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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I saw a sign outside of an office building one day which said, “Today’s workshop ‘How to Cope with Disappointment’ has been cancelled.” How frustrating that must have been. The late poet, singer and civil right activist Maya Angelou once quipped that, “ I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” Real disappointments, of course, are more than mere inconveniences. True disappointments have a way of coloring your vision of the present and future. And life can be full of disappointments, failures and setbacks. What counts in life is how you handle them. The story of Philip in Samaria offers a glimpse of how a bold and faithful follower of Jesus Christ can choose to act.
Although the early church may have once enjoyed the good will of everyone in Jerusalem, trials and tragedy soon followed. For those people who knew and worked with Stephen and witnessed his murder by stoning, it was the worst days of their lives. Stephen had been one of the most popular and effective men in the church. He was godly and filled with grace, and had the ability to do signs and wonders as he prayed in the name of Jesus. Thousands of new believers gathered in Jerusalem because of Stephen. But violence erupted at a key intersection for the church. Without warning, the unbelievable became a reality. Stephen was arrested, charged, and executed. The enemies of the church took off their cloaks, laying them at the feet of Saul, and stoned Stephen, breaking his body and leaving him lifeless on the rocks. His death then opened the door for all kinds of persecution. Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But immediately, men and women ran for their lives, while others hid. Some were imprisoned. All except the apostles scattered through the country side. And some, like Philip found themselves in places and circumstance that they could have never imagined.
In the aftermath of personal disasters, Christians often find themselves wondering, “Where is God? How could God have done this? How could a good God allow this to happen?” Of course, you have been taught that God’s timing is not our timing, and his ways are not our ways, but ultimately, God will bring good out of every situation, but when?. The story of Philip in Samaria teaches us three important lessons for facing disappointments. They may be somewhat simplistic, but they always give us hope. First, where God closes a door, he opens a window. Second, never lose sight of your value, and third, regardless of what trials challenge you, keep doing what you know best.
We don’t know how Philip came to be in Samaria. Throughout the New Testament, we read that Jews had no relations with Samaritans, and avoided them at all cost. He certainly wouldn’t have journeyed there on his own free will. But somehow, the Holy Spirit managed to put Philip onto a road that led him right to the heart of Samaria. It must have been discouraging for Philip to find himself alone and with a people his own nation despised. He must have been wondering what happened? Why had God let the church down? Why hadn’t he rescued Stephen? If God had allowed Stephen a glimpse of heaven as he died, why hadn’t God simply shown those rock-throwing rebels who was in was really in charge? The death of a good man, and believers fleeing Jerusalem like refugees didn’t seem like the good work of a loving God.
But where God closes a door, he opens a window. In spite of what he was feeling, Philip did the one thing he knew he had been called and trained to do. He began to proclaim the Messiah to the Samaritans. Surprisingly, God made a good work out of this mess he presented Philip. The crowds in Samaria with one accord listened eagerly hearing and seeing the signs that he did. There in Samaria, Philip found himself doing the kinds of things Stephen had done, things that had marked the ministry of Jesus. Demons took off running, and miracles happened. Philip found power for living that he had never known before. He must have been physically exhausted and spiritually energized. And at the end of the day, there was great joy in that city.
Now if Stephen hadn’t died, and if the church hadn’t been scattered, Christianity might have stayed a parochial, regional faith in Jerusalem forever. But God wanted the gospel of Jesus Christ of hope and salvation to be universal and reach the ends of the earth. So God used the very persecution, which was intended to destroy the church, to chase the gospel to every corner of the world. Yes, as it turned out, God was at work in a difficult situation. Although it must have taken years for those Christians to realize it, God was working all the time.
My friends, God may be working on a difficult situation in your life right now. It may be that it’ll be years before you understand the “why” or the underlying reason behind a crisis. But faith is the confidence that God is at work during the worst times of your life, even when you can’t see how he is working, and he is opening windows to something new.
Let us turn now to the second lesson, never lose sight of your own value. I’ve known several bad times in my professional and personal life. Perhaps you have, too. When those tragic, and hard times come, know this: You can choose to trust God and all his power and mercy, and this decision can make all the difference.
