Paul’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Paul’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”


Reverend Rick Kirchoff

April 29, 2007

Acts 27:41-28:6 NRSV  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.


After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta.  The natives showed us unusual kindness.  Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it.  Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”  He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.  They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.  


Let us pray.  Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove; descend on us, reveal your love.  Word of God and inward light, wake our spirits; clear our sight.  Surround us now with all your glory; speak through me that sacred story.  Take my lips and make them bold.  Take hearts and minds and make them whole. Stir in us that sacred flame; then send us forth to spread your name. Amen.


For those of you who do not know about Alexander, I introduce him to you by way of the title of the book that is about him, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.   If you are a parent or a grandparent with little ones, you have probably read that book. 


Alexander is a seven-year-old who has, what he believes, is an awful day. 


Alexander says, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there is gum in my hair, and when I got out of bed…I tripped over my skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running, and I could tell that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.”  He had a rotten day at school and a painful visit to the dentist.  Things didn’t get any better that evening.  He said, “We had lima beans for dinner and I hate lima beans!  There was kissing on TV, and I hate kissing on TV.  My bath was too hot.  I got soap in my eyes.  My marble went down the drain, and I had to wear my railroad-train pajamas.  I hate my railroad train pajamas!  It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!”  (Judith Viorst)


I suppose for a seven-year-old, it was pretty awful!


But it’s hard to match the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that the Apostle Paul had in the scripture that I just read to you from Acts 27 and the first part of Acts 28.  Paul was storm tossed. He was shipwrecked.  And he was snake-bit.


It all begins with a journey, like so many good stories do! 


For two weeks, Paul has been aboard this large ship on its way to Rome. It’s not a pleasure cruise.  He is a prisoner of sorts, on his way to Rome to meet with the emperor to appeal his conviction because he believes he has been wrongly convicted.  But along the way, they run into this fierce storm.  It’s not a little storm.  It’s a big storm!  It’s not a short-term storm.  It’s a long-term storm! And the massive waves will not let up and the winds and the waves toss their ship like a cork on the ocean.


The way that ships were constructed in those days, a violent, twisting motion of a storm could literally rip the ship apart at the seams. So, they had developed a way to try to hold the ship together.  In storms, sailors would take long ropes, put them over the front of the boat, then work them back to the middle, and tighten them with wenches in an attempt to hold the boat together.  They did this!  But day after day, the violent storm continued.  Everyone on the ship was exhausted and seasick. 


As the storm continued, they said, “We need to do something else,” and so they threw some of the cargo overboard.  The next day when the storm was still raging, they threw some of their tackle overboard. Then, after the storm had raged for over a week, they threw their store of grain overboard to lighten the load. 


Finally, they hear this piercing cry, “Breakers ahead!  Breakers ahead!” 


The next sound they hear is the horrible crunching sound as the prow of the ship hits a reef.  Then they hear the sound of the waves crashing against the back of the ship and they hear the sound of wood breaking and the ship coming to pieces. 


They hear the shout, “Abandon ship!  Abandon ship!” 


Those who could swim, jumped overboard.  Those who were not able to swim, grabbed anything that would float and jumped off into the water.


Well, at the first light of morning, water-logged but thankful, Paul and all the ship’s passengers staggered safe onto the short of Malta. They were all safe. 


But just when it seemed time to rejoice, it starts to rain.  Everybody is wet and cold from the salt water, and so they start a fire to warm up and dry out.  Paul wants to help out so he gathers a little brushwood and throws it on the fire.  A snake hidden in the wood warms up, wakes up, and bites Paul on the hand.  Paul shakes off the snake. But it is a viper…a poisonous snake.  Scripture says an interesting thing.  Everyone sort of stands around and watches, waiting for Paul to swell up and die.  But it doesn’t happen!  


What a story!  Within a matter of hours, Paul has been storm tossed, shipwrecked, and snake-bit.


What does he do after that?  Still, he believes that God can use him, even on this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!


You see, nearby there is an estate that belongs to Publius, the chief official of that island of Malta.  Publius welcomed all of the castaways into his home and fed them for three days.  While there, Paul learned that Publius’ father was sick.  Paul prayed for him, and he got better.  So, other sick people from across the island came and were cured, as well.  As a result, the castaways were showered with honors, and when the time came for them to sail, all of the people in the family of Publius gave them all sorts of things they would need for the trip.  That’s the story! 


