Unless Someone (The Holy Spirit) Guides Me

The Baptism of the Eunuch by Rembrandt

The text for this morning is our First Lesson, Acts 8:26-40, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It was a big moment, the biggest day of his life, and a defining moment of the young Christian Church, when this Ethiopian eunuch is baptized.  In modern terms it might be considered a victory for ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.  Certainly in its own day it demanded a significant shift in thinking, a realization that God chooses men and women for Himself from every nation, tribe, and people.  But for this man it was the difference between hell and eternal life.
That’s good news.  But Baptism happens so often that it’s easy to take for granted just what a miracle it really is.  So let’s take some time to consider the whole process, to think about everything that had to happen in order for this man’s Baptism to occur in this place at this time.  To do so, we need to back up a bit.
It started with a charge of prejudice, the politics of division.  In the early days of the Church, a complaint by the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking Christians, arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  So the Twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brothers, pick out from you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”
They chose seven men, including Philip, and consecrated them for their work.  “And the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.”
But as we all eventually discover, life here in the Church Militant is not just smooth sailing.  The Church, by God’s grace, continues to grow; but it is not all one glorious moment after another—not in this life, where the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh wage war against Christ’s kingdom.  Stephen is martyred for preaching the crucified and risen Christ.  A great persecution arises against the Church in Jerusalem, and the believers are scattered.
Philip goes down to Samaria.  Though he meets with some challenges, his efforts are blessed by the Lord.  Many accept the Word of God that he proclaims, and the Gospel spreads throughout Samaria.  I would imagine that Philip could see himself serving this congregation for all of the rest of his days.
But the Lord has different plans.  He sends an angel with this message: “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
I daresay that if I was Philip I might have asked a few more questions.  You know, things like: “When do you want me to go?”  “Where exactly do you want me to go?”  “What do you want me to do when I get there?”  But Philip immediately obeys.  He just “rose and went.”  A distance of about 50 miles, a couple of days’ journey on foot through some very harsh terrain.
Philip comes upon a man from Ethiopia.  He is a deeply spiritual man, obviously committed to his faith, with a strong desire to learn more of God’s Word.  He has invested a considerable sum to purchase a scroll of Isaiah.  It took a lot of grit and determination to make the long journey from his native country to Jerusalem.  At the same time, his status as eunuch makes him ineligible for full membership in the Jewish community.  He could never enter the inner temple courts.  He would always be looking in from the outside.
Directed by the Holy Spirit, Philip runs up to the man’s chariot.  As he does, he can hear the words the man is reading, and so he asks: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” the man replies.  So he invites Philip to join him in the chariot.  The passage the man is reading is a beautiful section from Isaiah 53:7-8, which describes the Suffering Servant: “Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opens not His mouth.  In His humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe His generation?  For His life is taken away from the earth.”
Wow, an outsider treated poorly with no hope for any descendants.  It sounded so much like him.  The eunuch just had to ask: “About whom… does the prophet say this, about himself or about somebody else?” 
Philip could hardly have found a more suitable text for proclaiming the Gospel.  Though all of Scripture points to Christ, Isaiah does so more often and more clearly than any of the other prophets.  Philip has the opportunity to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.  Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, is the heart and center of Scripture and therefore the key to its true meaning. 
As they are going along the road, they come to some water.  And the Ethiopian, half in eagerness and half in fear, points to the water and says, “See, here is water!  What prevents me from being baptized?”
This question stems from the Ethiopian’s position within Judaism.  As a eunuch, he could never enter the inner courts of the temple.  He could never be fully accepted as one of God’s “chosen people.”  He would always be a bit of an outsider looking in.  And now that he has heard this Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, he fears the same exclusion.
In baptizing him, Philip shows the Ethiopian that Jesus has removed all former distinctions between people.  There is no “chosen people” anymore—except as people chosen by God’s grace in Christ!  Any repentant sinner qualifies for that blessing!  And through the water and the Word, the Holy Spirit uses Philip the evangelist to add one more precious soul into the kingdom of heaven.
Our text describes the process that produces a new Christian.  Like Stephen, Philip has gone from “waiting tables” to becoming an effective evangelist.  When called upon by the Holy Spirit to interrupt his work in Samaria, Philip leaves and travels some 50 miles on foot to have contact with one person.
But notice who is the One really at work.  There are a whole lot of steps, many insignificant, but all necessary for this man to be brought to the waters of Holy Baptism.  And it is the Holy Spirit who is the Someone who guides the entire process.  Just as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it united in the one true faith.  Though each individual story is unique, the Holy Spirit uses the same means over and over to guide the man to understanding and saving faith—God’s Word and Sacrament.
