Advent 2: Joy

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 6, 2020
Acts 8:26-39

Introduction at the beginning of Worship

One of our secular songs of the season is Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. The lyrics come from a poem, “Lilly’s Secret”, published in December 1865. At that time, just after the Civil War, the United States needed a little Christmas cheer. In the poem and song, a girl teases Santa with this request:

Jolly old Saint Nicholas
lean your ear this way;
don’t you tell a single soul
what I’m going to say,
Christmas Eve is coming soon;
now you dear old man,
whisper what you’ll bring to me;
tell me if you can.

She tells St. Nick what her siblings want for Christmas. A pair of skates for Johnny, a doll for Suzy, and a storybook for Nellie (she thinks dolls are folly). 

            But her whispering in Santa’s ear displays wisdom grounded in humility, as the poem and song ends: 

As for me, my little brain
isn’t very bright;
choose for me, dear Santa Claus,
what you think is right.[1]

This song displays two pieces of wisdom. First of all, Santa is jolly. What causes this joy in the man in red? I suggest it comes from his giving. 

            Joy is our theme for today. While we should never confuse Santa with God, we know the Almighty also takes great joy in giving. Second, when it comes to God, like Lilly with Saint Nicholas, we should receive his gifts with gratitude rather than demand what we want. We’re like Lilly in that we don’t know what we need. 

Today’s theme

            Who would have thought we’d need a Savior born in a stable and crucified on a cross? That’s not the kind of gift we would have thought of, but it’s what this world needs. And we’re to joyfully accept this gift and to share it with others. In doing so, we’re not only joyful, but we help fill the world with JOY!

            Today, we’re again looking at a passage that isn’t often used during this season. In Acts 8, Philip guides an Ethiopian Eunuch to faith… Philip, in this part of Acts, is transported around like the characters from the Enterprise in the old Star Trek TV show. He’s preaching in Samaria, only to find himself in the Gaza when he meets the Ethiopian. Afterwards, he’s heading to Caesarea. The joyful gospel spreads throughout the region. 

After the reading of scripture: 

            Jesus came to save sinners.  We often hear these words of Paul from 1st Timothy echoed in our Assurance of Pardon after we confess our sins.[2] Jesus came to save sinners. Our passage this morning emphasizes this role of our Savior. In our passage, the good news is experienced by someone first century Judaism would have considered beyond redemption. For a first century Jew, you avoided foreigners. Furthermore, a eunuch, like a leper, was considered unclean. The assurance of this news fills the eunuch with such joyful excitement that he asks to be baptized the first chance available. 

            Now, we don’t know if this Ethiopian eunuch was a bad guy. To the contrary, the evidence we have within the text suggests he’s seeking God. He’d made a long trek up the Nile and across the wilderness to worship and to pursue truth. Only those who have a desire for God would have gone on such a pilgrimage. Of course, being good and bad has nothing to do with our need for God. We all need God which is why Jesus came.

            Interestingly, this Ethiopian eunuch journeyed to Jerusalem to worship. As a eunuch, he was in the service of a queen. He was a high official in the court, the Treasurer. For this reason, he may have had some official business in Jerusalem. But we don’t know. 

TV’s portrayal of this story

            A few years ago, a TV mini-series titled “AD” put a Hollywood spin on the story of the early church. In order to make the story TV-ready, they filled in a lot of details with speculation. In the episode dealing with this story, the Ethiopian was driven out of Jerusalem. The Romans were going to kill him because they feared the Ethiopians would join with the Jewish Zionists against Rome. 

            As the eunuch leaves Jerusalem, he travels through Gaza where a wheel came off his chariot. Philip happens along the way. Not only does he interpret Isaiah for the Ethiopian, Philip repairs his chariot.[3] Of course, they’re trying to make a story that plays better on the big screen by providing a few additional details and altering a few others. Who knew Philip was a mechanic! 

            According to the text, we’re just told that the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem to worship—the rest of the details came from the NBC writers. 

            It’s interesting the Ethiopian went to Jerusalem to worship. Was he a God-fearer? One who studied the Hebrew scriptures but hadn’t yet converted? He couldn’t be accepted into the Jewish faith at the time as a proselyte. Circumcised was a rite that would have been impossible for this man.[4]  

Who’s this eunuch?

            Many of the commentators on this passage play down the man as a eunuch, stressing instead his official positions. He was an important man. After all, he had a chariot (Israel wasn’t filled with ‘two-chariot homes” in those days). He also had the ability to travel far away. As an African, he was exotic. Finally, he held a responsible position, the Queen’s treasurer. Think of a Steven Mnuchin or, soon to be, Janet Yellen, of the first century. 

            Despite his position, as a eunuch, he would not have been allowed to become a proselyte to the Jewish faith at the time. His status barred him from ever entering the temple. But in this encounter with Philip, he finds acceptance. Whatever happened during his time in Jerusalem, he now understands the gospel. 

