Obedience and Freedom

Acts 8:26-40

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This morning I want to talk to you about obedience. Obedience is an important characteristic in the story we are going to read and an important characteristic in our lives. Although it’s not terribly popular in our culture anymore. 

Obedience isn’t something that American adults are very interested in. We are interested in our children being obedient. And we are interested in obeying laws we agree with, and we are interested in having other people obey laws we agree with, even if they don’t agree with them. But in general, obedience feels like a restriction of our freedom. Like we aren’t getting to make our own choices. And there’s not much more important to American adults than the feeling that we are making our own choices. That’s what we think it means to be free, not to have anyone else tell us what to do. 

What we actually need in obedience is a healthy sense of balance. And I think this morning’s story can provide a perspective that we need. This story follows closely after last week’s story. After Stephen was martyred, the Christians in Jerusalem began to be persecuted and so they scattered throughout the area. One of the other deacons, a man named Philip, went to Samaria and began to share the good news there. And even though he was having great success there, God had other things for him to do. Let’s pick up the story there.

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then 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.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being 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. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Obedience is the key to this story for us this morning. And the way that we keep it in balance in our lives is to choose it.

At the beginning of the story, the Spirit tells Philip to go travel down a certain road. Philip has a pretty good ministry going in Samaria at the time. His church is growing. People know his name. Other leaders are coming to visit him and help him and affirm his work. And then he hears a voice from God telling him to go somewhere deserted, and he goes. Now this doesn’t immediately seem like a big deal to us because we only have to read the next sentence to see what happens, but Philip didn’t have that luxury. He hears the voice of an angel. First he has to decide if he’s actually hearing from God, or whether it’s his own imagination. Then he has to decide if he wants to be obedient to what he’s heard. Then he has to actually do it. He doesn’t know what’s coming. The angel doesn’t bother to tell him WHY he’s supposed to go out on this road through the desert, just that he’s supposed to go. 

I love this because I think this is usually how it is when we get direction from God. We feel led or prompted to do something, or perhaps we even hear it like a voice in our head. But there may be no information at all as to why we are supposed to do this, what is going to happen if we do. Just the direction to do it. That seems to be how God works throughout much of the Bible. 

I think the reason for this may be that it is an invitation to grow our trust. Often the only way to know if what we’ve heard is actually from God is to act on it and see what happens. We have to actually do it in order to see if we were really hearing from God. This is how we learn to trust God, how we learn that God is trustworthy, by acting on what we think God is asking us to do even if we don’t have all of the information.

This is a choice we have to make. It’s a stretch for us. This I think is the distinction of obedience. To do what we are being asked to do, even without all of the information; to trust and act even if we don’t have all the rationale we would like; to recognize that someone we trust may have a good reason for asking us to do something even if they haven’t fully explained every bit of it to us. 

The benefits of obedience are humility and freedom. Obedience reminds us that we are always God’s children, that there are going to be many times in which God is working in ways that we don’t and maybe even can’t understand, and yet that doesn’t mean that God is not trustworthy. We are called to walk humbly with God, and one of the best ways to develop humility is to be obedient. It’s actually very freeing to release our need to control and understand each and every thing that happens. It is freeing to choose to trust someone else’s plans. It’s exhausting to always be in charge, to always be evaluating, to always be gathering information and trying to consider every angle before making a decision. Sometimes what God is offering us is the opportunity to rest in obedience. To decide in advance that we are going to follow God’s directions and not second guess them.

In most families, someone is the planner. Often one person does the bulk of the research and considers the options and makes the plans for dinner and vacations and weekly schedules. And when someone else makes a plan for you and you can just go along and not have to second guess all of it, that’s a gift. Obedience might be a little strong of a word for that, but you see what I mean. It is a gift to trust someone else’s plans for us. There is great freedom in choosing in advance to be obedient to God.

There is a difference between choosing obedience and choosing to do the specific thing that God is asking us to do. If we evaluate the specific thing and decide to do it, that’s not really obedience because we still had to expend the mental and emotional effort to evaluate the thing, weigh the pros and cons, try to predict the outcome, and then decide to do it. Obedience is simpler than that. Obedience is deciding to do it without weighing all the options. And that’s why it requires trust and humility. We have to trust God enough to do what we feel led to do without all the extra evaluating. And we have to be humble enough to let go of the outcome.

In 2001 I went on a mission trip to New York City. We ministered in all kinds of situations and on the final night, we went out to minister to people experiencing homelessness. We took food and supplies, but the main goal was to have an evangelistic conversation. The ministry we were working with had ongoing relationships with many of these people, or knew where people would sleep and so we drove around to find people. We didn’t want to overwhelm them and so at each stop, only a few of us would get out. At one stop, I was asked to get out and was directed by the leader to a man resting against a building. I gave him the supplies and discovered that he only spoke Spanish, which I don’t speak. Thankfully we had an interpreter, and I stumbled through a few statements that I hoped conveyed God’s love for this man and God’s desire to save him. After we finished talking, I got back in the van and began to sob. I felt so inadequate. I sobbed for the rest of the night and still felt bad the next morning. As our group had a final debriefing conversation before leaving for the airport, it was made clear to me (whether by God speaking directly to me or through someone else, I can’t remember) that my obedience was the fulfillment of God’s will for me. I would never know what happened to all the seeds we planted that week, including the translated conversation I had the night before. But it didn’t matter. I was responsible for what God had asked me to do, not for what happened as a result of that. Once I realized this, I had such a sense of peace and trust and that lesson has stayed with me for 20 years.

Our obedience is the fulfillment of God’s will for us. If we are obedient, that is enough. We do not have the perspective needed to see what all the results of our obedience could be. We are not responsible for those results. God is. We are responsible to be obedient and leave the rest in God’s hands. This is also a great freedom. We don’t have to do it all, we don’t have to figure it all out. We can trust that God sees what we don’t and is offering us the opportunity to participate in the healing of the world, even if we don’t understand it.

As we close, let me share with you a quote I love:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

*This is a quote that is often attributed to the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud contains part of this quote, but it has been adapted and used so many times that I’m not able to find a firm attribution for the quote in this form.

We are called to a life of obedience and faithfulness, but God is ultimately responsible for the outcomes. Amen. 

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