Living by Faith in an Uncertain World
September 16, 2001
He must have been in a hurry to get home to see his family. That’s the only reason his friends could think of to explain why Thomas Burnett of San Ramon, California changed his reservations and took an earlier flight last Tuesday morning. All his friends knew how much he loved his wife and his three daughters. No doubt he was eager to get back home from his business trip. That’s why he ended up on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco.
What happened next didn’t surprise his friends at all. As a senior officer of a medical research firm, he was known as a take-charge leader. He had been the quarterback of his high school football team in Bloomington, Minnesota and the president of his fraternity at the University of Minnesota. If there was a problem or a crisis, Thomas Burnett liked to face it head-on.
And that’s what he did when the hijackers took over the flight. The passengers had already heard about the planes that struck the World Trade Center in New York. Sensing that they were destined for a similar fate, the male passengers decided to make a stand. Exactly what happened in the next few minutes is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps we will never know the full story. But we do know that Thomas Burnett called his wife with the ominous news that his flight had been hijacked. After filling her in on the details, he declared, “We’re all gonna die, but three of us are going to do something.” Then he added, “I love you, honey,” and hung up. A few minutes later Flight 93 crashed into the woods near Pittsburgh.
Thomas Burnett was 38 years old. He is survived by his wife Deena, and three children, twins Madison and Halley, both 5, and Anna-Claire, 4.
What Would We Have Done?
In the days since then many of us have wondered to ourselves what we would have done if we had been on that flight. Would we have joined the others in an attempt to overpower the hijackers? Would we have risked everything, knowing we were going to die anyway?
It is sometimes said that a crisis never made any man, it only reveals what he already is. That thought is both comforting and frightening because we all wonder how we would react if everything we held dear was really on the line.
Our family …
Our health …
Our career …
Our future …
Our life …
We wonder—would we have the faith to make it? Or would we collapse? All the things we say we believe—would they still be enough when the crunch comes?
We gather this morning at the end of the longest week any of us can remember. When the final accounting is done, the terrorist attacks on Tuesday will prove to be the single bloodiest day in American history. It now appears likely that well over 5,000 people died in the various attacks. It may interest you to know that before this week, the single bloodiest day in American history took place September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War when 4,700 soldiers on both sides died. On December 7, 1941, 2,388 American soldiers were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. And 1,465 American servicemen died on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
It is still hard to believe, isn’t it? Suppose that one week ago someone had said to you, “This week hijackers will fly planes into the World Trade Center and destroy both towers, another plane will be flown into the Pentagon, and another hijacked plane will crash near Pittsburgh. And Air Force One and the White House will come under a terrorist threat.” The very notion sounds absurd. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in the United States. Or so we thought. Tuesday morning changed everything.
As Christians we say we live by faith. But what does it mean to live by faith in a world where mighty skyscrapers crumble into dust and thousands of people suddenly die? Where is God in the midst of this unthinkable tragedy? And what does faith in God look like at the end of this terrible week?
A Place Called Ur
There are many places in the Bible where we might go to find an answer to those questions. I want to focus our thinking on a passage that I have often turned to in times of sorrow and personal crisis. How do you live by faith when the world itself seems to shake beneath your feet? In order to understand the answer to that question, I would like to focus our attention on Hebrews 11. Not the whole chapter, but on one man, Abraham. And not his whole story, but the record of his journey to the Promised Land. The long version of Abraham’s life is given in Genesis; this is the short summary.
Let’s begin with some brief facts about Abraham. When we meet him in the Bible, he is living 4,000 years ago in a far-off place called Ur of the Chaldees on the banks of the Euphrates River not far from the mouth of the Persian Gulf. No doubt he and his wife Sarah worshiped the moon-god Sin. He is a prosperous, middle-aged man, successful by any human standard. Life has been good to Abram and Sarah, certainly they had no reason to complain. It is at precisely this moment that God speaks to him—clearly, definitely, unmistakably. What God says will change his life—and ultimately alter the course of world history.
