Saturday, September 15, 2007

Remembering 9-11. A Sermon from my old Pastor.

Remembering 9-11. A Sermon from my old Pastor.
Author: tartanarmy (4:40 am)

This sermon was preached by Dr Peter Dart, the Pastor of the Smithfield Baptist Church, Sydney, NSW, on Sunday morning of the 16th September 2001.


Turn with me to the Psalm 130.
We are going to be looking today at verses 3 and 4. I will read the first four verses but we will look particularly at verses three and four today:

Out of the depths I have cried to you O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

If you Lord should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?

But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.

Now I am actually not going to bring the sermon that I had planned to bring on these verses. We may look at something else a little later, but it became apparent to me when I was thinking about these verses that they have something important to say to us about the events of this last week and the situation the world finds itself in today. I am not a great fan of preaching that focuses on current events but I think these are important things. I think we would all agree that it is impossible for us not to have been affected deeply by the loss of life in the World Trade Centre and at the Pentagon this week.

At home we watched these events last Tuesday night as they were occurring and it was just one shock, one terrible blow after another. We cannot but be affected. I think it is also impossible for us not to ask ourselves why, or to be seriously challenged by the questions that people are asking about what has happened and how our God fits into the picture when such horrible things take place.

I was struck by one man in New York who had just come to look. He had not been involved in the incident, but he came to look and he was asked why he had come to look. He said, “This is so important, this is about life.” Now for a New Yorker to stop and think about life and not to think about the stock market is a significant thing. He recognised that something of great significance had happened; that in the end there are issues far greater than any of the political or economic events that happen on the world stage. It is not the politics of this situation that matters. It is the personal aspect. It is what has happened to people; it is what has happened to people who are God's creatures. This is what has been on many people's minds. Everywhere people have been seen in churches during the day. Against that there have been some sceptical comments relating to God put around by the media, which one would expect. There have also been TV interviews with various theologians and clergymen, which we cannot have avoided seeing.

Now what is important for us as Christians is to think clearly. It is important for us to think clearly, not emotionally. We need to do this because we live in a suffering world and there comes a point where we face these things as reality and not just theory. We can have a lot of theory about how God works and is involved in the whole question of suffering, but when the reality of suffering confronts people it should bring home to us that we live in a perishing world and that we must have clear answers. They may not be answers that are acceptable to the world, but we must know what the answers are. I think we also need to realise, and probably have realised as we've listened to things that have been said on television, that unless we have God's answers, ultimately the answers that we are given are just unhelpful. They really do not lead us anywhere. They take us to a certain point but no further.

Since Tuesday we have also seen people praying. Last week, as we looked at verses 1 & 2 of Psalm 130, we asked the question, “What is true prayer?” We concluded that it is prayer that is “out of the depths”. Out of the depths of a heart which has not just seen its unhappiness, but its sin. This is where verses 3 & 4 bring us:

If you Lord should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?

But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.

The issue before the writer is not the tragedy of suffering, but the tragedy of sin. This is prayer out of the depths.

Now what has been our impression as we have heard people praying this week? I think as Australians we are always impressed by the fact that American leaders use the name of God and often pray publicly. (I suppose that this is better than what we see among our own leaders.) Also we cannot fail to have been moved by the depth of feeling and concern that there has been on a human level. But it seems to me that in the answers to people's questions about suffering and in the prayer that we have heard there has been something seriously lacking—and it is something which these verses teach us about. That is, the knowledge of God and a true knowledge of ourselves, without which we have no answers at all.

Once again, what do these verses say?

If you Lord should mark iniquities, Oh Lord, who could stand?

But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.

There are basically three things here. These are not the three points for this sermon, but there are three things that the verse plainly teaches us. The first thing is that sin is serious. Sin is serious. The writer is not merely saying that God overlooks sin. He is saying that if God should take note of every sin where would we be? In justice, where would we be? Who could stand? Now the answer is not directly given, but the answer is clearly, “No one.” And that is because God takes all sin seriously. The second thing is that the only reason we stand and continue to live in this world is because of God's mercy; because God in his mercy has overlooked, for the moment, certain things.

The third point is contained in verse 4. “There is forgiveness with you that you may be feared.” There is forgiveness with God, but forgiveness is not something which God is obliged to give. We so often have a view of God that he is the heavenly dispensary of all forgiveness, and that sin matters so little to him that he will simply forgive and forget—that he is somehow obliged to forgive and forget. This forgiveness is a convenience for us, so that he can just forgive us and we can get on with our lives. “Forget the message that suffering brings to us!” we say. “Let’s just open up the stock exchanges again and do whatever else needs to be done.”

