20(00) Years Ago, Lessons From Falling Towers (Luke 13:1-9)

It’s been awhile since I’ve sent out a Gracelet.  Things have been a bit busy, so they may not come out every month as before, but I will get them out as often as I can.  I pray that these articles are a blessing to you.  I encourage you to check out the church website at www.gcmfm.com.  Amongst other things, you will find a link to our Facebook page where links to recordings can be found.  I am also going to start posting the weekly prayer requests and announcements there that are found in the church bulletin.  The website also has a link to the church YouTube channel where recordings of services, songs and sermons, can be found.

As noted above, this article is the first one in a few months, and I may have gotten a little longwinded (or long-penned I guess!).  This one may be a tough read for awhile.  But, if you hold out to the end, I believe you’ll find genuine comfort and encouragement for the believer and, even more importantly, you’ll hear biblical truth.  We’ll begin with a text from Luke 13:1-9, followed by two stories of falling towers and then some lessons we can learn.

1Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? 3“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4“Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 6And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7“And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8“And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'”…Luke 13:1-9

20 Years ago I went to work on a Tuesday morning.  A couple of months earlier I had finished my term at seminary in Oklahoma and returned home to Ft. Myers.  I was looking for a job and new owners had taken over Christ Centered Bookstore, the place where I had been employed during previous Summer and Winter breaks from my academic studies.  Thankfully, the Veras (who still own Christ Centered today) were willing to take me on in the receiving department.  There was much work to do.  Boxes and boxes (and boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes…and did I mention there were a lot of boxes!) would come in the back of the store everyday as we restocked and prepped for the upcoming season. 

It was not uncommon for me to go in at 7:00 am or so and work a 10 to 12-hour shift just trying to keep up.  As hard as I labored, no one put more hours into the store than the young husband and wife who had just purchased the legacy Christian Bookstore.  Danny usually wasn’t there when I arrived, but he would stay long after I left.  His sweet wife, Ginnette, who occupied the office on the other side of the wall from my work station, would take care of bookkeeping matters, answer the phone, and assist some customers out on the sales floor, all while simultaneously looking after two young preschool boys whose playpen resided in front of filing cabinets. 

            This particular Tuesday, the 11th of September in 2001, started out very routine.  I arrived around 7ish, turned on the store computers, began opening boxes, and started entering the first of hundreds of items that would be registered in a given day into our inventory.  Somewhere within the next hour the back door opened and Danny came in.  Ginnete would usually follow behind in a little while after tending to whatever matters at home might be pressing.  However, instead of coming in to the office, she called Danny around 9 o’clock.  He spoke to her briefly and then came from their offices over to mine and told me that Ginnette had been watching a morning news program from home and they were reporting that planes had flown into the Towers of the World Trade Center.  We didn’t have a tv at the store that we could all watch so we listened to things progress on the radio throughout the course of that fateful day.  As memory serves, I arrived at the apartment that Pastor Shon and I then shared around 10 or 11 pm.  We didn’t have cable television but we turned on the set we had and adjusted the antenna as best we could.  At that late hour, through a fuzzy picture, I saw what I had only heard of earlier in the day—the two planes striking the Towers, one Tower falling followed shortly by the other, the strike of the Pentagon, and the crashing of a fourth plane into a Pennsylvania field where heroic passengers thwarted the wicked plan of evil terrorists.  Seeing it made the events somehow both more real and more unbelievable all at the same time.  Truly, a horror far surpassing any words or pictures that could be shared in a million books or documentaries had occurred on our shores and in our lifetimes.     

            No doubt, anyone of age will remember where you were and what you were doing on that dreadful day 20 years ago when the Towers fell.  We lost nearly 3,000 Americans in that tragedy and we have lost thousands more in the Wars precipitated by that attack, including 13 brave men and women in Afghanistan in the course of recent weeks who were for the most part just babies on that Tuesday so long ago.  Whatever one’s thoughts or feelings regarding the political and military judgments of the last two months or of the last two decades, we should definitely reverently remember the tragedy of those who have died and honor those who have served…

            2,000 years ago Jesus was preaching to a multitude.  The Lord’s sermon, which gets interrupted a total of three times by those in attendance, begins in Luke 12 and goes through verse 9 of the following chapter.  The last interjection comes from a group bringing to His attention that Pilate, the wicked Roman governor of Judea, had murdered some zealous Jews from Galilee, even having the gall to mix their blood with that of the sacrifices they were offering to God.  Jesus responds by rhetorically asking the crowd if they thought other Galileans were more righteous than those who had been tragically slain.  The implied answer of course was “NO”.  Christ then admonishes them that unless they repent, they would all likewise perish.

