Triquetra – 12.02.2020
[Matthew 2:1-12 and Luke 2:8-20]
Once upon a time a brand new church was built, and it had some beautiful stained glass windows – not unlike our own beautiful windows. And so during the children’s time, the Pastor got up with all those little children and he explained that the windows are made of all these little panels of glass that make the whole picture. All the little window panes come together to make something beautiful. And he said, the life of the church is very similar, like the pictures in the windows, life in the church takes many little pieces, little window panes to make the whole picture. And then the pastor turned to the children and said, “You see, each one of you is a little window pane.” And he pointed to each child, “you’re a little pane, and you’re a little pane, and you’re a little pane”
Today we are in week two of our Christmas sermon series “The Living Chrismon” – last week we talked about how all around us in worship are symbols, and each symbol carries a story – like the beautiful stained glass windows, or even the ornaments on the tree (which are called Chrismons). So for the Christmas season this year, we are telling the story of Christmas, through the symbols around us. Letting the symbols come to life each week and today we’re going to tell the story of the Triquetra.
Now I’ve always called this the triquetra, and people always look at you funny – because it’s a weird word. I found out in my research this past week that there’s a much nicer name for it, Triquetra is tricky to say, but it is also called the Trinity Knot or simply the Celtic Knot. Now last week we looked at the Chi-Rho, which is a symbol that has a very specific origin story – Emperor Constantine and the battle of the Milvian bridge – but the Celtic Knot is very different. This is a symbol that has changed meaning over the years. It was not always a Christian symbol. In fact, until about a thirteen hundred years ago, it was actually a non-Christian symbol – a pagan symbol. We don’t know the origin, but it has been found on artifacts and coins and such dating back 5,000 years ago, mostly in northern Europe. Eventually this style of curving knotwork became common among the Celtic people – in Ireland and northern England, but again – this is WAY before Christians showed up.
Early Celtic pagans, like many religions, had a belief in the power of the number three. So this symbol used to mean lots of different sets of three. For some it meant “life, death and rebirth,” for others it represented the elements: “earth, fire and water” and still for others it was a symbol of femininity representing the three trimesters of pregnancy. It meant different things to different people over the years. So then, along come the Christians. In the fifth century, some guy named Patrick shows up in Ireland, you might have heard of him. And they start teaching people about Jesus. And what these early missionaries did, was they looked at the symbols that were already there, and they used them to explain God to the people. “You know that symbol? That one over there that you already know, and it’s already familiar to you? Let me teach you about God, using your symbols.” It became known as the Trinity knot because missionaries used it to explain the trinity to pagan tribes. We worship one God, with three parts – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This symbol has one continuous line with three distinct points. Most famously, the symbol shows up, as a Christian symbol, in the 9th century in a book called the Book of Kells, which has the gospels written in calligraphy. Calligraphy is that really fancy script, right? It’s the bible, but it’s also like a piece of art, it’s known as a masterwork of calligraphy. This symbol represents the trinity, but the story of the symbol – the story of the message of Jesus crossing cultures is exactly the story that we’re going to find in our scriptures today. The message that Jesus is for everyone.
Today we have two stories to look at – the shepherds and the wise men – and I know that these are familiar stories, but I want to challenge you this morning to try and listen to these stories with fresh ears. Listen for pieces you never noticed before – try to get a visual sense of what it looked like. If it helps, close your eyes while I read this – I know some of you already do that – but really try to get a picture. [read v.8]. So it’s nighttime, they’re working third shift. Notice it said they live in those fields. These men don’t have a home to go back to. [read v.9-12]. An angel shows up, and the glory of the Lord shines around them. That must have been so overwhelming and incredible. Angel says, “don’t freak out – I have good news.” And at the end there, he says, you’ll find the baby wrapped in cloth, lying in the manger – that will be a sign for you. You gotta go looking for this kid, and you’ll know it’s him because he’ll be in a manger, which is a really weird place to put a kid. [read v.13-16] The shepherds witnessed the very first Christmas Choir concert – a whole host of angels praising God – which is amazing, but then they find something even more amazing. They find Jesus.
