“This is a Wilderness Road”

A sermon on Acts 8:26-40 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 1/22/23, initiating a series described within. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.

Acts chapter 8 describes a divine encounter between Philip, one of the earliest Christians, and an unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. According to Scripture, the Holy Spirit compels Philip to initiate their conversation. The eunuch is riding in a chariot, reading the prophecy of Isaiah, and he asks Philip a question about a particular passage. What happens next, in verse 35, is that “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” Then the eunuch asks to be baptized, effectively converting to Christian faith.

What the eunuch heard on that chariot was so compelling, so striking, that he was ready to give his entire life to it right then and there.

There’s a classic episode of Seinfeld where characters keep using the phrase “yada yada” to skip past the boring parts of the stories they tell each other. At one point Elaine tells Jerry about a date she went on, skipping over the most salacious details with a “yada yada.” Jerry tells her, “You yada yada’ed over the best part!” Whenever I read today’s story from Acts, I can’t help but feel like the author yada yada’s over the best part. It’s right there in verse 35: “[Philip] proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” You know, that good news about how Jesus…yada yada yada. Exactly what was this news that was so good that it changed the eunuch’s entire life?

Humor me—this is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since I became a pastor here. Today, and for the next few weeks, each member of the pastoral staff is going to offer their own telling of the good news about Jesus. We’re calling it, “And now…for the Good News!” We’re going to try and distill that good news into the most honest and accurate language each of us can find. We’ll share some of our own personal stories about how and where the good news met us, what made it so compelling.

I was describing this sermon series to a friend of mine, and he said, “Not to be a jerk, but isn’t describing the gospel what you do…every Sunday? Isn’t that what a sermon is?” It’s a fair question! I think proclaiming good news about Jesus is a crucial part of every worship experience here. At the same time, I think it never hurts to revisit the fundamental stories that orient and guide us as individuals and as a community. 

No matter where you’re coming from, I want to ask you to try and receive the good news with an open mind. Some of you have believed in Jesus longer than I have been alive, and you know the good news much better than I do. Try to keep an open mind, because I want you to risk the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the good news is even better than what you’ve heard. Maybe, after all these years, there is still more to it.

Some of you are barely hanging on. Honestly, it’s a miracle that some of you are here, in light of what Christians and churches have done to you. I imagine that when you hear a word like “gospel” or a phrase like “the good news of Jesus,” you tense up a little, or you tap into certain defense mechanisms, because the concept is so thoroughly compromised by the worst sins of the church. If that’s you—and it has absolutely been me—if that’s you, try to keep an open mind, because I want you to risk the possibility that those people who sinned against us didn’t have a monopoly on the gospel, that there might even be good news for them, too.

You can trace the development of the content of what the “gospel” is across Scripture. Throughout the letters of the New Testament, writers like Paul offer concise summaries of the heart of the matter, almost in passing. One example is 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” Elsewhere Paul describes things in more personal terms, like 1 Timothy 1:15: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” The New Testament writers offer their own unique slant on things, but what comes through consistently is that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah; that Jesus died and was resurrected; and that the death and resurrection of Jesus offers the possibility of salvation from sin.

Even this is an evolution of the good news from what Jesus himself proclaimed. When you flip back to the gospels—especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke—you discover that the “good news” Jesus himself is preaching mostly isn’t about his death and resurrection. Again, and again, Jesus proclaims some version of the same message. Here’s an example, from Mark 1:14-15: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of Godand saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'” 

Did you hear it? The good news that Jesus preached was about the coming kingdom of God. His message was cosmic and urgent, and the implications were profoundly personal: Repent! Get ready, because things are going to be different when God is king. 

Jesus spent his life preaching that message—repent, because the kingdom of God has come near—and eventually he himself became part of the good news. His death and resurrection became the crucial turning point of history, forever changing something in the condition of humanity.

All of this was the good news the earliest Christians proclaimed to people like the Ethiopian eunuch. 

Don’t miss the significance of the setting of today’s story. Verse 26 describes how the story occurs on a road between Jerusalem and Gaza and explains, “This is a wilderness road.” This eunuch finds himself in a wilderness, however briefly. Consider his circumstances: The man is an official in the court of the queen of Ethiopia. That term “eunuch,” as you might know, refers to a man who has been castrated. It was a common practice at the time to castrate men who worked closely with the queen.

