Situational Awareness


Situational Awareness                     Luke 21:5-19     Nov. 14, 2010
     Last spring, a sinkhole some 66 feet across and 100 feet deep opened up in downtown Guatemala City, Guatemala. In a split second, it literally swallowed an entire three-story building into the ground. It’s been nearly impossible for the neighbors to grasp that one moment something so massive is standing in front of you and the next moment it completely disappears.
In Luke 21, Jesus describes a similar astonishment that will hit the faces of all people who call this planet home when the end comes. Jesus tells his disciples and us that the things around us that seem so permanent — a temple in Jerusalem, a building in Guatemala — is all just temporary.
What does it look like to live a love-filled life in this world yet not be attached to it so our lives won’t be relinquished of hope when — not if — things fall here?
Jesus helps us keep our eyes open and our head on straight — even though the world around us is falling apart.
     The world’s best athletes to have a knack for it. Fighter pilots live and die by it. CIA agents spend years learning it. Many mothers have mastered it — they seem to have “eyes in the back of their head”.

“It,” as the sermon title suggests, is situational awareness. It’s the ability to scan one’s surroundings, comprehend their meaning and make quick judgments about what will likely happen next (and what decisions you’ll need to make as a result.)  Many experts in military and combat theory believe this skill of split-second assessment is the fundamental ingredient for human success in sticky situations.

Take, for example, the heroics of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who was able to quickly assess his surroundings and beautifully land a commercial airplane in the Hudson River last year. On the other hand, you have the case of Loren Rosenberg. She was struck by a car while attempting to cross a busy Utah street as her eyes were glued to her BlackBerry.

You have to know what’s going on around you so you can figure out what to do in any given moment. This is essential to surviving and thriving in life. No matter if you’re looking to master in a certain sport, fly a jet, parent some extra-creative kids or just walk across the street, situational awareness is critical to your success.

     Jesus would probably agree. In fact, that’s exactly what he’s saying to his disciples in Luke 21, our text. At this point in the narrative, Jesus is just days away from dying on the cross and, as a result, his focus has shifted to preparing the disciples for the world they would be living in after he’d risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Nothing gives you clarity like staring into the barrel of a loaded gun. But Jesus, staring at a gruesome cross, thought not of himself but of those who’d be taking up their cross after him.

The disciples had taken a moment to marvel at the temple, which Herod was rebuilding. Historians such as Tacitus and Josephus tell us it was indeed impressive, made of massive stones and decorated with gifts from foreign countries, with doors and gates of the finest craftsmanship.
But Jesus interrupts the disciples’ observance of the temple’s beauty by boldly stating that a time was coming when the temple towering over them would come crashing to the ground. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6, ESV).

It sounded absurd at the time. Imagine standing in St. Peter’s Square in Rome and waving in the direction of the basilica, saying, “The day is coming when not one stone, statue, candle, fresco or altar will remain standing.”

Undaunted, Jesus continues. “A time of judgment is just around the corner,” he says. “It will be a time when the earth itself starts groaning with earthquakes and famines. There will be struggles between nations, the fall of great powers and even persecution for those following me.
Life, as you know it, will not remain—your pedestrian view of reality will be shattered one day. It’s coming and you have to be ready. If you’re my disciple, you need to survey the situation. You need to assess what’s happening and stay aware.”

     History and Scripture tell us that Jesus was pointing to and predicting more than one event. In A.D. 70, that very temple to which he referred was, in fact, destroyed. Along with Jerusalem’s fall came intense persecution of Christians, exactly as Jesus said.
But his words stretched beyond A.D. 70 into a future that lies ahead of us today. Jesus’ words of warning pointed also to a time of struggle and judgment to come upon all the earth. It’s a time of intense struggle that will serve as the warning sound for the world’s waning days and for Jesus’ triumphant return.
Then he will erase, once and for all, every effect of sin and set up a new, eternal reality for us, his forgiven family (Revelation 21). And until it all comes to pass, Jesus’ call to readiness, watchfulness and faith-filled situational awareness still stands.
     When situational awareness is high, we can succeed despite extremely difficult circumstances. When situational awareness is low, we can fail despite extremely simple circumstances.

Well, this begs the question: Just what does it look like to live with the spiritual, situational awareness Jesus encourages?
Specifically, knowing that we live in increasingly difficult times, how do we keep our guard up, our eyes open and do things “right,” such as, say, Captain Sully?
Likewise, what’s at stake if we insist on keeping our eyes glued to other things while the road around us becomes more dangerous?