What can we make of this strange storm story?  Simply this! 


We all have nights when storms rage, when our life seems to be going to pieces, and when we feel snake-bit.  As Scott Peck says: “Life is hard!”  And we should never be surprised when storms come.  But the real issue is not whether storms will come; rather, how we will respond to them.  For how we respond to the storms, shipwrecks, and snakebites reveals a lot about us and who our God really is


Have you noticed that in all of us there’s a tendency to think that it’s “the circumstances” that shape our lives?  We tend to think we’d have a great life if we could just have a life free of storms.  If we just had good circumstances, then we’d have great lives.  But we can’t choose our circumstances and there’s no place free from storms.  Storms just happen!   


Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is one of the most thought-provoking books you’ll ever read.  In it, holocaust survivor Victor Frankl tells about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp.  Everything was taken away from the Jewish prisoners; they were stripped of their clothing and personal belongings.  Nazi captors even took away their names and gave them numbers.  But Frankl said there was one thing they could not take away.  He writes: “Everything can be taken from (us) but one … (the freedom) to choose (our) attitude in any given set of circumstances.”


Dr. Martin Seligman says that all of us have what he calls an explanatory style to account for life’s experiences and circumstances.  Our explanatory style is how we “habitually explain” to ourselves “why events happen.” (Seligman, Learned Optimism)


What do I mean?  Consider this!  Let’s say you’re a woman and you’re at a restaurant waiting for your date.  You’re supposed to meet at 7:00 P.M., but 35 minutes later, your date is a no-show.  At some point you need to explain to yourself why he is not there.  You might think to yourself, he stood me up, causing you to be mad.  Or you might jump to the conclusion: he doesn’t love me anymore, causing you to be sad.  You could think, he was in an accident, causing you to feel anxious.  You might think, he’s working overtime so that he can pay for our meal, causing you to feel grateful.  You might think, he’s with another woman, causing you to feel jealous.  Or you might think, this gives me a perfect excuse to break up with him, causing you to feel relieved.  It’s the same situation, but with six very different explanations.  (Batterson)


There are lots of different explanations for every circumstance and life experience.  And while we can’t control our experiences, we can control our explanations.  In the final analysis, our explanations are far more important than our experiences. 


Why?  In the words of Dr. Seligman: “Your ways of explaining events to yourself determine how helpless you become or how energized, (whether) you encounter everyday setbacks (or) momentous defeats.” 


As believers, we understand this not to be just a matter of positive thinking but as a matter of faith. 


Consider one of the most tragic storylines in the Bible…the story of Joseph, a teenager whose brothers fake his death and sell him into slavery.  That could cause enough psychopathology to last a lifetime, but it was only the tip of the pyramid for Joseph.  When Joseph resisted the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife, he was unjustly thrown into an Egyptian dungeon.  For thirteen years, things in Joseph’s life seemed to go from bad to worse.  But Joseph’s faith wasn’t contingent on his circumstances.  And after 4,745 terrible, horrible, no good very bad days, in an amazing turn of events, Joseph interpreted a dream and went from prisoner to prime minister. 


Now, Joseph could have come up with any number of explanations for his bad experiences.  He could have said, “God has forsaken me.  God is angry with me.  God has forgotten me.” 


But in Genesis 50:20, Joseph looks in life’s rearview mirror and reflects on the dysfunction, the betrayal, and the pain.  And he says to his brothers, those same guys who faked his death and sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good….”  Another way to say that is: you intended it for evil, but God used it for good. 


This verse summarizes Joseph’s outlook on life and is the lens through which each of us must learn to see our past, our present, and our future.  It is this point of view that shaped Paul as well, even when the storm raged, the ship wrecked, and the snake bit. 

But from where does this perspective come?  How can we develop such a hope-filled stance toward life?   How do we change our attitude? 

Frederick Buechner did not grow up in a churchgoing family.  His ancestors had come to the United States in the 1850’s as radical, German, freethinkers.  Successful financially and socially, religion was of little interest to their family.  But this meant they had no resources on which to fall back when the storm came or the snake bit. (as told by Claypool) 


When Frederick was ten years old, the storm hit.  On a Saturday morning in the fall of 1936, he had expected to go with his dad to Princeton, where his dad had graduated with honors.  However, because of the Great Depression, his father hadn’t been able to keep the kind of employment he had wanted.  He felt like such a failure.  His dad began to drink as a way to cope.  On this particular morning when they were to go to the class reunion, his dad got up before everyone else, got dressed, went down to the garage, closed the garage door, turned on the ignition of his old Chevy, and sat down and waited as his life ebbed away. 