[v.17-18]. So the shepherds show up, which is pretty weird, random bunch of dirty field workers showing up at the manger – and their explanation is “oh yeah, angels told us about him” And the way it says, they “spread the word.” Like, maybe it’s just them telling Mary and Joseph – but for me it conjures up images of these guys going door to door, like, waking people up and just bubbling with excitement. I have to tell people about what just happened. I have to tell them the good news about the coming King. And I think I get that picture from verse 20, [read it]. I don’t know what it looks like for you, but in my mind’s eye I see a crowd of men walking down the dark streets of Bethlehem at night, heading back home to their fields just hooting and hollering like Football fans after their team win the superbowl. It’s an excitement and a joy that bubbles up and you just have to express it! Like an overflowing of joy.
But I skipped verse 19. The shepherds glorifying and praising God seems like a loud and rambunctious response to good news. But verse 19, [read it]. I’m reading from the NIV, and I just love that phrasing, “she treasured up.” And it’s weird, because treasure is not usually a verb, but if you’ve ever held a baby, or a grand-baby or a niece or nephew or whatever – you know exactly what it means. Mary treasured up all these things. It’s less…. wild, but it is equally as joyful.
So let’s leave the shepherds for a moment, and head over to the Wise men. Moving from Luke 2 to Matthew chapter 2, where it says, [read v.1-2]. Now the story most people know is three kings, and for some reason they are always on camels, who follow a star all the way to Bethlehem, where they give gifts. And there are reasons for that picture on the Christmas cards, but it’s not totally accurate. Let’s look at who these guys were for a second. The word Magi is a bit tricky to translate. Some people think they were kings, but others argue they were not royalty. Magi is usually translated as Wise Men, because there’s an element of education. Whatever the title means, they were educated men, astronomers at least, who pay attention to the changes in the night sky. But we have to remember the time period, at this point in history only the wealthiest people could be educated. So people think the magi were royalty, because nobody else was educated enough to be a magi. So if they weren’t kings, at the very least they must have been wealthy educated elites.
And there are clues in the story that tell us this. First the wise men stop in Jerusalem. They are from the East and they don’t know where they are going. So they show up in the capital, and start asking around for the King. King’s probably going to be in the capital. [read v.3-5]. So then Herod meets with the Wise men, [read v.7-8]. So the wise men have a secret audience with the king. They may not be royalty, but whatever their status – it’s high enough that the king sees them directly. So maybe it’s fair to call them kings, even if we don’t know if they are technically royalty – we do know they are high society. And Herod is the one who told them where to go. He sent them to Bethlehem, and verse 9 is where we get this picture of the wise men following a star. [read v.9]. Shepherds get a manger as a sign, wise men get a star.
I do love the scene when they to Jesus. Verse 10, [read v.10-11]. They were overjoyed. Now, if you think about the way the shepherds responded – I want you to see that the response is the same. The birth of Jesus is good news to the poorest shepherd and the wealthiest wise men. In both cases – there’s an overflowing of excitement that bubbles up and turns into worship and praise. And the gifts give us the final piece of evidence of who they are. We know they are educated, they look at the stars. We know they have status, because they get audiences with the king. And we know they are wealthy, because one of the gifts they give is literally gold. We had a wonderful baby shower when my son was born, but nobody dropped off gold. Right? There’s two things I want you to see in the Wise men’s story. First, whether you call them “king” or not, doesn’t matter, we can see that they are wealthy, educated elites. And second, their response to the presence of Jesus is the same as that of the shepherds. Because Jesus is for everyone. The wise men’s story finishes up in verse 12 [read it]. But that’s a story for another day.
The good news this morning is that Jesus is for everyone. Now this works on a couple of levels. Jesus is here for you on your greatest day – when you come to church, or you remember to watch the livestream. Jesus is here for you – when you do devotions, read your bible and pray, you gave your offering, did something nice for your neighbor, had a great day at work – Jesus is here for you on your best day. But Jesus is also here for you on your worst day. One thing you will notice is that for both the shepherds AND the wise men – we get no information about their moral status. We don’t know if these were good guys or bad guys. It’s so easy in our minds to imagine them as cardboard cut outs, just characters in the pageant. But these were real men, who struggled with sin same as you and me. Like, how does it change the story if we were to find out that one of the wise men recently went through a divorce, or drinks too much. Or maybe one of the shepherds stole the other shepherds sheep or something – I don’t know. Jesus is for everyone, and that means every version of you. Every good day and more importantly every bad day. He is still our king, and he still came for us.
