“Finding a Center”
Text: Psalm 22: 25-31
Acts 8: 26-40
By: David D. McDonald
September 20, 2020
NRSV Psalm 22:25-31
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
NRSV ACTS 8:26-40 PHILIP AND THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH
26 Then 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.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that 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.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
“I’ve heard people say, in response to the question “Why do you come to church (?)” “I come to church on Sunday morning to find out how I can lead a better life and then to get motivated to lead that better life.”
And maybe that is where the trouble starts. See? There is no God in that definition of church. It is all up to us. I come to learn how I can lead a better life. What am I to do? How can I work out my own salvation?
To hard-working, goal-setting, upwardly mobile, conscientious people like us, perhaps we need to hear the gospel word. God is not dead. If Easter means anything, and every Sunday is supposed to be a “little Easter,” then it means that not only am I busy choosing and deciding and acting in the world, but God is also busy choosing, acting, and deciding in the world.” William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, June 2009
One of the striking images of this text is that an angel speaks first and commands Phillip to go down a deserted highway at noon. Why would Phillip want to go into the wilderness at noon? Sounds like a sure way to find trouble or at least get caught up in it. If the highway robbers weren’t hiding around in the next set of cliffs, then the glaring sun was ready to fry the brains of anyone out in the open wilderness.
Philip was being a good disciple, meditating on Jesus, when a really unique stranger came into his life on this wilderness road. The Ethiopian asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Another striking mark of this passage is the use of the word go. This verb, in several tenses is used some 6 times in these 14 verses. It is clear that for Luke the story of the Christian Church is a story of people on the go. The story is set along a wilderness road that heads south from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip had been among the Samaritans to the north and had considerable success in his missionary work with them. Why then would he head south? A wilderness road, south of Jerusalem, does not sound like a place where an angel of the Lord would send a disciple, but that is precisely where Philip was sent. Who would have thought that a court official from Ethiopia, an attendant to the Queen would have been on the road that day? The Ethiopian was headed to Jerusalem and Philip was headed into the wilderness and a Presbyterian meeting occurred. It was foreordained - it was meant to be. Neither Philip nor the Ethiopian knew that, of course. That is the wonder of such meetings. We do not plan them, but God does. Jacob sent his sons into Egypt looking for food. They thought they were taking a walk through the wilderness, but God was sending them to meet their brother whom they had sold into slavery.
Have you ever wondered what wilderness road God may be sending you to travel? We tend to be pretty intentional about our travel plans. We like having a destination. We are advised to let other people know where we are going and when we expect to arrive. On TV most of these personal survival shows that have become popular begin by telling the viewer where the survivor is supposed to end up going. I don’t know many people who like getting lost just for the sake of seeing some wilderness.
Even ardent hikers look for trails with markers whether they are painted in blue, yellow, or red paint. Few people like to be real pioneers – just taking off to discover a new world or a new frontier. Oh! We are intrigued by TV programs and movies whose main characters are “boldly going where no one else has gone before.”
What is really different about this passage that the tour guide is the Spirit and we are not even given a clue how Phillip knew that the Spirit was sending him down the wilderness road. It might be just a bit more certain if Phillip was chased down that road by a lion, wolf, or bear or even a wild eyed scout for Genghis Khan.
Just going over to chat with someone in a chariot doesn’t make for very dramatic footage for any movie rendering of this story. We talk to people everyday. Some of them we don’t even know, but they are headed down the cafeteria line at the same time we arrived or they are waiting for their baggage at the same carousel in the airport when our flight arrived. We may not have even suspected they were on the same plane.
Luck, fate, or the Spirit just put us in proximity at that time and place and out of boredom, or politeness, or some sense of intuition a conversation begins.
Phillip does not appear to have any intention of engaging the Ethiopian in a religious conversation when the story begins. He was just heading to Jerusalem to worship as he had likely done many, many times before. Whether out of habit or sincere faithful practice of his faith – Phillip was headed to Jerusalem when he was told to take a detour. Whether there was a bright orange sign, labeled clearly and pointing down that wilderness road like some of those that appear on Market Street, Blue Clay Road, 17th Street, or due to some natural occurrence like a flood or earthquake that had closed that road or Phillip was just anxious to see different scenery; I cannot tell you. What is amazing is that this stranger, traveling on a mission of state for the queen was reading a familiar scripture that Phillip understood but something gave him a clue that the Ethiopian was clearly in the dark about its meaning.
God comes into human history that way sometimes:
Moses meets God by the burning bush. Moses thought his destiny was tending the flocks in the wilderness, but God had in mind quite a different idea.
The people of Israel were walking through the Wilderness of Sin when they came to the River Jordan and crossed into the Promised Land. They thought they were just wandering, aimlessly, but God really did have in mind something else. He would make of them a great people.
John the Baptist was preaching and teaching in the wilderness, the people thought his travels were rather random. John seemed to just be avoiding Herod, but God had quite a different encounter in mind. Jesus and John would rendezvous at the river Jordan for a baptism that would send John to prison and execution and Jesus to Calvary, execution and resurrection.
