Good News for All (Acts 8:26-40)

11th century Byzantine depiction of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch

An angel from the Lord said to Philip, “Get up, and take the desert road that goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip went.

An Ethiopian man who had come to Jerusalem to worship was on his way home. The man was a eunuch, a high-ranking official in charge of all the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. As the official rode along in his carriage, he was reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that carriage, and stay close to it.”

Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage.

This was the part of the Scriptures that the official was reading:

“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was like a sheep that is silent
when its wool is cut off.
He didn’t open his mouth.
When he humbled himself,
he was not judged fairly.
Who from his generation
will talk about his life on earth being cut short?”

The official said to Philip, “I would like to know who the prophet is talking about. Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water. The official said to Philip, “Look, there’s some water. What can keep me from being baptized?”  The official ordered the carriage to stop. He and Philip stepped into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they had stepped out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away. The official joyfully continued on his way and didn’t see Philip again.

Philip found himself in the city of Azotus. He traveled through all the cities and spread the Good News until he came to the city of Caesarea. (God’s Word Translation)

We are in the Christian season of Epiphany – a time of celebrating that the light of the Lord has been given not only to Jews but to Gentiles, as well. The good news of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and peace in Jesus Christ is for everyone, and not just some.

So, we have a very appropriate story in today’s New Testament lesson illustrating God’s grace for those who have been typically the “outsiders” when it comes to the worship of God.

God’s grace is really a merciful divine intervention into another’s life, providing something a person or group needs, yet cannot obtain on their own.

Philip, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, received instructions from the angel of the Lord. Take a certain road. That’s it. No other explanation. The command is, however, full of grace. Most of us don’t do all that well with multiple instructions given at once. We do much better with a single imperative at a time.

And so, the next piece of guidance came as Philip was taking the road from Jerusalem south to Gaza. Go hang out around a certain carriage. Philip needed no more direction after that; he took to what was happening.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch by Herbert Boeckl

Maybe reading the story from our contemporary perspective hinders us from seeing just how scandalous and unthinkable the story was for people in the first century. Jews and Gentiles didn’t hang out with each other; and, if they did, there were all sorts of rules regulating how the interaction would go.

We really don’t have any of this with Philip. He simply emulates his Lord and ignores societal and cultural mores to meet the need of someone very different than himself.

An Ethiopian man was in Jerusalem and heading back home. He was an official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court, and a eunuch (a castrated official). He was a person of color with a mutilated body and could have very well been of a different gender than Philip was used to. In other words, he was about as foreign from Philip as one can get.

Yet, what better way to communicate that the gospel is for everyone? Philip had learned from Jesus not to adopt the divisions of race, religion, and gender that others did. See, instead, with spiritual eyes to the heart of a person.

And this Ethiopian eunuch had a heart curious about God, a mind trying to understand God’s words, and a gut that told him this guy approaching me for whom I don’t know and isn’t from my country is perhaps God’s messenger to me.

That’s what I call a divine appointment.

Those divine encounters always result in changed lives. I believe both the Ethiopian and Philip were changed that day. The only way that any of us truly changes is through the interaction with others different from ourselves.

The good news of Jesus is for all. If, however, we remain in a closed system which is not open to others of differing cultures and communities, then we harden into believing the gospel is for us, and not them.

Christianity is not, therefore, an exclusive club made up of insiders who demonize outsiders as not looking, acting, or thinking like we do. We already have plenty of that insidious junk in the world. At its inception, Christianity was different. And, I believe, it needs to keep that edge of reaching out to all persons with a life-giving message of salvation and peace – not a death-dealing sermon of Christian cultural hegemony.

Good news for all people everywhere means that proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to occur for all nations and ethnic peoples. It’s a message of grace, not judgment; of mercy, not threats; of open love, not closed hate.

Philip and the Ethiopian show us the way through their sensitivity to the divine, their open dialogue with one another, and their shared commitment to doing what is right and serving the Lord. Philip was a guide, not a conqueror. And the Ethiopian became a follower of Jesus, not Philip.

Let’s make sure to keep it straight; and to keep reaching out.

Lord God, thank you that in love and mercy, you reached out to us – and that when we were dead in our sins, you sent Jesus to make us alive. Thank you that you have a heart that seeks the lost. Thank you for saving us.

Give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness and need the light of Christ. Teach us to care for them as you do. Grow us to care for the common good of all humanity. 

