A fortnight ago, I went to National Maritime Museum in Greenwich with my family. It was a fun day out, with plenty there to keep both adults and children entertained. (It was free entry too, so very good value for a summer holiday excursion!)
One of the exhibits we saw was an old black and white film taken on board a large sailing ship 100 years ago. The ship was in the middle of a storm, and you could see waves crashing across the deck, the ship pitching from side to side, and I felt slightly seasick just watching it! You could also see dozens of wet and windswept sailors doggedly trying to tie ropes, climb rigging and unfurl sails – plus a helmsman valiantly trying to keep the ship on course. You had to admire their courage, strength and determination.
In our Bible reading today, Luke (the author of Acts) provides us with a vivid, eyewitness description of another sea voyage in a storm. Another voyage that took great courage and strength to survive. The year was 59AD, and after two years languishing in prison, the apostle Paul was being taken to Rome to stand trial before Caesar. He would get the chance to explain and defend his faith before the highest court in the Empire. But to get there he would have to cross the eastern Mediterranean from Israel to Italy, a thousand-mile journey by sea.
After all he’d been through in Jerusalem. Paul must have hoped for an easy ride to Rome, a smooth journey to see Caesar. But it was not to be, because he sailed straight into a storm. Before he could reach Rome, Paul had one more crisis to overcome.
As we look at the crisis Paul faced this morning, and see how he survived it, I hope we can learn lessons for coping with the crises we can face in our lives today. Personal crises like ill-health, financial hardship or redundancy. Plus more profound ‘existential’ crises, like guilt, sin and death.
Before we go further, let me pray: Father God, your Word guided and strengthened Paul on his journey. May it guide and strengthen us as we read from it today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
1. A crisis to face (27:1-20)
Are you someone who is calm in a crisis, or do you lose your head? Do you face crises with courage and composure, or blind panic? Like many of us, I expect, my natural tendency is to the latter. When storms break in life, my natural instinct is anxiety, worry and a loss of appetite.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With God’s help we can train ourselves to cope. With God’s help we can have courage and confidence in the midst of a crisis – the qualities that Paul had when he was caught in a terrible storm in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Like many crises, Paul’s crisis on the Med was one that should never have arisen. It was Autumn, probably October AD59, and the safe sailing season was at its end. As we read in verse 10 of Acts 27, Paul warned the ship’s crew in Crete that it wasn’t safe to sail to on towards Rome this late in the year: “men” he said, “I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo.” But Paul was a prisoner, and his wise advice was ignored. Neither the Roman centurion who was guarding him, nor the ship’s pilot and owner, recognised Paul’s authority as Christ’s apostle. They preferred to follow their own judgement than listen to Paul’s God-given wisdom.
I have to say we see exactly the same mistake being made in the Church of England today. As our denomination wrestles with ethical issues – especially those relating to sexuality and gender – sadly too many of our leaders prefer to be led by the wisdom of the world than by Paul’s inspired words in his New Testament letters. As an apostle, Paul spoke and wrote with the full authority of Jesus, and so should be listened to – both then and now.
But Paul’s words were ignored, and the ship ploughed on, straight into a violent storm. Verse 20 tells us that “neither the sun nor stars appeared for many days, and the storm continued raging”. So much so, that all those on board “gave up all hope of being saved.”
2. A promise to trust (27:21-32)
All except Paul, that is. Because Paul stood up and told the ship’s company to “keep courage” because “not one of you will be lost, only the ship will be destroyed”. This wasn’t simply wishful thinking by Paul, he wasn’t in a state of denial about the perilous situation they were in. Nor did Paul’s confidence and composure come from within himself – he wasn’t drawing on some special reserves of courage within himself. He hadn’t mastered some self-help technique or yoga exercise. No, Paul’s courage came from above – it came from the Lord. His confidence rested on God’s word, on a divine promise he had received.
Paul explains all in verses 23 and 24. Listen again to what he said: “Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and 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’.
What a remarkable promise for God to make! In fact, it’s the type of promise only God could make. Only a sovereign God who is stronger than nature can promise to save people from a storm. Only a God who created the wind and the waves can guarantee that they will not take the life of a specific ship’s company.
