8th Sunday After Pentecost July 22, 2012
10, 507, 781 [TLH alt. 501], 400
Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation His justice was taken away, And who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.” So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Savior in whom we believe and whom we preach to others, dear fellow-redeemed:
Some events that take place in life are so astonishingly unlikely as to be nearly unbelievable, and yet they happen. Several years ago, two women arrived in the maternity ward of a large Tulsa hospital and each gave birth to a baby boy. The births were about four hours apart. “Not so unlikely,” you say, but it turns out these two women were already acquainted. They had met on the same day exactly two years previously, when they had both given birth to baby girls in the same hospital one hour apart.
Here is another example: Some of you are bridge players. What do you think the likelihood is of being dealt a hand that contains all thirteen spades in the deck? Mathematically, the odds are one in 630 billion. Yet, bridge expert Oswald Jacoby reports that it happens relatively frequently, about a dozen times a year in the U.S. alone.
Incredibly, unlikely things seem to happen with regularity in our world. Some of them are utterly astonishing. But, as Christians, we don’t expect our evangelism to be one of them—the way we reach out to others and share the Gospel. We all know we’re supposed to do it, and we all want to do it. But I think we sometimes get the wrong picture of evangelism in our head, as if my personal outreach is always going to follow some conventional, predictable pattern. Our text for today challenges that kind of thinking. It demonstrates to us that the only thing predictable about witnessing Christ is that there’s nothing predictable about it! That’s why our theme is: A MOST UNLIKELY EVANGELISM The Holy Spirit sends you I. To the most unlikely places, II. And the most unlikely people, III. With a totally unlikely message, and IV. Produces astonishing results!
Personal evangelism is part skill, part art. It is taught by the Holy Spirit. Some of you have been doing it for a long time and are pretty good at it. Some may be just starting out. The first thing you find out about sharing the Gospel is that the Holy Spirit often sends you to the most unlikely places.
Philip was one of the early evangelists who were scattered throughout the ancient Near East when the Christians were first persecuted in Jerusalem. He had been working and preaching in Samaria, the region north of Jerusalem. This was unlikely enough all by itself, for Jews like Philip normally had nothing to do with Samaritans. But now the Holy Spirit gave him what must have seemed like a supremely unlikely assignment: “An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, ‘Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” And then the interesting comment, “This is desert.” [v.26]
We’re simply told that Philip arose and went, and it may be that he got up without a question in his mind and proceeded where the Spirit led him. But I wonder, if Philip might not have said in his mind, “Now what?!” Samaria’s not an unlikely enough spot to do evangelism, now you’re taking me to the middle of the desert? This is desert!”
You may find yourself feeling the same thing, sometimes, about your personal outreach with the Gospel. “Lord, this is desert! How can I possibly share the Gospel here—where I work, where I go to school, where I spend my time? It’s just really unlikely that I’m ever going to find an opportunity to witness about Jesus here.”
But ours is a most unlikely evangelism. No matter where you are, there’s one thing of which you can be sure: You wouldn’t be there unless the Lord had work for you to do. Like Philip, Scripture says the Holy Spirit has your work all lined up for you. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
The Holy Spirit not only sends us to the most unlikely places to evangelize, He often sends us to what may seem to us to be the most unlikely people. To whom did He send Philip? “A man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet.” [vv.27-28]
“A eunuch of great authority” indicates a very high official in the court of the Ethiopian queen. This was a VIP. He was a black man, an African, and how strange do you think that was for Phillip? Philip had probably just gotten used to the idea of sharing the Gospel with people who weren’t strictly Jewish, and now God wanted him to speak the Gospel to this foreigner? It must have seemed a most unlikely person to evangelize.
But he shouldn’t have been surprised and neither should we, for ours is a most unlikely evangelism. The Holy Spirit often sends us to the most unlikely people—people we never would have guessed would be likely recipients of the Gospel. It could be the person sitting next to you on a plane, the person who bags your food at the grocery store, or the person who sits across the aisle from you at work. You just don’t know and it really doesn’t matter, does it? One Christian writer said, “Of those of whom we know nothing else, we do know this, that they have souls.” They have souls—all the people you meet in the course of your day, unlikely as they may seem, are candidates for the Gospel because they all have souls. Christ died for them.
Philip was sent by the Holy Spirit to an unlikely place and an unlikely person. But strangest of all was the content of the message he was sent to bring. Ours is a most unlikely evangelism, thirdly, because we are sent with a totally unlikely message.
Philip “…heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation His justice was taken away, and who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.” [vv.30-33]
The Ethiopian had a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He had been to Jerusalem to worship, so he was probably what was known as a “proselyte of the gate,” that is, a foreigner who had converted to Judaism. He had evidently purchased the scroll of Isaiah and was poring over it as he traveled, trying to figure out what it meant. The passage he was reading came from Isaiah 53:7-8. How strange it must have seemed to him! How unlikely! The gods of the world’s other religions were ruthless and proud, so what could the prophet be speaking about when he described a sheep going meekly and silently to the slaughter? What sort of religion was this?
