SJF • Easter 5b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”
Have you ever had a dream denied? Has there ever been something you wanted with all your heart and all your soul, and yet been told, “You can’t have it”? Maybe it was a job you wanted, something you felt you were ready to do, and skilled to do, a challenge you were ready to meet — but you were told, “Sorry, you’re not qualified.” We’ve all had experiences like that; we’ve all had our hopes dashed, our dreams put on hold. Yet somehow, it wasn’t the end. We kept on hoping all the same, kept on dreaming our dream, no matter how many times it was deferred or denied.
Every three years we hear a reading from the Acts of the Apostles about a man who had such a dream — and who had the disappointments that went with it. And it is such a wonderful story I can’t help preaching about it again this year — and I hope you’ll bear with me, because the reading tells us how a dream came true one day — one day when the man was least expecting it. And that is such good news that it bears repeating.
We don’t know what this man’s name was. All that we know about him has to be pieced together from the slim facts that Saint Luke wrote in the Acts of the Apostles. We know that he was an Ethiopian, the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. And we know he was a eunuch — a man with no future as far as the people of his day regarded things: for a man who could not have children had no future, no hope.
But this was a man who did have hope. He had a dream, and a hope against hope. We don’t know when this man first had his dream. But we’ve got a very good idea what that dream was. One day some years before — how long we don’t know — this man had an encounter with a new religion — new to him — the religion of the people of Israel. He might have heard about it from descendants of the exiles who fled from Jerusalem when the Babylonians attacked and conquered it 600 years before. They had fled to Egypt and then on further south “up” the Nile, to escape the destruction of Jerusalem, and later they went as far as Ethiopia — some say they even had the Ark of the Covenant with them!
Perhaps the eunuch met a descendant of one of these Jewish exiles, or perhaps a Jewish merchant, trading in Ethiopia, as he sat in the waiting room in the Queen’s palace, there on some business or other, to pass the time in the hot and humid afternoon, got to talking with the Queen’s treasurer, talking about religion. You know people love to talk about religion! We don’t know what the Ethiopian’s religion was. If he was like most of the people at that time in history, he probably worshiped idols, or his ancestors, or a pantheon of many gods. So picture this Jewish merchant starting to talk about his religion, talking about a religion with only one God — but what a God!
Perhaps that started something to work in the heart of the Ethiopian eunuch, this man who spent most of his day toting up figures and counting coins, and checking the accounts for the Queen’s household.
As I say, we don’t know how the dream started; we don’t know for sure what led this Ethiopian eunuch to seek to follow this religion from the distant north, from up in Jerusalem. But one day, he must have reached the decision — the decision to become a Jew, to become a worshiper of the one true God, the God who made heaven and earth, and all that is in them.
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And that was when his dream was stopped cold. For as soon as he got up the courage to go to that local synagogue, that strange little building off on the side of the village, to tell the rabbi he wanted to become a Jew, the rabbi would have given him the sad news: it’s against the Law. Now, it wasn’t against the Law for everybody. Most Gentiles, if they wanted to convert to the Jewish faith at that time, could be admitted to the Jewish faith in a ceremony that ended with their baptism. That may come as a surprise: we tend to think of baptism as a Christian ceremony. But the church adopted baptism from the synagogue — and John the Baptist, the last of the Jewish prophets, baptized — that’s why we call him “John the Baptist” — he baptized for repentance before Jesus instructed his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For the Jews, baptism was a sign that you were purified, washed clean. Under the Jewish Law, people got baptized more than once, unlike Christianity, where you just get baptized once. Under the Jewish law, you got baptized whenever they did anything that made them ritually unclean. If you touched a dead body, for instance, or after certain kinds of illnesses — for women, once a month — you were expected to take a ritual bath that washed away the uncleanliness. Orthodox Jews still do that to this day.
But in those days, baptism became a symbol of purification: and when a Gentile became a Jew, the baptism signified washing away the whole former Gentile life, which the Jews considered unclean —remember from Acts of the Apostles, when Peter had the vision to come to the Centurion’s house, and the Centurion was amazed a Jew would enter a Gentile house — so baptism became symbolic of entry into a new life, purified from a Gentile past.
