TRAVELING THE WILDERNESS ROAD – REV. PAUL DAKIN

TRAVELLING THE WILDERNESS ROAD
A sermon based on Acts 8:26-40
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 2, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.


Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) Acts 8:26


The year was 1774. A group of wealthy investors from Virginia calling themselves “The Transylvania Company,” negotiated with the Cherokee and Iroquois nations to purchase the rights to a large tract of land south of the Ohio River. The next question was how to open up the new territory for expansion. It did not take them long to choose the right man for the job. He was the legendary American pioneer, Daniel Boone.
Boone’s job was to create a trail for new settlers, trappers, traders, and merchants to travel in order to work in and populate the region. He was chosen due to his extensive knowledge of the land and for the relationships he had developed with the Native Americans who lived there. The road that he would blaze through the region would become known as “The Wilderness Road.”
Boone assembled his group at Fort Chiswell, Virginia, near modern day Wytheville. Starting their work on March 10, 1775, Boone took 35 axemen with him to help in the construction of the road. At first, they headed south along the Holston River and cut a path to what is now Kingsport, Tennessee. From there, they headed west through the Cumberland Gap. After passing through the mountains, the Wilderness Road forked into two roads. The southern part of the fork went over the Cumberland Plain and eventually ended at what is now Nashville.
The northern part of the fork split into two routes. The eastern spur went north into the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. It ended at the town of Boonesboro, near present day Lexington. The western spur continued in that direction and eventually ended at a place called “The Falls of the Ohio.” That is now the location of present day Louisville.
In the beginning, The Wilderness Road was little more than a path that could only be travelled on foot or on horseback. As time passed, the road became wider so that carts and wagons could also use the road. And settlers started streaming into the region…It is said that 35 years after the road was opened, around 300,000 people had traveled the Wilderness Road…
But especially in the beginning, travelling the Wilderness Road was risky. While the Transylvania Company had negotiated for the land with some of the Native American inhabitants, others were not so welcoming. From the beginning when it was opened, settlers were vulnerable to periodic attacks from
P a g e | 2
various dissident Native American groups which did not recognize the treaty. For decades, no one knew where or when the next attack would come from.
In addition, the woods were filled with all manner of wild animals. At night, one could hear the sounds of wildcats, panthers and wolves. Copperheads and rattlesnakes could lie in wait near the next rock or log. They were a constant threat to both the travelers and their livestock.
Once the road had been built, robbers and other criminals came to inhabit the region. They saw the Road as opportunity to prey on the weaker travelers and settlers. For many, the Wilderness Road was the path to a new chance in life. But the Wilderness Road was also a path that was fraught with danger. Travelling on it was not to be undertaken lightly. It was not a road for the weak of heart…1
In the sermon text today from Acts 8, Philip is instructed by an angel of the Lord to leave and go south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. The author of Acts, traditionally said to be Luke, tells us parenthetically that it is a wilderness road…
Earlier in chapter eight, we are told that Philip had gone to a city in Samaria to proclaim the word of Christ there. He was having marvelous success. The ministry was going great. Lots of people were added to God’s kingdom. We are told that Philip performed many miraculous signs in Samaria. Demons were cast out. Paralytics were healed. Cripples could walk again. And because of that, Philip’s preaching attracted a large crowd. Luke sums up Philip’s ministry there with the words, “So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:4-8) And in the middle of all the wonderful things that God was doing through Philip—and in the middle of the joyful reception that the Word of God was receiving there—while all that was going on, God spoke to Philip. The angel told him to head down to the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. It’s a road that goes through the wilderness…
The Greek word used for the word “wilderness” here is the word erēmos. It is a word translated as “wilderness” or desert” in different places in the New Testament. It indicates an arid wasteland of sand, dry dirt and rocks where nothing much grows. Erēmos is an inhospitable and forbidding place…
In First Century Palestine, the wilderness was a place where no one much wanted to go. Besides being a desolate place, it was considered to be a place of grave spiritual danger. The desert wilderness was thought to be the place where evil spirits and demons lived. One would be more susceptible to their influence in the desert wilderness than anywhere else. Consequently most people avoided the wilderness…
And it had some things in common with the dangers faced on Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road. It was a hideout for those trying to escape. The only people who lived in the wilderness in Palestine were those hiding out from their enemies or those who were on the run from the authorities. The
1 From www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/wilderness-road and www.wikipedia.com/wilderness-road (Accessed April 28, 2021)
P a g e | 3
wilderness was an area that was honeycombed with caves. Those caves served as hideouts for all kinds of robbers and bandits, who preyed on those unlucky enough to get caught travelling alone. It was also a place where insurrectionists—basically the ancient equivalent of terrorists—would go to work out their plans. And if that weren’t enough, the Palestinian wilderness also had its share of wild animals that could appear at any time—wolves, hyenas, poisonous snakes and deadly scorpions.
But in spite of all the dangers, sometimes people had to go through the wilderness to get to somewhere else. It was unavoidable in order for them to conduct business. But that was about the only time that respectable people travelled on the Wilderness Road. And when they did, they did the First Century equivalent of what you or I might do while driving through a rough section of town in the wee hours of the morning—rolling up your windows, making sure all the doors are locked, and not stopping for anyone or anything until you have reached a place of safety…
