The Ethiopian eunuch is travelling from Jerusalem to the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia.
He was a wealthy man. He held a senior post. He was the chancellor of the exchequer of the Queen of Ethiopia. We are told that he is a eunuch, but by this time the word Eunuch could simply mean ‘senior official’. He has his own chariot and he is able to read.
He was also a religious man. He had travelled to Jerusalem to worship. Possibly he was a Gentile convert to Judaism, although he might have been a Jew. I doubt that he would have made the journey many times and this may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And he was now on his journey home.
But he is on another journey. He is on a journey to God.
1. He begins with a hunger for God
We know that this Ethiopian had a hunger for God because was reading Isaiah.
It might have been a passage that they had read in Jerusalem and he wanted to have a look at it again. (It is a great encouragement when people come up after a service and say, ‘that passage really struck me. I’m going to look at it when I get home’.)
It might have been that he had purchased a new scroll of the prophet Isaiah at the Resources Exhibition, possibly for his home synagogue, and he was reading through it.
(Again, it is great to put aside time to read through a whole book of the bible.)
The very fact that he was reading the bible and, more than that, wanting to ask questions shows us that something is going on – he is hungry for God.
[cf Jesus and the reason for telling parables]
So when Philip turns up and asks him if he understands what he is reading, he replies, ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’ And he invites Philip to come up and sit next to him.
Why do we come to church?
Spend a moment thinking that through. Why have you come to church today? Why are you reading this now?
Habit, curiousity, because I think I ought to, because it is the right thing to do, because I really want to (Ascension day – I really wanted to be there), because we are getting married here, because it makes me feel OK, because I’ve allowed myself to be dragged along.
My hope is that, whatever the reason , in each of us there is something which wants to know more of God.
We are curious. There is a little bit of a hunger there.
I pray that we will become more hungry and more curious.
I pray that we will be sufficiently hungry to start to read the bible – and sufficiently hungry to have the humility to ask questions, and to take advice when it suddenly seems to be there.
And I pray that when we do run Alpha courses or getting to know Jesus courses, you will really want to come along - because you have a hunger to find out more.
One of the things that delights me about new converts is that they do have an insatiable hunger for God. They love reading the bible and talking about God. They are sometimes like people who have fallen in love. They want to know more of God, to grow more in God, to receive more from God.
But it is not just new converts. When we are hungry for God we will spend time with the bible, we will ask questions, we will read books or talk to people, or be part of a small group which looks at the bible. We will want to know more.
And that hunger should not stop. One older man had stopped going to church. When they asked him why, he said, ‘I’ve heard it all before’. That is sad. Yes, it is sad that he was getting the same stuff week in and week out, and that is a challenge to those of us who preach. But it was sad for him – because what is here is more than sufficient for millions of lifetimes. There is always something more to get out of a passage or a prayer.
So what do we do if the hunger is not there? What if the hunger has been lost?
Pray. Ask God to give you a hunger. Ask for the Holy Spirit.
It may mean that he will need to take away some of the junk food we are eating, in order for us to find the space for the food that we really need.
But live as if we are still hungry. In other words, even though you don’t necessarily want to do it, still pick up the bible and read. Still say your prayers (as a vicar I am expected to say morning prayer every day, whether I feel like it or not). Still come to church. As a discipline and as a duty today – only do it in the hope that you will do it tomorrow freely and with great joy.
A nun was speaking about their practice of reading 50 psalms a day. She was challenged, ‘Isn’t that boring’. She answered, ‘Of course it is boring. But that is not the point. It is not about me, but about him’. The point is that as the language of the psalms, which is often a real hunger language for God, is read so often, it becomes a part of us, of our way of seeing the world. It shapes us. It’s language becomes our language.
2. He discovers it is all about Jesus
The Ethiopian official is reading Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 is an amazing chapter. It was written about 700 years before Jesus lived and yet it speaks in such detail of his death that it could have been an eyewitness account.
Yesterday I was reading a prayer letter from some friends who have helped translate the bible into one of the languages in one of the .. stans that were part of the former Soviet Union. They write, 'We will never forget checking the book of Isaiah: having deeply considered the 53rd chapter we with one accord stood up and the translator read it out and we all prayed. it was a spine tingling moment.'
The particular verses the Ethiopian was reading speak of a person who is silent before his murderers, who is humiliated, denied justice, and whose life is taken away.
He is thinking: Does this talk of Isaiah? Or does it speak of someone else?
And then Philip turns up. He must have been amazed. Someone describes this as God-magic! But these sort of things happen when we hunger for God. And Philip tells him ‘the good news about Jesus’.