Help your Church everywhere to know and love you; and to invite others into your divine dance. May our conversations with others be seasoned with salt and full of grace; may our relationships show people the love of Jesus. May our hearts reflect your own heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Light of the World (John 8:12-19)

Jesus spoke to the Pharisees again. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”

The Pharisees said to him, “Now you are testifying on your own behalf; what you say proves nothing.”

“No,” Jesus answered, “even though I do testify on my own behalf, what I say is true, because I know where I came from and where I am going. You do not know where I came from or where I am going. You make judgments in a purely human way; I pass judgment on no one. But if I were to do so, my judgment would be true, because I am not alone in this; the Father who sent me is with me. It is written in your Law that when two witnesses agree, what they say is true. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me also testifies on my behalf.”

 “Where is your father?” they asked him.

“You know neither me nor my Father,” Jesus answered. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (Good News Translation)

Light has many uses and a lot of facets to it. The sun’s light gives life; without it we wouldn’t survive. In the form of a fixture or flashlight, it illumines the way so that we can function. The gift of light allows us not to remain in darkness.

The Son, Jesus, is also the Light which gives life. Throughout Holy Scripture, light represents awareness and deliverance; it represents God’s ability to guide us and save us. Jesus helps us find our way in this world.

The Apostle John talked a great deal about light in his Gospel and Epistles:

The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out. (John 1:4-5, GNT)

Jesus said, “The light will be among you a little longer. Continue on your way while you have the light, so that the darkness will not come upon you; for the one who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. (John 12:35, GNT)

Now the message that we have heard from his Son and announce is this: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him. If then, we say that we have fellowship with him, yet at the same time live in the darkness, we are lying both in our words and in our actions. But if we live in the light—just as he is in the light—then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin. (1 John 1:5-7, GNT)

Light is life, and Jesus, as the Light of the World, is eternal life.

As our Light and our Life, Jesus fulfills the prophetic role, as described by the prophet Isaiah:

“I, the Lord, have called you and given you power
    to see that justice is done on earth.
Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples;
    through you I will bring light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6, GNT)

As people of the Light, we are to let that light shine in the darkness so that others can also find direction and deliverance:

“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, GNT)

Not everyone, of course, buys into this distinctively Christian way of seeing things – which is why it’s important for all Christians and Churches everywhere to be characterized by the Light and not by the darkness.

Humanity is a strange alchemy of both light and dark, hopefulness and hopelessness, awareness and ignorance, love and hate. We must acknowledge the light, bring it out, let it shine. Hiding the light only gives the dark forces of this world an opportunity to grip people in the shadows of guilt and shame.

Light must be respected. Long exposure to the sun brings a nasty sunburn to the skin. Being drawn to the fire’s light will also get you burnt if you get too close. And some light masquerades as good when it really isn’t.

False apostles lie about their work and disguise themselves to look like real apostles of Christ. Well, no wonder! Even Satan can disguise himself to look like an angel of light! So it is no great thing if his servants disguise themselves to look like servants of righteousness. In the end they will get exactly what their actions deserve. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15, GNT)

The deception typically happens whenever one lacks awareness of their own light, or forgotten, like a misplaced sock under the bed. Then, there’s no means by which to discern the bogus righteousness.

There are many ways of becoming more self-aware and recognizing the light of Christ, such as:

  • Keep a daily journal. Answer for yourself questions like, “What did you do well today?” “What didn’t go so well?” “Why?” and “How will you be and do things differently next time?”

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” Lord Byron (1788-1824)

  • Debrief with others about your experiences. Merely interrogating yourself all the time leads to twisted thinking.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey (1859-1952)

  • Fight evil. Read books. Meditatively read Scripture. Reading not only helps one to become more knowledgeable and well-rounded, but it also builds empathy and emotional intelligence.

“To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

  • Practice gratitude. Giving thanks illumines the path. A critical spirit makes others small and limits your own spiritual eyesight. So, be gracious, all the time, every day, no matter what.

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows.” Alan Cohen

O Lord, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, and strength to follow on the path you set before us; through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Seek the Least and the Lost (Matthew 18:1-14)

Child of God by Suzi Olson

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (New International Version)

“A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Horton Hears a Who! By Dr. Seuss

Jesus sees, honors, and protects little people. 

Horton the elephant spoke to people completely unconcerned for all the residents of Who Ville that lived on a clover. Dr. Seuss chose to make Horton an elephant, a large creature able to hear with big ears and be attentive to the small. Bigness can only come from becoming small.

Little people, the ones others fail to notice, matter to Jesus. And so, they ought to matter to us, too. Since Jesus sees and hears them, we should, too. 