Situational apathy
First, we need to confess that many followers of Jesus live as though they have the option of opting out of his call to readiness in Luke 21. Rather than having any situational awareness, many people have situational apathy. They’ve become completely uncaring about the world around them, which Jesus says demands our attention.
Perhaps some of us have been lulled into a sense of security by a quiet suburban existence? We enjoy a world where, at the moment, our greatest inconvenience is when the DVR forgets to capture the latest episode, or our paper isn’t delivered.
We can become as impressed with the substance of our everyday lives as the ancient world was with the Herodian Temple, which gave the sense that it was unshakable and would last forever. Humanity, after all, tends to suffer from delusions of immortality.

Still, others of us have simply been inoculated against such awareness by the gospel itself. Growing up in Sunday school or having done enough Bible study, we know the good news of how this whole story turns out in the end. We’ve studied Revelation and read that “we win.” It’s given us a free pass to write off what’s happening in the world as “unimportant” for those of us who already have a ticket to the “after-party.”

The end result of such situational apathy is missed opportunity. Jesus tells his disciples — and us — that being engaged in the raging world around us will result in an “opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13). He tells us that as this broken world increasingly shows itself for what it is, in the form of all kinds of strife, struggle and persecution, those disciples standing in the midst of it will be afforded the chance to share with their friends, their families and even their enemies just why this world is so broken (sin) and just who (Jesus) has made and will make it all better.

Situational obsession.  
On the other end of the spectrum are a few of us who’ve sold out not to situational apathy but to situational obsession. Understanding that this world will, at some point, crumble, we stare at the news, take note of all the troubles in our relationships and look for the straw that will break the eschatological camel’s back.
The thinking is that if we do so, we can help avoid some of the pain and struggle that Jesus says come with the territory of living in a world that’s quickly deteriorating. So we do things such as read books about people being “left behind,” watch TV preachers who draw straight lines from current events to Old Testament prophecies and place labels on whatever “evil” politician or slimy celebrity we think is hastening this world’s demise.
But today’s text says the heart of such obsession is not obedience to Jesus’ directives. No, instead it’s all about fear. And although Jesus paints a stark picture of what the road to “the end” looks like, he did so not to stir up worry and angst in his people but to do the exact opposite (Luke 21:9).
He told us the truth of what was coming so we could have peace. It’s the kind of peace a child has when his father warns him ahead of time that thunder is coming or that the road is getting bumpy. It’s the kind of peace that says to your soul, “Even though you have to endure, you’re going to get through it.” It’s the kind of peace produced by the fact that when trouble does arrive, it proves only that Jesus is surprised by nothing and therefore capable of everything.

Jesus’ goal in getting his disciples, in getting us, ready for the end is to produce a peace in us that understands that despite chaos, God’s plan is moving on. Worldwide struggle doesn’t mean the world is outside of his divine control. In fact, Jesus wants us to see such “fearful” events as signs of God’s activity in bringing things to a joyful conclusion.
Situational obsession is driven by fear to store up canned goods and invest in gold. Situational awareness, however, is looking around — seeing all that our Savior said was coming to pass — and being motivated by our peace to share the good news that God’s plan is taking place.
Such awareness will keep us from being distracted out of apathy or building a fort out of obsession. Instead, we will hug people we love, pray for those who persecute us and perhaps do something hopeful, such as plant a tree. Why? Because our good God is bringing about his promised good end.

Actually, situational awareness comes down to three actions.
First, let’s expand our world by opening up our eyes a little wider. Many of us have a very small, myopic understanding of our world. Maybe it’s time to learn what’s happening in the major metropolitan area from which your suburbs sprouted.
What if you began watching the BBC World News rather than simply the local news? What if you signed on to receive updates from Voice of the Martyrs ( to stay updated on the persecution and struggles of your Christian brothers and sisters around the world?

Second, when struggles do arise in this life, let’s pray not just for them to end but pray for the grace and strength to endure them well. Let’s have the maturity and awareness to know that many times, (but especially in these closing, end times,)  God will bring himself glory and give others opportunity to draw close to the truth of Christ not in our avoidance of struggles but through the witness provided by our endurance of them (1 Peter 3:15).

Last, while we keep our eyes on what’s happening in the world, let our hearts be focused on what God’s Word promises. Specifically, we remember that “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:18-19). Amen.

Rev. Rosemary Stelz 
  June 2021  
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