Monday, January 16, 2017

Stormy Weather Faith

"St. Paul Shipwrecked on Malta" by Laurent de la Hyre

Do you have a faith that can handle stormy weather? The Apostle Paul did. We read about his stormy weather faith in Acts 27. Listen for God’s Word to you…

When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy, they transferred Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort, named Julius. Embarking on a ship of Adramyttium that was about to set sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica. The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul kindly, and allowed him to go to his friends to be cared for. Putting out to sea from there, we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us. After we had sailed across the sea that is off Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy and put us on board. We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind was against us, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Sailing past it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.

Since much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous, because even the Fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, saying, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. Since the harbor was not suitable for spending the winter, the majority was in favor of putting to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, where they could spend the winter. It was a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest.

When a moderate south wind began to blow, they thought they could achieve their purpose; so they weighed anchor and began to sail past Crete, close to the shore. But soon a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete. Since the ship was caught and could not be turned head-on into the wind, we gave way to it and were driven. By running under the lee of a small island called Cauda we were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control. After hoisting it up they took measures to undergird the ship; then, fearing that they would run on the Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and so were driven. We were being pounded by the storm so violently that on the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard, and on the third day with their own hands they threw the ship’s tackle overboard. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘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. But we will have to run aground on some island.”

When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Adria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. So they took soundings and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they took soundings again and found fifteen fathoms. Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. But when the sailors tried to escape from the ship and had lowered the boat into the sea, on the pretext of putting 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 away the ropes of the boat and set it adrift.

Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. (We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons in the ship.) After they had satisfied their hunger, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea.

In the morning they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned to run the ship ashore, if they could. So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea. At the same time they loosened the ropes that tied the steering-oars; then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach. But striking a reef, they ran the ship aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves. The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none might swim away and escape; but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

This passage is probably the most detailed description of navigation in ancient literature. We have here definite signs of an eyewitness account. At this point in Acts we resume the “we” passages. Luke has once again joined Paul, and Aristarchus the Thessalonian is also with them.

But what I find most intriguing in this chapter is the display of three different approaches to life. First, there is the self-centered approach. This approach to life is taken by the person who seeks to anchor all their hopes and dreams in the self. You can imagine what would happen if you were sailing on the Mediterranean and you hit a storm and you lodged your anchor in your own boat. You probably would not survive the storm. The same is true in life. The self is not a sufficient center in which to anchor our existence.

The self-centered approach to life is seen in a few different characters in this chapter. The first one is the owner of the ship from Alexandria, Egypt. He is intent on getting his cargo of grain to Rome. Merchants in those days could make more money if they took the chance of sailing in the autumn months. We are told in verse 9 that sailing had already become dangerous on the Mediterranean because it was after the Fast, that is, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which took place in late September or early October. Sailing after mid-September was a dubious operation. After mid-November, it was suicidal. Thus, this merchant, on whose ship Paul was being transported to Rome, was taking a big chance with 276 people on board. The merchant ignored the advice of Paul, who was a seasoned traveler on the Mediterranean, having made some eleven previous voyages. The merchant owner of the ship was taking other lives into his own hands just so he could make some extra profit that year.

Then there were the sailors on the ship, the ones responsible for carrying out the captain’s orders and getting the ship with its cargo and passengers safely to its destination. After encountering a rather terrible storm on the open sea, these seasoned sailors were, understandably, frightened. But we see their self-centered approach to life displayed in the fact that, afraid of shipwreck, they seize the first opportunity to escape from the ship by letting down the lifeboat into the sea. Duty is out the window. All these sailors care about at this point is saving their own necks. Paul catches wind of the sailors’ plan and warns the centurion and the soldiers that if these sailors do not stay with the ship they will be putting everyone else’s lives in danger. I can just imagine the response of the sailors to Paul’s intervention! However, the centurion and the soldiers heed Paul’s warning at this point and cut the ropes to the lifeboat, letting it drift away.

The soldiers as well as the sailors had a self-centered approach to living. When the captain of the ship seeks to run the vessel aground for the passengers to be able to disembark on the island of Malta, the soldiers want to kill the prisoners on board. Why? Because they know that if any of the prisoners escape, they will be responsible for their lives and will have to pay with their own lives as a result. These soldiers are obviously not concerned about the lives of their prisoners; their only object is self-preservation.

