Sunday, October 31, 2010

It Just So Happens...or Does It? (Acts 8:26-40)

I recently read a fiction book with a plot line that centered around the significance of so-called coincidences in our lives. The main character in the book was learning to find meaning in seemingly random encounters, realizing that everything was happening to him for some greater purpose.
We also believe that nothing is really random. God puts things in our lives to bring about His intended goal. We may go wandering off God’s path, but God brings us back to His path. The ultimate outcome is settled. We call God’s interference in our lives through seemingly random events acts of Providence. Our Acts passage this morning has God’s providential hand all over it.
When we last left off, we had the completion of Jesus’ command to preach to all Samaria. And so we begin the final phase of Jesus’ commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. Philip doesn’t have to go that far. An angel directs Philip where to go. “Arise and go south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” It sounds like Philip had accompanied Peter and John back through Samaria preaching with them and returning to Jerusalem once again. Now he is sent south.
It just so happens that he passes a chariot with an Ethiopian man sitting in it. And it just so happens that this man is a high official under the Candace of Ethiopia, being in charge of the treasury. Candace isn’t a name, it’s a title for the Queen Mother, particularly the Queen Mother of an underage king. If the king died, and the new king was still a child, the Queen Mother acted as regent of the nation. She really held the power, until the new king came of age. She always retains respect and even some authority, even after her son becomes king.
But we have this man, a man from another country all together, an influential man from another country. And it just so happens that he had been in Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals. He believed in Yahweh. He was a eunuch and thus was prohibited from receiving baptism into the Jewish faith, but he believed and worshipped as a god-fearer.
And it just so happens that he is reading out loud. This was the most common way to read. People rarely, if ever, read silently. If you really want to hide God’s word in your heart, I would encourage you to read it aloud. It’s amazing how much more you retain. I used to memorize verses just by reading them out loud 5 times in a row before going to bed. If I did this on 3 occasions, it would usually move from short term to long term memory, and it worked for school work and music as well.
One commentator pointed out that another benefit of the eunuch’s reading aloud was that his charioteer heard it. Here is another hearer of the gospel. We don’t know how this impacted that man. He’s not even really mentioned in the story, but we trust in God’s promise that God’s word doesn’t return void. This unnamed charioteer is about to witness God’s amazing transformative power.
It just so happens that this Ethiopian man is reading from the scroll of Isaiah. And it just so happens that he is reading a passage that clearly points to Messiah Jesus.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Philip approaches the chariot and asks the man if he understands what he is reading.
For the Ethiopian, it just so happens that a man is walking by his chariot who is familiar with this passage and can interpret it to him. He invites Philip up into the chariot to teach him the meaning of the words he had read. And Philip preaches Jesus to him. Our text says, “And beginning with this Scripture.” I’m sure Philip went on from there to point to more Scriptures that pointed to Jesus. Philip preaches Jesus—the only subject really worth preaching.
As Philip finishes preaching, it just so happens that they come across some water, perhaps a pond or stream. Today is Reformation Sunday, so I can’t resist quoting from Jean Calvin, who says:
Christ, who calls freely whom he wishes, now uses Philip, who was not
thinking about any such thing, to unexpectedly instruct and baptize the eunuch, and by this means extends the limits of his kingdom even into Ethiopia.
Those things which seem to come most by chance or fortune (as men term it)
are governed by the secret providence of God.

The eunuch asks Philip if there’s any reason he can’t be baptized. This man, who wasn’t allowed to be baptized into Judaism, puts Philip’s faith to the test. Philip says that the only requirement is belief. Jesus breaks down the barriers raised by the Law. One of those barriers was that disfigured people, disabled people, sick people, etc. could not fully enter into worship. They could only get so far. They were kept away from the most sacred places, events, festivals, etc. But Jesus allows all to come to Him. When the veil was torn in 2 at the crucifixion, it symbolized the destruction of the barriers between the people and God. This baptism and conversion is very significant to show that physical conditions are no longer hindrances to a relationship with God or usefulness to God. Jesus gives direct access to all to the throne of God. The access is granted through faith in Christ. No one who believes is to be barred from worship, and that includes the sacraments. I don’t even think we should bar not yet believers from worship, for it is often through worship that Christ reveals Himself.
As soon as the baptism is finished, Philip is whisked away by the Holy Spirit to another place. The eunuch doesn’t stand there wondering what has happened to his unexpected friend. Instead, full of joy, he praises God and goes on his way. His focus is on Jesus, not on Philip. His unexpected encounter has left him a changed man, and he returns home to Ethiopia, to the service of the Candace, carrying the Good News of Jesus Christ with him. Who knows how many came to know the Lord through his witness. I wonder if he used unexpected encounters as opportunities to share about Jesus. And thus the first
Philip ends up at Azotus and preaches from town to town until he lands in Caesarea. No doubt Philip continued to pay attention to seeming coincidences and unexpected encounters, seeing them as opportunities for Jesus.
In our own lives there may be things that "just so happen". They just so happen because they are ordained of God. Sometimes, like the eunuch, we are the beneficiaries of these divine encounters. God puts people or circumstances in our paths to bless us. God has something He wants us to know, and He uses various means, sometimes coincidental things, to tell us. We can miss these blessings if we aren’t tuned in. Other times God is placing opportunities in our paths to witness of Him. Again, Calvin says, “The only thing that hinders us being used of God is our own slothfulness in prayer.” We can easily miss those encounters and opportunities, getting distracted by the business of life, but if we begin our days asking God to open our eyes to what He has for us, to see people as He sees them, and to actually pray that God would give us such encounters so that He might be glorified in and through us, we are less likely to miss them. Our passage speaks several times of Philip being guided by the Holy Spirit. Philip knew how to discern the Spirit’s voice because he was in regular communication with the Spirit. Prayer is our connection to the Spirit and not only how we communicate with God, but one of the ways that God communicates with us. May we be faithful in prayer so that we don’t miss the wonderful divine encounters that God puts in our paths, both to be a blessing and a witness and to be blessed and receive God’s Word for us.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Using God

Scripture is Acts 8:1-25.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Mark of a True Witness

The Scripture reading is included with this message. This message was given on World Communion Sunday.