This morning, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a true story, about an epic journey undertaken in the early part of this century. It’s a tale of great deeds attempted, of great disappointments and failures, and also of great achievements. And it’s a tale of a group of ordinary men who were pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, but who somehow survived and triumphed.
On October 26th, 1914, the British explorer Ernest Shackleton set sail from Argentina with a crew of twenty-seven men, on what was to be the first expedition ever to cross the Antarctic on foot. The North Pole had been reached in 1909, and a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen had achieved the Southernmost point of the globe in 1911. This, then, was the last great polar adventure. Once their ship reached the Antarctic, Shackleton planned to travel by dogsled from East to West across the frozen continent, a distance of almost two thousand miles. There, they would be met by a second ship and returned home to England, where they could look forward to fame and wealth as heroic adventurers. Their dreams of glory were not unrealistic, assuming that they succeeded; in fact, in order to finance the expedition, Shackleton had already been successful in selling a book that he was to write on his return, and had also contracted for a worldwide series of lectures.
But the name of their ship, the Endurance, proved to be more prophetic than they knew. Because Ernest Shackleton and his men would not return home for seventeen months, and under very different circumstances than they had imagined. Their ship never even reached Antarctica, but instead became stuck sixty miles off the coast, while attempting to make its way through a sea of pack ice. And from that point on, they were stranded. All they could do was wait through the bitter Antarctic winter, looking forward to the Spring, when the ice would melt and they could sail free. But that day never came. Instead, after being trapped in the ice for nine months, they were finally forced to abandon ship, as the pressure of tons of ice pushing against its wooden sides finally began to crush it to pieces. When that happened, their mission changed. No longer were they concerned with crossing the Antarctic. Their only goal was to be rescued, to return home safely. And conditions looked very bleak. They were still stranded on a massive ice floe, except that now they had no ship, but only three lifeboats. And again, they could only wait and watch for another six months, as the ocean currents carried them along. Finally, the ice cleared enough to allow them to launch the lifeboats and set out for the nearest land, now about 80 miles away, and after several days of rowing, they made it to a small, uninhabited island.
But although they were now safe from the perils of the ocean, they still had no hope of being rescued. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, they had been lost at sea. No one knew that they were even alive, much less where they where. They had no radio, no way of contacting a rescue party. Somehow, they had to make it to civilization. And so Shackleton and a few of the men set off again in one of the lifeboats, heading for South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station. Amazingly, they were able to cross 870 miles of open ocean in a rowboat, and reach their destination. But even then, they were not finished. The only human settlement was on the other side of the island, and the terrain was so treacherous, so icy and mountainous, that no one had ever successfully traveled from one side of the island to the other. And yet, these few men, exhausted after 522 days of survival at sea, somehow managed, with no climbing gear to march and climb and scale their way to the other side. From there, a rescue party was sent out to retrieve those left behind.
It’s difficult for us to imagine what these men went through, what they endured over those seventeen months at sea. First of all, there was the weather. The Antarctic is the most inhospitable region of the world, the part of the world most hostile to human life. Extreme cold. Gale and hurricane-force winds. Ice. Snow. No trees, no plants, no vegetation of any kind. Just a cold, barren landscape. And on top of that, several months a year of complete darkness. You may remember the American researcher, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was stationed at the South Pole in 1999, and who diagnosed herself with breast cancer. Even with all of today’s advanced technology, it was five months before the weather had moderated enough so that a plane could be sent to pick her up and return her to the U.S. for treatment. Yet these men survived in that environment with very little shelter, and only a small cooking stove to provide heat. They each had one set of clothing, which they wore for seventeen months straight. Their clothing and their sleeping bags were almost always wet; they were cold all the time. Can you imagine what it would be like to be uncomfortably cold for a year and a half, to go to bed every night for seventeen months in a cold, wet sleeping bag, wearing cold, wet clothes?