The story of Philip in Samaria poignantly teaches us that Christians are not immune to life’s disappointments. How many faithful believers have I known, who have struggled to understand God’s will? A wife battles cancer only to discover a spouse with Alzheimer’s. A couple toils with issues of fertility, only to discover the financial cost of adoption. A widow laments the death of her husband, only to discover a son who is incurably ill. Old Norwegian bachelor farmers would say, “It could always be worse,” but personally you wonder what sort of imagination could dream of something more. Yes, men and women, young and old are constantly struggling to live with life’s distractions and disappointments. Scripture reminds us that is our divine given nature to be hopeful. It is that something of value that in each one of us. “So never let yesterday’s disappointments overshadow tomorrow’s dreams.” A well-known speaker once started off his seminar by holding up a $500 bill. In the room of 200 participants, he asked, “Who would like this $500 bill?” Hands started going up. He said, “I am going to give this note to one of you but first let me do this.” He proceeded to crumple the note up. Then he asked, “Who still wants it?” Still the hands were up in the air. “Well,” he replied, “What if I do this?” And he dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked it up, now all crumpled and dirty. “Now who still wants it?” Still the hands went into the air. “My friends, he said, you have all learned a very valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $500.” Many times in life, you are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions you make and the circumstances that come your way. You may feel as though you are worthless. But no matter what has happened or what will happen, you will never lose your value.
Regrettably, many of us forget that lesson. As we grow in years, we may be subjected to so much negativity that we begin to believe the world is gloomy after all. And yet my friends, in those painful, disappointing moments, you and I should find comfort in the image of Philip wandering alone on the road to Samaria. He discovered that God was at work, even in the most troubling times, and that he could still find meaning by being faithful to his call.
Finally, regardless of what trials trouble you, keep doing what you know best. So what did Philip discover on that intersection of hopefulness and Samaria? He discovered that he needed to proclaim the Messiah. Many Christians today, including good church members, deny themselves the knowledge and wisdom of Christ and his ways when they face difficult times. The early Church father St. Jerome of Bethlehem, the author of the Vulgate Latin translation wrote, “Ignorance of the Bible means ignorance of Christ.” Many of us deny ourselves a regular opportunity or “quiet time” to speak and listen to God. I must confess, I too find myself anxiously conversing with God in the sleepless midnight hours or just before morning breaks. I’ve had one of two reoccurring dreams. One, I preached the same sermon two Sundays in a row, and nobody noticed. Or the other nightmare, the Church Council voted to change my day off to Sundays. In the distractions of life, more than any other time, you and I need to set aside our own quiet time where we may read God’s word and speak to him.
That is what Stephen proclaimed to the Samaritans. He proclaimed the Messiah to them, that Jesus Christ is open to all nations and to all people. Jesus will not brush the foreigner aside. He healed and prayed and showed all people mercy- even a Samaritan woman. Jesus told parables of good and honest Samaritan men. Philip proclaimed that it grieves Jesus’ loving heart that men and women are struggling and hurting. It is just as true today. Jesus understands your turmoil, your pain and your crushed hopes. Let me assure you that there is never a moment when Jesus cannot be drawn into your life story. There is never a moment in which he is so far or distant that he does not know your loss, your pain and your struggle to cling to faith. That is how Christ-like optimism colors your world.
Repetition is the key to change. The story of the Philip preaching the familiar story of Jesus even in the lonely, deserted places of life reminds us that it is through the scriptures that you encounter God’s steadfast presence in the past and his promise to be present with you now. In the quiet, lonely places of life, Jesus is there to greet you.
My friends, if you put yourself confidently into the hands of Jesus Christ, there is no telling what he can do with you and through you. Philip didn’t know what difference it would make for him to proclaim Messiah in the land of the Samaritans. But God had a plan, he had opened a window, and used Philip’s something of value. And to Philip’s surprise, there was great joy in that city. Who know what great things God is preparing to do through you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.