WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?!
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Have you ever been in a situation or had an experience on which you look back and say “My goodness that came out of nowhere!” Like it came out of nowhere. You had no idea. No expectation. This is one of the things about following Christ, about following the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit. We get to take part in situations on which we can look back and say “Where did that come from?!” Like a man going along a road at noon. A road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. A wilderness road. A desert road.
Like sitting around table with 4 young people from a youth shelter on a Thursday night, having just completed an hour and half or so of volleyball. Having just completed some pizza for dinner, and even though there’s a Raptors game on that night no one seems to be in the mood to rush away as we sit around the table. I talked about this last week but the story bears repeating I think, at least a shortened version. We start to talk about school and careers and that kind of thing. At this point someone at the table asks “How do you find your path in life?” Another question is asked, “Do you mean like career path?” which is answered “No like your spiritual path.”
My goodness. We were then in a conversation which involved a lot of talking, listening, question asking. The chance was had to speak in very broad strokes about God’s redemption plan and to speak in very personal fine lines about what being caught up in the redemption of God through Christ and in the Holy Spirit has meant for me and means for me and what I hope it will mean not only for me but for all of humanity and all of creation.
And I was so thankful.
And this story did not end with a baptism. That’s not to say it might not at some point, though we may never know about it. We trust God’s promise that God’s word will not return to God empty or without accomplishing that for which God purposes it. We trust that in Christ, each one of God’s promises is a “Yes.”
Those young people are very much on the fringes in many ways. It’s hard enough to be a teen in this day and age or a young 20-something in this day and age without throwing into the mix the fact that you don’t have a home. You are in between things. You see Phillip in this 8th chapter of Luke’s history of the Holy Spirit’s empowering and working through the early church very much operating on the margins. A young man named Saul had been ravaging the church in Jerusalem, entering house after house, dragging off both men and women, committing them to prison. The church scattered and they went from place to place but their mission was not forgotten. Phillip, one of the 7 we heard about two weeks ago went to Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The good news is spreading, just as we heard it would in the words of Jesus. Jerusalem. Judea. Samaria. The ends of the earth.
The ends of the earth is what Phillip is about to encounter, though I should really say who Phillip is about to encounter. We’ve talked about the work of the Spirit in the church of any age, of the prayer to be filled with God’s Spirit, attuned to God’s Spirit, in tune with God’s Spirit. Philip is very open to hearing about God’s leading. An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
This is a wilderness road. It’s deserted. It might be noon. Who goes travelling down a wilderness road at the hottest part of the day?
Philip doesn’t wonder. He just does it. To paraphrase a phrase.
Here’s the thing about God. God often commands the seemingly ridiculous. We didn’t read this but back in chapter 5 the apostles are all put in prison for preaching in the temple. That night an angel of the Lord breaks them out and tells them “Go stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” What a great line. Go to the place you were just arrested for doing the thing you’re being told to go back and do. The next day the captain of the temple and the chief priests are told the prison is empty – they’re perplexed! Next thing someone is coming up to them saying “The men you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” Check out the story. It ends well. Things work out.
God often commands the seemingly ridiculous, or at least unlikely. Go to a part of town that does not get many strangers passing through it and put on a day camp and invite some people whom you’ve never met to run it for a week. Put it on for two weeks (or a week, whatever you can do). What has this looked like for you? Sometimes it makes us say “Who would have thought?” Do you ever say that? How about “What an unlikely situation?!” I say that about situations God puts me in a lot! I say that about a lot that I see God do in and through us here all the time. I’m thankful every time I say it.
He got up and went. Philip.
