Weekly Sermon (18)

Sermon – April 28, 2024

Finding the God you were not looking for…

April 28, 2024

Scripture: Acts 8:26-40

        Having hurriedly left Jerusalem, Philip was tired and worn out. He had not stopped to rest since being asked by the Apostles to go forth and share the good news in the name of Jesus. As he sat for a moment to take a breath and consider what he might do next, he was shocked to hear the voice of an Angel speaking clearly to him. The Angel’s instructions were brief and to the point. He told Philip to get up and to go back southward down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Catching his breath for just a moment, Philip knew that this was no small request for everyone knew of the reputation of that stretch of road through rugged terrain and countryside. Aside from its long and steep descent, the sides of the road were literally strewn with boulders of varying size and shape affording multiple hideouts for bandits and other criminals…thieves who made their living preying upon unsuspecting travelers. However, filled with a sense of the holiness of his call, Philip set off at once as instructed.

        Now traveling along that same road out from Jerusalem was a royal entourage accompanying a Eunuch from Ethiopia. This particular Eunuch served in the Court of Queen Candace (Can-day-see) as her Royal Treasurer. Having gone on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was returning home to resume his formal duties there. As it was approaching mid-day the air was hot and the road was rough causing the royal carriage to shift and jolt from side to side. Calling for the driver to stop, they pulled over to rest for a moment before resuming their journey.

Reaching into a leather satchel by his side, the Eunuch pulled out a scroll of ancient scripture to read and to study. A devout believer in the God of the Hebrews, the Eunuch was most probably a self-taught man, as his particular condition would have severely limited his access to the usual avenues of Hebrew faith instruction. As one who was involuntarily mutilated as a young man in order to render him suitable to assume his present responsibilities in the service of a woman, he was therefore totally banned from inclusion into the assembly of the Jewish Temple culture. Scriptural law in Leviticus expressly forbid one such as this from entering the Temple. In addition, the Eunuch was not circumcised; therefore he did not have the required seal of the Covenant required of all ‘true’ Hebrew men. In all respects, he was an outsider…an ‘other’. He knew the faith, but the faith refused even to acknowledge him or his existence.

He had gone to Jerusalem seeking to worship the God of the Hebrews; however all of these laws and rules surely made his pilgrimage far from even moderately fulfilling. Now traveling back homeward, the Eunuch once again began to read the scroll of the ancient words, searching for understanding and perhaps even a word of comfort from this God he so yearned to know and to love…a God however, who seemed to be forever far away and out of reach. Sitting there in the heat of the afternoon he read aloud the old familiar words…this time from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. And as he read, he caught sight of a rather disheveled individual approaching his carriage. 

        For his part, Philip had done as the angel instructed and set out along the road on which the Eunuch was now traveling. Suddenly Philip heard a voice again. However this time it was the voice of the Holy Spirit telling him, ‘Go over to that carriage and introduce yourself’. Once again acting quickly upon his divine instruction, Philip moved closer to the ornate carriage bearing the Royal Seal of the Queen of Ethiopia.

Drawing near, he was surprised to hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah coming from within. Coming closer to the window he saw a man seated within reading intently from the ancient text. As the two made eye contact Philip spoke. ‘Do you understand what it is you are reading’?How can I, unless someone guides me’, replied the Eunuch. ‘Why don’t you join me. Come up here and sit with me and teach me the meaning of these words’. And so the young evangelist, dirty and disheveled, climbed up into the carriage alongside the Eunuch of the Royal Court.

The particular passage the Eunuch had been reading aloud from Isaiah was this: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’

Looking at Philip, the Eunuch asked him, ‘Tell me, do you know who the prophet is speaking about? Is he talking about himself or perhaps about someone else?’ Somewhere the Eunuch was probably thinking that the plight of the one referenced in the scripture seemed eerily similar to his own life…filled with the appearance of goodness and fortune, yet always treated as an outsider and not truly belonging anywhere. Surely he had experienced the deepest of humiliation throughout his life with no avenue for true justice or redress. His question was sincere and he waited, listening carefully as the young stranger began to speak.

Beginning far back in the story of the Hebrew people, Philip explained the scriptures, bringing the words of Isaiah forward to where they tied in with the Good News and the message of Jesus’ life, death and witness through his resurrection. Sharing everything as empowered by the Spirit, he was able to bring the stranger in the carriage to a place of wanting to know more, and of wanting to feel as deeply as the young man before him. And somewhere in that exchange I am sure the Eunuch was still very conscious of the lifelong disconnect that had been such a part of his whole life…somewhere all that he was previously forbidden from hoping or fully experiencing now seemed all at once accessible, and there just for the asking.

For his part, surely Philip was also aware of the Eunuch’s situation. For his mannerisms and the voice of one deprived of physical male influence since childhood betrayed his station and resultant marginality. However, even as the Eunuch was finding a new pathway to God, so too was Philip’s world being shaken and stretched far beyond any previous understanding, as he too witnessed the grace of God taking root in the Eunuch. Together they both were finding a God who was much greater than either had ever imagined. A God far different than either one expected. Their worlds were colliding and by grace emerging as one.