            Next, Jesus speaks of a Tower in Siloam that fell and killed 18 people.  The congregation that day would all have heard of this event.  Similar to the Lord’s speaking on the last tragedy presented to Him, He rhetorically asks the crowd if they suppose that the 18 who perished from the Tower collapse were somehow worse sinners than others who lived in Jerusalem.  The implied answer was again of course “NO”.  And similar to before, Christ admonishes His listeners that unless they repent, they would all likewise perish.

            The Lord then concludes His message with the parable of an unfruitful fig tree.  The owner of a vineyard comes to his vineyard keeper and says the tree should be cut down and no longer take up space in the ground because for three years it has produced nothing!  The vineyard keeper responds by asking the owner to let it go for one more year.  During that time, he will fertilize it and give it special care and attention.  If it bears fruit then fine, but if not then it will be cut down…

Lesson 1—God Is Not Responsible For Sin—When America was attacked 20 years ago, many people began using a word that had fallen out of favor in common language, that word was “evil.”  I think that was a proper and right word to use in describing people who would kill pilots, hijack planes, and then fly those planes into buildings killing nearly 3,000 people.  “Evil” deeds are committed by “evil” people, evil people who sinned, and who sinned in such an extremely egregious manner.  Some would blame God for sin and attempt to hold Him to account, but biblical Christians won’t descend into this pitfall.  When the Lord confronted the first couple about eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam tried to shift responsibility for the sin by pointing the finger to “the woman YOU (GOD) gave me!.”  But this attempt to blame God did not hold up and Adam, the one responsible for the sin, was cursed by God, the One who judges sin.  Perhaps the most famous New Testament example of man trying to relieve himself of the responsibility for sin is Pontius Pilate.  Knowing that Jesus was an innocent man and even having been warned not to condemn Christ by his wife’s dream, this Roman official wickedly brought the verdict that Jesus should be crucified.  He then tried to wash that innocent blood from His hands.  However, assuming Pilate remained an unrepentant sinner, he stands responsible for his sin.  James 1:13 tells us that no one can blame God for even being tempted to sin, for God is not tempted with evil and neither does He tempt any man.  1 John 1:5 declares that God is light an in Him is no darkness at all and Hebrews 4:15 says of Jesus that He was tempted in every way such as we are but He did not sin.  So, God Who does not sin and does not tempt man to sin, is not responsible for sin in any way, shape, manner, or form!

Lesson 2—We Live In A Fallen World Where Tragedies Happen, Evil Acts Occur, and Suffering Abounds…If you want to be in a world where there is no trouble, no sorrow, no death, no injustice, no sickness, no sadness, no lack, no crime, then you must either go back in time to the beginning of Creation recounted in the first two “pre-fall” chapters of Genesis or forward in time to the formation of a New Heaven and a New Earth described in Revelation 21 where righteousness dwells and believers are forever with Christ.  Where everyone currently reading this article lives, and where every human who has ever drawn a breath since the first couple ate of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3 has resided, is in a fallen world.  As Romans 5:12 declares, “…just as sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”  Someone would need to be insane, demonically deceived, or the follower of a false religion to deny that we occupy a planet where things are not as they should be when we remember: the Twin Towers collapsed, the Pentagon burned, and scorched ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania twenty years ago; the hundreds of thousands who have died of a Pandemic in our current day; the atrocities wrought by World Wars and the millions killed by their own governments in Communist and Socialist regimes in the past century; the 60 million plus babies who were murdered in the womb since Roe V. Wade in our country; and the tragedies and sorrows that each of us has personally known in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.  When Jesus said “sufficient for the day is the trouble therein”, it is a truth that applies to every man.  The trouble that streamed from Adam’s fall affects not only the human race but indeed every corner of the universe.  As Romans 8:22 clearly teaches, “..the whole Creation groans and suffers.”      

