May 3, 2015
Vacation days go by much faster than normal days. Have you ever noticed that? For instance, on my trip to Nashville in March I thought I had plenty of time to get together with a variety of old friends. However, the last day arrived and I still hadn’t seen more than just a few people. So when one of my friends invited us out for dinner, she suggested that I invite a few others to join us. I sent out a last minute invitation to several people, but because it was last minute, everyone had other plans. One of my friends and former Varsity Choir comrade, Jeff, wrote a sweet note back, saying something like, “Don’t worry. The universe will make sure we get together really soon.”
After dinner, Brent and I stopped at a coffee place to talk for a little while longer. We chose a booth, and when I first sat down, I sat on the side with my back facing the door. At one point I switched sides and faced the opposite direction. There was another couple sitting in a booth a few feet away from us. They stood up to leave. I could see the woman, but not the man. As he put his jacket on, he turned around toward me. I was in mid-sentence, and my jaw dropped. So did his. It was my friend, Jeff! We both started laughing, then we hugged and made introductions, then I hugged his wife, and he hugged Brent. Then we laughed some more at the unlikeliness of this chance meeting. Jeff said, “I told you, you put something out to the universe and the universe hears you.” The rest of the evening, we kept going over the way that unlikely encounter happened. Had I not switched to the other side of the booth, I wouldn’t have seen them when they got up. Had Jeff turned toward the door, instead of me, he wouldn’t have seen me. Had I not looked up right at that same moment … well, you get the idea. It was completely unlikely that any of this would have happened the way it did. But it did.
Unlikely is the word that comes to mind when I read this story about Philip and the Eunuch from Acts. It is a remarkable and seemingly unlikely story. Actually, Philip’s story alone is pretty remarkable. Just a few chapters before this one he and twelve others, including Stephen, were commissioned to feed and care for the widows in the community. They were the first deacons. The apostles needed time to pray and spread the word so they laid hands on these twelve so that they would also be empowered by the Spirit to do their own unique work. But the Spirit is never to be underestimated and it blows where it will. It moved Stephen to speak to the powers and principalities even though it meant his martyrdom by stoning. And Philip? After Stephen was killed, Saul led a severe persecution against all the believers in Jerusalem. So with the exception of the apostles, all the other believers were scattered. Philip went into Samaria. Even though he wasn’t commissioned to preach or to evangelize, that’s what he did. He preached to the Samaritans. And his preaching was amazing. The enmity between Israel and Samaria had not lessened since Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, but that didn’t hinder the Holy Spirit working through Philip as he preached. His preaching expelled unclean spirits from those who were possessed. Folks who were lame or paralyzed walked again. Philip even converted a magician named Simon. Simon was baptized, and although he once performed acts that amazed all those around him, now he was amazed by the miracles and signs that happened through Philip because of the Holy Spirit.
Regardless of what the original intentions were for Philip’s ministry, the Spirit blows where it will. It directed Philip in a completely different way than any of the apostles or Philip could have imagined, and the results were astounding!
If this were another kind of story in another kind of context, we might have heard that Philip was promoted to the next level of leadership. After all, his results in Samaria were incredible, why shouldn’t he move up the ladder of success? But that’s not the story we have before us. Philip is told by an angel of the Lord – which is another name for the Holy Spirit – to get up and go south. Take the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Wilderness road is exactly what the name implies: a wilderness. The idea that there would be anyone to preach to on this road was unlikely. And if no one was there to preach to, what use would God have for Philip on that road?
But if Philip questioned this, we don’t read about it. He just got up and went.
As he walked that road, something unlikely happened. Another traveler came down that dusty, deserted stretch, and an unlikely traveler at that. An Ethiopian eunuch, an official of the court of Queen Candace was in his chariot leaving Jerusalem for home. The Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot. Philip ran to it and when he did he heard the eunuch reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, and the eunuch invited him to join him and guide him in the interpretation.
Philip began with that Isaiah passage and told him, to quote the old hymn, the story of Jesus. When they came to some water, the eunuch was moved to ask for baptism. More specifically he said, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The chariot was ordered to stop. They got out. Philip baptized the eunuch. When he and the eunuch came out of the water Philip was snatched up by the Spirit and taken away. Apparently the eunuch was not surprised by the unlikeliness of Philip disappearing from the road, because he went on his way rejoicing. Unlikely as it may haves been, Philip found himself in Azotus. From there he went through each town proclaiming the good news.
Pretty unlikely story, isn’t it? Yet it is a powerful one as well. Philip hears the call to go to an unlikely place, meets an unlikely traveler, who responds in an unlikely and unexpected way. The whole thing is unlikely and unexpected. Philip being the one told to go was unexpected. And the eunuch? Unlikely is an understatement. He was of a different race, a different culture. Yet he had gone to Jerusalem to worship, so we can surmise that he was most likely a proselyte to Judaism, which also seems so unlikely. To answer his question about what would hinder him from being baptized, there were plenty of reasons to say “no,” rather than, “yes.” He was a eunuch. The Law stated that someone with his unique physical condition could not worship in the temple. Even had he not been a eunuch, he was Ethiopian. He was an outsider. Some might consider that a perfectly good reason to say, “No.” However, what really strikes me as being unlikely is not the baptism of the eunuch, but finding the water in which to do the baptizing. It was, after all, a wilderness road. Not much chance of stumbling across an oasis, but unlikely or not, the water was there waiting for them.
Everything about this story, from beginning to end, resounds with the unlikely. None of it should have happened, yet it did. But why do I find the unlikeliness of this story surprising? It really shouldn’t be. The word unlikely should really be the subtitle of scripture. The Holy Bible: An Unlikely Story about Unlikely People Being Called in Unlikely Ways to Bring an Unlikely Message to Unlikely People from God.
Abraham and Sarah, an unlikely couple who were childless and older than dirt, were promised by God that their descendants would number more than the sand on the ground and the stars in the sky. Jacob, their grandson, was a scoundrel, a schemer, a cheater, a liar, completely unlikely. But his name became Israel, and he was the father of a nation, God’s chosen people who would bring God’s blessing to the world. Moses should not have lived to see his first birthday, but the unlikely circumstances of his rescue and the unlikely way he was called by God, began the exodus of God’s people out of Egypt.
Ruth, a Moabite who should have gone back to her own people, stayed with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and married Boaz in the most unlikely of ways. Their unlikely marriage resulted in a grandson named Jesse and in a great-grandson named David. David was an unlikely choice for King, but King he was.
But what was really unlikely was that the Word became flesh, the Divine became human, starting off in life the way we all do – tiny, helpless, and powerless. That tiny baby grew up to be an itinerant preacher, and called together a woeful band of followers who never seemed to get it right; even when their teacher told them exactly what was going to happen. He would die but death would not win; resurrection, the most unlikely thing of all.
And here we are. Perhaps your being here is not unlikely, but even after all these years, I never cease to be amazed at how unlikely it is that I should be here, especially in this pulpit. The expression says that, “God moves in mysterious ways.” I would change the word mysterious to unlikely. God calls unlikely people to do unlikely deeds in unlikely ways. That’s how God’s purposes seem to be worked out – in the unlikely.
Our faith seems to be based on all that is unlikely. It doesn’t follow logic. To some it even sounds a bit nuts. But it seems to me that it is the unlikeliness of it all that makes the good news the Good News, because unlikely in God’s eyes does not equate to unworthy. Unlikely is not the same as unable. God’s purposes for good and for love and for life are worked out through unlikely people in unlikely places and in unlikely ways. That includes all of us. Thanks be to God. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.