This sermon was preached on the Sunday after the 9/11/01 attack on our nation. I remember.
INTRODUCTION TO THE READING OF SCRIPTURE (IS.61:1-4)
After the shock of national catastrophe, we begin to hear stories. The stories will weave a human face to the tragedy. We understand story in a way that is more meaningful than even the disturbingly surreal images of television. Like you, I have been moved by the stories of brave people like the former Federal prosecutor and television political commentator Barbara Olsen calling her husband Ted Olsen, the Solicitor General, and telling him to alert the FBI of the attack; or the amazing story of the men of the United Airlines flight who voted to take on the terrorists. It may be that their effort that cost them their lives in the heartland of a Pennsylvania field saved many lives and heart of our government at the United States Capitol. There are many stories of heroism and we will need to listen for those stories and re-tell them in the days and months and even years to come. There are many more stories, of course, which are characterized as just plain sad. One story line kept getting repeated over and over with different people acting out the same tragic script. A woman is going from hospital to hospital, looking for her husband. A man holds a picture of his wife as he screams her name and runs through the ruble. The only response is the terrified eyes of the walking wounded set in those unforgettable dust and debris caked faces. The most poignant response I heard this week came from a Hispanic woman whose husband was missing. She said, “I don’t know if I am supposed to keep looking or starting grieving. I’m stuck.”
America herself, in many ways, is now stuck in a sort of Netherlands between hope and despair. We are ready for retaliation, but naming the enemy is different now than it was at Pearl Harbor. We are hanging in mid-air between mourning the loss of life and the loss of peace, and showing a national resolve to get on with it and show the terrorist that they can’t stop us. I think September 11th, 2001 is a day that will define our nation. All of the experts are telling us that America will never be the same and I think they are talking about airport security, if not our national security itself. But, I actually hope America will now never be the same in another way. I hope we will never be the same people because we hear God’s Word in the mist of our tragedy and His Word changes us. I think, no I know, there is a message that speaks to our time, to our national grief, to our children’s watching eyes, to our fellow-men who suffer in the ruble and the ruin of this national tragedy.
I’m not sure whether it was CNN or NPR or ABC or any number of other stations I was listening to on September 11th, but I heard this testimony given to a reporter. A man was running frantically from the tumbling towers of the World Trade Center. There was a veritable rain of melting steel, human body parts, flaming debris, and that ubiquitous, haunting gray-white dust everywhere. He said that he ran and ran as fast as he could, running with hundreds of others. He said he couldn’t see because of the debris caked over his eyes. He managed to make out what appeared to be church. He ran inside. It was a church: He scrambled inside its sanctuary. He said, “I saw this bowl of holy water. So, I washed the dirt and grime out of my eyes with the holy water. I could see again.”
In a real way, millions of Americans are running back to God, flooding into churches, trying to escape this new reign of terror coming down inside our own borders. Our hearts, if not our eyes, are filled with the horrible debris of fear, shock, loss, anger, retribution, and sadness. In times like these we do tend to begin to get to the heart of things. We are like that poor soul in Manhattan. We too are stunned, breathless specters running into the church and we are not groping for new musical styles, fancy homiletic forms, or the latest self-help programs. We’re screaming, “Where’s the holy water?”
This morning, I invite you to come in. There is plenty of water here: living water, healing water, a fountain of never-ending joy and peace, whose power is usually dispensed in times like these. For, the Gospel always shines best in the midst of ruin. The resurrection of Jesus Christ always shines best when cast in front of the black pall of death. The cross always for God’s people becomes their crown. The Gospel comes to people in devastation and leads them out of their hanging between hope and despair and shows them certain salvation.
Returning from Babylon in the eighth century BC, and living in the devastation of what once one a proud nation, the people of Israel heard from God. They sought holy water to wash out the debris of their own national tragedy and God came to them in Isaiah. The prophet announced that “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save nor his ear too dull to hear.” (Is. 59:1) To a people languishing in God’s judgment against their sin, and allowing a foreign power to bring the sword on their land, Isaiah, like an ancient priest in the sanctuary, took up God’s Word like a basin and towel and swabbed the tearful eyes of his countrymen and told them, “Arise shine for your light has some and the glory of the Lord rise upon you…” (Is. 60:1) And it is in this time that the old evangelical Prophet speaks the words of our text: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor…” and he says, “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated: they will renew the ruined cities…”
This is our balm and our salve today in our nation. Amidst the ruins of what once seemed to be the impenetrable symbols of our great economy, our mighty military, and our secure borders, while we are still blinded by this cowardice act of terror, God’s promises that He is our sanctuary.
I say to you today that this is our holy water that helps us to see. As any would come into God’s House this day you would find healing and clarity for the future in several ways. We might say there are two vital remedies in this Holy Water of Isaiah 61.
When we take our tears to this passage, and wipe our grieving faces with the Truth and Beauty found in this basin…
WE COME TO SEE THAT OUR SAVIOR IS WITH US
Oh, how we instinctively long for a Savior at times like this. How Israel, in her feeling of defeat, longed for a Savior.