The next level though, is that Jesus is for everyone else too. He is here for every version of you, but he is also here for people who are different too. That’s the message of the Triquetra to me. The trinity knot represents the fact that the truth about God is for everyone. The missionaries AND the people they were trying to reach. They used the symbols of that culture to relate to them, and share with them the reality of God. Because those missionaries in Ireland and northern England, they knew the message of the shepherds and the wise men. If Jesus came for shepherds AND wise men – two groups that could not be more different – then he came for the pagans, for the missionaries, for the democrats, for the republicans, for black people, white people, all the other colors of people. Jesus came for everyone. He came for the poorest shepherd, the wealthiest wise man, and everyone in between.
Two pieces of application to this very simple message and then we’re done. First, I want you to rest in the assurance that Jesus came for you. Take that little nugget of information, and use it as your bedrock. Jesus came for you. On your best day and on your worst day. See, I think a lot of people get their self-worth wrapped up in the things they do. Like some people feel good when they do good. They feel valuable when they accomplished something. Got a project done at work, feel like a million bucks, I’m sure everyone wants to sit with me in the lunchroom. But, when we have an off day – got nothing done, made mistakes, or maybe even hurt someone – it attacks our self worth. A lot of times we tie our self value to our ability to be good. So when we make mistakes, the voice in our head turns on us fast – I screw up, so I bet everybody hates me, nobody wants to sit with me during lunch. I’m useless and I’m worthless. And 2020 has been the mother of all bad days. If you have your self-worth, or your value tied up in the wrong thing – this year has been brutal. Depression, loneliness, isolation – we are unable to perform, to accomplish, to do like we want to do. And it attacks who we are. But Jesus didn’t come for you because you are an overachiever. He didn’t come for you because of your job or your skills. He didn’t come because you’re a shepherd or a wise man. Jesus came because he loves you. And he still loves you. The first part of the application is that I want you to rest in the assurance that Jesus came for you – the best and worst version of you. He came for the all-star version of you, and the 2020 version of you. Your value, your self-worth needs to be tied to the steadfast, eternal and unwavering love of your Father in heaven, and to his son Jesus. Jesus is for everyone and that means all of who you are.
When I look at the stories of the shepherds and then I look at the story of the wise men – two different worlds, brought together in Jesus, with the same joyful response – it’s beautiful. To think about how Jesus is for everyone – rich and poor, Jesus brings us together. And then I look at the triquetra, this symbol of the triune God, and I think about how missionaries used the existing cultural symbols to relate the people to their God – and I see that the cultural divides of this world dissolve in the presence of God. Celtic, Irish, American, French, German, African, Middle Eastern, South American – different worlds, brought together in Jesus, with the same joyful response – and it’s beautiful. To think about how Jesus is for everyone – Jesus brings us together. So the second part of the application – is to share Jesus with everyone. I think some of us get it in our heads that people need to be fixed before they find out about Jesus. I’d bring ‘im to church, but I gotta get him to stop drinking first. I’d tell her about Jesus, but she might think I’m judging her. But see we don’t have to expect people to be Christian before they meet Jesus. We don’t have to do the work of the Holy Spirit for it, we don’t have to transform people to fit the “churchy” vibe. No, we are to share Jesus with everyone. There’s no list of rules we need to check off before Jesus comes. Jesus is already coming, and he comes for everyone. So think about someone who is different from you – someone you assume would never want to hear about Jesus. Actually do this, take second, picture someone in your life who is different than you. Not someone from the church, but someone outside the church. You don’t even need to know them – could be someone you always see walking down the road at a certain time, or you favorite waiter at the restaurant. Jesus came for all of them. It might be time to tell that someone about Jesus who is for everyone.
This symbol was my very first tattoo. I’ve always liked the look of the symbol – it was carved into the pulpit in one of the churches in my life growing up. When I found out that it represented the trinity, and I heard the story of HOW it got that meaning – crossing cultural divides because Jesus is for everyone, I realized there’s a lot of meaning tucked into those intricate Celtic knots. And so I’ll leave you with this – May you find yourself in the presence of Jesus – and overflow with joy, like the shepherds and like the wise men. May you rest in the assurance that God loves you on your best day AND on your worst day. And may you take that reassurance, that beautiful good news, and share it with everyone in your life. Because Jesus is for everyone. Amen.