Most of the time, they were not in danger of starvation, although at one point they had to kill and eat the sled dogs. They had plenty of seals around that they could kill for meat. But again, can you imagine seventeen months of nothing to eat but seal stew, seal steak, and seal sandwiches, for breakfast, lunch and dinner? And think of the grinding boredom, the endless tedium. There’s not much to do, stuck on an ice floe in the Antarctic for a year and a half. No television or radio. No movies. Just a few books, read over and over again. Nothing but ice and sea to look at. No work, other than hunting and cooking seals. Nothing to do but play cards and talk and wait. Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for seventeen long months. It’s a wonder none of them went insane. And finally, there was the constant battle with fear and despair. Knowing that their chances of ever making it home were extremely slim, listening to the creaks and groans of the ice floe under them, know that any day it could break up, and they would be drowned. And yet, somehow, they made it. They persevered. They endured. They all returned safely. And I’d like to use their experience as an example as we consider the topic of perseverance.
Before I do that, you may be wondering what all this has to do with a sermon series on the family. Just this: that often being a faithful husband or wife is simply a matter of perseverance. Endurance. Refusing to give up. Resolving to live in obedience to God’s Word, no matter what. Yes, we have an ideal, a romantic picture of marriage in which it’s always easy to love; easy to give, and serve, and sacrifice, and submit. We’d like it to always be the case that responding to one another as God calls us to would be natural, and done out of genuine affection rather than out of duty and commitment. But the reality is that having a successful marriage often requires us to do what we would rather not do. Sometimes, being a disciple of Jesus Christ means staying and suffering when we would rather cut our losses and get out – when we would rather leave, either physically or emotionally. It means putting up with things we don’t like. It means realizing that some things about our husband or wife will quite possibly never change, and yet continuing to love and accept them anyway. It means persevering when it’s hard to persevere.
What can the legendary Antarctic expedition of Ernest Shackleton teach us about perseverance? How can we persevere, even in the midst of unpleasant circumstances? And how can we persevere with joy, instead of just grimly "gutting it out"? There are at least three things we can learn.
First of all, relinquish your dream. Shackleton and his men had a beautiful dream. They were going to be the first men ever to walk across the continent of Antarctica. They were going to have their names in the history books. They were going to return home victorious – to glory and the kind of public adulation that we give today to sports heroes. There would be ticker tape parades, and speaking tours, and medals, and world acclaim. But as they stood and watched their ship crack and burst and sink under the ice, that dream sank with it. It was replaced by a new dream – making it back to land. Surviving. Being rescued. And in the end, by embracing that dream, they accomplished a feat much more amazing and even more glorious than what they had originally planned.
Their first dream would have been historic. But it wouldn’t have qualified as one of the greatest stories of human survival, one of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit, ever recorded. And I can guarantee that they wouldn’t have survived, they couldn’t have endured the next year and a half of suffering and deprivation, if they had been consumed with regret over the loss of their first dream. If they spent those long months on the ice by sitting around all day talking about what could have been – "If only we had taken a different route!" "If only we had realized sooner that the ice was closing in!" "If only we hadn’t gotten on this accursed ship in the first place!" – then they would almost certainly have perished. The secret of their survival was to embrace their new goal, and their new reality, with as much energy and enthusiasm as they had the first one.
Nothing is more threatening to perseverance in marriage than an unwillingness to give up our old dreams. It breeds discontentment, and bitterness, and anger. You probably have a picture of what an ideal marriage, or an ideal husband, or an ideal wife should look like. And there are probably some obvious differences between the person you are married to, and that picture. Give it up. Perhaps you had an idealized view of what you thought your husband or wife was like before you married them, and now you find that the reality doesn’t match the dream. Give it up. God didn’t give you your ideal, and for a good reason – because He wanted to give you something better. You may find that difficult to believe when you think about all of your mate’s flaws: their black moods, their annoying habits, their infuriating behaviors, their sin. But that person, the person God gave you, with all of their imperfections, is the one best suited to accomplishing God’s purpose in you.
