Ancient Words-Rev. Deborah Dail
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“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.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
“Ancient words ever true, changing me and changing you,” the song proclaims. And we affirm, though we cannot fully explain it, that the Holy Spirit uses the ancient words of scripture to transform us as they lead us to Jesus. (“Ancient Words” by Lynn DeShazo)
The Ethiopian eunuch was reading the ancient words of Isaiah as he rode along in his chariot. Like many of us when we open the Bible to read the ancient words, the Ethiopian was confused by what he read. But I respect the fact that he asked questions and had an open heart and mind. He seemed to read with expectancy.
We’re told he had been to Jerusalem to worship God. I gather that he, like most of us when we go on a spiritual retreat, stopped at the bookstore. Perhaps he was picking up a Jerusalem T-shirt and a few souvenirs when his eye caught the Isaiah scroll. It was expensive, but he had lots of money. Something, or more accurately Someone, drew him irresistibly to the scroll on which ancient words were etched. It would be his reading material as he traveled home. By the way, he was not guilty of distracted driving – of reading while driving one’s chariot; he was wealthy enough to not only own a chariot but also to have a driver. (Eric Baretto, workingpreacher.org, May 7, 2017)
We have read that while he was riding along reading Isaiah, a man named Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to approach him. It’s kind of a funny scene. Philip runs up alongside a moving chariot and asks: “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Very strange.
I guess the chariot stops and Philip jumps in. They have an impromptu Bible study as they travel along. The Ethiopian says, “I’m stuck. I don’t understand this stuff I’m reading. I need a teacher to help me.” Luke, the writer of the book of Acts from which this story comes, makes it clear that this is no coincidence. This is a divinely appointed moment on the road to Gaza.
You might be thinking a lot of things at this point in the story, but one of them may be “Didn’t this Ethiopian guy get enough spiritual renewal and Bible study in Jerusalem?” Well, clearly, he is spiritually and intellectually hungry. He wants to learn. But it’s also important to know that he would have been excluded from some of the activities at the temple in Jerusalem because he was a eunuch – a castrated man. “Eunuchs were not honored in Israel, where they were denied admission “into the assembly of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 23:1). Levitical law denied the right to give offerings to God to anyone who has a blemish—eunuchs being among those specified (Leviticus 21:17-21).” Even though the Ethiopian was wealthy, educated, and powerful, he was also marginalized and excluded from some parts of the temple where he had gone precisely to worship God.
None of this seems to matter to the Holy Spirit, though. NONE of this seems to matter to the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that remarkable? The Holy Spirit doesn’t exclude people or limit who can worship or who can study scripture. In fact, the Holy Spirit seeks out this dark-skinned eunuch on a wilderness road.
None of this seems to matter to Philip, either. Philip has heard the commission of Jesus before he ascended into heaven: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Philip has just been in Samaria preaching and healing and casting out demons. So, Philip is taking the commission of Jesus seriously. Now he meets a man from a place considered at the time to be “the ends of the earth.” Nothing seems to deter Philip from being a witness – not a moving chariot, not an unusual person deemed unfit by some to fully worship God.
Well, where did the man get stuck in reading Isaiah? He is stuck at the section which reads “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 earth?”
You’ve heard me tell of the child who was asked by his Sunday school teacher: “What is small, brown, and furry, has a big bushy tale, and eats nuts?” The child pondered the question and responded: “It sounds an awful lot like a squirrel, but I’m sure the answer must be Jesus.” When we hear the words from Isaiah, we automatically know the answer is Jesus, but the Ethiopian man didn’t know about Jesus yet. But the Isaiah passage gave Philip the perfect segue to talk about Jesus.
Now the Ethiopian man asked a good question. Is Isaiah talking about himself or someone else in this passage of scripture? This is an enduring question. Some believe Isaiah was only talking about himself or someone living at his time, others believe that this is a clear Messianic prophecy – a prophecy about Jesus, and others say it is both.
Philip is of the belief that Isaiah’s words point to Jesus. He tells the man how Jesus was the lamb who was led to slaughter on a cross. He tells him about how Jesus did not fight back or defend himself with words or actions. He tells him how the court proceedings that convicted Jesus were rigged. He also tells him why Jesus did this and that his love and salvation are for all people – without exception. This Jesus who died on the cross does not exclude people from his love for any reason whatsoever. This Jesus laid down his life for you, he told the man. You are loved and accepted by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Nothing can separate you from his love and full acceptance. There is no place off limits to you in his church. At the man’s request, Philip baptizes him on the spot and the Ethiopian eunuch “goes on his way rejoicing.” Both Philip and the Ethiopian went on to tell others the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, there have been many times since that Divine Appointment on the road to Gaza that the church has forgotten this story. We have excluded people based on their skin color, socio-economic status, physical conditions, sexuality, their ignorance of scripture, and their tough questions. Even sadder, the church has not only excluded people for all the reasons I have mentioned and more but the church has at times been cruel to them. Christians have not only been complicit, but we have also been active in killing people, denying rights to people, and treating people as less than human.
But not Philip. Not the Holy Spirit. Not Jesus.
As the Ethiopian eunuch continued his journey home after dropping off Philip, I imagine him opening the scroll again, this time to Isaiah 56:1-7. In this passage God promises that, when God’s “salvation will come” and God’s “deliverance [will] be revealed,” foreigners and eunuchs who love God and keep God’s covenant will have a place among God’s people and experience joy. I imagine the newly baptized Ethiopian reading these words and this time understanding that these ancient words were for him. “Holy words, long preserved for our walk in this world; they resound with God’s own heart. O let the ancient words impart.”