I. Living by Faith Means Accepting God’s Call Without Knowing Where it Will Lead.
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
There is only one way to describe Ur of the Chaldees. It was a world-class city. Archeologists tell us that in Abraham’s day perhaps 250,000 people lived there. It was a center of math, astronomy, commerce and philosophy. People from outlying areas moved to Ur because they wanted to be part of that great city.
No doubt many of Abraham’s friends thought he was crazy. Why would anyone want to leave Ur? Obeying God’s call meant giving up his friends, his career, his traditions, his home, his position, his influence, and his country. More than that, it meant risking his health and his future on a vague promise from an unseen God to lead him to a “land that I will show you” (see Genesis 12:1-3). When Abraham left Ur, he burned his bridges behind him. For him there could be no turning back. Once he left the walls of Ur, he was on his own, following God’s call into the unknown.
You say, “He gave all that up?” “Yes.” “That’s kind of strange, isn’t it?” “Is it?”
Please don’t miss the point. When God calls, there are no guarantees about tomorrow. Abraham truly didn’t know where he was going, didn’t know how he would get there, didn’t know how long it would take, and he didn’t even know for sure how he would know he was there when he got there. All he knew was that God had called him. Period. Everything else was up in the air.
You want a long life? So do I.
You want to rise in your profession? So do I.
You want lots of friends? So do I.
You want to live long enough to see your grandchildren playing at your feet? So do I.
There is nothing wrong with those desires. Nearly all of us feel that way. But living by faith means no guarantees and no certainty about the future. If you truly want to do God’s will, sometimes you will find yourself exactly where Abraham was—setting out on a new journey that doesn’t seem to make sense from the world’s point of view. Hebrews 11:8 says he “obeyed and went.” There is no greater miracle in his life than that. Everything else that happened flows from this basic decision. God called, he obeyed. That truth is the secret of his life. He stepped out in faith even though there were no guarantees about his own personal future.
Their Last Football Game
So let’s rewind the clock to last Monday night in New York City. Thousands of people are watching the Monday night football game between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos. On Tuesday morning many of the New York fans who rode the subway to work discussed with their friends the rather dismal performance of the Giants the night before. Many of those fans eventually made their way to the World Trade Center to begin a new day’s work. Little did they know they had watched their last football game. They had no idea what was about to happen.
At 8:45 a.m. a plane slams into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Shortly after 9:00 a.m. another plane slams into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Hundreds die immediately. Thousands will die when the towers collapse a few minutes later.
Among the passengers on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center was Jeff Mladenik, an associate pastor of Christ Church in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb not far from Oak Park. His particular calling was to find ways to encourage Christians to live out their faith boldly and creatively in the marketplace. That is a noble and much-needed ministry in our day. So we ask a few questions at this point. Was his faith weak? No. Had he sinned? No. Was he somehow out of God’s will? No. Did God make a mistake? No. Did God break his promise? No. Did he plan to die that day? Absolutely not. Pastor Mladenik was in the will of God when he boarded that plane and he was in the will of God when he died in the crash.
It is good to recall what soldiers are told before a battle begins: “You have to go. You don’t have to come back.” The same is true for the soldiers in the army of the Lord. When Christ calls, we have to go. We don’t have to come back.
Living by faith means stepping out for God and leaving the results to him. It’s no guarantee of long life and good success. You may have it. But you may not. The life of faith means, “I am going to be the man or woman God wants me to be no matter where it leads. I don’t know the future, but I’m trusting him to work out the details. In the meantime, I step out by faith and follow where he leads me.”
II. Living by Faith Means Waiting for God to Keep His Promises.
“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9).
There is within all of us a natural desire to settle down. The older I get, the less I like to move, and the more I value coming home to the same places and the same faces every day. Moving has a way of making us feel unsettled, uprooted, and adrift in the world. Multiply that feeling by a factor of 100 and spread it out over 50 years and you approximate Abraham’s situation as he came to the Promised Land. Our text tells us that he “lived in tents.” I know lots of people who like to camp on vacation, but I don’t know anyone who voluntarily lives in a tent as a permanent residence. Tents speak of impermanence, of the possibility of moving on at any moment, of the fact that you live on land you do not personally own.
