Preaching Jesus After a Community Tragedy

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Editor’s Note: This excerpt from The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach features a sermon from Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, the Sunday following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Click on the play button to listen to the entire service from September 16, 2001. Keller’s sermon starts at the 29:27 marker. 

Situation

As pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Dr. Tim Keller bore heavy responsibilities after the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The horror that the nation experienced through shocking video of gigantic buildings struck, set ablaze, and collapsing in clouds of smoke and dust was experienced firsthand by the people of Manhattan, where Keller ministers. Thousands were killed; families were devastated; friends were lost; businesses and livelihoods of generations were gone in the fraction of one day. President George W. Bush declared “a war on terror” to prevent future attacks. But as toxic building dust settled over the homes and businesses of Manhattan, terror, grief, and rage had already settled into the hearts of the people.

Thus, on September 16, the Sunday following the attack, Keller preached a sermon titled “Truth, Tears, Anger, and Grace.”

Concerns

The simple title of the sermon well expresses Dr. Keller’s central concerns: to bring biblical truth to grief and rage, so that grace may be known amidst terror.

Not as obvious from the title of the sermon but evidenced in the ministry of the church was a dual responsibility. Redeemer Church was (and is) known as a church that is willing to ask and answer tough questions regarding the Christian faith.

Everyone who attended on that poignant Sunday following 9/11 knew that the pastor not only needed to give comfort and perspective to his congregation but also had to provide a defense of God and the gospel to the many visitors who came seeking explanation and hope.

On one level, the church and its message were being sought for comfort, but on another level the church was also on trial — Would it have anything meaningful to say in the face of horror?

Approach

In his sermon on September 16, 2001, Dr. Keller uses the account of the death and resurrection of Lazarus as an analogy for dealing with the devastation of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He says that Jesus moves through the ruins of Lazarus’s tragedy to teach us how to deal with truth, tears, anger, and grace. Dealing first with Mary’s tears, Keller says that Jesus does not simply fix the tragedy but enters into her grief.

Next, Keller deals with Jesus’ anger. In contrast to contemporary commentators on both the left and the right whose anger was poured into essays about the attacks being a judgment on America, or into hatred against people unlike ourselves, Jesus’ anger went another direction. Jesus’ anger was at death. In contrast to contemporary story lines about judgment and hatred, the gospel story line is about resurrection.

Keller then talks about the truth that Jesus discussed with Martha. The Savior offers not simple consolation but resurrection in response to belief. This leads to a brief presentation of the gospel, making resurrection available to those now hearing Christ’s truth. Those who do not really believe are invited to keep coming to the church to explore the claims of Jesus.

Finally, Keller develops the point of grace. Christianity alone of all the religions tells us that God lost His Son in an unjust attack. Jesus knew that the only way to provide for Lazarus’s resurrection and ours was for Himself to be killed. In giving Himself for us He proves the love of God despite the tragedies we face. Thus, while Jesus provides what is best for tears, truth, and anger, He also provides what we need most — the grace of His care.

Keller concludes that the grace of Jesus “is what you need most, and that is what He came to give. That is what we are going to keep giving here.”

The Sermon: “Truth, Tears, Anger, and Grace”

John 11:1-44

Mary and Martha were facing the same problem we face today. They were looking at a tragedy and saying, “Where were you, Lord, in all of this? How do we make sense of this?”

Jesus moves through the ruins with four things: truth, tears, anger, and, finally, grace. The truth he wields with Martha; the tears He sheds with Mary; the anger He directs at the tomb; and the grace He extends to everybody. Let’s look at the way these four things fit together.

The Tears of Jesus

Let’s begin with the tears of Jesus. What do we learn from them? When Jesus reaches Mary, she asks Him a major theological question: “Lord, why weren’t You here? You could have stopped this.” She asked Him a question, but He couldn’t even speak. He just wept. All He could do is ask, “Where have you laid him?” He is troubled. He is deeply moved.

This reaction is startling because when Jesus enters this situation, He comes with two things that you and I don’t have. First, He comes in knowing why it happened. He knows how He is going to turn it into a manifestation of the glory of God. He knows what He is going to do, and that in ten minutes they will all be rejoicing. When you and I enter into these tragic situations, we have no idea.