That very condition that grants this man access to the center of power back home is the same condition that would have prevented someone like him from worshiping in the temple in Jerusalem. We don’t totally know his religious identity or why he went to Jerusalem to worship, but whatever brought him there, Old Testament law is clear that a castrated man should be excluded from the most sacred aspects of Jewish worship life.

This man is leaving a worship experience in the holy city, something that must have been an experience of spiritual exhilaration, as well as an experience of profound isolation and exclusion. And he is headed back home, back to his routine, back to a kingdom where he is included in the highest circles of power. 

“This is a wilderness road.” Wilderness has a way of letting our big questions come to the surface and breathe. In those brief moments or long stretches of disruption, we have room to face things, whether we want to or not. We’re more open to new perspectives, more vulnerable and tender to seeing ourselves in new ways.

It’s in that wilderness, in that tension between all these different experiences and identities, that he opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Then he asks one of the most important questions in all of Scripture: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

If you’ve been here at LaSalle a while, you might remember Pastor Laura preaching on this story just a couple years ago, describing how the eunuch recognized his own experience in this Scripture, in the talk of “humiliation,” the brevity of life, even the possible reference to a lack of offspring. The question behind his question seems to be a poignant one: “Could this passage include me? Is it possible that the God of this Scripture has room for me?”

I wonder, as well, if there’s something about this passage in Isaiah the eunuch emphatically doesn’t identify with. The Scripture describes someone who is silent in the face of injustice and violence. “Like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.” The eunuch has experienced exclusion and humiliation, yes, and I can only imagine the hurt and rage he felt. But remember that he also runs in circles of power and wealth. In his world, surely he has learned that fortune favors the brave, that history is written by the victors, that might makes right. So who is this person in Scripture who suffers injustice so passively? Who would willingly face their own death without putting up a fight? What secret knowledge does that guy have that I don’t? 

He’s in the wilderness, he’s in-between, and I think this is all running through his head: Big questions, high-stakes questions, existential questions.

My encounter with the good news also happened in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively. Many of you know I grew up in Texas, in the suburbs of Houston. I was introduced to Jesus almost as soon as I was born—before that, even, if you count all the people praying for me while my mother was pregnant. 

My father baptized me when I was 12. Within the community of my church and family, I discerned a call to ministry in high school. I went to Bible college and then seminary in pursuit of that calling. A year after I finished seminary, I moved to Chicago. 

In Texas I had known my place: I found success in the academic world and developed a network of friends and colleagues in my denomination. I had even come out as gay while in seminary, writing a blog about my experiences and offering myself as a resource when so many churches and Christian institutions were trying to listen to and understand the gay and lesbian community. I felt useful, even as I felt the crushing weight of other people’s expectations for me.

But when I arrived in Chicago, I felt anonymous: It was my first time living outside of Texas, and it was my first time living away from my family and from the denominational network that raised me. You might say that I was on a “wilderness road.” I was living with a close friend and working at Starbucks, and nobody expected anything of me. I started to ask a lot of the same questions as the eunuch. Big questions, high-stakes questions, existential questions. It turns out that growing up gay in a religious environment that didn’t have a lot of imagination for sexual minorities left me with deep hurts and deep anger. For years I had suppressed all those hard emotions in order to be useful to others, and to survive; but suddenly I had room to face that pain. It was, as you can imagine, a messy time, yada yada yada.

What became clear was that, in spite of so many people and classes and sermons across my entire life trying to tell me the good news about God’s love and God’s saving work, I had picked up a false gospel. The god I perceived was cold and hostile. Let’s call it an idol. That idol set impossible expectations in front of me and offered little assistance in meeting them. That idol had left me on my own to figure out all my questions about sexuality and identity and calling.

And so my practice of faith largely consisted of active measures meant to protect myself from the anger and disappointment of that false god. Everything depended on me demonstrating my faithfulness and obedience to that suspicious, shrewd idol, as if I might build a compelling case for myself to persuade God to open the door for me.

Along the way of my wilderness road, I began to encounter someone new, a God who seemed much more like the God of Scripture and sacred writings than the false idol I knew. The God I encountered met me with deep compassion and gentleness. This God was not surprised by anything about me—indeed, this God had created me and was, slowly, creating me still. This God did not despise or merely tolerate me, no, God treasured me as something precious and lovely.