That’s Abraham. He didn’t own anything in the Promised Land. God had promised to give him the land, yet he lived like a “stranger in a foreign country.” If you don’t own the land, you can’t build a permanent dwelling there. In many ways this is even more remarkable than leaving Ur in the first place. As long as he was traveling across the desert, he could dream about the future. When he got to Canaan, all illusions disappeared. Think of what he didn’t find:
No “Welcome Abraham” sign.
No discount coupons from the merchants.
No housewarming party.
No visit from the Welcome Wagon.
No mayor with the key to the city.
No band playing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
No ticker-tape parade.
Nobody expected him. Nobody cared that he had come. Nobody gave him anything.
God’s Timetable … and Ours
God had promised him the land … but he had to scratch out an existence in tents. Hundreds of years would pass before the promise was completely fulfilled. Abraham never saw it happen. Neither did Isaac or Jacob. Was Abraham in the will of God? Yes. Was he right to leave Ur? Yes. Was he doing what God wanted him to do? Yes. Why, then, is he living in tents? Because God’s timetable is not the same as ours. He’s not in a big hurry like we are. God works across the generations to accomplish his purposes; we’re worried about which dress or shirt to buy for the big party this weekend. There is a big difference in those two perspectives.
In my last message I mentioned that Greg and Carolyn Kirschner, our missionaries in Jos, Nigeria, needed our prayers because of riots that threatened to lead to all-out war. Newspaper accounts say that at least 165 people were killed, hundreds were injured, and tens of thousands of people fled the city for the safety of the countryside. Last Wednesday riots broke out again when certain groups began publicly celebrating the terrorist attacks in America. I am glad to report that the situation this weekend is relatively calm. But no one knows what the future holds.
“We are at war.”
It is a false and dangerous theology that says, “If I trust God, everything will work out fine and all my dreams will come true.” Many times the very opposite seems to be true. Too many people follow Jesus for the wrong reasons. What did you sign up for? A picnic in the park? A tea party? Jesus calls you to take up your cross daily and follow him.
Yesterday President Bush said, “We are at war.” Do we understand what those words mean? Do we have any idea of the sacrifice that is ahead for all of us? I am sure the answer is no. Perhaps it is well that we don’t know what is in store. The days ahead will not be easy. I wish I could promise that there will be no more terrorist attacks but I can’t do that. I don’t doubt that there are some people who, if they had the chance, would blow up the Sears Tower tomorrow morning. That isn’t a prediction; it’s simply a statement of the situation.
As we move forward it is vitally important that we let go of anger and bitterness. This is no time to point a finger or to falsely accuse those who happen to be from a different region of the world or come from a different ethnic background. The road ahead is hard enough without descending into divisive insinuations.
We may have to live in tents for a while. Who can say what tomorrow will bring? Our challenge is to be like Abraham and cling to the promises of God no matter what happens. We may have to say at some point, “We would rather die with the Lord than live without him.” In God’s time every promise will be fulfilled. Meanwhile, we watch and wait and walk by faith.
There is a third principle at work in Abraham’s life. It is the ultimate key to the life of faith.
III. Living by Faith Means Never Taking Your Eyes Off Heaven.
“For he was looking forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Abraham looked for a city “with foundations”—that is, for a city, not a lonely spot in the desert. He wanted to live in a place filled with other people. He also looked for a city with foundations, a place with security and permanence where the buildings wouldn’t crumble in the middle of the morning. That meant he was looking for a city designed and built by God. Why? Because all earthly cities eventually crumble to the dust. Not long ago I visited the ruins of the ancient city of Jericho. When most people think of Jericho, they think of the city whose walls came tumbling down in the days of Joshua. But that’s only one Jericho. Archeologists have discovered layers of Jericho, one after another, the city having been built, destroyed and rebuilt across the centuries. The same is true of Jerusalem. When you visit Old Jerusalem, you aren’t exactly “walking where Jesus walked.” You are actually walking 30-75 feet above where Jesus walked. According to one source, Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt at least 47 times in the last 3,500 years. That’s the way it is with all earthly cities. Nothing built by man lasts forever. We saw that firsthand this week when the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the very symbol of American economic power, crumbled to the ground.
