Today for the first time since the global pandemic struck, I was able to accept an invitation to preach at another church.
I was at Elm Park Baptist Church which is in a “Pastoral Vacancy”, in other words their pastor has moved on and they are in the process of looking for a new minister to lead them.
I preached on the subject of “Who writes in your diary?” and we looked at the interaction that Phillip had with an Ethiopian on the desert road to Gaza.
The reading came from Acts 8: 26 – 40:
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both 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 suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Before I begin to unpack this passage I would just ask if you are the sort of people who check out what the preacher says or do you just go with whatever is said? I always invite people to talk to me if they disagree with what I say. However in the fourteen years I was a Church of England lay preacher, I only had two people respond to my challenge. One non believing church goer couldn’t understand why Christians and Muslims have nothing spiritually in common. The other lady demanded to know why different words had been used for her favourite carol at the previous week’s carol service!
I contrast these people with young Daryl at Becontree Avenue. He is eight years old. As I preach you see him looking up the various Bible references to make sure I am telling it how it is.
Let me ask you a question: “Who writes in your diary?” “Who sets your agenda?”
When we are at school we have a timetable which tells us what lessons we will be having and when. When our sons were in secondary school they had a school diary in which amongst other things they would write when homework is due to be handed in.
For us adults we often have appointments and meetings made for us, say hospital visits or a check up at the dentist and so on.
As a self employed man I make most of the appointments in my diary as people need my services.
But in all our busyness and our meetings and schedules, does God get a chance to put his arrangements in your diary?
Lets have a look at a man who let God have his diary and organise his agenda. This man was called Phillip.
Firstly some background. Phillip was one of the seven men chosen by the early church to take on some of the administrative and pastoral work that had been overwhelming the apostles. Acts 6 v 3 – 7 says: “ Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
Sadly as we know soon after this came the arrest and stoning of Stephen followed by a great persecution of the church. Many fled Jerusalem and of course they spread the gospel wherever they went. I just wonder if these folk would have gone out of Jerusalem if the Lord had not allowed this persecution to take place? After all we all like our comfort zones.
I have to say that had the awful events not occurred in our church some 16 years ago, we would not have moved on. But the Lord called us out of that terrible situation to a place where he had already prepared a welcome for us. Initially at Wood Lane Baptist Church and then Becontree Avenue Baptist Church.
Phillip ends up in a city in Samaria. Some translations state it is the old city of Samaria which was originally known as Shechem but is now known as Nablus. It is of course often in the news as the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians continues.
However Phillip proclaims the good news of Jesus as we find at the start of Acts 8 “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city. Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.”
So the gospel was being preached and accompanied by signs and wonders and many were being saved. I don’t know how you would feel if that was you in Samaria and God was using you like that to bring salvation to so many people. I once heard a Chinese pastor, Brother Yun whose story you can read in the book “The Heavenly Man”, speaking about how 375,000 came to faith in one city in China. Just imagine the logistics of baptising that many people and then teaching and discipling them! We rejoice when we have one person come to faith, but how would we cope with that many?
In the middle of all this work, Phillip hears from God. Its probably not what he wanted to hear, given that he had fled Jerusalem and had now settled in Samaria where he was doing very nicely. But here is this command from God “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
Phillip does as he is told. It would appear he didn’t argue with God or even query as to who was going to lead the church in his absence. Being a busy church leader his diary would have been full of meetings, committees and everything else that seems to fill our days.
Or perhaps Philip might have used the argument I heard once say “God called me to minister here and that’s where I am staying.” This of course doesn’t leave room for the thought that things change and that God not only appoints people but he dismisses them, and moves them on to minister elsewhere.
But all we are told is that Philip just goes. We don’t know what he thought as he trudged along that desert road. It was probably about 30 miles from Samaria to Jerusalem and then about another 50 to Gaza. It’s a bit like God telling you to go to Chelmsford as he wants you on the A12 going to Ipswich. You may agree as long as you can go by car, but walking in that heat?
Its not even evident what he is to do on the desert road. No mission plan, no support team with him maybe not even time to get the usual prayer letter and press release out. Just him and God and no idea why he is going there. How many of us are willing to step out in faith like that?
