I Have A Story To Tell [Acts 17]
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I Have A Story To Tell – 06.26.2022
[put the celtic knot on the screen]. This symbol is called triquetra, or more commonly the Celtic Knot. It’s a single unbroken line looped into a symbol that is one line with three distinct, but equal parts. It has been a Christian symbol of the trinity for over a thousand years, dating back to the 8th and 12th centuries in Ireland. It has been a prominent Christian symbol for four times as long as America has been a country. When I was growing up it was carved into the wooden table at the front of one of the churches from my childhood. I’ve always loved that symbol, and it was my very first tattoo. I remember telling myself at the time, this is the only tattoo I will ever get. (erm, anyways..) But when I got this symbol tattooed on my body I was very proud of it and posted a picture of it to Instagram, and after it went up I had a friend, well – someone I went to college with, reached out and said, “I’m offended by your tattoo, because that is a symbol of MY religion – not yours.” This person was a pagan, who worshipped the triple goddesses of the Celtic Sisters Knot. To her this represented the mother, maiden and crone – and the knot represented the three life cycles of a woman in relation to the phases of the moon. If I remember right, she called herself a moon worshipper – and she was mad, because she knew I was a Christian and I stood against just about everything she believed. Now when I read that I sort of did a slow blink. What? And I knew some of the history, but tattoos are pretty permanent, so I did a little dive into the history just to double check. Apparently this symbol was used thousands of years ago, even before the moon worshippers, even as early as Byzantine Constantinople. But they were very popular and spread across Europe, settling in Ireland and were commonly used by pagans. Then, when Christians showed up, monks serving as missionaries to Ireland– they used the Celtic knots to introduce and teach the gospel to the people of Ireland. I imagine it went a little bit like this, “You see those symbols you’ve got carved all over your useless idols that don’t actually do anything – let me use those symbols to teach you about God the Father, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit.” It was a pagan symbol, that early Christians used to teach a whole new people group about the love of Jesus.
And that’s not the first time we’ve done that! Did you know that rosary beads, you know that beaded necklace that Catholics use? That tradition of prayer beads existed before in Hinduism. But when Christians got there they said let me use these beads to teach you how to pray to God. Have you ever heard that thing about Christmas? Around Christmas time grumpy people always come out of the woodwork to say, “well, you know Christmas started out as a pagan holiday.” They’re actually right! The winter solstice celebration always came when the days were short and darkness and cold covered the world. So before Christianity, before Jesus, the early peoples created this tradition of celebrating the hope that Spring would come, new life would enter the world. We are in darkness of winter, but light and life will come. And it usually involved bringing an evergreen tree inside as a reminder of enduring life. So when early Christians, when it became the official religion of the Roman empire, they settled on the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth because it lined up with the message. Let me use this old pagan tradition, and let me use it to tell you a truth about the God that is out there. You celebrate the hope you have for Spring, but let me take that message and tell you about the one, true hope for the world. The real light in the darkness. The real new life that is now available for everyone.
You see, Christianity was never meant to be a separate religion. Christianity is the truth about the divine, and we have a long history of going around the world and encountering people who don’t know Jesus – and we use whatever method or symbol or tradition we can to explain to them that there is a God who is really out there. And he loves them and even though we are far away from God, that the sin in our life is keeping us away from God, God has come to us in Jesus. Jesus is the son of God, savior of the world. The gospel is not a religion. It’s not meant to be one truth among many truths – it is THE one and only truth. They used to call Christians followers of THE way. It’s not a religion, it’s the way people can actually seek and find the divine in our world.
Today we are diving back into the book of Acts. We’ve been reading it chapter by chapter for about a year (taking breaks every now and then) – but we are back, and we are up to chapter 17. Today we are going to watch Paul do the very same thing for the people of Athens.
[read v.1-4]. You might remember this rhythm. This is what Paul does. He comes into a new town, hangs out at the synagogue telling everybody he can about Jesus. Any almost everywhere he went people’s hearts were open. It’s really beautiful. And it happens just about everywhere he went. [read v.5]. Oh yeah, I forgot – that’s the other part of Paul’s rhythm. He comes into town, hangs out at the synagogue, tells people about Jesus, and then an angry mob tries to kill him. That’s what happens everywhere he went. Friends get arrested, they post bond and then Paul and his crew sneak out at night. [read v.10-12]. I just read up to verse 12, if you’re following along in your bible. Paul came to town, went to the synagogue, told people about Jesus, people are starting to believe. Anybody want to guess what verse 13 says? [read v.13]. The Jews at Thessalonica are so grumpy with Paul that they are following him around the ancient world to make sure nobody likes him. So then they send Paul on to Athens, and they tell him – hey, wait for us, Silas and Timothy are coming. Just hang out in Athens, Silas and Timothy will catch up in a minute.
