Kofi Annan, the General Secretary of the United Nations,
recently received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the U.N.
In his speech at the award ceremonies Dr. Annan observed that
humankind is entering the 21st Century through "a gate of fire." He
was referring, of course, to the calamitous events of September 11,
2001. Calamitous indeed!
 The Thanksgiving edition of Time magazine painted a dark
picture of our country two months after 9/11. The magazine
described us all as pilgrims stripped down to our bare essentials.
They noted many reports of family dysfunction. Uncertainty about
the future plagues many, they wrote. Everyone is looking for
comfort. People feel vulnerable in a new and vivid way. There has
been a spike in patriotism, a "great awakening" of religious
expression and a new concern for the meaning of evil. Time quoted a
clinical psychologist as saying: "The true antidote to terror is
love. Love is all we have in the face of death."
Preaching the Law
 How does one preach in such times? From a Lutheran perspective,
we keep on preaching law and gospel. For this author, however, our
preaching of the law has taken on a new urgency. In Luther's
footsteps I have always urged pastors to faithfully preach the
second use of the law. The second use of the law, according to
Luther, accuses people of their sins and drives them to see a need
for a savior. For Lutherans this is the "proper" use of the law. In
relation to the first use of the law, however, my counsel has
normally been to deal with the realities of the political or civil
use of the law in contexts where there is dialogue rather than in
the monologue of preaching. The civil use of the law is the law
written on every heart [Romans 2.15], which enables people of
reason to think together for the better good of humanity as we
build our human societies. Preachers have no better insights into
the form our society might take than any intelligent layperson
might propose. Hence the call for dialogue.
 Something has changed within me due to the "gate of fire."
The responses of individuals and government to the "fiery gate" are
so stark at points that good biblical counsel on civil matters may
need to be heard from the pulpit. It may well be time to put on a
prophetic mantle on occasion. On the one hand, the words of the
prophets generally speak no wisdom that human minds could not
devise. On the other hand, the words of the prophets are the words
of the prophets and may speak to people today in fresh and
 The prophets can be helpful guides to preaching the civil
use of law in our time. Just one caution. I always remind students
that "prophets do not get tenure." When we step into a prophetic
role we move out of our normal priestly duties in which we
primarily exercise pastoral care. Prophetic preaching always has
the potential for creating a negative response. We ought not be
naive about this reality.
"You shall have no other gods . . ."
 Let us first consider the response of our government to the
September tragedy. Our government, of course, has declared war on
terrorism. The world, we are told, is either for us or against us
in this cause. We have seen the seemingly successful results this
has had in Afghanistan. As I write this I do not know what is to
come next in this "war." Are we so convinced as a nation of our
good in this cause and the evil of our enemy that we can strike at
evil with impunity around the globe? Is it true that all good and
right are on our side and all bad and evil reside elsewhere? Are we
on the road to becoming the moral giant in this world of ours
stamping out evil in the name of God and state wherever we find
 It is true that nations can be the instruments of God's work
in the world. One of the most stunning examples of this is found in
Isaiah 45. There we read that God has grasped the right hand of
Cyrus of Persia in order to subdue nations, including the promised
nation: Israel. This is all part of a greater plan, however.
Through the work of Cyrus, God will be shown to be God in the
world. "I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is
no God . . . I form light and create darkness, I make weal and
create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things." Isaiah 45.5,
 According to Isaiah, nations, even seemingly evil nations,
can serve God's larger purposes in the world. Such may be the case
for the United States in this time. But the cause we serve is not
our own. God has plans greater than the plans of the U. S.
Government. We dare not idolize ourselves! We dare not usurp the
place of God in the world. We dare not break the First
 I have never seen the kind of nation-idolizing realities
that I have seen and heard of in these recent months. A church
council confronted their pastor and asked that the American flag
replace the Christ candle at the center of their worship space! In
another church the American flag was used as the altar cloth
covering the altar. At still another church the Pledge of
Allegiance replaced the Apostle's Creed in a Sunday service. And
how many Christmas scenes at homes in our land wound up featuring
the American flag?! The White House Christmas tree was decked out
in red, white and blue lights.
 The examples could continue. We are in dangerous territory
here. We are on the verge of making our nation an idol. We idolize
our nation when the nation becomes our ultimate authority. We
idolize our nation when we break the first commandment: "You shall
have no other gods before me." Remember Jesus' words: "Render unto
Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are
God's." [Matthew 22.15-22] We become idolatrous, therefore,
whenever and wherever we render unto Caesar the things that are
God's! When Christian leaders see these movements toward idolatry
happening around us it is time for us to be prophetic in our
preaching. Idolatry is a particular target of the prophets. See
Isaiah 44.6-22, for example. God is first and last. There is no God
besides God! "All who make idols are nothing. . . ." Our
congregations may need to be reminded of these realities today.
"Let justice roll downlike waters . . ."