Your picture of the ideal marriage probably didn’t include suffering. It probably didn’t include disappointment, or angry words, or hurt feelings, or things that had to be forgiven. But how would you learn forgiveness, if you had nothing to forgive? Your ideal probably didn’t include any of the things that God uses to refine our character. But God’s purpose is not to give us an easy, carefree life. His purpose is to make us like Christ. His purpose is to build mature disciples. His purpose is to develop worshipers. And this is how he does it – by putting us in an intimate relationship with an imperfect, sinful person, where we will have to rely on His grace and power. So give up your dream. Trade in your "ideal" for God’s best. And you will learn that what the Scriptures teach is true:
"And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us," – Romans 5:2-5 (NIV)
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." – James 1:2-4 (NIV)
Perseverance in the midst of suffering, even suffering caused by your own husband or wife, strengthens your character. It is what God uses to make you spiritually mature. And it brings hope.
Are there things that shouldn’t be tolerated, things that shouldn’t be accepted? Of course. Giving up your ideal doesn’t mean you give up all standards of acceptable behavior. There are situations in which the right thing to do is to get out. But those are relatively rare. In most cases, what God is calling us to do is to persevere in the situation, rather than to flee from it.
The second thing we can learn from the Shackleton expedition is the value of a long-term perspective. When their boat was destroyed, Shackleton and his crew knew that they were in for a long period of waiting. They knew it could be months before the ice melted sufficiently for them to launch the rowboats. And so they were able to fortify their minds, to "dig in" mentally for the long haul. But in contrast, our desire for a quick fix, a quick change, a quick solution to problems makes it very difficult to persevere. We need to realize that many of the sin issues people struggle with took years to develop, and may take years to overcome. Change may come slowly. Yes, God is powerful and He will change us, and change our mates as well. But he may not do it on our timetable. You may pray to God to change your wife, or to change your husband, and God may respond as He did to Paul, when Paul begged to be relieved of a physical problem that he called his "thorn in the flesh":
"Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 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 12:8-10 (NIV)
God uses our struggles, to show us the limits of our own strength, so that we might depend instead on His strength. We need to adopt a long-term perspective, and ideally an eternal perspective, in order to endure and persevere.
The third thing we can learn from the Shackleton expedition is never to give up hope. By all reasonable measures, they were in an impossible situation. No one had ever survived that kind of an ideal before. Everyone simply assumed that they had been lost at sea; no rescue ship was ever sent after them, because no one could conceive that they could still be alive after so many months in the harsh environment of the Arctic. And yet they did survive, and triumph. You may be feeling hopeless about your mate. Perhaps he isn’t yet a believer, and shows no interest in spiritual things. Perhaps she has been struggling with the same sin issues for years, even decades. And you are growing weary, and losing hope, and it’s becoming harder and harder to pray. But don’t give up. God’s power is sufficient for even the most unlikely transformations. He can change people and situations, and He can give you joy and peace in the meantime. Listen:
"Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." – Romans 12:13 (NIV)
"Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, `Grant me justice against my adversary.’ "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, `Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’" – Luke 18:1-5 (NIV)
"In other words", Jesus is saying, "if even a corrupt judge was willing to do the right thing to get this women to leave him alone, don’t you think that God, who is not only holy and righteous, but who also loves us – don’t you think He will be willing to do what we ask?" So then, don’t give up hope. God is more powerful than even the most stubborn sin, and the most stubborn sinner. Keep praying. Keep trusting God. Keep walking in obedience. And He will not disappoint you.
Finally, where does our endurance come from. Not from within ourselves, but from the Spirit of Christ, who lives within us.
"And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father" – Colossians 1:10-12 (NIV)
May we look to Christ for the power to persevere in our marriages with joy and hope.
(For an .rtf file of this and other sermons, see www.journeychurchonline.org/messages.htm)