The self-centeredness displayed in this story reminds me of another famous shipwreck. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic tearing a 300-foot gash in its hull. Two hours and forty minutes later the Titanic sunk 12,000 feet to the bottom of the ocean.

There were only twenty life-boats and rafts on the Titanic, too few to save the number of passengers on board. Most of the passengers struggled to stay afloat in the icy waters while the life boats, only partially filled, waited a safe distance away.

Lifeboat number fourteen was the only one to row back to the spot where most of the survivors were shivering to death. That one life boat was only able to save a few more people. Why did no other life boat join in the rescue operation? Some were already overloaded, but many still had room for more survivors. Why didn’t the people with more room in their boats try to help their fellow-passengers who were drowning? They feared that they would be swamped by so many swimmers that their own craft would sink.

That’s what the self-centered approach to life looks like. In our sinful nature, we naturally look out for #1. Fear often prevents us from putting others first. Scripture foretells the end of those who are anchored in the self. Long before he ever boarded the ship bound for Rome, Paul wrote to the Church at Rome, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he [God] will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Romans 2:7-8)

A second approach to life which we see in Acts 27 is the other-centered approach. The example of the other-centered approach to life is seen in Julius, the centurion in charge of Paul and the other prisoners. At the beginning of Paul’s voyage, when the first ship lands at Sidon, Julius, in kindness to Paul, allows him to visit some friends so that they might meet his needs. Then when the second ship runs aground on the island of Malta, it is Julius who prevents the soldiers from killing Paul and the other prisoners. Julius was obviously a man who cared about others and showed them kindness whenever he could.

Being other-centered is much better than being self-centered. But there is a problem with the other-centered approach to life. When you sink your life’s anchor into the lives of other people you can often be swayed by those others in the wrong direction. When Paul warned the centurion that it would be disastrous to sail from Crete at that time of year, Julius did not listen to what Paul said, but instead followed the advice of the captain and owner of the ship. That wrong choice led to a storm and a shipwreck.

It is a good thing to serve others and do what is best for them. That is love. And God wants us to love others in that way. But when the anchor of our life is in other human beings alone, that can lead to trouble. There is no human being on planet earth of sufficient ballast to provide eternally secure anchorage for your life.

C. S. Lewis tells us where a certain kind of other-centeredness can end up. Lewis writes,

In the end, you will either give up trying to be good, or else become one of those people, who, as they say, ‘live for others’ but always in a discontented, grumbling way–always wondering why the others do not notice it more and always making a martyr of yourself. And once you have become that you will be a far greater pest to anyone who has to live with you than you would have been if you had remained frankly selfish. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, chapter 8, paragraph 4.)

The third lifestyle presented in Acts 27 is the God-centered approach to life. We see this in the attitude of the Apostle Paul. Here he is a prisoner, but he isn’t living life “under the circumstances”.

Have you ever caught yourself saying that? Someone asks you, “How are you doing?” And you respond, “Not bad, under the circumstances.” We see in the life of the Apostle Paul that no Christian is obligated to live under the circumstances. By God’s grace we can always live on top of our circumstances. When the ship and its passengers were facing the worst possible circumstance, a violent storm at sea, it was Paul who brought them encouragement. And that   encouragement came directly from Paul’s relationship with God.

Paul was human. He wasn’t above saying, “I told you so.” when the crew didn’t listen to him about not sailing from Crete and they ended up facing a disastrous storm. But Paul didn’t stop at saying, “I told you so.” He encouraged the passengers saying, “Not one of you will lose your lives. Only the ship will be destroyed.” How did Paul know this? An angel had appeared to him the night before and told him that he would indeed stand trial before Caesar and that God had given him the lives of those sailing with him. Obviously, Paul had been praying that the Lord would spare all their lives.

Paul was also a man of practicality, not just a man of vision. Later, he encouraged all the passengers to eat something. They had all been living their lives in suspended animation as the storm rocked them this way and that. The simple act of Paul breaking bread and praying over the meal encouraged everyone amidst the storm. A God-centered person, conducting his or her normal life, living out a relationship with Jesus, can positively affect the entire atmosphere in which he or she lives.

Think of all that Paul went through in his earthly journey with Christ: in prison frequently, flogged, exposed to death again and again. Five times he received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes with a whip. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned. He says he was shipwrecked three times (2 Corinthians 11:25). He spent a night and a day in the open sea. He lived his life in danger from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, the Gentiles, and false brothers. He was often without the daily necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, all because of his commitment to Christ. I’m sure that each of those ingredients in Paul’s life were not exactly delicious to him. But God combined all those ingredients to make something tasteful of Paul’s life.