 Furthermore, our government has taken inordinate power unto
itself in seeking to stamp out terrorism at home. The Justice
Department has detained 1,200 persons in its investigations of the
September 11 attacks. In spite of increasing pressure from civil
rights groups and Congress the Attorney General's office has
refused to divulge who many of these detainees are, what charges
they face and whether or not they have been permitted legal
counsel. Furthermore, the Department of Justice has authorized the
FBI to monitor the conversations between inmates and their lawyers
if the Attorney General believes such conversations might lead to
acts of terrorism. In both of these cases the normal civil rights
of people living in this land have been violated. The President's
proposal to use military tribunals to try some of the suspects in
the war against terrorism has also raised an outcry from civil
libertarians. Arab Americans live in fear these days. We ought to
remember that we as a nation have only recently recanted our
internment of Asian Americans during World War II. We even paid a
minimal reparation for our mistake.
 It will not do for our Department of Justice to make the
same mistake again. It will not do for this Department to act
unjustly in the pursuit of its ends. Not many people have protested
the detention of people of mostly Arab backgrounds. We are all
frightened after all. But one injustice can easily lead to another.
I am reminded of the famous remark of the Lutheran clergyman Martin
Niemoller in Hitler's Germany. When he was arrested he noted that
he did not speak up when Hitler's minions came to arrest the Jews
or the homosexuals or others. So when they came to arrest him there
was no one left to speak for him. We need to speak up for Arab
Americans when they become the victims of injustice. Who is next on
the list of suspects?
 Justice, of course, is a strong theme of the prophets. Amos
calls for, "Justice to run down like waters and righteousness as an
ever flowing stream." Amos 5.24. Micah echoes the call of Amos:
"God has showed you, O human ones, what is good; and what does the
Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to
walk humbly with your God?" Justice is a biblical mandate. It is an
American value as well. The time may be at hand to remind our
congregations of the demands of justice in our time. We may need to
call our people and our nation to walk justly even in this time of
The Golden Calf
 The events of September 11 decimated parts of our American
economy. We were already in recession. Recession has gotten worse
in the last days of 2001. Our president has played a leading role
in reminding us that terrorism must not slow down our consumer
reality. We need to spend. We need to fly in airplanes. We need to
go to Disneyland. We need to keep our economy strong.
 We need to be careful here as well. Consumerism in the best
of times comes close to being an American idol. As we encourage
people to go forward with their lives in these very troubled times
our first word of advice to them dare not be: "Spend money." The
substance of our encouraging words to our people today would be
best anchored in Luther's doctrine of vocation. Ministry in daily
life is always the highest calling of any Christian. Our hopeful
word to our people, therefore, is not, "Spend money." It is,
rather, "spend your lives for your families. Spend your lives in
meaningful work. Spend your lives for your communities. Spend your
lives for our nation and our world." Such is the life of the
baptized in treacherous times.
"I will not forsake you"
 Our preaching in these days must also, as always, be steeped
in gospel reality. I will never forget the morning of September 11.
I was teaching in a Doctor of Ministry program and the teachers and
twenty program participants sat together in utter silence as we
watched the events unfold on television. By the time we started
watching both trade centers had been hit, as had the Pentagon.
World Trade Center, Building 1 had crumbled to the ground. And
then, before our eyes, live, Building 2 came tumbling down as well.
I've never seen anything so horrifying in my whole life. No one in
the room moved. We were transfixed. I thought it was like looking
directly into the face of the abyss. "God, have you forsaken us?"
These words forced their way to my consciousness. And then my mind
raced through the Bible searching for a picture big enough to stand
alongside the evil I was observing. I desperately needed
perspective. I needed a picture of God that was larger than the
evil abyss. I could only think of one such picture. It was the
cross of Jesus Christ.
 The question of evil has numbed people with its power
today. September 11, however, was not evil's biggest day. Evil had
its biggest day on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you
forsaken me?" Jesus cried out in the evil of that hour. In the
cross and in Jesus' cry of forsakenness we see the very heart of
our crucified God. The crucified God speaks: "When you suffer, I
suffer with you. In the death of my son I have entered the abyss.
In the death of my son I have entered hell. I met evil face to face
that day. The abyss, hell, evil does not have the last word. Easter
is the last word. In Jesus' resurrection I triumphed over hell. I
triumphed over the abyss. I triumphed over evil. I did not forsake
my son that day. I will not forsake you this day!"
 The image of Jesus' death on the cross has the power to
stand beside the image of Ground Zero. God has a good word for us
in this time of crisis. "I did not forsake my son. I will not
forsake you." This is the gospel word in the face of evil. It is a
word that promises us life out of fire. It is a word that can call
us to hopeful living even now . . . especially now!
 I think the clinical psychologist quoted in Time magazine
had it right: "The true antidote to terror is love. It's all we
have in the face of death." As Christians we can be more specific.
As preachers we declare that love came down at Christmas. It was
love that stared evil in the face on the cross and won the day.
Preaching, as always, has good news. We can go on with life. Evil
did not win. Hell did not win. The abyss is not the last word.
Jesus Christ, God's love in the flesh, is the last word. It is this
unfathomable love that enables us to walk through the "fiery gate"
and out into a world made and remade by the grace of God. That's
what we have, that's all we need, in the face of death.