The Storm

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I wonder if you've ever taken something on but then come to regret it.  You've made a commitment but come to see that there's a lot more hard work or difficulty ahead than you anticipated.  Maybe you signed up to run the Great North Run.  You excitedly made all your charity plans and bought some fancy running shoes and a fluorescent top for your training but when you went out for a jog around the block for the first time you realised just what you'd let yourself in for.  Your lungs were on fire, your heart felt like it would burst and you realised that climbing the stairs in your house a few times each day never did count as exercise.

Well, to give you an insight to the working lives of church staff, that's pretty much how Rob and I have been feeling about chapters 27 and 28 of Acts over the last few weeks.  We made a commitment, namely to preach these chapters over three sermons, and came to see that that is more difficult than we anticipated.  These three sermons concern Paul's journey from Caesarea to Rome.  Tonight I've got a storm, next week Rob's got a shipwreck and the week after I'll be back with a strange little episode on the island where the ship's passengers and crew were washed up.  And I think at times we've both felt more equipped by these chapters to deliver lectures on ancient maritime technologies and techniques than to preach sermons with real spiritual benefit for people on the dry land of Gateshead in 2013.

But I think we've come to see some great lessons and encouragements here, mostly because these events in Paul's life give us the chance to watch the sovereign power of almighty God in action, and to see how Paul reacts to all that the Mediterranean can throw at him and how he points to the risen Lord Jesus by his words and actions, even in the toughest tests.  And those are the sort of lessons we need as Christians to help us to keep going day by day and the sort of observations that testify to all of us, Christian or not, about the power and character of God.

Now unless you're new you probably know that we've been following Paul as he has been imprisoned on the false accusations of Jews whose real problem with him was that they refused to acknowledge Jesus as the risen Lord, the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of all of the Old Testament scriptures.  Paul has been found innocent every time and could have been released, except that he appealed to be tried in front of Caesar in Rome, as was his right as a Roman citizen.  So tonight he sets off from Israel for Italy.

Please do have a bible open at p790, Acts 27.  In just a moment we're going to read through the bulk of the passage with me dropping comments in as we go along by way of explanation, so it will help you to have that at hand.  The big idea or theme for tonight is this:

We can rely on our sovereign God, even in the toughest times

I've got three headings:

1) Remember that it's hard to see God's sovereignty in the tough times

2) Rely on God by taking courage in his promises

3) Rely on God by taking action under his sovereignty

1) Remember that it's hard to see God's sovereignty in the tough times

Murphy's Law states that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong".  Some of you will want to argue with me that that's Sod's Law, which, if you think about it, is pretty ironic.  Murphy's Law has been around for a long time in one form or other but one that caught my eye is in the minutes of the proceedings of a meeting of the Institution of Civil Engineers from 1877, where a man called Alfred Holt, presumably a naval architect or engineer was having a bit of a moan, saying, "It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later."  And that's the feeling we get in these early verses ofActs 27.  Anything and everything that can go wrong here does go wrong.  Let's read from v1 and get a feel for this.

1When it was decided that we would sail forItaly, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment.

Notice we're in the first person plural now; Doctor Luke, the author of Acts, is writing as a passenger on this voyage.  As an aside, this chapter is thought in academic circles to be the most detailed source of information on ancient shipping in all of classical literature.  Score one for Luke.  Also, there was a yachtsman in the 19th Century, also a Fellow of the Royal Society, who spent a long time in theMediterranean and concluded that this chapter was the work of an eyewitness who was a landlubber, and not a professional sailor.  He said, 'no sailor would have written in a style so little like that of a sailor, and no man not a sailor could have written a narrative of a sea voyage so consistent in all its parts, unless from actual observation.'  We're not studying the historical accuracy of the New Testament tonight but it's encouraging to pick up on these things as we pass through.  V2:

 2We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province ofAsia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

This ship is not really built for the open sea; instead they're going to hug the coast all along the south of modern-dayTurkey.  Let's have a map [MAP UP] to give us an idea.  They're going from Caesarea, bottom right, to Rome, top left.

     3The next day we landed at Sidon [about 80 miles up the coast from Caesarea]; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. 4From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus [meaning the side sheltered from the winds] because the winds were against us. [That's the first thing that goes wrong.] 5When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. [Maybe the navigator has a bit of OCD and is joining the dots on the map of all the places ending in 'a'…] 6There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. [More things going wrong] When the wind did not allow us to hold our course [another difficulty], we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. [That was taking them very much the long way around Crete.] 8We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.

