So He Got Up and Went
On January 31, 1872, Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriett Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, traveled to Yale to deliver the first Lyman Beecher Lecture on preaching — a lecture series that has included such homiletical luminaries as Phillips Brooks, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, George and David Buttrick, and Fred Craddock. The lectures were named after Henry Ward Beecher’s Father, and it was thought fitting that Henry Ward should give the first lecture in the series. Frederick Buechner recalls what Beecher’s biographer wrote of the occasion:
He had a bad night, not feeling well. Went to his hotel, got his dinner, lay down to take a nap. About two o’clock he got up and began to shave without having been able to get at any plan of the lecture to be delivered within the hour. Just as he had his face lathered and was beginning to strop his razor, the whole thing came out of the clouds and dawned on him. He dropped his razor, seized his pencil, and dashed off the memoranda for it and afterwards cut himself badly, he said, thinking it out.
Henry Ward Beecher faced some very trying times as he mopped the blood from his cheek and prepared to go to the hall and tell others how to preach. The rumors about his relationship with the wife of one of his parishioners had ceased to be harmless gossip, appearing now in bold face type in the news. He was about to face, perhaps, a public trial for adultery.
The work that he cherished and the life that he loved were dangerously in jeopardy; and yet the word about the work he cherished and the life he loved could no more be silenced than the incoming tide at sunrise. Buechner comments on the situation:
So when he stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sight of his own folly, the judgment one can imagine he found even harder to bear than God’s, which was his own judgment on himself, because whereas God is merciful, we are none of us very good at showing mercy on ourselves. Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for that first Beecher Lecture in blood because, whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood.
Flesh and blood. Seems to me we’ve got an awful lot of that in Scripture too. Remember Moses? He stands barefoot on holy ground as God says, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” And what does Moses say? “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Remember Jeremiah? God tapped him to go be a prophet to the nations. “Before you were born I consecrated you,” God says. And what does Jeremiah say? “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
Remember Isaiah? One day Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne — high and lifted up. Isaiah, we are led to believe, experiences the vision as a call. And what’s the first thing out of his mouth? “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
And how about Jonah? God says, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” And what does Jonah do? He doesn’t even bother to offer up an excuse, he just turns tail and sneaks off to Tarshish, the text says, “away from the presence of the Lord.”
We can understand that way of responding to God’s call. We know ourselves to be inadequate to the task. God calls and we have our defenses up in a heart beat.
I can’t go there.
I can’t do that.
I’m really not the one for the job.
If you really knew anything about me, you’d realize what a mistake this is. I’m just little ol’ me — nothing big, no bells and whistles. I can’t talk good. I’m too young. I’m not a very holy person. I actually don’t see the sense in it. Well, yeah, but my kids have soccer practice then. I have to work too much overtime.
Flesh and blood. Nick us and we bleed. For better or worse, we are all of us flesh and blood. And the fact that we’re imperfect is one that we lose no time in explaining when the call comes. So we understand all those characters who lit up the excuse-’o-meter when God came calling.
But, then there’s Philip. In our text for today, Peter and John have just returned to Jerusalem, and an angel of the Lord comes to Philip and tells him to pack his bags and head on down the road toward Gaza, which, parenthetically, we’re told is a wilderness road. That is to say, this is not the road to go walking on if you value your life.
You remember what happened the last time Luke had someone walking down a wilderness road? That road led from Jerusalem to Jericho, and the man who walked it, Luke says, “fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30), before a Good Samaritan finally wandered by to help.
So the angel isn’t telling Philip to put on his walking shorts, in order to see the sights and pick some daisies. He’s telling Philip to walk on the other side of the tracks—where smart people don’t go if they don’t have to. Lot’s of car-jackings and drive-by shootings.
How does Philip respond? What does he do? The angel comes, doesn’t even say “Hi. How’re the wife and kids?” and tells Philip to get up, pack his bags, and go for a walk in the wrong part of town. And the text says with eloquent understatement, “So he got up and went.”
Don’t you love that? No fussing. No arguing. No whining about how it’s too dangerous, and how he can’t speak, and how his in-laws are coming over for dinner, and how he promised his wife he’d clean out the garage, and how his back’s been hurting him—and he’d love to but this is just a bad time for everybody.
The angel of the Lord said, “Get up and go.” So he got up and went.
And on the way, apparently, there was an Ethiopian eunuch.
Now, let’s try to understand what’s going on here. Luke reports the encounter straightforwardly, but we must remember it wasn’t every day that—even when one was on business for God in the hinterlands—one bumped into a eunuch from Ethiopia.
