At 8:46am on Tuesday 11th September 2001, the world was changed forever when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York. 17 minutes later American Airlines flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. 35 minutes later American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. 26 minutes later, after a vigorous struggle between some passengers and the hijackers, United Airlines flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville in Pennsylvania. So began a day which would result in the loss of thousands of innocent lives as a deep-seated fear gripped the hearts of billions of people around the world – a fear which remains in many people, to some extent at least, over twenty years later.
The prominence of Islamic extremists had been comparatively low on the world stage until that fateful day. But since then, hardly a month has passed without news of some attack on freedom by a small, but lethal number of extremists who have been ‘radicalized’ and who breathe hatred for everything our western culture stands for. Following those attacks in 2001 the name Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda dominated every news cycle for a very long time. There were also constant reports about the brutality of the Taliban and their plans to spread their ideology and hatred across the globe. Following the death of Bin Laden and some success in holding back the Taliban and Al Qaeda, our headlines became dominated with the rise of yet another group in Northern Iraq and Syria who became known as “Islamic State” or ISIS. The ruthless barbarism of this extremist group was so severe that even the Taliban had to officially distance themselves from this new threat to the Middle East and ultimately to the whole world.
The sad truth is humanity has been embroiled in war of some kind for almost our entire existence, but with the rise of terrorism and suicide bombers who delight in becoming martyrs for Islam, all the normal rules of engagement in war disappeared. How do you fight people who are no longer concerned for their own lives? How you prevent a lone ranger suicide bomber from walking into a crowded shopping mall or busy office building anywhere in the world and blowing themselves up, taking hundreds of innocent people with them? How can we be confident there will not be another hijacking of an airline at some stage with an equally devastating result?
We certainly live in difficult times and it is especially challenging for those who are committed to the mission of Christ and have a desire to spread a gospel of love and forgiveness in the face of the most extreme anti-Christian ideology we have seen in our lifetime. We are not just ‘outsiders’ to the Islamic extremists, we are the ‘infidels’ who are worthy only of death. There are entire nations of people who have now grown up believing that everything and everyone in ‘the west’ are evil and need to be conquered, destroyed and purged from Allah’s world. So like we did in last week’s sermon, once again we might find ourselves asking what is God doing in the midst of this rather frightening new world we wake up to each and every day?
Some of us last week were really surprised to see the unprecedented movement of God’s spirit through China in recent times. It is nothing short of amazing to see how the good news of Jesus Christ has been spreading in spite of the hard line anti-Christian communist leaders in the largest nation in the world. Tens of thousands of people a week are coming into God’s kingdom as lives and whole communities are transformed in ways we never dreamed possible. Well today we may be even more shocked as I take you to a different part of the world and into what is arguably the most dangerous environment we could imagine for Christians post 9/11. I am speaking of the Muslim world – those nations which comprise over 90% Muslims, some of them 99.9%. Ironically, the terrorist attacks in 2001 actually shook many sincere Muslims to the core. Their eyes were opened to the reality which lies at the core of their religion and culture. Many of them read the whole Koran for the first time and understood the depth of hatred for those outside the Islamic faith. Thousands of Muslims a week began turning away from Islam and embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and that wave of revival has not stopped in 20 years.
Now if the prominent news headlines are our only source of information, then we would be forced to concede that radical Islamists are taking over the whole Muslim world and their intent in doing so is to take over the world and destroy all the ‘infidels’, and in case you missed the memo, that includes you and your children and your grandchildren and all who follow after you. So where is God in all this? Where is the Church which Jesus promised to build, against which the gates of hell itself could not prevail? Well let me take you behind the fear-mongering and negative headlines as we see what God has been doing in recent years in just one of many locations. Let’s go to North Africa. Click the link below (or copy and paste it into your web browser) to view the video clip and then return to this sermon.
Brothers and sisters we are at war. We have been at war since Jesus Christ launched His campaign against the god of this world, Satan, over 2,000 years ago. Now Jesus was a fascinating leader in military terms, when compared to all other human counterparts. This leader of an army brought victory once and for all time by getting Himself killed – at the very start of His global campaign! Stranger still was His attack plan. He trained His army to go and do likewise: to give their lives, if needed, in order to bring life to those who were dead in their ignorance and alienation from God.
So the battle strategy we just saw in that video clip was the exact opposite of what we are seeing play out in the kingdom of this world this very week as world leaders discuss their military strategies in the face of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. In man’s kingdom, we go to the top – we go after the leaders, the head influencers, the ones driving this campaign of death and destruction. However when it comes to Islamic extremism and terrorism, it is very difficult to identify those who are driving this evil. The latest leader of ISIS was taken out only a couple of weeks ago, just like the one before him. A new leader will already be in place and his replacement is already being trained. It never ends.
So what is God’s operational strategy? Well, He starts at the bottom with the rank and file. The millions of ordinary Muslims who are not personally involved in any campaign of evil, not yet anyway. God is touching and changing hundreds and thousands of Muslims and bringing them to faith through the Lord Jesus Christ. As this groundswell of transformation gains momentum and sweeps the world, those radicalized Islamic extremists will find there are less and less Muslims to call on for their Jihad, their holy way against our nation and others.
