Shipwrecks & Serendipity

Read Acts 27-28 (Psalm 104) here.

Listen here:

Sing with me…. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port aboard this tiny ship…[1]  Gilligan’s adventure has some striking similarities to Paul’s adventure in the last few chapters of Acts.  How long was Gilligan’s trip supposed to be?  (3 hours)  But what happened?  (a storm blew them out to sea.)  They ended up where?  (On an uncharted island.)  Just like Paul

In our text for today in Acts 27, we find Paul in the middle of the ocean, but before we read that, we need to back up a bit and see how he get there.  Last week, in Acts 20, we found Paul at the beginning of this journey.  He’d left Athens and was sailing toward Jerusalem to deliver the money that the churches in Macedonia and Greece had donated to help the believers in Jerusalem.  Paul had a brief stop in Miletus to say goodbye to the Ephesian elders.  Then he got back on the ship and sailed along the coast, until he got to Caesarea.  From there he went by land to Jerusalem.

15629449603333480442962400732026He knew that he would face trouble in Jerusalem because the Holy Spirit had shown him this.  So, no big surprise, an angry mob gathers when Paul gets to town.  They’ve heard that he’s preaching to Gentiles.  They think he’s lost all regard for Jewish law and they’re determined to stop him.  Roman soldiers come to quiet the mob and quickly realize that arresting Paul will accomplish that.  They’re about to carry him off when Paul says, “Wait! Let me speak!”  A hush falls over the angry mob and they actually listen to Paul’s testimony, until he says, “But the Lord said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”  At the word “gentiles” the crowd goes wild, and all the soldiers can do is carry Paul away.

citizenThe soldiers decide to whip Paul as punishment, but Paul then tells them that he’s a Roman citizen.  That changes everything.  It’s against the law to do anything to a Roman citizen until they’ve had a fair trial.  So they take Paul to jail and arrange a trial. While Be encouraged.he’s there, he sees Jesus in a vision telling him, “Be encouraged.  Just as you’ve been my witness here in Jerusalem, you must also preach the good news to the people in Rome.” (Acts 23:11)

Meanwhile, Paul’s nephew overhears some people talking about their plans to kill Paul.  The nephew tells Paul and the Roman commander, who then sends Paul to Caesarea under cover of night, accompanied by a two hundred soldiers (Acts 23:23).  The Jewish leaders go there to present their accusations before Felix, the governor.  Felix sees no crime, but wants to keep everybody happy, so he keeps Paul in jail for two years.  When Felix is replaced by Festus, the Jewish leaders come to testify against Paul again.  Again there isn’t enough to convict Paul, and Festus is about to let the Jewish leaders take him back to Jerusalem but  Paul knows that means certain death, so Paul says the magic words, “I appeal to Caesar!”  That’s like appealing to the Supreme Court.  Now they have no choice but to send Paul to Rome.[2]

So they put Paul on a ship with some other prisoners, all of them in the custody of a Roman officer named Julius.  At first the journey is uneventful, as they make their way along the coast of what they called Asia back then, but is now Turkey.  But the weather gets worse as they head towards Greece.

These ships are at the mercy of the wind.  There is no motor.  So they get blown south, and eventually end up in a port on the south side of the island of Crete.  Now it’s late in the year, and ships usually spend the winters in port because the weather is too rough for sailing.  This port isn’t a sheltered port, though, so they decide to go just a little further up the coast to a better place. Just like Gilligan and the skipper set out for a three-hour tour, this should have been a short trip.  Paul has some insight about what’s ahead, so he warns them: shipwreck, loss of cargo and danger to their lives await if they go back out to sea, even for this three-hour tour.  But the weather seems fine to them, so they ignore Paul and set out along the coast toward this other port.

15629450425355961047136212611380Suddenly the weather changed and they were blown out into the open sea by a nor’easter. (Acts 27:14)

16 We sailed along the sheltered side of a small island named Cauda, where with great difficulty we hoisted aboard the lifeboat being towed behind us. 17 Then the sailors bound ropes around the hull of the ship to strengthen it. They were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast, so they lowered the sea anchor to slow the ship and were driven before the wind.

18 The next day, as gale-force winds continued to batter the ship, the crew began throwing the cargo overboard. 19 The following day they even took some of the ship’s gear and threw it overboard. 20 The terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. (keep this last verse up.)

How many of you have ever been lost?

What do you do when you’re lost?

  • GPS – What if you don’t have any signal?
  • Map – What if you don’t have one?
  • Sun, moon, stars – What if it’s too cloudy to see them?
  • Landmarks – What if there aren’t any?