Paul could handle all the negative circumstances in his life because his anchor was in Christ Jesus who died for him and rose again. At another time the Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul’s response to that was, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Can we say that when we are weak then we are strong? We can if our anchor is in Christ. He can give us a faith to withstand any stormy weather.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tell Your Story

Dr. Paul Brand was speaking to a medical college in India on the words of Jesus: “Let your light so shine before men that they may behold your good works and glorify your Father.” In front of the lectern was an oil lamp, with its cotton wick burning from the shallow dish of oil. As he preached, the lamp ran out of oil, the wick burned dry, and the smoke made him cough. He immediately used the opportunity.

“Some of us here are like this wick,” he said. “We’re trying to shine for the glory of God, but we stink. That’s what happens when we use ourselves as the fuel of our witness rather than the Holy Spirit.

“Wicks can last indefinitely, burning brightly and without irritating smoke, if the fuel, the Holy Spirit, is in constant supply.”

The wick of our own life story can be a powerful light to someone else’s life if the Holy Spirit is our fuel. That’s the way it was with the Apostle Paul’s life story. Paul tells that story before King Agrippa in Acts 26. Listen for God’s word to you….

Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself:
“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.
“All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. It is for this hope, your Excellency, that I am accused by Jews! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
“Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

“With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

“After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

While he was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”
Then the king got up, and with him the governor and Bernice and those who had been seated with them; and as they were leaving, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.”

There are several things I think we can learn from Paul’s story which will enable us to tell our own story well. First, we need to be prepared to share our story with others. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Paul did not share the story of his relationship with Jesus uninvited. He was invited to tell his story by King Agrippa. You may think that no one will ever ask you about your faith in Christ, but it is not true. If Jesus is living in you, if you are a “Christ-in” person, then others will be curious about what makes you different.

I remember a time when I was in college and I walked into one of my classes and sat down. The girl sitting next to me said, “Why are you so happy all the time?” To which I responded, “Wouldn’t you like to know?” And she said, “As a matter of fact, I would like to know.” And I said, “Go out for dinner with me and I will tell you!” Mind you, this was long before I met Becky. To make a long story short, we did go out to dinner and I shared with that young woman how Jesus was the one who made me happy. Sometimes our opportunity to share our story comes when we least expect it, so we need to be prepared.

Second, when sharing our story, we need to be patient. You may remember from Acts 24:27, “When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.” So Paul spent two years in prison before he had the opportunity to share his testimony again before an official of the Roman government. But I doubt that Paul sat around doing nothing during those two years. I imagine he spent a good bit of time in prayer, and perhaps some of his “prison letters” were written from Caesarea. Certainly, Paul spent those two years in prison thinking through what he wanted to say, should he ever have another opportunity to share his story of faith in Christ.

We too need to be patient. Sometimes we can go for long periods without any opportunity to share our faith, then suddenly another opportunity will come along; God will bring someone into our lives and we need to be ready to speak “a word in season”.

Once there was a prison warden who asked a man on death row what he would like to eat for his last meal. The prisoner said, “I would like to have a large watermelon.”

The warden replied, “You’ve got to be kidding! This is December. Watermelons have not even been planted, let alone harvested.” The prisoner said, “That’s alright. I don’t mind waiting.”

Sometimes we would rather wait than face the inevitable. But for Paul I imagine it was hard to wait in that Caesarean prison in Herod’s palace, not knowing for certain what his future held. I’m sure Paul learned through that circumstance to have greater patience than he ever had before.

A third thing we can learn from Paul’s example is to be polite. Notice what Paul’s attitude was when he shared his story with King Agrippa. Paul was polite, he addressed Agrippa with respect. He honored Agrippa by recognizing Agrippa’s familiarity with the Jewish religion and customs.
I’ll be honest. Some professing Christians can be very obnoxious in the way that they seek to share their faith with others. And that’s just wrong. God doesn’t call us to be obnoxious. God wants us to honor and respect all people, because every human being is made in the image of God. Paul recognized this, and that is probably one reason why he was so polite in speaking to King Agrippa.

Fourth, we should be passionate as we talk to others about our Savior. There was a note of passion in all that Paul said. Paul “begged” Agrippa to listen to him. Now, that doesn’t mean that Paul got down on his hands and knees, but the note of pleading is woven throughout his speech. He was concerned for Agrippa’s welfare and his relationship with God. Paul couldn’t let things go at just relating the facts about Christ without also communicating his passion for Christ, and his compassion for Agrippa who was without Christ.

