“For many days neither sun nor stars appeared, and the severe storm kept raging. Finally all hope that we would be saved was disappearing. Since many were going without food, Paul stood up among them and said, “You men should have followed my advice not to sail from Crete and sustain this damage and loss. Now I urge you to take courage, because there will be no loss of any of your lives, but only of the ship. For this night an angel of the God I belong to and serve stood by me, and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul. You must stand before Caesar. And, look! God has graciously given you all those who are sailing with you.’ Therefore, take courage, men, because I believe God that it will be just the way it was told to me. However, we must run aground on a certain island.” (Acts 27:20-26 HCSB)
It seems like we always look for someone to blame when things go wrong, doesn’t it? Even when we make poor personal choices, we look for someone else to blame. A scapegoat to place all of our guilt and shame onto. When I was growing up, the phrase “not me” was always a ready excuse to try and place blame on someone else but my mother was usually very adept at seeing through my deflection. Bill Keane captured this quite well in his classic comic strip, The Family Circus, with the little ghost characters of “Not Me,” “Ida Know,” and “Nobody” who received much of the blame from the children when something happened in their household. Sound familiar? If it makes you feel any better, this still happens around our house and not just by our grandchildren.
In today’s focal passage, the Apostle Paul is finally being moved from his cell in Herod’s Palace in Caesarea to Rome so that he can stand trial before the Emperor. A centurion of the Imperial Regiment is given the assignment to transport Paul and a few other prisoners to Rome and the first half of this chapter outlines those initial steps in the journey. While I didn’t include them above, you should go and read them. Luke shows us how Paul’s demeanor begins to influence Julius, the Imperial Regiment centurion, and Julius begins to recognize that there’s something different going on with this assignment and with this prisoner. When the ship arrives at the port of Sidon on the next day, Julius treats Paul kindly and allows him to go to the home of some friends and “receive their care.”
The first thing I’d like you to notice in today’s passage is Paul’s demeanor and the impact it has on this situation and Julius, in particular. Paul could have been upset over his circumstances and let that transfer to the people involved in those circumstances, but he didn’t. His imprisonment and the threats he had received on his life were all the result of his faith and his faithful obedience to the commands of Christ. Yet, he didn’t allow this to result in bitterness or anger towards the people involved. Admittedly, he expressed frustration towards the Jewish High Priest when he was physically assaulted during his hearing in Jerusalem (see Acts 23:1-5), but even then he apologized afterward for his angry outburst directed towards the High Priest.
We are living in the midst of challenging circumstances and it is easy to become frustrated and angry. However, the people who tend receive the brunt of our anger are really not responsible for our circumstances. In fact, it is impossible to place blame (see what I mean about blaming someone?) for our circumstances on anyone, in particular. There are those who would like to blame Chinese officials for not containing and controlling the virus before it began to spread, while others try and blame our own national leaders and President. Some have even developed crazy conspiracy theories in an effort to place blame. Our national, state and local leaders are now taking heat over their decisions on how to control and manage the spread of the virus and minimize the economic impact it is having on our world. As I mentioned, we want to blame someone, anyone.
You might be saying, “Ok, if not in anger then how should I respond?” Glad you asked… “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18 HCSB) Yes, all of that coming from the Apostle as he writes to the believers in Rome. Don’t repay evil with evil. Jesus put it this way, “But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39 HCSB) Yeah, we don’t like that verse very much, do we. If someone slaps me then just let him slap me on the other cheek, too? What? That’s crazy. Surely, Jesus didn’t really mean that. Oh yes, he did! He not only said it, he lived it. So did Paul.
That’s my point. As believers, we should be impacted and changed by the teachings of Christ and the authority of scripture. Instead of Paul seeing Julius, the Centurion assigned to take him to Rome, as an enemy and worthy of scorn and ridicule simply because of his role or assignment, Paul saw him as a person worthy of personal respect and of God’s grace. Paul’s response to Julius began to have an immediate impact on the Centurion’s demeanor, his response towards Paul and, I believe, his response towards Paul’s message of Christ’s love. We see this specifically in Julius’ attitude towards Paul when the ship arrived at Sidon. You might not recognize the significance of Julius’ actions towards Paul, but the Centurion will be held personally responsible for the prisoners under his care. If Paul were to escape while under Julius’ watch then Julius could be executed. Obviously, if Julius trusted Paul with his very life then Paul was influencing Julius in a very positive way. Perhaps, even to the point of faith in Christ.
I’m not saying that Julius had already become a believer in such a short period of time since they had only been traveling together for a day or two, at the most. But it does appear that Paul’s demeanor is influencing Julius, his attitude, actions, and his choices in positive ways. That’s really my point here. We have an opportunity to let the character of Christ be on public display in our lives during these days of living under our “lockdown.” Often times, the people who see our character flaws the most are the ones that we show the least amount of grace towards, our immediate family members. Right now, we are in a “lockdown” situation and it seems to be bringing out and highlighting our personal relationship struggles. According to an article in the New York Times, domestic violence reports are up worldwide since the lockdowns in various countries have been put into place to control the spread of the virus. We might be able to control the spread of this virus through social distancing and hand washing, but we cannot control the virus that plagues every human heart using these methods.