But God's forgiveness is a mercy that is so great that we are told here that those who receive it fear him. They fear him. Spurgeon paraphrases these words, “that you may be feared,” like this: “that you may be worshipped, loved and served.” Forgiveness should lead us to worship, to love and to serve God. His mercy is so great, so undeserved that those who receive it fear him like this.

So that is the plain teaching of the verses, but given these things, let us look at some particular questions that people ask when suffering and tragedy come. Firstly, is God to blame? Is God to blame for these things that happened on the 11th of September. Questions about suffering are often asked in this way. If God is all-powerful, then surely he is responsible for evil and suffering. If he controls everything then both good and evil must come directly from him. Now, is that true?

We acknowledge freely and fully that God is all-powerful; that he is the Sovereign Lord. In verse 3, the words translated “Lord” are different in Hebrew, but both point to the fact of God's sovereignty. The first LORD is the covenant name of God; that is Jehovah, the self-existent “I am”, the King of Heaven who makes a covenant with his people. The second Lord, Adonai, simply means “master”. And that is what he is. He is our sovereign king and master, and everything that happens, happens because a sovereign God either brings it to pass by his direct action or he allows it to happen for his ultimate purposes. These things are true and we must not be afraid to say that they are so. Even the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged God in this way,

His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?” (Dan 4:34-35).

This is our God. This is the God of Creation and of the Bible. This is the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And this Lord Jesus, who is God revealed in the flesh, is called the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he who rules the nations with a rod of iron.

These are great truths, but along with these truths we also acknowledge that God is not the direct cause of evil. That also is the truth and it is a balancing truth. God is not a man that he should lie. There is no unrighteousness with God. James tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted “‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:13-14). So inasmuch as evil things happen, our God allows them and uses them for his purpose, but he is not the cause of the evil actions of men. Rather it is man who is responsible for his own actions and is accountable. God's sovereignty and man’s responsibility are balancing truths which the Bible brings together in a way that we do not always understand. For example, we are told in Acts 2:23 that the sacrifice of God's own Son was according to God's determinate counsel and foreknowledge. He knew that it would happen and he brought it to pass by his definite decision. But in the very same verse Peter says to the Jews, “You slew him by wicked hands.” They were responsible for their wicked act even though God determined that act for good in saving sinners.

But let us not just think of it in general terms; that men in general are responsible. We are all personally responsible for our actions and as human beings we come from a long line of people who evade responsibility and want to put the blame back on God. What did Adam say? The Lord asked him, “What have you done?” and Adam replied “The woman who you gave me, she made me do it. You are to blame. You gave me the woman. What do you expect?” He was wrong on all counts. Adam was responsible. God was not to blame. As I said before, sin is serious. But sin is also personal. We are at the centre of our own problem. We are responsible.

Even so, a second question might be raised. “Why doesn't God prevent suffering?” If God is both all-powerful and good, surely he is responsible in that he did not prevent disaster on 11th September. Now this is a much more serious question, isn't it? I think it is more serious and more difficult than the first one, although not as difficult as it may seem at first sight.

One of the television interviews that I saw this week was with a group of religious “experts”. There was the Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner who wrote the bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There was also a Roman Catholic priest and also James Dobson as the Protestant representative. Now, they were asked this very question. “Why didn't God prevent it happening?” And all of them, all of them, Dobson included, gave this one answer which was completely unsatisfactory and untrue. They said, “Well, God respects our freedom so much that he doesn't interfere.” That was their answer. Now as good democratic people living in a modern democratic age, this sounds pretty good, doesn't it. God loves people to be free and just to do what they want. God respects our freedom more than he respects his glory or his sovereignty because he is decent and democratic.

But as good as it sounds might I say at this point that this is actually the cruellest answer that anyone could give. It is a cruel and a harsh answer. It seems generous, but at bottom it is cruel. Can you imagine a legal system which operated like that; which operated on the basis that we value people's freedom above people's lives? Is that the sort of God that we have? A God who prefers the freedom of people who fly an aeroplane into a building, above the lives of the people who are there and are killed? That is a cruel answer.

These theologians may of course have meant that God leaves us to work out solutions to our own problems. But is this any better? Really that is just a counsel of despair too. Look at what history teaches us. Since the Cold War, America and the western world have felt very strong. We feel like we have the economic answers sewn up. The previous President Bush felt that the new world order had world peace sewn up. We feel that we have got everything sewn up, but this is not the first time that the world has ridden on the crest of a wave. It is not the first time that there was supposedly peace and prosperity in the world. What was pax romana but that. The peace of Rome in the ancient world. What was the ancient Persian Empire but a wonderfully enlightened empire in many ways in which people were prosperous and free. But where are these empires now? They are gone. Think of all the suffering that they brought, all the suffering that came because they failed and all the suffering there has been between these so-called highlights of history. All their promise came to nothing. But what our theologians are asking us to believe is that God’s compassion shines most brightly when man is left to work out solutions to his own problems. To put it another way, they are saying that the best answer that we have for suffering is that God never intrudes, but leaves us to flounder from one crisis to another in an endless cycle of suffering and failure.