Have you ever noticed that thing with children, where there is a toy. And nobody cares about the toy. It’s boring, I don’t want it, it means nothing to me. Until brother picks it up. Right? Do you know what I’m talking about? He took my toy car! Well, but buddy you weren’t playing with it. But it’s MINE! Okay, well here’s an identical toy car, they look exactly the same you can both play. No I need THAT one. Well they had it first, you can play with it when they’re done. And suddenly the toy they didn’t even care about ten seconds ago is THE most important thing on the planet. And they follow brother around, “are you done with it yet are you done with it yet are you done with it yet?” That’s the vibe I’m getting from the Jews at Thessalonica. It’s not enough to run him out of town, you have to follow him around and stir up the crowds wherever he goes. But the long story short is that Paul ends up in Athens, by himself waiting for his friends to show up.
[read v.16-17]. Paul’s walking around the city and he notices the city is full of idols. Back in the day there were these little alcoves, little shrines to honor different gods, with like a little wooden idol, and maybe a candle or something, basket for donations – I don’t know, but they were all over the city. And Paul just can’t help himself. He’s in marketplace and he’s in the synagogue and he’s just talking to everyone who will listen about Jesus and the resurrection. But there’s something different about the city of Athens. Athens was full of intellectuals who liked to argue and debate. They saw Paul as introducing an interesting new topic for debate. So they invite him to come and speak to their little club. Actually it’s a big meeting, with lots of people listening. [19-21]. So for Paul this is a huge opportunity.
[read v.22-23]. So he starts out just like those monks in Ireland with the triquetra, or the missionaries in India with the rosary or the Romans with the winter solstice. I walked around your city and I saw an idol that was labelled, “to an unknown God” – let me tell you about that unknown God. He keeps going, [read v.24-26]. Now I want you to realize what he just did. In a system of religion, where you have idols – humans have to do things for the god. You have to give money or sacrifices so that the god will like you. That’s the roman system in Athens and everywhere at this time. But Paul just got up and said, “nope. He is not served by you. Nothing you can do will add to God. Instead HE provides YOU with life and breath. The fact that you are alive and breathing is evidence that God loves you. God doesn’t need people, people need God to do anything - to live and breathe and move. Religion, the idols scattered around the city – that’s a human way to profit off the existence of the divine. Convince the people that God will only love them if they do stuff for these little wooden statues. But then Paul just comes in and throws out their whole big money making scheme! Nope, he says, God doesn’t need you, but he is the reason you can breathe. If you can breathe a breath, then God loves you. Let’s take a second, everybody in this room – would you like some evidence that God loves you? Let’s take a breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Paul says, the God who created the entire earth, the entire universe – the heavens AND the earth, he doesn’t live in temples, he doesn’t need anything from you, but he gives you life and breath and everything else. And then we get to my favorite verse in the entire chapter.
[read v.27-28]. God did this. Created this world, gave you THIS day – created that giant burning ball of gas in the sky that we call the sun, and this great tectonic ball of dirt surrounding a magma core that hurtles around that sun which gives us night and day – he did all of that, so that we would seek him, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. [pause]. And notice what he does there, he ties it back to the people. “As your poets have said” – right? He’s drawing from their experience. He’s destroying their entire worldview, ruining their entire religious system – in the most relatable way, and then he brings it home [read v.29-31]. Now if you didn’t catch it there, he’s talking about Jesus. The proof of everything Paul is saying is the resurrection of Jesus. If that guy really rose from the dead, it is worth blowing up your entire religious system to follow him. It is worth changing your life, repenting, so you can live in a way that lines up with what Jesus teaches. This isn’t some intellectual debate about changing what you believe up in your head. This is the truth about how you can connect with what’s actually out there. This is a bold, offensive claim Paul is making. And he can make that claim. Because Jesus is the guy who rose from the dead. He is the guy God put in charge of judgment. And I can’t argue with the resurrection. We need the grace of Jesus. Paul made these claims all those years ago, and I’m going make the same claim in your life. Whatever your idols are – sports, politics, your job. Whatever good deeds you’ve got in your life that you are hoping to present to God as a sacrifice to get him to like you. All the wealth and vacations and stuff - all these idols, all this nonsense – it’s meaningless. The only thing you need is Jesus. Jesus is THE way.
