"18 Hours in the Ocean "#89-46
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 17, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Ecclesiastes 9:10
It was the most beautiful night Art had ever spent on the ocean. A brilliant full moon rose, and its reflection sparkled off the waves like a thousand diamonds. "Stars appeared that I had never seen before," Art said, "and the wind went to sleep, and the ocean became as smooth as glass." But then Art began to shiver uncontrollably, his body going into another round of convulsions, the onset of hypothermia. Sixteen hours earlier, Art and four of his friends were starting out on a deep-sea fishing excursion off the coast of New Jersey. Winds were strong early that morning and 30 miles off the coast, they ran into rough seas. Large waves crashed into their boat in quick succession, saltwater swamped the deck, stalled the motors, shorted the radios. And in under 30 minutes, the boat was under water, sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic, leaving Art and his four fellow fishermen floating in the ocean. The year was 1986, and on board the boat there was no emergency rescue beacon, a small device that's become more readily available in the last 35 years. A beacon given to assure the survivors that the rescue is coming.
But in their case, without a beacon, they had no such assurance. And as you can imagine, those 18 miserable hours in the ocean felt like a lifetime. Not knowing whether they would live or die, those 18 hours went on forever. But looking back years later, when two of them, David Jones and Arthur Higbee wrote a book about it, they titled it, Promising Forecast. Promising, that's how it looked on this side of things. Those 18 hours looked different. And strangely, Art could still regard it as one of the most beautiful nights he'd ever spent on the water. I share that story with you because I want to offer it up as a metaphor, for life, for this mortal life. We all have certain pictures and stories that we use to make sense of life. There are many metaphors we live by. Life is a race. Life is a journey. Life is a dream, a box of chocolates, a bowl of cherries, a treasure guarded by a dragon, a party that wasn't meant to last.
To that pool of metaphors, I'd like to add this one: life is like a shipwreck. I admit it's not as optimistic as a box of chocolates or a bowl of cherries. But I think it might fit better with your lived experience. Now, you should know that I'm not the first person to suggest this metaphor. Two-hundred and sixty-two years ago, in the year 1760, a famous French philosopher named Voltaire wrote the following, "The world is one great shipwreck." Later, a commentator on Voltaire's writings added a twist that fits with Voltaire's outlook. "Life is a shipwreck," he wrote, "but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats." Okay, so hold on. Is this really the metaphor that we want? Is this how we want our young people to imagine their lives and their future? If your outlook tends more toward optimism, maybe you'd prefer something different. Or if you're a follower of Jesus like me, you might have your own reasons for wanting to abandon this metaphorical ship.
Does the metaphor give enough credit to what Jesus has already done to save us? Or does it take the wind out of the sails of our Christian faith? Because by His death and resurrection, Jesus says He has overcome the world. So doesn't the Bible give us more hopeful metaphors to live by? For example, we could follow the lead of Peter, one of Jesus' first followers, and say that being with Jesus is like being born again, see 1 Peter 1:3. And that means we have new life, new life, not a shipwrecked one, right? But take another look at the rest of Peter's letter. In 1 Peter 1, he does say that we've been born again to a living hope, but in that same chapter, he tells us to expect tests of faith and trials by fire. And in chapter 4, he says, "Don't be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you."
See, Jesus has overcome the world, "but in this world, we will still have trouble," He tells us. And Jesus came not to take us out of the world, but to give us a hope within it, a beacon, an assurance that rescue is coming. So maybe there is a Christian way to take hold of Voltaire's metaphor that life is a shipwreck, a Christian way to sing, whether you're in a lifeboat or adrift in the water. Sometimes people accuse the Christian faith of being naively optimistic. Voltaire, that 18th-century French philosopher I mentioned, so accused the Christian faith. Voltaire, in his time, had declared war on Christianity, and the philosopher directed his guns to sink its unseaworthy beliefs, or at least what he thought were Christian beliefs. Voltaire, poked holes in all paper boat optimism, especially the 18th-century European belief that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. This belief that we are now living in the best of all possible worlds had become popular in Voltaire's day, and it was presented as the sum of Christian belief—and Voltaire wanted to sink it.