No wonder Abraham was looking for a city built and designed by God. Revelation 21 describes that city as “the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:2). In his vision John saw a city of breathtaking beauty, shining with the glory of God, “and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (21:11). Christians have always looked to the New Jerusalem as the final abode for the people of God, the place where we will spend eternity together in the presence of the Lord. But note this: Heaven is a city. It’s a real place filled with real people. That’s the city Abraham was looking for when he left Ur of the Chaldees.
Abraham was going to heaven and he knew it. That one fact—and that alone—explains his life. He had his heart set on heaven and that explains why he could …
Leave the beautiful city of Ur,
Walk away from his career,
Leave his friends far behind,
Live in tents till the end of his life,
Start all over again in a new land,
Die without seeing all that God had promised.
Abraham knew he was going to heaven and that changed his whole perspective on life. He knew that after death he was going to enter a city God had designed and made.
A City Built By God
What would such a city look like? It would be a city with …
No pollution for the skies would always be crystal clear.
No crime or violence for no criminals would ever enter.
No greedy politicians, no drug pushers, no child molesters.
No hijackers, no terrorists hiding in distant mountains.
No planes turned into flying torpedoes.
No weeping children.
No Disaster Relief Funds.
No candlelight vigils for the dead and dying.
It would be filled with abundant parks, sparkling rivers, rolling meadows, and flowing streams. Lining the streets would be flowers in constant bloom, fruit trees of every kind, every species of plant life growing free from pestilence and disease. The gates would be made of pearl, the walls of jasper, the streets of gold. Precious stones would lie on the ground like playthings—emeralds, rubies, diamonds galore. On every hand there would be children laughing, bright conversation, music floating from every direction.
In the city that God builds, there are no tears, there is no sorrow … no regret … no remorse. Bitterness gone forever, failure left far behind, suffering redeemed and rewarded. There are no eyeglasses, no braces, no wheelchairs, no false teeth, and no hearing aids. There are no hospitals, no nursing homes, no paramedics, no CPR. Doctors have to find new jobs, they aren’t needed anymore. Aspirin gone, accidents over, cancer disappeared, heart attacks banished, AIDS a distant memory. In heaven no one grows old and feeble.
There is one other thing you won’t find in heaven. There are no cemeteries in the city God builds. Why? There are no funerals … for in that glad city no one ever dies. If you make it to that city, you live forever, never to die again. Either you believe in heaven or you don’t. It’s either a real place or it isn’t.
Five Lessons to Ponder
So let me ask a personal question: How long do you expect to live? To put it more pointedly, how many more years do you think you have left before someone holds your funeral service? Ten years? Twenty years? Thirty years? Forty years? Fifty years? Sixty years? How much of that time are you sure of? The last question is easy. You’re not sure about any of it. The truth is, you could die tomorrow from any of a thousand causes. No one knows how long he or she will live or precisely when they will die. There are no guarantees for any of us. After last Tuesday, no one can deny that fact.
Let’s wrap up this message with some lessons we all should have learned from this long and difficult week.
A. Nothing in this world is secure, certain or safe.
This ought to be fully obvious to all of us. If the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are not safe, where can we hide from trouble? Many of us have lived in a self-created bubble of false security where we could watch the troubles of the world while thinking, “That could never happen to me.” No one can say that anymore.
B. There will be no end of evil this side of heaven.
I am not a pessimist by any means, but I am a biblical realist. And although I am not a prophet, I think there may be some difficult days ahead for all of us. My advice is simple: Buckle up. The road ahead is bound to be bumpy. We will not be delivered from evil until Jesus comes again.
