"Thanksgiving in the Tempest"
(Delivered Thanksgiving Sunday, November 19, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Every November, I ask God for a good Bible passage to preach from on the morning of our Thanksgiving potluck. Well, I think I've been led to a pretty good one. It's found in Acts 27:35-36; and tells us this about the apostle Paul and the people to whom he was speaking:
These words seem appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday; don't you agree? In fact, I've barely begun my sermon; and I'll bet that most of the people in this room are eager to get the sermon out of the way and put this Bible passage into practice!
But there's something that you need to know about the situation in which these words were spoken. It was far from the warm, comfortable, happy 'Thanksgiving' setting that we're looking forward to enjoying together this afternoon. These words were spoken about the apostle Paul during severe circumstances. and in one of the deadliest trials of his life. It was at a time, in fact, when all of those around him were under the threat of death and in complete despair of surviving.
And that's what makes Paul's bold offer of thanks to God in the midst of this dreadful circumstance all the more remarkable and instructive.
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This morning, I ask that we first look at the story surrounding Paul's remarkable offer of thanks, and then consider some principles we can learn from his example. But before we do, I ask that you stop and think about what might be going on in your own life at this moment.
Stop and think about the trial in life that you may be going through right now. It may be a very big and overwhelming one. Or it may be a relatively small one. But my assumption this morning is that each one of us is facing a challenge of some kind today—some testing of our faith. It may be a financial crisis that you're dealing with. It may be something to do with your health. Perhaps a friend or family member is living in such a way as to break your heart. Or it may be that you are undergoing a particularly intense time of temptation or doubt. Whatever that trial may be, I'm going to ask you not to set it aside as you listen to the exposition of God's word this morning; but rather, I ask you to think carefully about it, and as it were 'bring it with you' through our time together in the Scriptures.
I believe that it is God's call for you and me to learn how to express a bold, gutsy kind of 'thanksgiving' to Him in the midst of that trial—the kind of thanksgiving that Paul offered to God in the midst of his own very distressing trial. I believe that what God tells us about Paul in this morning's passage is meant to 'coach' us in how to give the kind of thanks to Him that truly honors Him. I believe it teaches us that we behave most like Christians in times of trial when we boldly give thanks to God in the midst of them.
So please; don't set your troubles aside today in order to listen to the sermon. Bring your troubles with you; and let's learn together the art of giving thanks to God in the midst of them.
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Now, the best place to begin Paul's particular story today is with a very important promise that God made to him. It was a promise that, I believe, stood behind his bold expression of thanks.
Paul had just brought the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his own Jewish kinsmen in Jerusalem. And as a result, he started a riot. (Paul's preaching, it seemed, had that effect on people.) Roman soldiers had barely rescued Paul from being torn to pieces by the Jews; and—partly for his own safety—they kept him in the barracks of the Roman garrison. As Paul spent the night in the barracks, you can imagine that he was a little discouraged and fearful. What was going to happen to him? Would he live, or would he or die? Were his missionary efforts to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people about to come to a screeching halt?
Later that evening, something very encouraging happened. The Bible tells us that the Lord Jesus Himself appeared to Paul and stood by him. And the Lord said to Paul, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome” (Acts 23:11).
That promise was crucial to Paul; and after hearing it, he knew—if I may put it this way—that until he got to Rome, he was 'indestructible'. The Lord Jesus was going to see to it that he would get to go to the very capital city of the ruling empire of the world, and proclaim the message of God's love through Jesus Christ in it! What a thrill that must have been!
One thing led to another in the great outworking of God's plan for Paul, until—as we find in Acts 27—he came to be bound for the great city of Rome, accompanied by a couple of dear brothers in Christ, and under the safe-keeping of a Roman military commander. Everything was going to happen exactly as Jesus Christ promised. Based on the promise of Jesus Christ Himself, there would be no way in the world that Paul was not going to go to Rome!
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Before we go any further in our story, let me pause to share with you two great truths about God that I believe stand behind the idea of giving Him thanks. They are illustrated by the experience of Paul in receiving this promise and in seeing it come to pass by God.
