Have you been travelling on a boat or a plane in the storms before? I haven’t been in a great storm in a boat, but I witnessed a tropical storm many years ago during a flight to Asia. I remember in the storm the 747 passenger plane was bouncing up and down, the main light powers were off and the seat-belt icon light was flashing, the pilot’s voice ringing from the speaker to ask the passengers to calm down, saying we have lost one of the engines on the wing, but there were still another three working engines, we will still get to the destination, but it was like a mid-air rollercoaster. I saw the lady nearby keep vomiting into her paper bag and a baby crying a few seats behind. As you can imagine, the scene was a bit in chaos in the plane, and I had a terrifying thought at that moment, “Will the plane crash today?”
Sometimes it is a moment like this, in a time of uncertainty when you know that things are going wrong, and you are so hopeless to do anything in the grave situation. That is the time when we need to turn to God for help. Remember, God is sovereign in everything around us. We are not able to determine the course of action that affects our lives. Only God knows our future, and he chooses the path of our future. Like the thunderstorm that I had experienced on the plane, Apostle Paul had also experienced storms in his life. Today, we will look at his adventurous journey to Rome by the sea. We will see God’s working hand in behind a series of events in Paul’s life. We will learn the truth from God’s Word through three main points in today’s sermon, 1) The Ship; 2) The storm; 3) The shipwreck.
1) The ship
In Acts chapter 27, we learnt that Luke, the book writer accompanied Paul across the Mediterranean Sea through a journey of many small islands. This Luke is the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke. And he gives us an eyewitness report as the first-person narrative, as in verse 1, “When it was decided that WE would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment.” This Roman Centurion Julius is the captain who usually helps Caesar to take down military conspiracy against him. But in the story, he was in charge of taking the prisoners to Rome.
Paul’s ship sailed from Adramyttium on the west coast of Asia Minor. And Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with Paul and Luke, and Paul has mentioned this fellow missionary in his letter to Colossians 4;10 and Philemon 24. And because Paul was a well-educated Roman citizen, even he was being sent to Rome as a prisoner. He was allowed to travel with his friends, a personal physician Luke. Paul was even allowed by the Centurion, out of his kindness, to visit his friends on the way so that they might provide for Paul’s needs. It is always good to have some friends around in different places. As Christians, we should give the needs of other Christians or missionaries who come to visit us. I am happy that our church had welcomed Emily and Samuel when they came and visited us last month. And we should provide for their needs in their journey ahead next year. Back to the story, the ancient ships in the Roman world relied on the wind, they were sailing boats, so the voyage largely depends on where the wind blows. The Spartan ship was sailing against the westerly winds from Cyprus to Myra of Lycia, a port used for commercial grain ships sailing from Alexandria in Egypt to Rome. In verse 6, we learnt that the northwestern wind was too dangerous for the Spartan ship, so the Centurion found a sizeable Alexandrian grain ship and transferred his party on board. Apparently, the large commercial cargo ship is more stable in the storms. But regardless of its size, the ship was no match for the Mediterranean weather, the western wind was blowing the grain ship, and it did not allow Paul’s crew to hold their course. They could only move along the coast from town to town, and because of all the extra routing for a safe passage, Luke recorded in verse 9 that, “Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement.” (Acts 27:9) The Day of Atonement is sometime toward the end of September or the beginning of October in 59 A.D. Therefore, navigating this part of the Mediterranean Sea was always dangerous after the 14th of September. It was considered to be impossible to sail after the 11th of November because of the bad weather in the region. Apostle Paul was a seasoned traveller as a missionary. He knew that disaster would come if they sailed any further. There is a great danger ahead of their journey of that threatening body of water. So Paul told them a warning, “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.” 11 But the Centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.” (Acts 27:10-11)
And what can we learn from the story up to this point? Sailing by the wind and navigating in the waters is a very dangerous and volatile business. The ancient people did not have technology like weather channel prediction and GPS systems. They put their lives at risk in journeys at sea and did not know if they would be alive tomorrow. Like cruising on ancient sailing ships in unpredictable journeys, we may have a word from God but still not be able to determine the course of action that affects our lives.
What comes ahead is unknown, and often even there is a voice of warning coming up, we might still be going toward the wrong way forward. We need to remember what Jesus said about our attitude in life in Matthew 6:34, “31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When we keep our focus on Jesus and Heavens above, seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness in Christ, then God will look after us even there are troubles ahead. Just like the pandemic in the last two years, many of us might worry a lot about what things would happen to us as the world turns upside down. Even we have God’s Word with us; we do not know the course of actions that affects our lives.
2) The storm
In the story, although this was not the best time to sail, the ship’s captain and the owner of the ship didn’t want to spend the winter in Lasea, or Fair Havens, so the officer took a chance. At first, the winds and weather were favourable, but then the deadly storm called Northeaster arose. The ship was tossed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, and they had to tire ropes under the ship to hold it together, or it would break apart. To stay alive in the next few days battling the storm, the sailors had to throw the cargo, the tackle, the food overboard to keep the ship not sinking, and in verse 20, we learnt that “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.” (Acts 27:20)
With no hope, no sign of seeing land, drifting in the middle of nowhere, while people around you are giving up to be saved, what can we do? In the face of disaster, when all hope is gone, we should put our trust in the promises of God.
