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Hope Rises

Date: Feb. 9, 2014

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Acts 8:26-40

Key Verse: Acts 8:32-33

“This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its 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 this earth.’”

I love movies. Is anyone with me on this? When I was in high school, my job was working at a movie theater. I started out at concessions, where I learned that I really like popcorn, and then I moved to the box office selling tickets. Eventually, I learned how to do everything at the theater: I started the movies, put together the new movies, cleaned the theaters after the movie was over, and managed the place. While working there, I was able to get into see the movies for free, so I saw a ton of movies. It was then that I learned that I really liked movies. I love that you can get an exaggerated insight on humanity. Our hopes and dreams are up on the big screen. Our fears and doubts are larger than life. We easily identify with characters in films because they reflect us so well. Some of my favorite movies are the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Lord of the Rings are three obscure movies that were released about a decade ago and they were based on books by J.R.R. Tolkien, who was really good friends of C.S. Lewis, writer of the Chronicles of Narnia and a number of really important Christian books like Mere Christianity.

The story of the Lord of the Rings is that a really big bad guy Sauron wanted to control everything, so he helped make these rings of power and distributed them among the great leaders of the people. In secret, though, he fashioned a master ring: the one ring to rule them all. Eventually, there is this big battle with the free peoples fighting Sauron and his enthralled creatures. The ring is cut from Sauron’s hand and he sort of explodes. The ring is taken as a spoil of war, but it is lost not long after and then forgotten for thousands of years. When it is found and realized what it is, a big quest is undertaken to destroy the ring. As the quest goes on, the mood of the movies grows darker and darker, and hope seems to be getting sucked out of all the main characters. The group that is tasked with going to destroy the ring is broken up after one of them tries to take it, and only two of them, Frodo and Sam, actually continue on to destroy the ring. The others are engaged in battle after battle after Sauron’s minions start coming out of the woodwork. On the eve of the greatest and largest battle, two of the characters Pippin and Gandalf are on the balcony overlooking what would become the battlefield and Pippin asks, “Is there any hope, Gandalf, for Frodo and Sam?” To which Gandalf replies, “There was never much hope. Just a fool’s hope.” Everything looked hopeless. It looked like Sauron would take the ring back and take over the world. Their only hope seemed foolish. Two small hobbits, people about the height of my daughter, could dispel all the darkness if they could just get to Mount Doom and throw the ring into its fiery interior. All that stood in their way was 10,000 blood-thirsty orcs and an arid, craggy wasteland. It looks really bleak. There doesn’t seem to be much hope in that situation.

How many times have we been there? How many times have we stood looking at insurmountable odds, ready to lie down and die? You see a train coming down the tracks at a 100 mph and you can’t get out of the way, so you just want to close your eyes. Who knows that feeling? Today, we meet a very successful man that knows that feeling. He’s rich with a high position, but there are parts of his life that are irreparable. His future is in doubt, but he is about to meet a man that changes everything and gives him a hope that is beyond everything that he could ever dream. The great thing is that we can share in that hope. The train might be coming, but there is always hope, and some people might think that it is a fool’s hope, but the reality is that the hope is real because it comes from a God who always keeps his promises.

Our passage starts out, “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” (26) If you remember, Philip was one of the seven deacons chosen by the church to distribute food to the widows. When Stephen was killed for his faith, many in the church scattered because a storm was coming with the name of Saul, who had believers imprisoned. The Twelve Apostles stayed in Jerusalem, but everyone else went to other places. Philip left, too, and he first went to the region of Samaria to the north of Jerusalem, where he shared Jesus with the people. A lot of people accepted the gospel message, believed and were baptized. It was during this time that this passage begins when an angel of God says to Philip, “Hey, head south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” It’s kind of an odd request. It seems like the angel is telling Philip go to the Dan Ryan or Kennedy. It’s a big, well-known road that heads south through the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza, the last watering hole before getting into the desert that leads to Egypt. Gaza was like the last open exit before getting on the tollway. It became very important, because it was a pain if you had to stop along the way.

