly specific idea.” I could only assume, after all, that it was a plot point in the story one of my classmates was writing. It wasn't until later in the day when the truth had become clear and the announcement was made: This was no mere notion, no string of words on a page. An enigmatic, bone-chilling tragedy was unfolding as we hung, stunned, on every bit of news as it came through. I don't recall anything else about that day, other than the feeling that everything was changing, that some new and darker era had barged onto the scene. But I remember where I was when I first heard what I'd only understand in retrospect. And I'd bet that just about everyone in this sanctuary this morning remembers where they were that day... 5,115 days ago.
On that day, I think it's safe to say that we all wondered three things. First, who would do this? Why would anyone want to rain death down on three thousand people who'd never done a thing to hurt them? It wasn't long before we learned the who. Not many of us had even a flicker of recognition the first time we heard the name Osama Bin Laden. Born into the lap of luxury as the son of a Saudi Arabian billionaire, tutored at an elite prep school after his father's death in a plane crash, he went on to college at King Abdulaziz University, where he attended lectures by radical professor Abdullah Azzam. In 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Azzam declared war against them to be a religious duty worldwide, and he – now expelled from his university position – went to the Pakistani border to organize an armed resistance against the Communists. And who better to finance the project than a multi-millionaire former student? By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan and Azzam was assassinated in a car bomb, Bin Laden – now more militant than Azzam himself – was left with power and influence over a network of militants riding high on their self-proclaimed victory. He named the network after his training camp – just “the Base,” al-Qaeda.
That answers the who, but to this day we struggle to understand the why. After returning home from Afghanistan, Bin Laden offered to use his militants to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq, which had just invaded Kuwait. The Saudi king turned him down and invited American troops to deploy there for the Gulf War. Bin Laden was furious, convinced that American soldiers in the Arabian Peninsula would defile the holy sites there. He decried America for supposedly invading Muslim territory, for the impact of our economic sanctions, for supporting Israel, and for spreading liberty and democracy, which he viewed as a pagan religion. And he justified targeting American civilians by claiming all Americans are culpable for whatever stance we let our elected government take and whatever we fund with our taxes. He vowed to never let us feel safety again until we surrendered to his demands. And so he sent his men with their final instructions – and we all know what they did. But beneath all the particular motives, John MacArthur said it best the next Sunday:
Man is by nature a killer. … That's why wars happen: because people want things, and somebody stands in the way. … Whether you kill on a small scale or you kill on a large scale, the wicked hearts of passionate people who will not be denied their pleasure, kill to get it. That is the natural pathology of the human heart.
Ultimately, the only explanation for September 11th is that Bin Laden and his men imitated their “father, the devil,” that they “chose to do [their] father's desires: he was a murderer from the beginning,” and “the father of lies” (John 8:44). It's easy to see Satan's handiwork in the smoke and the rubble; it has his character written all over it in big print. But our second question is a yet thornier one: Where is God in all this? Why did he let it happen? It's a large question, the perennial complaint of tragedy and inhumanity: “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 79:5). “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?” (Lamentations 5:20). “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). The question comes unbidden to our hearts and lips in the face of such unearthly malice. It's a bigger question than we can explore this morning. On that day, Jeremiah spoke for us: “My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees” (Lamentations 3:49-50).
Elie Weisel, a young Jewish man in one of the concentration camps, once was forced to march past an equally horrible scene: the slow and merciless execution of a small boy. Behind him, a man lamented out loud, “Where is God now?” Where is God in all of this? From within the depths of his soul, Weisel heard a voice utter the only answer that fits: “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows.” Where was God on September 11th? He was in the towers as they fell. He was in the smoke and the rubble. At a memorial service five years on, Timothy Keller, pastor of a large Manhattan church less than three miles from the World Trade Center site, remarked that “on the cross, we sufferers finally see, to our shock, that God now knows what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack.” Where else would we look first to find Jesus than there, standing in our suffering, weeping our tears and bearing our pain? He's a LORD who doesn't stand far off.
