St. Peter's Blog 'Rearview Mirror Theology' from St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – North Wales, PA's Blog

Rearview Mirror Theology

Image Friday, May 15, 2015
Author: Pastor Andreas Wagner

This blog is about rearview mirror theology, our tendency to make sense of things in hindsight. It is also based on Acts 8

Sometimes I regret the blessings of certain modern devices, such as, but not limited to, the GPS. Remember the days when you were hunching over an old beat-up map in your car, trying to find the best way to your destination?  When you were silently cursing at those people who didn't know how to set up road signs that make sense? When you came more than hour late to an appointment because you didn't know the area, its traffic patterns and had accidentally taken a wrong turn during rush hour?  It's obvious that I am talking to people above the age of 30, the "before GPS" people. Well, I am a nostalgic at heart and sometimes I miss the blessings of those days, such as when you took an unwanted detour and discovered an interesting place, a landscape you would not have seen on the straight path, or when you actually had to get out of your car and make people contact, asking for directions. It wasn't always bad. Sometimes you came across things or people that were quite interesting.

One detour I took was to a certain foreign country, called the Unites States of America, in 1996. The detour was caused by a final interview before my German church authorities that didn't go so well. It pushed me back into the second tier of candidates in my graduation group and meant that I had to wait for a call in Germany for two years. Of course I looked at it initially as a detour, two more empty years in what had already been a painstakingly long and slow process. But without this interview gone wrong, who knows what would have happened? This gave me a great motivation to stay beyond my internship year in Pittsburgh and it changed all sorts of things for me. So, I have learned to appreciate the little detours and lost alleyways that God puts in our ways. Sometimes they are downright meant to be. Sometimes it takes a rearview mirror perspective to realize those types of blessings. What if I had never met that person? What if I hadn't been talked into going on that trip which I never wanted to go on in the first place? Providence is a mysterious thing. It messes with our plans and sometimes those detours are the only way God can lead us to our destiny.

This morning I would like us to look at the beautiful story from Acts 8, a mission and conversion tale from the earliest church as it expanded onto the African continent. When you listen to this story, it seems like Philip (not to be confused with Philip the disciple) was remote-controlled by the Holy Spirit, almost like one of those figures that my sons love to play with, moving characters around on his play console. In this story from Acts, the Holy Spirit is at the controls, playing mine craft with a certain Ethiopian official who had come to Jerusalem to find God and a certain disciple called Philipp who would end up interpreting the scriptures for him. It is written like a script that these two main characters follow, not by their own will, but led by the invisible hand of God, or, as Luke likes to say, by the Holy Spirit. But that's the birds eye perspective which few of us ever have while we are busy living our lives.  Yet, if you take the layers of this spiritual interpretation off, if you remove the birds eye perspective, this is simply one of those stories that happen quite frequently in our lives that would cause us to say, "What a coincidence!"

Here is this Ethiopian official, a learned man who became drawn to the religion practiced by Jews, some of  whom he had most likely met in his own country. They might have told him about the center of their faith, a city on the hill, founded by king David. He travels all the way to Jerusalem. He tours the famous, world renowned temple with the eyes of a pilgrim. He buys one of those expensive scrolls from the Hebrew scripture, most likely in a Greek translation. It happens to be a scroll with passages from the prophet Isaiah, including the one that we read every year on Good Friday from Isaiah 53. And now he is sitting in his coach on the way home, reading this passage and wondering, "What does it all mean?"

Along comes this man Philipp, who happens to be a Christian. What was he doing on the road to Gaza? We don't know. Hearing the foreign official read from the scroll of Isaiah about the suffering servant whom he approaches him, which probably took a bit of courage.  Remember, this was the treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia and not just any traveler. But Philipp senses a unique opportunity and it leads to a conversation about Christ and about the fulfillment of scripture. It ends with the foreign official, a religious seeker, asking to be baptized. And, I have to emphasize this again: throughout the story it feels like what's happening is remote controlled by the Holy Spirit. Everything is meant to happen. Everything happens for a reason. Nothing is left to chance. But is that how Philipp felt when this all transpired or is it how he later interpreted it?

I may be a little bit biased here, but I believe that there is more good rearview theology out there than front view theology. In other words, we tend to be better at making sense of what God is doing in our lives in hindsight. Those people who say that they know exactly where God is leading them, that they have an inside track on what's coming up, I am not sure that I trust their judgment. I don't think Philipp knew where God was leading him. I think he was just there at the right time in the right place and he later realized: wow, this was meant to be! This was the work of the Spirit! And that's how Luke recorded it. So maybe next time when you find yourself at a strange place or out of place or on a detour, just relax, be open and don't be surprised if something happens that has some deeper implications and you realize that God is tugging at your sleeves, trying to speak to you or through you. The Book of Acts teaches us: those things tend to happen more often when we're on the road and out of our personal comfort zone. And if we really pay attention, we can catch up with the workings of the Holy Spirit and we can find God in the detours of our lives; many times it will be in hindsight, and that is just o.k. 

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