            Lesson 3—Yes, The Righteous Suffer Too (and sometimes suffer more and most!) And Those Who Say Otherwise Ought Not To Be Believed…There are preachers today who, like Job’s “friends” (accusers!) and like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day (even some of the Lord’s own disciples) accusing the blind man in John 9, believe and pass on to their hearers the thought that only “bad” people suffer conditions like tragedy, poverty, and physical maladies.  Now, it is true that in the grand scheme of things “there is none righteous, no not one (Rom. 3:10)”, so in that sense all who suffer are unrighteousness, at least in and of themselves.  But these religious leaders of yesterday and today that I’m talking about are those who say that if you do the right things right enough, and if you have faith that is big enough, and if you declare thus and such strong enough, then you will never have any troubles or trials or lack or sickness or sorrow, etc.  In fact, according to these “experts”, these spiritual giants, if you experience any kind of tough issue in life, it must be because you have sinned in some specific way and/or you don’t have enough faith.  Not only is this kind of thinking and preaching hurtful and contrary to anyone honest about the human experience but, more importantly, it is unbiblical.  Read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, all of it!  While the great hall of faith has those “who by faith conquered kingdoms,…shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword…and put foreign armies to flight”, it also contains others who “were tortured, not accepting their release,…experienced mockings and scourgings, chains and imprisonment, were stoned, were sawn in two, were tempted, were put to death with the sword, went around in sheepskins, in goatskins, were destitute, afflicted and ill-treated, wanderings in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground (Heb. 11:33-38).”  Jesus suffered and promised that His followers would be rejected by the world and would suffer too (John 15:20).  Paul, who was ultimately beheaded for the cause of Christ, says that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12).  Stephen was stoned, Peter was crucified upside down, Epaphroditus was sick to the point of death, Isaiah was sawn in half, Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, and the biblical examples could go on and on.  Of course, experience and more recent history point this out as well.  There were believers like Todd Beamer who died on 9-11.  He was a driving force behind the takedown of the terrorists of Flight 93 that ended with it crashing in Pennsylvania instead of being flown into some building and killing more people.  Beamer is probably best known for the phrase, “Let’s Roll.”  What gets less coverage is that before uttering those words, he asked the representative on the phone with him to recite with him The Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23.  There were toddlers who died on the destroyed floors of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City when Timothy Mcveigh viciously set off the bomb blast of a fertilizer truck.  (*I was in a seminary chapel service in Tulsa when we were told to pray for Oklahoma City because a bomb had gone off*).  Cassie Bernall was one of the victims of the Columbine shootings in April of 1999.  She was reading her Bible in the library on that Tuesday morning when one of the perpetrators asked her if she believed in God.  She replied, “Yes, I believe in God”, and then was fatally shot.  So, while we as believers certainly pray for miracles and deliverances and the like and while we do many times see the Lord graciously move in various and sundry ways, those who assume that people who suffer or who are sick or who are poor are more sinful and less faithful than those who live in comfort and health and wealth are cruel deniers of reality who twist biblical truth and ultimately call God and His Word a liar.  These people ought not to be believed for they are deceiving and being deceived and are often taking financial advantage of people as well.  The Church at large should be done with letting these sorts of people be in leadership or have influence in any way, and ought to view them as those who stand desperately in need of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lesson 4—We Should Not Let “The Problem Of Evil (and suffering)” Keep Us From Witnessing The Gospel To People…There are many unbelievers who rightly recognize that things in this world are not as they should be.  They have eyes to see the tragedies in front of them, minds to study sufferings of the past, and hearts (and perhaps imaginations) to feel the hurt that comes from things not being aright in the human condition.  However, when someone tells them of the Gospel and indeed the Biblical story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Judgment, and Consummation, they show their unbelief by saying something to the effect of, “if a good and all-powerful God exists, then why does evil exist?  Is He powerless to stop it, or does He not care enough to stop it?”  They think that such a question (really assertion) will put the Christian in their place and put an end to the message of Christianity.  However, the fact that they acknowledge that something’s wrong points to the truth that there is something, better said Someone, who defines what is right and good.  If no God exists who has implanted eternity in our hearts and placed a conscience (though an imperfect one now due to results of the Fall) into our souls, then people would have no sense of right and wrong and no thought, even imaginative thought, as to what something better, much less perfect, could even look like.  The Scripture says that people know that there is a God and know at least basic right and wrong and yet deny the existence of God and the Word of God because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), not because of the problem of evil at large.  Notice that Jesus, in Luke 13, did not let His hearers “off the hook” because of perceived trouble in the world (that of the slain worshippers or the fatalities caused by the falling tower), but rather spoke to them of their personal need to repent and put trust in God.  Believers today should follow suit.  Unbelievers may ask all sorts of questions and raise all sort of issues when trying to witness the gospel to them.  There will be times when we may not have answers to all of the arguments they raise.  But we must never let them “off the hook” or deny from them the truth (and ultimate good news) that they too will likewise perish (and eternally so) if they don’t repent and put faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