But this belief wasn't a Christian belief, at least not one drawn from the Bible. And maybe you, like Voltaire, have heard accounts of the Christian faith that sound like paper boat optimism, but actually there is a fair amount of agreement between Voltaire and biblical Christian faith. The fact is both outlooks can portray life as a shipwreck. A book in the Bible that does this really well is the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Throughout the book, Ecclesiastes says that life has the feel of a shipwreck. "Helpless" is the word used by those New Jersey men who were lost in the ocean for 18 hours. Imagine that kind of helplessness, an ill-fitting life jacket keeps your head just above the surface of the stinging salt water, but not above it enough to know what's ahead of you or behind you, or the threats that lurk beneath you, but only the constant shifting cavern of dark waves all around you. That's the world Ecclesiastes shows us, the real world, not the best of all possible worlds.
It can't currently be the best world because it's a world in which humankind has broken faith with God. God created us to live in relationship with Him, but we rejected His life-giving invitation. To borrow a phrase from the Bible, we "made shipwreck of our faith," see 1 Timothy 1:19. The world is sinking in a sea of unbelief, and we are helpless, dead in the water. In Ecclesiastes 9, the salty old sage says it this way: "I have seen something else under the sun. The race does not go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor does bread come to the wise, or wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned, but time and chance happen to them all. What is more, no man knows when his hour will come. As fish are caught in a cruel net or birds taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly on them." Whoever said the Bible offers paper boat optimism hasn't read it.
The Bible tells us we are helpless as a shipwreck, and then it gives you a rescue beacon. That's where Voltaire and the Christian faith part ways. Voltaire said, the world is one great shipwreck, and man's motto, save yourself, if you can. Many people today, take this motto as their own. Save yourself, if you can, however you can. How do modern people try to save themselves? In 1948, a man named C.S. Lewis wrote an article titled, "On Living in an Atomic Age." In it, he said, "Nature," that is, Nature with a capital "N," the natural world. "Nature is a sinking ship." In other words, as far as we can see, with that ill-fitting life jacket we call human reason, as far as we can see on our own, the whole story of the universe started by accident, drifts along without meaning, and will ultimately end in nothing, a cold entropic death at the bottom of a sea of nothingness. Within this meaninglessness, how do modern people try to save themselves?
C.S. Lewis thought of three ways people might try. Option one: commit suicide. Option two: decide to have as good a time as possible, to grab as much as possible, even if there is very little to grab, and it will be gone before you know it. Or Option three: defy reality and live as if, live as if the ship weren't sinking, as if people really were worth saving and treating well and not abandoned as meaningless. Live as if our craving for justice and mercy and community were more than just hormones. Live as if we really could sail this ship to some better destination. In other words, to save themselves, people live by faith in themselves. Lewis thought that many people drift in some uneasy alternation between options two and three, between pleasure seeking and humanistic faith. And some, God have mercy, give into the despair of option one. Wherever you are on this sinking ship with me, I want to offer you a fourth option.
And it could start with a simple question: what if this ship were on isn't all there is? What if nature isn't all there is? What if nature has a Creator, and her Creator wants to rescue us and restore the ship? It's not an unreasonable question, but it's not a question reason can answer. Only faith can answer it. Faith in humanity can answer, "No, there is no Creator who cares about us." Faith in God can answer, "Yes, there is." And this faith, this faith in God, it's not faith without evidence. The evidence is the rescue beacon that has been put in our hand, or better, in our ears. Because the evidence is the word-of-mouth testimony of the apostles and prophets of Jesus that has come down to us—that is the rescue beacon. It's not electronic or mechanical, but personal and relational. It's not something we use to signal for someone's attention. It's a word of promise from our Rescuer: a promise to assure us that rescue is coming.