But what does the Bible teach us? Above everything else it teaches us that we are weak, that we are sinful and that we need God. We may feel optimistic about human beings, but the Bible is not. Again and again the Bible shows that even the best people are utterly helpless and that God allows suffering to make us aware of how helpless we are. We will not learn it any other way. On one hand he gives us his mercies to show us his goodness. (There wasn't just horror in the World Trade Centre or at the Pentagon last week. There were mercies as well. There were people who escaped. There were people helping.) On the other hand, God allows suffering to bring us to a point where, like the man in this psalm, we cry out of the depths. It is often through suffering that God brings us to a point where we begin to examine ourselves. Then we know, at the bottom of our own hearts, that if the Lord should mark iniquity we could not stand. That is the beginning of repentance, and God allows these things to lead us to repentance. Why didn’t God stop it happening? He didn’t stop it happening because men and women throughout this world need to be reminded of their Creator; that there is a holy God who we neglect everyday, whose demands we neglect, who we overlook entirely. It is a call for us to stop and think!

The third question is also a difficult one: Why has God let this happen to innocent people? Now might I say at this point that, as good evangelical Christians, we might be tempted to answer this a little bit too quickly and just pull out the proof texts. We know that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” so we enthusiastically remind people that no one is innocent, that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”

But we can be too quick and too clever with our proof texts. You know, there is a sense in which the people who died this week were truly innocent. They weren't guilty of a crime. They had certainly committed no crime against the people who flew the aeroplanes into their buildings, or who hijacked their aeroplanes. They were not receiving justice for any crime. They were actually victims of cruelty, victims of great injustice. They were victims of a system which is no better than ‘pay-back’—just killing anyone for the sake of revenge. So, in a sense, it is quite true that the people who died were innocent. That must be acknowledged.

Actually, I think the questions that people are asking when they ask, “Why do innocent people suffer?” are these: “Why these people and not others? Why these people now and not later? Why these people who were in the prime of their life? Why children? Why people who had so much potential and possibility?” And the answer again is in our text. “If you Lord should mark iniquity, who could stand?”

The Bible clearly teaches us that we live in a world which is under judgement. We live in a world which has a dagger of judgement hanging over it and the judgement to which it has been committed is the judgement of death and suffering. That is what Genesis 3 shows us. Adam and Eve sinned and with them the whole human race fell into sin and rebellion against God and the penalty for this is that they would surely die. With that came suffering and grief and hurt, which we see as early as Genesis 4 where Cain kills his brother Abel. Then the record just goes on with one sad tale after another. Clearly we learn from the Bible that we live in a world which is under judgement, a world in which things have gone terribly wrong.

Now of course, we are shocked and angered by what happened in New York and Washington but in the whole scheme of things, if we look at the world, events like this are not unusual. Countries like Somalia have suffered as much in recent years. We see suffering everywhere because God's judgement is on a world which has rebelled against him. It is not that each tragedy is a punishment for particular sins, or aimed at particular people. Rather, the world is like this because, by nature, we are all rebels against the God who made us. You would have to be blind not to recognise that we live in a world which suffers and in which there is death. In the end everyone must die, everyone suffers. Among the people who died in the World Trade Centre there were Christians. There must have been. It was not targeted against evil people only. This is just the sort of world that we live in, and for all of us death will come because sin has brought ruin to the whole human race, including you and me. Our death might be sudden like theirs, or it may be prolonged and painful. We do not know. But inevitably it will come. Inevitably all of us will also die alone. In the end we die by ourselves and it is always tragic. It does not matter how old a person is. It is always a tragedy because each person is loved or has been loved. It is even more tragic if they have known very little love. And each person has lived a life which God has given. Each person is one who is created in God's image and to wipe out that image is a tragedy. We must think seriously about these things.