After hearing from the angel, Philip left Samaria and headed for the road. “So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means ‘queen of the Ethiopians’).” (27) As Philip was traveling down the road he met a man from Ethiopia. The Ethiopia mentioned in this passage is not the same Ethiopia that we know today. This Ethiopia is west of the modern one and was an ancient kingdom that was immediately south of Egypt on the Nile River, most likely in modern day Sudan. The Old Testament refers to this area as the Kingdom of Cush. This remote, advanced culture was an object of endless curiosity for the Greeks and Romans and represented for them the extreme limits of the civilized world. This was a man from the ends of the earth.

The Ethiopian was an important official to the queen. In the Ethiopian culture, the kings were viewed as incarnations of the sun god and held a primarily ceremonial role. The real ruler of the kingdom was the Kandake, or Candace in some translations. She was the queen or queen mother, and she was the real administrator of the kingdom. The man in this passage was in charge of the treasury for the Kandake, meaning he was like the Secretary of the Treasury in our own government. He was in charge of all the financial matters for the country. It was a position of real power that probably made the man very wealthy, like part of the 1% wealthy. He made a long journey from his homeland to Jerusalem to worship. He couldn’t stream the event online or listen to the podcast. He had to travel over a thousand miles by chariot in order to worship. Think of the travel expenses he would have for that. Plus, he had a copy of a scroll of the Old Testament. This stuff isn’t cheap. He couldn’t just download a Bible app to his smartphone or iPad. Someone had to hand copy the Scripture so that he could take it with him. This man was loaded.

With his power and wealth, he could be the envy of every man alive, but, honestly, I’m not cut out to be like him. I could never do it. You see, all that power and wealth came at a tremendous price. The man was a eunuch. For those of you who don’t know, a eunuch is a man who doesn’t have all or any of his man parts, either he was castrated or all of his genitals were removed. In ancient times, some slaves were made eunuchs as boys in order for them to serve near royal women, like being in charge of a harem or as in this case, working closely with the queen or royal daughter. Despite their forced physical deformation, eunuchs were severely devoted to their rulers. Most eunuchs were very loyal to the people who crushed and cut their genitals. It’s weird, but it meant that they were very trustworthy, enough to be in charge of the treasury, so much so that in this time the word “treasurer” and “eunuch” are used interchangeably, even if the treasurer was not really a physical eunuch. Because of what was stolen from him, the man could not have a family of his own, which meant that he had no legacy to pass down. He was the end of his line and all that wealth that he had would go to someone else, but not his family because he didn’t have any.

On top of the physical implications of his being a eunuch, there were also spiritual ones. The Ethiopian was a God-fearing man. He traveled a long distance in order to worship God. You don’t do that if you are not serious. We’ve seen it in the Bible before, where a number of Gentiles come to believe in God and worship him. Some of them convert to Judaism, but this man was unable to convert. Jewish law prohibited eunuchs from joining the assembly because of his physical blemish. It is written in the Law that, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:1, NIV) Or translated slightly differently, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:1, ESV) The man could never become a full member of God’s community. The Pharisees, you know how warm and loving they could be, were so legalistic in their interpretation of this bit of Scripture that they just outright despised eunuchs. The law put up many limitations for eunuchs to come to God. He could visit the temple, but he could never enter it.

Despite those limitations, the man went to Jerusalem to worship. He sought God and did all that he could do, and then he went home. It was during the return trip that he met Philip. He was sitting in his chariot reading from the book of Isaiah. He was reading his Bible. “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.” (29-30) When Philip arrived in the vicinity of the chariot, the Holy Spirit spoke to him and told him to go over to the chariot and stay near it. It literally says that the Spirit told Philip. Starting here in Chapter 8 and going to Chapter 10, there is an increase in direct activity of the Holy Spirit. You see the Holy Spirit correcting and directing people with little human interaction. Prior to this point in time, you see God speaking through prophets to tell people what to do, but starting here God uses his Spirit to talk directly to those that need to take action. There is no prophet or messenger in between.