The first great truth about God concerns His sovereignty. To say that God is sovereign is to say that He is the absolute Ruler over His creation; and that there is nothing that can happen apart from His will. Whatever comes to pass in this world does so because He has ordained that it be so. Now, we might not always understand His reasons for the things that happen. Our understanding of the details of His decree is very, very limited and imperfect. But the Bible assures us that our great God “works all things according to the council of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
And the second great truth about God concerns His providence. You might say that the 'providence' of God is how we experience the 'sovereignty' of God in our daily lives. The doctrine of God's 'providence' teaches that, as the sovereign God, He upholds and directs all things in this universe so that they fulfill His will for His own glory and the good of His beloved people. As the Bible says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose . . .” (Romans 8:28).
Those are two great truths about God—His sovereignty and His providence—that give us a constant reason for thanks to Him in every circumstance of life. Paul writes elsewhere, “[I]n everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We know that we can always obey that command to give God constant thanks because He never changes in His sovereignty over us and in His providential care for us.
Paul was experiencing those two truths in the fact that the sovereign God had willed that he go to Rome, and had providentially ruled over the circumstances of Paul's life so that he was now on his way. God works in our lives in the same way; and so we can always give Him thanks in all circumstances.
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Now that we have that great promise in mind, let's return to Acts 27. I'm not going to go into all the details of this chapter. I hope that you'll take the time to read it on your own. It's a thrilling adventure story. (People who say that the Bible is boring clearly haven't read it—and especially haven't read the twenty-seventh chapter of Acts!)
So let's pick up the story at verse nine. Paul and his traveling companions were under the supervision of a Roman centurion named Julius; and they were making their way by ship along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Julius had booked passage for them on a grain ship that was heading westward to Rome. But the travel had been difficult. Historians tell us that it was probably the first week of October; and they were entering the time of year in which the waters of that part of the world would soon become very dangerous.
Paul was an experienced traveler. In fact, he may have been the most experienced traveler of anyone on board the ship. He saw the danger of going any further; and he spoke out and said, “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives” (v. 10). Nevertheless, the helmsman and the owner of the ship felt otherwise. They felt that it would be best to move on; and so, Julias the centurion was persuaded by them to plod onward to the isle of Crete and winter there.
Luke—who was one of Paul's traveling companions and who recorded this eyewitness account—writes about what happened next;
They were unexpectedly struck by a violent storm at sea! Experienced sailors had given this sudden north-easterly wind a nickname—the Euroclydon; that is, “The Northeasterner”. The Greek word that is used to describe the nature of this wind is 'tuphonikos', from which we get our English word “typhoon”. It was a hurricane-force wind—perhaps even a cyclone—that blew down upon the boat and drove it far away from the northern Mediterranean shoreline and southward. It drove it toward the dangerous shores of the Sytris Sands along the coast of North Africa; where many ships in the ancient world met their end.
And you can detect the fearful situation that this ship was in because of the things that the crew quickly sought to do. First, they did not attempt to fight against this wind but allowed the ship to be driven off its course—having no choice but to yield to the whims of the storm. Second, when as soon as they were able to, they sought to secure the life-boats and bring them on board the ship—which, we're told, they did “with difficulty”—in order to keep them from being smashed along the sides of the boat. Third, they drew cables along the bottom of the ship to reinforce the hull and keep it from being broken up by the violent currents. Fourth, in order to avoid being driven into the Syrtis Sands, they “struck sail”—or, more literally, they “dropped the instrument”; which may have been a floating anchor that was dragged astern to give resistance and slow the ship down. And fifth, they began to lighten the ship by throwing what they could overboard; and by the third day, even throwing off the tackle with their own hands.
I wonder; have you ever been in trials like that? A storm at sea is an apt picture. It's something that is wild, and dangerous, and utterly outside of your control. What can you do? You're in the midst of it and you can't get out of it. It forces you to take some drastic measures. Perhaps it causes you to draw your resources together as best you can. Perhaps it tempts you to draw in to yourself. Perhaps it causes you to do what you can to slow things down because you're heading for disaster. Perhaps it even makes you throw cast off the things in life that you deem unnecessary, in order to lighten the load. And even after you've done all that you can do, and the trial drags on and on, and you see no light at the end of the tunnel, you too finally give up hope.
At times like that, wouldn't it be good—wouldn't it be crucial—to remember that our God is always sovereign, and that He providentially causes all things to work together for the good of His people?
