Our reading today is a story of how a person meets God and discovers joy.
Philip has been in Samaria, up here, and God tells him to go south because there is someone he wants him to meet. I note in passing that all of this happens because Philip is obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, not just once but twice (v26, 29).
Martin Lloyd Jones writes, “Now there are leadings such as that . . . If you read the history of the saints, God's people throughout the centuries and especially the history of revivals, you will find that this is something which is perfectly clear and definite―men have been told by the Holy Spirit to do something; they knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to them, and it transpired that it obviously was his leading. It seems clear to me that if we deny such a possibility we are again guilty of quenching the Spirit”
But that is for another talk.
But because Philip is obedient he goes to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza and he meets a foreign VIP, the man who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ethiopia.
We don’t know his name.
He may have been a Jew. Or more likely, a Gentile god-fearer.
Given where he came from, he was almost certainly black. The New Testament is skin colour blind, although sadly we as God’s people are not.
1. What we do know is that he was a man who is hungry for God
He had come from Ethiopia (Meroe was the capital of the Kandace, today in Southern Sudan) to Jerusalem to worship. That was a long journey, 2438km – including a ferry trip - according to Google maps.
It was not insignificant, and I calculate it would have taken him at least 15 days to go and 15 days to get back.
He would only have done that if he was serious about God.
And he really was hungry for God.
He had a scroll of Isaiah. Even though he was a wealthy man that would have been extremely expensive. He was reading it on his way home. And he was asking questions.
That is when I know that someone is hungry for God. They do ask questions. They want to come along to Christianity Explored courses; or they want to meet up to talk these things through.
And the Ethiopian knows that the passage he is reading – it is Isaiah 53 – is significant, but he doesn’t understand it. And he wants to find out who it is speaking about.
So when Philip turns up, runs beside the chariot and asks him if he understands what he is reading, the Ethiopian invites him to come up and explain it to him.
That is really big of him. This is a VIP, with servants and a bodyguard. He is used to being in control, to issuing orders. And yet he is prepared to admit that he doesn’t know something.
Here is a man who is hungry for an encounter with God.
2. We know that he meets with God
a) He meets God through reading the bible
It is a fascinating passage that he is reading.
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth’ (Isaiah 53.7-8).
This is not a passage describing a God of power, or a God who gives success and status to people, or even a passage telling us how to have peace in this world.
This is a passage describing someone who has chosen to be silent in the face of injustice. It describes someone who is humiliated, and someone who is slaughtered.
I wonder what it was about the passage that struck him?
Afterall, the Ethiopian was clearly a man of power, success, status and privilege.
But I wonder if, when he was in Jerusalem among lighter skinned people, he experienced discrimination. I wonder if he had experienced rejection because of his skin colour.
And as a eunuch he was somebody who would understand only too well what it meant to have no descendants.
And this is pure conjecture.
But I wonder if what really struck him was the fact that this person in Isaiah 53 voluntarily and silently submits to injustice, to his destiny and even to death.
He knows the reason why the person does it – it comes in the first part of the chapter. It was so that the one could take away the sins of the many.
‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Is 53.4-6)
But what he really wants to know is who would do that?
Who loves so much that he is not prepared simply to die for someone (that happens. Parents die for their children; lovers die for their beloved; men and women die for their country), but he wants to know who is prepared not simply to die, but to be shamed, falsely accused, have a posterity stripped away from them and then be slaughtered for someone?
That is so much harder.
And so he asks Philip, Who was it? Was it the prophet? Isaiah himself?
And Philip, we are told, beginning with this passage, tells him about Jesus.
He tells him about how Jesus chose to become one of us, to share in our experience. He told him of how Jesus took onto himself our sin, our rebellion against God – he took it into himself in order to deal with it. As the prophet foretold, he took onto himself the penalty for our sin, eternal separation from God, so that whoever turns to him can find forgiveness, acceptance, healing and the possibility to live a new life, not against God, but for God.
And so the Ethiopian meets with God through the bible.
I wonder whether you have known God meeting you through a passage of the bible.
You may not have understood it, but it has gripped you. And through it you have been drawn to Jesus.
It may have been Isaiah 53. Some friends of ours have helped translate the bible into one of the languages in one of the .. stans that were part of the former Soviet Union. They write, 'We will never forget checking the book of Isaiah: having deeply considered the 53rd chapter we with one accord stood up and the translator read it out and we all prayed. it was a spine tingling moment.'
Or I think of Jeremy who died last week. In his last 2 or 3 weeks, he told me how he was struggling with assurance. And then, last week, a few days before he died, he spoke of how the chorus, ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace’ had suddenly come to him. And it had lit him up. He knew it was OK. I guess that is not a specific bible verse, but it is what 2 Cor 4.8 states, ‘we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal’.
And I remember about 26 years ago, when I was in a very dark place, not doubting the existence of God, but doubting whether I belonged to him, how that verse from John 6.37, ‘Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away’ came into my mind. And I grabbed it, and I said, ‘Lord Jesus, I don’t understand this, but I’ve come to you, and you have promised that you will never drive me away’.