So, Philip runs up to the chariot, which I assume is still moving, and he hears the man reading from the book of Isaiah and Philip asks the man a question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip wanted to know if the man understood the meaning of what he was reading. Was he reading through it and kind of glossing over it, like so many of us do? Or, could he grasp what he was reading? So the Ethiopian replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Then, he invited Philip into the chariot to talk. (31) The Ethiopian had a dilemma. He was reading from Isaiah, but really didn’t understand what was going on. He read the words, but was at a loss as to what it really meant. He like what he was reading, but he didn’t know the full implication. He needed someone to help him understand, so Philip climbed in to the chariot and began to talk to the man about Jesus.

Philip started with the passage the man was reading. It was from Isaiah 53, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its 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.” (32-33) These couple of verse that the eunuch was reading are interesting. There are a lot of words and terms that would be identifiable to him. “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its 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 man could relate to what he was reading, but who was the prophet talking about? Was he talking about himself or someone else?

Philip knew the answer and began to tell the man about Jesus. One thing that it is important to note is that Jesus is relatable. For this man, Jesus was humiliated and deprived justice. He was killed and had no descendants. Jesus understood very well what the eunuch was going through. However, the good news about Jesus is more than him understanding our pain. The pain that he went through, the death that he died, had a greater purpose, a redemptive purpose. Jesus felt all that pain to take away our pain. He died on the cross so that we could have a renewed life. He died so that the dirtiness of our sins, the very things that keep us from coming to God, are cleaned and forgotten. All the limitations that we have are gone, and the way to God is clear.

This sounds wonderful, but there still seems to be a problem. The man is still a eunuch. How could he be accepted in to God’s assembly? His law states that he is not allowed to join. It’s true that Jesus would take away his sin and make him presentable to God, but his being a eunuch is not because of his sin. He was a eunuch because someone else had forcibly cut off his genitals when he was a boy. It wasn’t his fault that he was this way, but he still had to face the consequences of it. You see, God gave him a promise about that, too. He was reading Isaiah 53, when Philip came by, but what was he doing in Isaiah in the first place and what caused him to come to God in the first place, despite the fact that he would not be able to fully worship? In Isaiah 56, there might be an answer. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.’” (Isaiah 56:3-5) God promised in the book of Isaiah to give them something greater than a family, an eternal legacy and the way he was going to do it was through Jesus as stated in the passage the man was reading. It can’t be a coincidence that these passages are so close to each other. God put them together to help this man find hope in him.

Oh, man! Is there ever a change in the man! When they came across some water, the man wanted to be baptized, but it is his words that show his hope. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (36) The man knew of the limitations the Jews put on him for being a foreigner and a eunuch, but now he knew that there was nothing in the way from him being baptized and becoming a Christian. Because of what Jesus has done there is nothing to stop us from coming to God any more. No matter how unworthy he may have been according to the law, through Jesus he is worthy. No matter how blemished he may have been, Jesus makes him perfect. It was a dawn of a new day for this man. Hope was rising in his heart like the sun rising over the horizon, brilliant and new.

Philip had him baptized and when they came out of the water, Philip was taken away and the eunuch never saw him again. It was like one of those sci-fi Star Trek moments, in that he was just beamed out of there and then appeared in another town. But after Philip had disappeared, the man just kept on rejoicing as he continued on his way back home. The man’s hope wasn’t dependent on his Bible teacher; it was based on God’s promise and what Jesus had already done. His hope was based on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Wouldn’t you love to have a hope like that?