No matter the situation, we know that although we are powerless as mere humans, many factors in life are out of our control, just like the sailing ship of Paul, the other prisoners with him, the sailors, the Centurion and the soldiers on board, all on the same boat in the middle of a storm. But when you feel hopeless, and everything seems to turn bad around you. It is time to pray and put our faith in God, who is sovereign over everything. We are unable, but God is able, and God answers prayers. Let’s have a look at what Paul says in this trouble: “21 After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24 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.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” (Acts 27:21-26)
Paul had a genuine connection and faith in God, and God answered Paul’s prayer. God promised him that not a single life with him on the ship would be lost. This time, the Centurion listened to Paul’s advice, and they waited for the miracle to be saved. Not all of us have a connection with God or vision of angels and messengers from God. Still, we all have received the promise from God that not a single one of us who believes in Jesus Christ will be lost to the world. Still, God alone will save us from our sins and death because Jesus has died for our sins on the cross. Paul had faith in God in his troubles. All of us should have the same faith in God through the grace of Christ, looking onto Him who can sustain us in our troubles. As the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 34:4-5, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.” God answers the prayers of his children and delivers them from their fears and danger. Trust in God, and God will sustain us all in every situation.
I remember when I felt that I was afraid of losing my job and feeling insecure about financial security, I had two children at that time. My youngest daughter hasn’t been born yet. My bank deposit account has less than 25,000 dollars. I had quit my position as I trusted the Lord would provide for my family after I had a confirmation from God that I should leave that place. However, over four months after, I still couldn’t secure a new job, or perhaps the Lord had closed some doors for me. I was in despair, thinking that I was losing hope to secure a place to serve God in the coming year, as quite a few of my colleagues graduated from the theological college at that time had been experiencing. But when I read the book of Psalm, the Lord taught me to trust him. I did not have a vision like Paul, or seeing angels talking to me on my side. Still, I trusted in the Lord’s promise, his eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, and his supplication of my family’s needs. And the Lord did not abandon me, nor did he forsake me. Two weeks later, I was contacted by this church and secured an interview with Rev Sidney and Rev Sung. They grant me an opportunity to serve you all in this church three years ago.
This year and the next few years ahead might become difficult. Some people might lose their jobs. Some people might not achieve the high score in the HSC as their parents hoped for, some people might develop long-term health issues. Still, no matter what is happening in your life, I pray that all of us here in this church will have good practices of the virtue of perseverance and faith in God’s promises to us. Trust in Jesus, seek his kingdom first, and the rest will be given to you from the heavens. Ask and knock on the door, and the door will be opened to you. Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, verses 10 to 13: “10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Pray and ask God in the name of Jesus in times of distress. May our Father in Heaven grant all of you the faith you need in his Holy Son through his Holy Spirit so that you will sustain and be comforted and rejoice in every situation that God has put you through in your life. God is able, and God is willing to give to those who ask him in faith, by his measure of your needs.
Ask the Lord and Praise Him in all situations, and God will look after you as He looks after my family. Sometimes when things are going worst, remember that God might or might not change the situation around you, but he will always help you to sustain and go through any difficulties. He will provide what you need and when you go through the dark tunnels in life, there will always be light at the end. Jesus will be there for you, so always put your trust in God and remember his promises to you every day. You are chosen to be his children, as his people, and God looks after every one of his children. Be positive and rely on God’s sovereignty when things get tough, but not rely on our strength.
3) The shipwreck
Back to the story. In verse 27, we learnt that it was two weeks after Paul had spoken to the crew and because they were afraid that the ship would be dashed against the rocks and broke, so they dropped four anchors and prayed for daylight. The function of these anchors is to slow down the ship from drifting from its position so that it would be not be pushed against the rocks in the area. The sailors wanted to escape by themselves with a lifeboat, but Paul gave a warning to the Centurion and the soldiers, so they let go of the lifeboat to make the sailors stay with the ship. Paul also urged them all to eat to regain strength, and the Centurion listened to Paul’s advice and did as he was told. And like Jesus feeding the 5000 people, in a similar manner, Paul took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them, then he broke it and began to eat. They were encouraged by Paul and ate as well. God used Paul to give them hope in their darkest hour, all 276 of them on board. As God had promised Paul, he will deliver all lives on board. And in a similar manner of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples, they had eaten as much as they wanted before throwing down the rest of the food into the sea to lighten the ship. This meal was more than needed to recover strength in the battle of the storm; it also reminds us that it is Jesus’ presence to deliver them all.
They found land and a beach in the morning, although they did know where it was. That island is called Malta today, and the soldiers were planning to kill the prisoners to stop them from escaping, but the Centurion Julius protected Paul, and they stopped the plan. The Centurion ordered all of them to swim to shore or float on pieces of wood from the ship so that in this way, everyone reached land in safety. The writer Luke wants us to understand that God’s sovereign providence governed every specific detail of this voyage. And the safe deliverance of all lives came only through obeying God and listening to the words of his servant. Like all faithful servants of the Lord to the present hour, that servant knew how to practice the presence of Christ, especially under the pressure of the crisis. When the life crisis is present, although the wave moves up and down, in stress and danger, our hearts are calm in peace because the Lord is with us. The true anchors in any storm—physical, emotional, or spiritual—can only be found in faith, hope, prayer, and the sovereignty of God.
Humanity struggles helplessly, and without God, hopelessly. Jesus had already told Paul he would witness in Rome (Acts 23:11). In today’s story, Apostle Paul received a reaffirmation of that promise in a frightening, life-threatening situation. That’s the way we live our lives, though not always in physical danger. So many struggles, so many decisions leave us both helpless and hopeless. In those lonely hours, we throw ourselves upon God’s sovereignty and trust His providence to provide whatever rescue we need.
So, in summary, we learnt that Christians know the disaster is coming in this world. Jesus is coming back. That is a fact. Your safety depends on the strength of your anchor. If you anchor in Jesus Christ, you will be safe. But don’t make rash decisions and then expect God to bail you out. Also, never give up hope in Christ. Remember, God has a personal concern for his children. You are under God’s watch. You are in God’s care. Jesus loves you.
Let us all give thanks to God and thank him for delivering us all in this pandemic. Let us give thanks and worship our awesome God.