Ice breakers can be super fun, or super scary. I want to try one with you all very quickly this morning. Nothing too scary I hope. I want you to turn to the person closest to you and ask them this question “What is your favorite word?”
Now ask “What is your least favorite word?”
Believe it or not, these two words can tell a lot about a person. For example, my husband’s favorite word is Kentucky, his least favorite word is Paterno. And Yes, I know that’s not technically a word, but in our house it’s the closest we get to cursing! From those words you can guess he is a UK fan in a BIG way.
How about my favorite and least favorite words? That’s easy- my favorite word is yes, and my least favorite is no. It’s plain and simple. I like to hear yes almost as much as I like to say yes. I hate hearing the word no almost as much as I hate saying it. And perhaps that basic underlying pull of wanting to say yes and not hear no that draws me to the scripture for our sermon this morning, Acts 8:26-40. Read text
This is perhaps my favorite New Testament story that doesn’t have a woman as a character. It begins in the usual way. Most of our journey stories start out with a visit from a divine messenger, right? no, only me?
Philip is spoken to by an angle of the Lord, a messenger, and told to go from Jerusalem to Gaza down a wilderness road. When I hear the term wilderness in the Bible I tend to think desert. But this is not a desert area. There are trees and valleys and water. I think wilderness here has something to do with being off the beaten path. It is literally the road less traveled. Remember that phrase.
Philip, not scared in the least by the appearance of a heavenly messenger, heads out down the road. There he encounters something very unusual.
There is a chariot stopped on the side of the road and inside this chariot sits a man reading the Jewish scriptures. I’m guessing it was odd to pullover your chariot to read on the side of the road, but I don’t know much about social norms of the day when it came to reading materials.
Philip hears the Spirit telling him to go over to the chariot and join the man. And Philip does it! He doesn’t ask for a background check. He doesn’t let his potential embarrassment hold him back. He goes and is obedient- definitely walking the Road less traveled.
What makes this even more interesting is who is sitting in the chariot. It is an Ethiopian Eunuch.
These terms may need a little bit of unpacking. Ethiopia is a country on the continent of Africa, the horn of Africa to be more specific. It is where modern humans are said to have originated. It also has a special place in the scriptures.
Isaiah contains references to Ethiopia. Let’s hear from chapter 18. It is an area that God has claimed, called out and said that he will bless. I’m guessing those words might have been the ones that first led the Ethiopian to begin the study of scripture.
He sits there, a stranger in a strange land, having come all the way from Ethiopia to worship God, literally on the road less traveled, continuing to read from the scriptures. I don’t know about you, but I feel like something happened to the man while he was in Jerusalem. You see, that ties into the fact that he was a eunuch.
A eunuch is a male who has been castrated. This happened frequently with young men who were going to be put into the service of a female at court. It was seen as a necessity to make sure that there was no question about the legitimacy of children born to a ruler or noble. It was a barbaric practice that existed for centuries in many different contexts.
Because of this he would not have been allowed in the court of men at the temple. Deuteronomy 23:1 says “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the ” And Leviticus 21:17-21 tells us that even if the person with such an apparent deformity, even if they are a part of the lineage of Aaron, will not be allowed into the assembly.
This Ethiopian Eunuch, head of the Queen’s treasury, has traveled a great distance to worship, only to be kept from the worship he desired. And so, he sits on the side of the road, reading once more the words of Isaiah. Seeking comfort, seeking guidance, hungry for the action of the spirit of God in his life.
God hears this foreign born, not fit for the temple, man and sends a servant of the living God to stand at his side. Yes, my friends, God hears the cries of the righteous and the unrighteous, from those the world sees as worthy and those the world sees as worthless. From the lips of those on the highway, and from the mouths of those taking the Road less traveled.
This man is a spiritual pilgrim who is seeking earnestly to understand. He is not in need materially- he runs the treasury of a nation! But he is as needy as anyone you’ve ever met. And what has kept him from the throne of grace? Not his social standing, not his spiritual education or piety. But his forbidden castration and perhaps his nationality.
It was the rules of man, not God, that kept him from the throne. His sexuality and his nationality didn’t keep him from seeking God, but they kept people from seeing the Holy image of God the father in him.
He has traveled the Road less taken in search of a relationship and been turned away by the gatekeepers. This has happened to far too many. There are people who will not darken the door of a church, even for a funeral or wedding because they have been so damaged by those who were supposed to offer aid. There are those who will never spend time with Christians because Christians are judgmental, hypocritical. . you fill in the blanks. And we have taught them to see us this way. Just like the Ethiopian Eunuch was shown that he was not welcomed.
But God heard his cry in that wilderness space and sent Philip to his aid. Philip asks, “Do you understand what it is you are reading?” That seems so condescending to me. Of course, he knows what he is reading, he is reading it!! He’s literate, educated, reading in Hebrew for Pete’s sake Philip, get yourself together!
But I don’t really think it was a malicious statement. It was a sincere question. Do you understand the book of Isaiah that you are reading? A book filled with prophecy and promise. A book that in Chapter 56 verses 3-8 says “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
A book that offers hope to all, even to the Eunuch. He answers, with pleading eyes, “How can I understand if no one explains it to me?” This is what makes me think he wasn’t allowed in the temple. No one had taken the time to talk about the scriptures with him. They had refused, and he needed someone to help him understand this “strange warming of the heart.”
He invited Philip to join him in the chariot and together they read from Isaiah 53
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
This man, sitting on the road less traveled is hoping that these words mean something. He has discerned from Philip a willing spirit authorized by God even to share the meaning of the scriptures. He holds on to the hope that this might actually be a person who can help him find what he seeks. Salvation, hope, healing.
Philip begins to speak and shares that the one spoken of is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. He responds so well. But that should not surprise us. We always say God equips those God calls. And God has clearly called Philip to take this particular Road less traveled.
Philip teaches about Jesus’ love, grace, forgiveness, healing, death and resurrection. And It meets its most willing target. They pass by some water, we are not told if it was a lake, a pond, a river, a well. All we know is that there is water present and the Eunuch cries out “Look, here is water! What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
What is to prevent him from being baptized? What is to prevent him from entering the covenantal relationship with God that Philip experienced? Apparently, nothing, because they pull the chariot over and go to the water right then and there.
What is it that keeps people from making professions of faith today? What keeps people from being a part of the covenant people of God? What keeps people from joining Church Street and Christ Church in their missions?
Perhaps, just perhaps it is us, and other Christians like us. Those who expect a lot out of other people. We expect them to dress right, to act right, to know the rules and etiquette, to know the language of the church, when they have never been a part of it before.
Perhaps its people like us who have spoken judgement instead of forgiveness, wrath instead of love, purity instead of submission.
Philip could have easily turned aside from this impure man, a stranger from another country. But instead he offered to sit beside him, not over him. He listened to his concerns and addressed them. He took the Road less traveled, the road of grace.
Immediately upon coming out of the water the spirit whisks Philip away to another land. The Eunuch celebrates, praising God and continues home. We are left to assume that while Philip and the Eunuch go their separate ways here, they both go with a purpose, to engage in Christian mission no matter the path they wonder down.
The road less traveled- that’s the one that makes all the difference. The word yes, in a world full of no’s, that’s what allows grace to infiltrate our hate filled hearts.
Let us be ones who choose the road less traveled. Let us seek out the lonely, the lost, the hurt, the battered and bruised. Let us trust that the Spirit will do the work. Let us rejoice when God is made known to anyone, man, woman, child, elderly, black, white, brown, straight, gay, poor or rich. Let’s take the road less traveled- the road of Grace, that leads us all back into the fold of God.