Rendezvous in the Desert

I am captivated by stories of discovery. Let me challenge you with a quote by Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” That’s essentially what it means to find Christ. It is pure discovery from having our eyes opened as Paul’s were on the Damascus Road. For some people, the Lord has always been there, but He’s not been seen. He’s the treasure in a field that a walker stumbles over in Matthew 13. It’s no wonder that the U.S. Space Agency called its space probe Discovery.

The Book of Acts is a story of discovery. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Chapter Two, a whole new realm opened to the world. The church was born with explosive growth and the message spread quickly to all other parts of the world. The religious world fanned out from Jerusalem as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims encountered the exciting new possibilities of God dwelling inside. Jesus had said: “You will be my witnesses…” and He had said that meant Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. Here is one of these stories of discovery.

Acts 8:26-40:

"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 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, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet."Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 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. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth." The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else? "Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 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. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea."

It is amazing the kind of lengths God will go to in order that we find him. In this case, He diverts the efforts of an evangelist to meet one solitary traveler who was spending the hours of a long journey by reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It’s a familiar story of passing a long trip with a good book. It also illustrates that God is never stuck for a way to reach people. I read last week that angels are "ministering spirits sent forth to serve those who shall be heirs of salvation" (Hebrews 1:14). Philip was directed to a stretch of road near Gaza, a bleak piece of landscape, but the scene of discovery. Philip found he was not alone: a traveler, an Ethiopian financial officer, was on his way home to the court of Queen Candace. As he rode in a chariot he read, but he was missing something. This man must have had a few personal resources. To own a copy of Isaiah must have cost him a princely sum. Now I’ve got to say that if a person was to discover Jesus Christ from only the Old Testament – the absolute best book would be Isaiah. Let me briefly tell you what’s there:

In chapter 6 we have a marvelous vision of God

In chapter 7 we have the Virgin birth

In chapter 9 we have the Christmas story

In chapter 53 we have a full-fledged Easter story

In chapter 61 we have the profile of the Messiah’s ministry

In chapter 63 we have the triumphant Lord executing judgment upon the wicked.

The Ethiopian, who had converted to Judaism, read the scroll, but his understanding was a little foggy. In the meantime, Philip intersected the route of the chariot and the conversation began. Make no mistake, this was no chance meeting. The Holy Spirit is the Executive Director of the Church and he is directing Philip to answer a question that’s about to be asked. He’s promoting discovery. Philip was invited to ride along and the scroll immediately became the topic of conversation. It’s still about discovery. There’s something in God’s word that needs to be unlocked for all of us. The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah 53 – the account of the Suffering Servant of the Lord – he read of the helplessness and the injustice and he wondered about the identity of the sufferer.

Philip must have been so aware of how the Spirit had led him as he began to relate Christ from Isaiah 53. The Ethiopian heard him gladly and believed the truth. When someone grasps the Gospel this readily, you must acknowledge that the Spirit of God is at work. Philip must have been very thorough because this hungry heart consumed the Good News and then showed his readiness for the next step in his spiritual journey. Perhaps Philip told him about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, where Jesus told a reluctant John the Baptist that He needed to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness. Philip could have related how multitudes had just been baptized during the great outpouring of Pentecost mere days ago at Jerusalem. In any case, the first body of water made the Ethiopian anxious to complete what he had started. That’s one of the main points I want to make to you this morning. The Good News about Jesus creates a willingness to follow Him even closer and to model our life after His.

The Ethiopian showed the depth of his belief by stating something so important in his question. The KJV quotes him, “See, here is water, what doth hinder me to be baptized?” I could have just as easily named this sermon: “What’s stopping you” or “What’s holding you back?” Once you believe, you become a candidate for baptism. True obedience creates an urgency. This man did not waffle or shrink from the thought – he proposed that it happen now. He had never read the New Testament because it had not yet written. He didn’t even attend a new converts class. He had not become a member of anything, but the body of Christ. That was enough for him to stop the chariot and submit himself to his new master. Here’s the key: imagine that you would be able to do something and follow directly in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Most of us can’t walk on water. I don’t know anyone here who’s raised the dead. My life can’t take away anyone’s sins. In water baptism, you follow Christ in a personal way. We say, “Jesus did this, I’m following.”

Baptism closely follows discovery of Christ. Get this order of events:

The Spirit led Philip to witness to the Ethiopian

The Ethiopian answered the Spirit’s call and received Christ

The Ethiopian suggested that he cement his decision to follow the Lord in baptism. The convert made the suggestion, not Philip.

I have read this Acts account many, many times, but this time I saw something so powerful. We can rarely plan something and merely expect the Holy Spirit to bless it. He initiates action. He brought Philip to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza and to his credit, Philip responded. The text said, The Spirit said “go” and Philip got up and went! This episode from Acts of the Apostles was not planned from a human level, but we must be prepared to respond when God moves. This encounter might never have taken place and a deep need may have gone unmet if Philip had not been willing to let God lead. Philip might have said, “There’s nobody down there in that desolate region and I’ve got a big revival going here. Don’t you know, Lord, it’s the middle of nowhere?” When God decides to do something, he doesn’t have to check with us. It is us who need to be in one accord. It is us who have to seize the opportunity. Leave the planning to a wise God.

The Holy Spirit is in the moments we least expect. My father told me he was first convicted as a young man when he attended a water baptismal service on the banks of the Exploits. He saw people leave a life of sin, give themselves to the Lord and step into the river to announce to everyone who watches and everyone who heard that they were walking a new line. Their determination induced a hunger in Dad’s life that God satisfied when he surrendered to Christ. Being led by the Spirit always yields spiritual rewards.

There is a wonderful freshness in this account. There’s no interference – just simple faith and true obedience. I love it when structure and objections give way to spiritual freedom and openness to God.  Here was a man with a need and he was searching for an answer to that need. While he searched God was planning a visit from someone who would light up his world with the greatest discovery. It also appears to me that this man was refreshingly humble. He occupied a high office, but not so high that he couldn’t invite a stranger to help him with his quest. The Ethiopian was reading something that he could not grasp. He almost cried, “Tell me … explain to me …” This is a prepared Christian’s greatest opportunity. The Spirit has handed Philip a unique moment – a man viewing Isaiah’s finest portrait of the Messiah and Philip personally knew Isaiah’s Suffering Servant well.

How many times has God tried to do something through the Spirit, but His intervention has been denied? What kind of quest are you on today? There are people who live in a desert without God and some of them are hungry for truth. They’re on a long trip called life and they may be missing the identity of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Let me assure you that God has a plan for your life. We need new eyes to discover what God has in store for us. And he has a plan for them that may involve an appointment with one of us. He wants to lead us towards an encounter with Christ that will lead us to following His example in baptism.  He will ask for our obedience with familiar words. Here at Corner Brook Baptist Church, there is water, what does hinder us from being baptized?

And now we will begin Communion, the other ordinance that Christ gave His Church. As we are obedient in Communion, let us be obedient in Baptism!