I believe because I've heard Jesus' promise. Some of His people found me in the water, baptized me in the water. They told me I matter to Him, that He died for me because He thinks I'm worth rescuing. And this promise is for you, too. Without Him, we are sinking into an eternal abyss of loneliness and isolation, of distrust and separation. But God sent Jesus to pull us out of it. And Jesus came to stay, to be with us in the water. This picture of Jesus in the water with us changes the metaphor. It changes it like the presence of a friend changes things. That's what made the difference for Dave, one of those five New Jersey fishermen who endured 18 hours in the ocean. It was the presence of friends. When Dave tells his part of the story, he says that being with friends kept him from losing his mind.
After the wreck, Dave remembers seeing their lunch cooler floating by in the water. Inside, they found a can of orange soda. Someone says, "How about we share it?" Another says, "Orange is as close to breakfast as you can get." So the five of them circle around the cooler, crack open the soda can, and pass it around, each one taking a sip. The can win around three times before it was empty. Then Dave notices all the fishing bait floating in the water around them, and he can't stop thinking about sharks. He tells a friend, "I can't stop thinking about sharks." And his friend says, "I'm not going to worry about them until they get here." And that made Dave laugh. "You've got a good approach there," he said. And later, when his other friend said, "You know, this is the first time I've ever used this waterproof watch. Boy, it works great," that made him laugh, too. And in those nighttime hours that seemed to go on forever, they told each other's stories about their lives, and they really listened, and not just to be polite like you might do at a party. See, the presence of a true friend changes things—the presence of Jesus, Jesus and His people, people you can help. Helping people changes things. It gives you something purposeful to do, something meaningful.
You can share a drink. You can share the time if you've got a waterproof watch. You can share a story and listen. You can't do anything to save them, but you can still serve them. As the salty sage of Ecclesiastes says, "Whatever your hand finds to do in the shipwreck of mortal life, do it with all your might," even if it's just passing a sip of orange soda to the guy floating on your right. And with Jesus with you in the water, and God's promise to salvage and restore this beautiful sinking ship we call nature, you can even enjoy it. Enjoy the majesty of each starry night. The Bible says, in the book of Romans, "Our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us." Compared to true life in Jesus, compared to eternal life in God's kingdom, this mortal life is like less than 18 hours in the ocean.
Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, You meet us in the Word and in the water. In Baptism You promise to rescue us. So we can say that this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. So keep us in that circle of all who wait for You, and of good service to our neighbor next to us. Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for July 17, 2022
Title: 18 Hours in the Ocean
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. And now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Today, we're visiting once more with our friend, Dr. Tim Saleska, a beloved teacher in our Church body, a regular guest on this program. Tim teaches future pastors, deaconesses, teachers, about life with God, especially as He's revealed Himself through Jesus and in the Old Testament. Thanks for coming back, Tim.
Tim Saleska: Michael, thanks for using the word "beloved." My goodness!
Mike Zeigler: You wouldn't believe when I travel how many people say beloved things about you ...
Tim Saleska: You're very kind.
Mike Zeigler: ... when you're not in the room. We're still talking about the book of Ecclesiastes. This week we are interested in hearing about how it shaped you, as a follower of Jesus, as a human being. I want to start with this story I've heard you mention off the cuff when you were a seminary student. Somebody said to you, "I can't believe you're going to be a pastor." Tell us that story.
Tim Saleska: Okay, so I'll preface it by saying that William James in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, has this very suggestive structure in which he has this what he calls a "misery line," and on the left side of the line are people who are born on the sunny side of life. And as a result, they don't have much of a consciousness of evil. That's actually how I was brought up. I didn't realize it until years later that not every family was like mine. We didn't have any problems. I didn't have any idea about the racial strife that was going on, to my shame, really, the suffering that happens in the world. As a result, I had blinders on, regarding evil. I was so optimistic that I could be very flippant in comments, and the big jokester, and everything's fine, and what's the big problem? That kind of thing.