What do you do then?

  • Keep going? Stop?  Pray?

When my family and I first moved to South Carolina, we decided to get to know the area by exploring.  So on the days we had time after I picked the kids up from school, we’d go down different roads and see where they went.  This was back in 2005.  GPS was a thing then, but only rich people had it.  Not us.  We did have maps, but here’s the thing about a map—you have to know where you are to use it.  That’s why they put those little markers on maps at the rest stops that say, “You are here.”

You are Here Map Pin Location Navigation 3d IllustrationSo one day when we were out exploring – just me and Tess this day – we went down a road, and as we were going we saw one of those brown signs that marks a park or something historic, so we turned in to see what it was.  In this part of South Carolina all the roads weave around bodies of water – lakes and fingers of lakes.  There are some bridges, lots of interesting places to see, mostly everything obscured by trees.  Everywhere endless trees.  So we turned in at this brown sign to see what was there and it turned out to be….a boat ramp.  We have no boat.  So we left, and decided this was enough exploring for the day, so we’d head back the way we came.    But all we could see was road and trees, so we didn’t know until we’d gone a ways that we’d gotten turned around, and instead of going back the way we came, I’d turned the opposite way.

There were no signs, no landmarks.  We had no GPS and you can’t use a map unless you know where you are.  We were hoping for a cross street so we could see a street sign, but there weren’t any.  No mile markers, no highway markers, nothing but trees.  So we just kept going until we got somewhere.  It took awhile, but we finally got to a tiny town called Six Mile.  Now we knew where we were and could find ourselves on the map and figure out how to get home.

Being out in the middle of the ocean is kind of like being on a road with no landmarks and no signs and no map.  In those days, ships used sails and oars. There was no motor.  Nowhere to stop and wait for the storm to pass.  They were at the mercy of the wind and the waves.

Sometimes life is like that. What rules our hearts in the midst of those times?

  • Fear              Doubt                Discouragement              Despair

Flash back to the disciples on the boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They were terrified when that storm came up suddenly. Jesus was with them, but sleeping.  So in desperation they woke him up.  Jesus told the wind and the waves to be still, and they did. The disciples were still working on understanding who Jesus was, but the wind and waves knew that he is God. (Mark 4:35-41)

When I was trying to figure out my career direction, I thought I was living like Jonah.  Jonah is the prophet God told to go preach to the people of Nineveh.  But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh, so he went in the opposite direction, towards Tarshish (Jonah 1:3).  Nineveh was a city in Babylon, in what today is Iraq.  Tarshish was in Spain.

I thought I was like Jonah because I knew God was calling me somewhere, but I couldn’t see where, so I figured I was just being resistant and disobedient, and therefore headed towards my own metaphorical Tarshish.  I couldn’t see where my Nineveh was.  But maybe I had the wrong Bible story.  We teach kids about Jonah, but most children’s Bibles don’t have this story about Paul, so I didn’t know yet that sometimes in life we’re drifting along on the winds of the Holy Spirit, not because we’re doing anything wrong, but simply because we’re in the middle of something we can’t see.

That’s what Paul was doing.  He wasn’t running from God’s call like Jonah.  He was running hard toward it.  And it took him from Athens to Rome by way of Jerusalem.  Doesn’t that look like a major wrong turn?  And then Paul takes a boat ride that looks more like a trip to Africa than a trip to Italy.

1562945721381_verse_imageAnd they spend 14 days adrift in a storm!  No wonder they’d given up all hope of surviving. (Acts 27:20)  Let’s take a minute and think about that, what it feels like to be adrift in the middle of an endless sea….

[It is Well by Kristen Dimarco, led today by Tess Cannon, Rob Krabbe and Mike Vogt]

I know this place, this darkness, this hopelessness.  Maybe you do, too.  The fog is so thick we can hardly see.  It seems like we’ve been lost forever.  I just need something solid to hold on to.  I just need someone to hold my hand.  I clench my fist and I remember.

God says, “I’m here, I’m holding your hand.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.”  (Isaiah 41:13)

Through it all, my eyes are on you.  My hand is holding God’s hand. Jesus’ hand.  And all I have to do is clench my fist to remember.  All I have to do is say the name “Jesus” to remember.

Paul remembers to trust in Jesus. Let’s see what happens next.

About midnight on the fourteenth night of the storm, as we were being driven across the Sea of Adria,[e] the sailors sensed land was near. (Acts 27:27)

They had faith that the sun would come up, and that they would find land.  And that faith renewed their hope.  And that kept them going for another day.

