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Situational Awareness

A sermon delivered David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on November 14, 2010.
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

What would you say the following crime stories have in common?

While investigating a purse-snatching, Brunswick, Georgia, detectives picked up a man who fit the thief’s description and drove him back to the scene of the crime.  He was told to exit the car and face the victim for an I.D.  The suspect dutifully eyed the victim and blurted, “Yeah, that’s the woman I robbed.”

Rhode Island cops were sure they had the right guy when the suspect in a string of coin-machine thefts paid his $400 bail entirely in quarters. 

Texas authorities, responding to a store robbery, arrested a man who was fleeing the store naked.  He said he’d stripped after the job because he figured his clothes would make him identifiable. 

In Virginia, a janitor went to great lengths to avoid being identified in a 7-Eleven robbery, using a ski mask and a rental car for the occasion.  But he also wore his work uniform, which said, “Cedar Woods Apartments” and had his name, Dwayne, stitched across the front.

What do these stories have in common?  We could say none of these criminals is the sharpest knife in the drawer!  We could also say each of these criminals lacked a critical ingredient for a successful crime—situational awareness, or the ability to grasp their immediate situation and make wise decisions in light of their situation. 

Want an example of superior situational awareness?  Check out Chesley “Sully” Sullenburger, that alert US Airlines pilot whose plane early last year ran into a flock of birds during take-off and lost both engines.  Refusing to panic and quickly analyzing his situation, Sullenberger calmly and deftly ditched his plane in the nearby Hudson River, preserving the lives of all 155 passengers.

As good as Sully Sullenberger is, nobody is better at situational awareness than our Savior.  Jesus and his disciples have been experiencing the downdraft of down and dirty verbal battles with Jewish religious leaders.  But the real turbulence, located on a cross at Calvary in just a few days, is still ahead.  Jesus knows far better than his disciples that life as they know it is about to end.  And before all is said and done, the whole world will be melting down in ways no one could predict…no one, that is, except Jesus.

In Luke 21, we see Jesus’ situational awareness on full display.  He’s sitting with his disciples in the temple of Jerusalem, the so-called “Temple of Herod.”  For the record, Herod’s Temple was the third temple of Jerusalem.  The first temple was built by Solomon almost 1000 years before the birth of Christ.  But that famous temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC when they sacked Jerusalem.            Construction of the Second Temple, or the Temple of Zerubabbel, was completed almost 70 years later in 515 BC.  But roughly 350 years later in 167 BC the Second Temple was desecrated.  Over a century later, Herod the Great began renovating the temple in 20 BC.  As Jesus sits in the temple talking with his disciples the temple renovation has been going on for several decades.  And it wouldn’t be complete until 63 A.D. (talk about a long renovation!).  Herod the Great spared no expense restoring the temple because he considered it a memorial to his greatness. 

For the Jews Herod’s Temple was a source of immense pride.  The temple was four football fields wide and five football fields long, constructed with hundred-ton slabs of stone and marble so pure that the temple looked like a great mountain of snow from a distance.  One wall was solid gold, a blinding sight in the sunshine.  There were single columns of marble forty feet high and gifts of furniture from rulers of nations all over the world. 

The temple was so massive, so stunning, so sacred that even though previous temples had been destroyed no one could imagine Herod’s Temple ever coming to an end.  It would be both ludicrous and blasphemous to suggest such a thing.  You might as well tell a New Yorker on September 10, 2001 that the Twin Towers would be collapsing the next day. 

But that’s precisely what Jesus does.   Some of Jesus disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.  But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; everyone of them will be thrown down.”  Even though Luke doesn’t say so much, Jesus’ disciples and others in the audience had to be thunderstruck by such a prediction. 

Who could believe it?  Who wanted to believe it?

This weekend, our deacons gathered for their annual dreams’ retreat.  On Friday night, we heard Eddie Hammett, a church consultant, make predictions that were almost as unsettling.  In so many words Eddie told us that the church as we have known it for generations seems to be disappearing.  Many if not most churches of all denominations are declining in membership and participation.  And most denominations are declining right along with them.  Budgets are tightening, pastoral staffs are shrinking, and congregations are scratching and clawing just to stay alive.  Meanwhile, 70 percent of the American population, although spiritually very hungry, is steering clear of the institutional church.    

Who can believe it?  Who wants to believe it?  It’s enough to make a disciple or a deacon go into denial, to be anything but situationally aware.

Back to the disciples of Jesus.  Please notice two things.  They don’t question Jesus, despite the fact that he’s just blown their minds.  Nor do they bury their heads in the sand.  “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen?  And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

Give the disciples credit for their situational awareness.  They understand they are in the presence of the Son of God.  And they implicitly believe what he has just said, even though his words threaten the very foundations of their reality.  Later, in verse 31 of this passage, Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”  That’s a reminder, friends, that when the whole world is shaking beneath our feet, we can always implicitly trust the word of Jesus. 

