Encounters in the Desert

Acts 8.  Philip gets a trippy message from an angel of the Lord to just start walking down this desolate, desert road that nobody travels on.  No doubt Philip had questioned whether he’d heard the angel quite right as he stood in the blinding, midday light swearing up and down at blasts of gritty, hot wind in his face.  But the comedic irony only got better as he saw someone either as delusional or maniacal as he was coming down the road in a chariot.  And it was no less than an Ethiopian, a rare incarnation of the most foreign of foreigners, a veritable fable in flesh.  The joke couldn’t get more fantastical than this.  But it does.  He’s a eunuch.  Yep, that kind.  And in the Jewish world, when someone doesn’t have all of the bits and pieces in the right places, they don’t get to go to church.  Where was he coming from?  Of course.  On pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The scroll in his hands seems to be evidence enough that some well-meaning usher at least had enough compassion and evangelical sensibilities to turn the man away at the door with some reading material–a bit of Isaiah and perhaps some catchy pamphlets entitled, “So Now You’re a Eunuch…”  But Philip is sold on this surreal story.  He is all in. Probably because he realized how epic and absurd this was becoming and that the retelling of it would be even more pee-in-your-cloak, hilarious.  So when the angel of the Lord said ‘jump’, he jumped right up into the chariot with the private-less pilgrim from Narnia.  Bypass all formalities and small talk, jump straight to religion.  Cocktail party rules don’t apply.  “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Philip asked.  The Ethiopian responds, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”

The honesty of the Ethiopian is refreshing.  “Do you get it?  Do you understand what you’re reading?”  Nope.  Not a bit.  We don’t often honor the fact that the Bible isn’t as straightforward as we might hope for it to be.  We can call it God’s “love letter” or the more disturbing “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”, but the reality remains it’s difficult to understand.  We can spiritualize it and say that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, and while I don’t disagree, it’s simplistic.  Even the Ethiopian eunuch–a neighbor to the Jews, a contemporary to their struggles still needed someone to explain it to him.  He was living in a moment where God’s Spirit was dissolving previously unquestioned boundaries across ethnicity and language, but he still needed an old-fashioned, boring human to jump out from the desert and scare him like a sand zombie in order to explain it to him.

The explanation awakened something deep inside of him.  Maybe the eunuch resonated with verse 33, “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice”, perhaps humiliated himself after a long, desperate pilgrimage to find some answers of a God he’d only heard about only to be shooed away at the door like a dog at the dinner table, stripped of his dignity.  Maybe it was something else, but something came to life, something leapt inside him, kicking for daylight like a baby in its mother’s womb.  The words were right there in front him.  They were right there all along, but he didn’t have the eyes to see it until Philip stumbled along.

What’s interesting to me is that Philip was just as confused as the Ethiopian.  We could say that God sent Philip into the desert for the sake of Ethiopian, so that the gospel could be extended to distant lands.  But what is so important about the details?  Why the desert?  Why an Ethiopian? Why the eunuch?  I think we need to say that God sent Philip not to just teach this person who was excluded from God’s story about what God was doing in Jesus Christ, but that God wanted the Ethiopian eunuch to teach Philip.

Philip might have thought he had a decent handle on what the Good News was.  His explanation was getting pretty slick, but he never expected the gospel to become slippery itself.  It was quite literally taking on a life of its own and taking him to places and people that before we’re unimaginable.  The scope of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ was cosmic in character.  Ethiopians, eunuchs, the whole of all creation were being caught up in the wake of God’s redemptive movement.

That was me 10 years ago, thinking that Emily and I were somehow being called to the desert of Croc.  I thought we might be able to come alongside people reading Scripture and help them understand what they were reading.  Maybe we helped some people, to what extent I’m unsure.  But God had another question for us in our own desert encounters with the poor of Croc.  “Do you understand what I’m doing?  Do you understand what’s going on here?”  Something awoke in us.  Through the people of Croc, God was showing us that our gospel was too small.  It couldn’t contain what God actually wanted to do and is doing.  Our singular message of hope for life after death was too shallow to address their present hells.  It contains that hope too, but we awakened to a gospel world, to a God-drenched kingdom that is unimaginably more than that.  There was a reciprocity in the revelation of God’s truth.  We found out we were not the saviors, but rather our relationship became a venue where we became participants and witnesses to God’s unfolding new world.  Our encounters with people opened us up to encounters with Scripture that made us see things that were there all along, but we didn’t have the eyes to see them.

    A couple of weeks ago I was in Croc again.  This time, Alain, one of our Youthfront Mexico co-directors, had four different training events for me to speak at.  One was with my coworkers Erik and Mike, who joined a youth worker training we did, and the others were at a missions school.  Alain believes that how we’re living the gospel and talking about it in Croc is something that is too good not to be shared.  To be honest, I was skeptical we’d get very far among a fundamentalist-leaning audience.  I was so wrong.  I encountered an eager, passionate, diverse group of Christians from all ages and walks of life who have a deep love for Scripture.  As we took those hundreds of students back into God’s Word, starting at Genesis and slowly revealing a thin, but unmistakable thread all the way through to Revelation of a God who is taking the broken shards of a shattered creation and putting them back together again in Christ, something awoke in them.

Something broke forth that neither they, nor I was expecting.  Suddenly, God’s mission that was protected and kept safe, predictable, and manageable in glass jars suddenly broke and spilled out the doors, leaked out into the streets and crept out over the entire cosmos.  God’s work was no longer simply the work of pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, but of teachers, masons, attorneys, and businesspeople.  It went out to those who have been turned away at the doors of far too many churches in Mexico.  They, we, and all creation groaning for this.  Groaning for the children of God to be revealed.  The gospel is loose and alive.

And it was there all along, right before our very eyes and we never knew it.


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