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Now here's where Paul speaks up. I appreciate how human Paul is. He can't resist the temptation to say, “I told you so!” We read,
How did Paul know this? He goes on to say;
Paul had already been given a promise from Jesus Christ Himself that he would go to Rome. Paul knew that—no matter what happens in the storm—he would survive. But that night, God gave him even more information. He assured Paul that he had no need to be afraid; because he would not only go to Rome, but would also actually stand and testify before Caesar himself! What a promise! And I suspect that Paul prayed for the others in the ship; and to his delight, God assured him that every single person on board would be brought to safety.
Paul took the promise of God seriously. He had faith that the sovereign God would so providentially rule over the circumstances—even over the storm—that everyone would survive, and that Paul himself would be delivered to stand before Caesar. And so, he spoke to everyone and said,
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Now; Paul believed the promise of God. But not everyone responded with faith. Luke goes on to tell us,
Perhaps the people needed more than Paul's words of encouragement. Perhaps he sensed that they needed his example. And that's when we come to those wonderful “Thanksgiving” verses;
Now you can see that these are more than just sentimental words about giving thanks to God. Perhaps you can see that they describe an act that is more than just something 'nice' and 'polite' to do toward God. Perhaps now you can see that giving thanks to God in times of trial is actually a bold, gutsy expression of faith that says, “I am not a victim to circumstances! I will not fall victim to the fears and threats of the storms of life! I affirm boldly and publically that my God—the God to whom I belong and whom I serve is the sovereign Ruler of the universe! He is the God in whose hand are all things that can touch me—even this storm! And I declare that I will trust Him to cause even this to turn out for my good and for the perfecting of His purpose for me! I will prove it by thanking Him!”
The Bible goes on to tell us,
This chapter goes on to tell us that the ship struck ground on the island of Malta. I encourage you to look on a map of the Mediterranean Sea sometime and see if you can find Malta. If you did, you would discover that it is a tiny little island south of Sicily; and you would marvel that this ship—tossed and turned in the midst of a violent storm several hundreds of miles off its course over a period of two weeks—would end up upon this tiny little island. It could only have happened because God guided the ship safely to its shore.
And it all happened because God is sovereign. He providentially causes all things to work out according to His will for the good of His people and the glory of His name. He is the same God today as He was then. He is just as sovereign and providential over our lives, dear brothers or sisters, as He was over Paul's.
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Now, let's think back on this story and consider some of the ways that Paul's example can teach you and me to give thanks to God in our times of trial.
The first thing we learn is to . . .
1. BE REAL ABOUT THE SITUATION (vv. 13-21).
Giving thanks to God is not a matter of pretending that things are not what they really are. “Giving thanks” is not an escape from reality. Paul was not disillusioned about the serious situation he and his shipmates were under. Some Bible scholars have estimated that Paul had traveled over 3,500 miles by the time the events in this chapter occurred. He had been out at sea during some very dangerous times. He knew what he was talking about when he said, “I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives” (v. 10). It's true that, at that time, he didn't know that God would give him the lives of everyone on the ship; but still, he had a correct assessment of the danger.
Think of that circumstance you are in. A true giving of thanks to God in the midst of your trial includes taking a genuine stock of it. It doesn't mean ignoring the realities of the situation. You have to be real about it in order to truly give it to God and trust Him in the midst of it.
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The second thing we learn is to . . .
2. CLING TO THE PROMISES OF GOD (vv. 22-26).
Just as we are to be real about the trial we're under, we also need to be just as real about the promises of God in the midst of that trial—otherwise, we're not really being “real”. Paul had some promises from God that he clung to. He clung to the promise of God that he would go to Rome; and he believed that nothing—not even a storm at sea—could prevent him from going where God was sending him. And he had a promise that everyone on the ship would also survive; and so he could encourage everyone to eat!
Let me suggest to you that it is a mark of maturity in Christ that, when a dreadful trial hits you life, you don't focus on how terrible the trial is so much as on what God has already said in His word about it! Learn the promises from God that are found in the Bible. Memorize them. Claim them in the midst of those trials. Cling to them as a man would cling to a life-preserver in the midst of a storm; because not one of them will fail. The One who made them to us is the sovereign God who providentially rules over all the circumstances of life at all times. Those promise will prove to be the basis of an intelligent, genuine, heartfelt thanks to God in the midst of that trial you're suffering right now.
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Third, we learn from Paul to . . .
3. RESOLVE TO ACT IN FAITH (vv. 27-34).
Imagine what would have happened if Paul stood up in the midst of all of those desperate, hungry, fear-dominated sailors and shipmates and said all that he said . . . and then sat back down, put his head in his hands, and moaned in agony and despair with them. That would have betrayed that he didn't really have faith in the promises of God at all. But that's not what he did. He stood up and exhorted them to action. He called them to eat!