            Interestingly, he came to Jerusalem to worship, but didn’t discover God by himself. It’s on his way home that God finds him. Ultimately, our conversion into the faith is grounded not in our search for the truth, but God searching for us. And God often uses other believers to help us understand.   

            Even the Scriptures do not help this man to fully encounter God. It takes someone else, Philip the Evangelist. (He could also be called Philip the Runner as we imagine him sprinting alongside the chariot.) Philip, at the Spirit’s request, heads down the Gaza road. His preaching has been very effective in Samaria, leaves a place where good fruit is being harvested in order to go into a wilderness area with no one around. Philip, here, demonstrates God’s concern for the lone lost sheep.[5] He helps this man understand the prophecy of Isaiah.  

Philip’s role

            God’s ways seem strange in our economy. Why give up what is good, the preaching in Samaria, for what seems to provide little return? Here, from what we’re told, the good news is heard by just one man. 

            The New Revised Standard version says he was sent south to the Gaza, but a footnote suggests this can also be translated as “at noon” he goes to the Gaza…”  Who, in their right mind, would set out on a journey in a barren waterless land at noon? It would be unbearably hot. Furthermore, he has to run alongside the Ethiopian’s chariot. This isn’t Philip’s idea. God calls him to this task.[6]  

            As Philip hears the man read Isaiah, he asks him about it and is invited up into the chariot. There, an out-of-breath Philip lays out what God is doing through Jesus Christ. The next miraculous event is that they happen along a pool of water. Water isn’t common in the Gaza. But here’s a pond and the Ethiopian ask to be baptized. 

            Philip baptizes him and when the Ethiopian comes up from the water, Philip disappears just as Spock and Captain Kirk would disappear from a distant planet, leaving behind the inhabitants to wonder. But the Ethiopian isn’t worried. He’s happy. He’s joyful. The eunuch now understands. He travels on, praising God. 

            Perhaps, but don’t know for sure, he shared the gospel south of Egypt. We know that early in Christian history, the gospel thrived there. Even today, a strong Coptic Church remains in Ethiopia. 

What do we learn from the text?

            What can we take away from this text? You know, Christians are not made in a vacuum. One can’t just pick up this book we love (the Bible) and experience the fullness of a Christian life. The Ethiopian could read it, but he didn’t understand it. 

            Think about how you learned of the faith… Were there someone (or most likely “someones”) who helped you grow and understand that lead to your acceptance of Jesus? And how did you feel when you finally “got it?” Were you like the Ethiopian? Did your heart sing?  

            God uses people, believers, to help us understand, interpret and apply the Word to our lives.  

A personal story

            Let me tell you a story. Back in the early 1980s, after a painful breakup, I went through a period where I stayed away from church for a while. I was working for the Boy Scouts at the time. One day, I received a call from Bob Eplee (one of the district scout leaders). He said he and Junebug (another leader) wanted to talk to me. I assumed it was about scouting. 

            Bob, Junebug and I met a day or two later for breakfast. I had my notebook with me (this was before laptops and iPads). I was ready to work. 

            “Put your notebook away,” they said. “We’re not here for that.” Then they totally floored me when they laid it out on the table. “We think it’s time for you to come back to church.” We had all attended the same church, First Presbyterian in Whiteville, North Carolina. This meeting was their way to give me this simple but important message. Although they may not understand this themselves, I’m sure God sent them.  

            We have all had people in our lives that have shown us how to live as a follower of Jesus. For such people, we should be thankful and joyful. Furthermore, when we have a chance to share the message, we should be like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” feeling grateful for a chance to make a difference in another’s life. 

Conclusion

            We’re coming up on a strange Christmas. Thanks to COVID, they’ll be many lonely people out there. As followers of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, we need to do whatever we can to safely spread joy to the world. How might you, like Philip, put joy in the life of another person? Amen. 

©2020


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jolly_Old_Saint_Nicholas.  Accessed December 4, 2020. 

[2] 1 Timothy 1:15.

[3] For a summary of this episode, see:  http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues/episode-guide/season-1/rise-up/111/2388571

[4] See Deuteronomy 23:1

[5] Luke 15:3-7.

[6] See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 141-142; and William H. Willimon, Acts (1983: Lousiville: Westminister/JKP, 2010), 71-72.

11 thoughts on “Advent 2: Joy”

  1. This will certainly be a different Christmas, but the meaning of it will still be there. We are certainly not made in a vacuum, and that’s what makes faith so special. Faith means something different to everyone. I hope that you’ll be able to enjoy your holidays despite circumstance!

    • In a way, I think this Christmas might end up being more meaningful and more focused on the reason behind the holidays.I will feel blessed, regardless, this season.

  2. An intervention, of sorts! Thank God for the people He uses to bring us back to Him. (thinking of Mrs. Morgan, who invited a confused college girl to church with her one Sunday)

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