What is good news about humiliation or being the victim of injustice?
We need to read on in Isaiah. Because we are told that the one who suffered, suffered in our place. ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53:4-6)
That is why Philip knows that this passage is speaking of Jesus.
The prophet Isaiah was rejected and does experience suffering. But it wasn’t for us.
The people of Israel have experience repeated rejection and deep suffering. But it wasn’t in our place.
Jesus was rejected, humiliated, denied justice and slaughtered – but it was for us and it was in our place.
And we can imagine Philip saying, 'This is good news because it means that:
· There is a God who loves us. He loves us so much that he is prepared to give his own son, himself, to come to this earth and take onto himself – into himself – like blotting paper (do we still have blotting paper?) – all our muck.
· Our sins are forgiven. Not because we’ve suddenly become good, but because he has dealt with them. God’s riches are available to us at Christ’s expense.
· We can become citizens of the Kingdom of God. (v12: Philip proclaims the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ). We can know a new way of living. A new purpose for life, a new strength for life, a new hope.
· There is one who we can turn to whenever we choose. He will walk with us through suffering and rejection and humiliation and death. He’s been there. He will one day satisfy our hunger.
When we are on this journey to God, we discover that it is all about Jesus.
3. He takes a step of faith.
For the Ethiopian, that was baptism.
Probably Philip repeated those words that Peter spoke on the day of Pentecost. ‘Repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
And the Ethiopian sees water, and says, ‘What is to prevent me being baptised?’
I love the fact that the only condition Jesus has put on being a member of his church is that you allow someone to throw water on you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
He doesn’t say how much water
He doesn’t say that you have to share your testimony (there may have been a few other people there when the Ethiopian was baptised. He probably would not have travelled on his own. But we are not told about them)
It is a symbol that you haven’t washed yourself, but that God has washed you, has made you clean and given you a new life with Jesus.
It is about GRACE. Not what you have done for yourself, but about what he has done for you.
Of course Baptism for the Ethiopian would have been just the beginning. He had to continue that life of faith, of dependence on God and the grace of God. Tradition tells us that he returned home and became the father of the church in Ethiopia, a church which still exists to this day.
And for us?
We can hunger for God; we can realise it is all about Jesus. But there comes a point when we have to make a decision to follow this Jesus, to ask him into our life, to become a believer.
There may be some people here who have never been christened/baptised. It is the same thing. Please don’t be embarrassed if you are an adult and haven’t been christened. Most baptisms take place now when people are adults. But if you want to take that step of following Jesus then you do need to be baptised. That can be done as part of one of our main services or it can be at some other time - very quietly. It doesn’t matter. But for you, if you have made that decision to follow Jesus, you must be baptised. It is a question of obedience, of humility, of letting yourself go into the hands of God.
Maybe you were christened as a child and you think, 'It didn’t mean anything to me or to my family. They were just doing what they thought they should'. In which case, rejoice that finally you are beginning by faith to receive what God gives in baptism, and so it becomes real. I like to think of baptism as a signed cheque which we are given. We can wave the cheque around, we can boast about it, be ashamed of it, but it is only when we cash it in that it starts to have any value for us.
But if you were baptised as a child, and now you realise that you do believe, you too need to take a really practical step of faith.
· Confirmation or publicly reaffirming your baptism vows:
· Telling someone that you have become a Christian:
· Committing yourself to join a small group.
That is true for each of us.
I know I go on about this, but what about following the example of the Ethiopian. Commit yourself to read the bible.
John Chrysostom (349-407) wrote: "Consider, I ask you, what a great effort it was not to neglect reading even while on a journey, and especially while seated in a chariot. Let this be heeded by those people who do not even deign to do it at home but rather think reading the Scriptures is a waste of time, claiming as an excuse their living with a wife, conscription in military service, caring for children, attending to domestics and looking after other concerns, they do not think it necessary for them to show any interest in reading the holy Scriptures". Homilies on Genesis 35.3.
So this is nothing new! try to spend a few minutes each day. There are bible reading notes you can buy at the cathedral bookshop, or there is wordlive.org
Or be like the Ethiopian. Do you have spare time when you travel? I would not encourage you to read your bible while driving along the A14, but what about listening to an MP3 or podcast of the bible being read?
But don't just read. Think and question. Ask people.
There is the story told of one of the desert fathers who sat in his cell and wrestled for 7 weeks with a passage. He did not know it meant. Finally, he got up, put on his coat, and went out to go and ask someone else. And as he went out, God spoke to him and said, 'Now that you have humbled yourself and are going to seek advice, I will reveal to you what that passage means'.