So Paul finishes up his little presentation, and the chapter ends with their response and I love this – check it out. [read v.32-34]. And that’s the whole chapter. When they heard him start talking about resurrection, and all that crazy stuff – some of them sneered. And some of them said, “I want to know more.” I love this ending because I think it’s exactly what it’s like in our lives if you try to tell people about Jesus. A revival, but a tiny one. A revival of one. All my life I wanted to make Jesus cool and relatable. I don’t want to freak people out, so I won’t talk about that weird stuff. We’ve got visitors in here today, and I want them to stay because I want to build up my religion, my institution. But God has been working on my heart, praise Jesus, and I guess I just don’t care about any of that religion stuff anymore. I know I probably sound like one of those crazy religious people, but I just want to know if it’s true. After two, three years of pandemic life, politics and economies, war the world over, we’ve got 18 year old babies shooting other babies, and mental health in our nation is absolutely in the toilet. And I’m so tired of religion offering me these idols. I know people will probably sneer at me because I’m talking about divine stuff like resurrection – but I don’t care. Is it the truth? Because after everything that’s going on in this world – I just want the truth. Is there a God out there, does he really give me life and breath? Even if I’ve done nothing that is worthy, I’ve done nothing to earn it – does he really love me? Did he really do all of this so that I would seek him, reach out for him and find him? And the answer – the proof that I have for you this morning is that there is air in your lungs, and nothing in the tomb.
The good news this morning is that God built the entire universe so that you would reach out and find him. And I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s the absolute truth. You go back to the creation of the world back in Genesis and God makes literally every single thing in the universe and he goes, “good, good, good” and then he gets to humans and he goes, “very good.” Think about it this way – the sunrise this morning, if you happened to catch it – the sunrise was created by God so that you would draw closer to him. He created the entire universe to display his glory so that humanity would seek him, reach out for him and find him.
If you’re in here this morning, maybe you’re not a Christian – you’re just checking it out to see what it’s all about. Or maybe you’re like the people in Athens, you’ve been living a life of religion and idols – but have forgotten Jesus. You might be a church kid, but you’ve never heard the gospel. You spend all this time intellectually debating God, but you’ve never actually reached out for his hand. For all those this morning in this room, and for those joining us on the livestream – if you do not know Jesus, my challenge for you is to reach out and find him. Take that first step closer to the reason for your existence. God did all this so that you would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. And if you are ready to take that next step closer to Jesus, I want you to come find me after service, because I want to pray for you and pray with you.
And for the Christians, which I think is the bulk of us, I look at the way Paul handles this whole situation and I think the challenge for each of us is to tell your story. Tell the people around you about Jesus. You have the answer that they need. You have the solution to the emptiness that every person on the planet is battling. Tell people about Jesus, and explain it in a way that matters to their life. Irish monks used the Celtic knot, missionaries to India used the rosary, Paul used a little statue dedicated “to the unknown God” – an idol. My challenge for you is to tell your story, but expect tiny revivals. I don’t want to fill your heads with revival stories like Paul was an ancient Billy Graham or whatever. Paul said his piece, presented Jesus to the people. Some sneered. Some wanted to learn more. So tell your story of what God has done in your life, but expect tiny revivals.
Christianity was never meant to be a separate religion. Christianity is the truth about the divine, and we have a long history of going around the world and encountering people who don’t know Jesus – and we use whatever method or symbol or tradition we can to explain to them that there is a God who is really out there. And he loves them and even though we are far away from God, that the sin in our life is keeping us away from God, God has come to us in Jesus. Jesus is the son of God, savior of the world. The gospel is not a religion. It’s not meant to be one truth among many truths – it is THE one and only truth. They used to call Christians followers of THE way. It’s not a religion, it’s the way people can actually seek and find the divine in our world. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that God built the entire universe so that you would reach out and find him. Because in him, and only in him, can we live and move and have our being. Amen.
 https://irelandtravelguides.com/celtic-knot-history/  https://jpvirtualvisionandvoice.com/the-history-of-the-christmas-tree/#:~:text=The%20Winter%20Solstice%20And%20The%20Christmas%20Tree%20Thousands,proclaimed%20the%20return%20to%20the%20spring%20and%20summertime.