Sermon - Brad Brookins
Acts 8. 26-40
Why shouldn’t I
To get to the heart of today’s text—the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we first have to back up a little ways—actually a long ways; all the way back to the call of Abraham in the book of Genesis. This is the opening chapter of the history of Israel—from Genesis 12:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
The story of Israel—and by extension, our story, since we are the spiritual descendants of Abraham, begins here with God’s two sided promise. “I will bless you”, God says, and “through you I will bless the world”.
This story—that we are a part of, don’t you see, begins and ends in original blessing. “I will bless you”, God says, “and you will bless them”.
Being a blessing to friends, neighbors and strangers was something Abraham was pretty good at. But his descendants—Issac, Jacob, Joseph, and then later Moses and the people of Israel, and then much later the church we are part of—not so much.
Several hundred years after Abraham, Moses is summoned to rescue the children of Abraham in Egypt. He brings them out of slavery into the wilderness and begins the long, arduous task of shaping them into the nation of Israel.
Now nations, you know, need laws. They need rules to live by; guidelines to show who is a citizen and who is not. And they need boundaries—borders, if you will, so those who do belong can be kept safe and those who don’t belong can be kept out. You can’t have a real country, in other words, if you let just anybody in.
You have to be careful about these things.
Moses was good at rules. He drew up the legal code—613 individual laws, that defined and encompassed the people of Israel.
One of these laws, especially relevant to our story for today, is found in Deuteronomy 23; and it has to do with men who had become eunuchs—either by accident or those made so by someone else. Put simply, Moses declared no eunuch would ever be included in the covenant between God and Israel; they were forever outsiders.
Here’s how Moses put it—and I’m reading this from the King James version because the language there is much more genteel than the modern translations and because I am a hopeless prude. This is Deuteronomy 23.1—“He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD”.
Having your “privy member” cut off would be bad, no doubt. But for these people, being cut off from the covenant—being pushed out to the margins of society, out beyond the blessing of God, was much worse.
Now many scholars believe Moses put this harsh rule in place for a reason. He was, you see, preparing his people to invade the land of Canaan; and countries preparing for war need lots of children who can grow up to be soldiers—the more the better. But, when it came to making children, eunuchs were useless. So Moses pushed them aside. They were cut off from God, and the people of God.
Well, several hundred years later Israel is back in slavery—this time in Babylon. And this time there is a new prophet who begins calling the people home; forming them into a new nation to go back to Israel; to begin again to live out their original calling—to be a blessing to the whole world.
This prophet—Isaiah, sees things differently than Moses did. When Isaiah listens to God he hears a new tune; a new song that gives birth to a better vision—one more inclusive than the laws of Moses.
Isaiah was one of the creators of the idea we sang about earlier this morning—the “Age to Come”. He prophesied a future—a not too distant future, he hoped, when God would act; when God would restore his people to their rightful home.
The God of the age to come, Isaiah saw, was more generous than Moses—more creative than Moses and more welcoming than Moses. For him, the boundaries of the age to come would be drawn wide—far beyond anything envisioned by Moses.
Isaiah wrote out his vision in a song. This is from chapter 56:
Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed…
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 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.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer…;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
You see what Isaiah is doing here—he’s reversing Moses; turning Moses on his head. No, he says, the grace of God is greater than you ever imagined; the kindness of God reaches beyond your imagination. The mercy of God draws in to this innermost circle the very people who had, for centuries, been pushed aside, cut off from the blessing and made to feel there was something wrong with them, with how they were made.
Don’t let the foreigner say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ Because the day is coming—the Age to Come is coming when the outsiders and the insiders will become one people—equally loved, equally blessed, equally a blessing to the world.
Isaiah corrected Moses to say the day is coming when God will welcome everyone home.
Jesus came along and said, that day is here.
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, (Jesus said in his first sermon in Nazareth—quoting from Isaiah, no less),
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
And for the rest of his short life he lives this out. Lepers and Samaritans, pharisees and Romans, tax collectors rich and poor, sinners and priests and priests who were sinners—all are brought home.
His grace is unbounded; his kindness without limit; his welcome is expansive.
Because of this he is killed.
And because of this, death can not hold him.
And to accomplish this—to give this original blessing to the world, he sends out his church, as he said, “to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.
Which brings us, at long last to the story for today.
Immediately after the stoning of Stephen, the story we heard last Sunday, persecution erupts in Jerusalem and the young church is scattered—throughout Judea and into Samaria. Up in Samaria, north of Jerusalem, the Spirit tells Stephen’s fellow deacon, Philip, to head south to the road that runs from Jerusalem southwest down to Gaza.