The people in the World Trade Centre were not greater sinners than others in New York. That of course is what we pick up in Luke 13. I am sure you picked up the significance when I read it earlier. In verse 4 the Lord speaks about eighteen people on whom a tower in Siloam fell and who were killed. “Do you think,” says Jesus, “that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?” And what is out Lord's answer? It is a wonderful answer, because it is both compassionate and direct. He says, “No! They weren't.” Then he adds, “But unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

Once again, that is what our text in Psalm 130 teaches. That it is only God's mercy that preserves you and I, day by day, in a world which has been made dangerous, not by God, but by sin. And it is only God's mercy that will bring us the forgiveness of sins that leads to eternal life in Christ Jesus. “If you Lord should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” It is only God's mercy that stands between all of us and an instant death, and it is only God's mercy that will ever stand between you and eternal death. That is what is being said here, and each tragedy, each death, all the suffering that happens in the world is designed to wake us up. All suffering is a reminder of the greater judgement which is yet to come. Weighed up against the Day of Judgement all suffering in this life is a small thing, and that Day will bring judgement that we cannot avoid.

Going back to Luke 13, our Lord goes on to give a parable about a fig tree. The owner of the tree did not find fruit on it, so he said to his gardener, “Dig it out.” But the gardener made a plea. “No, let me work it for another year and if there is no fruit after that then I will dig it out.” Now, that is God's way. He gives us warnings. There have been warnings in the past. There are warnings now. There will be warnings in the future. The time will come when he says, “Enough, enough! The day of grace is finished. Enough! No more warnings! No more hearing of the Gospel! No more time!” Judgement will come, and judgement will come on all creation. “Kiss the Son lest he be angry and you perish in the way when his wrath is kindled but a little” (Psalm 2:12). Each judgement in this life is God’s wrath when it is “kindled but a little.” Each warning like this is designed to bring us to our senses so that we will not perish from the way and reach final damnation. As long as life lasts even the worst suffering is a part of God's goodness to lead men and women to repentance. The Apostle Paul wrote:

Do you despise the richness of his goodness, forbearance and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God” (Rom 2:4-5).

These then are some of the questions that people are asking and, hopefully, we have seen some of the answers that God gives us in his Word. But to bring things to a conclusion, I want to add one more question. I think that all of these questions can be summed up in one complaint. It is the complaint which stands behind all of the questions that have been asked. Whether out of unbelief or genuine desire people are asking, “Where is God? Where is God?”

In the face of events like these there are some people who conclude that there is no God, that there is no other possible explanation for these things happening than that there is no God. One of us had someone at work say this very thing this week. But let me say that to conclude that there is no God can only lead us to greater despair. If the only answer for suffering in the world is that there is no God, that means that suffering has no reason; it has no resolution. It means that suffering is just there and we have to put up with it. It means that our lives, whether they are full of suffering or happiness are meaningless; that our humanity is nothing. That life has no purpose.

Psalm 14 tells us that it is the fool who has said in his heart, “There is no God.” In the end isn't this explanation the most shallow answer of all? Many of our intellectuals hold this point of view, but it is the most shallow thinking of all because it amounts to a real failure for us to examine the world and to examine ourselves closely. Psalm 14 itself brings us directly to the root of the problem and its solution. It is not God or a belief in God that causes the problem, but the utter sinfulness of man without God (verses 2-4). The same psalm then brings us the promise of certain hope for those who trust in the Lord (verses 5-7). That is where hope is to be found. The only hope that there is in this suffering world is that there is a God; that although “the workers of iniquity . . . eat up my people as they eat bread” (verse 4), yet “the Lord is [our] refuge” (verse 6), “the Lord [will bring] back the captivity of his people” (verse 7). In the midst of unaccountable and unjust suffering we have a God who is our refuge, our place of safety and our comfort.

So where is God? Where is he? The answer is in verse 4: “There is forgiveness with you that you may be feared.” The answer this question, “Where is God?” is that there is forgiveness that God may be feared. What do I mean by this? I mean that God is seen in the history of Israel forgiving again and again, and responding to their cries and calls for help. But most magnificently of all, God is seen in the incarnation, in the birth and the life of our Lord Jesus Christ—God manifest in the flesh. “Where is God?” you ask. The answer of the bible is that God himself has broken directly into history. He has stood and has walked on this earth. Two thousand years ago our Lord Jesus Christ stood and walked and preached and healed and showed compassion and preached the Gospel to man.

Where is God? He is seen in Christ, suffering on the cross. “God was in the Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). This is where God’s love and mercy are most magnificently seen? This is where his judgement is most magnificently seen? It is seen in the cross, in that place where all of the contradictions of suffering and of sin and of judgement meet the mercy and compassion and grace and goodness of God. It is seen here because Christ took all of this suffering and sin and judgment on himself. The real evil of our hearts is when we refuse to accept and to see the goodness that God has poured out in his Son. Where is God? He is seen in Jesus Christ. He is seen in the resurrection of Christ which is a resurrection of victory, a resurrection that promises and gives us a sure and certain hope that the sin and suffering of this world will end. Where is God? He is always seen as history is acted out. He will be seen when history is completed and brought to fulfilment on the day when Christ returns and all evil is done away, when all suffering comes to an end, and when eternal life is brought in for all who have believed the gospel.