Jesus often mingled with little people – children, women who had no rights, social misfits like lepers, the chronically ill, religious outsiders, tax collectors, and prostitutes. 

Our world is filled with similar people – angry adolescents, unwanted babies, forgotten old people, the mentally ill, moral failures, immigrants and refugees. If we have eyes to see and big ears to hear, we will notice the poor whom no one else hears. They are around us, even if they are invisible to us.

We’re all just little people before God. So, let’s be humble enough to see the little people around us. 

Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

That question drips with a desire to position and posture oneself in a place of prominence and power. In other words, the questions really is, “How do I climb the ladder in God’s kingdom to be the most important person?”

In response, Jesus graciously and calmly called a child to him and answered that unless we become like a little child, we have no future with God. There’s only one way to have what you want, and it’s through humility.

Children had no status or rights in the ancient world. Ancient culture was not remotely youth or kid oriented. Kids were generally viewed as just potential adults. They were seen as weak, small, and unable to contribute much of anything until they grew up. 

Disciples of Jesus are to become like children, that is, lowly. Followers of Christ must give up their status and desire to be important. They can only be big if they become small.

Only by getting on the same level as little people can we ever welcome Jesus.

Why become like a little child?

Because a person who is attentive to the lowly is actually attentive to Jesus himself. 

We are not to welcome people because they are great, wise, rich, powerful, good-looking, and just like you and me – but because they are noticed by Jesus.

The proud person who seeks prominence is always looking for greener pastures and things to do that will impress people who will help advance them up the ladder of success. They do not care who gets stepped on along the way. 

The Christian, however, is to give all people, including the little ones and the marginal ones, the time of day and treat them as important.

How does one become humble and avoid sin?

Those who receive these little ones receive Jesus; those who reject these little ones reject Jesus, and by their lack of loving them cause them to sin. This, according to Jesus, is damnable behavior, and, so, must be dealt with in a radical manner because hell is worth avoiding at any cost. 

So then, the proud person must hack off part of themselves because it is better to be maimed for the rest of your life than enter hell. This is just one reason why a lot of folks stopped following Jesus.

Yet, Jesus insists that if, for example, your pursuit of money consumes you and you hold onto it and avoid the poor, give it away! If you hold onto your time like a clock miser and let it become your “precious” then you must get rid of it, you must give it away! It is better for you to have nothing than to have plenty of time and money and be thrown into hell fire!

In short, we should seek the lost.  

Instead of waiting for them to show up, or to seek us out, we must go get them.

The lost matter to God.

Those who are on the fence and are half-hearted in their devotion to Jesus and the mission of the church, matter to God. So are the spiritually indifferent and the not very committed. 

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

The temptation for spiritually serious persons is to look down on these lukewarm people. Jesus knew how easy it is to berate and despise such persons in our hearts:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)

If we are willing to humble ourselves, we can learn the hard practice of not hating others for what we hate in ourselves. 

We hate it when we are lax in our devotion to Christ; fail to accomplish what we want; miss opportunities to do good; and neglect to pray, give, or serve. So, when we see this as a pattern in someone else’s life, we may easily despise them in our hearts.

Turns out that many serious Christians must be converted as well – to seeing God’s heart for these despised little people.

What should be done about lost people?

Human reasoning might say, “Ah, let that one go; we have 99.” But God’s reasoning is, “I really care for that one.” Jesus wants to convert us to the statistically unimportant. 

If a person does not contribute to the life of the flock, do we care?

The parable contained within today’s Gospel lesson has become so familiar that it no longer shocks us. What kind of shepherd would be so stupid to abandon the entire flock and expose them to the dangers of wild animals and the harsh environment in order to search, maybe even unsuccessfully for one stinky, messed up, knurly, ugly, eats-too-much, sheep? 

And then, what’s more, when finding such a sheep, that shepherd rejoices more about this one sheep found than over the more dependable and attractive members of the flock? 

Only such a “foolish” shepherd can represent God’s concern for each one straying child.

Our Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little people should be lost. Therefore, we are to seek the lost.

Conclusion

Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737) was an Italian violin maker. His violins are now the most prized violins ever made because of the rich and resonating sound they produce. The unique sound of a Stradivarius violin cannot be duplicated.

Surprisingly, these prized violins were not made from treasured pieces of wood, but instead were carved from discarded lumber. Stradivarius, who was very poor and could not afford fine materials like his contemporaries, got much of his wood from the dirty harbors where he lived. He would take those waterlogged pieces of wood to his shop, clean them up, and from those pieces of trashed lumber, he created instruments of rare beauty.

