Of all of the eerie things this pandemic has brought, the images of desolate roads rank high at the top for me. There are still a lot of cars here on the Outer Banks, as apparently everyone has to go to Lowe’s every. single. day. But the stay-at-home order has definitely reduced traffic. Several times early on a Sunday morning I have waited at a red light to turn onto the bypass and not a single car has gone through the intersection. That never happens. But have you seen pictures of London, New York, or Las Vegas? City centers like those are truly desolate. The scenes of empty roads are disturbing.
One of my favorite post-apocalyptic movies is “Omega Man.” It is the story of a vaccine scientist named Dr. Robert Neville, who is the last human survivor of a germ-war pandemic that has wiped out humanity. There are other survivors, no longer human, who have turned into violent anti-technology and anti-science mutant-predators. They hunt Neville at night using primitive weapons. Neville eventually finds a small group of two adults and a few children who somehow have a natural immunity. But in the beginning of the movie, he has lived in his generator-powered apartment for three years without seeing a single human being.
The opening scenes are absolutely haunting. Filmed in 1971, the director took shots of Los Angeles’ empty business district from a helicopter early on a Sunday morning, inserted still shots where people had been erased from the film, and cut to empty back-lot scenes to create a shocking vision of a post-apocalyptic city.
The image of a desolate road caught my attention in today’s reading. I have come to realize after decades of bible study that it is often in these overlooked details that the story takes on life. Take a look:
Acts 8 (The Message)
26-28 Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.
Thus the scene is set. A member of the queen’s court, a busy man indeed, has been to the buzzing city of Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. He has been looking for something. He was wealthy enough to be riding in a chariot. He is a man versed in the Hebrew writings, and is reading Isaiah. This wealthy, educated, privileged man is traveling back from the Temple to his palace along a desolate road, and THAT is where he finds what he had been looking for.
29-30 The Spirit told Philip, “Climb into the chariot.” Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
31-33 He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him.
I love the weird friendliness of this exchange. Was it normal to invite some random guy running beside your chariot to jump in and chat? Or do you suppose the Holy Spirit had something to do with it? Surely Philip had been led there by the Holy Spirit, but we get the sense that the eunuch was also being led in this exchange.
The passage he was reading was this:
As a sheep led to slaughter,
and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
since he’s been taken from the earth?
34-35 The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?” Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.
And so on this desolate road, we see a beautiful example of something Methodists call “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us, wooing us to God before we are aware of our need for him, or have any idea how to find him. Prevenient grace led Philip to the desolate road. Prevenient grace opened the eunuch’s mind and heart to receive him there. And as soon as the moment was right, Philip preached Jesus to him.
Such beauty can be born from desolation! And oh, how we needed to hear that this morning as we look down the empty road. Are you finding Jesus on this desolate road we are traveling?
Jesus is already on this road, having come before us. If we can begin to think of this pandemic as a journey to a pilgrimage rather than a terror to endure, how much better our hearts will be in the end! Because this WILL end.
And guess what? We are one day closer. So go and preach Jesus to someone.