A sermon preached at John Knox Presbyterian Kirk in Kansas City on May 3, 2015.
The angel of the Lord speaks to Phillip and sends him to the Gaza Road. Just as people don’t take that road voluntarily today, so did they stay away from it then.
It is a wilderness road.
But Phillip doesn’t let the instructions slow him down.
He doesn’t say, “I’d rather head to Galilee.”
He doesn’t say, “why? What am I supposed to do?”
He doesn’t say, as I often said as a child to my older sister, “you’re not the boss of me”.
He just gets up and goes, with those rather vague directions. Sometimes God doesn’t wait for us to understand our call before we are needed to follow our call. We just go and place ourselves on the wilderness road, ready to respond.
Also on the road is an Ethiopian, who is the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. We don’t know much about him, like his name.
But we know he is wealthy enough to be in a chariot.
He is educated enough to be reading Greek.
He is religious enough to be reading Isaiah.
And he is humble enough to ask for help when it is offered.
He is also a eunuch, which would have kept him from worshiping in the Temple and kept him from being ordained to any of the offices of Judaism. Yet, he was returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, which means he was at odds with his tradition on some level.
Unable to be a full participant in Judaism because of laws from Deuteronomy (23:1) that make clear no one who is sexually mutilated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”, he still worships in Jerusalem and still studies scripture.
This Ethiopian official reminds us not to let the powers of this world keep us from seeking our own relationship with, and our own answers from, God.
If the Powers of the world, or the church, tell you to stop reaching out toward God, resist them.
Because if you listen to them, then you lose.
What if our Ethiopian friend had taken that one verse in Deuteronomy as more important than his heart’s own longing for God? What if nobody shared with him these other verses from Isaiah, in chapter 56?
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.
The Spirit sends Phillip over to his chariot. Phillip hears him reading from Isaiah, the verses Chad read this morning, and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
“How can I? Unless someone guides me”.
I am thankful the Ethiopian was willing to accept advice from a perfect stranger who ran up to his chariot, because he had uncovered a discrepancy in scripture. The book of Deuteronomy kept him from worshiping in the temple. Yet, the Book of Isaiah promises that ALL nations, all peoples will worship God together. The Ethiopian was reading a prophecy of hope, of freedom, of inclusion, but was unable to square it with what his tradition tells him.
How can I understand unless someone guides me?
Luckily, the Spirit sent him Phillip. Because he didn’t just need someone who could quote Scripture. He needed someone who knows the God of Scripture. He needed someone who recognizes that God’s movement is ALWAYS toward greater inclusion.
The family of God is an ever-expanding one.
And once he is past the discrepancy, the Ethiopian wants to know if the story of scripture is relevant to his life.
Listen again to the verses he was reading:
‘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.”
And then he asked:
“About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’
Who could relate to verses about humiliation, denied justice, and being led to the slaughter more than our friend the eunuch?
I don’t know about your interaction with scripture, but there have been times in my life when I have read a verse and wondered how an author who lived thousands of years ago could have written something specifically for me.
And I am grateful that when the Ethiopian recognized himself in the story of scripture, Phillip was there to connect his story to the story of Jesus—who also knew humiliation, and was denied justice.
Because it led to a new path, with hope, for this man. It led to a baptism, which is the beginning of a new life of discipleship and faith.
Thank God that it was Phillip who walked over to the chariot.
Because there are people who would have given a very different answer to our Ethiopian friend than Philip did. There are people today who would say, “I’m sorry. You are a eunuch. This prophecy from scripture doesn’t apply to you. It says so, right here in Deuteronomy. I’d like to baptize you, but Scripture says no.”
When we hear what people say about God, we have to ask ourselves, is this person speaking about a God I recognize?
Do they know about the love of God?
Have they experienced salvation in a way that made them more compassionate, more God-like people?
In the news there are a lot of florists and cake bakers and pizzeria owners and mechanics who have lately been claiming that their deeply held religious beliefs keep them from offering their flowers, cakes, pizzas, and oil changes to gay people.
And it concerns me, this trend to exclude people with whom we disagree from our public interactions.
They are victims to bad scriptural interpretation and teaching too.
And I keep thinking about this Ethiopian eunuch. What if he wandered into an exclusionary auto shop to have his chariot serviced? How could that message of exclusion and fear lead someone to want to know more about the grace and love of God? Would it have led to a baptism and an opportunity to begin a life of faith.
Thankfully the Ethiopian met Philip and not someone who wanted to exclude him.
Here’s the thing. Lots of people are on lots of different versions of wilderness roads. And they need to hear how their story connects with God’s story. Whenever you start to doubt that your voice matters, remember this story. There are people traveling down all kinds of wilderness roads. And they need to hear about God’s love. But if we aren’t speaking it, they’re going to be stuck listening to other voices, eager to offer another message, claiming that God is about exclusion, prejudice, and danger.
On the surface, this text is a story of two characters—Philip and the Ethiopian official. But there is a very active third character in this story—The Holy Spirit.
If not for the Holy Spirit, Philip would never have been on the Wilderness Road to meet the Ethiopian man. So be willing to listen for the voice of the Spirit.
It is not usually a convenient voice. It doesn’t always send us where we wish to go. And it isn’t ours to predict and control. The Spirit sent Phillip down the wilderness road to Gaza, which was bad enough, but after the baptism of the Ethiopian, Phillip was taken away to Azotus, or Ashdod, which was an ancient city of the Phillistines.
He hadn’t planned on going there either, but he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he made it back home to Caesarea—50 miles or so up the coast.
If we’re going to listen to the Holy Spirit, it will require us to let go of some control. She doesn’t send us where we want to go. She doesn’t send us to talk with the people with whom we would choose to talk on our own. She might send us to to the Philistines, or to Waffle House. She might need us to go to Cherith Brook or the elementary school down the road.
Live in faith that the voice of the Spirit will guide you into uncomfortable situations where you are uniquely qualified to make a difference in someone’s life. Live into that future with boldness, with confidence, with humility, with love, and with ears open to receive the direction of the Spirit.