I wonder what kinds of thoughts ran through Philip’s mind when he first heard the message from the angel. I don’t know about you, but I would have likely pushed back on it a little. It did not add up. He might have reasoned within himself, “With everything going so well in Samaria, why would God want me to go to that awful place? There’s hardly anyone there with which to share the gospel message. And besides, there are still plenty more people here to witness to. There are still more people here who need to experience the healing touch of the Savior in their lives. It does not seem to me to make much sense for me to leave at this time…”
Maybe he had some of those thoughts. Maybe he didn’t. The text does not tell us. But I know that I probably would have wanted some time to think about it first before saying “Yes”—even to an angel. But to Philip’s credit, he did not do that for very long—if at all. Because the very next verse tells us simply, “So he got up and went…”
Philip’s trip to the Wilderness Road was an unlikely mission in a most unlikely place. And the scriptures tell us that it was to a most unlikely person…
When he got to the Wilderness Road, the Spirit directed Philip to a man riding in a chariot on the road. After a brief exchange, the man invited him to sit with him in the chariot and explain to him the scriptures that he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. It turns out that the man in the chariot reading from the Bible was a eunuch in the service of the queen of Ethiopia.
You know the rest of the story. After explaining to the eunuch about how Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the eunuch commanded the chariot to stop at one of the few places along the Wilderness Road that had water. There, they got out and Philip baptized him. At that point, the eunuch continued on his journey home, while the Spirit took Philip back up north to Azotus, a town not too far from where he had been previously. And Luke makes the comment that, after this encounter on the Wilderness Road, the eunuch never saw him again…
P a g e | 4
The eunuch in today’s story is something of a mystery. All we know about him is in these few verses. We know that he was in charge of the treasury for the queen of Ethiopia. And we know that he had been in Jerusalem for one of the annual Jewish festivals. Apart from that, our information is sketchy at best…
How did this important man from Ethiopia come to be someone who would travel hundreds of miles to participate in the religion of the Jews? It does seem unusual, doesn’t it? The truth is that no one really knows for sure how to account for the eunuch’s faith. Some—in fact most—commentators have suggested that perhaps the eunuch was actually Jewish in his heritage. The speculation is that, when the Babylonians had conquered Judah in 586 BC, this man’s ancestors had been refugees. They had fled Israel to escape the invading Babylonian army and eventually wound up in Ethiopia. That means that the eunuch’s ancestors would have been Jews living in Ethiopia some 600 years before his encounter with Philip. That could very well be true. It is a plausible explanation…
But there is another tantalizing legend that may account for the Ethiopian’s religious faith. This story is not found in the Bible. But from we do know, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility…
In 1 Kings 10, we are told of a well-known episode in the life of King Solomon. In that chapter, we learn that Solomon’s reputation as a fabulously wealthy and wise ruler had spread far beyond the region of Israel. In fact, it had travelled all the way down the east coast of Africa. The queen of Sheba—Sheba is another name for Ethiopia—had heard these unbelievable stories about Solomon and came to Jerusalem to find out for herself. The Bible tells us that she was bowled over by what she saw. In fact, she told Solomon, “I did not believe these things until I came and saw them with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told to me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report that I had heard.” (Verse 7)
The Bible continues the story by telling us that, after spending time with Solomon, the queen left Jerusalem and returned to her own country with all her attendants. There is an ancient legend that says that, when the queen of Sheba left Jerusalem, she was pregnant with Solomon’s child. She gave birth to the child when she arrived home and that this was the beginning of a Jewish enclave within the nation of Ethiopia. Could it possibly be true? No one knows for sure. But it is known that there has been a Jewish religious presence in Ethiopia that dates back before New Testament times. So maybe the legend is true…Maybe not…No one really knows for sure…
As our time together draws to a close this morning, I want us to think back to the Wilderness Road. God came to speak to Philip while he was engaged in doing what God wanted him to do. And in doing so, God told Philip to leave what he was doing and to venture out onto the Wilderness Road. God had something that he wanted Philip to do. The normal rhythm of Philip’s life was suddenly turned upside down. The angel did not say why God wanted Philip to go to that forsaken place. Nor did he did not indicate to Philip what he would encounter there. He did not unveil any of his plans to Philip. God simply told him to go down to the Wilderness Road…
P a g e | 5
A question for you today is: What is your Wilderness Road? What is it that the Spirit of the Lord is prompting you to do? What is it that the Spirit of the Lord is leading you to do that is not at all what you expected…or maybe even wanted…?
During the Morning Prayer time in our worship service, I will sometimes lead us to silently pray for “someone that we find difficult to love—someone that we find hard to forgive.” Years ago, one of our members came up to me and said, “I hate it when you ask us to do that. There is one person who has hurt my family so badly that I just cannot even to begin to forgive him for what he has done.” I appreciated the honesty. Praying for someone who has hurt you badly is admittedly a tough thing to do. It just flies in the face of our human nature. For that church member, praying for that difficult to love individual is a Wilderness Road that needs to be travelled…
That kind of prayer may not be YOUR Wilderness Road. But I would guess that we all have a Wilderness Road that God is calling us to. What is yours? What is it that God wants you to do that you are not quite sure of? Something that you would prefer not to do if you had your druthers…something that calls for risk—and maybe even a hint of danger.
I cannot tell you what your Wilderness Road is. It is my prayer that you will keep your spiritual ears open to hear what it is that God is saying to you. And just like Philip in today’s text, I pray that we all will not only hear that voice, but we will also have the courage to obey and do what he wants us to do…on our own Wilderness Road…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *