An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) 28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”
30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”
31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
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.
33 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?
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” 35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.
The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” 38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azō´tus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.
A good story, fiction or real, has at least one clearly defined protagonist (main character). Throughout the story things happen and the protagonist reacts or responds, and the story unfolds. Who is the protagonist in today’s scripture? Our usual response would be Philip. But there could easily be three protagonists in the passage: the Ethiopian, Philip, … and the Holy Spirit.
What is clear is that guidance plays a big part in the story. Both Philip and the Ethiopian were guided by the Holy Spirit. Guidance is a power mover. Charles Swindoll relates a story of his time in WWII. His Marine troop ship was approaching a harbor at the northeastern corner of Formosa (now Taiwan). As the huge ship approached, they awaited the Harbor pilot. Once on board he navigated a very circuitous route to the docks. Swindoll wondered at the strange path until he realized that the harbor was mined, and the harbor pilot knew where every mine was. One miscalculation and the results could have been disastrous. They truly needed a guide familiar with the territory.
So, let’s look at our different protagonists this morning.
The Ethiopian – the first possible protagonist I want to consider. He was a person of power and influence in the court of Candice. Quite possibly he was a Jewish convert. After all he was reading Isaiah when Philip approached. He was seeking guidance in understanding what he was reading. In addition, he was open to Philip. My thought was sitting in my car is a traffic jam and having someone walk up to the car and initiating a conversation! The Ethiopian’s openness led to his spiritual growth, and ultimately to baptism (a symbol of salvation). Characterized by seeking and openness, he was forever changed. Have you ever been the recipient of a chance spiritual encounter? A friend, a co-worker, a stranger? Maybe it was a conversation? Something said or done in that encounter that led to a deeper walk? When we are seeking and open many wonderful things can encounter our paths.
Philip – is our second possible protagonist. Put yourself in his shoes for a moment. There is this call, out of the blue, from the Holy Spirit. A voice, a nudge, but the implications were clear. He was to go out to a road that led south. The text specifically says it was a desert road, and at noon, Our presumption is that it would be hot. If you are like me, I would have been thinking that the timing could have been better. It might have led to some bargaining on my part. ‘Maybe we could do this in a cooler part of the day? I’m really busy right now, maybe we could do this at a more convenient time for me? Is there someone else you could send? You know how hard the heat is on me.’ Yet, as the text says, there was no hesitation on Philip’s part. He just went. Now consider the nebulous instructions. First, take the road that leads south. We know which road. It is the “road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza”. Unfortunately, that’s all we know. Then comes the next instruction, “approach this carriage and stay with it.” There is nothing concrete in the guidance, yet Philip follows.
Before going too much further, I want to clarify something. This is not a blind jumping to conclusions. There is a great story about a farmer standing out in his fields. In a moment to pause, he looked up at the clouds. There in the clouds, as clear as can be, the two letters formed - “P. C.”. The farmer immediately took it to mean “Preach Christ.” The call seemed so clear. He shared his calling with several people who knew him well, and his gifts. The word that came through them was “maybe it means “plant corn!” The calling for Philip came with careful listening with willingness to act. It was born out of a seeking relationship with God. Philip was open to being called.
The Holy Spirit relies, in part, on people being tuned in. We have to be open to the guidance of the Spirit. We need to expect God to show us the ways we should go. Again, it doesn’t me we sit around and do nothing while we wait for guidance. Most often the guidance will come as we are engaged in living our lives. The Spirit also needs to know we are ready to answer, even if the instructions are a little vague. Willing have to be willing to be led step by step.
Last week we got a raised bed for our strawberry plants. “Some assembly required!” Reading step one, I assumed I knew what they wanted. By the way, there was very little reading, it was more pictures. So, I start off. I put both ends together. When I tried to attach the sides there was something definitely wrong. So, I ended up taking the ends apart and reassembling because I wasn’t observant enough. There was a black dot on the picture trying to show me that the leg had to be turned a certain way in order for the holes to be in the right place for the sides. I needed to do one step thoroughly and be ready for the next.
One of our sticking points in following God is our fear of making mistakes. Will I misunderstand? Will I say or do the wrong thing? God is not a God of perfection – that is we don’t have to have prefect behavior, or perfect following in order for God to be able to use us. Instead, he is a God of growing a perfect relationship with his children through abundant grace. God’s grace and forgiveness is the soil in which that relationship grows. 1 John 4 reminds us that perfect love drives our fear. Fear relates to punishment. Our relationship with God is a relationship of grace. Since love is what characterizes God’s intention in the world, we are perfected in love through day by day, step by step following. We can take courage from the God who loves us so much.
So, here is a question. What steps of being perfected in love have I seen in my past? Who or what has helped in that growth?
As we pick up the story, Philip has “proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him” and the Ethiopian responded. Then (on this desert road) they came upon water. The Ethiopian asks, “What would keep me from being baptized?” This is a very interesting question. By now, there was probably some ritual and expectations surrounding baptism and the church. Some of that can be seen through the missing verse. Verse 37 is missing in my text (even after looking at several translations). Verse 37 is in a footnote. “Some manuscripts include, “If you believe with all your heart, you can be.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son.””) Church tradition was already building. The season of Lent which we just went through was a traditional time of preparation for new converts to be baptized at Easter. With that in mind, it might surprise us a little that Philip responded, spur of the moment, with the baptism. William Willimon says, “One of the greatest mistakes of the institutional church is its inclination to let rules and regulations take precedence over the leadings of the Spirit.”
That gives rise to another group of questions. What is God leading us to do at this particular time and this particular place? Are we willing to hear? Are we willing to take action with the Spirit? Are we willing to follow God’s lead? Philip did, and look at what happened.
The Holy Spirit – Now we come to the third possible protagonist. Look at what all had to fall into place. Philip had to hear and answer (step by step); The Ethiopian needed to be on the road, at that particular time, and reading Isaiah. It was even a passage that pointed forward to Jesus. Then there was the water in the desert! It is fascinating, in the text, that the phrase is, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” The two exclamations point to the surprise of the water in the desert. All these things had to align in order for the desired result. In addition, the two prior characters had to be open to relationship with God so the Spirit could orchestrate this encounter and conversion. William Willimon states, “If the Good News is being preached out there, it is the work of God, not of people … (this is) not a mushy, all embracing desire to be inclusive of everyone and everything. Rather, in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people.” The work of God gets done!!
This story really could be dubbed “The Holy Spirit Show”. Not only was the Spirit in the lead from start to finish, but when this act was concluded, “ the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. … Philip found himself in Azotus, …” It is like the “host” of the unfolding story changes the scene, and we are moving into the next act. God has more for us to do.
SO, one final question. If I am willing to be led by the Holy Spirit, what must I do to be ready? This might be the most obvious question. We need to keep our relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - strong … and listen!
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Pastor Paul Grossman