One of the things I love doing in the Summer is building a dam. A holiday isn’t complete unless we’ve been to a sandy beach, found a little stream and built a dam across it enclosing a massive pool which you can then breach creating a wave of water rushing down the beach. It’s great because I can spend the whole afternoon dam-building and still say ‘Look, it’s for the children, honest.’
I soon found out that if you’re building dams you have to work with the natural features of the beach. Use the natural contours to shape your pool, build where the rocks are already restricting the flow. See where the water wants to run and work with it.
Working with God’s Kingdom is like working with water. Like the stream on the beach, the Holy Spirit is already flowing. God was active long before you or I arrived. We don’t do well if we then start building somewhere completely different! If we dig where the Spirit isn’t, if we try and channel God into our plans, little happens. Often the first step in our task if we want to grow the Kingdom of God is to listen, observe and see what God is doing. If our church wants to serve God well we need to ask: What is God calling us to do? Where does he want us to join in? For the church doesn’t take God into the rest of the world – it is his world and he is there already.
The people that we meet will have all sorts of experiences, sometimes quite profound. There will be beliefs they have been taught about God, some will be helpful, others not. So when we speak to someone about faith, they are not a blank sheet on which we write the gospel message. They already have their own views, own spirituality. There may be places where God is active in their lives, even if unrecognised.
Our task is to be open and sensitive. Listening and responding in Christ’s loving wisdom to what we hear. We see a lovely example of this in today’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian. Acts 8v26-end
If everything was going well for you in your job, if you were overcoming challenges, recruiting people, meeting success everywhere how would you feel about being posted to the middle of nowhere to start again from scratch?
That’s what happened to Philip. In v.5 Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, many miracles were done, evil was overcome. It was great.
And then in v26 the angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to leave this wonderful successful ministry, walk 66 miles across the hills, not stopping at Jerusalem, down to the wilderness road that goes towards Gaza. And then when he sees a chariot God tells him to run, in the heat of the desert, and catch up with a trotting horse!
I’m struck by how amazingly open Philip must have been. Open to God guiding him in different ways. He recognised the nudging of the Spirit and responded obediently. Open to the possibility that he might be needed elsewhere. All the facts on the ground suggested he ought to stay in Samaria, but he was able to hear what God wanted. Open to sacrifice. Trusting God though he had no idea how it would turn out.
How do we trust God? Often we do that by straightforward Christian obedience. Most of the time the things God wants us to do are the obvious things right in front of our noses. Doing our work well, being loving to the people we meet, taking the opportunities to share our faith. All the guidance to do these essential things is in God’s word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us to do something particular.
It happened to me once when I was walking through the town and I felt God draw my attention to a particular house. I knew the people there had moved in recently and I thought perhaps I ought to knock on the door and say hello. But I was in a hurry so I didn’t.
Next time I went past, there was the nudge again. Ok God, I’ll do that, but I haven’t got the welcome leaflet on me at the moment. A week or so later, quite a strong feeling this time. So I plucked up my courage – you never know what people are going to be like – knocked on the door. A big guy answered it, seemed emotional – ah Vicar, you must have heard about my wife’s cancer. Glad you’re here. Do come in.
God knew Floris and her needs. He wanted to her to be supported. Sometimes you or I are part of someone else’s solution. If you sense that God is prodding you to do something, pray it over, and if you think it is God, you may not know why but pluck up your courage and act.
When Philip does so, the guy he meets is an Ethiopian. Obviously interested in the Jewish religion, perhaps even a convert, but Gentile background nonetheless. Perhaps Philip had been able to discern that God is widening out the good news to other nations – first including Jews, then Samaritans who were kind of heretical Jews, now a Gentile proselyte. But this man was also a eunuch. Someone who was banned by Old Testament law from worshipping in the temple. What can God do with him? Philip might well have thought.
I once said to a colleague: ‘Isn’t it good that Pete has started coming to Evensong’. ‘Naah,’ said the lay reader, ‘must be someone else. Pete’s lived in this village for 70 years, only ever come to church for a funeral.’ Next week he came up to me ‘God’s amazing. Pete was at Evensong!’ Pete was pretty amazing too – it’s not easy to change your habits when everyone in a small village knows who you are. Let’s not write people off, but give them the opportunity to find God.
Philip’s openness also comes through as he draws alongside the chariot. He doesn’t leap in with: ‘God’s told me to speak to you’. Instead he listens, hearing the Ethiopian read the prophet Isaiah. He then initiates conversation with a genuinely open question: ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’
We can only connect with people if we listen to them. So often Christian evangelism is full of its own ideas, so keen to tell everyone that it never takes the time to get to know them, or ask the questions which reveal what people really think. On the other hand Christians don’t genuinely respect people if we refuse to engage with their views, by avoiding discussion or saying ‘that’s fine if it works for you.’ Good listening means being able to respond, appropriately
One very important thing is to be aware of the subtext. For instance if someone says ‘if there’s a God how comes there’s so much suffering in the world?’ – is that a question to debate? It might be. Or are they asking because they’ve recently been through the mill? Rather than jump in with an answer, a different response might be ‘that’s a good question, can you tell me how it’s important to you?’
We can see that Philip has listened by his conversation. He starts where the man is. It’s an odd question – ‘is the writer of Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?’ Seems obvious it’s someone else, but Philip takes it seriously as an honest question. I’ve had all sorts of strange conversations with people about spiritual stuff they’ve read on the internet, aliens and what have you, and however daft you think the question is it’s important not to be dismissive.
But also to ground what we say by referring back to what God tells us in Scripture and speaking about Jesus. Scripture explains God’s purposes. Jesus provides the context that makes sense of faith. For instance someone who’s talking about ghosts may need to be reassured that whatever strange things happen, Jesus has power over evil and we can be at peace if we trust him.
The Ethiopian trusts God and decides to get baptised. It seems like this is the end of the story but of course it isn’t. I wonder what happened to that Ethiopian? Where did he go next? How did his faith grow? Was he the only Christian in his country? Did he share his new found faith? We just don’t know. But God does. God had a plan, and he knew when to bring someone else in, and when that person had done what he could.
God had led Philip to the Ethiopian, and now the Holy Spirit takes Philip away again. Philip has done his bit – and God will carry on whatever he’s doing. It’s like that with serving God – we’re called to play our part, and leave the rest with God. It’s not down to us whether someone responds to God – that’s between God and them. We’re not ultimately responsible – God is.
I find that incredibly liberating. It’s a great encouragement to join in God’s work. God is already active in people’s lives. He calls us to join him in what he’s doing. You and I have our bit to do – let us do it faithfully, open to God’s leading and rejoicing in the privilege he gives.