Follow Me – Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Go Tell: “Join the Chorus”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2022
Isaiah 58:6-9a; Acts 8:21-39
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
In 1754, Horace Walpole coined the word “serendipity” after he had read an engaging old Persian fairy tale. The word is derived from Ceylon, the ancient name for Sri Lanka. Serendipity is defined as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines serendipity as: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
Serendipity may be related to, but is not the same as fate or luck. Through the eyes of faith, serendipitous encounters occur through the work of the Spirit. One such encounter led an early disciple, a Galilean, to spend the afternoon riding in the chariot of a high officer from Ethiopia. This “chance” encounter laid the foundation for the spreading of the gospel into the continent of Africa.
Hear the Word of God from Acts 8:26-39
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘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.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
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?’
He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The disciple Philip meeting the Ethiopian on the wilderness road to Gaza appears to be one of those serendipitous moments instigated through the working of the Holy Spirit. We do not know the particulars of how Philip ended up on that wilderness road. What we do know is that the Spirit nudged him forward. An angel, a messenger from God, told Philip one day to get up and go south.
Then, when he was walking along the road, the Spirit nudged him further. Go Philip; walk up to that complete stranger over there and engage him in conversation.
Something similar has happened to you in the past. You have felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit. It may have come in the form of “I should really give so and so a call”. Or, “There’s old so and so on the other side of the room; I should make my way over there.”
One long afternoon, when a certain young mother was up to her elbows in snot-nosed and crying toddlers, a friend from church, we’ll call her Barbara, just showed up out of the blue and knocked on the young woman’s door. The young woman was very surprised to see Barbara because Barbara was a good 25 years older than her and Barbara lived on the other side of town. “I was running some errands nearby”, Barbara said, “and the Spirit told me to come check in on you.”
The young mother burst into tears. It had been a long and hard afternoon. The older of the kids had an ear infection; the younger one was teething. You may have had such an afternoon. As soon as one child gets settled after an exhausting crying fit, the other one starts up. An extra pair of hands to hold a child or change a diaper can be, at that moment, one of the greatest gifts that someone could offer.
Others have responded to the Spirit in similar fashion. Once, on an airplane, a Presbyterian elder, we’ll call him Bob, ended up in an important conversation with his seatmate. The seatmate happened to be on their way to their hometown for a funeral and a visit with extended family.
Bob was typically careful about talking to people on airplanes. Many people simply don’t want you talking to them at all. Many people on airplanes just want some peace and quiet, and really don’t want any stranger asking them questions. But on this particular flight, Bob noticed something about his seatmate. It may have been that heavy look on her face, or that deep sigh she let out as she sat down. One simple question from Bob led to a long and involved conversation that lasted over an hour.
After the awkwardness of breaking bread together over an airplane meal, and later a nap, the end of the flight was near. After a safe landing on the tarmac, the seatmate expressed to Bob:
“I feel so much better and more hopeful about visiting home now. Thank you for listening.”
Just as Barbara could have ignored the Spirit’s leading and continued with her errands, just as Bob could have remained in his own cone of silence on the airplane, so Philip could very easily have ignored the Spirit’s calling to go south along that road.
Philip could have very easily avoided the African chariot and its occupants. Philip could have said to himself: that man is an Ethiopian. He is so different from me. I do not know this person. Philip may have thought: this man is “just” a eunuch.
Eunuchs were not able to participate fully in temple worship; they were considered “less than”. Philip could have said to himself this man does not look like me; this man has a different background from me. Therefore, I will not exit my comfort zone in order to spend my time with him.
We do not know Philip’s personal story. We do not know if Philip had ever been made to feel “less than”. We do not know if Philip had ever been treated as an outsider, but we can imagine that his life had changed dramatically because of Jesus. We can imagine, given Philip’s willingness to preach the gospel and risk his life doing so, that Philip had experienced the depth of grace and the joy of gratitude to God.
When persecutions of Jesus followers began in Jerusalem, Philip appears to be the first one to have reached beyond the inner circle of Jews. Then, Philip surprised everyone by going into the West Bank and preaching to the Samaritans. Samaritans were generally despised by the Jews, looked down upon for being “mixed-race”.