Surely a place called Fair Havens is bound to cheer everyone up… well, it doesn't seem that way in v9:

     9Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast [it's autumn, the weather's changing and it's getting less appropriate to be sailing around]. So [much was going wrong that] Paul warned them, 10"Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also." 11But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot [that's the captain] and of the owner of the ship. 12Since the harbour was unsuitable to winter in [so Fair Havens wasn't so great after all], the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reachPhoenix and winter there. This was a harbour [only about 30-40 miles along the coast of]Crete, facing both south-west and north-west.

13When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the "north-easter", swept down from the island.

Murphy's Law is well and truly taking over now – here's a storm wind so notorious that it's got a name, albeit not a very imaginative one…

 15The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure.

Picture a little rowing boat used for ferrying to and from shore, usually towed along, presumably now full of water and hard to drag up on deck. V17:

 17When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sand-bars of Syrtis [off the north coast of Africa], they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19On the third day, they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. [Maybe the beam that held the main sail.] 20When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days [eleven more to be precise] and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.


That doesn't mean it was dark; it means that they had no way of navigating.  These guys are lost at sea in a hurricane-strength storm expecting at any moment to smash into these sand-bars and for the ship to break apart underneath them.  And the whole ship's company, perhaps even including Luke and Aristarchus too, the whole company seems to have given up all hope.  And you know it's bad when the professional crew has given up all hope.  You know it's bad when you're having a nice day out at the zoo and two zoo-keepers, two of the professional crew of the zoo, come sprinting past you, screaming…

I think the idea that Luke has given up hope as well is interesting, although he doesn't say for sure.  He knows God is sovereign.  He knows God is in control of every circumstance of his life and the lives of every other person on the boat.  He knows the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who stilled a storm with a single word.  He knows that the God of this storm is the God of the cross, who used what looked like the most humiliating and abject failure and defeat as the precise mode and moment of greatest victory imaginable.

But it's so hard to remember and trust in all that when you're terrified, or when everything is closing in around you.  Luke's right in the thick of it, 276 men, according to v37, probably all spewing everywhere, cold, wet, sleepless, battered and bruised.  You may be aware that there are two stages of sea-sickness.  The first is that you think you're going to die.  That's how bad it is.  And to help tie these sermons together, next week Rob's going to tell you the second stage of sea-sickness. The point is that Luke and Aristarchus and Paul are not sitting quietly in a warm, dry corner conducting a bible study on the sovereignty of God.  They are in every bit as bad a way as all the others aboard. It's so hard to see God's sovereignty in the midst of the tough times.  We're about to see how Paul coped and how he set about remembering and trusting God's sovereignty but let me give you just a few thoughts first.

Firstly, expect trials.  God promises in his word that we will suffer all kinds of trials in this life.  Some of them are malicious, like when the Jews pressed and pressed for Paul to be executed.  Some of them simply seem unfortunate, like getting caught in a bad storm.  If you're not in a storm right now, you will be at some point.  So first of all, expect to see trials.

Secondly, remember that for Christians, these trials come so that our faith might be tested and refined and strengthened, because the strength of our faith is infinitely more important than our comfort and contentment.  There is the highest of all purposes in our suffering.  If you're not a Christian I think you can't cling on to that purpose in suffering, unless it shows you your need of Jesus and drives you to him.  But for Christians there is always that purpose.

Thirdly, watch out for God's care at work all the time, even in the good times.  Keep a record of his care.  That sounds vague, but why not keep a journal of what you're praying about to help you see his answers to your prayers.  It's much easier to put your coat on before you step out into the driving wind and rain.   If you're not in the thick of it right now you will be, and you'll need to cling on to him even when everything seems to be telling you to let go.

Now we're going to get some further help in this from Paul – let's see how he responds.

2) Rely on God by taking courage in his promises

     21After the men had gone a long time without food [after all, what goes down probably only comes back up], Paul stood up before them and said: "Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail fromCrete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss.

You should have taken my advice.  That sounds like 'I told you so,' from Paul, but it's not that.  He did warn them, but that was three long, sleepless, terrifying days ago.  Doubtless everyone has different thoughts on what steps they should take or to what gods they should cry out.  Everyone has an opinion – why would they listen to one of the prisoners?  What have their gods done for them lately?  When Paul speaks up he needs to establish his credentials. He needs to remind them of what he said when the weather was favourable, so that they take seriously what he's about to say next.  And he has an update to give them, v22:

22But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me 24and said,`Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.'

