God of the Unlikely  

Themes: Acts John

Chris Topping

Acts 8 v 26 -40

John 15 v 1-8


I always love reading the news stories of things which are unlikely to have really happened. The more unlikely the better especially when despite the amazing nature of what you are reading it turns out to be true!

Of course in our time fake news makes it difficult to distinguish between what is unlikely to have happened and what definitely did not.

You may have read recently of the American who was bitten recently by a shark whilst surfing in the Pacific ocean – he got away with a small wound on his leg. But this was the third encounter he had in a very short space of time with wild animals. He had previously been mauled by a bear and got away by poking the bear in the eye! And somewhat unbelievably not long before that he had kicked what he thought was a cactus only to discover it was a rattlesnake which promptly gave him a bite.

All highly unlikely but apparently true.

Our Readings

This morning’s reading from Acts is one of those passages where it seems like an unlikely tale.

A man in a chariot in the desert reading a scroll which he doesn’t understand is met by someone who explains it to him, the stranger finds some water in the desert to baptise him and then promptly vanishes into thin air.

It is a series of apparently unlikely things happening with an unlikely cast of people.


The unlikeliest of evangelists. He pops up here, not for the first time but certainly with a larger part than he has had before – he is not one of the 12 apostles – we read about him, earlier in Acts, as one of seven faithful men to take bread to the widows. He had not been recognised as a preacher or an evangelist.

Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, from which this account comes, has concentrated in the first seven chapters on the apostles who had been eye witnesses of what Jesus had done. They take centre stage in the account of the early church.

But as we join the passage this morning what has happened is that the church in Jerusalem has come under persecution and the leaders have been dispersed.

Here, Philip, the unlikely evangelist, has left Jerusalem and the work of spreading the Gospel is now the work of every one – not just a select few.

After this story we don’t hear of Philip again until right at the end of Acts and when we do he is described there as Philip the Evangelist.

The Eunuch

The other individual in the story is perhaps an even more unlikely individual.

We don’t know his name and he is just referred to as the eunuch.

The Eunuch is an unlikely convert to Christianity. He was a black African; an official in the court of the queen of Ethiopia; headed back there on the desert road; no hope of being discipled in the local church there because there was no church where he was going. We know he must have been an educated man as he was reading the scroll, and the scroll itself would have been immensely expensive, not the sort of thing everyone we would have.

He must have been searching for God and intent on that task as we know that because he was a eunuch, according to Jewish law as set out in Deuteronomy 23, when he was in Jerusalem, he would not even have been allowed to enter the Temple.

So he is an unlikely person to be approached by Philip who would of course have been a Jew and aware of the laws from the Torah.


The other unlikely part of the story is that the eunuch was on his way home to Ethiopia.

At the time Ethiopia was the edge of the known world. The word “Ethiopia” was used by the poet Homer in Ancient Greece as shorthand for the end of the world. Poets, scientists, philosophers and historians had no better word to describe the end of the known world.

So the eunuch, a person of indeterminate gender, who was forbidden from entering the temple, who was reading a scroll he couldn’t understand was going to the ends of the earth.

And yet maybe all of this is not so unlikely – the first sermon of the Christian church was preached by Peter and we read at Acts 2 v 39 that the promise of the gospel is for you and your children and for all who are far off.

Who could be further off than the eunuch? Where could be further than the ends of the earth than Ethiopia?

An Unlikely Strategy

Last weekend I was with my friend Dave. We have been friends since the early 1980’s. We were talking together about this passage and as he is a lecturer at a bible college he said he could lend me a sermon he preached on this passage.

Some of what I have said so far has been “borrowed” from him!

Dave lectures in how mission is supposed to be done and his view on this passage is that the whole strategy of mission would be seen as being completely wrong! Of course it is only wrong from a human point of view.

The very heart of the passage points to the fact that what was happening here, however unlikely, was exactly how God had planned it to be.

In our Wednesday Connect group meeting we came across a phrase in the second chapter of Colossians that we should be seeking that the church “grows with a growth that is from God”. [1]

That is an interesting way of putting things because all too often we have great plans and ideas of how we would like our churches to grow and we use models of growth that come from business. However just maybe they are not always “growth that comes from God”.

Now I am not against strategy and planning and taking careful steps to achieve goals. However there are occasions where we can lose sight of what we are supposed to be doing.

There is a strapline doing the rounds which says “Bigger Church Bigger Difference”.

I worry about that because what a bigger church means may not be a better church and it may not make a bigger difference in bringing in God’s Kingdom.

Bigger is not always better.

Perhaps we should be learning from Philip and the Eunuch?


The historians tell us that the church in Ethiopia is the oldest in Africa.

It appears that this apparently chance, unlikely, encounter, led to the founding of the Christian church there and then across Africa. It was not an encounter where Philip told the Eunuch to come to a meeting to hear a preacher; it was not an encounter where Philip invited the Eunuch to the latest Alpha group. It was an encounter between two people who talked to each other.

We can never know from what small beginnings things will grow.

Perhaps the strategy should be for us to be ready for those apparently chance and unlikely meetings where we encounter people who are ready to talk about issues of faith.

It seems to me that more often than not the way in which the good news really takes hold is in the one to one conversations we have. The Good News of a God who loves and cares is better shared by the relationships we have rather than from the soap box on which we stand.

An Unlikely Message

We cannot leave this passage without noting what Philip and the Eunuch talked about.

It is all very well to have a strategy but if there is no message to share any strategy would be useless.

The Eunuch was reading the passage from Isaiah which talks about the suffering servant, which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah.

The conversation is one which starts where the Eunuch is. He is reading something which he does not understand and about a person about whom he seemingly has no knowledge or insight.

As Philip explains the passage to him the Eunuch is able to understand that this passage is relevant for him there and then. It is a passage about Jesus and Philip is able to explain how Jesus is good news.


Philip the man who was in charge of handing out the food parcels suddenly has the opportunity to explain the teachings of scripture.

But this was not an academic lecture – he knew his bible but he knew Jesus as well.

He knew that he was in the right place at the right time with the right skills to speak to the right person.

He did not say – well I am not speaking to a Eunuch because an intergender person cannot be a Christian or a church planter.

He did not say you will never understand this scripture. He did not pass up the opportunity.

He told the Eunuch the Good News about Jesus – Jesus who welcomes everyone whether they are near or far, Jew or Gentile, regardless of their sexuality, nationality. Jesus who changed everything.


And here is the challenge.

Do we sidetrack ourselves by worrying about things that God does not worry about?

The first missionary into Africa is a eunuch. He is returning to his country armed with the Old Testament scroll of Isaiah. He goes however with the good news of Jesus – Good News which as we reminded ourselves earlier

“is for you and your children and for all who are far away, everyone who the Lord our God calls to Him.”

[1] Col 2 v 19