Expanding Our Horizons

Sometimes, often without even realizing it, we find ourselves in just the right time and place to have divinely orchestrated conversations. 

Read Acts 8:26-40

This story from Acts is full of amazing details.  Which ones jumped out at you?

My favorite part is the ending:

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus.

I wonder whether the Spirit snatching Philip away to Azotus was like a tornado taking Dorothy away in the Wizard of Oz, or like the transporters on Star Trek. It’s like he just disappeared.

My favorite grocery store cashier suddenly disappeared once. When I asked what happened, they said-

“He just checked out.”[1]

The Holy Spirit is busy at the beginning of this story too.  Phillip is busy preaching in Samaria when an angel tells him to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. And then when he encounters the man from Ethiopia, it’s the Holy Spirit who prompts him to go walk alongside the carriage.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the middle of the story as well.  Philip and the Ethiopian have a divinely orchestrated conversation. Their meeting happens just as the Ethiopian is reading a passage from Isaiah that points to Jesus, providing the perfect opportunity for Philip to tell about who Jesus is and how he died and was resurrected for our salvation. Then they come upon some water and the Ethiopian asks to be baptized, and Philip baptizes him. And then, just like that, their time together is over, as Philip is whisked away to Azotus, and the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing.

It’s been said that “sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation.” (Amadeus Wolfe)  A seemingly insignificant encounter can have lasting impact, sometimes even impacting future generations. This story about Philip and the Ethiopian seems rather remarkable.  But this encounter may have been the beginning of Christianity in Africa, and it was centuries in the making.

There’s another odd story in 1 Kings 10 about a mysterious queen who comes to visit King Solomon from the land called Sheba.  She had heard of Solomon’s wisdom and riches and she came to see for herself. She came bearing gifts, and she left with new treasures because Solomon gave her whatever she asked for.  There’s a tradition that says that the queen also left pregnant by Solomon, which meant that their connection would continue down through the ages, so that their descendants continued to exchange treasures, and so this may be how it came to pass that an official from the queen’s court in Ethiopia would be Jewish and coming to Jerusalem for worship, and would have a copy of the scroll of Isaiah to be reading from in his carriage on that desert road on the day that he met Phillip.[2]

It’s an amazing story, but why include it in the book of Acts?  In Acts 1:8, Jesus had commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Prior to this story, the disciples had already been preaching in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.  Now, here in this story, Philip begins the gospel expansion to the ends of the earth through this Ethiopian.

It’s unfortunate that Luke doesn’t tell us this Ethiopian’s name, since he’s such an important part of the spread of the gospel, but we do get a fair amount of description.  He’s the treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia, and he’s a eunuch, something that was common for those serving in positions of power so that they didn’t have offspring that would attempt to steal that power.  The terms Ethiopian and eunuch were somewhat dismissive and non-descript in the Greco-Roman world, but this man holds a powerful position,[3] is free to travel to Jerusalem to worship, and is well-educated.  He’s reading from a scroll, something most people wouldn’t have easy access to in that time, and he’s reading Greek or Hebrew, neither of which were his native language.

Philip doesn’t ask the Ethiopian who he is or why he’s in Palestine or whether he’s qualified to be reading that scroll, he simple offers to help him understand who it’s talking about.  Philip doesn’t have prerequisites for baptizing.  When the man asks, Philip does it.

Now, if Philip was a real do-it-yourself kind of guy who didn’t pray and listen to the nudging of the Holy Spirit, he never would have been there to talk to this Ethiopian. He wouldn’t have been on the road to Gaza in the first place. He might have been thinking, “I don’t need to go to Gaza. Today I’m going to go talk to more of these people in Samaria. Things are going well here.” But he didn’t, so there he was in just the right place and time to introduce the Ethiopian to Jesus.

This Ethiopian was also listening to the Holy Spirit.  He doesn’t hesitate. He welcomes Jesus into his life, and wants to get baptized right there on the spot.

And then the Bible says that, “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again…

The Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. Why wasn’t he standing there trying to figure out where Philip went? Maybe sudden disappearance was a common occurrence in those days?  Or maybe he turned around and saw that Philip was gone and said, “Man, that dude’s fast.”

As for Philip, he turns up in Azotus, more than 20 miles away from the road to Gaza. People talk about God moving on their lives. Well, this is really moving! The Bible says the Spirit “snatched” Philip away and that Philip “found himself” in Azotus. Can you imagine?

What would you do if you were Philip? I think a lot of us would be hustling to get back to where we were before we suddenly found ourselves in Azotus, to keep on doing what we were doing before we got interrupted. Not Philip. God put him in Azotus, so he’s preaching in Azotus, making the best of his new situation. He’s going with the flow, going with the Spirit, following the call of God.

How awesome to have God move you so dramatically! How amazing to have God work through you so powerfully! How exciting to let God take you wherever He wants whenever He wants!

I’d like to think I’m open enough to the work of the Holy Spirit to do the same, but I sometimes catch myself saying, “Not now, God.” or “Not here, God.” or “That’s too scary, God.” I pray that I can set those thoughts aside and be all the God needs me to be, whenever and wherever He needs me, and I pray you can do the same.

We’ve had a sort of Azotus experience this past year when the pandemic changed all our plans.  In the process, God helped us to expand our horizons.  We’re reaching out to the ends of the earth with our Facebook broadcast.

The Ethiopian simply wanted to learn more about God, and Philip stepped in to do that.  People today still want to know God.  The Ethiopian would have been an outsider in Jerusalem because he was not from Palestine and because he was a eunuch.  People today feel like outsiders, too, and want to know whether God will accept them, and whether we will accept them.

Philip and the other disciples weren’t going around trying to get people to come to a particular place or event, or to a particular program.  They were telling whoever would listen what they’d seen and heard from Jesus. And they were healing people, which means they were listening to people and finding out what their needs were.

Sometimes, often without even realizing it, we find ourselves in just the right time and place to have divinely orchestrated conversations.  Proverbs 16:9 says, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” We might not always know why God has put us in a particular place at a particular time.  We never know when a conversation with someone might be a turning point for them or for us.

I can think of lots of turning points in my life. Not all of them came from what seemed like a casual conversation, but some did.  One that stands out was from back when I was sixteen. My mom asked me to deliver a cake she had been commissioned to make for a birthday party for one of my friends. When I got to the house where the party was going to happen, the only person there was a guy that I had seen around school but never really talked to.  Instead of hurrying off, I stayed, and we had a conversation that day that we continued later that night at the party, and it still continues today. That guy was Rob, now my husband of almost 40 years.

Sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation. We never know how God might use our words and the words of others to impact our lives. 

As many of us get out and travel in the next few months, we’ll have places to go and things to see, and I hope we have some wonderful adventures.  I hope we’ll be listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and be willing to go wherever the Spirit might take us. 

And I hope we’ll find that the greatest adventures of all are the conversations we’ll have with the people we meet along the way.

[1] https://punstoppable.com/disappearing-puns

[2] Wil Gaffney https://www.wilgafney.com/2012/05/04/black-jewish-and-queer-the-ethiopian-eunuch/

[3] Matt Skinner https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-826-40#

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