“When the fourteenth night came, we were drifting in the Adriatic Sea, and in the middle of the night the sailors thought they were approaching land. They took a sounding and found it to be 120 feet deep; when they had sailed a little farther and sounded again, they found it to be 90 feet deep. Then, fearing we might run aground in some rocky place, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight to come. Some sailors tried to escape from the ship; they had let down the skiff into the sea, pretending that they were going to put out anchors from the bow. Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut the ropes holding the skiff and let it drop away. When it was about daylight, Paul urged them all to take food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been waiting and going without food, having eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For this has to do with your survival, since none of you will lose a hair from your head.” After he said these things and had taken some bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of all of them, and when he broke it, he began to eat. They all became encouraged and took food themselves. In all there were 276 of us on the ship. When they had eaten enough, they began to lighten the ship by throwing the grain overboard into the sea.” (Acts 27:27-38 HCSB)
Often when we land in the midst of a crisis, our focus and efforts turn to survival. The non-essentials quickly become unimportant and we begin to simply concentrate on those things that are essential to life and health. Right now, that’s where many of us find ourselves. We are living in the midst of a global health crisis and while we might disagree as to the level of ongoing response that is needed, I think we all recognize the importance of focusing on the essentials. Part of the problem is identifying those essentials and the risk that we sacrifice one area of need for the sake of another. For example, it is easy to become so focused on our physical health and avoiding infection that we fail to realize that our emotional and spiritual health is suffering and not just our own, but that of our family, too.
In today’s focal passage, we see this happening with Paul, the soldiers and the sailors onboard the ship. They had been so focused on their survival and the soundness of the ship that they had either failed to eat or refused to eat. I can also imagine that sea sickness might be an issue in a storm like this one but Paul realized that they needed to eat and to keep up their strength for what lay ahead. In this passage, I want to point out several issues that Paul faced and that we may also face in our COVID-19 “shipwreck” and then we will see how scripture guides us to respond in a Christian way.
As noted last week, the ship on which Paul is being taken to Rome is being driven by a severe storm and the crew has simply had to let it happen. They have taken down the sails and turned the ship so that she isn’t destroyed by the storm and they are letting her go with the wind and the waves. After fourteen days of this, the sailors have begun to sense that they are nearing land so they take a sounding to determine the depth of the water. For those unfamiliar, the nautical term “sounding” does not refer to something you hear but comes from a word that refers to water and is an ancient method of using a lead weight and a line that is marked at specific intervals to determine the depth of the water in which a ship is sailing. A sailor would lower the lead into the water and once it touched the bottom, the mark on the line would tell him how deep the water was (actually, how many fathoms, one fathom = six feet) under the ship. Another sounding would be taken a short time later and compared with the first and this would tell them if the water was getting more and more shallow and they were approaching land.
I hope you can see the importance of taking a sounding in this situation, and I hope you can see the importance of taking a “sounding” in your own life in our current situation. Just as the sounding process gives the sailors an indication that the ship might be in danger of running aground, doing the same in your own life is an important way of identifying potential issues you might be facing. What potential issues are you facing and how can you avoid running aground? First, measure your tendency towards ultra-isolation, anger and depression during this pandemic. We’ve been told to social distance and self-isolate to protect our physical health but, for some, this has led to other, non-physical or emotional health issues. Still others have not only isolated themselves physically, they are isolating themselves emotionally and socially. It is important that we keep a reasonable balance in these things. What’s the point in protecting our physical health while putting our mental health at risk? Here are a few web sites with ideas, and below are some personal suggestions I’ve compiled:
• Set and maintain a routine at home. Include some form of physical activity or exercise, like walking or gardening.
• Focus on things you can control. Limit the amount of information and exposure your children have to pandemic information to reduce their fear and stress.
• Use technology to maintain social connections with your loved ones. Consider a regular check-in using phone, video chat or text and schedule this time to give you something to look forward to.
• Focus your thoughts on the present and things to be grateful for today – make a list or keep a journal of those things as you identify them.
• Listen to inspiring music/podcasts or read engaging books instead of binge watching TV.
• Consume reliable news sources that report facts, and avoid media that sensationalizes emotions. Limit your exposure or take a break from news and social media if you find that it makes you anxious.
• Lean on your faith and faith community for support. Volunteer to help those in your faith community with their needs, while still practicing safe contact methods.
• Look for ways to help your community, such as blood donations, checking on older people in your neighborhood, or donating supplies or money to local organizations or donate your time working while still practicing safe contact methods.
• Acknowledge and appreciate what others are doing to help you and your community and find creative ways to express your appreciation.
• Do something fun or creative that gets your mind off of the pandemic and reduces your stress levels: fly a kite, go fishing, hiking or bicycling, try a new hobby or learn a new skill, take a free online course.
The next thing the sailors did in this situation was to drop several anchors from the stern (or rear) of the ship. An anchor is designed to hook into or connect to something that is solid and immovable to provide stability and safety for the ship. They threw out anchors from the stern of the ship to reduce or eliminate the effects the storm was having on the ship and to protect it from hitting rocks and wrecking. As you can imagine, this was not only crucial in Paul’s circumstances but is also crucial in our circumstances. So, I’d like to suggest a few “soul” anchors that you might need to renew and “toss out” in the midst of our current storm.
“Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure…” (Hebrews 6:17-19 HCSB)
So, soul anchor #1 that Hebrews says we need is hope in these two things: 1) God has promised and taken an oath that we are safe and secure in Him; 2) God’s nature (who He really is and what He’s really like) means that it impossible for Him to lie. Did you get that? God has promised to keep us secure and it is impossible for Him to lie. So, set your first personal anchor in that truth and let it help stabilize you in this storm.
