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The Wilderness Road

Rev. Tamalyn Kralman

First Christian Church, Bellingham, WA
April 29, 2017

Scripture: Acts 8:26-40 & John 15:1-8

Have you ever met someone in a truly serendipitous way and found

life inexplicably changed forevermore?

Today’s scripture tells a story of two men who come from very

different walks of life, who met in an unusual way. Two men who would be

unlikely to meet in any of their usual places — work, recreation, worship.

Yet, here they are, traveling down the same wilderness road from

Jerusalem to Gaza.

Philip is most likely Hellenistic — that means he grew up elsewhere,

speaking Greek. The unnamed man is a Gentile who has converted to

Judaism. While they both may observe all the laws, Philip is considered

whole and clean and healthy, but the Ethiopian man is, well, not whole,

and, according to the law of Moses, would not be allowed into the temple

with those who are. (Deut. 23:1)

What else do we know about these guys?

First, we know this is not the Philip called by Jesus as a disciple. This

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is Philip the evangelist. He is one of the seven deacons who has been

serving the church in Jerusalem.

But he hears that still small voice, that urging from God that will

sometimes just not let us be, and he knows he must leave the city and set

out on the road.

The Ethiopian eunuch is never named; just identified by country and

his physical alteration. And, I suppose it’s easier to call him “Ethiopian

eunuch” than “man sold into slavery as young boy, possibly by his parents

in order that he might have a better life than they could give him, and then

physically mutilated against his will and forced to live out his life in service

to others.” That would be a difficult thing to call someone.

Still, calling him “Ethiopian eunuch” seems disrespectful. We don’t

call other people by their physical alterations — “Hey, Guy Who Lost His

Arm in the War” or “You, Dental Implant Lady.” So, let’s give this gentleman

a name. From here on out, he shall be known as Beka, because I know a

young Ethiopian boy named Beka and it’s nice name that means

“understanding God.”

So, in today’s scripture, we meet Beka, riding along in his carriage,

reading the Isaiah scroll. We don’t know much about Beka, but we can read

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between the lines and figure out a few details of his life. He’s been in

Jerusalem and he serves the queen and is in charge of her finances.

These facts tell us that he was either in Jerusalem on the queen’s

business or so well trusted that he went for his own purposes. As we meet

him, we find him 800 miles from home, riding in a carriage. And, that scroll

would not have been cheap. This indicates some money is involved. So,

this man may have some personal wealth. Whether he went on this journey

for business or pleasure, the fact that he’s reading this scroll leads us to

believe that he made time to do some personal religious investigations.

Two men, each going their own way. And then Spirit intervenes. You

probably know what it’s like. Those moments when you’re cruising along in

life and suddenly you switch gears unexpectedly.

When the Spirit moves, you don’t ask questions, you just go with it.

And when Philip felt Spirit’s urging to go down the road and talk to the man

in the chariot, he did so.

Now, his query might seem a bit presumptuous or rude. We don’t

generally walk up to people we see reading and ask, “Do you understand

what you’re reading?” Maybe Philip saw something in Beka’s expression.

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He may have observed Beka turning the scroll this way and that, trying to

read all the words squeezed in here and there — after all vellum — that’s

lamb or calfskin parchment — was expensive in those days, so the writers

had to fit in as many words into a small space as possible. And, since the

scrolls, themselves, were hard to decipher, it was common practice to read

the scriptures aloud, so maybe it was in the way Beka was reading.

So, Philip broached the subject. And, who knows how he asked the

question? Since Beka was receptive to his query, it must’ve been okay. “Do

you understanding what you’re reading?”

And that could’ve been the end of that. Not just because it was a

presumptuous question from a complete stranger, but because the timing

of Beka’s visit to Jerusalem was challenging, to say the least.

This is 3 or 4 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The apostles have been

preaching and teaching and things were not going well in this Roman

occupied land. There is unrest, as people begin to see disparities in food

distribution and the powers that be use the people’s unhappiness to stir up

anger and resentment. It was a time of Us against Them. Saul has arrived

in Jerusalem and is persecuting the church. People are being beaten,

murdered. The apostle Stephen has just been stoned to death. And all the

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believers, except the apostles, have scattered throughout the countryside

of Judea and Samaria.

Beka is probably aware of the turmoil, the politics, and the religious

conflicts. So, you’d think he’d be wary of talking with anyone about religion.

Especially if the name of Jesus is mentioned.

And yet, the conversation took place.

But don’t we want to know what came after Philip and Beka met on

the road? After all, if the Spirit is going to live and move within our lives

and, basically mess with our days and make us do things we wouldn’t

normally be doing, there should be some positive outcome. Right? We

don’t want it to be some cosmic joke — like The Fates pulling the strings of

our destinies and standing around to see what happens. We want to know

there is good reason.

The scripture tells us that Philip basically just disappeared: “When

they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away;

the eunuch saw him no more.” But, while Beka may not have known much

of his new friend’s whereabouts, Philip remained a busy man.

Philip continued on in his ministry, moving north along the coast road,

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preaching in the old Philistine cities along the way. Tradition teaches that

he settled down in Caesarea with his four daughters who were renowned

as prophets and whose work was described by the church historian

Eusebius as “the benchmark for prophetic ministry in the early church.”1

Was Philip’s life forevermore changed by the wilderness road encounter

with that Ethiopian man? I leave you to ponder that on your own.

As for Beka, suddenly alone there on the wilderness road, there

must’ve been moments where he was scratching his head and wondering,

did that just happen? There I was, trying to make sense of those scriptures,

this guy shows up out of nowhere, explains it all, teaches me about Jesus,

and then baptizes me — in the middle of the dry wilderness. What a

surreal experience.

And, yet, it was real. And it changed Beka’s life.

Then he returned home — and thus begins the flow of Christianity

into Ethiopia.

By the fourth century, Ethiopia was officially considered a Christian

nation2 and the modern day Tewahedo church in Ethiopia claims descent

from that one traveler, the Ethiopian court official who met Philip on the

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wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.3

When is the last time you found yourself out on a wilderness road? Or

some other unexpected journey, spurred by you weren’t quite sure what,

but you just knew you were supposed to be there? When was the last time

you found yourself saying or doing something you never expected to find

yourself doing, but, then in the end, it felt right, because, through it all, you

just knew Spirit was guiding the process?

Is that all a bit too woo woo for you? Does the leading of the Spirit

seem too intangible to comprehend and too implausible to even consider?

If so, consider this...

You’re sitting in a building designed and built to worship and serve a

divine being whose existence has never been proven, who has never even

been visible to the human eye.

Spirit moves. We know not when. We know not how.

Best make sure you’re ready.

You may find yourself on a wilderness road following the Spirit’s

leading today. Or tomorrow. That may be a familiar experience for you. Or it

may be something that takes you completely out of your comfort zone. But,

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as we look at this story of Philip and Beka, we see that God works in

mysterious wonderful ways and we need to keep ourselves open to

whatever may come.

Now, get ready. Breathe.

Because God’s Spirit is here in this room. And she’s blowing and

moving, just as she moved through Philip and told him to talk to the man in

the carriage.

Who knows what she’ll tell you to do today?




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