Seeing the Big Picture is Helpful
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 20, 2019
Reading: Acts 27:13-26
A few years ago, there was a proliferation of movies that dealt with nautical disasters. Many of you will remember them. There was Poseidon, Titanic, Juggernaut, Britannic, and the Perfect Storm. There have been many movies about catastrophes at sea. Their popularity is probably due to the primordial fear that we have of ocean waters during storms. Although we have discovered more about the sea, the climate and the changes that take place in bad weather, in many ways, that primordial fear has worked its way into the way we think. It’s influenced our literature, and even biblical passages.
I remember as a boy of maybe about eight or nine, being terrorised by people who told me that coral reefs are actually made up of the eyeballs of people who had drowned, and that you should never steal the coral, because you might be stealing an eyeball of someone. At eight years old, you believe that stuff, and I was terrified. Only years later did I realize that this emanated from Shakespeare’s incredible play, The Tempest, which was probably set in Bermuda. I only wish I’d discovered these very words earlier:
Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made; those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong. Hark! Now I hear them, ding-dong bell.
When you look at the biblical passages, many of them deal with this primordial fear. Noah and the ark, the salvation of the world resting on a ship being divinely ordained to save humanity, the birds of the air, and the beasts of the earth. Jonah and the whale, has historically been one of the most profound and oldest of all biblical passages that deal with the fear of the deep. Even the leviathan is a Jewish notion that goes back to the Book of Job and is repeated in the Psalms and Isaiah. This monster who lived at the depths of the sea would devour you. Indeed, biblical literature is full of the primordial fear of the deep.
In a more practical and historical story, not a metaphorical one, we have the encounter from today’s passage in the Book of Acts. It was a moment where one of the seminal people within the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, faced the storms that threatened his life. What makes this passage so powerful, is that not only does it have detail that makes it fascinating from a historical point of view, even though Acts was written basically to tell a broader story, there are moments in this that go right to the heart of what it is that we believe, and has an effect on how we live the Christian life.
The story is very simple; Paul is a prisoner on a ship bound for Rome. He believes that he will eventually have an opportunity to speak to the Romans, maybe even appear before Caesar, and therefore give witness to Jesus Christ. But Paul is worried. He had a vision from God that there will be storms and dangers. He says to the captain – now remember, he is in chains and is a prisoner, “You should not set sail, you should not go out in these waters, it is too dangerous.”
The captain didn’t listen to him. He listened rather to two groups, the military centurions, who wanted to return to Rome, and the merchants, wo wanted to sell their corn and wheat, who both said, “No, we must keep going, we must set sail.”
Now, to understand how dangerous this is, you must realize that the timing was quite important. We are told by Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, that this was after the Day of Atonement, which is at the end of October and the beginning of November, and that period of time between early November and March, was known as the mare clausum. It means the sea is closed.
There were so many of these storms, these nor’easters, as they are called, that it made sailing around Crete and on to Italy, dangerous. Nevertheless, they set sail. And there was a storm that caused them to divert to a little place called Fairhaven, and there they had to decide if they went out into the storm again, which they did because Fairhaven was too small a bay to be able to keep them for the winter.
To really grasp the power of this, understand that the boats had no keel, no hull, no steering mechanism as we know. They used oars and crude sails on flat-bottom boats. Also, they had no sextant, no compass, and they relied on the horizon to be their guide. To make matters even more dangerous, this was a time when people believed that the earth was flat, and that once you’d lost sight of the horizon, you could simply fall off the end of the earth. So, it took a great deal of nerve, and in some cases, stupidity to go out into such a storm. They did some concrete things, like, getting rid of cargo to lighten their load, so they would be more buoyant. They got rid of the very things that they were fighting to preserve – the corn and the wheat, and even some of the weapons.
Paul then addresses them. Now remember, Paul is a prisoner, he’s in chains and he’s coming to them and he’s saying something profound. He didn’t put them down or argue that he told them not to go out. Rather, he turns things into a positive. He says two things to them, and it’s those two things that constitute a big part of our faith. He says, “You should have courage.”
Now, courage is a strange word. Courage can be used at almost any time, and you might think that simply saying, “have courage” is a self-help idea of bucking up. In other words, “get your house in order and you will be fine.” But that’s not what this was about; he was talking about something gutsier; he was talking about having courage, even when it appeared that everything was falling apart.