However, there is an effective method of combatting this more lethal and worldwide threat (sin) that exhibits itself in these times and every other time – the good news of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we are perfect and will always properly display the love of Christ to those who need it, but it does mean we should be a beacon of light and hope to those who are without it. For example, was Paul’s response in the midst of crisis always displayed with grace, humility and love? Absolutely not, he had to apologize to the High Priest for his outburst of anger (see Acts 23:1-5 as noted above). But that apology is the result of Paul recognizing within himself the very same sin he had accused the High Priest of displaying. That’s what grace is all about – seeing ourselves in the failures and sin of others and offering them grace in the same manner that it has been offered to us, by Christ, in the midst of our failures and sin.
The next thing I want you to notice in this passage is Paul’s response to the storm and impending shipwreck. Despite Paul’s warning to Julius and the ship’s crew of the threat to the ship and their lives if they left port, they chose to depart and take the risk. According to Luke’s account, the ship and crew struggled for many days to make any progress as they fought the headwinds, but then things went from bad to worse when a severe storm began to batter the ship and its crew. Now, Paul speaks up to tell them that, though the situation seems hopeless and the ship will be lost, God has assured him that all of the crew members and passengers will survive. In fact, it appears that Paul has been pleading with God for the lives of all of those on board the ship as the angel tells him that “God has graciously given you all those who are sailing with you.” Paul is also reminded of the reason for God’s grace, “you must stand before Caesar.”
While God is certainly at work in Paul’s life and circumstances as He brings him to Rome for an encounter with the Emperor, Paul is not so focused on himself as to overlook those also caught up in his adventure. While Paul was able to foresee the bad outcome of the choices made by the captain and the Centurion, he seems to have been diligently praying for their safety, as well as the entire crew. For just a moment, I’d like to invite you to stop and consider those caught up in your life adventure.
Many of you are like Paul, in that you are pursuing God and His will in this grand adventure that we call life. Along the way, you find yourself in the midst of another storm and it feels as if your ship is being battered and driven by the wind and you have no control over where it is driving you. As believers, we may experience frustration at the storm and our lack of control over its effects, but we continue to trust God, rely on His love, goodness, care as we entrust ourselves to Him regardless of the outcome. However, unbelievers who are caught up alongside us in this adventure do not have the same sense of God’s love, goodness, care and protection. They are floundering in these deep waters and are fearful for their lives, and who can blame them? It must be scary and overwhelming when you don’t know God’s power, presence and peace in your life.
So, should you assure them that “God has graciously given” all of them to you and that none of them will perish in this storm (or pandemic)? Not unless you’ve had an angel visit you like Paul did with that same promise. So, probably not. But, you can and should tell them where your personal sense of hope, peace and calmness comes from in the midst of the storm. Of course, that’s assuming that you do experience a sense of hope, of God’s presence and peace in these storms. If you don’t, then maybe you should pay really close attention to this next part…
Paul’s calm assurance in the midst of storms can be yours, too. How? It is really all wrapped up in Pauls statement, “Therefore, take courage, men, because I believe God that it will be just the way it was told to me.” Paul had courage because of his belief and trust in what God told him. I know, you’re thinking that you might have that same courage if an angel would just appear in your room tonight and tell you the same thing, right? Take my word for it, you won’t really believe the angel if you don’t already have faith in God. Listen to what Paul said, again… “I believe God.” He BELIEVED God and that’s what made the angel’s words credible, worthy of Paul’s trust. Not the other way around…
So, let me ask you… do you believe God? Many of you do, and I’m very glad of that. But, some of you do not. Some of you scoff at the thought of belief in God. You’re looking for hope, you’re seeking answers but you still harbor serious doubts and questions about whether God is real and whether this stuff about Jesus is true.
How do you move from doubt to faith?
How can you be certain about things you can’t see?
In fact, why would you even believe in something that requires faith?
Isn’t faith really just an excuse for a “lack of evidence?”
To be blunt, these are all just smokescreens that mask or hide your real feelings and fears. I know that sounds like an easy way to dismiss them, but give me just a minute more. We already believe in things we can’t see and have faith in things that we can only know through someone else. Here are a few things that you know exist, but can’t really see: electricity, oxygen, UV rays, the wind, your own immune system, the bits and bytes that make up the trillions of pieces of data that flow through the Internet – like these very words. Here are a few things you believe in, even though you can only know them through someone else’s knowledge or ability: medical care and prescriptions, outer space, the surface of the moon and weightlessness, supersonic speed, the comfort of air conditioning or refrigeration. I threw that last one in just in case one of you was a doctor who had made a trip to the International Space Station. I’m fairly confident that if you’ve mastered medicine and space flight then you probably haven’t had time to also become a refrigeration technician.
But seriously, faith in God is not really all that different than faith in all of these other things that we depend on but can’t see or don’t understand. You might say, “but I can see evidence of these other things” and I would say, “then you’re just ignoring or completely blind to the incredible evidence for God’s existence.” Many skeptics love to claim that science disproves the existence of God, but if that were true then why are there so many scientists who believe in God? If life were truly the result of randomness and chance then why is life so defined by order and natural laws? Finally, some will fall back to the old argument that truth doesn’t exist or, if it does, it cannot really be known. Really? Don’t we teach that 1 + 1 = 2 to our children as evidence that truth really does exist and can be know by each of us?
So, let me conclude today by challenging you to discover God’s existence in the midst of this storm. How? By asking, looking, or seeking. Jesus put it this way, “So I say to you, keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10 HCSB) Don’t be afraid to look, ask, knock and search… in the midst of it, when you really want to know, when you’re really looking and you keep at it, you’ll find Him.