Jesus said,“… I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). ‘The gates of hell’ is a euphemism for Satan, the Devil, the enemy of God and Jesus has promised that the enemy of God will not prevail against the Church that He builds. But friends, please note it only says the enemy will not ‘prevail’ against the Church that Jesus is building. What does ‘prevail’ mean? It means ‘reign over’ or ‘conquer’ or ‘defeat’ or ‘abound against.’ In other words, to prevail is to win! Our victory over sin, death and Satan is secured already in Christ, but at no point were we assured there will not be a long and costly battle before the finality of that victory is fully experienced. Welcome to our reality today. Switch on the news and learn just how dirty the enemy of God fights. Atrocities are occurring daily, if not hourly, in many parts of the world and have been for years.
You may recall a few years ago how America and its allies were absolutely outraged, and rightly so, at the public decapitation of two American journalists by ISIS. However, our outrage appears to be selective. One of America’s allies in the middle east, Saudi Arabia, has been systematically beheading people for many years. As punishment for confessions of crimes obtained under severe torture, beheadings are common. It’s part of their justice system! In fact, in just the two weeks following the beheading of those American journalists – there were 22 people beheaded in Saudi Arabia! Where were these reported? Certainly not on page one of any newspaper or website and those public beheadings never made it onto our evening news. Where was America’s outrage then? Where was Australia’s outrage?
The fact is, the enemy of God is ramping up his campaign and we will see evil abounding more and more in the days ahead and it will emerge in places we don’t expect. Now if we want to allow the reports of this evil to be our only source of information, then we will be left in despair. So I would encourage you to look behind the many reports of evil and hardship and allow God to show you a much bigger picture and you will discover that when God promises to build His Church, that is exactly what He will do, in His time and in His way.
Of course, exactly what that Church looks like; how it operates; how fast it spreads; if and how we become part of that move of the Holy Spirit across the world … are all matters for serious discussion and much prayer. We also need to brace ourselves and be open to new things, because when revival breaks out, as it has done many times over the centuries, as it has in China and Nth Africa in recent years – things can get messy; predictability can disappear; our plans are often thwarted as God takes over; worship services get longer; the number of services grow; the music and worship style often changes as the next generation capture the vision and take the Church where God needs it to go and that can leave the former generations facing a dilemma as our desire to advance the Kingdom of God comes into conflict with our desire to hold on to an experience of Church we are used to. As those two realities face off against each other, much wisdom, tolerance, patience, courage and prayer is needed. But above all, trust in God is what is needed most.
When Jesus promised to build a Church that will prevail over all evil, He never promised we would like the way He did that and nor did He say that Church would look and act the same way in every generation or every nation or even every neighbourhood. I believe there are thousands of Christians in our nation today who are happy to give their commitment to advancing the Kingdom of God by joining Jesus as He builds His Church but only if their Church and their experience of Church doesn’t change too much.
There are often conditions attached to our commitment to mission and sometimes we don’t know that of ourselves until things start to change and the familiar is replaced with something we have not encountered before and we push back and we might even suggest this is not from God, when in actual fact it is just not our personal experience of God. When the Holy Spirit moves, there is always change and the status quo is always challenged – not because it’s wrong necessarily, but just because when the Holy Spirit moves in every time and cultural context, change is the result and often the fuel for the revival which is coming.
The Holy Spirit has never stopped moving since the Church was born on the Day of Pentecost. The river of life He brings continues to carve its way through the nations of the world. Our problem is we set up camp beside that river of life at some point in history but we never moved. When the Holy Spirit moved on from that place and carved a new path through the barrenness of our world, many of us remained in the place of His last move … remembering with fondness the good old days without realizing that the good new days are ahead of us and that when the Holy Spirit moves so should we!
Whether we see it or not, the Holy Spirit is still moving in mighty and amazing ways and He wants us to know about it, to pray for those involved and He wants us to gradually loosen our grip on the Church of yesterday, as the Holy Spirit gently prepares our hearts and enables us to embrace the Church of tomorrow – the Church which Jesus is building, everywhere – including right here.
Let me pray with you:
Lord God, we thank you for reminding us that You never sleep nor slumber and that whilst our news bulletins have been bombarding us with pictures of evil abounding in some parts of our wonderful world, Your mighty hand has been at work touching millions and millions of people’s hearts and transforming families, communities and whole nations. Holy Spirit of God fall afresh on us today and capture our hearts and renew our vision and boost our trust in our God as new life and vitality and courage and purpose is released in the Body of Christ in this nation.
Lord we long for you to move in power in our nation as you have been in China and Nth Africa and many parts of the world, but we confess that sometimes we just don’t long for it enough, or pray for it enough, or perhaps, deep down we sabotage our own prayers because we really don’t want our experience of Church to change too much. Lord God, break our hearts with the things that break Your heart and take us to that point where our personal comfort, desires and needs give way, if necessary to the mission of Christ as we join our Lord in building a Church which will once again shine as the beacon of hope it is meant to be as hundreds and thousands of people are drawn to the reality, the power, the grace and the love of their God through Jesus Christ.
Lord, we believe … now help us in our unbelief. Amen!