September 11, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said]: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Days like September 11, 2001 cause us to think about matters that we would rather not. Tragic events elicit thoughts that we would rather keep down in the recesses of our hearts and minds. What should be said about such incidents? How are they to be explained? Just what is going on around here? Why is this happening?
Those questions are not new. Mankind has always sought answers or tried to give them. Ancient Job spoke about the tragic circumstances of his life, coming to the conclusion that the Lord had abandoned him and became his enemy: “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to You for help and You do not answer me; I stand, and You only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of Your hand You persecute me. You lift me up on the wind; You make me ride on it, and You toss me about in the roar of the storm.”
Similar thoughts about victims were found among the Israelites who were hearing Jesus speak. As Jesus was teaching them about the need for the way of life that He was bringing to them, telling them that this was the critical time for their salvation, He is faced with news of a tragic event: “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Jesus is told of a sacrilege that has taken place: devout worshipers of the Lord had been killed during their acts of piety. The people who brought that news to Jesus want an answer, an explanation.
So what does Jesus do? He comments on the tragedy. But before He gives a statement of truth, He challenges the common wisdom of the day. How had people been explaining such events? They had equated such deaths as divine retribution for the gravest of sins, that the Lord had abandoned them. Note what Jesus says: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” Had those Galileans been murdered because they broke the Divine Law more than any other people from their region? Was God rejecting their sacrifices? Had they gotten their just deserts? “No, I tell you,” says Jesus. That is not the explanation of what had happened.
Then Jesus gives another example of a tragic event: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” Again, the event demands explanation. In this incident, there is no religious context. It is a matter of bad engineering or construction. Yet, the common wisdom wants to drag the mater of divine retribution into it. But Jesus dispels the incorrect explanation, the wrong thoughts that sprung out of the people’s minds: “No, I tell you.”
Yet, Jesus does not leave the matter there. He doesn’t simply rebuke or reprove. He gives the people a proper understanding, comments on which their hearts and minds should dwell: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Hear again those words that Jesus says about both incidents: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” What type of explanation is this? In the midst of a discussion about tragic deaths, Jesus speaks about the people’s own possibility of perishing. That seems more challenging to grasp than experiencing the tragedy.
But Jesus’ statement is vitally important. He gives no empty platitudes and speaks no trite wishes. No, Jesus’ words deal with the way of life. Tragic events—the killing of the Galileans, falling towers, even planes being flown into buildings—all show the grim reality of death. It brings the frailty of life to the fore. They show the finality that each and every person must face, and that it can come at any moment, any time, any place, even in the most unimaginable ways. The clear morning skies in New York and Washington brought no foreboding. A perfect early autumn day gave no advance warning. And in a matter of moments, life ended for thousands. Not because they were any worse people. Not because they were abandoned by God. Not because this nation was being divinely punished by God for offenses worse than any other. The events of 9/11 happened because of sin, evil, and imperfection in this world. Those are the topics that Jesus wrestles with.
Jesus says even now: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The deaths of every single individual is a tragedy. When it happens to so many in an instant, the tragedy is compounded. But even worse is the eternal fate for those who do not have sins forgiven, who do not share in the salvation that Jesus had come to bring. Jesus uses the incidents of the Galileans and the Siloam tower to speak both about the sharpness of death and the life that He brings. The Galileans and the tower victims were no worse offenders; the people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were no worse sinners. All will face death. The words of Job about the Lord are true: “For I know that You will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.” All will make their way to the grave, for “the wages of sin is death” and “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God,” as the Scriptures say. But the perishing of this age need not be the perishing for eternity: that is the message which Jesus brings, that is the heart of His statement: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
What Jesus brings into the atmosphere of tragedy—no matter how large—is true hope. Death shall come to all, but He brings life and salvation. Repentance is to turn away from the ways that do not avail, that lead to eternal destruction. In turning away, the individual is led to the life that Jesus brings—what He makes to be others’ by His suffering, by His dying unjustly, by His rising again. In the midst of tragedy, the incidents of Jesus’ life shine through. The incorrect thought—like Job’s—about being abandoned by the Lord is countered by the knowledge that Jesus was abandoned for humanity’s sake. The wrong conclusion—like the crowds had—that victims are worse sinners is countered by the statement that Jesus has borne the sins of the world. The lament of hopelessness—spoken when all seems lost—is countered by the cosmically-altering message of Jesus’ resurrection. For those who are called to repentance and belief in what Jesus has done for them, there is no eternal perishing.
That message of true hope found in what Jesus has done forms the basis for the apostle’s words heard this day: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”
So what shall we say, what shall we think about the tragic events of 9/11? Were they signs that the Lord abandoned us? No, He is still for us. Were the deaths of thousands evidence that the Lord decided not to give us life? No, He has already given His Son for us all. Were the attacks that led to destruction proof that we been condemned by the Lord? No, He has declared us righteous and His Son is still pleading for us. Is Al Qaeda or Taliban or Islamic Jihad able to separate us from Christ’s love? No, because “nothing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yet, the tragedy of a decade ago does rightly bring to mind truths about our situation here in our earthly lives. First, our status in life does not bring eternal security: “Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.” Both rich and poor, young and old, executive and civil servant died that morning. Second, trust in the temporal wealth brings no hope: “Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.” Even the great symbols of capitalism fell that day. Third, man’s strength is not able to conquer evil: “Once God has spoken; twice have I heart this: that power belongs to God, and that to You, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For You will render to a man according to his work.” Even the walls of our nation’s center of military command, the symbol of the greatest might on earth, were breached. These truths turn us away from looking to ourselves, to our strength, to our wisdom as the source of refuge and support, since none of these provide the way of life.
But for us who have repented and turned, who have been called to faith and trust in the Lord’s work, we have a true, eternal, supreme refuge and support: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” That refuge in the midst of tragedy is what we receive because of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Christ has called us to repentance and life, so that we will not fully perish. Our Refuge who died and rose again for us will ensure our eternal good, no matter the efforts of death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, or powers, or height or depth, or anything else in all creation. In our times of tragedy that happen in this earthly life, He is still with us and for us. So as we experience the tragic and remember what transpired ten years ago, may we all heed the psalmist’s exhortation: “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.