**Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, on May 3, 2015**
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘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.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
In 1994, a 26 year old woman named Cheryl Strayed set out on an 1100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail—an intense journey through the Mojave Desert in Southern California and up across, and then around, the High Sierras until finally she arrived at the Bridge of the Gods on the border of Oregon and Washington. Cheryl’s epic trek through the mountains wasn’t sparked by a love of hiking, nor was it the culmination of years of experience and planning. She was compelled to that treacherous journey into the wilderness by a life that had, itself, become a wilderness for her.
She had lost her mother several years earlier to a quick and brutal cancer, her remaining family disintegrated, her marriage fell apart, and she descended into a life of heroin use, destructive relationships, and pain. Finding herself simultaneously at the end of her rope and standing in the middle of a Midwestern REI, she picked up a book on the Pacific Crest Trail and stumbled her way into a wilderness experience that was dangerous, painful, profoundly challenging, and ultimately, transformative.
Describing the experience in her memoir, Wild, Strayed says this:
“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
Torn from the structures and vestiges of the familiar life she had once taken refuge in, Strayed’s vision shifted to things at once simpler and more significant.
Twenty years later, in a tiny studio in Lincoln Park, I sat devouring page after page of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir at the recommendation of a church member. I was amazed at how much her story spoke to me, different as it was from my own experience. At 28 years old, in a new city and on the brink of a new career—I, too, felt unmoored from the structures around which I had previously anchored my life. And though it looked like downtown Chicago and church ministry, my life felt like an uncertain wilderness.
Perhaps, then, it is partly because I feel a profound personal resonance with this idea of wilderness that its role in our scripture for today stood out so much to me when I first read the text. At the very beginning of this story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we are told that an angel comes to Philip and tells him to go down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. And then the text tells us, “This is a wilderness road.” In the modern translation, this line is set between two parentheses. It is important enough that the author interrupts the flow of the narrative to relay this one particular detail. And so, it is worth our notice.
“Wilderness” is a loaded term in the Bible. It indicates a murky, unruly, even dangerous space. A place beyond the reach of worldly structures and societies. A no-man’s land in the scrubby desert. And it is to this place—this particularly wild place—that the Spirit draws Philip and this Ethiopian man together.
The Ethiopian man is traveling on this road in his chariot. He has been worshipping in Jerusalem, and he is headed back to where he’s from—to the queen he serves as a prominent official. To his wealth, to his power, to his particular role and context. And Philip, Philip is one of those devoted disciples of that eccentric rabbi Jesus, who was so recently executed and who—they claim—overcame that execution to rise from the dead. Philip is coming from Jerusalem where he lives, from his company of brothers and sisters in faith, from whatever mission of evangelism that he had in mind when the angel came and called him elsewhere. They have come from different places and different contexts and they will go on to different lives, but for this moment and this story—they walk a common road. Not just any road. A wilderness road.
Here in this fifth week of our Easter season, it’s a little striking that we find ourselves confronted with such a wilderness story. Generally, we talk about wilderness during our season of Lent, a time when we wrestle with the dark and murky areas of our own selves as we walk with Jesus to the cross. But we’re in Easter now. The cross has been overcome, the tomb is empty, the Son is resurrected, and the church is being born. Shouldn’t we be done with the wilderness?
And yet here we are, on this road with Philip and the eunuch. And it is a wilderness road. I’ll confess to you, I’m a little glad. After all, being born some 2000 years after that first resurrection day hasn’t kept the wilderness from my life. And I imagine it hasn’t kept it from yours either. We live in a post-Easter world and yet, the wilderness is alive and well. Not just in our own personal lives, but all around us.
All we have to do is turn on the news. In Nepal, thousands are dead while millions more seek refuge and safety and hope amidst unbelievable destruction. As I speak, in Baltimore and around this country, there are protests happening, angry cries for justice, rising racial tensions, crucial and terrifying questions about the integrity of those very systems meant to maintain order and safety. And not far from Baltimore—less than 50 miles away—others tasked with upholding the fidelity of our systems and structures sit debating whether one of our defining institutions, marriage itself, has in fact been complicit in upholding inequality and whether, therefore, our understanding of it should change.
Everyday, it seems more and more evident that we are in a wilderness time and place—where those worldly structures that we have so depended on to define our reality are feeling unstable, uncertain, unclear, even unsafe, and in the absence of their dependability, everything seems murky, threatening, and dangerous.