And who would have thought. This marvellous Ethiopian, as someone has described him. From what was thought of as the ends of the earth at the time. If you thought Rome was exotic, Rome had nothing on the Kingdom of Cush at the time. A kingdom that covered where southern Sudan is today. The Minister of Finance (or Treasury Secretary if you like) for the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians (this was the title for the queen, not her name). He happens to be travelling along the road at this hour, and happens to be reading from the prophet Isaiah. Now there are two things going on with this Ethiopian. He’s a very highly placed court official. He has juice. His Greek is elegant. The other thing is that he is very much on the fringes. He’s sexually ambiguous. Castrated. Potentially dismembered. He’s religiously ambiguous. He had come to Jerusalem to worship. As a eunuch he was not allowed full participation in temple worship. Is he a Gentile? Is he a Jewish proselyte? We’re not told. The castration/dismemberment bit would make him being a full convert impossible. He’s not described as a Gentile in the same way Cornelius will be described as a Gentile and that story will mark a turn in Acts toward proclamation of the message to Gentiles. This Finance Minister is a big deal. He’s on the margins.
He’s interested in God. The Spirit says to Philip “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Philip (you have to love Philip) runs up and as he goes alongside the chariot he hears this man reading the prophet Isaiah.
Oh my goodness. “This is our stuff,” Philip must have thought.
This was a point of contact. I have to say I think we have many points of contact with people all around us who might not be familiar with this story. When you see thousands taking to the streets to mark civic pride in a basketball team, does this not show something about how we were created to be a part of something bigger than ourselves? When people talk about sending vibes one’s way or good vibrations is this not how some people might be thinking of prayer and the Holy Spirit? When a grocery chain puts out a message that says “Eat together” about the importance of shared meals do we not say “Hey that’s part of our message too!”? When people talk about injustice does this not speak to a feeling inherent in us that something is not right? That something has gone wrong?
What do we do with points of contact? Ask questions. Look at what Philip doesn’t do when he hears this man. He doesn’t start by saying “Let me explain this to you” or “What are you doing reading our scriptures you freak?” or “My goodness I have to get away from this unclean person.” He asks a question.
Do you understand what you’re reading? This marvelous response comes back to him – “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. And Philip comes alongside.
Who is the Spirit asking us to come alongside? To ask questions of? If there is one thing I’ve learned from Thursday nights, it’s that people have a desire to talk about the transcendent. People are open to hearing about your faith. Everyone has a faith position. Everyone has something on which they are founding their life. People are open to hearing about what God means in your life. This stuff tends not to explain itself. When someone tells us “I can’t follow Jesus because he didn’t condemn slavery and actually condoned it because he told stories about slaves,” we need to explain things. We need to be ready to talk and tell the story and that apostles’ teaching we’ve been talking about is not just for our benefit and edification and education.
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. Who is the prophet talking about? Himself? Someone else? The answer is the Sunday School answer of course. Jesus. Justice was denied Jesus and Jesus took that on himself willingly for us and the salvation plan that started with Adam and Eve when they were given skins to clothe themselves with was carried out by this man who was the God’s son and his life was taken and restored and he was taken up and he’s coming again and the invitation is follow him and our spiritual path’s been made for us and thanks be to God for his indescribable gift and for this story and for catching us up in it and this is the good news about Jesus that Philip tells tdshis man. If they looked further in the scroll they would have read this:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord shall surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
There would be no sons or daughters for the eunuch of course. A dry tree? Not at all. Because the new covenant has been sealed with the blood of Christ and in our story it doesn’t seem to matter where you’re from or how religiously or sexually ambiguous you are when in Christ you are given a name and brought into a new family and this is everlasting and shall not be cut off.
That’s the story. The question is “What do we do with this Jesus?” This Ethiopian brother’s response is “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer of course is not a thing in the world. Philip is snatched away and finds himself in Azotus and keeps on proclaiming the good news until he comes to Caesarea where we’ll run into him years later – Philip and his prophesying daughters.
The brother goes on his way rejoicing. Who would have thought? Out of nowhere. We don’t know what happened but early church tradition has it that he becomes the evangelist to the Nubian kingdom, starting a church there that continues to this day.
Who knows what might happen when we come alongside people and are given the opportunity to tell of how all the promises of God find their “Yes” in Christ. May the Spirit give us the enablement to say “Yes” to where God calls us to be and to share. May this be true for us all.