The second thing He has is power. He can do something about the problem. You and I can’t do a thing to undo it. Yet still He weeps. Why? Why doesn’t He just come in and say, “Wait until you see”? If you knew you were about to turn everything around, would you be drawn down into grief, entering into the trauma and pain of their hearts? Why would Jesus do that?

Because He is perfect. He is perfect love. He will not close His heart, even for ten minutes. He will not refuse to enter in. He doesn’t say, “There’s not much point in entering into all this grief.” He goes in.

We learn two things from this. The first is simple but needs to be said: There is nothing wrong with weeping at a time like this. Jesus Christ was the most mature person who ever lived, yet He is falling into grief. It is not a sign of immaturity or weakness. The people who are more like Jesus don’t avoid grief. They find themselves pulled into the grief of those who are hurting. There is something very right about that.

Jesus’ tears also suggest something about our need to “fix it.” There are a lot of people who are coming to New York to fix things. We are glad for them. They will try to fix the buildings. We need that. And eventually they will leave. But when Jesus weeps, we see that He doesn’t believe that the ministry of truth (telling people how they should believe and turn to God) or the ministry of fixing things is enough, does He? He also is a proponent of the ministry of tears. The ministry of truth and power without tears isn’t Jesus.

You have to have tears.

Do we do volunteer work? Yes. Do we help the people who have been displaced? Yes. Do we help the people who are bereaved? Yes. But consider this. Over the next months and years, New York may become a more difficult, dangerous place to live economically, politically, vocationally, or emotionally.

It feels like it today, does it not? But if that happens, let’s stay. Let’s enter into the problems.

The city is going to need neighbors and friends and people who are willing to live here and be part of a great city. It may be more difficult and expensive just to be Redeemer for the next few months and years; I don’t know. But if that is the case, the best thing we can do for the city is to stay here and be ourselves, even though it may cost more money or take more time. Maybe we are going to have to be a little less concerned about our own careers and more concerned about the community. So let’s enter in. Let’s not just “fix it.” Let’s weep with those who weep. This is the first lesson about suffering, learned from the tears of Jesus.

The Anger of Jesus

The second thing we learn about suffering we learn from the anger of Jesus. Did you notice anything in the text I read that indicated that Jesus was angry?

In verse 33, when Jesus saw Mary and the others weeping, it says, “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” But the original Greek word means “to quake with rage.” In verse 38, as Jesus came to the tomb, it says He was “deeply moved.” The original Greek word there means “to roar or snort with anger like a lion or a bull.” So the best translation would be, “Bellowing with anger, He came to the tomb.” This must at least mean that His nostrils flared with fury. It may mean that He was actually yelling out in anger.

This is relevant to us because we are all going through this corporately. Our shock and grief are giving way to fear and anger. There is a lot of rage around. In this passage, Jesus is filled with rage. So are we. What does Jesus do with it?

There are two things He does not do. First, He does not become a “Job’s friend.” Do you know what a “Job’s friend” is? In the book of Job, a series of terrible things happened to Job. His children died; he lost all of his money; he became sick. Job’s friends said, “Clearly you are not living right! God must be judging you for your sins or these bad things would not be happening.”

Does Jesus speak that way to Mary and Martha? Is He angry at them or at the victims today? Does He say, “If this young man, Lazarus, is cut off in the prime of life, he must be receiving judgment for his sins”? No. He is not mad at them. He is also not mad at Himself. Isn’t that interesting? Here is the one who claims to be God, who could have prevented this, now filled with rage — but not at Himself. He says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” one of the most stupendous claims that anyone has ever made. He doesn’t just say, “I am a healer.” He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. I am the offerer of life.” He is claiming to be God! But when He gets to the tomb, He does not demonize anyone, including the victims, and including God.

I bring this up because everyone who is speaking publicly about this event we’re going through must put it into a narrative structure to make sense of it. You cannot make sense of things unless you find a story line. There are two story lines that people are using today that Jesus is rejecting here.

The first story line is that this tragic thing is happening because America is being judged for its sins. Interestingly enough, the left and the right are both using it. People on the left are saying that America asked for it because of our social injustice. People on the right are saying, “Look at all our immorality! God is punishing us.” In both cases, the story line is, “God is punishing us.” Blame the victims.

