“Heads Down, Press on and Believe”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 21, 2021
Reading: Acts 27:9-25
As I watched the barge bounce up and down English bay, heading towards Burrard Bridge in Vancouver last week, I was struck by how everything was out of control. No matter what we did, and how hard they had tried to secure the barge, it was heading towards the famous Burrard Bridge and devastation. It reminded me how easy it is for humanity, in the face of the ravages of nature, to be out of control. So much so that I couldn’t believe that the text that I had chosen and published ahead of time, was this one from Acts. If ever there was an example of being out of control in the face of the ravages of nature, our text today epitomizes that.
Yet, there are lessons for all of us in the face of that lack of control, and particularly for our church. I say this because I am convinced that this passage from the book of Acts, is without doubt one of the most important moments in the life of Paul and in the New Testament as a whole.
The story of Paul being on an out of control ship tells us so much about his faith, as well as his mission. It is fascinating to read and realise that it is also a story about God’s providence, as well as the powerlessness of human beings. Paul was on his way to Rome to make an appeal for clemency before Caesar. It is the right of a Roman citizen to do that, and Paul was taking it on, even though he knew that he would be a prisoner on board a ship, going through the particularly dangerous waters around Crete. Yet, Paul believed in his heart that he was called by God to present his case in Rome. We are told it was after the feast, probably mid to late November, a time known for the Euraquilo, the great northeaster. The northeaster was a storm that could arise suddenly and cause great destruction, so much so that all the navigators had planned ports of call on their way, in case the storm arose, because they knew that they could not withstand its power.
The ship was not like a modern ship. There was no sextant, no hull to guide it. Many were flat boats, with no way to steer, except in calm waters. There was no navigation in choppy waters. You had to go into a port, weigh anchor, and wait out any storm. They also believed – and we need to keep this in mind in biblical terms – that the Earth was flat, and if you lost control of your ship, you could fall off the edge. So, it was terrifying thinking that if you fell off the edge leviathans waiting to consume you. Fear and storms went together.
Paul, though, had word from the Lord that they were not to set sail because it was too dangerous. He tried to convince them not to go but unfortunately, the centurion in charge of the ship spoke to the captain and basically said, “No, those that own the ship want it to get to its destination for financial reasons.” They wanted to make sure that they had their money before winter set in, and so they headed out. No surprise, a storm came up around Crete, and the boat was tossed. Just like in the story of Jonah in the Old Testament, the water was so high that they had to throw much of their merchandise into the sea, so that the boat would not sink from the weight. All their plans for financial wealth had just sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
They were terrified and tried to pull into a port, but even so, they felt they were driven to keep going. Then there was a word of assurance for the Apostle Paul. Jesus said to him, “Do not be afraid. Paul, you must stand before the emperor and indeed, God has granted safety to all those sailing with you.” He also told them there will not be one life that will be lost, but they must have faith for this to happen.
The story goes, and is legend, that Paul made it to Rome. It was not an easy transit. Paul could have said to them, “I told you so.” Well, in fact, he did, but he didn’t tell them, “I told you so” in a negative, sort of snobby or a hateful way. Not like a story I read of a little girl who was talking about Jonah in her class, and the teacher said, “You do know that a whale cannot swallow you, because their mouths and throats are too narrow.”
The little girl, who had gone to Sunday school all her life, challenged the teacher and said, “But what about Jonah? Jonah ended up in the belly of the whale.”
The teacher fired back at her and said, “No, no, no, it is biologically, physically impossible for a human being to enter into the belly of a whale.”
So, the little girl says, “Well then, when I get to heaven, I will ask Jonah if that was true.”
And the teacher says, but what happens if Jonah’s in hell?”
She said, “Well, in that case, you can ask him yourself.”
I love that story. Doesn’t it just warm your heart?
In many ways, Paul could have been like that with them on that boat that day, but he wasn’t. He assured them that because he had a mission, a purpose, no lives would be lost. Paul’s response in faith was powerful.
It’s very interesting, I preached on this text two times, believe it or not, over my twenty-three years here, (you do come around to these things). The first time I preached on it was in 2002, and there had just been a declaration made by Osama bin Laden that Canada was the number one target of Al Qaeda and everybody in this church was concerned. The last time I preached on it was two years ago, and in it I talked about the uncertainties of life, and never knowing when the storms are going to arise – three months before COVID-19 shut us down. Maybe I was prescient, or maybe the Lord was speaking again, but today we hear it afresh, anew, and I want to emphasise the faithful component of Paul all of this. I was trying to get a theme in my mind of how Paul responded to the crisis in Crete. What came to mind was some guidance I was given by a cricket coach many years ago in Bermuda. I was playing in a tournament against a group of boys from the West Indies. This collection of players from Jamaica and Barbados and elsewhere came and played us.
What was fascinating is that as soon as we saw these guys, we knew that we were going to get beaten. They were bigger, faster, stronger, just better than we were, and we knew it. So, we tossed a coin and we batted first – and you don’t have to understand cricket to understand this – and we were all out for four runs – four runs. Now, to put that in football terms, it’s like losing a 100-3, or losing a hockey game 15-1. Total devastation. We got a chance at having another inning, and that was when our coach got us all together, and I’ve never forgotten his words. He said, “Put your heads down, press on and believe.” Well, we got ten times the score and we lost by an innings and a hundred and twenty runs. Total humiliation. But we did do better than we had done before. We put our heads down, pressed on and we believed, and that’s exactly what Paul was saying to those on the boat with him that day; put your heads down and press on.