They dropped a weighted line and found that the water was 120 feet deep. But a little later they measured again and found it was only 90 feet deep.[f] 29 At this rate they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the back of the ship and prayed for daylight.

They assessed their situation and they prayed.  They asked God to help them see.

Then the sailors tried to abandon the ship; they lowered the lifeboat as though they were going to put out anchors from the front of the ship. 31 But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, “You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes to the lifeboat and let it drift away.

They listened to Godly advice and the acted accordingly.  They hadn’t listened to Paul before, and that’s how they ended up in the middle of the storm, so they were ready to listen to Paul now.

Just as day was dawning, Paul urged everyone to eat. “You have been so worried that you haven’t touched food for two weeks,” he said.34 “Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.” 35 Then he took some bread, gave thanks to God before them all, and broke off a piece and ate it. 36 Then everyone was encouraged and began to eat— 37 all 276 of us who were on board.38 After eating, the crew lightened the ship further by throwing the cargo of wheat overboard.

He took some bread, gave thanks, and broke off a piece and ate.  They had communion, a thanksgiving, a eucharist.  They were encouraged by giving thanks to God and they threw off the cargo that was weighing them down.

39 When morning dawned, they didn’t recognize the coastline, but they saw a bay with a beach and wondered if they could get to shore by running the ship aground. 40 So they cut off the anchors and left them in the sea. Then they lowered the rudders, raised the foresail, and headed toward shore. 41 But they hit a shoal and ran the ship aground too soon. The bow of the ship stuck fast, while the stern was repeatedly smashed by the force of the waves and began to break apart.

42 The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to make sure they didn’t swim ashore and escape. 43 But the commanding officer wanted to spare Paul, so he didn’t let them carry out their plan. Then he ordered all who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land. 44 The others held on to planks or debris from the broken ship.[g] So everyone escaped safely to shore.

By God’s goodness and grace, finally, the nightmare is over.  Land!  Land!  Sweet, solid, beautiful land!  Thank you, Jesus!                        Luke continues the story….

Once we were safe on shore, we learned that we were on the island of Malta. The people of the island were very kind to us. It was cold and rainy, so they built a fire on the shore to welcome us.

As Paul gathered an armful of sticks and was laying them on the fire, a poisonous snake, driven out by the heat, bit him on the hand. The people of the island saw it hanging from his hand and said to each other, “A murderer, no doubt! Though he escaped the sea, justice will not permit him to live.” But Paul shook off the snake into the fire and was unharmed. The people waited for him to swell up or suddenly drop dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw that he wasn’t harmed, they changed their minds and decided he was a god.

Near the shore where we landed was an estate belonging to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us and treated us kindly for three days. As it happened, Publius’s father was ill with fever and dysentery. Paul went in and prayed for him, and laying his hands on him, he healed him. Then all the other sick people on the island came and were healed. 10 As a result we were showered with honors, and when the time came to sail, people supplied us with everything we would need for the trip.

A fresh start.  They got there through faith, hope, prayer, surrender to God, and thanksgiving.[3]

You know, Malta wasn’t even close to being on the itinerary.  They were only there three days, but that encounter changed everything for the people there.  Malta is now, today, the most Christian nation in Europe.  There’s practically a church on every corner.  98% of the people there are Christians.  They have not just one church but two that are dedicated to the memory of Paul’s shipwreck, and 14 of the churches on the island are called St. Paul’s.[4]

Church of St. Paul

A shipwreck is a disaster.  We avoid disasters.  We use the word to describe our failures.  But it’s how God brought the gospel to a tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Paul kept on seeking God, trusting God, and giving thanks to God. Through it all his eyes were on Jesus and all was well because God had told him the plan was to get to Rome.

Paul kept on using the gifts he’d been given – wisdom, insight, healing, teaching. Paul was a man on a mission – to tell the world about Jesus.   For Paul, a shipwreck was an opportunity to tell more people about Jesus.

What in your life are you thinking of as failure that God might be using to change the world?[5]

Through it all our eyes are on you…..Thank you for your kindness….

[1] See the entire Gilligan’s Island TV show intro here:

[2][2] Festus even gets a second opinion.  He has Paul testify for King Herod Agrippa.  The king agrees that Paul could be released from prison, but since he’s appealed to Caesar, they have to send him to Rome. (Acts 26:32)

[3] Lloyd Ogilvie, The Communicator’s Commentary on Acts, Word Publishing, pg 348-9.


[5] Inspired by Mark Batterson’s book Wild Goose Chase.

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