Ichthus – 12.13.2020
[Matthew 2:13-23 and Matthew 10:34-42]
Today is the third week in our sermon series “The Living Chrismon” – where we are telling the story of Christmas through the symbols hidden in plain sight all around us. We started with the Chi-Rho, which gives us a very simple but powerful message that Jesus Is King. Then we moved over to the Trinity Knot, and paired that with the story of the Shepherds and the Wise Men and we realized that Jesus is for everyone. Today however, is a very different sort of symbol. Most of the symbols we’re looking at are proud symbols often displayed in worship. The Chi Rho was a symbol they put on banners and shields, and last week I talked about the celtic knot was carved into the pulpit in one of my childhood churches. But today’s symbol is actually a secret code. The Ichthus fish, more commonly known as the Jesus fish, started out as a symbol for an underground church. It’s a bit confusing now, because in the modern church the Jesus fish might be the most famous symbol for Christianity, besides the cross. People put it on the bumper of their cars, or get the little necklaces, or the real weirdos get it tattooed on their arm. The Jesus Fish is very familiar.
Actually, I bet some of you know this story, and even though we are meeting digitally this morning – I still think it would be fun to crowd source this a little bit. Does anybody know where the symbol of the Jesus fish comes from? Go ahead and type it into the comments if you have a theory.
So the first thing we need to understand is that the early church was an underground Church. In the beginning, Christianity was being hunted. Christians would meet in secret locations, usually small house churches of just a few people gathering in someone’s living room. But for a long time the Christians were actively being persecuted. If you look up Christianity under Emperor Nero – it’s pretty devastating some of the stuff you read about. Many of the first Christians died horrible deaths, and the early church was a secret organization, an underground church.
There’s an old legend about the Jesus fish. They would use it as a symbol to recognize other Christians. For example, a man might walk up to another person that he doesn’t know, and draw an arch in the sand. Like this (draw it on the dry erase board). If the other person was a Christian, he would complete the fish by drawing the other arc. This meant you were safe. If they were NOT a Christian, they would assume you were just drawing in the sand – can’t get in trouble for that. That was how Christians identified one another.
But you might be asking, why a fish? There’s actually lots of reasons, but here’s the most important one. The Greek word for fish is Icththus. And it’s spelled with these five Greek Letters (put on the screen). But it’s actually a secret code. It’s an acrostic. Each letter represents a word, and together they make a secret phrase, the core of our faith. The acrostic makes the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son – Savior.” The Ichthus is a secret code with a hidden meaning. But there’s even another level. This picture is graffiti that they found in the city of Ephesus. If you write the Greek letters on top of one another – you create the 8-spoke wheel, also known as the Christian wheel. To an outsider, you’re just drawing a wheel on the wall – no problem there, but for Christians, they knew this symbol represents the truth about the divine “Jesus Christ, God’s Son – Savior.”
As I mentioned, the reason for all this secrecy and codes was that the early Christians were heavily persecuted for their faith. They were rejected by their families and their societies. They were different than the world around them – they risked everything to follow Jesus. And so today we are going to take that symbol and use it to shine some light on a lesser known piece of the Christmas Story: the flight to Egypt.
We open up in Matthew chapter 2, right after last week’s scripture. Last week the wise men visited the baby and presented gifts to Jesus, and then the story continues [read v.13-15]. The very first story of Jesus’ childhood is a story of fear, threat of death and fleeing your home to find safe haven in a different country. To be honest, there’s a lot of parallels with what happened to Jesus and what happens to refugees all over the modern world. Jesus’ childhood, at least the first few years, was not a rosy world of trying foods for the first time and learning how to walk. It was scary, and harsh. The other piece I want you to notice is that bit about the prophecy. The Old Testament, the first half of the bible is full of prophecies about the messiah. The messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem, but the son of God was also going to “come out of Egypt” This story of escaping in the night from hostile authorities to a foreign country actually helps Jesus fulfill prophecy about him.
