Have you ever been surprised by the urge to do something out of the ordinary? Some might call it a whisper from God, or as in the story from Acts, like an angel is speaking to you. If you have had such a moment, did you follow the urge, and do the strange thing?
I have a personal story about one of those angel whispers. It was more than thirty years ago. I was a student minister, in rural Manitoba. It was 9 pm, on a cold January night. I was home alone in the manse, the minister’s house beside the church. I had been out for a supper visit. As a young, single minister in farm country, I rarely ate at home.
I got this odd urge to go out again into the cold dark night, without knowing where. I warmed up my little silver-grey Chevy Chevette, and headed out. The village I lived in was very small, more like a place where two country roads crossed near a grain elevator. There were maybe 60 houses, one church, and a post office. It was only a short drive up the main street before it met the provincial highway. By the time I reached the stop sign, I knew I should turn left. That took me south on highway 59, but I did not stay on the highway long. I turned right on the road towards the ski hill, which led up into rolling hills along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. You could stand on a marker at the top of of Thunder Hill and be in two provinces at once.
The car seemed to know where I was supposed to go. I slowed and turned right, and up the long driveway to Eric’s house. He was a man in his forties who was very involved in the church. His lights were on, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too late to drop in. At harvest time a late night visit would have made more sense, because the odds would be good that Eric would have just been getting in from driving combine. But in the middle of the winter this was all very strange.
Eric saw me coming up his drive, and light spilled out as he opened his mudroom door. The mudroom is the way you enter if you are not company. Company would use the front porch door. The mudroom is where you knock the mud or snow off your boots, remove your outer wear, and come in the back of the house to the kitchen.
Eric welcomed me, and had me sit at the kitchen table while he put on the kettle for tea. Seriously, two guys sitting down in a farmhouse kitchen to chat over tea! He ran water into the kettle, but before he could plug it in, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. Eric said hello, and then just held the receiver against his head, and stood, mouth open.
I saw his face, and I knew why I was there, why I had left my house so late at night, in the January cold, to show up unannounced at Eric’s door. There had been a tragic, unexpected death in his family, just around the time I climbed into my car. His brother-in-law was making the calls to let all the family know.
I sat with Eric for a few minutes, and went with him to the next farm over, where his mom and dad had already had their phone call. Eric’s older sister had died. The family, from different parts of the province, would all be coming home.
It happens this way, sometimes. If we are open to being led by God’s spirit, then God’s spirit will lead us. I chose that dramatic example, because I will never forget that night. But little nudges, and good ideas, intuitions, and inspirations happen all the time. We notice a person who seems like they need a little attention. We get the urge to pick up a phone and check in with someone we have not talked with for a while. We do it and discover it was exactly the right time to call.
The subtle whispers of God may nudge us, ask us to go outside our comfort zone. In the story from the Book of Acts, Philip responds to such a whisper, and sets out down a wilderness road. There was an Ethiopian eunuch on that road, a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of her entire treasury, and was travelling from Jerusalem back to Ethiopia, in his own chariot.
Philip heard the Spirit whisper to him again, to go to the chariot. He ran over, and heard the court official reading from the prophet Isaiah, from a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures.
This is pretty interesting. Philip followed the Spirit’s urging to approach a total stranger, who turned out to be a foreigner. He was a non-Jew who had been to Jerusalem to worship, and who was apparently well enough educated, and wealthy enough, to have his own scripture scroll.
The Acts of the Apostles is essentially volume two of the Gospel of Luke. It tells stories of the development of the early church. In the days following the first Easter the small group of Jesus followers, mostly Jewish converts living in or near Jerusalem expanded rapidly. Their movement spread into nearby communities. It also began to cross ethnic, and economic, and cultural lines, and cultural taboos.
In the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we can see the early Jesus movement was radically inclusive, and incredibly welcoming. Philip heard the person in the chariot reading the Hebrew scriptures, and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The man in the chariot replied, “how can I unless someone guides me?”
Philip would have been taught from childhood to keep his distance from anyone outside of his class, and culture, and religion. Even so, he stepped across all those boundaries to share his faith.
A eunuch was a man who’d been castrated as a boy. In some ancient cultures this was done to slaves before they reached puberty, with the belief it would make them docile, and trustworthy. Eunuchs often served female royalty because they were not seen as a sexual threat to the women, or a threat to the men who considered the women to be their exclusive property- but that’s a road we aren’t going down today.
The man in the chariot had climbed the ladder of respectability and trust, and had been placed in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He would have a lot of power and influence back home. But to most people in Jerusalem he’d be seen as ritually unclean.
Some foreigners were allowed to come to Jerusalem to worship, and even to enter the courtyard around the Jewish temple. The man in the chariot would not have been welcome, because he had been castrated. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, no man who had been mutilated in this way could worship in the assembly of God’s people. He was a permanent outcast, made irredeemable by the abuse that had been done to him, without his consent, when he was a child.
When Philip joined the eunuch in his chariot, he’d been reading the part of Isaiah that said,
“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.”
I can imagine those words would have touched him deeply. He might identify with someone who had been unjustly treated, and humiliated.
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?”
He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
Philip followed a whisper of God, and stepped out of his comfort zone. The result was a man who was once a stranger felt so touched by God’s love he decided to be baptized, and become a follower of Jesus. His life was forever changed. I think it would also have changed Philip, left him more open to what could happen, if he continued to listen to the Spirit’s whispers.
This is a great story. It may inspire us, challenge us to be a little more like Philip, to listen for God’s promptings, step outside of our own comfort zones, and share God’s love in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Amen
Welcoming, Humbling, Loving, Nurturing, Challenging, Guiding, Overwhelming God;
We know, somehow, that all you really want for us in this life is everything,
and that all you really want from us in this life is everything.
You love us totally, and long for us to embrace a life that is about pouring out our lives,
to love and serve, to welcome, to nurture, to challenge and guide those around us,
So that they can do the same for others.
Your love, and our very selves, come alive, as we pass it along.
But we resist. We hold back.
The smaller part of us, skilled as it is in self-preservation, puts the brakes on.
Wait a minute, the little voice says, what about me? What will happen if I don’t take care of me first, last, and always?
Help each of us to know the worst thing that can happen if we live totally, is that we will be totally alive.
Give us the courage, the faith, the trust we need, to live a little more like Jesus.
Help us to dare to ask you to lead us, even if that means taking us outside of our comfort zone. Help us to have the courage, and strength and grace we will need, to do what you may ask of us.
We pray not only for ourselves, but for all others who need your guidance, your leading, your strength, your comfort, your hope.
We pray for people we know, who are sick, or in recovery and for those who are caring for them.
We pray for those who take risk on our behalf each day, working on the front lines of the pandemic. We pray for their well-being, their morale, and their safety.
We pray for the decision makers, and those who create public policy, and those who have to enforce the laws, and the rules.
We make all of our prayers as followers of Jesus. Amen