Let’s think biblically about this. How do you decide whether God is mad at you personally or at your nation? How do you know whether God is mad at you or pleased with you? Do you decide by looking at how life is going? No. Jesus Christ — who was a pretty good person, don’t you think? — had a lousy life! Rejection! Loneliness! Everything went wrong!

In Luke 13, some people come up to Jesus and ask about two incidents. One was a political massacre in which a group of people was killed by Pilate. In the other incident, a tower fell on thirteen people.

The question is: Were they being judged? Were they worse sinners than the others?

Do you know what Jesus says? “No.” And then He asks, “Why don’t you repent?” — almost as if He is irritated with the question. How do I decide whether God is mad at me or pleased with me? I read the Bible.

The Bible says, Love God; love your neighbor.

If I am not doing that, He is mad at me. If I am doing that, He is pleased with me. I can’t decide. “I just lost my job so He is mad at me.” “I was just in a car accident. I am paralyzed. He must be mad at me.” That’s not how it works!

Jesus did not suffer for us so that we would not suffer. He suffered so that when we suffer, it makes us like Him.

The story line that God is judging America for its sins is not a good story line. Jesus is not mad at the victims.

There is another story line that seems to have more justification, and for that reason it is somewhat dangerous. This second story line is to demonize our enemy. We represent goodness; they are absolute evil. There is more warrant to this story line because what happened was evil. Justice has to be done. But this story line overreaches.

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian Christian who has been through his share of suffering. It so happened that he was speaking at the United Nations prayer breakfast on September 11. Enormous problems happen, Volf says, when we exclude our enemy from the community of humans and when we exclude ourselves from the community of sinners, when we forget that our enemy is not a subhuman monster but a human being, when we forget that we are not the perfect good but also flawed persons. By remembering this, our hatred doesn’t kill us or absorb us, and we can actually go out and work for justice.

Jesus does not conform to the second story line. He does not say, “I am mad at God. Demonize God. Demonize Middle Easterners. Demonize anybody who is Muslim. Shoot out the windows of their mosques.” What does He do with His rage? He does not direct it against the people who have done this or against God. He focuses His rage on death itself. He is angry at the tomb. And this is the story line that the best leaders are using.

Jesus says, I am going to turn this death into a resurrection. I am going to bring out of this something even greater than was there before.

That’s the gospel story line, by the way. Out of the cross comes the resurrection. Out of the weakness comes real strength. Out of repentance and admitting you are weak comes real power. Out of giving away and serving others comes real strength. Out of generosity and giving your money away comes real wealth. That’s the gospel story line.

Our most effective civic leaders are not saying we are being judged, and they are not saying we are completely good and our enemies completely evil. What they are saying is that we can bring something even better out of this horrible event. Out of this death we can bring a resurrection! Think about it. New York is filled with people who don’t give a rip about New York. All they wanted to do was to get ahead. There was so much fun, so much money around.

Now do you want to be a part of it? Here is what could happen. What if New York became a community? Through this death couldn’t there be a resurrection? Instead of a bunch of self-aggrandizing individuals and individualists, what if we actually became a community? What if the United States was truly humbled in realizing we are part of the rest of the world? We are not invulnerable. At the same time, we would become prouder in the best sense, in terms of the democracy project that we are. Out of this loss of goodness can come something even better. Out of this death we can see a resurrection. We can be a better city, better people, a wiser and better country. That is the right story line, and it actually incorporates what little truth there is in the others — our need to humble ourselves, to recognize the need for change, and to do justice.

Here’s the point. Unless you learn how to handle your anger, unless you know what story line to put it into, you can be railing and angry against America or railing and angry against God. Or railing against the demons out there who all look alike so we can beat them up when we see them on the street.

Or out of this death can come a resurrection. That is what you should do with your anger. Don’t get rid of it — be angry at death! As Dylan Thomas said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Say, “I’m going to put this light on. I am going to make it brighter.”

Somebody says, “That’s pretty hard to do. First you tell me to keep my heart open and weep with those who weep. Then you tell me not to use my rage in a way that short-circuits this whole process. I don’t know if I can manage that!”

That is why Jesus gives us a third thing. It’s the ministry of truth — not just His tears, not just His anger, but truth.

