Monday, June 30, 2008

This week's sermon: Philip on the Fly

Acts 8:26-40.
Philip has just been fleeing persecution. Fear was his motive for travel, but God used that travel time to grow the Kingdom of Heaven in Samaria. Here Philip’s motivation for travel changes and he goes from being a fleeing food service worker to being an evangelist. An angel of the Lord, God’s messenger came to Philip and told him to go south to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. He may have even had to go through Jerusalem, or pretty close to it, to get to this new road. Now he is on the road, not running away from trouble, but running toward his mission to share the gospel.

Out of all the people he met on the road, the Holy Spirit directs him to one of the most important people he will ever meet. This is the man in charge of all of Candace’s—the Queen of Ethiopia’s—money! Before this, Philip had been sharing the gospel with people like himself, everyday people. He had been preaching to the Samaritans, who it could be argued he felt were beneath him. God had directed him to go South on the road to Gaza, and he obeyed. He traveled possibly as much as 30-40 miles to get to this point. So here he is on the road to Gaza and God says, go up to that chariot and keep pace with it. This was not a parked chariot; it was going down the road. Philip had to catch up to it, and run beside it. And in spite of the fact that he had probably never spoken to anyone of this social level before, he obeyed.

Can you imagine for a moment all of the elements that would have had to come together in order for Philip to happen upon this Ethiopian? The man just happened to be a Jew or at least a Gentile who was convinced of the existence and supremacy of the Jewish God. We know this because he was coming back from having worshipped at Jerusalem. When Philip comes up to his chariot he just happened to be reading scripture, and he just happened to be reading Isaiah, and in Isaiah he just happened to be at the passage that describes Jesus being led like a sheep to the slaughter. In order for all this to be timed perfectly, Philip would have had to leave the place he was staying at just the right time, and he would have had to walk at just the right pace. All of these things had to come together in order for Philip to share the gospel that day with the man who would take the good news all the way to Ethiopia. So, either this day was the greatest coincidence in history, or the God of the universe was at work to bring about his will.

The Ethiopian responded to the gospel message and was so eager to accept this gift of God and proclaim his newfound faith that he pointed to some water at the side of the road. They stopped and Philip baptized him. After they came out of the water, the Holy Spirit took Philip away, and the Ethiopian never saw him again. Philip had accomplished the task that God had set for him that day with the Ethiopian, and it was time to continue spreading the word of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Ethiopian took the Truth with him back to Ethiopia and no doubt in his joy he spread the word.

Philip ended up in Azotus, which is about 30 miles from Jerusalem and about halfway between Joppa and Gaza. We don’t know if he was taken ahead of the Ethiopian along the road, or if the Ethiopian was further south on the road to Gaza. What we do know is that Philip started in Azotus, three miles from the Mediterranean and worked his way over 60 miles north and east up the coast until he got to Caesarea. He went from town to town, no longer running from anything, preaching the gospel in each town he entered. It is this story that earns him the name Philip the Evangelist. He is now completely surrendered to God’s plan for him. He is preaching the gospel to anyone who will listen. He has proven to himself that he can preach to people both above and below him on the social ladder and that God will produce fruit.

Sometimes I think we don’t give God enough credit for carrying out his mission. We think it is up to us to carry out our plan of evangelism on God’s behalf. In this story, if Philip had tried to strategically preach the gospel to those most likely to listen to him, if he had taken focus groups to see the best method of sharing the good news, if he had tried to plan the most expedient route to share the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, he would have missed God’s opportunity. Too often we think it is up to us to decide who needs to hear the gospel, where we should go and how we should go about telling others about Christ. With Philip, and indeed with all of those we will read about in Acts and the New Testament, God determined who, what, when, and where. And in fact later we will read about how Paul wanted to go a certain place and the Holy Spirit would not let him. We have to allow God to be the director of our outreach both as a church and as individuals. That does not mean that we sit around doing nothing.

Was Philip just sitting and waiting for a neon sign before doing anything? No, he was fleeing persecution and ended up in Samaria. While he was there, he shared the gospel. He continued to share the gospel there until God told him to go somewhere else. Philip wasn’t inactive, and I don’t think we should be either. We need to focus on sharing the gospel with those God has already put in our lives. Share the good news with those you meet everyday and right where you are. Most of us haven’t taken that risk. We haven’t reached out to those closest to us with the gospel. Why do we think we are ready to reach out beyond that circle? If we will share with those around us right now, then when it is time for something else, God will let us know. He will reveal to us who we need to share the gospel with—those who are most prepared to accept it. He will show us where and when—when we need an organized outreach he’ll show us the best way. He will also help us with how to best share the gospel. Remember Philip could not have arranged for the Ethiopian to be reading a messianic prophecy when they met. God did that, and opened the door wide for Philip to share from the scriptures the testimony of the prophets about who the Christ would be and how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. The only way that happened was by the power of God at work, and Philip’s willingness to be obedient.

For Philip obedience was the only role he had to fulfill. Philip was obedient to do everything that God asked him, even if it didn’t make much sense. It didn’t make sense to just go walk on a certain road without a destination. It didn’t make sense to go run alongside a chariot. It didn’t make sense to talk to someone so powerful about something that people were getting drug off to jail for back home. It didn’t make sense to find himself suddenly not where he was with the Ethiopian, but in Azotus up the coast. It just didn’t make rational sense. But Philip didn’t argue with God, instead he had a heart attitude of obedience. He followed God’s directions, and because of that obedience God sent his message to the East Coast of Africa.

If there are three things to take with you today, take these: 1. Obey God in your everyday life; 2. Share the gospel with those around you; and 3. Trust God to lead us as individuals and as a church body how to reach out beyond that everyday circle of acquaintances to reach the world with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You may be surprised at what comes of God’s power at work through our obedience.

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