John's gospel tells of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were just wandering as far as they knew. Just traveling after the terrible events in Jerusalem and they met Jesus on the way. They didn't know Him at first. They recognized him when they paused and broke bread together. In so many of our lives in so many days it seems that we are just on the way. We are on the way to work or on the way to school or on the way to the ball game or on the way to the prom. Just an ordinary travel, just ordinary company and something happen that changes our lives forever. Maybe its a narrow escape from a fatal automobile accident, maybe its a song on the radio, maybe its that hand that takes ours and walks along for a lifetime, maybe its something as common an ordinary as a vivid sunset or a magnificent sunrise -- yet, it becomes a turning point. We see the world and we are met. The meeting changes our lives and nothing will just be a wandering again. Life with all of its purpose includes us. Jesus is Lord, even of our wanderings. Like this Ethiopian courtier, our trip not only takes us on official business it takes us to our rendezvous with God.
In one sense we can easily see that Philip and this Ethiopian met on a rather commonplace business trip. The man from Ethiopia was just doing his job. He was about the management of the Queen’s financial resources. He was in Jerusalem for what we might consider trading on the stock exchange. He was there like so many others because the queen had some interest in futures of sheep and goats, foreign exchange rates and things like that. Buying and selling is what he came to do. Futures is an interesting word these days. The business world means one thing by it, but the prophets of the Bible have quite another use for it. The Ethiopian’s future passed through this intersection with Philip and there lives were forever changed.
The story reminds us that God leads His people for reasons not always immediately apparent. The rather ordinary weekly events are more important than they would seem at first.
Grace at meals may be rather ordinary, routine, and memorized, but one day somebody may notice and the questions asked will lead down to the river of baptism. Who knows? God knows!
The Bible left on the desk or the table where it is read is a book made of ordinary materials and uses familiar language, but one day it takes on a language all its own and the Christian faith becomes our faith. Who knows? God knows!
The greeting at the office in the morning may sound like a simple phrase, "Good morning!” but then again, maybe one day a co-worker wants to know what is good about it and an invitation to listen becomes a chance to speak of the God that created the heavens and the earth and then pronounced them good. Even this day, which the Lord has made, too! Faith is built on simple questions that spring from life’s experiences. Extraordinary change is often built of extraordinary events.
These extraordinary events are often brought about because life has taken a turn and we are forced into something new. Life is full of new beginnings:
1) First job
2) New job
7) First Day after the death of a beloved spouse
God created the heavens and the earth and ever since there has been an on going pattern of creation. We find ourselves often swept along in God’s creative action. Whether we realize it or not, we are living in God’s time as well as our own. The Spirit is busy keeping house and sweeping out the cobwebs. When he comes to our room, we are often surprised by what is swept away and what comes through that door to stay. Consider the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from that perspective as we find it in Acts 8.
In this story we see the hand of God most clearly; how else can we explain the sudden appearance of water beside the road in the middle of the desert? No less a miracle is the Ethiopian’s request for baptism and Philip’s immediate response. He told the apostles, about the matter later. That’s not a Presbyterian way of doing things. Philip brings the Ethiopian into the community of faith without batting an eye or requesting permission from Peter, James, John, or anyone in Jerusalem. Philip welcomes this stranger unto the company of believers. Old fears, customs, and dogmas are set aside. This new chapter is being written for all people and the church embarks on a mission of inclusion, not exclusion. Philip breaks ranks with the Jewish authorities and the customs of generations. We see trouble ahead and it will come swiftly, but so does opportunity. The followers of Jesus Christ will incur the wrath of the authorities, but it will also grow remarkably in both numbers and in the breadth of its mission.
We are coming to a turning point in the life of Clarkton Presbyterian Church. It may well seem at times to be a desert road. It’s been a long road. Scripture suggests, as does our Presbyterian heritage, that such journeys; however, have a purpose that the Spirit will reveal in due time.
In the close-knit circles in which we have been accustomed to travel we may know everyone and what they believe and where they go to church. However, when a new chapter begins, none of these things are certain and change is coming. For many that means a fresh look at our religious experience. At such times, we, like Philip, have the opportunity to tell the story of Jesus and the fulfillment of the scriptures and the power of His love. Such opportunities may come at the most unlikely of places and in some of the most precarious of situations, like Philip’s experience on the desert road. We are sent forth first as Disciples of Christ.
There is a second point to be made on the basis of our passage from Acts. When the Spirit sends us to travel down some strange road , we find ourselves faced with the unexpected.
Sometimes this is the Spirit’s way of forcing us to shed the shells that we have outgrown and no longer serve us well. The Spirit occasionally breaks out of the established conventions. We need to be open to the future. We need to be open to new things. Of course, we must use wisdom and good judgment in discerning what is from the Spirit and what is our own infatuation with the new, exotic, and different.
Today, we will come as a congregation; celebrating what God has done in Jesus Christ among us, but also to anticipate what God will be doing . We also come to pray and seek the Spirit’s guidance as we open a new chapter.
We should address a third point, which is that none of us work alone. We work in the accompaniment of the Spirit and others. We offer our best efforts and our best understanding and trust that God is able to use them for the sake of the Gospel. We labor not for ourselves, but the Kingdom. In that respect the Christian community will remain different from the larger society in which we live. We place our trust in the Spirit. That is why we can claim hope for the future. It does not depend upon us, but upon Jesus Christ who is our sure foundation and the solid rock upon which we stand. We are called as disciples to walk in fellowship with God and one another. Our lives are intertwined with both. We are not alone. It is being fashioned by a God who loves the world and all therein and does not will any should perish. God goes before us on the road. This is indeed Good News! Let us proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes! Let us pray for one another and the purposes which God is working out !