Beyond the Cover
So a couple of weeks ago, when my family was away on our summer vacation, we had the opportunity to visit a place called Powell’s City of Books. And Powell’s City of Books is the largest independent bookstore in the world. So just how big is this bookstore? Well, the store takes up an entire city block in Portland, Oregon and they have about 68,000 square feet of retail space. There are nine different color-coded rooms inside the store and over 3,500 different sections. All totaled, there are about a million books for sale inside this massive store.
So when I walked into Powell’s City of Books, it almost felt like the heavens had opened and the angels were singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. Because those of you that know me know that I’m a bit of a bibliophile — which is a fancy way of saying that I love books. At last count, I had somewhere around a thousand books in my office here at church and a few hundred more around my house. Every year, I manage to read around 80 books from cover to cover.
So, yes, I love books. But in all honesty, what’s not to love about books? I mean, books can tell us the story of a mighty lion ruling over a fictional land that you can only find on the other side of an old wardrobe. Or they can share the story of a super spy that’s trying to uncover his own identity. Books can transport us to mystical castles that are hidden away in the British countryside on the other side of a forbidden forest. Or they can take us on rip-roaring adventures that play out across the United States.
Books can take you to worlds that you’ve never known, or they can teach you more about what you don’t know in this world. Books can tell us about where we’ve been, and books can help us dream about where we’re going. Books can help you become a better professional or a better person.
So, yes, I love books.
And I also love looking for the next book to add to my reading list. So I could’ve spent all day wandering around Powell’s City of Books finding more books to add to my ever-expanding To Be Read list. And how exactly do I go about picking the next book to add to my list? Well, sometimes I look for a book by one of my favorite authors. Or sometimes I’ll hear about an interesting book while I’m listening to a podcast or watching TV. But if you want to know how I really chose the vast majority of the books on my shelf, I’d have to tell you that I chose most of my books based on their covers.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for a catchy title and a fancy graphic design. But who wouldn’t be compelled to pick up a book called I Became A Christian And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt, or I'm Fine With God It's Christians I Can't Stand, or even Psychic Pancakes and Communion Pizza?
There's just something hardwired inside all of us that allows us to make these quick assessments based on a minimal amount of information. For me, I know that if I run across keywords like mystery or suspense or thriller that a book may be worth reading, but if I see dreaded words like romance or a picture of a guy that looks like Fabio on the cover I'd better not waste my time or my money.
But our ability to make quick assessments based on a minimal amount of information isn’t limited to picking out books. This is something that we do all the time in life, and it’s a skill that we start to learn when we’re kids.
And that’s what we’ve been talking about at Melbourne Heights over the last few weeks. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working our way through a series of sermons called “Imprint” where we’re talking about life lessons that were first imprinted on us when we were kids. And there were a lot of valuable lessons that most of us learned when we were kids. I mean, by the time you learned how to tie your shoes you also learned how to share, how to play fair, and how to clean up after yourself.
And you also learned how to make a quick assessment with minimal effort around the same time. So, yes, you had to learn how to make a snap decision on what book you wanted to buy when the Scholastic Book Fair came to your school, or you’d run the risk that they’d run out of the latest Encyclopedia Brown book before you could buy it.
But you also had to learn how to pick out a box of cereal from the grocery store before your mom lost her patience. Because if your mom lost her patience you’d end up with a box that had a word like “fiber” on the box instead of a cartoon character. And you had to learn how to find something on TV you wanted to watch before your older brother came and snatched the remote control away, but of course, finding something on TV to watch was a lot easier for all of us before there were 57 different streaming services that let you watch basically anything that’s ever been created. And you had to learn how to decide which toys would make it on your Christmas list because you couldn’t run the risk that someone might buy you socks and underwear.
So, yes, from the time we’re little we learn to make quick assessments based on minimal information. And while that isn’t really an issue when it comes to picking something off of the shelf at a library or a grocery store, it is a big deal when it comes to the way that we look at other people.
Now, I know that none of us like to admit this, but from the time we’re little we learn to make quick assessments about other people based on minimal information. Or to put it another way for you, when we’re kids we learn to judge people by their covers.
When we’re kids we learn to judge people by their covers.
And, if you don’t believe me, just try to remember what gym class was like when you were a kid. Because every time your gym teacher broke out that mesh bag filled with kickballs, you knew what was about to happen. The gym teacher would designate two kids to serve as captains for their teams and then everybody else had to line up and wait to be picked.
And at that moment, those captains started evaluating every kid in that line like they were a slab of meat. They wanted to make sure that they picked the biggest, the strongest, and the fastest kids to be on their team. Because they knew if they were going to win they had to have the best players possible.
