Wilderness Roads

Acts 8:26-40
David A. Davis
May 2, 2021
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Can there be a better way to hold afresh the notion of the wonderful, merciful and mysterious act of God than to hold a newborn baby? To hold a child just days old is to cradle all the mighty things that God has done wrapped into the creation of one new life. To stare into the face of a sleeping newborn child is to find yourself staring as if for the first time into the very grace of God. In this life there are those moments, kairos moments, when God draws so near. In this life, there are those thin places where God’s presence gives the body a shutter. In this life, there are those unforgettable experiences of the blessings of God so far beyond what you ever would have expected. Moments, thin places, and experiences that, in this life, give shape to the otherwise unfathomable love of God.

When you stop and think about it, many of those places, those times, those experiences, many of them could be described as expected. Not expected in a routine kind of way. Certainly not. Not expected as in one should have anticipated being completely brought to the knees here or there or then. A God moment on demand, as it were. But expected in the sense that an artist, or a composer, or an author, or a poet, they all have been inspired by places, times, and experiences like that. On Friday morning way before sunrise as the early birds began to sing in the darkness, I sat and held Frances Aubrey for what seemed like forever. Just the two of us in a darkened room while the rest of the house slept. The glow from the streetlight let me see her face. The only sound was our breathing. In terms of a holy place, a holy time, a holy moment. It was all of the above. And I would not, I am not, and I will not be the only grandparent, the only preacher, the only theologian, the only child of God, to describe a morning like that to you and name it “holy.” The truth is you would sort of expect that from me.

When we come to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the 8th chapter of the Book of Acts, there is absolutely nothing about Luke’s account that can be “expected.” There is nothing about the place, the time, the experience, the characters that could be expected when it comes to the mighty acts and the wondrous love of God. One could easily argue that because the bible story has sat on the shelf of the canon for so long that the reader brings a sort of weary, bible pages now dog-eared and yellowish with age, ho-hum expectation to the whole chariot, wilderness road, baptism thing. Ho-hum!! But ho-hum lazy readings of scripture lead to lazy swings and misses when it comes to the unexpected, bold, audaciousness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the unfathomable love of God.

“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). A wilderness road. The NRSV puts that sentence in parentheses for some reason; like it’s passing comment or an afterthought. Of course, there are no parentheses in Greek, and it seems unlikely to me that there would have been another option on GPS to take the more populated highway with tolls from Jerusalem south to Gaza. It was a desolate, isolated, desert road in the middle of nowhere. This isn’t a time and place like Pentecost when the disciples were all together and the city was full of devout Jews from every nation. This is not Peter and John healing the lame man and being surrounded by an astonished crowd at a notable place in Jerusalem called “Solomon’s portico.” This is not Stephen speaking to packed gathering of the council in Jerusalem as numbers of disciples increased greatly. Stephen and that enraged crowd that ground their teach against him and murdered him with stones. No, this is, according to Luke, a wilderness road. This is nowhere, no one, nothing. As far away from the city of Jerusalem and these first 7 chapters of Acts as one could imagine. Don’t let the parentheses full you. It is not a casual reference. And “wilderness road” probably doesn’t begin to describe it.

Stephen and Philip, you remember, were appointed as the first of seven deacons among the growing number of disciples. They were, according to chapter 6, selected to take care of day-to-day practicalities so the rest would not have to “neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (6:2) Ironically when it comes to the newly minted domestic servers, Luke goes on to tell of their evangelistic efforts. Stephen is martyred for preaching the word of God. And as Saul continues his murderous persecution of the church, Philip and the others head to Samaria. An unexpected plot turn comes when an angel of the Lord appears not to the notable duo from Jesus’ inner circle, Peter and John, but rather to the second of seven daily errand runners, Philip. And unlike the lengthy encounter Moses had with God at the burning bush and in contrast to the rich imagery often surrounding the Lord’s call to the prophets, Philip’s angelic instruction comes unadorned: “Go out to the middle of nowhere and go over to this chariot and join it.”. Unexpected place. Unexpected instruction. Unexpected evangelist. And yes, the Ethiopian eunuch. Unexpected.