This may be the prophet’s voice, but make no mistake; it is the Word of God and more specifically the word flow from the heart of the Son of God. Isaiah 61 is one of the great Messianic passages: Scripture that anticipates the coming of the Lord Jesus. Our Lord Himself took these words for His reading at the synagogue in Nazareth. After he read Isaiah 61:1-2, he sit down and amid the shocked congregation announced, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today, my dear friends, this same Jesus of Nazareth announces to us, “The Scripture is fulfilled.” Christ Jesus our Lord is our hope. He is now and always God’s answer to our oppression, our poverty, our fear, and our grief. In times like these we long for heroes, and we are hearing of many stories of heroism, but this morning I announce the Hero of Heroes, The Risen Christ! The child of Bethlehem who was born to die for our sins, who bids all those who mourn “Come unto Me!” Indeed, this Savior came for those who see their condition. Now more than ever in our nation, we as a people need Him. Look with me to see in His Word what he offers us at a time like this:
1. Our Savior brings us Good News. He is anointed to preach Good News. We have had enough of the bad news. But, here in the midst of Israel’s tragedy, God plants a seed of hope. In the mist of the darkness He announces a new Light that is coming. He is our Good News today. In Christ, we have this powerful truth at work that transforms crosses into crowns, and lost causes into sources of new life.
2. Our Savior is here to bind up the brokenhearted. The Holy Water of God’s Word in Isaiah 61 brings together those parts of our lives that are torn asunder. Nothing else will do it. No program, no government, no words of human beings can do what the Lord Jesus can do. Who else can identity with those who suffer but the Suffering Savior? Who else can know the pain of those who died while trying to save others than He who died to save sinners? He is not only a symbol or a religious icon, though. He has been raised from the dead and seen by hundreds, ascended into heaven and in a powerful display of Gospel presence, sent His Holy Spirit into the Church. He is thus here. He walks among the encamped rescue personnel in Manhattan; He broods over the chaos of this national tragedy and offers new life to those living in ashes. We hear His voice; “He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted.”
3. This tells us also that Jesus is given to us to proclaim freedom for captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. What a great promise for a people like us who are known as a people of freedom. But our political freedom, as our president has told us, is under attack. But, here we are offered freedom that is outside of political theory. The freedom of our nation, so rightfully lauded as the hope of mankind, is not enough. We need freedom from fear, freedom from the enslavement to sin and rebellion. Yes, we come now to God as a people and cry out for sanctuary and holy water, but shall we go back out into the streets to sin again? Is this not a time for us to find the greatest freedom? Is this not a time for each of us here to ask ourselves, “How dirty have I become in all this? How much sin and wickedness is mine?” It is not a time to preach a full-length sermon on national sin. But it seems right to be reminded that in times like this we don’t run to bars for happy hours, we don’t run into the hundreds and hundreds of strip clubs to find our solace, we don’t turn on the filth of pornography to wipe our eyes. We have established all of those things on the basis of our freedom. We must now reject that and name it: it is sin and enslavement. Only Christ beings freedom. It was that truth that guided Dutch and English immigrants to New York. Underneath the ruble of the World Trade Center is a foundation of freedom that men and women of God laid in days past. May we now recover that freedom which rejects sin, and embraces the purity of life in Christ and obedience to His Word.
4. Isaiah 61, verse 2, says that the Messiah would come to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor.” This is what Jesus did two thousand years ago to occupied Palestine. This is what God is doing in our nation today. This is His message to each of you now. Yes, in the midst of the ruble and ruin of our national tragedy, in the aftermath of a faceless enemy attack, we need to listen to the voice of the Lord: “This is my well-beloved Son. Listen to Him.” The acceptable year of the Lord comes to those who are poor in spirit. The Good News of salvation and new life in Jesus Christ comes to those who are stunned by their own inability. Blessed are those who are now able to hear: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
5. Now the God of all sympathy, the God who “does not willingly afflict the children of men” comes to Israel and tells them that the “day of vengeance” is God’s. We rest in that truth as we scramble to figure out who our enemy is. He couples His assurance that He will deal with our enemy with His promise of comfort and provision for grieving people.
I heard one grieving wife, upon learning that her husband, a computer repairman, was surely one of those victims in the first Tower that was hit, say “If my husband had to die, I just wish I could have held his hand. I wanted him to have his family with him.” Such touching words speak to the very core of what it means to be human. Nothing can satisfy these understandable cries like the God who is there. None can soothe that poor young woman’s grief like our Savior who is there for us in our time of need.
Oh how I wish I could minister to her myself. How I would take her to this passage and tell her, “Yes, child, take up this Scripture, it is your ointment now so you can see Christ beside you. He is there with Good News even for you, He is there to bind you up, He is there is liberate you, to release you from darkness, and to announce that even in your feeling of utter abandonment, He will never abandon you. But, I can’t say that to her. So, I say it to you. He is here and to just know Him is the beginning of healing. He helps us to see again.
There is a second great power in this part of God’s Word; in this Holy Water, if you will, and it is this: when we wash our tired eyes in this Holy Water, we not only come to see Christ is with us, but…
WE COME TO SEE THAT GOD IS FOR US
This passage in Isaiah 61 gives hope to Israel not only in assuring her of the Savior to come, but that God is for Israel and will rebuild Israel.