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 HCSB)
Soul anchor #2, God is at work in the midst of your life and your current situation to accomplish good that is in complete alignment with His purpose and will for your life. This is one of the most quoted and misquoted verses of scripture in the entire Bible. We like to read the first half and then ignore the context and second half of this verse. I would encourage you to go read the entire section, Romans 8:18-39, before you continue with the rest of this post. In case you missed it, God is at work in these difficult times in our lives to shape us into the image of Jesus. Why? Because that is the purpose of God’s grace and your faith. If you don’t hear anything else I say today, please hear this: God’s design and purpose for life is NOT to make you happy, but to make you HOLY! His desire is that we become more and more like Jesus each and every day. So, know that the things you are going through today God is using to shape and mold you into Christlikeness. There is purpose in the pain, so set your anchor in that truth and let it help stabilize you in this storm.
“Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.” (Romans 12:12 HCSB)
Next, notice that Paul informs Julius that some of the sailors are planning on using the skiff to escape the ship and leave the rest of them to make it on their own. Paul tells Julius that God’s promise of saving the soldiers is contingent upon the sailors obeying God’s directive and trusting Him. Julius has been so impressed by Paul that he immediately orders his soldiers to cut the skiff loose and follows Paul’s lead in this. There are two things that we need to be wise about in this: 1) it is selfish and sinful to be concerned only about yourself in the midst of any storm, 2) salvation comes only through God no matter how much man’s ways might seem right and good.
As often happens in the midst of life’s storms, we tend to fall back on the “every man for himself” principle. However, as believers this could not be further from the truth nor from God’s purpose. “This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but closes his eyes to his need — how can God’s love reside in him?” (1 John 3:16-17 HCSB) Jesus himself told us that the greatest commandment was to love God above everything else in life but that the second greatest commandment was to love others in the same way that we love ourselves.
Next, Paul assures Julius that for God’s promises of safety to be applicable then obedience to God’s plan is essential. So, salvation from the storm doesn’t ultimately come through man’s logic and intelligence (the skiff, for example), but through the mind, plan and will of God. There is certainly a balance in this that we need to keep in mind, because God certainly uses means and methods that are consistent with logic and the laws of nature. That’s even one of the reasons why God has put those things in place. The laws of nature and logic point us towards a God of order, laws and logic. In fact, in John 1 where Jesus is called the “word” of God it refers to more than just the means of communication but also carries with it the logic and methods by which God works. But, the means by which God is working in this situation is not logical from man’s perspective. Paul knows that if the sailors “escape” the shipwreck by using the skiff, then they risk putting all of the passengers in danger.
So, while God has given us logic, the laws of nature and the work of science and medicine to help us in the midst of this crisis, He is also calling upon us to seek Him, trust Him, and follow Him as we make decisions regarding our personal and corporate response to this global health crisis. In other words, we need to be wise as we make decisions but not SO wise that we ignore His call to minister to and serve one another in this crisis. I will tell you honestly, this is one of the more difficult things to do. That is why I would encourage you to pray and to specifically pray for me and our church leadership as we strive to make obedient, God-honoring decisions regarding our worship and our return to meeting together. I want, more than anything else, to make the correct decisions that are consistent with God’s plan and not decisions that are based on my personal fears or desires.
Finally, I want you to notice that Paul called upon the soldiers, sailors and the other passengers to overcome their fears and to take care of their own personal needs. They had refused to eat for fourteen days and Paul knows that they will need physical strength for the next leg of this incredible journey of obedience. So, he encourages each of them to take nourishment even as he assures them that God has promised to protect and sustain them in the events that follow. Above, I shared with you some ideas and ways that you can and should care for your personal and family needs in the midst of this crisis. I want you to know that God calls for believers to live with a hope in Christ that is evident throughout our daily lives and choices. Paul demonstrates this hope throughout our ongoing story, and we need to learn to follow his example.
In his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul tells them that “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 HCSB) Don’t grieve like those who have no hope… he DOESN’T say, “don’t grieve.” He says, “don’t grieve in the same way as those who don’t have hope tend to grieve.” Grieve, but with the hope that knowledge of the resurrection and faith in Jesus Christ gives. We must have hope-filled grief. Hope-filled grief when death visits our homes, and hope-filled obedience and ministry when crisis and challenges visit our homes and churches.
How do you have hope-filled obedience in the midst of such a crisis? By knowing that your eternal life is safe in hands of the death conquering Son of God. To put it another way, by cutting loose that skiff (or life raft) of personal goodness, moral and financial achievement, and by placing your trust in the saving grace of God’s Son. I have little doubt that this crisis may have brought some of your fears and struggles to the forefront of your life. Suddenly, each of us has had to face our own mortality as we face a virus that has robbed life from every sector of our culture, from the youngest and strongest to the oldest and most vulnerable. While the scientists and doctors have stressed that our most vulnerable population are the most at risk with this virus, we’ve seen it take life from every age group and even from those who were very healthy and fit.
Hope comes from those soul anchors that I noted earlier, 1) God has promised eternal life to Christ’s disciples and He keeps His promises (cannot lie); 2) God is at work in the midst of our struggles (and this pandemic) to make us more Christlike in our actions, thoughts and responses/reactions. Do you have those soul anchors? If so, rest in them. Find hope and comfort in them. Be inspired to obedience through them. If you don’t have those soul anchors, then come to Christ and receive them by grace, through faith. Feel free to contact me by responding to this post or by submitting a prayer request clicking here. I can’t wait to hear from you…