So, I have to ask, who here is a eunuch and can relate? Don’t be shy. You can let us know, we won’t judge you. Are there any eunuchs here? No? I know that I’m not one; my two very young kids are proof of that. So how do we relate to this passage, then? There is not a single eunuch here who can understand what this man was going through. None of us may me eunuchs, but that doesn’t mean that we need hope any less. We all need hope. Each and every one of us knows what it means to feel unworthy. It might be that we have felt unworthy to our family or friends or even to God. We know that feeling and we feel that way because of either the things that we have done or things that were done to us. I’ve heard that victims of sexual assault feel dirty and broken because of what was done to them. They feel like they can never be loved fully by anyone because they are tainted. Many times, we make stupid decisions that continue to haunt us for years afterwards. Because of our past, we feel like we can never get ahead or move forward.

When I was in college, I made a bunch of stupid mistakes, including some poor financial decisions that led to me accumulating six-figure student loan debt. About a decade later, and I am still paying off the debt. I brought it into my marriage and it is affecting my wife and children. A large portion of my paycheck goes to paying off these loans, and it is causing a strain on our lives. Financially, it is hard to get ahead because we are living, in many cases, paycheck by paycheck. We feel like we are just barely getting by, and I know that we are not alone. It seems like everyone here is just barely getting by because of all that is going on in their lives. It might not be financial, but it might be. Nevertheless, there are many times that you feel like you are merely putting out fires in your life. You are going from one crisis to another trying to quell problems before they get out of hand. Honestly, that is a miserable existence that looks like it is never going to end.

We are always going to have problems and there is not really much that we can do about that. Look at the eunuch. After meeting Philip and learning about Jesus, he was still a eunuch. He wasn’t healed or made whole physically, but he was still able to rejoice. Likewise, there is no promise that our problems will magically disappear. We may have some of them for the rest of our lives. The apostle Paul wrote that he had a thorn in his side that he wished God would take away, but it never went away. We like to think that things will get better for us after we get through a problem or a habit that we have would disappear, but the fact of the matter is that these bad situations have already changed us and if the situations were to vanish, we would still be changed for the worse. Changing the situation will not change us back; our change is too severe. We have to be changed independent of our situations because they are not to be our lord, Jesus is.

And, that is our hope. To the outside world, it looks like a fool’s hope, like two little hobbits trying to get to Mount Doom. What are they going to do to an army of orcs? What kind of hope doesn’t actually change your situation? We like to have hope that we will get over the problem, that one day, it will all be over and we will be at rest, but that is not happening in this time. That’s not a fool’s hope; it’s a false hope, and I can tell you a fool’s hope is a lot better than a false one because a false hope is no hope at all; it’s just a lie. Our hope might look foolish but it is true. I want to read something the apostle Paul wrote. Paul was the greatest enemy of the early church, but he became the greatest proponent of the gospel. I trust his words because if it weren’t true, he wouldn’t have changed. This is from the book of Romans that Paul wrote:

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39)

Our hope is in Jesus because he died for us and was raised to life. He is sitting at the right hand of God interceding for us and there is nothing that can be done either by us or to us that can separate us from that love. We are not unworthy. We are not damaged goods because the God of Heaven and Earth sent his own Son Jesus to die for us. In our sins, we weren’t merely damaged; we were dead. In Christ, we can now be alive. This is the hope that the eunuch had. His life had changed, not because he was no longer a eunuch, but because he had hope.

We all have parts of our lives that we regret. We’ve made choices that we regret or are dealing with something in our lives that we wished didn’t happen. There are probably some of you out there who might not have quite reached that point, yet. However, you probably can feel that something in your life is wrong. You can feel the hopelessness surrounding you. Studies show that 1 in 10 Americans is clinically depressed and only 20% of those are receiving treatment. We are a broken society in need of hope, especially when it looks like no hope can be found. Although the eunuch looked to be in an envious position with his wealth and power, he too lacked hope until he found it in Jesus. The story of Jesus is one of hope that can change us dramatically like the eunuch. We don’t have to stand in front of that train, waiting for it to come, anymore. A new day is dawning and hope is rising over the horizon. Let it just wash over you.

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Amos 6:1-14

Key Verse: 6:8b

The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts:

  “I abhor the pride of Jacob
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