Sunday, April 29, 2018

'On His Way Rejoicing' - a sermon on Acts 8:26-40

A man came to a church one Sunday morning in a time of great need in his life. He’d had a well-paying job with an oil company, but had recently lost it to downsizing, and was now trying to make a living as a farmer. At about the same time, his wife had left him. He was feeling lost and alone in the world, and he knew he needed help.

He hadn’t been near a church for a long time, but he had a friend who was a churchgoer, who had once shared with him the story of his own spiritual journey home to Christ. So he decided to take his courage in his hands and go to the little Anglican church his friend attended. Now it so happened that there was a guest preacher at the church that day. One of the readings set for that Sunday was Jesus’ story of the lost sheep, and that’s what the guest preacher spoke about. The man said afterwards, ‘That was me; I was the little lost sheep, and I was coming home’. And so began a process that eventually led to this man becoming a Christian.

I know this story because I was the minister at that church – although not the preacher that Sunday – and I was the one who eventually baptized this man and became a spiritual mentor to him. But as I look back on that experience, what stands out for me is how God was at work. God worked through the friend who shared the story of his faith journey. God worked through the timing – having the man come to church on the exact Sunday when that lost sheep story was being read, and then having the preacher speak about that story. The timing was right, the Holy Spirit was at work, the people who needed to speak said what needed to be said, a welcome was offered, and a connection was made. And months afterwards, when we all gradually realized how beautifully it had been arranged, we shook our heads and marvelled at the way God works.

That reminds me of today’s reading from the book of Acts.

Let’s set the scene. At the beginning of Acts chapter 8 Saul of Tarsus arranges the violent death of Stephen – the first martyr, the first person to give his life for his faith in Jesus. Stephen was a member of a group of seven ‘deacons’ who served the Jerusalem church. His death marked the beginning of a time of persecution, and the majority of the early followers of Jesus fled the city for their lives. But they didn’t do what we might expect – they didn’t keep quiet about their faith. No: Acts tells us ‘Now those who had been scattered moved on, preaching the good news along the way’ (Acts 8:4, CEB). Please note: these weren’t professional preachers. They were ordinary Jesus-followers, moving to new towns and villages, setting up their businesses, and gossipping the gospel wherever they went.

Philip was one of these. He had been another of that group of seven deacons in Jerusalem. He went beyond the borders of Israel to Samaria. Samaria was suspect. The people there were partly Jewish but their bloodline wasn’t pure, and their religion was seen as heretical by the Jewish people in Judea and Galilee. But Philip had a huge impact there as he proclaimed the Good News of Jesus and healed the sick, and a large group of Samaritans became believers. You can read that story in Acts 8:4-25, just before our reading for today.

But then something strange happened; God told Philip to move on. I’m sure Philip must have been very surprised when he heard the voice telling him to leave the amazing work that was going on in Samaria, and go down to the desert road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Why would he leave a place where there were many people wanting to learn about Jesus, and go off to a place where there was nobody? But nevertheless, off he went.

And what did he discover? The desert road wasn’t deserted after all. I imagine Philip walking along the road, and then hearing the noise of a carriage, or chariot, behind him. Riding in it is a man who’s obviously a person of some importance. The word ‘Ethiopian’ was often used in the ancient world to describe a black person, but in this case he seems to have been ethnically Ethiopian too. Being an important official, I expect he probably had some servants and guards travelling along with him.

Acts tells us    quite a lot about this man. Apparently he was an important official of the Kandake, or Queen, of Ethiopia; he was in charge of her treasury. So we can imagine him as a person of some wealth and power. But he’s also described to us as a ‘eunuch’. Eunuchs were often employed as government officials or servants in court circles in the ancient Near East; there was less risk of them getting up to mischief with women in the royal families. Also, since they couldn’t have children, there was less risk of them trying to overthrow their kings so they could establish their own dynasties. 

So this man was a powerful royal official of Ethiopia, and he was a eunuch, deprived of the opportunity to establish a family and a household for himself. The third thing that’s very clear is that this man was spiritually hungry. We’re not told whether or not he was Jewish; we know that at that time, Jewish people could be found in many countries in the ancient near east. But we also know that there were non-Jewish people who had been attracted to the Jewish belief in the one creator God. They were called the ‘God-fearers’. Some of them went the whole way, allowed themselves to be circumcised and took on the whole Jewish law; they were called ‘proselytes’.

Perhaps this man was a God-fearer or a proselyte; we’re not told. But he had made the long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. When he got there, he may well have been disappointed. The law of Moses has a rather disturbing exclusive streak in it; Philip Yancey calls it ‘oddballs not allowed’. Eunuchs were among those oddballs; Deuteronomy 23:1 says they can’t be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 17 says they can’t take part in offering the sacrifices. So the eunuch would have made the long journey from Ethiopia to worship at the temple, only to discover that he wasn’t allowed to worship at the temple. Can you imagine how that must have felt for him?

But he was determined. The text doesn’t tell us specifically that he purchased a scroll of the book of Isaiah while he was in Jerusalem, but he was obviously reading it for the first time on his way home, so it seems likely it was new to him. That scroll would have cost him an enormous amount of money – far more than a year’s wages for a day labourer. Nowadays people buy Bibles and then don’t bother to read them. Not this man! He believed this scroll was scripture from the God he was seeking, so he was reading it out loud in the chariot on his way home, trying to make sense of it. No one read silently in those days; everyone read out loud.