This story—of the eunuch and the evangelist—has a hopeful message for us in the midst of this weary wilderness world: We are not alone. God is in the wilderness too. God is, in fact, even at work in the wilderness. God is at work in the wilderness in special and particular ways.
After all, the Garden of Eden was cultivated in the midst of the wilderness of new creation, the Israelites were shaped as the people of God in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land, Jesus’ ministry rose up out of his wilderness experience, and here in this story a new life of faith begins on a wilderness road, and so does the Church.
Let there be no doubt: God has always been at work in the wilderness. Always. God is at work in the wilderness in special and particular ways. Our calling is to recognize it. To see what special thing God is doing—what new thing is being born. And then to join in as we can.
When Cheryl Strayed speaks about her experience hiking the PCT, she talks about the limitation of her choices as an absence of worldly distractions. She describes how she couldn’t hide in those things that had once provided her some comfort and shield from the harsh truths of life—she could only face the stark reality in front of her and decide whether or not to move forward.
I wonder if Philip and his Ethiopian companion on the road found a similar lesson in their wilderness. After all, in their respective contexts, they would have had little cause to encounter one another. And had they, they would each have had plenty of distracting reasons to discount and discredit each other.
And yet, on this no-man’s land road, those distinctions give way to simpler truth. They are two men seeking faith on a dangerous road—one with the words in hand, and the other with wisdom to bring them to life. And so they find something needed in one another—something they would have undoubtedly missed from each other in the more distracting and more certain worlds they come from. A chance to find hope in one another. A chance to encounter God in the most unlikely wilderness.
Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch find in one another the unexpected delight of a kindred spirit in faith, and then something amazing happens. Emboldened by this unpredictable encounter, the Ethiopian asks Philip, as they come upon a pool of water, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The true answer, back in Jerusalem or in Ethiopia, would have been a lengthy list of rules, and purity codes, and regulations—for a thousand and one reasons it could not have happened. But here in this place, precisely because it is the wilderness—all those worldly walls fall away. And in their place, echoing in the empty space of that scrubby desert, is God’s answer to the eunuch’s question. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” “Nothing. Not a single thing.”
Undistracted by the trappings and complications of their ordinary contexts, these two faithful, like Cheryl Strayed, have only one choice to make—to join together on this wild road of faith, or to ignore that call, and attempt to carry on as they had before.
And so the two men enter the water as strangers, and rise from it as family in Christ. As it turns out, this wilderness road is exactly the place for an Easter celebration. The truth these men encounter on that road is the same truth that Christ came and lived and died and rose again for—the very truth upon which God’s entire Church is founded: That there is nowhere and no one beyond the grasp of God’s love. Nowhere and no one in whom God is not at work, creating something new.
I wonder. I wonder what might have been, if Philip had ignored the angel’s urging and gone about his own evangelism plan to the people and places he knew, and understood. I wonder what might have happened if the Ethiopian had been too weirded out by the strange man running alongside him and had sped up his chariot, rushed back to Ethiopia and left Philip in the dust. That story, I think, would have described a different God.
I find that I am so grateful to have this story instead—I am so grateful for Philip and the eunuch’s wilderness encounter that forever changed them both—long after the Spirit had whisked Philip away again and the eunuch had returned to his country.
Their story has so much hope to offer us in this wilderness of today and on the wilderness roads of our lives. In the streets of Baltimore as angry and fearful cries ring out, in our halls of justice as debates carry on, in the rubble of Nepal as recovery continues, and on mountain trails and in tiny studio apartments all across this wide world—God is there. God is at work in special and particular ways.
And perhaps, we are being called to show up to those wilderness places. To really confront them and listen and learn and hear and see with hearts open. To loosen our grasp on the worldly things that define our contexts, expectations, privilege, and realities (which might well blinding us to the things we ought to see) and to remember the one thing that truly defines us—the love of God that claims us all and never lets us go. That is the love made known to us in Christ. The love that Easter proclaims and that Philip and the Ethiopian find in each other.
The life of faith in Christ does not promise us an easy road. Indeed sometimes, it is a wilderness road. But we can hold tight to the promise that God is there. God is there at work in special and particular ways. And if we choose to walk with God and one another down that road—if we have open hearts and eyes to see and ears to hear: we might just get to witness and be a part the incredible new thing that God is creating.