Now, notice that Jesus does not answer their first question about the timing of the destruction of the temple.  Two thousand years later we know the temple would be destroyed in 70 AD, when the Roman General Titus brought his army into Jerusalem and burned the temple to the ground, killing 6000 Jews who remained inside the temple because some so-called messiah had promised that God would deliver them. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Jesus doesn’t give a date.  What he gives is a list of signs that will take place before the temple falls.  Please notice that while Jesus will eventually offer predictions about the end of the world and his second coming, what he does in the next few verses is offer predictions about what will happen over the next forty years. 

And these predictions are amazingly accurate. 

For example, Jesus predicts that false messiahs will come to stir up emotions and muddy the water.  “Watch out that you are not deceived.  For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time is near.’  Do not follow them.”

History proves Jesus correct.  In Acts 5 we read about a wannabe messiah named Theudas.  Fifteen years after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, Theudas revolted against Rome by attempting to lead hundreds of followers over the Jordan River like Joshua had done centuries before.  Theudas and his followers were killed.  Twenty-five years after that debacle thousands more met their death in Herod’s Temple as it burned to the ground because of the promises of another false messiah. 

Today, as the secular world and the church seem to be coming unglued, we must follow Jesus’ counsel and be very discerning when it comes to the voices we listen to.  Not every politician or preacher who claims to know the answer does.  Our challenge now is the same as it was then—to listen with discerning ears for the true voice of the Lord. As we listen to different people of influence, we should always ask, “Is this person whipping up my emotions to get me to follow his or her agenda, or is this person inviting me to listen to the voice of the Spirit so I will follow the Lord?”

Another question to ask is, “Is this person playing on my fears?”  Please notice that as Jesus makes his unnerving predictions he says, “Do not be frightened.”  Jesus does two things simultaneously—he imparts frightening information and in the very next breath says, “Do not be frightened.”  Jesus wants us to be situationally aware.  And brutally honest about our reality.  At the same time, he wants us to stay steady, unruffled, and hopeful. 

My friends, as we confront all kinds of bad news about our world, our church, our community, our family, ourselves, Jesus invites us to avoid melting down in panic and instead placing our trust in him.  Those who lead us in any other direction are not worth following. 

Jesus proceeds with his scary list of signs.  Eventually there will be political and cosmic upheavals.  Nations will engage in bloody wars, and Mother Nature will go crazy with earthquakes and famines.  “But before all this,” says Jesus, they will lay hands on you and persecute you.  They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, all on account of my name.”

Read the book of Acts and you learn that all of this comes true.  John the Baptist of course has already been imprisoned and executed.  Later, Peter, Paul, and Silas will be imprisoned.  And Paul will be persecuted repeatedly, and repeatedly brought before both governors and kings. 

Later, Jesus predicts that his followers will be betrayed by those closest to them, and in some cases put to death.  By now we are beginning to realize that Jesus is describing what will in fact happen to him.  Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, will betray Jesus.  Jesus will be tried before all manner of officials.  And then he will be crucified. 

Before the book of Acts is done, Stephen, and James the Son of Zebedee, and presumably the Apostle Paul will have been put to death in Jesus’ name.  Before all is said and done, Christian tradition says that every disciple loses his life for the cause of Christ. 

Even so, says Jesus, we should “make up our mind beforehand not to worry.”  Instead, we should rest in Jesus, confident that he will give us the words to say and the actions to take so that we will make maximum impact for him.  In all honesty, I am humbled by this word from Jesus.  To my knowledge I’m not facing death because of my ministry for him, yet I find it hard not to worry about my well-being.  This passage reminds me that what Jesus is looking for is not worriers but warriors, people willing to put it on the line for him come hell or high water. 

And along the way, we are called to endure.  “Stand firm,” Jesus says, “and you will win life.”  That doesn’t mean you might not get ridiculed.  Or questioned.  Or fired.  Or even killed.  But little matter, because if you stand firm you will have the kind of life that counts far more than what flesh and blood can deliver. 

Eventually, Jesus will go on to predict that he will one day return.  But there is no speculation about when that will be.  Which is why those who spin out elaborate scenarios about how and when and where Jesus will return are wasting their time, and ours. 

What Jesus is after is not future speculation but firm standing.  Do you ever have moments when you’re tempted to throw up your hands and say, “I give up?”  “The Christian life is too hard.  The challenges of Christian ministry are too great. The world is too dark and difficult.  Let me out of here!” 

The truth is we all have those “I quit” moments.  But remember, the word of Jesus is the only sure thing we’ve got in this world.  And Jesus is saying, “Don’t quit.  Stand firm.  Together we’ll accomplish more than you think.  And even if you die trying, you will win life.”