So Philip discovers why he was on that lonely desert road when along comes the Ethiopian finance minister in his official chariot. What an opportunity! The man is reading scripture, the prophet Isaiah, and is struggling to understand it, and here suddenly is someone who can help him. Phillip seizes the initiative and presents the Ethiopian with the gospel. It seems that this man is thirsty for God and he readily accepts what Phillip has to say.
At this point I want to ask: How well do you know your Bible? Could you have answered the Ethiopian’s questions? I am often surprised at people’s lack of Bible knowledge. Some years ago a fellow counsellor was telling me that she had had a series of clients from a locally well known church which had a reputation for teaching and Bible study. Yet her clients, supposedly mature Christians needed to be taught the basics of the faith before she could counsel them.
Towards the end of my time in the Church of England, I ran a daytime Bible study group. One of the members was an elderly lady who had been in the church for many years and was head of the Mothers Union. We were talking about knowing Bible verses by heart and various members contributed. When it came to her turn, she said the only verse she knew from the Bible was “They say you are nearer to God in a garden”! Which i understand is actually a quote from a Victorian poem.
Incidentally knowing your bible inside out just proves you know your bible. It doesn’t prove that you have been born again and have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Just remember that the Gospels tell us that the devil quoted scripture at Jesus to lead him astray.
Philip however knows his stuff and the Ethiopian is convinced and wants to do something about it. He says “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” Incidentally, some Bible scholars think that the place where this baptism took place was at the brook where David picked up the stones used to defeat Goliath. Fortunately Phillip was a man of the Word and the Spirit and baptised the man. There are unfortunately people who would have to apply “man made” rules and regulations to the situation. I can’t baptise you straight away as you need to go on an “Alpha course”, or “Christianity explained” or you need to come to church for the next six months and then we will think about it! Or we have to make sure you can behave properly before we let you in the club.
Phillip isn’t phased by the fact this man is not a Jew but a foreigner and as a eunuch he could never have been a Jew as he was physically imperfect. But we know that the good news of Jesus is for all men and women irrespective of racial origin or any imperfections.
So the Ethiopian is baptised and goes home rejoicing. Tradition has it that this man started the Coptic church in Ethiopia which is still flourishing 2000 years later.
Philip however is directed by the Holy Spirit to move on as his work here has finished. He goes to Azotus and then onto Caesarea where incidently according to Acts he stays for the next 20 years.
As we can see our actions can have far reaching consequences. Through the obedience of Phillip, the gospel is taken to Ethiopia and many people are brought to salvation.
So who sets your agenda?
If God speaks to you do you listen and obey? Or is your life so full of stuff that you can’t possible reschedule your life to include God in the agenda? Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 4:2 that we should “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”
Maybe God has big important appointments for us as he had for Philip. Or maybe its something smaller even to stopping to chat with the girl who serves you coffee in the Motorway services as she is obviously having a very bad day. Perhaps no one has said a kind word to her all day.
Or often there are old folk no one has spoken at all that day, unless you do it! Many older folk have not met with Jesus and don’t know him, and let’s be honest here, none of us know if we have a tomorrow. So for the unsaved every second is vital. If they are going to be saved it’s down to us. I conducted some 370 funeral services last year and only in a handful could I feel that they had a faith in Jesus. So I had arrived too late for them, but I always pray that I can plant seeds in the lives of those who attend the funeral.
When we were in Cornwall several years ago, I preached at TubeStation one of my favourite churches, on a similar theme and after the service Tim came and talked with me. He had been out to Zimbabwe on business and had met amongst other folk a pastor. A few months later he flew into Zimbabwe again and as he came out of the airport, he felt that God told him to go and see the pastor. His driver agreed to take him on the three hour journey through the bush. When Tim arrived, the pastor threw his arms around Tim and wept. He had been in such a state of despair that morning he had prayed that the Lord would send a Christian brother to pray with him. And there was Tim!
It’s about being in tune with the Holy Spirit’s prompting and going when and where he says.
So lets pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the sensitively to listen to his prompting and the courage to step out in faith when he asks us. Amen.