I read in Thursday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal about talk of whether to rebuild the World Trade Center towers or not and all that was involved with that sort of undertaking. I’m no engineer, but this much I know: God is for those who turn to Him in repentance and faith and He promises that He will rebuild fallen, broken people. It is a great engineering feat to put together brokenhearted people, but our God is the God who made the heavens and the earth. His Spirit moved across the chaos of the deep in Genesis 1 and His Word spoke forth life. He stood before a Man of the Tombs in the graveyard of the Gadarenes and His Word healed that man whom others avoided. That man, who once lived among the dead, returned to the living; that man who once cursed God, praised God. This is our God—the God who is for humanity, not against humanity. The God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whosoever—in their sin and shame and in the ruins of their broken dreams—whosoever would believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life. He is the God who was for Adam and Eve not against them, and who foretold of a rebuilding of the ruins of humanity by One who would crush the enemies’ head. He is the God who was for Job, not against Job, and who comforted Him with the truth of His sovereign control over all things. He is the God whom St. Paul preached when he declared that this God takes even the things which are bad and turns them into good for His people: “All things work together for the good… (Romans 8:28)” This is the God who sent His Son to die on a cross for our sins while we were yet sinners. He is for us.
And he declares in this passage that “They will rebuild…they will restore…they will renew.”
It just may be that these terrorists, wherever they are from and whoever they are have missed the seed of America’s greatness: it is our foundation of faith in Jesus Christ—by the millions and millions. I am told that even a CNN anchorwoman, usually noted for her more liberal opining about things, urged prayer to God. There is a seed of true faith in our nation. Beneath the ruble, I say once more, there is a foundation of godly men and women who risked all to make a nation who would be a city on a hill, a nation who would beam forth the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. O how I pray that this marks the time when that city is rebuilt.
But thank God, for this: for all who will wash their tears in the Holy Water of God’s Word, we are shown the truth that our God is for us: He will rebuild us, restore us, and renew us through Jesus Christ. For Christ Himself, though his body was torn down with sin and shame on that cross, was rebuilt in a glorious new body, restored to His throne in heaven. So shall all be who trust in Him.
A New Vantage Point
So, we have seen in this passage a healing stream that helps us to see again: to see that Christ is with us and God is for us. We do not have to walk around blinded by fear, and though we do well to mourn and cry for our fellow countrymen and weep for our nation, we do not weep as those who have no hope.
The skyline of Manhattan will never be the same. One New Yorker I heard on televisions, said, “that was our Rocky Mountains, our Mount Everest.” But if you stood at the right angle, and could catch a glimpse through the smoke and ashes, you could see something that took your breath away in pure hope. Where the Towers once stood, now is a clear view of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. They brought down our great buildings, but they didn’t touch the real heart of our people: liberty. She still stands and is seen better now than before.
From our vantage point this morning, with eyes washed in the truth of Christ with us and God for us, let us pray that our nation and each of us can see the Gospel of Jesus Christ better now than ever before. And in seeing, we believe and we follow the Lord Jesus Christ into a new day for our lives and a new day for America.
Let us pray.
Father, whose mercy and grace binds up all broken people who turn to Thee in faith, come help us to see through the fog of pain, to see our Savior welcoming us, washing us, saving us. Come to this place today, Lord, and speak peace to our hearts. And for any one here who has never trusted in Jesus as Lord and Savior, open up their hearts now to receive Him and grant each of strength to follow Him, even in days like these. I offer this prayer to Thee, O GOD, through Jesus Christ our LORD. Amen.
- Let’s Take a Walk (michaelmilton.org)
- Our Holy God (thirdmill.org)
- David as Shepherd – Psalm 23, A Message Delivered at the Annual ARP Family Conference (michaelmilton.org)
- How preachers prepare 9/11 sermons (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
- “It’s a Growing Time” – Resting in God before Running in Ministry: A Convocation Message for the US Army Chaplain Center and School, Fort Jackson, SC (michaelmilton.org)
- The Gift and Responsibility of Studying the Original Languages in Seminary (michaelmilton.org)
- The Revelation of Jesus Christ Part Four: Jesus the Speaking King (thirdmill.org)
- Rise and Fall, Reagan and Milosz, in the Book-barn in Connecticut (michaelmilton.org)
- David as Warrior – 1 Samuel 17: A Message Delivered to the Annual ARP Family Conference (michaelmilton.org)
- Dr. Albert Mohler on 9/11 and Truth Telling (rodiagnusdei.wordpress.com)
- Scripture reading for Sept. 11, 2011 (plymouthspirit.wordpress.com)
- World Trade Centre fragments are turned into 9/11 memorials (guardian.co.uk)
- Lack of clergy at Sept. 11 memorial prompts separate prayer event (faithforliving.wordpress.com)
- Lack of clergy at Sept. 11 memorial prompts separate prayer event (onecatholicnews.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: We’re Not Leaving: 9/11 Responders Tell Their Stories of Courage, Sacrifice, and Renewal by Benjamin J. Luft, M.D. (blogcritics.org)