Years later, when people would ask Buechner, “How did your father die?” he’d say, “He died of heart trouble.”  He now says, “That was at least partially true. You see, he had a heart and it was troubled.”  And he had no spiritual resources on which to depend. 


Well, Buechner finished high school, and like his father before him, he went to Princeton.  He became a teacher of English and published a novel that was greatly acclaimed.  It looked as if he was going to have a bright future as a writer.  He resigned his teaching post and began to write full-time.  Then, he had that mysterious malady that often afflicts writers…he hit a block; nothing would come.  He became despondent and deeply depressed. 


One of his friends said, “You might like to go to Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. There is a wonderful minister there named George Buttrick.  He offers hope; he gives energy.  You might find him to be helpful.” 


Church was not something Buechner had ever done.  But he began to go to this church.  Sure enough, this distinguished old preacher began to speak hope to his young, troubled heart. 


One Sunday in the midst of a sermon, Buechner had a religious epiphany.  Literally, “God happened to him” and he “knew there was something beyond himself on which he could rely.” 


Young Buechner made an appointment to see the minister.  As they talked, Buttrick saw the gifts and potential of this young writer.  He knew of a foundation that gave grants to people like Buechner who might be interested in ministry and, therefore, thought that Buechner might like to consider preparing for it.  Even though he’d been in church only a few times in his life, to his amazement, Buechner found himself at Union Theological Seminary and for the first time in his life, he encountered the power of Scripture. 


Buechner says that as he began to live into this great book he was amazed by two things.


First, was the utter honesty of Scripture.  The greatest heroes were depicted with all of their strengths, but also with all of their flaws. 


But even more striking to him was a powerful recurring theme he saw in Scripture.  Starting in Genesis and recurring into the last chapter of Revelation, he saw the continuing motif that the worst things were never the last things(Buechner and Claypool) 


The worst things don’t have the last word.  Again and again in the Bible, he saw that when folks he met there thought they were at the end of their rope, lo and behold, they hadn’t gotten to the end at all.  There was always this amazing God who was always there, always able to take a situation that seemed absolutely hopeless and bring from it something new and good.

The most dramatic illustration of this was in Jesus, the kindest, most loving, finest human being who ever walked the face of the earth.  After giving himself so completely and loving so deeply, lo and behold, He ends up being killed like a common criminal.  And as He cried out his last words, “It is finished,” it seemed as if everything Jesus had stood for was absolutely gone from the face of the earth. 


On Good Friday, nobody dared dream of Easter.  Yet, they forgot that with God, the worst thing was not the last thing.  There was, in the heart of this incredible God, a strength to call him back to life. 


And so, in scripture, Buechner found a hope that his father never possessed.  He found a way of looking at life with utter realism on one hand and on the other, holding on to an inextinguishable hope.


Joseph understood that.  Paul understood that and it shaped his life, even when the storm raged, he was shipwrecked and snake-bit. 


And Winston Churchill came to understand it as well.  Toward the end of his life, just before he died in 1965, he was asked to give a commencement address.  He was very old and had to be helped to the podium.  In fact, he was so tottery that when he got up they weren’t sure he’d have strength enough to speak.  At last he raised the head that had called Britain back from the brink of destruction and said to those graduating seniors, “Never, never give up!”  With that said, he turned and sat down.  They say it’s the only commencement address in history that was remembered verbatim by everybody who heard it! 


The message is simply this: the worst things are never the last things. Never, never give up!  Despair is presumptuous for a believer.  Hope is the gift of God…even when we are storm tossed, and shipwrecked, or snake-bit!


Why?  With God, the worst things are never the last things.  


Our Creative God always has something up his sleeve, even on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.


Let us pray.  O God, we give you thanks today that you have called us and claimed us as your own. We offer ourselves to you and ask you to take our brokenness and our fears and our uncertainty and fill us with courage that we might live the life of the Kingdom, here and now.  We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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Endnotes: This sermon is based, in part, upon material from the following sources:


  1. Mark Batterson, In a Pit with a Lion On a Snowy Day
  2. John Claypool, “The Worse Things are Never the Last Things”
  3. Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day