The Truth of Jesus

Jesus says to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?

The governor and mayor, whether they know it or not, are using the gospel story line. It’s the best one there is. The moralistic story line is, “We are the good people; you are the bad people.” That doesn’t really help much in the long run. When your stance is, “We are the good people. We have been telling you that you have been sinning, and now you finally got what you deserved,” it doesn’t work terribly well.

The gospel story line is the one that works. To the extent that it is working in our culture right now, we can bring a better city out of the ashes. But Jesus says, “I can give you something so much more. If you want an even greater resource — the ultimate power to handle this apart from a kind of altruistic wishful thinking — you have to believe.”

He looks at Martha and says, “I can give you this power, but do you believe that I am the Son of God who has come into the world, that I am the one from heaven who has come down to this planet to die and rise again? Do you believe this?” He has a reason to ask, “Do you believe?” Because unless you believe that He is the Son of God who has come into the world, you don’t have access to this incredible thing I am about to tell you. Martha says, “Yes, I do.”

Do you? I hope you do. What I am about to tell you is contingent on your having a personal encounter in faith with the Son of God.

Here is what He offers — not a consolation but a resurrection.

What do I mean by that? Jesus does not say, “If you trust in me, someday I will take you away from all this.” He does not say, “Someday, if you believe in me, I will take you to a wonderful paradise where your soul will be able to forget about all this.” I don’t want a place like that right now. I am upset and mad about what we have lost. But Jesus Christ does not say he will give us consolation. He says He is giving us resurrection. What is resurrection? Resurrection means, “I have come not to take you out of the earth to heaven but to bring the power of heaven down to earth — to make a new heaven and new earth and make everything new. I am going to restore everything that was lost, and it will be a million times better than you can imagine. This is the power of My future, the power of the new heaven and new earth, the joy and the wholeness and the health and the newness that will come, the tears that will be gone, and the suffering and death and disease that will be wiped out — the power of all that will incorporate and envelop everything. Everything is going to be made better. Everything is going to be made right.”

Every year or so, I have a recurring nightmare that my wife is very flattered by. The nightmare is that my wife dies. Something has happened to her, and I’m trying to make it without her. My wife is flattered because it is obviously my greatest fear. But let me tell you something really weird. I almost like having the nightmare now. Do you know why? Because the first minute after I wake up is so unbelievably great! To wake up and say, “Oh my, it was only a bad dream. Everything bad I was living through has come untrue.” It is not like being awakened to have someone give me something to make it better, in the sense of, “Here’s another wife.” No. What I like about waking up is that the dream becomes untrue. It is a wonderful feeling to say, “It is morning. It was only a bad dream!”

Do you know what Jesus Christ is saying when He says, “I am the resurrection”? He is not saying that He will give us a nicer place. He is going to make everything that happened this week be a bad dream. He is not just giving you a consolation. He is going to make it come untrue. He is going to incorporate even the worst things that have ever happened to you. They will be taken up into the glory that is to come in such a way that they make the glory better and greater for having once been broken.

No one puts this truth better than Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov contains this fascinating passage:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage… In the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men.

I feel like I am looking into a deep abyss when he says that. I know what he means. What he is trying to say is that we are not just going to get some kind of consolation that will make it possible to forget. Rather, everything bad is going to come untrue.

At the end of The Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Sam, who thought everything was going wrong, wakes up and the sun is out. He sees Gandalf, the great wizard. To me, this is the quintessence of Jesus’ promise. Sam says, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer of Jesus is, “Yes.” Someday will be the great morning, the morning, not m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g, but m-o-r-n-i-n-g, the great morning that won’t just console us. Jesus will take all of those horrible memories, everything bad that has ever happened, and they will actually be brought back in and become untrue. They will only enrich the new world in which everything is put right — everything.

Do you believe this? Jesus says, “Do you believe this?” You say, “I want to believe this.” If Jesus is the Son of God who has come from heaven, if He is the incarnate Son of God who died on the cross so that we could be forgiven, so God could someday destroy evil and suffering without destroying us, He paid the penalty so that we could participate in this. Do you believe the gospel? If you believe the gospel, then you have to believe that. There are a lot of people in this room who do believe the gospel, but they haven’t really activated it this week. That is what I am here to help you do. You have not thought about that. Your heart hasn’t leapt. You haven’t wept when you thought about it. I hope today is a start!

