Hearing God’s word on the first Sunday after September 11, 2001

I’ll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001. My wife and I were in our second year of marriage, and we were living in Louisville, Kentucky while I was working on my Ph.D. On the morning of the attacks, I was in our apartment, and she called me from work to tell me to turn the television on. I think both buildings had already been struck by the time I tuned in, but I was watching live television as the towers eventually crumbled to the ground.

The emotion of that day has left an indelible mark on me. The uncertainty. The questions. The very real concern that more attacks were imminent. The threat of a larger war. The horror of watching all those people die. The specter of gas shortages and economic collapse. I think everyone felt something like that, and that is why the churches across America were filled on Sunday September 16.

If you want to know something about a preacher’s theology, go and listen to what he preached on September 16, 2001. The two most memorable September 16th sermons that I heard were preached by John Piper (audio, transcript), pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and by Tommy Nelson (audio), pastor of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas. In some ways, these sermons were very similar. They both built on the theological foundation of the sovereignty of God over all things, which includes His sovereignty over calamities like the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Both sermons also expressed the grief appropriate for the occasion.

Yet in many other ways, the sermons were very different. On the one hand, Tommy Nelson exuded a sense that America would rise up in its righteous might to settle accounts with its terrorist enemies. Nelson is a dispensationalist and offered the assurance that America would prevail in the coming military conflict because God supports nations that support Israel.

On the other hand, John Piper called his listeners to turn away from their implicit trust in American military might and national prosperity. Americans by and large had taken for granted their own security in the world. Piper said 9-11 proves what the Bible already teaches—that such security is an illusory fiction. Our hope is not in the military and its ability to protect from all danger. Our hope is in Christ, and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

As I remember the tragedy of 9-11 this week, I also remember these messages. I am thankful for the reminder that I serve a God who is sovereign over all things, that I serve a Christ who once looked into the cold eyes of at a heartless Roman governor and said, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” I am thankful that while we have no basis for confidence in military might (Psalm 20:7), we have every reason to be confident in King Jesus who has promised to come again and to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). I am thankful for a Christ who loves sinners and who will one day banish evil from the new heavens and the new earth.

Calamities will come, and calamities will go. But God’s word will never pass away. In some ways these sermons are a study in contrasts, but they are nevertheless the same in the most important ways. I encourage you to take some time to listen to both of them and to set your hope completely on Christ.

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“9-11” by Tommy Nelson

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“A Service of Sorrow, Self-Humbling, and Steady Hope in Our Savior and King, Jesus Christ” by John Piper

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