Then we get to my least favorite part of the story, and this is the reason we don’t read this passage most years. [read v.16-18]. After Jesus leaves, Herod orders the genocide of all the infant boys in Bethlehem. Sometimes I look at symbols like the Ichthus or the Christian wheel, and I get caught up in the story – Oh, it’s so cool that they had secret codes and had to sneak around – but I forget that the reason for symbols like this is horrifying. That last verse says that Rachel weeps for her children. If you don’t know, Rachel was the wife of Jacob, one of the founding fathers of the nation of Israel – and so Rachel is like a founding mother. If we have fore-fathers, she is a fore-mother. The end of the verse, [read v.18b] These verses are a harsh reminder or a brutal reality. There is evil in this world. Bad things happen. Even in our lives in the modern world, we know this to be true.
It keeps going, [read v.19-23]. SO the angels are working overtime in this passage. They just keep showing up and giving Joseph instructions. Which, honestly? If you’re raising the son of God – I’d be pretty grateful for the help. So he prepares to come back to Israel from the country of Egypt. But even though Herod is gone, his son Archy is also bad news – so Joseph is afraid to go there so he ends up in a place called Nazareth. So it’s not so scary, but it’s still a little scary – kind of like a COVID Vaccine. Right? Like, we’re all so excited – yay, it’s almost over they might distribute the vaccine soon, and we can finally beat this thing and go back to normal life – you go first. But here’s the other thing I want you to notice: again the strange struggles of Jesus’ childhood fulfill prophecy. The messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, come out of Egypt and yet also be called a Nazarene – from Nazareth. Those three very different places on the map – how can one guy fit all those descriptions? But God used the struggles and fears to help Jesus fit into the purpose of his life. God took the bad, the fear and the threat of death, and he used it for his purposes. And I’ve said this before – It’s not that God wants sin to happen, God hates sin, God hates evil – but he can take it and transform it for his purposes. From Jesus’ childhood, and from your today. God can take your struggles, the things you are going through – and transform it so that you fulfill your purpose in this world.
And so we take this story – Jesus and his family fleeing in the night to avoid genocide, and then coming home during an uneasy but slightly more peaceful time, and the story of the early church and the persecution they went through, and we turn to our second scripture from chapter 10 of Matthew. Jesus is throwing down some extremely intense words – lets’ listen in [read v.34-36]. Hold up, what? I thought the baby in the manger was going to bring peace on earth and goodwill towards men – but when he grows up Jesus is all talking bringing a sword, families turning on each other. A lot of people read these verses and think “wow, Jesus seems like he’s anti-family.” And we don’t know what to do with these verses, so we ignore them or brush them under the rug or something. But here’s what we need to remember: Jesus is here to bring peace on earth, by destroying sin. He is going to rid the world of evil and rescue his people. Jesus is not coming to accept our sin, He is coming to save you from sin. Sin is a beast, the darkness in your life is a monster rearing it’s ugly head and Jesus is not here to settle this dispute in committee. Jesus is coming to destroy your sin and set you free. I think about COVID-19. That virus is a pestilence. It is a darkness in our land. And there’s not going to be any COVID-19 in heaven. I know some of us are getting tired of the lock downs, we’re tired of the masks, we’re tired or altering our lives and our worship for COVID. We’re giving up on the idea of getting rid of it. We’ll just live with it. Nothing we can do, might as well just go back to normal. And we do the same thing with sin. We’re so used to it, that we figure we can probably just keep it in our lives. But there’s no sin in heaven. There’s no COVID-19. Jesus is coming to make peace, by destroying your sin. The darkness that makes these symbols necessary. Just like someday he’ll destroy COVID-19. There’s no disease in heaven. Listen to this picture, this is Revelation 21, it’s one of my favorite verses to pull out when I’m starting to lose hope. It says [read v.3-4]
Think about the genocide of Bethlehem, all those infants slaughtered. Jesus is not messing around here – he’s not going to allow evil in heaven. There’s no evil in the kingdom of God. He will wipe evil off the face of the earth. To protect you, to save you – Jesus is here to destroy sin. And to get that done, we have to give our entire life to him. We can’t sort of worship Jesus. We can’t sort of give up our sins – we need to be all in, and worship Jesus as our Lord and savior [read v.37-39]. Again, Jesus is not anti-family, Jesus is anti-sin. Jesus does not want you to hate your family – but if your family or the people you hang out with, if they are pushing you towards sin, pushing you away from God, away from the good news of mercy that God is offering – your Lord and Savior can’t let that happen to you. Jesus is coming to save us from our sins, and nothing will get in the way of that – not even family.