C. God can bring beauty out of the ashes of tragedy.
This is the positive side of all that has happened this week. Our God is so great that even a tragedy like this cannot foil his plan. We have seen angels of mercy working round the clock, digging through the rubble, searching for survivors, treating the wounded, caring for the hurting, comforting the brokenhearted, donating blood, giving money, and sending trucks filled with supplies to the disaster sites. In the last several days there has been a vast national turning to the Lord, the likes of which we have not seen in many years. The terrorists struck a blow for evil but that is not the end of the story. “When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down” (Eugene Peterson, The Message).
D. There are open hearts everywhere—Be bold!
This is a word of encouragement for Christians. Many of us have prayed for years for God to open the heart of our nation to the gospel. This tragedy has changed everything. Now you can pray in the public schools and you won’t get in trouble. People who a week ago were closed now want to talk about spiritual things. You can walk down the street, stop some strangers and say, “Let’s pray,” and they won’t laugh at you. Every head will be bowed in prayer.
We had two evening prayer meetings after the terrorist attacks—Tuesday and Wednesday nights. On Friday morning we got so many calls about the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance that we decided to open the sanctuary for quiet meditation at noon. Then so many more calls came in that we decided to put together a brief prayer service. At 11:00 a.m. we got a call from the Old Navy store located about four blocks from us in Oak Park. We don’t know anyone there. “Are you having a service at noon?” “Yes,” we said. “We’ll be there.” They closed the store, locked the doors, and the whole staff walked to Calvary, came in and sat in the front of the sanctuary. I’ve read stories about days of long ago when stores closed for prayer meetings but never saw it happening with my own eyes until this week.
These are amazing days. As God gives you opportunity and open doors, be bold. Speak the truth in love. Millions of Americans are turning to God.
E. If you decide to follow Christ, you may not be safe but your life will never be dull.
That sentence sums up everything I’ve been trying to say in this message. If it’s safety you want and a guarantee of earthly success, then you’ll have to look somewhere else. But if you are willing to follow Jesus, I can promise you that you’ll never be disappointed in him and your life will not be boring.
On Friday morning Dr. Billy Graham took part in the prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. He spoke powerfully and clearly, and with great compassion he pointed people to Jesus Christ as the only answer. Here is part of what he said: “There is hope for the present because I believe the stage has already been set for a new spirit in our nation. One of the things we desperately need is a spiritual renewal in this country. We need a spiritual revival in America. And God has told us in his Word, time after time, that we are to repent of our sins and we’re to turn to him and he will bless us in a new way.”
Are You Ready?
The challenge is always personal. The renewal we need must begin in each of us personally. There is no reason to worry about anyone else until we ourselves are right with God. After one of the services on Sunday, a man showed me his lapel pin. It read, “Are you ready?” Good question. How many of the people who died on Tuesday were ready to meet God? How many of us are ready right now? We are here for such a short time. Your life is like a vapor that appears for a moment and then vanishes away (James 4:14).
No one knows the future. Are you ready to meet the Lord? It is precisely at this point that the cross of Christ becomes so relevant. When Jesus died, he made the full payment for your sins so that you could have a personal relationship with God. He paid the price so your sins could be forgiven and you could go to heaven. He made a way for you to have full assurance of your eternal destiny. Those who trust in him have nothing to fear at the moment of death. They are truly ready to die.
As he finished his remarks, Dr. Graham mentioned the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” and he noted that all of us have a choice to make about the foundation we build our lives upon. If we build on the things of this world, we are bound to be disappointed in the end. But if we build our lives on Jesus Christ, when death comes we will discover that the foundation is firm indeed.
This has been a terrible week but in many ways it is also an awesome week as millions of people are looking to God in a new way. As earthly foundations are destroyed, many people are discovering that Jesus is the firm foundation for life and for death.
One of the verses of that familiar hymn seems especially appropriate for these days:
“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
There may be more shaking of the foundations in the days to come. We would all be wise to build our lives on Jesus Christ. He is the one true firm foundation that can stand the test of time. Build your life on Jesus and when the ground shakes beneath your feet and the things of the earth crumble to the ground, your life will be secure because you have built on the foundation that can never be moved. Amen.