A God Not Thwarted
Scriptures: Acts 28:1-10; John 9:1-11
The most powerful Christian biography I have read in the
last ten years is Laura Hillenbrand's book Unbroken. You can get it from our church library. It's the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner who went down over the Pacific during World War II. The crash of his B-24 begins the most harrowing survival story I have ever read. The first challenge was surviving the crash. Louis maintained consciousness, but when the plane began to sink he found himself entangled in wires and could not get free. The water rose over his head, and he was starting to lose consciousness when his hand felt an opening where a window had broken out. He used the opening as leverage to pull himself out and get to the surface. There he discovered that two life rafts that had been ejected from the plane when it broke apart. By grabbing a trailing line, Louis was able to reel in the first raft and use it to paddle over and rescue two other crew members, the only other ones who survived. The three of them got into the raft and paddled over to the other raft, but they discovered that almost all the emergency supplies in both rafts had been lost. There were some chocolate bars, a few half-pints of water, a flare gun, fishing line and hooks, and a small repair kit with a pump, but that was it. No radio transmitter, no navigation instruments, no tarps.
The next crisis was running out of water. Three days after their
water supply ran out, they got a small rainstorm which they used to replenish their small containers. But without tarps their capacity to store water was limited, and they barely survived until the next storm. Then the chocolate bars ran out. After days without food, they caught an albatross that landed on the raft, but when they broke it open the stench was overwhelming and they were unable to hold down even small morsels of its meat. However, they managed to use the albatross to bait their fish hooks and caught a few pilot fish that were swimming around with the sharks. Yes, they were surrounded by sharks, which occasionally tried to lunge into the raft.
They survived this way for weeks. Finally, on their 27th
day they saw a plane coming. They fired their flare gun, and the plane turned around. But as it approached low to the water, the ocean began splattering as if from a heavy rain. It was a Japanese zero shooting at them. All three flung themselves over the side to avoid getting hit and hid themselves as far under water as they could where the bullets slowed down and stopped. But then the sharks came back. They jumped back into the raft to avoid the sharks until the plane came back for another run then had to dive into the water and fight off the sharks. The attacks left holes in the rafts which started to sink. By frantically pumping they were able to re-inflate one raft and patch the holes while beating off the sharks. The other raft sank.
By this point the story was getting too hard to read. I almost
couldn't take it. The men grew thinner and one man died. As Louie pushed the body of his friend over the side, he prayed for one of the first times in his life. He vowed that if God would save him, he would serve God for the rest of his life.
On the 46th day of floating on the raft, they saw a low gray-green
squiggle on the horizon. It was an island. They paddled toward it as hard as they could only to discover that it was occupied by the Japanese. They were captured even before they got to shore.
From that point on Louie experienced a new set of horrors as a
prisoner of war. He was transferred to a prison camp on the Japanese mainland where he was brutalized by a sadistic camp commander.
I will come back to Louie in a minute. But notice the parallels
between Louie's story and the apostle Paul: adrift at sea, running out of supplies, fear of drowning, finally making it to an island only to face a new deadly threat. Louie's story is the Apostle Paul's story on steroids.
But notice how God works in this story. In Acts 23:11 the Lord
appears to Paul in a dream and says, "Just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome." God's goal is clear. God wants Paul to share the gospel in Rome. But at the time God says this, Paul is in jail in Jerusalem, and in the very next verse we learn of a conspiracy to assassinate him. But his nephew overhears the plan and warns the Roman guard, and the Romans send Paul by night to the territorial governor in Caesarea. There Paul is put on trial no less than three times, and while he is judged innocent on all three occasions he is still not released. He languishes in jail for two years, until finally they send him to the emperor in Rome, which of course is where God had wanted him to end up all along.
But then there appears a new threat to God's promise. The ship is
caught in a storm and threatens to sink. Finally they see an island, but before they reach it, the ship runs aground on a rock and begins breaking apart. The guards decide to kill all the prisoners to prevent any from escaping, but at the last minute the officer in charge stops them and orders everyone to jump overboard and swim to the island.
Miraculously they all make it, and unlike Louie Zamperini they are
greeted by very hospitable natives who build a fire around which they can dry out and warm up. But then, just when it seems that Paul is safe, he throws a bundle of sticks on the fire, and a poisonous snake leaps out and bites his hand. Are you kidding? This is like an Indiana Jones movie. What more could possibly go wrong?
But here is the thing. Not only does God overcome all of these
barriers to bring Paul to Rome, but God actually uses the barriers to advance the process. I mentioned that Paul was put on trial three times. Each time he had a new opportunity to tell his story to a different Roman official, and the Romans end up paying for his trip to Rome. In fact, if you look at a map, even the storm was pushing the boat closer and closer to Italy, and during the crisis on the ship Paul has yet another opportunity to share his faith. Acts says that during the storm Paul took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the sailors. It is an intentional allusion to Jesus' last supper. Paul actually serves communion on a sinking ship. And when he ends up as a castaway on an island with some tribal group, he uses that occasion also to demonstrate God's healing power. God can take even the barriers that threaten God's purpose and use them to accomplish it.
Back to the story about Louie. When Louie Zamperini was finally
liberated from the Japanese POW camp, he came home to an even worse form of suffering: flashbacks and nightmares for which he medicated himself by drinking. He tried to train for the 1948 Olympics, but his legs were too badly damaged in the prison camp. He got married, but the nightmares and drinking persisted. The only meaning he saw in life was to hunt down and kill, preferably with his bare hands, the brutal camp commander who tortured him.
Then one day his wife, who had already separated from him once, begged
him to go with her to a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. He didn't want to go, but in order to save his marriage, he went. As he sat and listened, Louie remembered the vow he had made in the life raft: "If you save me I will serve you forever." At the end of the sermon he got up and began walking forward. Lauren Hillenbrand writes,
When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the [camp commander] had striven to make of him. In a single moment his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. (p. 376).
I can't remember a recent best-selling book where the hero's
life is changed by a Billy Graham crusade. It seems almost quaint and far-fetched, which I suppose is why it was left out of the movie. But it is all true. If you look through the 50 pages of references at the end of this book, you will see that Lauren Hillenbrand is not a novelist; she is a meticulous historian.
After the Billy Graham crusade Louie was a changed person. He started
going to church and speaking at Christian conferences. In 1954 he started Victory Boys Camp: a camp for troubled teens where Louie personally taught them swimming, fishing, horseback riding, and repelling down a cliff. In his 60s he could still run a mile in under 6 minutes; in his 70s he discovered skateboarding. He also worked at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood supervising the senior center.
The Bible testifies from beginning to end that God will have the last
word in our lives. But here is the amazing thing about grace: God can take even the barriers that threaten God's purpose, and use them in unexpected ways to accomplish it.