The fact that the man was a eunuch was odd enough, but that he was from Ethiopia was downright amazing.
Why is that? Because Ethiopia was believed to be at the end of the earth. The Land of Oz. Timbuktu. Luke’s audience wouldn’t have been able to conceive of a place more mysterious, farther away. In Homer’s Odyssey, he wrote about those exotic Ethiopians from the other side of the world.
But all of a sudden, out in the middle of nowhere, Philip runs into a eunuch from Ethiopia. Kind of like walking from here to Seneca Park and bumping into a dwarf from Burundi.
What are the chances? That, of course, is exactly what we’re supposed to ask. How could that be a coincidence?
The point, you ask? The point is that God tells Philip to go, Philip goes, and the gospel is brought to an Ethiopian Eunuch—to the ends of the earth. Why does it happen? Because Philip went.
We keep thinking that it takes a seminary degree, or a certificate from the Mother Teresa school for the spiritually gifted. We think we have to be all that and a glass of ice tea before we can ever do something important for God. Important stuff is for other people. I’m slow of speech, slow of tongue. I’m too young. I’m not worthy. I don’t want to go. I have to do some things differently before I can do anything for God. I have to believe better, be better. Something!
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sets up a situation between a pastor and a troubled parishioner. The parishioner complains that he’s having a hard time with his faith. Bonhoeffer says that the pastor in this hypothetical situation ought to take the bull by the horns and say, “Only those who obey believe. You are disobedient; you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are wilfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to His call. Tear yourself away from all other attachments and follow him” (p.61ff.).
“Gladys, we’ve prayerfully considered it, and we think you’d be the perfect person to teach this class.”
“Well, I’d love to, but I don’t hardly think I’m qualified. I’m quite busy right now. But thank you very much for asking. I’d really like to be of service, if you can find something that won’t take any time or ask anything of me. I’d love to do more—as long as it doesn’t entail speaking, cooking, lifting, cleaning, teaching, painting, mowing, or praying in public. But, believe me, if you could find something, I’d love to help.”
“Arthur, we’ve been talking it over, and the leadership of the church believes you’d make a great elder. We think you’ve been given gifts for service.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. Being an elder is a big responsibility, and I don’t think I’m the right type of person for the job. I have all kinds of personal things I need to work through before I’d ever consider something like that. I mean, how could I tell someone else how to live, if I can’t even get it right? Right?”
My friend Mike has a young girl going to his church. Brandy’s 12. She’s been coming faithfully to Mike’s church all by herself for some time now. Not long ago, Brandy came to Mike, who is the pastor, and told him that she wanted to be baptized. Of course he was pleased. But he said to her, “Brandy, we need to talk about some things before you’re baptized. And, I also need to talk to your parents.” She said that would be fine.
So Mike went to talk to her folks, who don’t go to church, about Brandy being baptized. He introduced himself, and told them why he’d come, that Brandy had approached him about wanting to be baptized, and he wanted to check with her parents to see if they’d allow it. Brandy’s mom, looked puzzled—almost confused: “We don’t go to church.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Well, we’ve taken sort of a ‘hands-off’ approach to Brandy’s religion. We want her to make up her own mind about God.”
“Hmmmm,” Mike said.
“You know, let Brandy make her own decisions.”
“Do you let her make up her own mind about using cocaine or playing with firearms? Because those things can prove to be a lot less dangerous than what she’s about to do.”
“Well, we’ve tried to let Brandy express her spirituality in her own way.”
“So you don’t care if we baptize her?”
“If that’s what she wants.”
“Let me get this straight. You don’t care if we baptize her. And you don’t care if we read the Bible to her, and help her understand how to live her life, and what to do with her money, and who she has the gifts one day to be? You don’t care if someday we may tell your daughter that she’s being called by God to go to Africa and work as a missionary, and that she may have to give up everything, including perhaps her life, in order to follow?”
“If that’s what she wants.”
“If you don’t want to take responsibility for her, we’ll be more than happy to.”
Let me ask you something: Why? Why would we take all the trouble of baptizing and raising someone else’s kid?
I’ll tell you why. Because we know what Brandy’s mom has no way of knowing: A little girl in the church’s hands, a weak minister with blood on his chin, or a stuttering sheep herder who will hear the voice of God in a burning bush, or a deacon who’ll follow the Holy Spirit to Timbuktu can change the world. It doesn’t take much.
God’s not picky . . . but God’s awfully persistent.