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4th October 2020

Re setting the Sat Nav

Passage: Acts 8; 26-40


You know how it is: you have set your sat-nav for the place you want to go to. You follow its instructions to turn right, bear left, take the second turning then, all of a sudden, normally when you are driving down a busy dual carriageway, it will say “make a U turn if possible.” And I say… well, never mind what I say but I am not best pleased.
The sat nav is telling me to make a U turn because either I have managed to take a wrong turning somewhere or there is an obstruction in the road ahead which means that I shall have to take a different route, whether I like it or not.

Phillip- the man in the story- grew up in Galilee, in the north of the country of Israel. He was one of the twelve who left their homes to follow Jesus, which meant that he ended up in Jerusalem-down south- where Jesus was crucified, rose again and ascended into heaven. Phillip, then, with the others had remained in Jerusalem, had that amazing experience of the Holy Spirit and had become part of the first Christian church: an amazing gathering of passionate, committed Christians, with vibrant, exciting worship, looking out for each other, reaching out into the community, taking special care of the most vulnerable, preaching and healing on the streets. It was a wonderful place to be and Philip saw no reason why he should not remain there permanently. He was doing good work and still following Jesus.
Then there was trouble. Christians were rounded up, thrown into prison and executed. It was not a case of “make a U turn if possible” but more “make a u turn or die!”

Philip headed back to the north, stopping at Samaria. There he did some preaching and was thrilled to see a congregation growing. People were crowding around to hear him. Maybe the u-turn had been for the best after all. There were a few issues- you can read them for yourselves in Acts chapter 8- and then all of a sudden Philip found himself on a lonely road with no crowds to preach to, just one man in the distance, reading in a chariot by the roadside.
“What am I doing here,” wondered Philip? “Where is the congregation?” The Bible says that it was an angel who had led him down this road. We heard about an angel last Sunday. The thing about angels is that sometimes they seem to get you to the place where you want to be and sometimes, they seem to be taking you out of your way. Bit like a sat nav….

Sermons, rather like the essays you have to write at college, involve preparation time: time to read, think, pray, think again. One of the hardest things I found on coming out of college into the ministry was the matter of doing theology “on the hoof.” People will ask you challenging questions in Sainsbury’s, at the railway station, in the pub and you need to give an answer right away. No preparation time. Last year, during our Elders’ Awayday, we divided into pairs and took a question which one had to ask and the other to answer. You may have seen these questions in the Newsletter- we thought you might like a challenge. “Why is God allowing this young person to die of cancer?” “What has the Christian faith got to do with things going on in the world right now?” “I am afraid I am going to die and I don’t know what is going to happen to me.”
Questions like this come at you out of the blue and you panic and think, “I don’t know what to say.” Preaching a sermon ‘five feet above contradiction” is a doddle compared to this. So how do you think Philip felt, confronted not with adoring crowds waiting to hear him preach but with one lone man about to ask a difficult question?

In the story, the man from Ethiopia, we are told, was a eunuch. Court officials were generally made so in those days because taking away their manhood would make them less vulnerable to the temptations of women. This man, then, knew all about humiliation and suffering. Reading about someone who had suffered “like a lamb to the slaughter” he wanted to know who this person was and whether this had anything to do with him and the place where he had ended up in his life.
This is what sharing our faith is about- helping to make Jesus Christ relevant to any and every person’s situation. Happy or sad, successful or failing, laughing or hurting, innocent or guilty- Jesus Christ came into the world for you and has something to say to you.

Philip had been one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers. He had seen the suffering and humiliation Jesus had been through. But he had also seen the victory Jesus had won over sin and even over death. He had witnessed the immense power for good that comes from a sacrificial life and death. He found that he was able to talk with this stranger about what he, personally, knew of Jesus. And whatever Philip said, resonated with that man. It made sense to him; sense about God and Jesus Christ; sense, I guess, even of his own suffering because we are told that he asked for Christian baptism and went on his way rejoicing.

“Good for Philip,” you think. “Just don’t ask me to sit down with a stranger and explain the Bible! I would tell them to phone the Minister.” Let me tell you that this Minister would be panicking as much as you were. When someone asks us a challenging question about our faith, we are terrified of getting it wrong and looking a fool or, even worse, having a seriously negative effect on someone who really needs help. So we back off.

Monica Dickens joined the Samaritans because she could see the value of desperate people having someone available to talk to. She did the training but the first time she picked up the phone and heard a voice at the other end saying that they wanted to end their life, she panicked and stammered and, to her horror, the caller hung up. Unable to forgive herself, Monica dashed out of the office but before she had gone far, she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was her supervisor at the Samaritans. He made her come back, face her failure and try again. In the end, it was Monica Dickens who introduced the Samaritans into America. Imagine what so many people would have missed if she had not gone back after messing that call up. (and, just to let you know the caller did phone back later and talk to someone else).

The fact that we do not think we are good enough is not good enough! Revd Chad Varah first started the Samaritans because he realised that the people offering tea and sympathy to those waiting to talk to him in the vestry were doing just as good as job as he was, sometimes better. Jesus called his twelve disciples to follow him because he knew that each of them could do a good job in talking with people, listening to them, sharing faith with them. That is why he left them with the command to go and share the good news with the whole world. Yes, they would make mistakes- the New Testament is full of stories of Christians getting things wrong- but he promised that He would be with them wherever they went and whatever they were confronted with.

Philip was confronted with a stranger who needed someone to talk to. So, first of all Philip sat down with him and listened. There is hardly ever any need to leap straight into a conversation with a ready answer. Philip listened. The two men talked together. Do you know, I bet Philip learned a few things that he had never realised before. Because that is what conversation is about: mutual learning. Together they came to an understanding of what the prophet Isaiah had been writing about and how it related to their lives. Who knows what the long-term effects of this conversation were? Certainly, Ethiopia was one of the earliest African countries to embrace the Christian faith….

Back to the sat nav. Right now, a lot of us are needing to re-set our personal sat-navs. And then we have to re set them again….and again. “Take a u turn, whether it looks possible or not.” And this is making us very scared and very frustrated. Never mind even about making a u turn. We feel as though our lives have virtually ground to a halt. “Just remain where you are and don’t move.”

The story of Philip made me wonder though whether it is not always we who need to re-set our sat nav but whether we need to allow God to re-set it for us?
You can look at the story of Philip in two ways. From his initial perspective, everything in his life was going wrong and he was not where he wanted to be. From God’s perspective, Philip was in exactly the right place at the right time for the right person. The sat nav had not actually let him down after all.

For me, right now, this is what I have to hold on to. Along with most of you, I am not doing what I intended or hoped to be doing at this point in my life and ministry. But maybe God sees a place and a work and a people where He needs me to be? And maybe if I stop looking at where I expected to be and start trusting that God can place me where He needs me to be, I shall start feeling more confident about the future, no matter how many times I am confronted with an unexpected situation; or even when I have to answer a difficult question right in the middle of Waitrose…..

Amazing things happen, not so much when Christians are confident about themselves but when their confidence is in God
At the service in which I was ordained as a Minister, the preacher chose these words -from Isaiah: This is what God says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and bringing growth to the seed, so is the Word which goes out from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty but shall achieve the purpose for which I sent it. “

Trust in the power of God’s living Word. Trust in the Spirit of God in you. Believe that you are where you are for a purpose and allow God to re-set the Sat nav. Amen.