It has since been discovered that while the wood floated in those dirty harbors, microbes went into the wood and ate out the center of those cells. This left just the fibrous infrastructure of the wood that created resonating chambers for the music. From wood that nobody wanted, Stradivarius produced violins that everybody wants.

God has a plan. It is a plan to build a benevolent realm using not just the big and important, but the lowly and despised. 

May we all participate with the Lord and humble ourselves for kingdom purposes.

Repent! (Luke 3:1-18)

John the Baptist Preaching by Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (New International Version)

John the Baptist was the sort of guy that people either loved or hated. When I think of John, I picture a hippy driving a Volkswagen bus with bumper stickers plastered everywhere with sayings like, “Get Right or Get Left,” “Turn or Burn,” “Repent or Regret,” “Jesus Is Coming to Take Over,” “Here Comes the Judge,” “Armageddon Outta Here!” and “Axe Me What’s Next.”

He tended toward seeing things as black and white. John wasn’t much of a gray area sort of dude.

Yet, no matter what one things of John the Baptist, he was affirmed by Jesus as doing exactly what he was supposed to do: Prepare for the coming of the Lord. (Matthew 3:13-17, 11:1-19)

And the best way to prepare, as John pointed out, is to repent.

Repentance is one of those big biblical words that sometimes gets lost as being archaic and out of touch – sort of like a hippy John the Baptist. Yet, without repentance, nobody becomes a Christian and no one lives a fruitful life following Jesus. 

To “repent” simply means to change our minds – to stop doing one thing, and to start doing another. 

Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

Throughout Holy Scripture, repentance means to stop sinning and start worshiping God. “Sin” and “worship” are also words that don’t get used a lot and tend to get relegated as antiquated language.

To “sin” is to say and do things which harm others, or to fail to say and do things which are helpful. (Deuteronomy 15:9; Proverbs 10:19; Romans 14:23; James 4:17; 1 John 3:4, 5:17)

To “worship” means to bend the knee, to submit and honor a deity. (Psalm 95:6; Matthew 4:8-10; Revelation 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16, 19:10,

The prophet Isaiah saw a vision of God in the temple, a self-revealing of the One true God that caused him to be completely unraveled with repentance.

The Apostle Peter saw the Lord Jesus in his immensity and power through a miraculous catch of fish. He then fell at the Lord’s feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) 

John the Apostle had a vision of Jesus Christ in all his glory and heard his voice. John fell at the Lord’s feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:12-17) 

Ezekiel the prophet had a vision of God and saw the appearance of God’s glory. Then, he fell facedown. (Ezekiel 1:25-28) 

Even Daniel, perhaps the most righteous person of all time, saw a vision of God in all his glory and fell prostrate with his face to the ground, totally overwhelmed with God’s holiness and human sinfulness. (Daniel 8:15-18)

Methinks there is so much sin in the world and so much indifference in the church because people are not seeing a vision of a glorious and holy God. Because if they did, they would be completely beside themselves and see sin’s terrible foulness and degradation; they would repent from all the ways in which they have been apathetic and complacent in living their lives.

John the Baptist by William Wolff, 1968

We must, therefore, put ourselves in a position to see and hear God so that we can turn from all the obstacles that prevent us from experiencing Father, Son, and Spirit. 

And those hindrances to experiencing God are legion, including: 

  • Passiveness toward God’s Word and God’s creation, thus causing a lack of mindfulness and attention to the Holy Spirit.
  • Preoccupations and daydreams that prevents availability to the words and ways of Jesus.
  • Poverty of sleep, healthy habits, and an overall poor well-being that dulls the spiritual senses and prevents awareness of God.
  • Paucity of spiritual practices and disciplines that would put us in a position to experience a vision of God.

We must repent of all the ways we do not pay attention to God. The Lord is coming but we don’t perceive it.

  1. What, then, must we do to put ourselves in a position to see and hear God?
  2. In what ways might we corporately foster a sense of the holy God? 
  3. How will repentance fit into both our personal and corporate worship? 
  4. Have we identified and named the things that grieve the heart of God so that we can repent of them? 
  5. What is one action step you will take in response to this blog post?

None of us need to be like John the Baptist in order to be godly. We don’t have to eat locusts and be black-and-white thinkers. But we do all have to repent of the ways we make the road difficult by placing obstacles in the way of experiencing Jesus.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.