The Gospel is a disorganized, messy business, isn’t it?  We don’t like that.  We prefer it tidy and organized.  Perhaps it’s our being Lutheran or our German past.  Alles in Ordnung.  Everything in order.  God is, after all, a God of order.  But order doesn’t necessarily mean organized.  My desk may be utterly disorganized with piles here and there, but if I know where everything is, it is still in order.
Organized means that we’re in control, which is really the heart of things, isn’t it?  We want to be in control because we want to be God.  And deep down inside we think we’d do a much finer job of running things than God does.  So we have to organize things and make them fit our scheme of how things should work.  We make our own plans and develop our own programs.
Yet one of the very disturbing things about the book of Acts is how utterly disorganized everything seems to be.  There’s no planning retreats.  No mission statement.  No vision casting.  Apostles going here, there, and everywhere.  Table servers turned evangelists, then leaving thriving ministries in highly populated areas to wander about the uninhabited Gaza wilderness at the limited directions of an angel of the Lord.  Is this any way to run a Church?
We certainly wouldn’t do things this way.  We’d have boards and committees.  We’d interview the appropriate candidates and hire consultants.  And we certainly wouldn’t send one of our best evangelists after one longshot potential convert—a Gentile, an African, a eunuch, at that.
But the Holy Spirit is at work here.  He is guiding the process, in His usual messy, disorganized way.  This man is a “God-fearer,” a worshiper from a distance.  Imagine a person being told week after week, church after church, “You’re not welcome here.  You don’t belong.”  And yet, he keeps coming back.  Even travels hundreds of miles to a temple from which he is barred.
And there out in the wilderness, the Holy Spirit nudges Philip to run over to this chariot and hop on board.  Two strangers in the desert.  Two men who never, ever in this world would have been together for anything, are brought together by the Spirit around the text of Isaiah.  There you have the Church.  In that little chariot, a congregation has gathered.  Two or three gathered around the Word, and there the Spirit is, there the Lord is, there the Church is.  It doesn’t look like much to the world, but there is nothing more precious in the sight of heaven.
Philip opens his mouth and proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s Good News, the news of forgiveness, redemption, life, and salvation.  This Suffering Servant “bore the sin of the many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”  This was Good News for the Ethiopian.  This Suffering Servant named Jesus died and rose to bring that Ethiopian eunuch into a kingdom that once excluded him. 
That’s the Good News for you, too.  The outsiders are in, in Jesus.  You, who were not a people, are in.  You are the people of God.  You are God’s Israel—a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen people, God’s treasured possession.  What Good News!
And there’s even more good news.  There is water in the desert.  And so the eunuch points it out and asks, “What prevents me from being baptized?”
Now if Philip is operating in an organized sort of way, he’s thinking, “I’d better get my paperwork together, and there’s going to be an investigation in Jerusalem when word gets out about this, and what am I supposed to do because this sort of thing wasn’t covered in deacon training?”
What does Philip do?  He baptizes him.  You see, you can’t put a governor on the Holy Spirit when He’s running full throttle; and by now it is evident that He is obviously guiding the whole process.  That water in the wilderness is for the Ethiopian his Red Sea, his Jordan River, his burial with Christ, his resurrection with Christ, his washing of regeneration and renewal, his rebirth of water and Spirit, his clothing with Christ.  He returns to Ethiopia, to the court of the Candace, to his vocation as treasurer, as a new man, a baptized believer in Jesus. 
As for Philip, the Holy Spirit immediately carries him away to Azotus.  He preaches the Gospel to all the towns until he comes to Caesarea.  The next time we hear about Philip, some 20 years later, he’s still there in Caesarea with his four daughters.  A quick trip on the Gaza road and then 20 years of ministry in the same place.  There’s nothing predictable when it comes to the way the Holy Spirit works.  And that’s true for you as well as Philip and the Ethiopian.
There is water in your wilderness, too.  Baptismal water and the Word.  The raw material of the Spirit’s working.  You’ve heard that Word, too.  The same Good News that Philip preached and the Ethiopian heard.  You’ve been baptized with the same baptism.  That joins you as a living branch to the Vine named Jesus. 
That Gaza road of yours is a messy road, too, with unexpected turns and Greeks running up to our chariots and water in the wilderness.  God is anything but organized.  Ordered, yes.  He knows where it all is.  But to our eyes, quite unorganized.  And yet that is the way the Gospel works.  One person at a time.  The Word, baptismal water, the Spirit of God guiding it all.
There will be your chariots to chase after, too.  You never really know when and where the Spirit will blow, and it will be your turn to speak the Good News to one who asks you: “What does this mean?”
What will you do?  Speak.  Open your mouth and speak Good News to the outsider, to the eunuch, to the one seeking the Truth, to the one who is asking what makes you tick, what it is about Jesus that is so important that everyone should know.  Don’t try and organize it.  Don’t wait until you feel fully prepared.  Just do it.  Trust the Holy Spirit to guide the process.  It is, after all His Work to guide to understanding and faith in Jesus Christ in whom we have forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Just open your mouth and speak this Good News I share with you today: Jesus Christ gave up His life on the cross and rose from the dead for the world of sinners, including you.  In Baptism, you are buried in His death and raised in His resurrection.  You are one of His people, declared holy and righteous.  Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         


Timothy Buelow said…
Well done, good and faithful servant!

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