August 23rd, 2009
12th Sunday After Pentecost
Pastor Tim Smith
13 When 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. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17 When 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 sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
21 After the men 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 whose I am 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.” (NIV)
Is there a spiritual lesson to be got from a narrative like this one? Is there some deeper meaning to “getting in the lifeboat” or to “lowering a sea anchor” or “passing ropes under the ship”? Those details, historical details about what actually took place—those things mean just what they say, and not anything more. Not in the sense of a parable, where we can and should take a detail in a parable and by analogy apply it into our own lives.
There are religions and denominations of Christianity and even a branch of Lutheranism that’s been in the headlines a lot lately that will do that with every part of the Bible because they don’t believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, not in the sense you and I understand it, and they will attempt to get a “deeper meaning” even out of Luke lending a hand with the ship’s lifeboat in our text. But these aren’t allegories. This isn’t a poem to analyzed or a prophecy to be interpreted. This is an historical account of a storm in the Mediterranean Sea in the winter of 60 AD.
Let’s look at a few of these actions and see first of all (1) what they are really telling us about this storm, and (2) how they apply to our lives. And let’s keep in mind Paul’s statement at the end of our text which I’m going to get to later, which he applies to himself but which I am going to urge all of us to do: HAVE FAITH IN GOD THAT IT WILL HAPPEN.
I. The ship left the east end of Crete because “they thought they had obtained what they wanted.” They didn’t have a decent place to spend the winter on that side of the island and they knew about a better harbor called Phoenix, about a hundred miles away. Using their own wisdom and their own knowledge, they decided to set sail.
But sometimes all our wisdom and all our combined knowledge is not enough. The ship’s owner, pilot and the Roman Centurion all believed that the risks were worth taking to try to find a better harbor, on the southwestern coast of Crete.
II. But as they made their way along the southern coast of this island—which is about the same length as Maryland—their “gentle south winds” turn completely around and they got hit with the storm Luke called the euroquilo, or the ‘Northeaster.’ This is a winter storm so bad it’s got its own name. A northeaster, blowing straight down out of the Black Sea, through the waters of the Aegean, picks up speed and slams into the desert cliffs of North Africa.
III. About a day or so into the storm, the ship had been driven more than twenty miles southwest—keep in mind, this is with no sails or propulsion other than being driven by the storm—and they found themselves briefly in the lee of an island called Cauda, modern Gozzo. The “lee” of something is the side that’s sheltered from the wind and rain. Think of it as the side of an umbrella you want to be on. At this moment, they couldn’t drop anchor or slow down, but for a little while they had a chance to at least bring in the lifeboat. Normally this skiff (the word in the same in Greek and English) would be allowed to drift along behind the ship, but in a storm it needed to be secured or else it could be torn away, it could smash into the ship, or it could produce too much drag. Luke tells us that he himself helped or was forced to help by hauling on the ropes.
IV. Sometime on the second day, Luke describes the sailors passing ropes under the hull of the ship. This was very dangerous—it was also known as “frapping the ship.” It helped prevent the ship from breaking apart in a storm by giving the hull some extra strength – and also a mechanism to help the crew – of the hull started to split, the crew might be able to tighten the ropes and close up the gaps.
V. Luke also tells us that they were concerned about the “sandbars of Syrtis.” These sandbars were actually stretches of quicksand, an infamous “graveyard” of ships and of shipwrecked sailors off the coast of North Africa, feared like the “Bermuda Triangle” but with a lot more real evidence. At all costs, the sailors wanted to avoid this area. They lowered a “sea anchor” to give them some drag and slow down their run to the African coastline. Translators are sometimes confused by this word, “sea anchor,” which is identical to the Greek word for “main sail.” But a masted sail is virtually what a sea anchor is – really a large wooden and canvas structure that will float attached to the ship by ropes. When the sea is too deep for a conventional anchor, a ship would let out this kind of raft, or sea anchor, to help them hold their position overnight or in a storm like this.
V. (27:18) But the storm didn’t quiet down. By the third day, they started to pitch the cargo overboard. Jettisoning the cargo (probably grain) was a way to lighten the ship, which was probably filling with water too fast for the pumps or for bailing to compensate. The captain and centurion were the ones who ordered their departure; the captain could have been compensated for the danger undertaken had he successfully made the trip, but now he was just trying to save the lives of his crew and passengers.
VI. (27:19) In verse 19, we hear about the crew throwing the ship’s tackle overboard “with their own hands” This is a curious sentence, since there would have been no other way to dispose of the tackle (extra sails and spars and such) than to do it “with their own hands.” I would take this to mean Luke was surprised that a crew would actually do this, since it underscored the desperate situation they were in. They tossed out all the spare parts.
VII (27:20) By verse 20, the captain and pilot are getting desperate because neither the sun nor the stars have been visible for many days—probably about a week. Without compass or sight of land, the sun and stars were the only way to navigate. They had also gone a long time without food. This probably had nothing to do with fasting, but instead with the impossible cooking conditions during such a storm and the prevalence of seasickness among everyone! They were giving up any hope of being saved. They had to stay with the ship, but they didn’t know how to save the ship. They didn’t know how to save themselves.
And this was the point when Paul spoke. Paul begins with an “I told you so” statement, to underscore his earlier wisdom, but he doesn’t leave them there. Paul has good news. “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 whose I am 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.”
Well, to the owner of the ship, that was good news and bad news. By this time, he had probably given up hope of saving the ship, and now he knows that he won’t—but the people will be spared—and there were 276 people on board that ship.
They were driven along by the wind from Crete all the way along the length of the Mediterranean Sea between the treacherous rocks and islands of Greece and the quicksand beaches of North Africa around Tobruk and Tripoli, and they would finally run aground after two whole weeks—fourteen days—on the Island of Malta south of Italy. It was six hundred miles from their starting point. That’s like getting hit by a storm in Detroit, Michigan and ending up two weeks later in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Despite all their wisdom, all their ability, all their know-how, all their excellent technology—none of these things was going to help them spare their ship. They were in God’s hands, and in God’s hands alone. And that is the only reason why, in chapter 28, Luke can finally write, “And so we came to Rome” (Acts 28:14b).
When we are beaten up by life and we are ravaged by our own flaws and our own sinfulness and our own inability to cope with the waves that come crashing along and the gale that blows through our lives, we are never given a promise that we will come out of these things with no damage. What God does promise us is that our sins are forgiven in Jesus.
Paul said it, and I’m going to say it again: “HAVE FAITH IN GOD THAT IT WILL HAPPEN.” In our text, the “it” that was going to happen was the fulfillment of a dream given to Paul by God. God has given us a promise, too—but not the same promise. God’s promise to you is that he has taken the guilt of your sins and wiped away with all the power of a hurricane. It’s gone—gone for good. Gone for your good. And God invites you to trust in him. Trust in his promise that your sins are washed away, and also trust in him today with what he gives you to do.
You’re going to make mistakes today. Trust God to guide you past temptation. Trust God to pick you up when you fall down. Trust God to give you choices to make that will be choices you can handle. Trust God to give you comfort when you’re down, strength when you’re weak, an anchor when you’re being driven along by things beyond your control.
What will happen is that God will bring you through the troubles of this life and into the perfection of eternal life. HAVE FAITH IN GOD THAT IT WILL HAPPEN.
And the peace of God that transcends our understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.