I have read a little bit of the account of a man who was on a ship adrift over a long period of time in a storm. All the provisions and foodstuffs that were not bolted down were floating along in the bilge. All the animals were washed overboard. The ship was being tossed to and fro; and so was each person's stomach. The food that was still on board was water-soaked and unappetizing. And what's more, you weren't sure whether or not the ship was going to go down with the next crashing wave. The last thing in the world you thought of at a time like that was to eat! Often in such situations, people eat only occasionally and in hurried bits and pieces. It is easy to become weak and undernourished while in the trial of a ship being tossed at sea.
But Paul had a promise. God was going to rescue everyone and give each person his or her life. And so—as an act of faith in God's promise—he told everyone to eat! He said, “Therefore I urge you to take nourishment, for this is for your survival, since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you” (v. 34). He even urged that none of the sailors be allowed to leave; because every one of them would be needed to guide the ship on to shore.
In the trial you're facing right now, what would it mean to believe the promises of God in the midst of it; and to then prove that faith by rising up and doing what those promises demand? Resolve that you will not curl up and do nothing; but show genuine thanks to God for who He is in your trial by rising up and taking an appropriate action of faith!
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Fourth, we see from Paul's example that we should . . .
4. GIVE BOLD THANKS TO GOD (v. 35a).
I love how Paul not only testified to the promise of God, and not only exhorted appropriate action in the light of those promises, but also publically worshiped God by his thanks. We're told, “And when he had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of all . . .” (v. 35).
This was, if I may say so, a bold act of affirmation. He didn't hide his thanks. He didn't simply murmur it in private. He took bread in the sight of everyone—bread that, if he were about to die, would be pointless to eat—and then held it up and gave public thanks to God. It was as if he were saying, “Father, I believe Your promise to me. I trust You that You will indeed spare my life and the lives of everyone on this ship. I trust You that I will indeed be brought safely to Rome and will be made to stand before Caesar, and will testify before him of my Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. And I trust that You have graciously provided this boat to get me where You want me to be; and that it cannot not break up and fall apart until I and all who are with me are within the reach of land. And so, I now publically give thanks to You for the food You have provided for my sustenance! Thanks You, heavenly Father, for Your gracious provision of all that I need.”
I believe that thanksgiving is how you and I actively and intelligently honor God's sovereign rule over, and gracious provision for, our lives. I believe you and I most act like Christians in times of trial when we sincerely offer God our thanks. Honor God by giving Him thanks—not only in your trial, but even for that trial!
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And finally, having done everything else, we learn from Paul's example to . . .
5. REST CONFIDENTLY IN GOD'S CARE (vv. 35b-38).
Paul demonstrated confidence, after giving thanks for his food, by enjoying it! He also encouraged everyone else to do the same. It was as if he was saying, “We're going to live, my friends; so you might as well enjoy the food and eat.” And they further demonstrated trust in God, after eating all that they needed—all two hundred and seventy-six of them—by casting the surplus wheat overboard in order to lighten the ship for its now-certain trip to the shore. (Paul reminds me of the man who had lots of worries and trials that were keeping him up at night. Finally, he prayed about it, left it in God's hands, and said, “Well; there's no sense both of us staying up, Father. I'm going to sleep. Good night.”)
In your trial, having been real about the seriousness of it, but also having affirmed the promises of God concerning you in the midst of it; having set yourself to act in faith on the promises of God and to genuinely give Him thanks for His provision in the midst of it, now rest confidently in Him and be at peace. Watch Him bring glory to Himself in the midst of the storm of your life.
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Let me close with a final reminder. Giving thanks to God in the midst of the storms of life is something that takes practice. You don't learn to do it automatically, but you grow to do it through experience. You learn to thank Him in the big trials of life by giving Him thanks in the little trials of life.
And that trial that you are in right now is given to you by God to give you just such an experience. The apostle James wrote, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). The trial you are in is not something that happened by accident; but rather, it is given to you by the intentional design of the sovereign God who providentially works all things together for your good. He is seeking to teach you how to thank Him in all trials and circumstances of life—including the one that you are in now.
Dear brother or sister, learn from the example of Paul; and offer thanksgiving to God now in the midst your tempest!
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