What’s Your Story?
A Sermon preached in Linslade Methodist Chapel, May 2003
If we had to tell our own story, what would we say? What’s your story? In this passage we learn the story of the Egyptian official, a little about Philip, who only has one ‘line’, and a glimpse into the story of Jesus.
1. Do you understand what you are reading?
Have you read the Hebrew scriptures, which we rather unfairly call ‘The Old Testament’? Or the book of Isaiah? Does it seem daunting, remote? Maybe it’s easier to read the NT? This Ethiopian had no choice. He was an educated man, he had just taken part in temple worship, Passover perhaps, in Hebrew and was reading the scriptures in Greek, somewhere along the line he had taken the trouble to purchase this translation. He asks the same question people have asked ever since, ‘who on earth is the prophet writing about?’
He was perhaps dissatisfied with his religion, though it was deeply important to him. He had travelled over 1700 miles from Ethiopia, for some weeks, to take part in temple worship, though he could not be fully involved because he was a eunuch. Maybe he had a huge problem, he was a ‘God-fearer’, he knew that God had chosen the Jews and spoken to them and that for him there was no alternative but to worship the God of the Jews, the only true God. And yet … there must be something better, how could he worship a God who at the same time kept him at arm’s length.
2. Who is this man?
There is something very special about the book of Isaiah, not surprisingly it has been described as the ‘Gospel of the Old Testament’. Its message of hope and salvation seemed to fit perfectly with the Messianic expectation of first century Palestine. Looking back from the 21st century it seems as if the Church was unable to tell the story of Jesus without referring to Isaiah to do it. So when Philip encounters the Ethiopian it is as if he is the ‘straight man’ feeding him the line.
Philip knows the story of course and he does what is expected of him ‘beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus’. We can’t be too sure what Philip actually said, and if you read the story again, it doesn’t seem too important. As we read the book of Acts today we know the story of Jesus (or do we?) as did the original readers and Luke doesn’t give us any details of what Philip said, other than a version of that important and foundational phrase — ‘according to the scriptures’. What is really important is not the story (though of course it is an important story) but the response, the response of faith. What did our Ethiopian friend respond to? I want to try to answer this so that we can tap into the impact of Jesus and the story about him, which begins with Isaiah. So can we start with the book of Isaiah and find Jesus?
It might seem an odd question and one ‘correct’ answer might be ‘No’. Isaiah is not writing about Jesus; he is writing about events and hopes and God’s salvation and yet when we think about God’s salvation — which is really understanding the ever-present nearness of God and God’s interest in us, and remember why Jesus made an impact in his own lifetime — because he was so close to God — then if we talk about these ideas, or have them in mind as we read Isaiah then we must also be talking about Jesus. After all, who was it who read these words in the synagogue — ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me …’ and where did they come from? And what did he say next? ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Scripture is always fulfilled when we read it and hear it properly and act upon it. So Isaiah was just as important for Jesus then as it was for his original followers and as it is for us today. Not because it describes the future but because it tells us about God’s salvation and is expecting a response. And because of this Isaiah does provide a framework for telling the story of Jesus.
The Gospel writers took the same approach as my History teacher, who talked about coat hooks as ways of holding on to historical information in our memories, they used certain stories from the life of Jesus as the building blocks for their Gospels, each using building blocks that stood out in their memories. They did not all write the same story, in some places their stories are very similar, in others the variation is extremely wide. But the theme of Scripture being fulfilled is very prevalent, you will notice this if you compare Mark’s Gospel with Matthew, especially the opening chapters, hardly anything seems to happen except in fulfilment of prophecy.
When Philip came to tell the story of Jesus he couldn’t refer to any Gospel, as they hadn’t been written yet, and following the example of the other apostles he probably wouldn’t have made much reference to the actual life of Jesus, apart from the last week of his life and his resurrection. He does the next best thing, he begins with the scriptures.
Taking a quick look at the Gospels we see:
When Jesus is baptised we again hear words from Isaiah, the latter part of God’s choice and acknowledgement of Jesus — “You are my own dear son. I am pleased with you.” It is not clear to whom Isaiah is referring, but here the words are applied to Jesus, he is God’s servant. This was a very strong element of the preaching of the apostles, Jesus was a man who suffered and was raised from the dead in obedience to God. Have you ever thought that in many ways and throughout his life Jesus did not have much choice about what happened to him? For example, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, do you think that Jesus actually wanted to have the crowds celebrating, it could not have been a joyful time for him and for much of his ministry he had tried to avoid the crowds?
Here are a couple of verses from Matthew’s Gospel (ch.12): ‘When Jesus heard about the plot [of the Pharisees] against him, he went away from that place; and large crowds followed him. He healed all those who were ill and gave them orders not to tell others about him.” Matthew then explains this incident by referring to … the book of Isaiah:
“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, the one I love, and with whom I am pleased. I will send my Spirit upon him, and he will announce my judgment to the nations. He will not argue or shout, or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed, nor put out a flickering lamp. He will persist until he causes justice to triumph, and on him all peoples will put their hope.”
The first sentence may sound familiar, Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 42, beginning with the same verse that is used at Jesus’ baptism. The tenderness of Jesus is noted in the striking comment about the bent reed.
Another example of Jesus behaving as the servant of God is when he goes to the temple. Why did he throw out the money changers and traders? (Read my version of this story here.) He tells us himself — “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer.’” The scriptures he quotes here are Isaiah 56, so the motivation for his action was in the book of Isaiah which many, many others had read but not acted upon.
Finally, taking the role of a servant Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, an act at once humbling and embarrassing, Peter wasn’t too keen, if you remember. I was struck this Easter, on Maundy Thursday to be exact, by the Archbishop of Canterbury washing people’s feet at Canterbury Cathedral. This was the first time for hundreds of years. You may be aware that the Archbishop, true to his nonconformist origins has hit out at the pomp and ceremony of the Church. If you heard his enthronement sermon, and his poem which was sung in Welsh, you will know that his heart is full of Jesus, and what kind of Jesus? — Jesus the servant, yet who also challenges and sometimes makes us uncomfortable, not because of what he does so much as what we are. If Jesus was here today would you let him wash your feet?
3. Responding to the message
‘The existential now’ (!)
You can’t recognise Jesus and not respond, respond to God. Jesus becomes more real to us when we recover our hope. How do you speak of Jesus, how real is he?Is he a figure in the past or someone in whom our hopes for the future are bound up?
The continuing importance of this ancient story, and of others, for explaining who we are, who God is and why we are here.