November 1, 2020 John 1:1-18 Acts 8:26-40
A New Approach
Someone recently mentioned that watching the news is depressing and exhausting. “I see all the suffering in the world. I want to do something to help but I don’t know what to do. And now I feel guilty, sad and depressed.”
Deep down I felt the same and I know from conversations that many people feel this way. How do or should people of faith watch the news, respond to suffering, and still live with joy and hope?
My response, relying on studying the Bible and reading theological works over the years, went something like this: “When we see suffering we have to do whatever we can to help. This is and should always be our intention. But we also have to accept that we cannot fix everything. And because we cannot fix everything we will feel helpless, frustrated and even angry.
When people of faith witness the brokenness of this world and all it suffering, we lament, we cry out to God to intervene and bring an end to suffering. It is in lamenting that we long, hope and pray for a time when there will be no suffering, pain and death anymore. Crying to God is an acknowledgment that we as human beings cannot save the world. In a sense, lamenting is the process of letting go of our false pretention that we are able to change the course of history and to place our trust in God. When we feel helpless and sad about all the suffering we see, we have no other place to go to than to God for help. And we do so in prayer, supplicating to God to intervene and to bring about something new. As Christians we pray: “Come Lord Jesus, come soon!” It is placing our trust and hope in God to bring salvation, to bring about what is new and better. Placing our hope and trust in God, we then can become fully engaged in every good work and effort to be partners in Christ’s service to make life better for others and to make the world a kinder and gentler place where people can share in God’s goodness.”
It was a long and wordy answer and it is very possible that I lost the person halfway through it. But I think it was a theological sound answer. God is after all our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. There is a reason why we start every worship service with these words: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
As people of faith we are reminded that God has always been able to do unexpected and marvelous things and it is through the lens of faith that we see God’s work.
Our reading from the book of Acts confirms that God is able to push back limitations and barriers. The book of Acts is an interesting book. It forms the second volume of Luke’s work, with his Gospel. Luke in Acts tells us how the good message of Jesus is spreading in spite of opposition and hostile forces. The small Jewish movement of Jesus of Nazareth, which seemed to be as good as dead when Jesus died on the cross, was resurrected when Jesus conquered death on Easter morning.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, God sent God’s Spirit on Pentecost. And then the good news spreads in a remarkable way! Sick people are healed, people are transformed and disciples who were afraid and who denied Jesus, now stand up in public and courageously and enthusiastically preach the message that Jesus was indeed the One sent by God. The book shows that there is stark opposition to this message; powerful people, ruthlessly and violently want to silence the Apostle in any way they can. The Apostles were persecuted, thrown in prison, ridiculed, and Stephen was killed.
However, Luke points out that even as the hopeful message of God’s love for humankind, is opposed, there is no stopping it. As a matter of fact, the book of Acts makes no secret that the message of Jesus is now transcending ethnic, national and religious lines. In chapter 8 Philip preaches the Gospel in Samaria and the Samaritans accepted the good news about Jesus. There is no stopping God’s work.
And now an angel of the Lord said to Philip: “Get up and go toward the south on the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This was kind of a strange order – going on a deserted road at noon (as some manuscripts are saying), during the hottest time of the day. This was the time when most people back then would be home or taking a nap. Anyway, Philip is compliant and obedient for “he got up and went”. Did you notice how many verbs there are in this paragraph? Lots of action- the good news is spreading! God is at work!
And then Philip, guided by the Spirit encounters, of all people an Ethiopian Eunuch. This man was a court official of Candace, queen of Ethiopia, and he was in charge of her treasury. In the Greek language there is a profound wordplay that cannot be translated: the treasury is called “gaza”. So, Philip is on the road to Gaza and he meets the person who is in charge of the “gaza”, the treasury! The Eunuch was an important man but according to Deuteronomy 23:1, he was not allowed to worship in the temple.
The Gospel is spreading to the Samaritans, and now it includes people who previously were excluded, who did not have access to the temple. Not only is there no stopping the good news, there is a clear departure from the exclusivity of the previous time. People, who were once excluded, are now welcomed in!
I find it very interesting that the Eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before his 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.”
Now in all honesty, when you think about these words that puzzled the Ethiopian, how many people today would find these words inspiring and transformational? These words are, after all, about suffering, humiliation, about justice being denied. You see this is important; the man who was taking care of the treasury discovered another treasure that really mattered: These verses, Philip informed him, refer to Jesus.
And then Philip proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. Jesus’ suffering, in his humiliation justice was denied him, led to slaughter, like a lamb silent before his shearer, these references are good news? Who today, would consider this good news? Many preachers do not know what to do with the suffering of Jesus, so they spend their time focusing on Jesus making people wealthy and happy and prosperous. Many of us are not comfortable talking about suffering for we feel helpless and not in control. When we are confronted with or reminded of suffering in the world, we don’t really know how to cope with it.
We say that God works in mysterious ways and it is true. We see this in the Gospel: Jesus’ suffering brings hope to those who suffer! His death brings life to those who feel abandoned and left behind. People who despair and who lament, can find strength and comfort in the message that Jesus walked in our shoes. God is very close to those who’ve come to the end of the rope. God embraces those who are lamenting!
The Gospel is therefore still relevant for our world where so many people are suffering and where the future is causing so much anxiety: the good news about Jesus is that we are not alone. God entered our broken world and walks with us-every step of the way. God hears our cries.
When the darkness of our world threatens to block out all light, we are reminded that the Word of God became flesh and that his light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. When we feel the burdens that are part of this world and inevitably part of life, we are reminded that the Word became flesh and lived among us. When we feel that things are becoming too much, that the yoke is too heavy, we are reminded that from Jesus’ fulness we have all received grace upon grace. When we feel alone, not understood, not appreciated and rejected, we are reminded that we have received power to be children of God.
The Eunuch, after Philip proclaimed to him the good news, responded by saying: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The conventional thinking back then, was that non-Jewish people, those who are not circumcised could not be part of God’s people. Remember, that Eunuchs were not allowed in the temple. Some people, as I mentioned were simply excluded. However, the answer here is clear: Nothing is to prevent the Ethiopian Eunuch from being baptized and being part of the God’s people. Why on earth do we still sometimes prevent people from being part of God’s people if the Gospel is about allowing all people to come in?
The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away to proclaim the good news to all towns. Another way for Luke to say that God is actively at work. God’s work won’t be stopped! Philip, being obedient to God found himself in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people. And God is the One who convinces and transforms people.
What about the Eunuch? Well Luke says that the Eunuch “saw him no more”. The Bible does not give us more information about what happened to him. An early Christian historian Eusebius (265-339C.E.) mentions him. Eusebius wrote that the Eunuch went home and became an evangelist. So according to this account, the Eunuch after discovering the treasure of the Gospel, left his important position of caring for the treasury of queen Candice and preached the good news.
This is what happens when God’s written word and the Word who became flesh transform people. The Good News still does this – it shines light in a dark world. It gives hope to people who are on the verge of losing hope and who are desperate and anxious. People who believe that God is and remain active in this world, will always be open to God’s surprises. The essence of the Gospel is that God is able to transform people, to change the course of history, to give life to a dying and decaying world, and to inspire people to proclaim the good news in word and action! This is how people of faith can live with joy, purpose and gratitude in spite of a broken and a suffering world. Amen.