As Psalm 89 says, Lord “you rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.” I don’t know about you, but I’m reminded of the Exodus, when God parted the Red Sea to save his people from Egypt. It also makes me think of Jesus, when with a single word he calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee. You see, when God makes promises he has the power to keep them – so we can trust him completely.
So what promises of God can Christians trust in the midst of a crisis? Here are a few to hold on to today:
- Firstly, God promises us his presence. In Matthew 28 Jesus promises his disciples that he is with us always. A promise he keeps by sending his Spirit into our hearts.
- God also promises us his peace – peace with God, and peace within. There is “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” says Romans chapter 8. If we have faith in Jesus, our guilt has gone, our sins are forgiven, and we have peace with God. What’s more, his Spirit produces peace in our hearts and minds as well. Peace that “passes all understanding”, as it says Philippians chapter 4.
- And thirdly, God’s word promises us paradise. Whatever trials and tribulations we may face in this world, Revelation 21 tells us they are temporary. In the world to come there will be no more sin or sadness, no more suffering or death. Every Christian will be with Christ forever.
Presence, peace and paradise. Those are just three of the powerful promises that God’s word makes to Christian believers. Get to know your Bible better, and you will be armed with a whole pile of promises to trust when crisis breaks. Why not memorise some promises in Scripture, so you can call them to mind in the midst of a crisis? And learn them so you can also encourage other Christians when they face tough times too. Paul didn’t keep God’s promise to himself on-board ship, and neither should we!
3. A rescue to enjoy (27:33-28:10)
Eleven years ago, Helen and I spent our honeymoon on Malta. It’s obviously a place of fond memories for us, a place with positive associations. I expect Paul had similar feelings for the island too, as it was the place where he and his companions found safety and a warm welcome. There is actually a statue of the apostle Paul on the north coast of the island – a physical memorial to the fact that God kept his promise to save him from the storm.
Verses 27 to 44 tell us that after a fortnight at sea, Paul’s ship ran aground of the coast of Malta. By hook or by crook, all the ship’s company (all 276 of them!) safely reached the shore, where they were shown an “unusual kindness” by the islanders. (What a wonderful description that is! As Christians wouldn’t it be great to be known for our ‘unusual kindness’ in a harsh world. wouldn’t it be wonderful to be known for our faith, hope and love in the midst of our increasingly selfish, secular society?).
Returning to Paul’s ‘bonfire on the beach’, it seems that even a snake bite could not spoil the occasion! Paul was miraculously spared from the effects of a viper’s venom, and he was greatly honoured by the islanders – some even thought he was a god! Its ironic that, having been ignored at the start of our passage this morning, by the end Paul is receiving huge respect and recognition.
Our final verse today tells us that the kindness of the Maltese even extended to giving Paul and his travelling companions the supplies they needed to get to Rome. A new ship was found, and they were ready to set sail. Paul was once again on track to get to Rome. A crisis had been overcome, and Paul’s confidence in the Lord had been vindicated. God’s Word was true – his promise to protect Paul had been kept.
4. A lesson to learn
John Newton was an eighteenth century seafarer and slave trader who famously came to Christian faith and became a clergyman and hymn-writer. One of the lines in Newton’s famous hymn “Amazing Grace” is as follows: “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. Grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
The apostle Paul would certainly echo that sentiment. It was something born out by his experience onboard ship in a storm. God’s gracious promises and power had carried him through the storm to a place of safety.
Please notice that God graciously carried Paul through the storm, not straight out of it. God gave Paul the courage and confidence to keep calm in the crisis, he did not teleport him out of it.
The same is true today. Christians are not promised an easy life in this world. There will be times of hardship, times of testing, times of crisis. But in his Word and by his Spirit, God has given us the resources we need to survive them. God’s promises in the Bible are enough to keep us afloat in the storms of life, if only we will trust them. And God’s Spirit wants to give us the courage and composure needed to persevere in this world, so do pray for them.
You see, Christians have been blessed with God-given resources to get through life’s crises. We’ve been given the grace to carry on. Grace to carry on until that wonderful day when we safely land on another shore – a shore where sin and suffering will be no more.
Let’s pray: Father, thank you that your gracious promises are powerful and true. Help us to trust them through every crisis, until your kingdom comes. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.