We meet with God through reading the bible.
Most of us have bibles at home. Yet how many of us, I wonder, try to make a commitment to reading them daily?
Chrysostom writes of this passage, “Consider, I ask you, what a great effort it was not to neglect reading even while on a journey, and especially while seated in a chariot. Let this be heeded by those people who do not even deign to do it at home but rather think reading the Scriptures is a waste of time, claiming as an excuse their living with a wife, conscription in military service, caring for children, attending to domestics and looking after other concerns, they do not think it necessary for them to show any interest in reading the holy Scriptures.”
He's making a point. If this man reads the bible in a chariot, we have no excuse for not reading it when we are at home.
b) He meets God through Philip
He meets God because Philip explains what the passage means to him.
We can meet God when we are on our own.
I guess if it was today the Ethiopian could have got out his phone and asked Siri or google, ‘Who is Isaiah 53 speaking about?’ I tried it and it was sort of helpful!
And of course we can meet God on our own because he does speak to us through our reading and listening to podcasts and personal bible study. And he does speak to us through our hearts, through promptings, dreams and visions.
That can happen, but God has made us so that we need each other.
That is why we come together. It is why small groups are so important in our Christian life, or meeting together regularly with someone to pray with you. It is why prayer ministry is powerful, when people pray for you.
The other week I had done something that was not right. I could easily have confessed my sin to God and believed his promise that I was forgiven. But I chose to meet with a Christian friend and confess my sin to him. He prayed for me and I experienced an amazing sense of God washing me through with his Spirit. I met with God.
Sartre declared that ‘Hell is the other person’. That is only true if we want to be our own little god and do whatever we want. Other people limit us and challenge our freedom.
But God has created us so that we need the other person, and so that we meet him through other people.
And yes we can worship on our own, and we can have our personal prayer time, but if that is all we do then we will be isolated and impoverished. We really do need each other. And we meet God in the other and through the other.
And God has so arranged it that the only two ‘religious’ things that he has commanded us to do are to be baptised and to share the bread and wine. And we cannot do either of those things on our own.
c) He meets God in baptism
It is after he is baptised that the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing.
The language used is helpful. They both ‘went down’ into the water. When we are baptised we identify ourselves with Jesus in his silence, suffering and death.
For the Ethiopian this would have been a big thing.
Some of you will know the story of Naaman who came to the prophet Elisha to be healed. Elisha tells Naaman to go to the river Jordan and wash in it 7 times. Naaman is furious. He too is a foreign VIP, the commander in chief of the king of Aram. He expects Elisha to come out and do something dramatic, and not tell him to simply wash in the local river. And it is only when he is prepared to humble himself, and to do what Elisha says, that he is healed.
The Ethiopian eunuch has no hesitation. He asks to be baptised. He wants to ‘go down’ into the water; he wants to identify himself with this Jesus who suffered injustice and who had no human descendants, and yet who suffered and died in silence. He wants to identify himself with this Jesus who died in his place, for his sins.
And as he ‘comes up’ out of the water, he knows that he is forgiven and accepted. He knows that as he returns to his home, he will not be on his own. God will be with him.
According to Irenaeus it was this Ethiopian who founded the church in Ethiopia, a church which still continues to this day.
Perhaps you have never been baptised.
I urge you to receive baptism if you want to meet with God. Speak with one of the staff team.
I know that people get embarrassed – how can I be baptised now? Isn’t that for children? I’m far too old.
But it isn’t just for children; it is for everyone – and increasingly it is adults who are baptised today. So ignore the embarrassment. To be honest, that is the least of your concerns. When you are baptised you are identifying yourself with Jesus in his brokenness. You recognise that he went as an innocent, in silence, falsely accused to the cross for you. You recognise that he hung on that cross and he died for you. You recognise that he was separated from God for you. You recognise that although it should have been you hanging there, in his love for you he took your place.
That is a big thing to admit. But it is what will open the door to allow you to meet with God. And it is what will bring you joy.
We meet with God through his word, the bible; through his people; and through baptism and communion.
Perhaps we have been baptised; perhaps we have been faithfully coming along to church or to small group; perhaps we have been reading the bible – and yet we seem to have lost touch with God. And we long to meet him, or more accurately, for him to meet with us.
Perhaps these verses can give us one further piece of help.
The Ethiopian eunuch met with God when he opened his bible and when he asked Philip for help.
But joy came after he got out of his chariot, after he ‘went down’ into the water, after he identified himself with the silent falsely accused suffering Christ.
We are not going to meet with God if we try to go in the opposite direction, not down but up. We will never meet with God if we try to vindicate ourselves or prove ourselves or justify ourselves. We will never meet with God if we think we can do it all on our own.
But we will meet with him when we ‘go down’, when we identify ourselves with the Jesus of Isaiah 53, when we recognise our need for forgiveness and mercy and strength. And we will meet with him, when – like Philip - we are guided by him and speak of him to those who want to hear, and are silent before those who ridicule or persecute us.
James writes to those who long to meet God, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4.8-10)