How do we weather the seasons in life where we are at sea, away from friends, fair havens are left in the distant past, we are on a sinking ship in the middle of a hurricane, and slowly everything we needed has been stripped away? You lose your job or you’re bombing several classes or your home feels like a battleground or you’ve just been diagnosed with a serious illness or your church is in dire straits.
What do we do when life is not friends and fair havens?
Paul knew that feeling all too well. In Acts 27, after more than two years of waiting, Paul was finally sailing for Italy. His whole life was leading up to this moment. All of his training, his experience, had prepared him to preach the Gospel in Rome before Caesar himself.
Things start off well for a day or two. At the first port, Paul was given liberty to visit friends. On top of that, they were headed for a place called Fair Haven to spend the winter. But then everything started to unravel:
“And putting out to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us…we sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind did not allow us to go farther…coasting along it with difficulty…the voyage was now dangerous…” (Acts 27:4,7,8,9)
The wind suddenly shifted. It was as if God himself was blowing against Paul. On top of that, when they finally reached Fair Haven, against Paul’s advice the crew voted to leave port and test their luck on a tempestuous sea one more time.
As that last Fair Haven faded from view, you can just imagine Paul onboard the ship:
I’ve been patient. I’ve endured persecutions, beatings, and stoning. I sat in jail for 2 years waiting. Here we are finally. Finally making some progress…and, Lord, you are making it next to impossible! God, what is wrong with you? You’ve set the winds against us. You are blowing us off course. Everything is so difficult. And we are waving our last Fair Haven goodbye. Lord, why do you have to make everything so hard?
Have you ever felt this way?
You’ve called me to this church. You’ve called me to this job. You’ve called me to this marriage, this family, this town. God, I’m just trying to do something for you—why do you make it so impossible?
When the winds are against us and no Fair Haven is in sight, we have to remember this: We are so concerned with doing something for God. He is concerned with what he is doing in you.
Paul warned a storm would come–and come it did. A Northeaster rumbled over the island of Crete, blowing Paul and his shipmates into the murky, angry depths of the Sea:
“Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. And on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (Acts 27:18-20)
Everything was stripped away. First, the cargo. Then, the ship’s own tackle. Then, the last shred of hope. Into that moment of utter hopelessness, the Lord sent an angel to Paul, saying, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you” (Acts 27:24).
God stripped everything away to show Paul and his companions what they needed wasn’t the cargo, what they needed wasn’t the tackle, what they needed wasn’t the ship even. What they needed was God’s promise. Everything else was false hope. “Paul, I said I would get you to Rome to proclaim the Gospel to Caesar, and it is that promise–and that promise alone–that guarantees your salvation and the salvation of all of those with you.”
But what happens when something more practical than “trusting his promise” comes along? That night, the sailors were tempted to take a more pragmatic approach:
“When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land…the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow” (Acts 27:27,30)
They were willing to trust the promise of Paul’s God—because they had nothing else to go on. But as soon as anything else appeared on the horizon, they were ready to jump ship.
Pragmatism says abandon ship and take your chances rowing for shore. Faith says stay aboard a sinking ship and trust God’s promises. In our churches, how quickly do we abandon the Word of God when something more practical appears on the horizon? In our daily lives, the Scriptures are great when we feel hopeless, but the moment a more practical solution appears, how quick are we to jump ship?
That morning, Paul encouraged his companions by making coffee and breakfast in the midst of a terrible storm:
“As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.’ And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves” (Acts 27:33-36)
It is a strange place to be, trusting the Lord’s promise alone in the midst of the most terrifying crisis—like eating breakfast on board a ship in the midst of a hurricane! It’s reminiscent of the line from the Psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Of all things, Paul’s hospitality imparts hope. And Paul’s hospitality springs from the hospitality of Jesus himself who came to offer his own flesh and blood for our nourishment. As God’s people, we contentedly receive our food with glad and generous hearts, calmly and faithfully waiting on the salvation of the Lord.
Because it will come.
The story comes to a crashing finish:
“But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. But the centurion…ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” (Acts 27:41,43-44)
And so it was that all were brought safely to land. We all knew this was how the story would end. We had no doubt God would keep his promise. Isn’t that a funny thing? When we read God’s Word, we never wonder how the story is going to end. It’s a foregone conclusion—God will keep his promise because he always does.
But How will God keep his promise? Ahh. That gets more to the heart of it, doesn’t it? That’s the question we find ourselves asking over and over again in the storm: How? When Paul needed reassurance that God was going to deliver him, God didn’t tell him how. In fact, God simply reminded him of the promise he had already made.
In the midst of the storm, we become convinced: I need a new promise…I need to know how. And God comes to Paul–comes to you and me–and says, “You don’t need a new promise. You need to hear the same promise again.” God has promised you will be brought safely through–you will reach your journey’s end in Jesus Christ.
But how? That’s the story, isn’t it? That’s where the adventure lies. In the crazy storms, the shipwrecks, the starless nights and sunless days, how will God save us? It is one thing to know the promises of God. It is another to experience the promises of God–to have no other hope, to hang on his Word for dear life, and to find yourself floating safely to shore.
When we get to the end of our lives, we will be able to say: “I knew God was going to save me, he promised he would—but who would have guessed he would have saved me that way.” God is writing his story—a story of how his glorious might brought you safely to shore.