A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 11, 2011.
1 John 1:5-8
If we are to study the nature of human evil, it is doubtful how clearly we will be able to separate them from us; it will most likely be our own natures we are examining. –M. Scott Peck, M.D. in People of the Lie
Ten years ago today, where were you when you heard the news? It was a Tuesday, and I can remember that because I was in a staff meeting at church. Alice Clements came over from the Weekday Preschool to tell us that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center Towers. My mind immediately went to a similar incident where a small airplane had hit one of the Towers years before, but it was quickly apparent that it was not anything that simple. The Pentagon had also been hit and the White House was being evacuated. By the time we got to a TV, both Towers were engulfed in thick smoke. It was not too long after we began to watch that each of the Towers came down.
As the morning went along, the news coverage began changing. This was before everyone’s cell phone was a video camera. There were a few people who had cameras on the street who somehow had, in taking a picture in the moment, captured the airplane striking the Twin Towers. We probably saw that amateur video a dozen times from different angles and different directions. It was as if the repetition would somehow make it more real.
Then, further in the day, the shift began to take place to ask the question, “Who did this?” What kind of people would board an airplane, hijack it, and crash it into a building and kill themselves clearly without regard for the innocent people on the planes and with the intention of making as much destruction as possible.
We found out that the people were terrorists. We began to find out who they might be, where they were from, where they had trained, what their cause was, and how they worked to accomplish their purpose. It was shocking news to us of horrific evil. These certainly had to be evil people who would do these sorts of things.
In the years that have gone by since then, I have been reminded of an encounter in a novel by Caleb Carr called The Alienist. The Alienist was something of an early 19th Century profiler. I think he was in London. He is stalking a serial killer and someone asked him, “Do you think the killer is insane?” The reply is very telling. He says, “We will want him to be. We will want him to be insane because, if he is not, he will be too much like us. If he is too much like us, it will scare us too badly about what is within us.” When we begin to think about terrorists, we tend to think of them as maybe not insane but people who are extraordinarily beyond all other degrees of evil. If they are not somehow in a different category, we might have found that there are similarities between us. How terrible that would be!
If we think of the most shocking news of evil that we have heard in the past lifetime, we always want to label people as either crazy or evil. They cannot be normal. They would have to be horrible, dastardly people who would create sneak attacks.
Think about the shooting at Columbine. What kind of young person would plan and carry out the execution of classmates?
We hear about mothers who are accused of killing their children. We hear about newlywed grooms who are accused of going on vacation and drowning their newlywed brides, and the only reason we could put on something like this is that they are in some way extraordinary, and the only reason would be that they are either insane or that they are evil. We know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are not like us. They just are not like us. We cannot stand for them to be like us.
The New Testament deals with our sin in a number of ways. The way that is important for us today in this one sermon is to recognize that when we are dealing with sin, the New Testament always leads us to deal with our own sin first. It is very easy to have enough repentance for someone else’s sin. It is always very easy to have enough awareness and judgment of someone else’s sin. The problem is when it comes to our own sin.
When we think of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, he will not let the people who want to stone her get away with that. Instead, he makes them deal with their own sin first. “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.” In the commandment on not judging, Jesus says, “Why do you worry about the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye when you have a teaspoon full of dust in your own eye? First get the dust out of your own eye so you can see the other person. Deal with your own sin first.”
Over the past several weeks, we have been talking about getting serious in our relationship with God. We usually think of “getting serious” as in a loving relationship. In this particular month, we have been thinking about loving the righteousness and being in love with the good things that God is doing, and wanting to do, in the world. One of the first things that we would want to do in loving righteousness and goodness is to be able to recognize evil when we see it and also to recognize that we have to deal with our own first.
When we think about the shocking news of terrorists or serial killers or whatever it might be that is going on in the world, maybe the most shocking news to us would be that we are still committing the same sin that five, ten, or twenty years ago we swore we were not going to do any more. How many times have we rededicated our lives and said, “I turn and repent. I am not going to do that anymore,” and here we are. We are doing it again. We think that we have overcome the capacity to be cruel only to find ourselves sometimes in a moment of haste and impatience being cruel to someone. Sometimes it is calculated. Sometimes we get a devilish glee with coming out with the right thing that wounds and hurts somebody else. If there are headlines in heaven, it may be the fact that our hearts have not turned from things like this and they would make the headlines as shocking news.
We think we have outgrown all the ways that we can ostracize, ridicule, and make people feel badly about themselves, but then here we go again. We think we have overcome prejudice but it rears up out of us in a moment that we had not expected. It is shocking. There it is—shocking news of sin. There are moments where we find out we are still greedy, still fearful, and still filled with lust. Our hearts are still calloused over so that compassion does not stand a chance. If there is anything in this world that we should be shocked about, it is about these things.
If you have ever been to a counselor about a relationship and the person that is in the relationship with you has not come this particular time, the immediate thing is often to try in the counseling setting to fix the other person. Most good counselors will typically say, “We can’t do anything about that right now. All we can really work on is what you have control over.” When it comes to the shocking news of sin in the world, we are always wanting to rail against other things and talk about how things need to change in this awful world, but the truth is the only thing we can really deal with is what we have control over. Do we really expect the world to change and the people of God don’t have to? We want the world to somehow shift and become a wonderful and lovely place, but when it runs into our lives and intersects with who we are, and there is still just as much callousness, prejudice or whatever it may be that exhibits itself, where is that change going to go? It comes to a screeching halt. All we have control over is our lives. We must give them to God to change.
Do we really expect the world to be a safer place for democracy if the people who practice it are not more ethical and moral? Would the world really have greater peace, love, and understanding if our lives are the lives that are encouraging other things? Do you see what this is about? We are all so shocked.
9-11 was a shock to the system. In many ways, some of us are still not over it. We saw the replays throughout the weekend and we almost had to turn away. We would rather watch football, not because it is football season but because we cannot stand to be reminded about that. But then the same old things are still going on within us. We are still just as cruel, still just as greedy, still just as afraid, still lacking in trust just like we always have been. We can pretend and we can deny, but why do this?
Did we really not pay attention to what John said in his letter? He said, “This is the message we have heard from him and claimed to you that God is life, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true, but if we walk in the light as he, himself, is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Why do we pretend when we have such a wonderful and loving God from whom one of the great promises offered to each and every one of us is that, if we will but turn and admit, God will forgive all?
I often liken it to something medical. I am sure that those of you in the medical profession have never dealt with a patient who was in denial about what was really going on. They just could not believe it could happen to them. They did not want to go to the doctor. They put it off, put it off, and put it off almost until there was nothing you could do about it. This is what repentance is like. It is not some evil thing, but it is so that God can heal us. If we keep putting it off and putting it off, it only makes the infection of sin that much greater in our lives. But if we turn, he is faithful and just and he will forgive our sins.
I wish there were no terrorism in the world. At the core, I am one of the world’s great idealists. I really do believe that the world could be a better place if we ourselves would turn and offer ourselves to Christ and live as Christ wants us to. I can’t do anything about terrorists, but what I can do is something about my own sin. If I turn and repent from my sin, and each of us turns and repents from the sins that are ours that we know would shock everybody around us if they only knew, then maybe we are moving the world toward what God wants and what God is able to use to do away with things like terrorism and the death of destruction of incidents like 9-11.
He is a mighty God. He is in control. All things are in his hands, especially our hearts.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.