This week, in preparation, I put on my Bose speakers and listened to The Tragically Hip’s piece, “Courage”. This wonderful piece written and based on Hugh MacLennan’s book, The Watch that Ends the Night. There is this incredible line in it that says: “Courage, my word. It didn’t come, it doesn’t matter. Courage, your word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter. Courage, my word. It didn’t come, it doesn’t matter. Courage, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
Simply put, courage comes when it’s the worst time, when it seems that all is lost. Paul is saying, when all is lost, have courage, have the courage of your convictions, have the courage to do the right thing, have the courage to respond to the needs around you. He’s talking to people who are more concerned in the beginning with materialism and their own welfare than they were about the lives of the people on board. Paul was concerned about the people on board, and he says that you've got to have courage; now that you've got these people on board, you have decided you're going to press to Rome, even in this, the worst time, now is the time to have courage.
When you look at those historic moments when it seemed like the worst time, courage becomes an even greater virtue. I look, for example, at the fact that thirty years ago this week, the Berlin wall came down. That historic moment changed the world. Look at the world now, compared to the world then.
I’ve been reading more about what happened in Gdansk, what happened with Solidarity and in East Germany, leading up to those events in 1989. While it might have appeared that, because of the words of Gorbachev and his Glasnost and his Perestroika, that things were changing quickly, it was a time of immense – and I mean immense danger and struggle. This was not just an empire beginning to fade in its power and influence, but one that left an unknown world, where no one knew what would eventually transpire. Courage could not have come at a worse time. But it came, and you admire that courage, We in the West, have little or no conception of what this must have meant for those who lived in the East, but it must have been an amazing moment of cultural and social change and courage, driven at times quite strongly by religious convictions as well.
Courage in our lives is usually at the moments when we have our biggest challenges, when we face our biggest obstacles, that is the moment when we need courage. We don’t need courage when everything is going smoothly, we need courage when things are at their most difficult. But courage is not the most important thing. Indeed, for Paul the courage was predicated on what he said next: “Keep your faith in God.” For Paul, courage comes from faith, but faith, in the providence and in the power of God to deal with situations when we don’t know how to deal with them ourselves. That was the powerful moment here. Just think about it, a man in chains before Romans and centurions and merchants, is saying, “I have had a vision and I am convinced, because of this vision, that God is with us, so therefore we should not fear, we should have faith.”
In reflecting on this passage a number of years ago at Acadia, the great Professor Evans said this about this passage: “You've got to remember that the Paul who said, ‘have faith in God’ had actually had an encounter on the road to Damascus, with none other than the risen Jesus of Nazareth. And having then seen the power of God over death, and God being able to conquer even the most frightening thing of all, Paul looked at all the other challenges he had: Imprisonment, rejection, crowds speaking out against him, it didn’t matter. Nor did it matter on the ship. He knew that he had to get to Rome, he was destined to go to Rome. Everyone would be safe, because he had that profound conviction of faith in God.
A number of years ago, in 1997 actually – many of you will remember this – Steve Fossett decided to take a hot air balloon and circumnavigate the globe. He set out from St. Louis, Missouri, and got up to, I think it was twenty-four thousand feet, and crossed North America beautifully until he hit the winds of the Atlantic. He realized that he could not stay that high. He came down to around sixty-eight hundred feet and thought that this would be fine until other winds came along and drove him very quickly over to the Mediterranean, and Libya, which was run by Muamar Gaddafi at that time, and he thought he would have to land in Libya. So, he sought advice and guidance from a book and maps that he had, that said if you're ever around North Africa, go up, don’t come down. He wanted to be in Europe, northern Europe, so was way off-course. Anyway, he goes up again, flying high, and catches winds that take him all the way over to India, where eventually he has to land.
But here was what someone said about this, that I think is particularly fascinating. “In the balloon, you are prisoners of the wind and you go only in the direction of the wind.” In life people think they are prisoners of their circumstances, but in life, as in the balloon, you can change altitude, and when you change altitude, you change direction and you are not a prisoner anymore.
In a sense, what Paul was doing on that boat around Crete near the dangerous shore, was to say, look, we can run aground and we probably will, but change your altitude, change your horizon, look at something beyond yourself and you will see God’s hand within it, and you will see God’s guidance.
Many of us face the storms of life, don’t we? We face difficulties and disappointments. Sometimes those storms are of our own making and in the past. Sometimes the storms and the winds that come our way, we have no control over. Sometimes they come from those who work with us and put pressure upon us and seek to influence us. Sometimes the mores and the values of society pound upon us. Sometimes the ‘winds of change’, to quote a certain former British Prime Minister, blow in such a way that they alter the direction of our lives. But when those storms happen, and we face them, it’s in moments like that the words of Paul resound in our ears: “Have courage, keep faith in God.” That is the altitude to which we should rise. Amen.