Or try to remember what it was like when your social studies teacher told you that your class needed to divide up into groups to work on a project. In that instant, you started looking at everyone in the classroom deciding which one of your friends was the smartest so you’d make sure you got a good grade.
Or try to remember what it was like the first time you got to decide which group you were going to sit with in the lunchroom.
So, yes, from the time we’re little we learn to judge people by their covers. But as followers of Jesus, we know we shouldn’t.
But as followers of Jesus, we know we shouldn’t judge people by their covers.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” And he goes on to call us out for focusing on the speck of dust in someone else’s eye while we ignore the log in our own eyes.
Or, in the book of John, when a woman who was caught in the act of adultery is drug before Jesus, Jesus tells the crowd that wanted to stone this woman, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.”
So we know that we shouldn’t judge people by their covers. And the passage that I want us to take a closer look at today will show us how we should treat other people instead. So, if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it and turn to Acts 8. And while you’re finding Acts 8, let me give you a little background on this book.
The book of Acts is found in the New Testament, and the books of the New Testament essentially tell us one of two things. They either give us a biography of Jesus or they tell us about how our faith in Jesus grew and spread after his crucifixion and resurrection. And the book of Acts does the latter.
The book of Acts tells us how our faith in Jesus grew and spread. And in the passage that we’re going to read today, we’re going to see a perfect example of how that happened. So let’s look at Acts 8, and we’ll start in verse 26. It says:
26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) 28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his chariot.
Acts 8:26-28 (Common English Bible)
Alright, let’s stop here for a minute. So in the verses we just read, we’re introduced to two people. First, we meet a man named Philip who’s walking on a desert road. And we first met Philip a couple of chapters earlier, in Acts 6, when he is set apart by the apostles to be a deacon. And Philip is traveling this desert road so he can share the good news of Jesus with others. And the other person we meet in this passage is an Ethiopian eunuch sitting in a chariot reading the Bible.
Now, when we read this passage today, it sounds like this man sitting on the side of the road reading the Bible is the perfect person for Philip to share his faith with. But that’s not the way Philip would’ve seen it.
Because when the book of Acts tells us that this man sitting on the side of the road in a chariot is an Ethiopian eunuch, it's telling us that this person was the last book Philip should’ve been reading.
First, he’s in a chariot. And this was a time when the vast majority of people walked everywhere they went. A smaller number of people had animals that they might ride for longer journeys. So the only people riding around in chariots were pretty rich. And in Matthew 19:24, Jesus told us, “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
Next, we’re told this man was an Ethiopian. And the people of Israel didn’t exactly have a great history with Ethiopia. In 2 Chronicles, we find out that the Ethiopian army tried to invade Israel at least two different times.
And then there’s the fact that this man is also a eunuch — someone who has been castrated. And, although this was a fairly common practice for men who served in a queen’s court, there are passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 or Leviticus 21:19 that specifically forbid anyone who has been castrated from being “admitted to the assembly of God.”
So, the Ethiopian eunuch has three strikes against him. So, if you’re going to judge a book by its cover, he’s the last person that Philip should share the good news of Jesus with. But that’s not what happens. Let’s keep reading and see what actually happens. We’ll pick back up in verse 29, which says:
29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”
30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”
31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent so he didn’t open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants because his life was taken from the earth?
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” 35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 As they went down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” 38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.
Acts 8:26-39 (Common English Bible)
If you were judging the Ethiopian eunuch by his cover, he was the last person that Philip should’ve shared the good news of Jesu with. But instead of running from this man, Philip runs to him. And why does Philip go running to him? Because the man needed help. He was sitting there reading the Bible but he couldn’t make any sense out of what he was reading. So Philip, who was a follower of Jesus, was able to step in and help this man.
Philip wasn’t concerned with the Ethiopian eunuch’s cover. Philip didn’t care that he was wealthy, that he was from a nation that once attacked Philip’s people, or that the man wasn’t supposed to be admitted to the assembly of God. Instead, Philip saw someone who needed help…so Philip helped him.
As followers of Jesus, we’re supposed to do the same thing. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus teaches us that:
14 You are the light of the world…
And he goes on to tell us to:
16 let your light shine before people…
So when we see people hurting, we need to shine Jesus’ light.
When we see people hurting, we need to shine Jesus’ light.
We need to help people without thinking about where they’re from, how much money they have, or who they love. We need to help people who are hurting regardless of what their cover may look like.
We need to learn to look past a person’s cover.
We need to learn to look past a person’s cover because when we do we realize that we are all children of God. We are all created in God’s image with infinite value and worth. And God loves every one of us so much that he sent his son Jesus into this world for us. And if God loves us that much, we should love each other too.