4/98 15/3/98 Scripture: Acts 27:1-44
THE marvellous natural feature that makes Sydney the most beautiful city in the world is our harbour. The harbour has given us maritime history since the first day of European settlement. Because our nation is surrounded by water, our forefathers grew up knowing that going anywhere meant sea travel. Today thousands of yachts dot every bay and show that the sea around us is a natural playground for little boys and their toys, of whatever age.
We think of the sea in terms of sport, of wind, of surf, of sailing for fun. We are the first generation not to live in fear of the sea. We are the first generation not to think of the sea as a means of transportation, of passengers or cargo. The sea is now a place of recreation. Earlier generations saw the sea as a place of danger. Storms at sea brought loss of life. They knew of ships floundering, of loss of life and courageous rescues as life boats put out in response to distress calls. We all heard of the brave life boat captain who was urged not to take out his rescue boat in the wild storm because there was no certainty he would get back. He said, "We don't have to get back, but we do have to go out!"
It used to take ships months to travel from Britain to Australia and then many of them were wrecked on the West Australian coast or in Bass Strait. Our school readers told of a farm girl who rode her horse into the sea and rescued dozens of people, bringing them to safety at Port Campbell. Most great losses of life during earth's history, apart from war casualties, have been when ships were lost at sea or in rivers. Many of the worst ship disasters happen in rivers. Last year hundreds drowned when a boat sank on the Nile River.
People feared storms at sea. This fear was seen in our hymns. Many hymns dealt with sea-storms and many likened salvation to rescue from sea, such as: "Master, the tempest is raging"
"The winds and the waves shall obey My will,
Peace, be still! Peace be still!
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons or men, or whatever it be,
No waters shall swallow the ship where lies
The Master of ocean, and earth, and skies:
They all shall sweetly obey My will,
Peace, be still!" (Mary A. Baker).
"Jesus, Lover of my soul
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide,
Oh, receive my soul at last." (C.Wesley).
Hardly any hymn about storms at sea are in modern hymn books. The earlier books had a section "For Travelling by Sea". That was the only way of travel. When folk returned to the "Old Country" a social after church farewelled them. They would often sing, "Eternal Father! strong to save." "Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea!" (W. Whiting).
For our generation, the sea is a place for surfing or swimming, for yachting or a romantic cruise around the islands. But for every other generation the sea stood for danger, for storms and loss.
Paul was shipwrecked three times. Others died in them so he knew the danger of storms of the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Scholars tell us that nowhere in ancient literature is there such a factual picture of a storm at sea as the 27th chapter of Acts. The man who wrote it was there. Dr. Luke! Paul had been in prison under Roman guard. The Jews wanted his death if they could get him back to Jerusalem. In order to seek a fair trial, Paul appealed to the Emperor. The Governor, Festus, handed Paul over to "The Emperor's Guard" which was on the way to Rome with other prisoners.
The party boarded a small coastal trader that took them from Caesarea up the coast of Lebanon and around the southern shores of Turkey. "There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board." Their journey was slow because of contrary winds. It was now too late in the year to make the long voyage with safety. During the winter the Mediterranean Sea is dangerous and large ships would not sail from September 15 to March 4. Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them, "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." But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbour was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbour in Crete." They could not get out of the harbour. The ship had grain and 276 people on board. It had taken them fourteen days to travel 220 kilometres.
Twenty years later, a Jewish historian travelled the same route on a similar large grain ship with 600 passengers. It was shipwrecked in the same waters and of the 600 only forty survived. In 1798, Lord Nelson was in Safe Harbours with the British Fleet and wintered there for three months. During that time he made a close study of Acts 27.
Paul's captain and the ship's owner wanted to go on. The profit from the voyage was not in the harbour but in Rome. They didn't want the expense of feeding 276 people longer than necessary. Then the wind tricked them. "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. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the `nor-easter,' swept down from the island." That wind is a regular phenomenon. The Sahara desert heats air which rises rapidly, sucks in cold air from the north-east and blows ships violently towards Africa. "The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 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."
When Captain Cook was sailing up the coast of Australia he beached his vessel near Coff's Harbour and again near Rockhampton. The timbers spread because of pressure allowing water to enter. A sailor would dive under the vessel taking a rope.
When grain became damp it swelled exerting great pressure against the sides, forcing the ship's timbers to open. Paul's ship was three times the size of Captain Cook's "Endeavour." The violent storm continued and to lighten the ship cargo some equipment was thrown overboard. It was dark. Those on board gave up hope. Except Paul! "Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am 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.' So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island."
The sailors were afraid they were close to land as the lead showed the water was getting shallower. The seamen dropped four stern anchors and longed for daylight. Some sailors tried to escape in the ship's boat. But Paul persuaded the soldiers the sailors were needed for them to be saved. The soldiers cut the ropes holding the boat and it dropped into the sea. "Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. `For the last fourteen days,' he said, `you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food--you haven't eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.' After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat."
"They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea." They could hear waves breaking. Note the extraordinary detail that Luke gives of the whole affair. The ship was held at the back by the four anchors. These were cut away and this would lift the back of the ship. The huge steering oars were the next to go. Then a small sail was raised at the front of the ship so that the wind would blow them towards the shore.
But "the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf. The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul's life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety." They didn't know it then, but they had reached the Island of Malta. They had been blown half the length of the Mediterranean, a journey equivalent to Brisbane to Hobart!
Most of us are not going to experience a storm like that, or be involved in a nautical wreck. But many will face storms in life that are just as real. Some who never go to sea will face shipwreck that will be just as ruinous as the storm that wrecked Paul's ship. Some face storms of passion, of emotion, of storms within.
If we are caught up in violent storms driving us to some reef of ruin, there are four things that can be done. They are brief and simple.
1. TRUST GOD IN YOUR STORMS
In the storm Paul said, "Take courage! For I trust in God." Whatever kind of storm you face, learn to trust God.
2. START PRAYING
Paul was in the same danger that the others were in, but he believed and trusted. It didn't worry Paul so long as he could pray to God. Prayer is an anchor to the soul.
3. LIVE COURAGEOUSLY
Three times Paul said to those with him on the ship, "Do not be afraid. Have courage." Courage answers fear. Courage and faith together enable you to meet any storm and survive. Fear immobilises, but faith creates courage to give strength for the way ahead. Whatever the storm, trust God, be in prayer, and take courage.
4. ACT SENSIBLY
Paul, a prisoner, took charge. The captain, the owner, the sailors, the soldiers, and the passengers were giving way to panic when Paul said: Steady on. Stay on board until the last moment! Have something to eat! Keep up your strength! They did what he suggested. Then they lightened the ship and made a run for the shore.
Whatever storms there are that threaten you, whatever shipwreck you are facing - in your marriage, your business, your study, your health, or your problems, there is a recipe to help you survive. Trust God, pray, live courageously, act sensibly. And God will always be with you in your storm. Here is one way you grow in faith: trust God in storms!
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