You know, my friends, when you face a storm and have the rain or the snow or even the sands coming at you, your natural proclivity is to put your head down to protect yourself. But metaphorically it means something more than that, doesn’t it? It means focusing, maintaining your concentration on the things that matter most. When you face difficulty and hardship, you put your head down and concentrate.
Paul, a man of prayer, concentrated solely on his mission during the storm. He hadn’t forgotten why he was in this position in the first place. He hadn’t forgotten where he was going or what God wanted him to do. I remind you of the words conveyed to him by the angel of God, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor, and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you, so keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” During the storm Paul reminded everybody of his mission. He put his head down, he focused on what God was calling him to do, not the circumstances all around him.
Now, in many ways, we face – though not always physically – storms in our lives. All week, and I'm sure you're the same, you’ve been in touch with people in British Columbia, or have heard from people in British Columbia. I have friends in Kelowna and in Penticton, I have friends in Vancouver and Victoria. One of my friends is the principal of the Vancouver School of Theology, and he made a request. He said, “Would it be possible,” – this is to his friends now – “to say a prayer that I’ve written, in your church this morning?” I promised Richard Topping I would, and what better time to do it than now, when we’re thinking about Paul and the storms of life. If you would join me in a moment of prayer.
“Gracious God, through your Son, you have taught us that nothing in life or death is able to separate us from your love. Look in mercy on all to whom sorrow and loss has come through the floods across British Columbia. Help the injured, support those harmed, strengthen those harmed, strengthen the public servants and emergency services and all who bring relief and comfort. Console and protect those who have lost loved ones, give your light in darkness to all who are near despair, and assure them that you hold them all in love. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Richard’s prayer is exactly the example that the Apostle Paul set in the face of the storms he faced. He knew and believed in that gracious God. There are many storms that are throwing us right now. We’re still uncertain, let’s be honest, about COVID-19 and where it’s going this winter. For all our hope, and the hope that people will get vaccinated, there is uncertainty. There is uncertainty within what is now a very choppy economy, with some trends that are concerning. There is uncertainty in the world in the hatred that we see being exposed online, people to people, and groups to groups. There is some uncertainty when we see injustices in the world, or we see the Earth revolting against the challenges that it faces. There are all kinds of choppy waters in our lives. There are people losing their jobs, often terminated by people who don’t even know them. We are facing a myriad of challenges, but there is something about the words of the Apostle Paul that ring so true: “I have faith in God, that it will be exactly as I have been told. I have kept the promises of God.”
What was the last thing my cricket the coach said to us? “You need to believe.” Now, he was talking about belief in our own abilities, and oh, that had its limitations, as you’ve already heard. No, this isn’t what Paul meant when he said, “Believe in that which you have heard from God, believe in the promise that God has for you. Believe in what you have been told.”
“Do not be afraid, you must stand before the emperor, and God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.” You see, at the very heart of Paul’s conviction was a belief in providence. He didn’t believe in his own prescience when he said, “I know that no lives will be lost,” he believed in providence, in what God would do, and that God would hold us and keep us.
Now, I know that the issue of the providence of God is a contentious one in a world where we see suffering. People sometimes question whether one can talk about the providence of God and still have a heart for people who are suffering. Well, this week I was going through my library – I have been casting some books to the wind and passing some on to friends and colleagues, some, I have of course, kept and taken home with me. There was one tatty little book, its cover coming off and binding unglued, and I realised that I had read this book so much over the years, that it has hardly stood up. I started to read it again at my desk, and I pored through the pages of the incredible wisdom in it. It’s called: Our Faith by twentieth century European theologian, Emil Brunner. As I read Brunner’s words on the providence of God, it was as if somehow a great power surged within my heart. This is what he said:
“There is one who knows the destiny of the world. He who first made the sketch, he who created and rules the world according to this plan. What is confusion for us is order for him, what we call chance is designed by him, thought out from eternity, and executed with omnipotence. It is indeed much to know, ‘He thrones in might and doeth all things well.’ Chance? With this sorry word we merely admit that we do not know why things happen as they do but God knows; God wills it. There is no chance, no more than any light in the station below just happens to be where it is in a city. The chief designer knows why, while we say, "chance," and "fate," it is important to know that He is the great Designer.”
Paul, on that ship when everything seemed lost, knew that to be true. It’s also equally true that in the face of danger and suffering and illness and threat, God still speaks His Word of comfort, “Do not be afraid in the midst of a storm.”
A far more recent book, published this last year on the providence of God, edited by a friend, Phil Ziegler, has an essay by a man who I admire immensely, and I hope you’ll look it up sometime. His name is John Swinton, and he teaches at Aberdeen. John has dedicated all of his life, since he was himself a nurse, to become a great theologian, and a theologian dealing with people’s suffering, particularly those who have had disabilities and challenges in their life, and how important it is that they are always seen to be an integral part of the mission and ministry of the Church. A man of great compassion, recognised, I noticed on Facebook a few weeks ago, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. John said this about the providence of God and the problem of suffering:
“Rather, it is my conviction that the pastoral task in the face of suffering begins with the issue of learning what it means to love and to worship God, and to learn to recognise God as faithful and loving, even in the face of suffering.
Put slightly differently, the problem of suffering finds its response not in abstract philosophical argument, but within the practices of faithful discipleship. Within such a frame, providence becomes of great importance.”
My friends, in his heart, the Apostle Paul knew this to be true, and in the midst of the storm he put his head down, he focused and he believed. So should we. Amen.