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 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.”
34 The eunuch 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.
Have you ever felt the urge to call someone - perhaps someone you haven’t spoken to in years - only to find out that your voice was the one they needed to hear the most? Or felt compelled to go up to a stranger to pay for their groceries or offer a word of encouragement? Or done something for someone where you didn’t really know why at the time, but felt like you had to do it?
This week I gathered a few such stories from some friends. A friend in Derry NH recounted a time from his teenage years where he was cutting through a McDonald’s parking lot and he saw a girl from his neighborhood. He didn’t know her well and she was talking with an older guy. He remembers that something made him go back and say “hello” to this girl and when he did that, the guy left. She told my friend that this guy had wanted her to go with him and that he would make her into a model. My friend made the decision to walk her home and upon looking back on that event, believes that in that moment, God used him to save her life.
Or another story from Nancy, who with her husband Jonathan came here a few months ago to talk about Greater Portland Family Promise. She recounts this story from when she and Jonathan led a mission trip in the Dominican Republic. This woman named Mary, who was part of the medical team and oversaw the pharmacy, would check every morning to see that all the medications were packed for the day. She would then go back to the shelves and see if anything attracted her attention - additional medical supplies to bring along. On that particular trip, there were pain patches from a Hospice patient who had passed - and in the middle of the week, something prompted Mary to take the pain patches. That afternoon, as Nancy tells it, a middle aged man rode in on his moped with an elderly man behind him, draped over his shoulders. When the men came in the team was told that the older man had only weeks to live and was in terrible pain. It was the only time in years that they had anyone in such desperate pain and they had pain patches to last a couple of weeks. The whole team felt that they had been God-led on that day.
Or consider the story of Muslims in Arkansas, who paid $1700 - funds set aside for renovations of their mosque - to keep a vandal who defaced their mosque with a swastika out of jail. According to a Newsweek article, Abraham Davis scrawled swastikas and spray-painted the words “go home” on the windows and doors of a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 2016. He was caught on a security camera and ordered by a judge to perform community service and pay a fine. But Davis couldn’t find the money and faced a six-year jail term. And upon hearing that Davis had financial difficulties, something prompted the members of that faith community to cover the cost of the fine. The president of the mosque said, "We thought this was the right thing to do. We thought if someone does something bad and came and apologized, you just forgive them. That should be the natural thing.”
These are all stories of people or communities acting on these holy hunches - sometimes unknowingly, sometimes with intention - and our scripture passage for this morning is yet another incident of Philip following this holy hunch - the prompting of the holy spirit - to go south this wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza only to find a Ethiopian eunuch traveling home by chariot, reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah.
This man, as the book of Acts recounts it, is clearly influential - traveling by chariot and in charge of a royal treasury, as well as wealthy, having possession of a scroll. He’s coming home from worshipping in Jerusalem, which would have put him as a Jew or as a God-fearer...someone interested in the Jewish religion. But he’s also a eunuch, a fact that is pointed out several times in this passage, and it would have meant that he would not have been able to get into the Temple….and if he was a God-fearer, he wouldn’t have been even able to go beyond the court of the Gentiles. So this important man who is clearly an “insider” in his own world appears to be an “outsider” when it comes to drawing close to the Jewish faith.
The Holy Spirit then prods Philip to go over to the chariot and join it. He does so and finds him reading from Isaiah. Philip, still paying attention to the Holy Spirit, asks him a question - “Do you understand what you are reading?” And it opens up this conversation about the text and the good news of Jesus.” The man then asks to be baptized - he sees water along this desert road and asks - “is there anything to prevent me from being baptized” - perhaps said with a bit of emotion, as his status as a eunuch does prevent him from being a full participant in the Jewish faith. Would there be anything about him that would prohibit him from experiencing the fullness of God’s kingdom in light of the good news about Jesus Christ? There is nothing, and so the two men go into the water, Philip baptizes the man, and then the Holy Spirit sends Philip on his next appointed mission.
We might be tempted to simply focus on the interaction between Philip and the Ethiopian man, and to be sure there is a richness to this interaction that we could explore - the inclusion and extension of the church into the “ends of the world”, the breaking of barriers around who is in and out, the wholeheartedness with which the Ethiopian embraces the good news of Jesus. However, there are three characters here in this story - Philip, the Ethiopian, and the Holy Spirit and interacts both with Philip and this newly-baptized man. The whole book of Acts is all about God’s action and initiative through the Holy Spirit and so the stories that we read here are best understood when we think about the ways the Spirit moved through the early church, how people responded to God’s spirit, and what was accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s power and prompting. What stands out to me in this passage was how both Philip and the Ethiopian listened to what the spirit was saying - and we see this in particular from Philip’s perspective as to how he payed attention to the movement of the spirit.
