Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 10, 2009

Sermon on Acts 8:26-40

LORD, GRAFT US TO THE VINE!

  1. Teach us by your Word
  2. Wash us in Baptism

Text: Acts 8:26-40

Introduction

Just a few days after Easter, some strong winds blew through Belmont.  If you were not here for that wind storm, you could still tell that it occurred.  One walk through this property after those high winds and you could see plenty of evidence: broken twigs and small branches scattered around the property.  About all those twigs are good for is the dumpster or maybe kindling for a bonfire.

Branches that are broken off from their plants are usually pretty useless.  But not all broken branches are useless.  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 are otherwise prone to genetic variation.  The practice of grafting is even used by some gardeners to produce tomatoes and potatoes on the same plant!  Just because a shoot or branch is broken from its original plant doesn’t mean it is useless.  Grafting makes those broken 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 virtue of the promises God gave their forefathers which 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.  You and I are examples of that!  And so is the man we hear about in today’s First Lesson.  The Holy Spirit directed Phillip to witness Christ to an Ethiopian government official who was traveling from Jerusalem.  And 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.  And so we pray: Lord, graft us to the vine!  Teach us by your Word.  Wash us in baptism.

I.

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.  Philip had been in the region of Samaria, and the Lord had greatly blessed his evangelism there.  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 Nubia, an ancient nation located along the Upper Nile.  The man has traveled to Jerusalem to worship and is now on his way home.  So we can surmise that he is some type of a convert to the God of the Jews.

New Testament Illustrations 079The 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 Isaiah, to be exact.  It was fairly common that when a person read, he read aloud, and 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 Jesus Christ 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.  It seems that the official may have previously asked other rabbis what this section meant, 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 didn’t know who Isaiah was talking about.  But Philip knew he had just been handed a golden opportunity to talk about Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who was sacrificed on the cross to atone for the sins of the world.  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.”  And as the account in Acts continues, we see that the Holy Spirit used Philip’s witness to graft another new believer into the family of God.

The Bible was a closed book to that official until Philip opened the book 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 moral majority?  The liberals’ guide for social justice?  A collection of wise religious literature from the ancient world?  The biased history of Jewish historians?  Something else?

Christ is the key that opens the Scriptures.  Christ is the key that 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.  We can see how the Old Testament worship ceremonies were visual object lessons about 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 Paul and Peter and John 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 we understand that.  I think we know that Scripture is about Christ from cover to cover.  But then I wonder.  I wonder if we recognize this as head knowledge while our sinful hearts try to keep 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, who are a part of the world?  Doesn’t that say that you are 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 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 bulletin and read the announcements (because they are so much more interesting than the Word of God? — I think not!), or we find some other way to distance ourselves from the harsh reality that our sin has put us on a crash course to hell.  Who really wants to acknowledge, “The 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 so that it drives 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 about Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice 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).  The Word teaches us about Christ’s victory over death which now counts for us: “‘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).  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).  This message grafts us to the vine, and so we pray, “Dear Holy Spirit, teach us by your Word!”

II.

We don’t know the precise content of the instruction that Philip gave the official while they were traveling, but it must have been pretty thorough.  Philip began with Isaiah in the Old Testament, but eventually arrived at Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples to teach and baptize (see Matthew 28:19-20).  And it didn’t take long for the official to put two and two together and realize 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 simultaneously grafted to the vine, adopted into the family of God.

Does the thought of your baptism fill you with the same joy?  Probably not.  It’s not that we intentionally try to downgrade baptism’s value.  But the reality is that for many of you (though not all of you!), you don’t even remember the day of your baptism because you were no more than a few days or weeks old.  Perhaps we can renew our appreciation for our own baptism by looking at the joy that this new believer had when he received baptism and all its blessings.

You may not have realized it, but the children’s song this morning touched on some of the blessings of baptism.  You probably noticed how the words of stanza two connected to Jesus’ comments in today’s Gospel (“I am the vine, you are the branches,” John 15:5), but stanzas one and three contain references to Romans chapter six.  That chapter of the Bible shows us how Baptism connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that’s what the children taught us when they sang:

I have now been crucified with Christ.

I no longer live; Christ lives in me.

Now I live by faith in God’s own Son,

One who loved me so—gave himself for me.

(Christian Worship Supplement #761, st. 3)

Far from being nothing more than a church ceremony, baptism is the day of your adoption into God’s family.  It is your personal connection to Christ, 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 sacrament grafts us to the vine, and so we pray, “Dear Holy Spirit, wash us in baptism.”

Conclusion

Today is Mother’s Day.  There are few people that are as influential in your lives as mom.  There are few people to whom you are so closely connected as your mom.  Why, for nine months you were literally connected to her, and that close connection sticks around long after the umbilical cord is cut!

Our connection to our mothers is special and unique, but our connection to Christ is even more special and unique.  For we are not naturally connected to him.  We are grafted into him.  And that’s not just a pretty picture or a stale old Bible truth.  The fact that we are branches connected to Christ, the vine, fills us with a living hope and faith.  In Word and Baptism you are connected to the vine.  In Word and Sacrament you find comfort in Christ’s forgiving love.  In Word and Baptism you have the confirmation that heaven awaits you after this life.  You are grafted to none other than the Lord Jesus, the one about whom we confess: He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Amen.

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