“There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
According to all newspaper accounts it was the deadliest act of terrorism on the United States and one of the deadliest single events of terrorism in history. On the morning of September 11, 2001, four passenger jets were hijacked almost simultaneously over the United States. American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north side of the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 EDT. At 9:03 AM EDT, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 AM EDT. Both 110-story towers of the World Trade Center collapsed along with several neighboring buildings, and part of The Pentagon was destroyed by fire. The fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers and crew tried to retake control of the plane from hijackers. The intended target of that plane is uncertain but is believed to have been either the United States Capitol Building, or the White House.
Claims have circulated that US military fighter jets might have shot down this plane, but this seems unlikely since passengers were relaying information over telephones to people on the ground, up until just after the attempt to retake the plane. Casualties were in the thousands: 265 on the planes; 2605 people, including 343 firefighters who had rushed in, at the World Trade Center; and 125 at The Pentagon.
Some passengers were able to make phone calls from the doomed flights. They reported that there was more than one hijacker on each plane (a total of 19 were later identified) and that they took control of the planes using box-cutter knives. Other weapons that may have been used on at least one flight include bombs and some form of noxious chemical spray, such as tear gas or pepper spray. We know about one passenger in particular named Todd Beamer, a 32-year-old businessman, because he called an operator in the final minutes of his life. He and the other passengers, realizing that inaction would pave the way for some horrific disaster, chose to fight back against those who were beyond the reach of reason.
We may never know all the details of what happened in the final moments aboard Flight 93, but the essentials are obvious. At the end of his conversation, Beamer put down the phone leaving the line opened and announced, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!”—and then a troop of voluntary citizen soldiers for the United States of America took up the first battle of this war. These brave heroes did not act selfishly; they fought ruthlessly for the values they cherished. They knew they were defending people like themselves, like those in the World Trade Center, like their families, their friends, and like us. They could not save themselves, but they protected what they could of what they loved: the ideal of achieving a happy life on Earth.
As we remember those who perished on September 11, 2001 there are some spiritual lessons that can be learned if we take the time to reflect. The pattern for so doing is Christ Himself who used current events and communicated spiritual realities. One important lesson to be learned is that it is easy to forget a national tragic event, grow cold towards those who suffered and even misunderstand the cause for the tragedy. An example of this is found in Luke 13:1-5.
One day during the ministry of Christ, “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
The event where-by Jewish citizens from Galilea were slaughtered by Pilate while they were offering sacrifices in Jerusalem is unknown to history apart from what is recorded here. Neither Josephus nor any other writer, sacred or secular, relates this incident but happen it did.
However, in bringing up this incident it is painfully obvious that many people had grown cold hearted towards those who died, reflected in their thinking. An idea was in wide circulation that the deaths of the Galileans was deserved. It happened because they were very wicked people and so their slaughter was justified or God would not have allowed them to be put to death in this fashion.
The heart of the Lord must have been grieved when He heard the thinking of the people around him, just as our hearts are saddened today when it is argued by some Christian leaders that the attack on America is God’s judgment on this nation for the open homosexual agenda. There is no proof of that, and caution must be made in ascribing motives to God He does not have.
The truth of the matter is that the attack on America was born out of irrational hatred in the heart of people who hold the Bible in contempt, reject the Christian God, denounce Jesus Christ, and despise all western values. There is no evidence that God’s judgment fell upon innocent people because of the homosexual agenda.
Jesus told the people of His day that the Galileans did not suffer and die because of the sins of others, or because they were more wicked themselves than others. Then Jesus went on to make a personal application by warning people that if they did not repent they would also perish.
What did Jesus mean? Some believed Christ meant the people would perish in AD 70 at the hands of the Romans if they did not repent and receive Him as their Messiah.
Others believed the Lord was warning about perishing eternally in the Lake of Fire for refusing the gift of salvation. Jesus was calling individuals to a complete and radical change of heart. The people must not think they would escape the wrath of God upon sinners simply because they were of the seed of Abraham. They needed to acknowledge sin and turn from it.
To press His point Jesus spoke of another historical event. The tower of Siloam had collapsed and eighteen precious souls perished. Again Jesus said that those who died did not lose their lives because they were greater sinners than other people. However, their death is a sober reflection that life is fleeting and eternity is just a heartbeat away. There is no time for careless living. Individuals are to think soberly and live righteously.
Those alive in the Twin Towers, those on board the airplanes, certainly thought soberly when they found themselves in those tragic and horrific circumstances. Many records recount the last thoughts, prayers, feelings and fears of those involved. Some people prayed. Others wept. Some were paralyzed with shock and fear. But they all thought soberly and wanted to live righteously. And that is one of the greatest spiritual lessons that can be learned from 9/11. Life is to be enjoyed. Life is the gift of God. Life is precious. But life is also serious.