But we also saw God in the light that shone all the brighter for the darkness and ash and smoke. We saw God's love when people dropped their differences and worked together as one nation, when people risked life and limb to snatch as many from the rubble as they could, as brave men derailed Flight 93 from the path the hijackers wanted. We see God now as we unite in remembrance and in prayer, as we reach out tenderly to bind up the brokenhearted and pledge our lives to the Prince of Peace.
And that brings us to our third question: As Americans and as Christians, what do we do now? Difficult as it is, the history since that fateful day has reminded us of two things not do now. The first is to give way to hatred, the thirst for revenge, for retaliation, to make others suffer the way we've suffered. It's a difficult pitfall to avoid, because it seems so close to a yearning for justice to be meted out. Sometimes we aren't satisfied just to pray, “O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve” (Psalm 94:1-2). That's a prayer for justice. Equally raw, equally passionate, perhaps more vengeful, is the prayer: “Pay them back for their deeds, O LORD, according to the work of their hands! Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the LORD's heavens!” (Lamentations 3:64-66).
The crucial difference between justice and revenge is, can we be content to see it resolved on the cross of a Jesus who died between terrorists in a terrorist's place? Do we have the mind of Jesus Christ: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)? Or do we have the mind of Lamech: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me; if Cain is avenged sevenfold, Lamech will be avenged seventy-seven fold” (Genesis 4:23-24)? The day after the terrorists attacked, Pope John Paul II gave a general address closing with six requests he offered up to God in prayer. His third prayer was “for the leaders of nations, so that they will not allow themselves to be guided by hatred and the spirit of retaliation, but may do everything possible to prevent new hatred and death, by bringing forth works of peace.”
The second thing not to do is to let them achieve their goals. They wanted to spread fear. They wanted to disrupt our lives, to break our spirits, to make us cower and panic and hide. On the surface, it looks like they failed. I hope that we've lived up to Billy Graham's pledge that “the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes.” But we have to admit that we've at times become a nation obsessed with maintaining security, with protecting ourselves from danger. And the same mentality is present in the church. At times, we'd rather remain safe in our enclosed bubbles, keeping the world at arm's length. We'd rather sneer at the sinner, build walls and watchtowers, and tell the refugee there's no room at the inn – even though this is We Welcome Refugees Sunday, a day to remember the gospel's demand to imitate the God who “protects those who take refuge in him” (Nahum 1:7), “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress” (Isaiah 25:4), the God who himself came to earth and was carried into Egypt as a child refugee from Herod's violence (Matthew 2:14-15), the God who commands, “Let the outcasts … settle among you; be a refuge to them from the destroyer” (Isaiah 16:4).
Before anything else, the main ingredient of a Christian react to terrorism is to refuse to be terrified. Chronic fearfulness is actually a defining mark of a nation that doesn't know God: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues” (Leviticus 26:36). But the opposite of terror isn't complacency. It isn't closing our eyes, pretending that the world is other than what it is. No, the opposite of terror is trust – not trust in those who hate us, not trust in our allies, not trust in our politicians and diplomats, not trust in our economy or in our culture, not even trust in our armed forces – “do not put your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3) – but first and foremost trust in “my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:2). We don't have to pretend the world is other than what it is, because we know that there is more than what the world is. God calls us to “not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flieth by day” (Psalm 91:5). He invites us to “fear no evil,” even in the darkest valley, when he's there with us (Psalm 23:4).
In the hours after the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the leadership team of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis gathered to plan a new roof banner for their church. And the banner was to read: “Christ, When All Is Shaking.” I love that! When all is shaking, Jesus Christ is our rock – so “don't fear what they fear, and don't be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Their pastor John Piper made it very clear: “Christian hope is not to escape slaughter. Christian hope is not to be kept off the hijacked plane or out of the collapsing building.” But Christian hope is found in the promises of God that, through any trials and tribulations, God will make “every created thing serve our everlasting joy in God.” Even if every day were September 11th, God asks us not to be afraid of any plane any malicious creature turns into an arrow, nor the terror they plan under cover of darkness. We serve “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers,” with Israel and Palestine, America and al-Qaeda, all “made subject to him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).