My slow encounter with the good news of Jesus—my re-conversion—occurred over many years, but I mark it with a weekend retreat five years ago in Michigan. I had booked a wilderness cabin for a few days alone in silence. I packed a copy of the book Parables of the Kingdom, by Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who loved to cook. A few pages in, I came across a passage that changed my life. He writes,

What saves us is Jesus, and the way we lay hold of that salvation is by faith. And faith is something that, throughout this book, I shall resolutely refuse to let mean anything other than trusting Jesus. It is simply saying yes to him rather than no. It is, at its root, a mere ‘uh-huh’ to him personally. It does not necessarily involve any particular theological structure or formulation; it does not entail any particular degree of emotional fervor; and above all, it does not depend on any specific repertoire of good works–physical, mental, or moral. It’s just ‘Yes, Jesus,’ till we die–just letting the power of his resurrection do, in our deaths, what it has already done in his.

At that moment in my life, I couldn’t say for sure what I thought was expected of me as a follower of Jesus, or a gay person, or a white American, or a seminary graduate. I didn’t know what the future held. But I knew that I could, in good conscience, say, “Yes, Jesus.” I could offer consent, and assent, to Jesus. Because what I had been learning in the wilderness was what Christians had tried to teach me, sometimes in spite of themselves, from the very beginning: That God was trustworthy. I learned that when I surrendered myself into the hands of God, putting myself entirely at God’s mercy, I did not face retribution or disdain. No, what I discovered was a God who held nothing against me. I met forgiveness and love.

Our confession of faith is not a commitment to a life of self-righteous perfection. I have only ever experienced self-righteousness as a means of protecting myself from the risk and the fear of what God might do to me. The confession of faith consists of trusting Jesus, that simple assent, “Yes.”

It has become a mantra for me, even now, on days when doubt or shame or fear are loudest: “Yes, Jesus.” I can say that, at least, even if I don’t know the whole picture I am agreeing to. “Yes, Jesus.” Yes, Jesus, again and again till I die. 

“And now…for the good news.” Here’s my attempt. The best way I can explain the good news is that when God—that is, the invisible, creative, sustaining power of the universe, the Spirit, source, the flow of life—when God was revealed among us as a human named Jesus, his posture toward us was a posture of humble forgiveness, and when we tried to kill him, he didn’t hold it against us.

When we tried to kill him, he didn’t hold it against us. That means that the most powerful force—the fundamental mechanism of the universe—is not violence, or retribution, or even death. It’s love. Another way of saying this is that God is love. 

Here’s how one of my favorite theologians, James Alison, puts it in On Being Liked

God has nothing to do with death, and…humans need not either….We can gradually, ourselves, learn to live as if death were not by, in a variety of ways, undergoing death beforehand so that it loses all power over us, and we start to be able to live free of its compulsions.”

One of my favorite images of Jesus is in the gospel of Luke, after the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus. Here’s how Alison describes it in Faith Beyond Resentment: “When we speak of the risen Jesus speaking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are talking about a dead man, totally free from resentment.” Can you imagine that? A dead man, totally free from resentment? Is there anything Jesus won’t forgive?

In Acts chapter 8, the eunuch read a passage in Isaiah about someone who was silent when he was led like a sheep to the slaughter. Jesus did not participate in the system of violence, and so he disrupted that system of violence. He knew that death could not defeat him, and he did not open his mouth. He did not hold the people’s sins against them.

Remember what Jesus told the people? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” If that word “repent” is too tarnished for you because of billboards or street preachers, try to hear it like this: It’s not a matter of God being small and resentful, as if God is waiting to hold our crimes against us. That’s not it. 

If we believe this good news about Jesus, then it turns out the fundamental mechanism of the universe is not violence, nor retribution, nor punishment; it is love. God is love. And living as if that is true inevitably involves a change, a turn, a new direction. All the ways we are complicit in, and victims of, systems of scarcity and self-preservation and boundary-maintenance and violence—those are all fundamentally at odds with the love sustaining the universe. You and I have lived so long under the reign of death that it can be very, very hard for us to let go of the strategies we adopted in order to cope and survive, strategies like greed and rage and violence.

We may have to relearn how to walk and talk in this new kingdom, how to forgive, how to share. We die to ourselves to live in the freedom of eternal life in the kingdom of God.

That all comes, in time. But I am overcomplicating things. It begins with simple trust in Jesus. It begins with two words: Yes, Jesus, yes, Jesus, yes, Jesus, yes. 

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