As Willow Creek Community Church Pastor Bill Hybels reflected on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he told his congregation to get rid of their naiveté about the reality of evil.
Just as the famed evangelist Billy Graham stated 10 years ago in front of then President George Bush and the rest of the country, Hybels affirmed Sunday that there is evil and Christians must learn how to respond to it.
"Some of us ... are naive to the reality of evil. We have never come to terms with what the Bible teaches about Satan and his power and how he organizes his accomplices to wreak havoc in this world and to wreak havoc in your life," Hybels said to thousands attending the Chicago-area megachurch.
Sept. 11, 2001, was a wake-up call, the pastor stressed, to the power of evil and how "it manifests its ugly head in the world."
In a special commemorative service, Hybels recalled the time he was invited to ground zero in New York City. It was just a few days after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and caused the twin towers to fall when he was called to serve as a pastor on the ground and pray with rescue workers who were still searching for survivors in the rubble.
"I've never been near a place where thousands of bodies were decomposing at the same time," he recounted. "The smell was incapacitating."
And it was almost silent in the days immediately following the attacks as rescue workers were careful to hear for any survivors.
"I was there to pastor and pray and there was no shortage of willing parties," he said.
Along with rescue workers lining up for prayer were families and close friends of those still missing at the time. These family members had pictures of their missing loved ones hanging from their necks and went around for weeks asking people if they've seen the person pictured.
"I did my best to stay professional but I lost it so many times," Hybels said of his time at ground zero.
Soon afterward, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., held a commemoration service and Graham was invited to give the message. As Hybels watched the service from Chicago, he was expecting Graham to "eulogize and empathize in a general, sort of innocuous way because you got to be careful and wise in those situations." But he was surprised to find the evangelist speaking so forthright about God and the enemy.
"First, we are reminded of the mystery and reality of evil," Graham had said at the service that was being watched by the nation.
"The Bible says God is not the author of evil. It speaks of evil as a 'mystery.' ... The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah said, 'The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?' He asked that question, 'Who can understand it?' And that is one reason we each need God in our lives."
Hybels commented on Graham's 9/11 sermon 10 years later:
"Dr. Graham obviously felt this was no time for the mere sprinkling of pastor dust. Now was the time for people to grapple with the human condition and the divine reaction to it. He (Graham) ended by calling for a spiritual renewal to occur all over the world ... and in individual lives."
Sept. 11, Hybels said, will not be the last disaster. Human suffering is inevitable, he suggested.
Already over the past 10 years, the world has seen the devastation of the bombings in Mumbai and Bali, the Indonesia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in the United States and the Haiti earthquake, he listed.
"The question most certainly is not 'will terrible stuff keep happening on planet Earth?' The defining question is 'how will serious-minded Christ followers respond to the oncoming locomotive of human tragedy and suffering that's already on the tracks heading our way?" he said.
"Will we be the church when the next train wreck happens? ... Or will we just fit in with the whole rest of the shrill voices that cry out for bloody revenge?"
He noted, "I'm a little bit embarrassed to say I don't think Christians distinguished themselves that much after 9/11 when the discussion came 'should we just seek justice or do we all want revenge?'"
The Willow Creek pastor challenged Christians to be what Jesus called them to be – the light in a dark world, peacemakers, agents of reconciliation and the hands of feet of Jesus.
Looking back at the time he stood in the middle of the rubble at ground zero, Hybels said he was particularly impacted by the persons who had pictures hanging from their necks. While it caused him to imagine what it would be like if he was in their shoes, he was also forced to imagine how God feels as He sees countless persons missing from His family.
"I would picture sort of theologically that imagery. I would think of our God who the Scripture says loves people even if they're missing from His family and I would think of God kind of wandering around again figuratively with pictures of people who are still missing and just going 'I wish this person would come home,' 'I wish this person would repent,' 'I wish this person were in the fellowship,'" Hybels stated to Willow Creekers.
"If you're missing from God's family today, today would be a great day to come home."