Lesson 5— God Is Not Obligated To Answer To Us, Though We Must Answer To Him…Years ago I saw a well-known religious personality asked what they were going to say when they finally met God face to face.  The famed individual, who had witnessed much suffering in life, replied that their first words to the Almighty would be, “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do!”  As much fanfare as this remark received, it is not biblical.  God is not obligated to answer to us about anything.  I don’t mean for that last sentence to sound harsh or uncaring in anyway.  There are many moments in our lives, especially in tough times of tragedy, when we question why such and such happened or perhaps why thus and so did not occur.  Spirit inspired authors of Scripture often asked questions of “why?” or “how long?” or “for what purpose?”, and yet by and large they did not receive answers.  Notice in our Luke 13 passage, Jesus did not answer the question in the air of “why” the men were murdered by Pilate or the individuals were killed by a falling tower.  In the Old Testament book of Job, the title character goes through immense suffering and loss, not due to any sin in his life or lack of faith in his spirit, but because there was a discussion at the beginning of the book between God and Satan.  The Lord asked the Devil if he had considered His servant Job.  Satan says that Job only serves God because God has blessed him so.  The Lord allows Satan to take away Job’s children, finances, and ultimately even health and, through it all, Job never curses God.  Now, if you were writing this story as a movie script, Job would be let in on why all his suffering had occurred sometime before the credits roll.  However, when God does reply to Job’s understandable questions, He does not tell Job why all these sorrows had befallen him.  In fact, God basically questions Job essentially asking “where were you when I created the universe and set things in motion?!”.  Job subsequently retracts his questions and repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).  In some since, even Jesus does not get a direct and recorded answer to His cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46).  Indeed, God is not obligated to answer to us.  However, mankind will give answer to God.  Hebrews 9:27 teaches that it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment.  And in that judgment, each will give answer to the Lord, even down to having to account for every idle word that has been spoken (Matt. 12:26).

            Lesson 6—God Is More Gracious To Us Than We Realize And Offers Eternal Life, Understanding, and Comfort For All Who Will Repent and Believe…Jesus gives a parable about a fig tree after talking about the men Pilate murdered and the people killed by the falling tower.  He tells of a vineyard owner who came looking for fruit from a particular fig tree for three years and each time found nothing.  The owner directs His vineyard keeper to cut down this tree, wondering why it was even taking up space in the ground.  The vineyard keeper then makes an appeal for the tree to be given one more year.  During that time the fig tree would get extra attention and extra fertilizer.  If the tree then bore fruit, terrific, if not, then it would be cut down.  It is not by accident that Jesus ends His message with this parable.  Most people look at tragedy and trouble and wonder things like, “why do bad things happen to good people?” as they cast dispersion on the Almighty.  However, if we were honest, we would be more right to question, “why does anything good at all happen in a world full of fallen and sinful humanity?”  The fig tree in the parable had already been given three years to produce, and yet nothing!  If the vineyard owner had demanded that it be cut down immediately, no one could hold him to account.  He had been more than gracious.  However, the tree ended up being granted one more year still, along with extra special treatment!  Truly, as much as we understandably marvel at the terror of tragedy, we should marvel much more at the grandeur of grace!  And, by the way, this gracious God offers eternal life to all who will believe in Him!  As John 3:16 majestically declares, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Even if you’ve had a rough life in this fallen world (and who hasn’t!—each one has their share of tears and troubles), know that if you are in Christ there is an eternity of joy and bliss that awaits where “the things of earth that have caused your heart to tremble, remembered there will only bring a smile” (read Luke 16:19-31 and lyrics of a song entitled “Until Then”).  We may not have all the answers we like in this life, but Scripture promises that while we see through a glass darkly now, one day believers will know even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12).  As the old hymn teaches, “trials dark on every hand and we cannot understand, all the ways that God would lead us to that blessed Promised Land, but He’ll guide us with His eye and we’ll follow ‘til we die, and we’ll understand it better by and by.”  The penultimate chapter of the Book of Revelation finds John seeing the Creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth and hearing a great voice out of Heaven saying, “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, He shall dwell within them, they shall be His people, an Almighty God will be with them.  He shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, and no more pain, the former things have all passed away.”  God Himself will comfort us.  He, not Michael or Gabriel, will personally wipe away all tears from our eyes and will put us in a place where there is no sorrow, or pain, or death—where the things of this fallen world, the former things, have grown strangely dim, indeed have passed away and are described as the former things, in the light of His glory and grace!            

            A CLOSING THOUGHT—If you could somehow go back to 9-10-01 and know what you know now, what would you do?  I’m not exactly sure what your precise actions would be, but I can guarantee that nearly every one of us who saw those Towers Fall would do something to try and save lives.  Maybe we’d go to the airport and try to stop the planes from taking off, or maybe we’d stand outside the Towers and try to blockade people from being able to go in, or maybe we’d go to the Pentagon and try to stop government officials from going to work that day, or maybe we’d call every tv station and try to get on-air with warnings about what we knew was soon to take place.  People may reject our warnings and look at us as if we were crazy, but we would try to do something to save lives based on the certain truth that we knew was coming.  Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time and spare any of those lives lost on 9-11.  However, Bible believing Christians know that there is a day of judgment coming for all at some point.  We know that all are sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  We know that the wages of sin is death, but that the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:23)!  To share this warning, and this good news, we don’t need to go back in time.  We simply need to pray to God for open doors and for boldness to witness this gospel truth to those the Lord brings across our path!