Water in the Wilderness

An angel of the Lord sends Philip chasing after a chariot. A eunuch from Ethiopia is reading the prophet Isaiah. He hears the good news of Jesus and believes. There is water in the wilderness, and he is baptized. The Gospel is messy business, isn’t it?

We don’t like it messy. We prefer it tidy and organized. Perhaps it’s our being Lutheran or our German past. “Alles in Ordnung.” Everything in order. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and order is positively divine. God is, after all, a God of order. But order doesn’t necessarily mean organized. My desk may be utterly disorganized with piles here and there, but if I know where everything is, it is still in order.

Organized means that we’re in control, which is really at the heart of things. We want to be in control because we want to be God. After all, we think we’d do a much finer job at it than God does. So we have to organize things and make them fit our scheme of how things should work. Yet one of the very disturbing things about the book of Acts, at least from an organizational perspective, is how utterly disorganized everything seems to be. Apostles going here, there, and everywhere. No one seems to have a plan. Philip, who was just appointed to wait on table in the Jerusalem congregation to make sure the Greek widows were getting their fair share is off wandering around the Gaza wilderness at the direction of an angel of the Lord. Why bother with the whole business of waiting on tables in the first place? Is this any way to run a ship much less a church?

We certainly wouldn’t do things this way. We’d have boards and committees. We’d appoint mission boards who would interview the appropriate candidates and decide on a mission strategy. But here, an angel of the Lord says to Philip, “Get up and go,” and he gets up and goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza. As he’s walking on the road, a chariot goes by carrying a man from Ethiopia. He’s a court official of the queen, in charge of her treasury. He’s a eunuch, which makes him a double outsider in Jerusalem – a mutilated Gentile with absolutely no chance whatsoever of his entering into the court of the temple to offer his sacrifices. He’s forever on the outside, barred from worship, relegated to sitting on the steps and listening in. Everything in the OT screamed at him, “This is not for you.” A Gentile, an African, a eunuch.

But God is at work here, in His usual messy, disorganized way. This man is a “God-fearer” a worshipper from a distance. Imagine a person being told church after church, “You’re not welcome here, you don’t belong,” and yet he keeps coming. Perhaps sits out on the porch listening in to the hymns and readings. He’s a man of means. He owns an Isaiah scroll. Those things weren’t cheap.

As his chariot is going down the road heading back to Ethiopia, he’s reading from the Isaiah scroll out loud, the way the rabbis said you were supposed to read. Silent didn’t count. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” He wonders to himself, “Who is this the prophet is speaking of? This one who is silent before his accusers? This one to whom justice is denied? This one whose life is taken up from the earth? This one who has no descendants?” That sort of reminded him of him – a eunuch, no descendants. “Is this the prophet or someone else?” he wondered.

Just then Philip happened to be walking by, and the Spirit nudged him to run over to this chariot and hop on board. Two strangers in the desert. Two men who would never, ever in this world have been together for anything, are brought together by the Spirit around the text of Isaiah in a chariot in the Gaza wilderness. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks. “How can I, unless someone guides me,” comes the response.

In that little chariot, a congregation has gathered. Two or three gathered around the Word, and there the Spirit is, there the Lord is, there the Church is. We are not meant to be alone; we are not called to believe alone. The Scriptures are a community book, not a private book. The eunuch owned an Isaiah scroll, but that scroll was meant to be read in community, interpreted together. What a great mistake we make today when we think that having a Bible is all there is! The Bible creates community – a preacher and a hearer. And in the middle of it all is Jesus, the heart and center of the Scriptures.

The eunuch knew what the words meant. He could read Greek. There was no secret about what the words meant. The sentences were clear enough. What he didn’t know, and couldn’t know on his own, was who this was about. Was it speaking of Isaiah or someone else. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Jesus is the center of the Scripture, no matter where you open it, whether Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Malachi. Philip could have started anywhere, but he started where the Ethiopian was reading. In Isaiah and the passage of the Servant of the Lord who suffers for the sins of the people. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” He opened his mouth, it says, and he proclaimed Jesus from the Scriptures.

That’s how it works. It’s that simple. Philip opened his mouth. You have to open your mouth if anything is going to come out. He opened his mouth and proclaimed the good new of Jesus from that passage on the suffering Servant. Good news. The news of forgiveness, redemption, life, salvation. “For he bore the sin of the many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Good news for the Ethiopian. He was in. This suffering Servant named Jesus who was so much like the Ethiopian that he could almost see himself, died and rose to bring that Ethiopian eunuch into a kingdom that once excluded him. The outsider was in.

That’s the good news. The outsiders are in in Jesus. You, who were not a people, are in. You’re the people of God. You, who were not Israel, are in. You are God’s Israel – a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen people, God’s treasured possession. You who were on the outside are now on the inside in Jesus. Good news.

And more good news. There was water in the wilderness. It might have been that stream in the valley of Elah that David crossed when he went to meet Goliath and pulled from it five smooth stones. It might have been a spring or a pool that sprang up like living water in the wilderness. There was water there in that wilderness. Somewhere along the way Philip must have told the eunuch what Peter preached at Pentecost – Repent and be baptized, because the eunuch saw that water in the wilderness and said, “Look, here’s water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”

Now if Philip is thinking in an organized sort of way, he’s thinking, “I better get my paperwork together, and there’s going to be an investigation in Jerusalem when word gets out about this, and what am I supposed to do because this sort of thing wasn’t covered in deacon training.” Philip baptizes him. That water in the wilderness was for the Ethiopian his Red Sea, his Jordan river, his burial with Christ, his resurrection with Christ, his washing of regeneration and renewal, his rebirth of water and Spirit, his clothing with Christ. He returned to Ethiopia, to the court of Candace, to his vocation as treasurer, a new man. A baptized believer in Jesus. He returned home a Christian; perhaps he was responsible for Christianity coming to Ethiopia. That would have been a good reason for Luke to tell this story. One man is all it takes to bring the good news.

As for Philip, no sooner was the Ethiopian baptized then Philip disappeared, only to reappear at Azotus which used to be called Ashdod, one of the five Philistine cities. He ends up in verse 40 in Caesaria. The next time we hear about Philip, some 20 years later, he’s still there in Caesaria with this four daughters. A quick trip on the Gaza road and then 20 years in the same place. There’s nothing predictable when it comes to the way God works.

There is water in your wilderness too. Baptismal water and the Word. The raw material of the Spirit’s working. You’ve heard that Word too, the same good news that Philip preached and the Ethiopian heard. You’ve been baptized with the same baptism, that joins you as a living branch to the Vine name Jesus. That Gaza road of yours is a messy road too, with unexpected turns and Greeks running up to our chariots and water in the wilderness. God is anything but organized. Ordered, yes. He knows where it all us. But to our eyes, quite unorganized. And yet this is the way the Gospel works. One person at a time. The Scripture Word, baptismal water, the Spirit of God calling, enlightening, gathering, keeping.

There will be your chariots to chase after too. You never really know when and where the Spirit will blow, and it will be yours to speak the good news to one who asks you, “What does this mean?” As you have heard, speak. Open your mouth and speak good news to the outsider, to the eunuch, to the one seeking the Truth, to the one asking what makes you tick, what is it about Jesus that is so important that everyone should know.

You will find water in the wilderness, and a gloriously messy Gospel. Don’t try and organize it; just believe it.

In the name of Jesus,






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