If, on the other hand, you do not really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, I ask you to keep coming and explore it. Jesus says, “Unless you believe in me, all this is just a pipe dream.” If there is a God up there who has never become human, and you are down here hoping that someday you will be good enough for Him to take you to heaven, it won’t work. But if you believe in a God who is willing to come to die, to resurrect the whole world, a God who would come into our lives, that is the gospel.

  1. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If we let Him… He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a… dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long . . . but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1960, pages 174-75)

Do you believe that? “Do you believe this, Martha?” Then you can face anything.

Everyone is wondering what kind of power New York is going to put back. I know that God is going to put something back. In the new heavens and new earth, everything we have here — even the best things we have here — will be just a dim echo of what we are going to have there.

Finally, somebody says, “How do I know this is going to happen? I would love to believe this, but how do I know?” There is one more thing in this story you have to recognize. Jesus offered tears, truth, and anger, but did you notice the last line of the story, the last line of the text I read? It said,

From that day on they plotted to take His life.

The Grace of Jesus

After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, His enemies said, “Now He’s got to go. He is the most dangerous man there is. We’ve got to get rid of Him now.”

Don’t you think Jesus knew that when He was raising Lazarus from the dead? Yes, He did. Jesus Christ knew and made a deliberate choice. He knew that the only way to interrupt Lazarus’s funeral was to cause His own. The only way to bring Lazarus out of the grave was to bury Himself. The only way He could get Lazarus out of death was for Him to be killed. He knew that.

Isn’t that a picture of the gospel?

We have a God who is so committed to ending suffering and death that He was willing to come into the world and share in that suffering and death himself.

There are an awful lot of people praying to a general God — “I am sure that God somehow is loving us.” I don’t know that. Or rather, I know that only because Christianity alone of all the religions tells us that God has specifically loved us: God lost His Son in an unjust attack. Only Christianity tells us that God has suffered.

When somebody says to me, “I don’t know that God cares about our suffering,” I say, “Yes, he does.” They say, “How do you know?” If I were in any other religion, I wouldn’t know what to say. But the proof is that He Himself was willing to suffer.

I don’t know why He hasn’t ended suffering and evil by now, but the fact that He was willing to be involved and that He Himself got involved is proof that He must have some good reason.

He cares. He is not remote. He is not away from us.

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus was so different with Martha and Mary? Martha and Mary, two sisters with the same situation, same circumstances, same brother. They even had the same question. Martha and Mary asked Jesus the same question word for word. But in Martha’s case, Jesus’ words were almost a rebuke as He laid truth on her. In Mary’s case, Jesus just wept with her. Why? Because He is the perfect counselor. Not like me. I try, but I tend to be a “truther.” I tend to say, “I have all this information. I don’t want to waste your time, so let me try to fix things.” I want to say, “You need to know this and this and this.” Sometimes you just need somebody to weep with you, and I am not the guy. Then sometimes you go to a counselor, and all the counselor wants to do is weep, when you really need somebody to tell you the truth and bring you up short.

But Jesus is the perfect counselor. He will always give you what you need.

If you need truth — or if you need tears — He will give it to you the day you need it. He will give it to you in the dosage in which you need it. He will give it to you in the order in which you need it. He is the only perfect counselor there is. You need to go to Him. You need to get His tears; you need to get His truth; you need to get His anger. You need all these things, but most of all you need to get His grace. That is what you need most, and that is what He came to give. That is what we are going to keep giving here.

Let’s pray. Now, Father, we ask that You give us the possibility of growth and healing as a congregation, as a people, and as a city because we have seen that Your Son is the resurrection, and He died to prove it. With that hope we can face the future. Now we ask simply that You apply this teaching to our hearts in the various ways we need it applied so that we are able to be the neighbors and friends the city needs us to be. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Excerpted with permission from The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach by Bryan Chapell, copyright Zondervan.

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Tim Keller

Timothy Keller is the founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. He has also mentored young urban church planters and pastors in New York and other cities through Redeemer City to City, which has helped launch over 200 churches in 35 global cities to date.

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