Wow! How nicely God had arranged everything! But it was going to get better still.
The Holy Spirit whispered in Philip’s ear ‘Approach this carriage and stay with it’ (v.29). We might have expected Philip to approach cautiously, taking his time, unsure of his welcome. Not Philip! Acts says, ‘Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah’ (v.30). He was reading from chapter 53, the Suffering Servant passage that we read every year on Good Friday. Such a good thing that Philip ran! If he’d walked, the eunuch might have been in chapter 55 by the time he got to him!

Philip and the eunuch got talking, and the eunuch asked Philip to help him understand what he was reading. This was where he’d got to in the passage:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?’ (Acts 8:32-33).
‘Who is the prophet talking about?’ asked the eunuch, ‘himself or someone else?’ Well, that question was a real gift for Philip! So he started from that passage, and shared with the eunuch the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Looking at those verses we can see how good that news was for the eunuch. Isaiah 53 was understood by Christians very early on as a prophecy of the death of Jesus on the cross. It talks about the Lord’s servant being despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It says that all of us have gone astray like lost sheep and the Lord has laid all our sins on his servant. The passage has been a rich source for Christians to meditate on the meaning of the death of Jesus.

But the section of the passage the eunuch was reading refers specifically to the ‘humiliation’ of the Lord’s servant: ‘In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.Who can tell the story of his descendantsbecause his life was taken from the earth?’ (v.33). Think of the man who had probably been made a eunuch forcibly, being robbed of his ability to have a family: ‘Who can tell the story of his descendants?’ What a humiliation for him! And then to go all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem only to be excluded, kept away from the worship of the God he’d come all that way to seek. Another humiliation!

Acts tells us that ‘starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him’ (v.35). It’s not hard for us to guess what good news about Jesus Philip would have told him. The death of Jesus was a sign of God identifying with sinners and sufferers all over the world. The Old Testament might have said ‘oddballs not allowed’, but Jesus appears to have believed the reverse: ‘oddballs especially welcome’! One of his favourite sayings was ‘the first shall be last and the last first’. The eunuch might have been turned away at the Temple in Jerusalem, but at the cross the arms of Jesus were opened wide to welcome allpeople back to God!

Well, this message obviously fell on fertile ground. This was what the eunuch had been looking for! This rich and powerful man had a great big empty space in his heart and he was seeking a true and living and loving God to fill that space. He didn’t need telling twice! And somehow, in all that desert, at just the right time, they came to a patch of water. “Look - water! What’s to prevent me being baptized?” So they stopped the carriage, and down they went into the water, and Philip baptized him, and then the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

This is one of the most wonderful stories in the book of Acts, and it’s full of meaning for us today. What can we learn from it?

First, what’s God up to? The baptism of this eunuch comes a few verses after the baptism of the Samaritans who became Jesus-followers. A couple of chapters later, we have the first baptism of a Roman, Cornelius – we’ll think about him next week. The message of Jesus is spreading; it started with the Jewish people, but it didn’t stop there. It went on to those heretics in Samaria – and then to a spiritually hungry eunuch from Ethiopia – and then to the enemy, the hated Romans, Centurion Cornelius and his household. And within a few chapters Paul and Barnabas are taking the Christian message far beyond the borders, out among the Gentiles who worship idols of wood and stone. And everywhere the message goes, it finds a ready hearing in the hearts of people hungry for spiritual reality.

That’s what God’s up to. We make a border and say, ‘This far the gospel can go, and no further’, but God delights in going beyond that border. People who’ve been marginalized and humiliated and excluded – sometimes by the very churches they’ve come to in their search for spiritual reality – God is reaching out to those people. On Easter Sunday we heard how the angel said to the women at the empty tomb, “(Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 6:7 NRSV). We’re always playing catch up with Jesus. We’d like to keep him in the nice, safe circle of long-time followers, but he’s always reaching out beyond the borders to the outcasts and the humiliated and the marginalized and the sinners.

And some of them are willing to go to great lengths to learn about him. The three wise men came looking for the newborn king; they’d made a long journey from the east and may have been on the road for as long as two years. Even if you didn’t have to leave home, would you put two years of your life into a demanding spiritual journey? The eunuch had come all the way from Ethiopia; that’s two thousand five hundred miles, on a dangerous road, travelling by horse carriage or chariot. You’d be surprised to discover how spiritually hungry some people are, even in today’s world. When I let them ask me their questions, instead of presuming I know what their questions are going to be, I’m often amazed at the things that come up.

I teach a one-day workshop called ‘How to Relax and Enjoy Evangelism’. I’m very serious about the title. If we understand what Luke is telling us in today’s gospel, we’ll know there’s no need to get uptight about it. God is at work in people’s lives. What we need to do is learn to walk closely with God, so that when God gives us little nudges, we’ll be able to pick them up. God knows what he’s up to in the lives of our friends and family members and acquaintances. He knows the ones whose hearts are ready for a significant conversation. It doesn’t need to be a long one; in fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t. It’s always better to end the conversation while people are still wishing you’d keep going, rather than go on and on until you’re long past the point where they start wishing you’d shut up!

Likely you won’t very often get to be the last link – the one who leads them across the threshold to faith in Jesus. More likely you’ll be a link in the chain. But if you listen to the Holy Spirit and let go of your fears, you’ll be able to be the link you need to be. And who knows; one day you might help someone to the point where they go on their way rejoicing because for the first time in their lives they’ve come to know the joy of Jesus. And if you stand close enough so that some of that joy can spill over on you – well, that will be an experience you’ll treasure for the rest of your life.

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