Fifth, we need to be plain and honest in the telling of our story. The Apostle Paul told the story of his life very plainly and honestly. He didn’t embellish it in any way. He began by telling Agrippa that he had grown up as a very religious Jew.

The story is told of a guy named Sam who survived the great flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania when a dam broke and took hundreds of lives. He spent the rest of his life telling the story of how he escaped. When the Lord took him to heaven at the age of 95, he was ready to go home. St. Peter met him at the entrance.

“Sam, as a newcomer, you can have anything you ask for — one time!” St. Peter said.

Sam only wanted to tell everyone about his flood experience. St. Peter told him he could have the chance to share his story in the prayer meeting that night. But just as Sam was getting up to speak to an audience of millions, St. Peter whispered in his ear, “Just remember that Noah is sitting in the front row.”

It’s important to be plain when telling our story. The guy in the front row may have a better story than ours!

We need to be patient, be polite, be passionate, be plain in the way that we communicate our story. We also need to be present. In other words, we need to put our story in the present tense. Paul told Agrippa, “I have had God’s help to this very day.”

When we tell others how our life changed when we came to faith we should not leave our story in the past tense. We need to get comfortable with telling others how Christ is continuing to change our lives in the present. This will make what we share more meaningful and more accessible to the person hearing our story. As Sam Shoemaker once asked: “Is your Christianity ancient history or current events?”

While we are putting our story in the present tense, we need to be personal as well. Remember that our story is not a static thing. Paul communicated his Christian experience in different ways to different people. Paul adapted the telling of his story to address and appeal to people in a personal way. In Acts 22:12 when Paul was defending himself before a Jewish audience he emphasized the role of Ananias, a devout observer of the law, in his conversion.

Being personal also means not being afraid to share what has been wrong in our lives and how Christ has put it right. Many years ago, there was a well-known preacher named Brownlow North. He was a man who, in his younger years, had led a bit of a rough life. One day, just before he was to preach in a church in Aberdeen, Scotland, Brownlow North received a piece of correspondence. The author of the note told him that he had evidence of some shameful thing North had done many years before. The letter went on to say that he was planning to interrupt the church service and tell the whole congregation of the disgraceful act if North went ahead and preached there.

Do you know what Brownlow North did? He took that letter with him to church and he read it to the assembly. Then he proceeded to tell the group exactly what he had done, which the author of the note had threatened to reveal. He confessed that the charge against him was true but that Jesus Christ had changed his life and that Jesus could do the same thing for each person assembled there.

We should never be afraid to get personal like Brownlow North did. With Christ as our Savior we have nothing to prove and nothing to lose.

We also need to remember that the telling of our story is not complete until we have asked for our hearer’s response. In communicating Christ to others, we must always be pointed. Once again, this is not a matter of being obnoxious; it’s a matter of asking for the order. What would you think of a waiter or waitress in a restaurant who never asked you for your order? Not much, right? We need to learn to not be afraid to ask people for their spiritual order. We need to come to the point of asking others what their response to Jesus is. This is what Paul did with Agrippa, and doing this can turn our story from being a monologue into a wonderful dialogue about faith.

Finally, we need to be prayerful in all our encounters with those outside the church, especially as we share with them about our relationship with Christ. At the end of his address to King Agrippa, Paul hinted at the life of prayer which lay behind the sharing of his story. Paul said, “Short time or long–I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” Any other prisoner might have prayed for his captors that they would become what he was with these chains”. Instead, Paul indicated that he was praying for the conversion of all those who would hear his story. He wanted them to connect their story with God’s story.

A missionary in India was once teaching the Bible to a group of Hindu ladies. Halfway through the lesson, one of the women got up and walked out. A short time later, she came back and listened more intently than ever. At the close of the hour the leader inquired, “Why did you leave the meeting? Weren’t you interested?”

“O yes,” the Hindu lady replied. “I was so impressed with what you had to say about Christ that I went out to ask your carriage driver whether you really lived the way you talked. When he said you did, I hurried back so I wouldn’t miss out on anything.”

Don’t underestimate the power of your own life story to lead people to Jesus. Many people are searching for a faith that works. When they see that faith in Christ is working in your life, that may be just the ticket that leads others to faith in him.