Second, eschewing terror and trusting in God, we need to recognize the fate of “all who spread terror in the land.” The prophet Ezekiel uses that phrase over and over again in the course of his lament over Pharaoh's fate. He, like Bin Laden – ancient Egypt, like al-Qaeda – saw himself as “a lion among the nations,” but Ezekiel saw him as something lower, a “dragon in the seas,” who thrashes about but, in the big picture of things, only manages to befoul the streams (Ezekiel 32:2). God threatens to “throw [his] net over” this supposedly mighty terrorist, to fling him down on the open field, exposed and put to shame (Ezekiel 32:3-4), reducing him to a spectacle and a warning for all those who'd even think about spreading terror: “I will make many peoples appalled at you; their kings shall shudder because of you” (Ezekiel 32:10). “The face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12).
In the end, this threat will be put down in the same grave where they sought to send others, and the same fate awaits all their imitators: “All who had spread terror in the land of the living are slain, fallen by the sword” (Ezekiel 32:23). “All who had spread terror in the land of the living went down uncircumcised to the earth below; they bear their shame with those who go down to the pit” (Ezekiel 32:24). Short of repentance, short of justice being resolved at Christ's open cross, that's what waits for any militants who in their day “had terrorized the land of the living” (Ezekiel 32:27). Knowing what waits for them, whether sooner or later, it's obvious to us that “it's better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17).
Third, if we refuse to be frightened, that opens up new ways of reacting. We don't have to rage, though we pray passionately for God's justice: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10). We don't have to react the way al-Qaeda reacts, with hatred and violence and terror, retaliating to compete with them in raining down death from the skies. Live in a way, react to terrorism and to the tragedies of life, in a way that provokes your neighbors to “demand an accounting for the hope that is in you,” to insist that you explain why you behave like you've found a new way to be human – and that's what we have, when we “sanctify Christ as Lord” in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15).
But we should react with “gentleness and respect,” with holiness and a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:16). Sadly, we in America haven't always displayed those four traits when any Middle Eastern news comes across the media channels. In the weeks and years following the attacks, far too many innocent people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent were assaulted or harassed by people seeking an outlet for their violent anger. Two days ago, on the fourteenth anniversary of the attacks, a storm passed through Saudi Arabia and toppled a crane into the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, right before Friday prayers; at least 107 were killed, over 230 injured as of the latest tallies. It's a tragedy, but some Americans – not all, not even most, but some, even professing believers – crowed about it being 'karma' or 'payback' – never mind that those hurt weren't part of al-Qaeda – or, more commonly, just viewed the event with cold apathy.
Sadly, that sort of response reflects Bin Laden's way of looking at the world, not Christ's, who said things like, “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:4), and, “Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). See, the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) – you, me, the 107 who died in Mecca on Friday, the nearly three thousand who died when the towers fell, and all who spread terror in the land of the living – God wants us to repent, not to perish. And God urges us to live lives of mercy “so that, when you are maligned, those” – like al-Qaeda – “who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16).
Some will be ashamed for what they've done. Sadly, many others won't. To believe their own rhetoric, many may have sought by painstaking measures to snuff out their humanity, to efface their conscience. Those who serve “the murderer from the beginning” will boast what no human was ever created to boast: “We love death more than you love life.” If ever Satan had a catchphrase, that's the one. Peter offers an invitation to “those who love life and desire to see good days” (1 Peter 3:10), but how can you communicate God's joy to someone consumed in devoting himself to death, someone who treats life with disdain? But the 'life' we love isn't just the physical continuation of our existence. Any coward can be devoted to that. Chesterton once related the story of a soldier whose papers listed his religion as that of a “Methusalehite” – the man explained to the registrar that his highest religious principle was “to live as long as he could.” When Peter speaks of loving life, he doesn't mean being a Methusalehite. The life we're called to choose and love is to flourish in God's creation by loving and following him, being shaped after his character.
