Today we begin with words I admit may sound ominous, or at least confusing.

Isaiah 53 reads,

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.”  (Isa 53:7-8)

Every year during Holy Week those are the last words to our Tenebrae Service on Maundy Thursday.  The passage is read after the last candle has been extinguished in a Sanctuary that is totally dark, and the congregation departs in silence to meditate on the Crucifixion until Easter morning.  If you have never been to that service, it is a one of the more powerful worship experiences we have each year, and you should come.  This morning, the same scripture is the focal point of our New Testament reading, so I get a chance to talk about it in a different context.

          For Christians the passage serves as a reference to Jesus.  The Tenebrae service tells the story of the road to the Cross at length, with emphasis on the goodness of Jesus, his love for the disciples and all those he serves, the jealousy, insecurity, and lust for power that leads Romans and religious authorities to call for his death, and the complacency with which regular people like you and me allow it to take place.  When this passage from Isaiah 53 is read, in metaphorical language about priest and sacrifice, we read about how Jesus was led to the slaughter, innocent like a lamb.

          In the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, the story serves a different purpose.  It is part of a broader proclamation in the Book of Isaiah known as the Servant Songs, in which the Prophet Isaiah tells the story of an individual who will bring forth universal justice, and lifts up the oppressed by doing the will of God, and suffers in the process.  In these songs, Isaiah expresses hope for his people, and restoration for anyone who may feel left out, who may fear that God has forgotten them.  So these words that may sound ominous are actually words of hope.

The Scripture we read today from the Book of Acts says that one day in ancient Israel, in the early years of Christianity, a man traveled along a wilderness road reading those very words from Isaiah.  Philip, one of the apostles, or early Christian teachers, overhears him—for reading was generally done out loud in those days.  Philip approaches the man and asks if he understands what he is reading, whereupon the man invites Philip to join him in his chariot, and the two begin to discuss the meaning of the passage.

The setting, and the individuals involved, are important context:  The man in the chariot is a eunuch—the passage says so four times, he was a male who would have been castrated at a young age in order to make him eligible for a life of service in the presence of royal women, and this particular man is a eunuch in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia.  We are supposed to be surprised that such a man reading the Scriptures after visiting the Temple.  As a eunuch he was ineligible for participation in certain elements of traditional Temple religion.  And religion aside, his sexual difference places him very much on the margins of society—by no choice of his own, he’s an outsider—and the author wants us to notice this.  But at the same time, this man is a court official, travelling independently with leisure time to read; he possesses a personal copy of the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and he is riding along in a chariot.  So while in some respects an outsider, he is simultaneously a very wealthy and powerful individual.  An additional statement in the passage adds some mystery: when we’re told that he’s traveled to Jerusalem to worship and is now returning home, it is not clear if he is a Jew living in another land who has made a pilgrimage to the Temple, or if is he a curious Gentile attracted to Judaism?  It is impossible to tell. We are supposed to recognize all of the complexity of this character.  Is he an insider or an outsider?

Now let’s return to what this man is reading—it isn’t an accident.  There’s a lot of variety in the Old Testament.  There are different styles of literature and different rabbinical schools of thought, and there are ways of understanding God that are in conversation with one another.  So in some of the Scriptures, there are comments that differentiate clearly between insiders and outsiders, and that make it clear who belongs and who does not.  So in Deuteronomy 23:1, we read that a eunuch could not be welcomed into the Temple.  But other scriptures question these assumptions.  The Prophet Isaiah, by contrast, is always preaching about the gathering in of all of God’s people, with no outsiders, that hoped for future of the Servant Songs.  So, for instance, in Isaiah 11:11 that, he writes that the remnant from Ethiopia will be welcomed home, and in Isaiah 56:4, that the eunuch who has faithfully observed the sabbath will be welcomed into the Temple.  This is the kind of stuff the Ethiopian eunuch would want to be reading.  Again, who is this man?  Insider, or outsider?

So the eunuch, who Philip discovers riding along in his chariot, is reading Isaiah 53, this passage about a good, but suffering servant.  The scroll he is reading describes a faithful and righteous child of God (an insider), who will be despised and rejected and led to the slaughter (treated as an outsider).  And when Philip joins the eunuch in the chariot and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  The eunuch asks, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?”  As one astute biblical commentator I read this week states it, what the eunuch is really asking Philip, is this: “Is this really about Isaiah and his situation, or could it be about me as well?”  (see Feasting on the Word, Year B, Fourth Sunday After Easter)  And isn’t that the basic question all of us bring to the Bible?  Is this just some old dusty book about someone a long time ago?  Or does it have something to say, to me?  Which is a way of asking, when it comes to this faith and God thing, am I an insider, or an outsider?  Do I belong?  This is the question Philip and the eunuch are discussing.

Now, in a beautiful twist of the story: we’ve been in this high flown speculation about matters of religion, and then there’s the moment when Philip and the eunuch land the plane.  Philip has been unpacking the meaning of the scripture.  They’re going along the road in the chariot and they come to water, and the eunuch asks, “Look, here is water.  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  This is a bold and vulnerable question, because, Philip might easily have called the eunuch an outsider, but the Ethiopian eunuch took the risk, and into the water they went, and the eunuch received the answer to his question:  in God’s world, there are no outsiders.  You belong.  This is the meaning of baptism.

We have a baptism today, (in a couple of weeks we will have several more at Fresh Spirit) and let’s be honest, we still do this in an environment of insiders and outsiders.  We welcome all, and I do believe that is true—but we have requirements.  If it is an infant or young child, one parent must be a member of the church—we want a commitment to join an ongoing journey of faith.  Whether it is the parents, or an older child or adult coming for baptism, we require them to meet with a pastor and to answer questions of belief—we want them to ride along with Philip in the chariot for a while and talk about what the scriptures mean, and decide if they really want to be baptized.  The requirements, to my way of thinking, are rather minimal, but we do wind up with our share of disappointed folks who look at our requirements and then say, “well, Knox just wasn’t that welcoming.”  There are other, conscientious reasons why some in our community may choose not to be baptized, and the church has an unfortunate history of creating insiders and outsiders based on race and sexual orientation, and surely today we are creating outsiders in new ways; baptism continues to be a practice that has some risk of creating insiders and outsiders.

Even for people who are baptized, there is ambiguity that remains.  Through this sacrament, we receive God’s promise that we belong to God.  But as we meander through life, all of us hit snags in our faith when we have serious doubts, about the existence of God, or why there is such great suffering in the world, or why our church is so deeply flawed; other times we may fall away through some horrible mistake or deep crisis of our own, and may doubt that God can still love us.  All of these things can cause us to wonder if we really do belong—or want to.

For all those reasons, I love this morning’s story; I love it that there’s so much nuance and complexity to this character Philip meets along the road, because in his baptism we see that no matter how circuitous or complicated our journey of faith may get, in baptism we are reminded that none of our wanderings will ever separate us from the love of God.

So a child who will is baptized is welcomed today; we baptize him into this very human, flawed community where we practice faith.  Without question, his life will include moments of stumbling in faith, and the same will be true of his parents who will stumble in their journey to raise him, and to sustain faith of their own.  But God’s blessing is with us and here to stay; there is nothing to keep us from being baptized, and there is nothing that can take it away from us.  Amen.