And then to clarify that point, Jesus finishes with this, [read v.40]. You see, this is what gets lost in translation. In the time of the early church, if you became a Christian, your family might disown you. They might hate you or cast you out. But in America, in the modern world – for many of us – our family WANTS us to love Jesus, so these words don’t make a lot of sense. Jesus says, “if they welcome you, they’re welcoming me – which is great!” Jesus is not against your family, he’s against evil. The Ichthus symbol, which is a symbol of persecution and the story of fleeing for Egypt in the night – they color in the background of these verses. We struggle with them in the modern world, because our context is very different. But the truth is we still deal with similar things here today. Some people are afraid to follow Jesus, because our family might not like it. Maybe people will make fun of us – but if the approval of our family or friends is more important than obeying Jesus, that’s when we’ve lost our way. The salvation he offers, the freedom we gain when we follow Jesus is the most valuable thing in the world. Worth giving up everything for.
The good news this morning is that God travels with us through the valley. God travels with us into Egypt, into persecution, into the struggles of life. Into quarantine lockdowns and whatever else you got going on in your life. Job struggles, Family difficulties, health issues, loneliness, isolation, fear – God travels with us. Couple weeks ago the message was that Jesus is King, and then last week the message was that Jesus is for everyone – and the message today is that those are still true, even on the bad days. Even if every single thing in your life falls apart. You lose your home, you lose your family, you lose your job, you lose everything – you will not lose Jesus. Jesus Christ, God’s son is still the savior. He can still save you. God travels with us through the valley, and so our response is to let the only thing we cling to in this life be Jesus. There’s a lot of things we cling to in this world. These verses are tough – genocide, fleeing in fear to a foreign country, fighting with your family – and the message is not that God likes those things. But that God is with us during everything. God travels with you during your valleys. Sometimes we need to realize when something has an unhealthy grip on our life, and let the only thing we cling to in this life be Jesus.
Two pieces of application and then we’ll wrap this up. Lately the application – I don’t know if you’ve noticed this – but the application follows the same trend: a reassurance and an action. First, the reassurance – remember you could lose everything in this life, but you will always have Jesus. Don’t cling to anything in this world – cling to Jesus, because if you do that you already have everything you need. Jesus lost his home, the early church members lost their lives, and some of us have not been able to connect with friends and family as much as we want – and in that darkness, when the things of the world have been pulled away and we feel like we are sinking. Remember you can lose everything, but you will always have Jesus. And if you have Jesus, you have everything you need.
A reassurance and an action. Something to remember and something to do. That was the reassurance, here’s the action –I want you to watch and wait for God. Now I know that doesn’t feel like an action – but it is. When the world is coming apart at the seams it’s actually really difficult to watch and wait for God. It involves a lot of trust and handing over control to God. When the world comes apart – watch and wait for God. You see, underneath this sermon is the foundational teaching that God is able to take evil things and transform them for good. Like the difficult things in Jesus’ childhood actually fulfill a prophecy. But that other scripture – the one where Jesus is saying family will fight family? That one verse that nobody wants to talk about. I didn’t mention it before, but that verse also fulfills a prophecy. It’s almost a word for word repeat of an old testament prophet named Micah. Listen to Micah 7, verse 6 [read it]. And that’s exactly what Jesus was saying, but we don’t stop there. Micah chapter 7 verse 7. [read it]. When everything is falling apart in life, and it feels like you can barely keep your head above the water – our job is to watch and wait for God. Have hope – Christmas is still coming, no matter what.
As many of you have no doubt seen and heard – our church has gone fully digital for two weeks – and that includes Christmas Eve. And that’s a hardship. I guess when I think about Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape genocide, or the early church people who created the Jesus fish as a secret code to escape death and imprisonment – quarantine and online worship doesn’t seem so bad. But it is hard. This whole pandemic – it’s been so hard. And so even though it’s not super fun to read the stories of some of the worst things that happen in the bible – I’m really glad this symbol is on the tree. It reminds me of what Christians have overcome in our history, and it gives me hope for what we can still overcome in the modern world. And so I’ll leave you with this – may you remember that even if we lose the entire world – if we have Jesus, we have everything we need. May you watch and wait for God, and never forget God travels with us through every valley. Amen.