Philip was a man full of the Spirit, one of the seven chosen to serve when a conflict arose in the early church about the distribution of food to the widows in the community. According to Acts chapter 6, the whole community of the disciples were gathered together to choose for themselves those of good standing, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to oversee this task. When persecution of the church from within the Temple began, Christians were scattered from Jerusalem. Philip was one of these people who fled and began spreading the good news of Jesus around to the surrounding area, particularly to Samaria, a place that had long been despised by the Jews.
What he finds there are people ready to receive the message of Jesus, much like we find in the Ethiopian man who is already seeking God.
The Ethiopian man didn’t know about Jesus or salvation and didn’t understand much about what it would mean to become a follower of Jesus. But there was a hunger for God present in this man’s life - a hunger placed there, too, by the Holy Spirit working in the man’s heart, surfacing these questions about what he was reading, drawing him to worship, and ultimately leading him to the waters of new life.
Philip listened to where the spirit was leading him, trusting that the Holy Spirit would guide him to where he needed to be - listening to the Spirit’s leading to the desert road, listening the Spirit’s nudge to get into the chariot with the eunuch, listening to the prompting of the Spirit to ask the man about what he’s reading...and then listening both to what the Ethiopian shared and to the Holy Spirit in Philip’s response to his questions.
There’s a whole lot of listening and paying attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, which led Philip to act on these nudges - these holy hunches, which is what led the eunuch to be further drawn in to the work of God’s kingdom in the world - to the acceptance, love, grace, mercy, and wholeness that lies at the heart of a life in Jesus Christ.
Before the action, however, is the invitation to listen and pay attention. To notice what the spirit draws forward, where God is already present and working, to see with God’s eyes -- and to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit’s voice.
I’m reminded of last week’s reading from the Gospel of John, where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd...and later on in chapter 10, he talks about his sheep knowing his voice. They know him, and he knows them...and they know his voice. The way we know his voice is through scripture - in our study of it, in our conversations about it, in our meditations upon it... and through prayer -- not, incidentally, in the kind of prayer where we continuously talk to God, presenting God with our requests and needs….but in the kind of prayer where we sit and be still in God’s presence...in the kind of prayer that quiets our thoughts and hearts that are always so full of the distractions and to-do lists and the preoccupations of our lives, in the kind of prayer that invites us - in the silence - to see the way the Spirit moves in and through us...and in and through the world.
It’s the kind of prayer that attunes our spirits with that of God’s Holy Spirit, that allows us to better notice those nudges that come our way, that creates in us a wellspring that we can tap into when we step out to respond to the Spirit’s leadings...that we can lean on when the spirit draws us into the presence of others, to sit beside them, to listen to their stories and their questions and their spiritual hunger, and to be a sign of God’s love and light in the world.
The incredible gift that lies in this work of prayer is that it is all in response to what God is already doing out in the world. The Spirit leads us forward, draws our attention, provides the heavy lifting - all we have to do is follow and trust - trust that as long as we are faithful to those nudge from the Holy Spirit, God will take care of the rest. In our passage from Scripture this morning, after the Ethiopian man is baptized, Philip doesn’t stick around to ensure that the Ethiopian gets everything right or becomes a member of the Jerusalem church. Philip doesn’t give him additional teachings or instructions as to how to follow Jesus -- no, the Spirit, in fact, whisks Philip away to another region to another people to continue sharing about Jesus. We trust that in listening and following the Holy Spirit, that there are others who are doing the same - remembering that the Spirit is the one who began the work - that it is all God’s initiative - and that the Spirit will be the one to continue the job. All we are needed to do is to faithfully play our part.
And so as we go about our lives this week - make room to listen to the Holy Spirit. Spend time familiarizing yourself with the voice of the Good Shepherd through the words of Scripture. Be drawn in prayer to the place of inviting God to speak to you, listening for the call of the Holy Spirit as you go about your day. Be available to follow the leading of God’s Spirit to be a sign of God’s love, hope, healing, forgiveness, and wholeness, to meet the needs of our friends and neighbors far and near, and to point to the coming of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims. Pay attention for those holy hunches - and follow to be servants of God - and trust that God is at work in your life...in our life together...and in the world around us. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.