By now, the rest break was over and as they began to journey down the road together, there appeared on the side of the road a small watering hole used by weary travelers to water their livestock. Looking at the water, and reflecting on Philip’s testimony of Jesus’ life and ministry, the Eunuch suddenly decided to risk everything in seeking to draw even closer to this new found Lord and Savior named Jesus.  ‘Look, there is some water’, he exclaimed to Philip. ‘What is to prevent me from being baptized as well?’

Softly and with deepest reverence Philip said to the Eunuch, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And the Eunuch replied excitedly, ‘I do believe, I believe that Jesus Christ truly is the Son of God!’ And then to his carriage driver he shouted out a command to stop at once. As soon as the carriage had come to a halt, the two of them got out and walked over to the side of the water. Walking into the watering hole until the water was waist deep Philip baptized the Eunuch in the name of Jesus, fully immersing the well-dressed man in the muddied waters of the little pond there by the roadside.

As they emerged from the water, Philip was suddenly snatched away by the Holy Spirit, disappearing altogether from sight, as though he had never even been there. The Eunuch was greatly surprised to be sure, but the momentousness of the occasion made Philip’s disappearance somehow believable, as his heart was now filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit as well. Lifting his voice in praise and thanksgiving the Eunuch got back into his carriage and bid the driver to continue on, to carry him back to his homeland in Africa…for he had much to share, and much to tell his fellow countrymen about. 

For Philip’s part, the Spirit set him down in the city of Azotus some 30 miles to the west of Jerusalem. As soon as he arrived there Philip again began to share his passion for Jesus and the life-changing truth of his message…and now a brand new story of a God suddenly so much bigger than he had ever dreamed. Continuing on under the guidance of the Spirit, Philip proclaimed the Good News within all of the towns he passed through…

…the word of our Lord…thanks be to God.

Without this color and narrative I think it may be easy to read right on by the significance of this strange encounter. Of course it is notable as written, however I think the focus shifts fairly quickly to the ‘presto chang-o act’ of Philip’s disappearance and reappearance some 30 miles away. At least that is what I heard when first exposed to this story as a child. What fun! How interesting!

However, like most of what we find in the Bible, there is often far more to a story behind the scenes…lost to us due to time, or to cultural issues to which we have a hard time relating. But with further explanation of all the circumstances surrounding this story, it may be that the amazing ‘teleporting’ of Philip is the least significant!

Neither of these men woke up that morning and expected their world, their understanding of reality, and perhaps most importantly, their notions of the nature of God to be so challenged and turned virtually upside down. A lifelong set of rules and restrictions had governed the Eunuch’s life from a very young age. He was from the outset an ‘other’, an ‘outsider’, one who was necessary in a sense, but never a part of a group of friends or family. He was alone…and by some small measure of grace had found the God of the Hebrews, but not the means to truly understand how he was to relate to him. Even the scripture passage he was reading sounded like a litany of his life…like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. The hope and promise offered to the Hebrew people through their faith was denied to this outsider…this one who in some sense was a necessary part of the Queen’s property…nothing more.

And as for Philip, surely he knew of the teachings of both his Hebrew faith and of the amazing ministry of Jesus of whom he was a devoted follower. Not to be confused with another Philip, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, this one was an enthusiastic and devoted teacher and evangelist in the earliest days of the Christian movement following the resurrection. He most likely was first and foremost a Hebrew, and secondly a convert to this new understanding of the nature of God and the fulfillment of the scriptures within the person of Jesus. However, he had to have been shocked to find that even a Eunuch could be welcomed in as a part of his new understanding of the faith. And yet, that is exactly what happened. As confirmed by the Spirit’s continuing involvement in Philip’s life and the testimony at the end of our reading, the young evangelist continued on as a very effective and influential missionary of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

So from the moment that Philip heard the words of Isiaih being read by a Eunuch a profound conversion began taking place at the urging of and by the power of the Holy Spiritboth an offered conversion, and an accepted conversion…both of these men needed to say yes to the offer of the Holy Spirit. That said, how might this speak to us here, today?How are we, or are we in fact asked to set aside any of our own faith convictions…are we ever asked to expand our view of who God is? Can our understanding of God get any bigger as it did so profoundly for Philip? Is it possible that God really loves everyone…both those who are devout followers, as well as those who it would seem are fully ‘outsiders’, and not a ‘part of’ who or what we understand Christianity to be? Are there really no persons more ‘favored’ or somehow ‘better than others’ in the eyes of God? But Lord, we thought we were special to you…so does everyone else..and that my friends is part of the problem…

‘The God we were not looking for’, is the same one found that day by Philip and the Eunuch…a God who defies our definitions and fixed beliefs, a God who is able to surprise us at every turn, a God who truly and unconditionally loves all of humanity…

…this is the God we need to look for, this is the God we need to make room for…this is the God of promise and possibility, not one of fixed and immovable human design. Let us commit to seeking after this God, and perhaps more importantly, let us commit to always and in every way, each and every day, follow after and seek to imitate.

For in the final analysis, today’s critical issues and multiple flashpoints of conflict are no simply match for the love of God when it is offered and extended courageously and freely

…Both Philip and the Eunuch discovered that…

we can too…amen

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