See, our life isn't found in what we can buy, or in what we can achieve, or in avenging ourselves on those who do us wrong. That vengeance mentality is what fuels “spreading terror in the land”: they hurt us, we'll hurt them; they scare us, we'll scare them. No, real life is found in God – we can no more live without him than without air, water, food, or love. Real life is the kingdom. Real life is being filled with the presence of Jesus: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51). Real life is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” – “do this, and you will live,” Jesus said (Luke 10:27-28). The solution to terror is to debunk their slogan with our action: to love life, the kind of life Christ brings, more than they love death.
In the years since that day, as terror tactics have proliferated and as domestic outbursts pop up in the nations of Europe and even the states of America, many in the Western world continually point to the events of September 11th as proof positive that “religion” is evil, that “religion” produces hatred, that “religion” excuses and promotes violence and terror. The late atheist propagandist Christopher Hitchens set the bar, crying that “religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred” and summarizing al-Qaeda with the words, “Once again, religion had poisoned everything.” His fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, writing a year earlier, remarked that “the take-home message is that we should blame religion itself,” since “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people.”
But don't fall for it: it's a rhetorical trick meant to smear the gospel with guilt by association – an association fabricated in the eyes of the blind, just by classing al-Qaeda and the message of Jesus under the convenient umbrella of “religion” – which is like grouping Josef Mengele, Kermit Gosnell, and Hippocrates together to invalidate medicine. Al-Qaeda exemplifies “zeal without knowledge” (cf. Romans 10:2), but the gospel is about knowing Jesus Christ, the eternal Reason of God, and following him by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Al-Qaeda and its offshoots hail as martyrs those who kill for their god's cause, seeking the world's subjugation. The gospel hails as martyrs those who triumph over death with love, seeking the world's salvation – conquering, not with sword or bomb, but “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). Al-Qaeda promises paradise through murder – and they lie. Jesus offers paradise through humble faith – and he is the Truth, and “his faithfulness is a shield” (Psalm 91:4).
Al-Qaeda insists that God doesn't love unbelievers, and that anyone who diverges from their views even a hair's breadth is an unbeliever. The gospel tells us that God loved the unbelieving world so much that he sent his precious Son to die for her redemption (John 3:16). Al-Qaeda says that they'll wage war against unbelievers until all disagreement ends and the only religion that rules supreme is the unbending law of their god. The gospel says that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Al-Qaeda says, “Detonate thy enemy,” but Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Al-Qaeda teaches its recruits to show no compassion. The gospel's recruits follow a Son of Man with holes in his hands, feet, and side to prove him a “God Most Merciful, Most Compassionate” indeed. Al-Qaeda's brand of religion exalts men of war who live by the sword – and die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). The gospel births a kingdom without swords and a church that follows God's Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ. In Peter Leithart's words:
It is the community of the Suffering Servant that, in union with the Servant, bears insults, rejection, hatred, beatings, attacks, and assaults, entrusting itself to the one who judges justly. Filled with the fire of the Spirit, the church is to preach God's fiery, furious words against the violent. The church is to stand apart from the clashes of the nations..., refusing to choose among varieties of violence. The church is to be a shield between the violent and their victims. The church is to hold out hope of an absolute peace, and to be the sacrament of the holy mountain where “they neither hurt nor destroy.” The church is a community of martyrs, suffering the violence of the world, swallowing death in dying with Christ. ... Jesus erects his strange city, filled with his own Spirit to carry on his zealous conquest of violence – a suffering city, called to love enemies and lay down its life for the life of the world.
Or, in the words of an earlier Peter: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing. … Seek peace and pursue it, for the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. … Do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:9, 11-12, 14-15). Amen.