If we neglect worship, God knows how to refocus our attention. If we are careless with our time God knows how to have us redeem it. If we are indifferent to eternal realities God knows how to remind us what is important. Many of the people who knew the end was near for them on 9/11 wanted to make one last phone call to tell someone they loved them. Todd Beamer made the telephone operator promise she would call his wife and tell her he loved her. He knew what was important.
Jesus also knew what was important and called individuals to reflect on current events in His day and make spiritual and eternal application. Dr. William Hendricks summarizes the teaching of the Lord. “Every man in the audience should examine his own heart and life, and should ask himself the question, ‘Has the basic change, from Satan to God, from darkness to light, from sin to holiness, taken place in my own life? Have I truly repented and do I really place all my confidence in God, serving Him alone? In other words, Am I converted?’ If not, let him ask God to enable him to take that important step, Says Jesus, ‘Unless you are converted, you too will perish’”—not for time alone but for eternity.
On Friday, September 14, 2001, Dr. Billy Graham was asked to speak at a memorial service at the National Cathedral. His thoughts are worth remembering.
I have been asked on hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I really do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and He is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.
The Bible says God is not the author of evil. It speaks of evil as a “mystery.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:7 it talks about the mystery of iniquity. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” He asked that question, “Who can understand it?” And that is one reason we each need God in our lives.
The lesson of this event is not only about the mystery of iniquity and evil, but secondly, it is a lesson about our need for each other. What an example New York and Washington have been to the world these past few days! None of us will ever forget the pictures of our courageous firefighters and police, many of whom have lost friends and colleagues, or the hundreds of people attending or standing patiently in line to donate blood.
A tragedy like this could have torn this country apart, but instead it has united us and we have become a family. So those perpetrators who took this on to tear us apart, it has worked the other way. It has backlashed, it has backfired. We are more united than ever before. I think this was exemplified in a very moving way when the members of our Congress stood shoulder to shoulder the other day and sang, “God Bless America.”
Finally, difficult as it may be for us to see right now—this event can give a message of hope—hope for the present, and hope for the future. Yes, there is hope. There is hope for the present because I believe the stage has already been set for a new spirit in our nation.
One of the things we desperately need is a spiritual renewal in this country. We need a spiritual revival in America. And God has told us in His Word, time after time, that we are to repent of our sins and we’re to turn to Him and He will bless us in a new way.
There is also hope for the future because of God’s promises. As a Christian, I have hope not just for this life, but for heaven and the life to come. And many of those people who died this past week are in heaven right now and they wouldn’t want to come back. It’s so glorious and so wonderful. And that’s the hope for all of us who put our faith in God. I pray that you will have this hope in your heart.
This event reminds us of the brevity and the uncertainty of life. We never know when we too will be called into eternity. I doubt if even one of those people who got on those planes, or walked into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon last Tuesday morning thought it would be the last day of their lives. It didn’t occur to them. And that’s why each of us needs to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God and His will now.
Here in this majestic National Cathedral we see all around us the symbols of the Cross. For the Christian, I’m speaking for the Christian now, the Cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering, for He took them upon Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. And from the Cross, God declares, “I love you. I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pains that you feel. But I love you.”
The story does not end with the Cross, for Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the Cross to the empty tomb that tells us that there is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death, and hell. Yes, there is hope.
I’ve become an old man now and I’ve preached all over the world and the older I get the more I cling to that hope that I started with many years ago and proclaimed it in many languages in many parts of the world.
Several years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Ambassador Andrew Young (who had just gone through the tragic death of his wife), closed his talk with a quote from the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation . . .”
We all watched in horror as planes crashed into the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. Those majestic towers, built on solid foundations, were examples of the prosperity and creativity of America.
When damaged, those building eventually plummeted to the ground, imploding in upon themselves. Yet, underneath the debris, is a foundation that was not destroyed. Therein lies the truth of that old hymn, “How Firm a Foundation . . .” Yes, our nation has been attacked, buildings destroyed, and lives lost.
But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation—or, whether we choose to become stronger through all of this struggle—to rebuild on a solid foundation. And I believe we are in the process of starting to rebuild on that foundation. That foundation is our trust in God. That’s what this service is all about and in that faith we have the strength to endure something as difficult and horrendous as what we have experienced this week.
This has been a terrible week with many tears but it has also been a week of great faith. Churches all across the country have called prayer meetings and today is a day that they are celebrating not only in this country but in many parts of the world. And in the words of that familiar hymn,
“Fear not, I am with thee;
O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
My prayer today is that we will feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us, and will know in our hearts that He will never forsake us as we trust in Him. We also know that God is going to give wisdom and courage and strength to the President and those around him. And this is going to be a day that we will remember as a day of victory. May God bless you all.