I think it was the end of my second year of the seminary. I used to paint my way through the summers. But anyway, one day I was painting with another college—she he was a couple years younger than me—she was in college, I think. We were painting. See, I'm a jabberer, and I was just jabbering on and on about things I don't even remember anymore. But finally, she looked at me with all seriousness, all seriousness, and she said, "I cannot believe you're going to be a pastor."
And that struck me more than she probably knows. I kind of brushed it off, but here I was about to go on vicarage. All of a sudden I started to have to visit people in the hospital a lot more and go to funerals more and see people whose marriages were breaking apart, and that's why I think I resonate with the book and continue to think about the truths that Ecclesiastes is offering us up to consider. And I think this is kind of a big takeaway of the book, and Luther in his commentary on Ecclesiastes makes this point, helps us to forget the past and stop worrying about the future and enjoy the present. Let me explain that now just a little bit.
There is a real problem that human beings have with living for the present right now. All you got to do is go to your Amazon, type in "living for the present," and you will see a whole list of books in which—they're how-to books, okay, how to let go of the past and grab the present, seventy-one ways to find peace in the present. I mean, it's pretty incredible what a big problem living in the present is. I know this from my own experience that it's hard for us to enjoy the present because of our regrets for the past. We regret things that we can't change. We wish we could change history. We want to let go of the past, really, we want the past to let go of us, but it doesn't, and it can't, and it won't, right?
I think that it's only as God's kingdom comes to us as we hear the forgiveness of sins that we get the strength to let go of the past. Why? Because God has forgiven us all. We need total reminder of that, constant reminder, right? Don't worry about the future because it's in My hands. And even in death, you're going to pass through death to life. And in that dynamic, as we continue to hear the Gospel, He gives us the present as His gift. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, "Hey, if you can eat and drink and find enjoyment, this is a gift of God. There's nothing better than that. That's your lot in life. God gives that." That's what Luther calls living in the present, enjoying what God gives you, without worrying about the future, without regretting the past. Because we are sinful, we always need to hear that message; that's what we all need.
When the church forgets that the center, the foundation, is the message of grace, when we forget that and think that we need to adhere to some laws or that Christianity is predominantly a certain way of life or it's about doing, we're missing the power of the Gospel for salvation. We're missing the kingdom of God, the way that the Kingdom comes to us each and every new day to help us get away from the past, release our fear of the future, and enjoy the present. I think that's another very cool message of Ecclesiastes. You can see it in those so-called mitigations throughout the book.
Mike Zeigler: I love how the book ends. I thought of it when you were saying how the kingdom of God is coming down to us, descending to us. When you're young and even in middle age, you think of life as progressively getting better or easier or more comfortable, but it's not that. Ecclesiastes shows us in that last chapter it's all these things—when the houses or shutters are closed and the golden bowl is broken and the grasshopper can't jump anymore and the man is stumbling through the streets. It's this picture of life that's in constant descent.
Tim Saleska: Yep.
Mike Zeigler: But that's where God wants to meet us, at rock bottom, so to speak.
Tim Saleska: That's right. Grace always meets you at the bottom. That's where Ecclesiastes puts you and that's why we need to read Ecclesiastes in the light of the whole Scriptures, but especially the message of the New Testament of Jesus and the message of Paul that there's a righteousness outside of the Law and a certainty to be had outside of the Law. So, we don't have to fear when God comes. We cling to the promise that we've already heard that He loves us and forgives us and will indeed raise us from the dead for eternal life with Him.
Mike Zeigler: There's that passage from the New Testament where Paul says, "I've found the secret to contentment."
Tim Saleska: Again, I think that's from Philippians 4, I think I have it here, when he says that's this aspect of faith of the ability to live in the present where he says, "Not that I'm speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." That's quite a statement. "I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound in any and every circumstance. I've learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."
He was able to grasp living for the present in this kind of beautiful way. I think those words kind of encapsulate that, as you said. That's a really good verse to mention here as we're starting to wrap things up.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for helping us puzzle through and be fascinated by and taught wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Tim Saleska: It's my pleasure.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"One Thing's Needful; Lord, This Treasure" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)