I wonder if you’ve ever visited a slaughterhouse. Necessary as they are, there’s something chilling and dreadful about the process of turning livestock into food. On one side of the slaughterhouse you have pens full of living, healthy livestock, and on the other side are trucks, hauling away the processed meat. The process is inevitable and relentless. Once the animals meekly start down that last chute, there’s no going back, and there’s no question about what’s going to happen to them. I submit to you that this is the exact condition that we, sinful human beings, are in, by nature. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Left to ourselves, we and all other human-beings would be headed down the dreadful and inevitable path to Hell, the just punishment for those who sin against God.
But then something totally unlikely happened, and this was the message that Philip brought to the Ethiopian that day. Beginning with the very passage he was reading at that moment, Philip told him about the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He shared with him the incredibly good news, the wonderful, totally unlikely Gospel of Jesus Christ. He shared with him the same message I’m sharing with you, namely, that “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Instead of sending us down the chute to the slaughterhouse, God in His grace and mercy sent His Son, Jesus, instead! He was the Lamb sent to the slaughter in our place, who meekly bowed his head and walked on under the weight of His cross, all the way to Calvary. There He died to redeem us. What parent would sacrifice his own innocent child to save someone else? Yet that’s exactly what God did for you! Paul says “When we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).
It was, and remains a most unlikely evangelism. The same wonderful message with which the Holy Spirit sent Philip, He sends with you too. You are to proclaim to others the same blessed message that has saved you! The message that salvation is available through faith in Jesus Christ, that He is the substitute for sinners, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Was Philip’s task hard? Well, when you think about it, it was the Holy Spirit who did all the work! He gave Philip the opportunity, He sent Philip out there, He gave him the message, and He worked faith in the heart of the Ethiopian. Like the text says, all Philip had to do was open his mouth and speak! And that’s your job too. It’s not complicated. It’s as simple as Jesus’ instructions: “Go and tell what great things God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). You may think, “What can I accomplish?” By yourself, nothing. But with the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished! Unlikely as it may seem, you will very often find this message producing astonishing results!
Someone pointed out that that chariot was getting pretty crowded. Because by this point it contained not only Philip and the Ethiopian, but Isaiah the prophet, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as well! The Ethiopian heard the message about Jesus, and he believed it. The Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart through the Word spoken by Philip. When they came to some water, the Ethiopian said, “’See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.” [vv.36-39]
This was about the most unlikely convert to Christianity a person could ever imagine. Then again, ours is a most unlikely evangelism. So we shouldn’t be surprised when it brings such astonishing results. When you speak the Gospel to people, stand back, because miracles are likely to happen!
To this day, I still find myself astonished at the unlikely people that the Holy Spirit brings to faith through the Gospel. You can probably think of some pretty surprising examples in your own experience; and by the way, we see once again that the Holy Spirit always works this astonishing miracle of faith through the Means of Grace—the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. He kindles faith in the Ethiopian’s heart through the Word of God, and seals and confirms him as a member of the Kingdom of Christ by the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Unlikely message. Astonishing results!
Did you notice? When Philip left him, what’s the last we hear about the Ethiopian? He went on his way rejoicing! We can understand that, can’t we? When you leave the church parking lot today, I fully expect you to “go on your way rejoicing.” If you’re not, it means you weren’t paying attention. For this Good News is for you, too! You, too, have been delivered from death and Hell, just like the Ethiopian. In another passage a little later in Isaiah, he describes the blessed state of redeemed believers just like you: “You shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).
Speaking of things that are unlikely: horseracing is a business that lives or dies by likelihoods, better known as “odds.” In the history of horseracing, it would be hard to find a more unlikely hero than Donerail. Donerail was a bay colt who went to the gate of the 1913 Kentucky Derby at the ridiculously long odds of 91-to-1. Most racing insiders thought he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But unlikely as it was, Donerail won by half a length, and a person who bet a thousand dollars on him that day would have taken home the astonishing amount of nearly one hundred thousand dollars. Wouldn’t it have been great to have known that ahead of time!
I submit to you that you’re involved in a venture even less likely than that, but whose payoff is guaranteed. It’s your personal Gospel outreach. It’s a most unlikely evangelism for you’ll find the Holy Spirit sending you to the most unlikely places and to the most unlikely people with a totally unlikely message—the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. But that is where the unlikelihood stops, for where that Gospel is preached—by pastors in the pulpit, by neighbors over the back fence, or by employees sitting across the break table at work—there God will accomplish His results, and those results will often be absolutely astonishing! God grant that it may be so in our lives. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.