When the disciples heard that Philip was preaching to “those people” in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to evaluate what Philip was doing. Soon after, the angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south towards Gaza.” Philip got up and went south, on a wilderness road, for what reason he did not know. There, the Spirit nudged him to approach an Ethiopian entourage, which was probably way beyond his comfort zone, and perhaps a bit dangerous.
This high ranking official probably had security guards around his chariot. Philip could have sustained a rough beating for even approaching this man.
Nevertheless, Philip exited his comfort zone and approached a complete stranger. When he heard the stranger reading in Hebrew, he asked the man if he understood what he was reading. To the educated Ethiopian’s credit, he did not seem offended by the simple Galilean.
He replied, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to ride with him in his chariot.
This Ethiopian was likely a “God-fearer”, as many were called in those days, one who had accepted the religious and ethical teachings of Judaism. However, due to his status as a castrated male, he probably would not have been allowed to become a convert, even though he was well-educated and spent his life among the most powerful and wealthy people.
As a eunuch, he would never be fully welcomed at the Jewish temple; he would never be allowed to worship beyond the outer courtyard.
Philip, on the other hand, was just a common man from Galilee. Philip was not formally educated, nor did he hold any position of power, yet in following Jesus, and preaching in his name, Philip had found himself elevated to an unexpected position of leadership, a position in which he found himself changing the world.
This encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian was one of those “God moments”, one of those serendipitous moments that does not happen every day. And the passage that the Ethiopian happened to be reading was serendipitous. Isaiah 54 follows just after the passage about the “suffering servant” that the Ethiopian was reading. In Isaiah 54, the prophet claims that Israel will “enlarge the site of its tent”.
Then Isaiah 55 proclaims that Israel “shall call nations you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God.”
Then Isaiah 56 includes a blessing for outsiders and foreigners, even eunuchs.
(Is 56:3-5) “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will 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 Sabbath, 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.”
These are likely the words that Philip and the eunuch read together that day on the road to Gaza. No wonder this foreign eunuch wanted to be baptized! No wonder he wanted to be the one of the first to receive the promise of Isaiah 56, a promise of radical inclusivity, a promise that had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.
As globally connected as our world has become, we are still so divided, divided by race, nationality, social status, economic status, faith background. What we discover in these stories of the early church is that very different people of very different backgrounds became united in Jesus. Then, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, their common bonds were sealed.
In the book of Acts, we discover that what divides people from one another is not nearly as powerful as the ways in which the Holy Spirit can unite them. Did you know that the Ethiopian church is one of the oldest and most enduring of Christian churches?
There are ancient Ethiopian congregations and buildings that trace their roots back to the earliest centuries.
This serendipitous encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza just may have been the spark that ignited the spreading of the gospel into the continent of Africa.
A devotion I read this week claimed that serendipity can feel a lot like a gift of grace. “Serendipity is when we stumble on something delightful when we are not looking for it, a passing moment of unexpected meaning or importance.”
Jose Manuel Barroso wrote that: “What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open.”
We have two weeks before Christmas!
That sentiment can cause us to panic for all the “stuff” we need to do. Or, in the midst of the activity of the season, it can awaken our hearts to anticipate the whispering of God into our ears, nudging us once again beyond our comfort zone.
Over these next two weeks before Christmas, in the midst of to do lists and year end meetings and gatherings, take note. Open your eyes.
Notice the people around you as you go about your daily work and daily errands. Instead of looking at your phone, look into the eyes of cashiers and restaurant servers. Smile at people on the sidewalk. Yes, smile and do not avoid. Look for the presence of God in the people, places, and things you encounter.
Be brave when the Spirit nudges you to exit your comfort zone. Accept invitations from the Spirit to speak to a complete stranger, even, or especially if, the person is quite different from you in some way.
Accept the Spirit’s invitation to enter into a deeper conversation with a loved one.
Gifts of grace and answers to prayer are sent from God to us every day, if we but open our eyes to the wonder and miracles happening around us.
The Holy Spirit is still very much at work in the world, speaking to us in a million different ways, as long as our ears and hearts are open to listening.
Philip was a grateful recipient of the hope, peace, joy and love of Jesus Christ. And on the road to Gaza, he willingly shared with a fellow human being his experience of the good news of God’s love made known in Jesus of Nazareth.
In this Advent season and beyond, may we open to serendipitous gifts of grace, and may our voices join that ancient chorus extolling the good news of God.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church