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01.08.17 Perspectives on Providence Acts 8:26-40 Sermon Summary

by on January 9, 2017

What does it mean when people say, “God will provide”? It depends on whom you ask.

Summary Points

  • Two common responses to God’s providence
  • The biblical perspective on providence and stewardship
  • God’s providence according to the Ethiopian Eunuch
  • What baptism teaches us
  • When providence appears to end

“God will provide” is a truth that has many aspects. At my grandmother’s funeral, people remembered her having said this throughout her life. They were inspired by her moving statement of faith because for many of us God’s providence, like prayer, is something to which we appeal only when we feel we need it.

Going exactly in the opposite direction, some people use the idea of providence as inspiration to plan for the future. “Provide” means “to see before,” so we attempt to look into the future and prepare. We open saving accounts and make investments and buy insurance. Some people even base career choices and decisions to start a family on what they want to provide.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with praying for providence in a crisis, or with planning ahead. But biblical providence means something more, something deeper.

One biblical perspective on providence is that God has already provided everything we need. It sees God’s providence not in individual terms, but in global terms. So, for example, there is already enough food to eliminate hunger, and enough resources to shelter all people. This perspective on providence assumes the principle of stewardship. God has provided all the world needs, and entrusted these resources to humans. God calls us to partner with providence. It’s like what I remind our church leadership about the budget: God has already provided all the financial resources for our church to faithfully pursue its ministry; those resources are in the pockets of the people in the pews.

Another biblical perspective is that God’s providence is emergent, more in the moment, serendipitous. This would be the Ethiopian Eunuch’s testimony.

He had just been to worship and was reading scripture. These are two practices that set us up to recognize God’s providence. Then Philip ran up alongside his chariot. Rather than being alarmed, the Eunuch was open to him.

The Spirit had directed Philip to that road and to that chariot. But there the Spirit stopped nudging him. Sometimes we wait for spiritual nudges when there are none to come. Sometimes to see God’s providence we just have to engage the context in which we find ourselves. Philip hears the Eunuch reading and engages him.

The Ethiopian also engages Philip. He invites him in and asks him a question. Here are two more clues for discovering God’s providence: Showing hospitality and asking questions.

So far the Ethiopian’s experience with providence doesn’t have to do with a crisis or with planning ahead (even though he was a financial planner for the Ethiopian queen). It is emergent. He was set up by worship and reading scripture, he was open and hospitable to the stranger, and he knew he couldn’t understand everything by himself, so he asked questions.

Their discussion turns to Jesus, and Acts tells us Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus. Apparently that good news included a conversation about baptism, because when they happen upon some water (more evidence of emergent providence), the Ethiopian asks for baptism.

In the original manuscript, what Philip taught about baptism isn’t described. (That’s why someone inserted verse 37 later.) But we can infer what baptism means by looking at the rest of Acts and the Gospel of Luke, both written by the same author. These books teach that baptism includes forgiveness of sin and adoption by God. It represents one’s incorporation into the body of believers. Through baptism, one receives the Holy Spirit and is enabled for kingdom living. All this and more is included in the “proclamation of the good news about Jesus.”

After baptism, the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing.” You can bet he believed in God’s providence. He didn’t rely on his own planning ahead. And he didn’t return to providence only later in a crisis. He looked for God’s providence every moment of his life. And he found it.

There’s another lesson about providence that is hidden in this story. It’s a harder lesson, beyond worship and scripture, beyond hospitality and asking questions, and beyond baptism.

After the baptism, the Spirit snatches Philip away. The Ethiopian no longer “sees” him. Providence seems to end. It is when this happens, in the appearance of deficiency, that faith applies. The Ethiopian Eunuch went on his way rejoicing, walking no longer by what he could see, but by faith.

Philip also learned about God’s emergent providence. He was ordained a deacon to help serve needy Greek widows so the apostles could concentrate on preaching. But shortly after that, he himself started preaching to Samaritans. Philip was already a pretty open-minded religious person. After his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, yet another non-Jewish person, he finds himself in Azotus, and making his way to Caesarea, he proclaims the good news in all the towns.

It isn’t until about nineteen years later that we hear of Philip again. The great evangelist Paul visits Caesarea and stays at the house of “Philip the Evangelist.” Apparently Philip had continued, without any more extraordinary nudging of the Spirit, to proclaim the good news of Jesus for nineteen years. And what is more, his four daughters had become pastors.

The hidden lesson about providence in this passage is that when it seems providence has come to an end, we can apply faith. With the Ethiopian and Philip, we remember God’s providence in the past. We worship, read scripture, and remain open to the stranger. And in faith we say with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip the Evangelist, and my grandmother, “God will provide.”

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