Three days earlier, up in v10, he predicted great loss not only of cargo but of lives.  He was probably speaking from his own experience.  Luke doesn't record it, but Paul has been shipwrecked three times before this, as his missionary journeys saw him rack up at least 3,500 miles at sea, so he's more of an expert than the centurion might have known.  But now he has received a message from God through this angel, telling him that in fact no lives will be lost.  The angel repeats the promise that Paul was first given in chapter 23 when Jesus himself had appeared to Paul after he was first arrested, saying to him, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome."

That little word 'must'… you 'must' testify in Rome… that little word must have been like a life vest around Paul's neck.  As the ship takes a pounding and Paul is tossed from side to side, that one promise from God is the only thing that brings him any confidence that at least he will survive.  I wonder why the angel started with 'Do not be afraid'… perhaps Paul was starting to struggle to trust that promise.  Almost certainly he was worried for his friends on the journey with him… would they make it to Rome?

We don't know, but now, at just the right time, came another promise from God – the God whose I am and whom I serve.  'You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you [perhaps in answer to Paul's prayers] the lives of all who sail with you.'  25So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me…"

And you might think that that's all well and good for Paul.  How nice to have a personalised promise, delivered by Jesus and then again by an angel.  I don't have promises like that.  How can I take courage in God's promises?  And I would say that we have many promises from God, promises to all of his people, found in his word, the bible.  Just because they apply to all of his people doesn't make them any less applicable, nor does it make God any less faithful.

We need to learn God's promises to us in the bible.  This has got to be part of our preparation for trials and tests that lie ahead of us.  Or it has to be our response to trials we're facing right now.  God's promises come to us like life vests to put on for the future, or as life rings to cling on to now.  So we need to learn them.  We need to meditate on them, turn them over in our minds, look for times and circumstances when God keeps them.

What sort of promises am I talking about?  Here are just eight, looking at salvation first, then persevering, then the future.

Revelation 3.20

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

1 John 1.9

If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Romans 10.9

If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.

1 Peter 1.6-7

In this [salvation] you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith – of greater worth that gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Romans 8.28

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Philippians 4.7

[Instead of being anxious, pray…] And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

John 6.39

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.

Philippians 1.6

…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Those are just eight.  You might be thinking of others.  You might even wonder how I could have missed out others.  But I think even those eight are easily enough to keep us afloat.  If you can think of more, why not mention them to each other over a tea or coffee afterwards.  We need to learn these promises and realise that they are ours in Jesus.   We need to keep them in our back pockets, maybe even literally, always at hand when we need them.

Remember that it's hard to see God's sovereignty in the tough times,

Rely on God by taking courage in his promises,

And finally,

3) Rely on God by taking action under his sovereignty

This is just a small post-script, and we're going to see a lot more of this going on next week.  But look at v25-26:

25So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island."

Glancing into next week's passage we see that we go from Day 3 to Day 14 of this storm.  So in v26 we have Paul's final words in his little speech, and no more are recorded for eleven days.  And the last thing he says is, "I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island."

Paul's faith in the promises of God, or rather his faith in the promise-keeping God, doesn't lead him to inaction.  We don't see an attitude of 'let go and let God' here from Paul.  What does he know?  He knows, v22, that not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.  Everyone will live and the ship will be destroyed.  How is everyone going to live if the ship is destroyed?  Well in this weather it means hitting land, literally hitting land.  The fulfilment of this promise from God is that they will run aground.

Luke doesn't record the sailors' response to Paul's speech here, but it's clear that he wants them to keep watch for land, and if they see some, to try to reach it.  And that's not taking matters into their own hands, that's a sensible, faith-based response to God's promise.  We'll see more of this next week.  Paul will end up in the sea, and when he does he'll swim for shore just like everyone else. He doesn't 'let go and let God', nor does he take matters into his own hands.  Instead he takes sensible actions that reveal his faith in the promises of a sovereign God.

And the same should be true of us.  In response to God's promises we will take simple, faithful steps, like confessing our sin, enduring trials, praying with the expectation of that peace of God, even if in the midst of our pain we find that praying is the last thing we want to do, and again there are many more.


So what about these chapters of Acts?  Is there nourishment in a block of narrative that seems to have more to do with seafaring than spiritual realities?  I think so far so good on that front.  So far…

We can rely on our sovereign God, even in the toughest times.  How do we do that?

Remember that it's hard to see God's sovereignty in the tough times,

Rely on God by taking courage in his promises, and,

Rely on God by taking action under his sovereignty.

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