So people have no excuse. The Gospel is plainly preached, and as I said before, this is a mercy which is so great, so precious and so costly that those who receive it love and worship and serve the king who has done this for them. This is the message that we have for the world. It is not just a glossy, glittery message of hope to make people feel better in difficult times. It is a message of truth which tells us the truth of our condition before God and at the same time tells us what God’s grace has done for us.

As we know, people will not receive the gospel unless God opens their hearts. But the God’s word is not short of offers and invitations, or a clear declaration of what God has done. And we are commanded to believe! We are commanded to repent and to believe this Gospel.

Just a few practical points to end with. What do we derive practically from this? First of all we should come back to the question we began with and ask ourselves, “Where is God?” We should ask that question again, but in a different way. Not where has God gone from us, but where have we gone from him. That is the way we should be thinking. We must look at ourselves and think about the price we have paid for neglecting our Creator. Our natural tendency to complain, not to repent. I think the saddest thing this week is that I have not heard one person say, “I thank God that I came out alive.” Of course, people must have said this, but we have not actually heard anyone say “I thank God that I am safe.” And we have not heard anyone pray “Lord have mercy on us! Lord show us our sin! Show us how we have offended you! Show us the right path!”

While there has been much calling upon God it has been calling upon a God who is already our friend, who automatically takes America’s side. This is not the response that we should be hearing. We should be asking. “Where have we gone from God?” The experiences of this week should have taught us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

What right do we have to question what God does. I know that this is a hard saying, and it is a hard saying. (I do not mean it in a way that would make us lose compassion for people who are suffering. That is not the way of Christ.) But while all suffering is a tragedy, the most tragic thing of all is when people neglect or despise the chastening of the Lord. “It is a fearful thing,” said Robert Murray McCheyne, “not to ask God’s meaning in affliction; it is his loudest knock, and it is often his last.” It is often his last warning. So what have we learnt this week? What have we learnt in life from our own sufferings?

Last of all we should also remember that this is still the day of grace. If you are a Christian today, remember those who are not. Remember the burning desire in Paul’s heart for his own people, for Israel, that they would be saved. Of course is right for us to be reminded, every time a tragic event like this takes place, that God is going to judge the world; but I think that we are far too ready to read the immediate end of the world every time something like this happens. “Here it is,” we say. “It is just around the corner.” Well, I don’t know. But I do know that our Lord gave us a commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. I do know that people like Hudson Taylor, who looked forward to our Lord’s returned, also worked and prayed for the world’s millions. And what about the millions today. What are we to do? What about those people that the West despises now? If there was forgiveness for us surely, as long as it is God’s day of grace, there is forgiveness for others too and we should pray and seek that God will show mercy.

If you are not a Christian today, listen to the words of this Psalm, “There is forgiveness.” Remember that, in a sinful and fallen world, suffering and even death are not the worst thing that can happen to you. The worst thing that can happen to you is for you to stand before the judgement seat of God on that terrible day and to be cast out of his presence forever. “There is forgiveness.” Again McCheyne said this, “If his mercies and judgements don’t convert you, God has no other arrows left in his quiver.” If God’s mercies and judgements don’t convert you, he has no arrows left. Perhaps in your case he is running short of arrows. Don’t be among those who despise God’s day of grace.


Let us sing together Hymn number 513 (Christian Hymns).

O teach me what it meaneth,

That cross uplifted high,

With One, the Man of Sorrows,

Condemned to bleed and die.

O teach me what it cost Thee

To make a sinner whole,

And teach me, Saviour, teach me

The value of the soul.

Concluding prayer.

Father indeed, we bring no other plea to you except that you have invited us to cast ourselves upon you; no other plea but Christ himself. Lord, we have cast ourselves upon him and upon his work. Father we pray that others this day would cast themselves upon Christ and upon that work of the cross, in which you have declared that you will not mark iniquity, that you will pass over the sins of your people because they are being punished forever in your Son. We thank you Lord that in Christ the day of judgement, for all who believe, is past forever. Lord we pray that you will bring people to birth this day. We pay for repentance and we pray for faith, and we pray Lord that these things would continue throughout or lives.

And now to the King, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honour and glory forever and ever, Amen.

This sermon was preached by Dr Peter Dart, the Pastor of the Smithfield Baptist Church, Sydney, NSW, on Sunday morning of the 16th September 2001.

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