So one day the Ethiopian went to the rabbi to express his faith, and appeal to be admitted into the Jewish religion; he was asking to be baptized as a Jew. And the rabbi no doubt said, My friend, I see you are pious and mean well. You are seeking to worship our God — and Gentiles are welcome to do so, even in the outer court provided for them at the Temple in Jerusalem. And yes, some Gentiles even go further, and are admitted as Jews with the proper ceremony and baptism. But — how can I say this without offending you — you are a eunuch, and it is written in the Law of Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy (23.1): No man who is a eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
At that moment, the Ethiopian’s dream was denied. All his hopes sunk. This wasn’t something he could do anything about. In case you don’t know this is one operation that you can’t reverse — there was nothing he could do — he couldn’t go to Monroe College to get new job skills; he couldn’t get a G.E.D.; he couldn’t use his wealth — which must have been significant — to buy his way into the Jewish religion. This was the end of his dream: He was a eunuch, and the Law was clear — no eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. The most he could do was to continue as he had, a Gentile God-fearer.
These were Gentiles who could not, or would not take the final step to convert to the Jewish faith, but who still honored the God of the Jews, supported the local synagogue, and might even journey to Jerusalem, to worship as close as they could in the Court of the Gentiles in the outer precincts of the Temple. The Ethiopian had been a God-fearer, and a God-fearer he would remain — traveling to Jerusalem when he got the chance, to get as close as he could to the Holy Place; so close, and yet, so far!
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It was on his return from one such trip that the Ethiopian eunuch’s dream finally came true. He was on his way back home from Jerusalem, from worshiping in the Court of the Gentiles. He had a copy of the book of the Prophet Isaiah with him in his chariot, a handwritten scroll. That alone tells us he was a wealthy man, and a man devoted to the religion he so admired, but from which he was excluded. We can tell he was devoted because scrolls like these were precious and expensive — we take books for granted, we throw them away when we finish reading them — but in those times a scroll like this would have cost a whole year’s wages of an ordinary worker. If you can imagine spending $30,000 for your own personal copy of the Bible, you will understand the extent of this man’s devotion.
The Ethiopian was reading the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah — one of the great moments of grace in all of the Bible. For had he been reading some other part of the Bible, Philip might not have found the story that inspired him to share the good news with him.
Why was the eunuch reading Isaiah? When a book costs a fortune, you will choose your library carefully! The reason this man, this Ethiopian eunuch, had a copy of Isaiah lies in these verses from the 56th chapter: “For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, ... these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer... for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
These were the words of the prophet Isaiah that had kept that man’s dream alive, that fed his hope. Some day God would change his own rules! Some day God would act —somehow, some way, God would change his own rules, the rules laid down in Deuteronomy, and let the eunuchs into the covenant. Some day... Here was a promise to nourish a dream, to feed a hope. Some day...
So imagine how the Ethiopian must have felt as Philip began to expound the Scripture to him, telling how the prophecies about Jesus, prefigured in the words of Isaiah about the suffering servant, had come true. Prophecies coming true? And just in the last few months? And in Jerusalem? Imagine his growing excitement as he heard how the suffering servant of Isaiah was a prophecy of Christ’s suffering and death. Prophecies from five hundred years before were coming true, then and there in Jerusalem! If they were coming true about Jesus, could they come true about me?
And as Philip expounded and explained all the other Scriptures, how they were being fulfilled day by day, hope grew in the Ethiopian’s heart. Could it be that Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the faithful eunuchs, those who sought to please the Lord, who honored the covenant — could it be this too was on the verge of coming true? He could feel the hope welling up in him, filling his heart, welling up in his throat. And when Philip finally told the man about baptism, he could contain himself no more!
He’d asked it once before, and been turned down. But he could see that new things were springing to life, the world was being made anew, the prophecies were coming to fulfillment, and his dream was on the verge of coming true. And as he felt the hope rise in his heart, the chariot turned a bend in the road. And there, in the midst of the desert, was an oasis with pure, clear water — water as bright and hopeful as his own dream was in the desert of his life up till then. And he exclaimed, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The fact that he was a eunuch didn’t matter any more: the prophecies were coming true! The Temple, as Isaiah promised, and Jesus proclaimed, was becoming a house of prayer for all people. And Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water, and Philip baptized him — and his dream came true.
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And we don’t know what happened to that him after the Spirit snatched Philip away. All we know is that he went on his way rejoicing, back to his home in the south. But we do know this: the church in Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. And we know who the first Gentile Christian in Africa was, even if we don’t know his name.
So if you have a dream that’s been denied, don’t give up hope. Keep that hope alive in your heart; fan it with the breath of the Spirit and keep that ember glowing, even when it seems like it’s going to go out. You never know. A man like Philip may cross your path when you least expect it. You may turn a corner and find water in the middle of a desert. Keep your hope alive in your heart, keep dreaming the dream and never let it die, even though it be deferred or denied. Keep the dream alive, feed it on hope and the Spirit: water it with your tears if you must. I tell you, the world is being made new. Though the desert be broad, there will be water in the wilderness.+