Dr. Barreto reports that scholars of the bible and of ancient history are of many minds and opinions when it comes to understanding the identity, the personhood, the role, and the portrayal of eunuchs. They were understood to be in the margins and yet often served in positions appointed by kings and queens. They were not considered a threat to royalty’s lineage when it came to the children of the monarch and yet they were often educated and wealthy by standards of the day. In scripture, Isaiah, for example, names eunuchs in lists intended to stretch to the lowest rungs of human need like orphans, widows, and strangers. Yet Isaiah also clearly includes them in the promise of God. Ambiguity seems an apt summary of scholarship when it comes to an understanding of eunuchs in the first century of the Christian church. Ambiguity in a variety of ways including gender and sexual identity.

So here along the wilderness road, the eunuch is from Ethiopia. That means they are a foreigner there in Samaria and they are black. While they were in Jerusalem it is unclear whether they were Jewish or Gentile or a new believer. It’s ambiguous. The eunuch is a court official and in a high position in charge of the entire treasury. They are likely educated, wealthy, and clearly travel as a person not only of means but of status. When it comes to cultural and ritual norms, when it comes to the economic and political factors of the region, when it comes to this encounter between the eunuch and Philip, could the angel of the Lord have ever sent Philip to go over to a chariot of anyone more defined by pretty much everyone and everything as “other.” Go to the wilderness road and find the one who defines life in the margin.

What happens in the encounter between the eunuch and Philip is…well…unexpected. Philip runs alongside the chariot and sees and likely hears the eunuch reading. “Do you understand what you are reading?”, Philip asks. The educated one of the royal court humbly admits that he can’t unless someone helps him. Then comes a bold, even courageous act of hospitality. Not from the one whose life has been touched by Jesus, but from the one that labeled as different, as other. From the one Luke seeks to portray here in chapter 8 so distant from the disciples. They Philip in and sit beside. And with a clear allusion to the Risen Christ on the Emmaus Road, Philip “began to speak and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to the eunuch the good news about Jesus.”

Yes, of course, along the wilderness, desert, desolate, nowhere road, those in the chariot come upon water. The marginalized yet elite, elusive yet rich, confusing yet educated, gender fluid, person of color, never quite understood treasurer for the queen asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” No answer is spoken. The answer comes in his baptism. Luke likely thought no spoken answer was needed because actions speak louder than words. No answer was spoken but the church has tried ever since to find ways to say no to so very many in so very many hurtful, ways. No answer was spoken because the grace of Jesus Christ is so very clear. What is to prevent me from being baptize. NOTHING!

One last bit of unexpectedness? Philip is whisked away by the Spirit, pretty much whisked off the page. Philip pretty much never returns to the sacred page. He is dropped into some town probably right into a crowd of people. Saying to himself “yeah, so that happened.” Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the wilderness road and no one, no one, absolutely no one noticed. Philip himself hardly noticed. Seems like pretty much no one has noticed ever since either. A cautionary text, so to speak, that affirms that the reach of the gospel, the grace of Christ, and the act of God is always beyond what you notice, what you can imagine, what you can expect and what so many in the church try to define.

Theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert taught preaching at the University of Notre Dame. She is the sister of Bob Hilkert here in our congregation. At the end of her book entitled “Naming Grace”, she succinctly explains the title. “Naming grace means ‘naming the present’—trying to identify where the Spirit of God is active in contemporary human life and in communities of believers who make the gospel a concrete reality in limited and fragmentary, but still tangible ways.” The church of Jesus Christ is called to be grace-namer not a grace-denier. And when you about the work of naming grace, you can never forget the wilderness roads that so few notices. Where those unexpected moments, those unexpected thin places, those unexpected experiences, those unexpected people, give shape to the otherwise unfathomable love of God.