Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I imagine that most of you have probably experienced a strong wind storm at least once in your life, if not many times. Some of you have experienced tropical storms and hurricanes. Some have even seen tornadoes, or at least their aftermath. Even if you were not an eyewitness to a wind storm, you can often still tell that it occurred. Walk around after those high winds and you’ll see plenty of evidence: broken twigs and small branches scattered around. About all those twigs are usually good for is to be put in the dumpster or maybe used as kindling for a fire.
Branches that are broken off from their plants are usually pretty useless. But not all broken branches are useless. Sometimes branches and shoots from one plant can be grafted into another. This fusion of two different plants together can produce interesting results. It can produce hybrid flowers. It can produce more consistent fruit on apple trees that may be more hardy than the original tree, but which don’t yield as bountiful a crop. The practice of grafting is even used by some gardeners to produce potatoes and tomatoes on the same plant! Just because a shoot or branch is removed from its original plant doesn’t mean it is completely useless. Grafting them onto a new host plant can make those branches extremely useful!
The Bible uses the illustration of grafting to describe how some believers have been brought into Christ’s family. In the early church, Jewish Christians were thought to be already connected to Jesus by the promises God gave their forefathers. These promises pointed forward to Jesus.
But God never intended that His Church only consist of those Jewish believers who were a part of His family by virtue of their status as God’s chosen people. God wanted to graft people from all nations into His family. Almost all of us here today are examples of that! And so is the man we hear about in today’s First Lesson. The Holy Spirit directed Phillip to give witness about Jesus Christ to an Ethiopian government official who was traveling from Jerusalem.
In the process of that conversation, that man changed from a spiritual broken branch to a branch that was newly grafted to Jesus, the vine. As we think about what this incident meant for that man, we can’t help but think about the way God brings us and keeps us in his kingdom, too. And so we ought to continually pray: Lord, graft us to the vine! Teach us by your Word. Wash us in baptism.
There are two main characters — real people, to be sure — that we need to get to know from the First Lesson. The first one is Philip. He was one of the deacons called to serve in the church in Acts, chapter six, so that the apostles could focus primarily on proclaiming the Gospel. Philip had been in the region of Samaria, and the Lord had greatly blessed his evangelism there. Then, in our reading, God sent Philip from Samaria to a remote location to witness to one lone soul traveling along a desert road back to his homeland.
That one lone soul is not named in our reading. We learn that he is a very high-ranking government official from Ethiopia, an ancient nation located along the Upper Nile. It was sometimes known as Nubia in New Testament times. Because faithful people from all over the ancient world often came to Jerusalem to worship, this man has made the pilgrimage to the holy city, and is now on his way home.
The Holy Spirit directed Philip to this official’s chariot. As Philip catches up to the chariot, he hears the man reading from the Old Testament — from the prophet Isaiah, to be exact. It was fairly common in that time for a person to read aloud, even when alone, so Philip could hear and know what portion of Scripture the man was reading. “Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”
The official was not only reading from Isaiah, but he was reading from a very famous section of Isaiah — chapter 53 — that predicted the suffering and death of the Messiah hundreds of years before it occurred. But without the knowledge that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, those words from Isaiah’s book remained a mystery to the man.
The official may have previously asked others, perhaps some rabbis or even temple leaders what this section meant, but those who remained blind and resistant to the fulfillment of the prophecy by Jesus certainly wouldn’t have offered that interpretation. Clearly, though, the man is searching for answers, because when he asked Philip what the verses meant, he proposed two options for their interpretation. “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’”
The official may not have known who Isaiah was writing about. But Philip knew he had just been handed a golden opportunity to talk about Jesus Christ. If you are using the Old Testament to talk about Jesus, there is hardly a better starting point than Isaiah chapter 53. So that’s where Philip started. “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”
As the account in Acts continues, we see that the Holy Spirit used Philip’s witness to graft another new believer into the family tree of God, the vine of Jesus.
The Bible was a closed book to that man until Philip opened it by explaining Jesus Christ and his redeeming work. And things are not any different today. The Bible is a closed book to anyone unless its meaning is opened by a proper understanding of Jesus. Without understanding Christ, what else is the Bible? A handbook for the morality? A guide for social justice? A collection of wise religious literature from the ancient world? The biased history of Hebrew historians?
Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, is the only key that opens the Scriptures. Christ opens the Bible so that the Holy Spirit can teach us by the Word and graft us to Christ, the vine. When we understand that Christ is our eternal God and gracious Savior, then everything falls into place.
With the proper understanding, we begin to see how the Old Testament worship ceremonies were visual object lessons, pre-figuring Jesus’ saving work. We can see how prophets like Isaiah painted beautiful portraits of the forgiveness of sins that is ours in Christ. We can see how the Apostles like John and Paul and Peter point back to the significance of Christ’s work in their New Testament letters. We can understand and appreciate how and why the Gospels point us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I think most of us understand that, at least on the surface. I think we know that Scripture is about Christ from cover to cover, even if we don’t contemplate it daily. But then I wonder. I wonder if we recognize this as just being “head knowledge”—an intellectual understanding—while our sinful hearts try to keep the core of our being some distance from these truths. We know that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
But what does that say about you and me, who are a part of the world? Doesn’t that say that each of us is a sinful and damnable person before God? Doesn’t that truth reveal that it was your sin that put Jesus on the cross? And doesn’t that truth point out that God would have every right to make us face an eternal lifetime’s worth of his wrath against sin?
Ah, but who wants to acknowledge that? And so, we often tune out when the law’s preaching makes us uncomfortable and we wait for the preacher to get the gospel (because he always does), or that’s when we pull out our Weekly Word and read the announcements, because they are so much less threatening and uncomfortable than the Word of God. Or, we find some other way to distance ourselves from the harsh reality that our sin has put us on a bee line course to hell. Who really wants to acknowledge, “The sinless Lamb of God was slaughtered for me”? Who wants to confess, “Jesus was deprived of justice because of me”?
We may not want to hear the harsh reality of our sin and God’s judgment, but the Holy Spirit wants us to hear that message. We need to hear it, so that it drives us to repentance, leads us to Christ, and then the Spirit can teach us by the Word. For the Word of God not only teaches our inherent depravity, but after it has done that it teaches us about the one who took up our depravity on himself, carried it to the cross, and buried it in his tomb.
The Word teaches us that Christ’s holiness was lived for us and that by faith in him it counts for us: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24).
The Word also teaches us about Christ’s sacrifice as our substitute. He threw Himself in front of God’s wrath for us with the words Philip explained from Isaiah: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. … For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.” (Isaiah 53:7,8).
And, the Word further teaches us about Christ’s victory over death which now counts for us, as Paul writes to the Corinthians: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). These messages from God’s Word graft us to the vine, and so we pray, “Dear Holy Spirit, teach us by your Word!”
We don’t know the precise content of the instruction that Philip gave the Ethiopian official while they were traveling, but it must have been pretty thorough. Philip began with Isaiah in the Old Testament, but he eventually arrived at Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples to teach and baptize, what we know as the Great Commission in Matthew 28. This probably hadn’t been recorded in the Gospel account at this point, but from Philip’s teaching, it didn’t take long for the official to put two and two together. He realized that Baptism was God’s gift to him personally — and he rightfully desired that gift!
“As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both 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 suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.”
And why shouldn’t he have gone on his way rejoicing? The knowledge about Christ had opened the Scriptures for him. He had just been given eternal life in the waters of Baptism. His sins had been washed away, and he had been grafted into the vine, adopted into the family of God.
Does the thought of your baptism fill you with the same joy? Probably not as often as it should. It’s not that we intentionally try to downgrade baptism’s value. But the reality is that for many of us, though not all, we don’t remember our baptism because we were but a few days or weeks old. But that doesn’t make it any less a reality or a gift; we must always remember that baptism is God’s working of faith in us, not our witness to faith in God. Perhaps we can renew our appreciation for our own baptism by looking at the joy that this new believer taught by Philip had when he received baptism and all its blessings.
Far from being just a church ceremony, a christening, a tradition, or a magic protective blanket you put on, baptism is your adoption into God’s family. It is your personal connection to Christ in His death and resurrection, your individual promise of eternal life, and your direct power source to live for the one who lived and died and rose again for you. This blessed sacrament grafts us to the vine, and so we pray, “Dear Holy Spirit, wash us in baptism.”
Taught by the Word, washed by the water, adopted into the family, and grafted into the vine, we join with Philip and the Ethiopian, and all the saints and angels and archangels around the throne of God, and gather around the Lord’s table to receive the saving fruit of the vine, Jesus Christ, in His body and blood.
In His (+) holy name, Amen.