There he meets an important looking man driving a chariot away from Jerusalem. And he is important. He is the head of the treasury for the queen of Ethiopia—the country also known as “the ends of the earth”.
And—he is a eunuch.
The man is, most likely, a convert to Judaism—and a very devout one at that. He has just travelled over 2600 miles—by chariot, on a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. How long would that take—5 months, maybe 6. He went there to worship the God who had won his heart. That’s all he wanted to do—to offer himself to God at the temple.
But the temple is not yet “a house of prayer for all people”. His long journey brings him to a place still ruled by the law of Moses. He approaches the temple gate only to be told he is not welcome. He is a foreigner, “wounded in the stones”, as Moses had said; cut off from the congregation; not included in the covenant. They would welcome his offering; they would not welcome him.
He is wounded all over again—with this, “the unkindest cut of all”.
And yet—and this is most remarkable—as he begins the long trek home he sits in the chariot reading the words of Isaiah. His, I think, is a faith not shaken by the meanness of other people; a faith settled in his including God, not limited by his excluding neighbors.
But he’s puzzling over the text. Philip can see this. “Do you understand what you are reading?”, he asks. “How can I” the Ethiopian replies, “unless someone guides me?”
Have you ever felt a pure, simple joy? Have you ever felt an inexpressible relief when some great burden you had been carrying—maybe for your whole life, was lifted from your shoulders? Have you ever become aware that you were loved—inexplicably, unconditionally, completely; that the stars and the planets and the universe were all aligning just so and you—just as you were at that moment, were all OK?
If you’ve been there you have some sense of how this Ethiopian felt as Philip opened the scriptures to him; opened to him the story of Jesus in those scriptures. The welcoming Jesus. The accepting Jesus. The “I-don’t-draw-lines-and-neither-should-you” Jesus.
The Jesus who would quote Isaiah to him—“Don’t call yourself a dry tree! In my Father’s house you have a name—better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name that will never be cut off”.
So it’s really no wonder, to me anyway, that when they come to a pool of water the Ethiopian stops the chariot and says to Philip, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized!”
And you have to realize—he isn’t asking a question here. He’s making a statement. “Why shouldn’t I be baptized. I am a child of God. My name is written on the walls of God’s house. I belong in that water! Why shouldn’t I be baptized!”
He doesn’t go into the water to “get saved”, you see. He goes into the water because already, and long ago, God said to him, “You belong to me.
We would be hard pressed to find a clearer, sweeter expression of the gospel—for the Ethiopian, but also for us.
This is true: we, too, belong in that water. We, too, have everlasting names written on the walls in our Father’s house. We, too, are loved—inexplicably, unconditionally, completely.
This is true: whoever we are; wherever we’ve been; whatever we believe or don’t believe—we belong in that water. Why shouldn’t we be baptized in this love. Amen.
Here’s the story for this Sunday. The questions to tickle, probe and bend your mind are below:
Acts 8. 26-40
26 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.) 27So 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now 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.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But 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.
By modern roads it is 2627 miles from central Ethiopia to Jerusalem. Ancient roads were probably longer and certainly more difficult to travel. Averaging 20 miles per day with horse and chariot the trip would take 131 days each way. This head of the Ethiopian treasury who was probably a convert to Judaism, would have been on sabbatical from his job for almost a full year and would have endured lots of bad weather and other discomforts while being at risk of being beaten and robbed for most of his journey. Talk about devotion and personal sacrifice in the spiritual life. What do you think motivated him to make this costly journey? Where have you seen such devotion today? Would you be willing to organize a year of your life around a once in a lifetime act of worship? How far would you be willing to travel if you have to get there on foot?
We know the eunuch read the prophet Isaiah. Do you think he also read this from Deuteronomy 23:1 “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Would he have travelled 2600 miles if he knew in advance he would be turned away at the temple gates? Why do you think Moses excluded eunuch from the worship of God?
Isaiah reverses the law of Moses by promising that in a future age God would make a home in the kingdom for all—even the eunuchs. Discuss the implications for faith and practice in Israel of this passage: Isaiah 56.3-5 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.
Eunuchs were excluded from the worship of God because they could not father children and thus extend the covenant between God and their children. Isaiah, and then the early church (through Philip) reverse this exclusionary practice. How would you apply these passages to our setting today?
Acts 8. 36—(New International Version) “As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?’” How would you answer the eunuch’s question? What stands in the way of anyone being baptized?
When you have to decide between two religious (or Biblical) authorities who disagree with each other—in this case Moses and Isaiah, what criteria do you use to make your decision? How can Moses and Isaiah have such conflicting interpretations of the will of God? Who was right?
EXTRA CREDIT: What happened to verse 37?