4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
On the surface, this must seem like a couple of really odd scripture readings this morning. The Israelites complain about miserable food; God sends snakes to bite them; they quickly apologize; God tells Moses to lift up a snake on a pole, and everyone who looks at it will be saved. Then a few thousand years later, Jesus says to his followers, “Yeah, I’m kind of like that snake Moses lifted up in the desert.”
Stranger still, if we fast forward another couple of thousand years (to the 1960s) the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in El Paso–the Reverend George W. Burroughs–writes a book about the church’s stained glass windows. He calls the book “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This comes from today’s gospel reading: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
So what’s the connection? What do snakes, poles, and the Son of Man have to do with our stained glass windows? Well, that’s what this week’s sermon, and next week’s sermon, are all about. In a few moments, I’m going to ask that the lights in the church be dimmed, so we can actually see the stained glass windows in all their splendor, illuminated by the light of the world.
In the forward to Rev. Burroughs book, which was written after his death by his successor, the Rev. James Oliver, three things are mentioned as the driving forces behind this sanctuary: A people’s spirit, a pastor’s direction, and an artist’s know-how. The people, of course, were the people of First Presbyterian Church, who through their generosity and determination, built this building in 1961. The pastor was Bill Burroughs, and the artist was his next-door neighbor, steadfast friend, and local legend, Tom Lea.
The windows themselves were crafted and put in place by Cecil Casebier from Orco Studios in San Antonio, but the underlying artistic influence is undeniably Tom Lea’s, and the theological influence is Burrough’s. In a time when most stained glass windows featured pictures of saints or biblical figures, these windows feature none. They are abstract symbols, so that we might instead see ourselves reflected in the story they tell.
The windows on the West wall feature scenes and symbols from the Hebrew scriptures, or the Old Testament. The Hebrew language is read from right to left, and that’s the order in which the windows are meant to be read. The windows on the East wall feature scenes and symbols from the New Testament, written in Greek, which like English is read from left to right. So too with the windows. The story told in both sets of windows progresses from back to front–from the entrance of the church, to the foot of the cross, just like our own journeys of faith.
Today we’re going to look specifically at the West side, the Hebrew side, the Old Testament. Why? Because our church windows, like our universe and our scriptures, start with the simple and elegant message that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The first window is Creation. The heavens are represented by a star. (It is a six pointed star of David…notice that it also has a a cross inside!). The earth is represented by a tree, which is also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which reminds us of the story of the Garden of Eden. The third symbol is a flaming sword which guards the way to the tree, and reminds us of our separation from the Garden…our decision to separate ourselves from God, and strike out on our own in the wide world. So the journey begins.
In the next window we find a rainbow, a dove, and an olive branch. We remember the story of Noah, who with his family and the guidance of God, survived the great flood. When no land, no hope was in sight, Noah sent out a dove, who returned with an olive branch, promising that land was nearby. The rainbow is God’s promise, God’s covenant with Noah; the olive branch also symbolizes peace; and the dove (one of three in our windows) represents God’s ever-present spirit. This rainbow must also have been a joy to the members of First Presbyterian Church who built this sanctuary, who witnessed a rainbow appear in the sky as the cornerstone for the building was lain, and who for many years called themselves the “church of the rainbow.” Today in our culture, the rainbow has once again become a symbol of welcome and inclusion for all people, even though many forget the one who first sent that message. We are still, more than ever before, the church of the rainbow!
The next window brings another covenant, another promise. This time it is God’s promise to Jacob, who became known as Israel. In desperation and on the run one night, Jacob laid his head upon a rock (here’s the rock!) and dreamed of a ladder reaching into heaven. God made a promise to him (and to us): “Behold I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.” In ancient Israel, people would pile up rocks to remind themselves of an important place, event, or promise (here I raise my Ebenezer!). Today, in this house we raised from bricks and stones, we remember God’s promises to us.
Moving forward, we find in the next window a burning bush, and we remember the promises God made to Moses–while he, too was hiding and on the run (God seems to like fugitives). The flame is one of six in our windows, and it is directly across from the flaming heart and thistle–which we’ll talk about next week. Moses was an unlikely choice for a leader: He was a convicted murderer, he was full of self-doubt, and he stuttered when he spoke. And yet, he answered God’s call, and God used him to do amazing things. God calls each of us, as well, no matter how poorly equipped we think we may be. He doesn’t promise that the journey will be easy, or safe, but rather that he will be with us along the way.
The next window is the Passover window. We remember the story of how God kept his promise to Moses, and delivered the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Each family was instructed to sacrifice an unblemished lamb, and spread its blood over their doorposts so the Angel of death would pass over their house that night. The lamb (one of two) reminds us of the sacrifice, the red rose reminds us of the blood, and the Paschal candle reminds us of the long vigil through that night, its small flame burning through the night and reminding us of the promise that more light comes in the morning.
God continues to fulfill his promise to his children in the next window, in which we see Manna–the bread from heaven–falling down from the sky. We also see yet another rock, with water flowing from it, and we remember how God provided bread and water to the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness. Notice that this window is directly across from another heavenly meal, the bread and the cup from the New Testament that we’ll talk about next week.
Another sign of the covenant, of God’s promises to us and our promises to God, is found in the next window: The stone tablets of the ten commandments. Notice that they are broken. We are prone to break our promises to God. Like the Israelites before us, we turn from God to worship gold and riches–here symbolized by the golden calf that Moses found his people worshiping when he brought the commandments down from the mountain.
Even when we break our promises, God keeps his: The next window represents the promised land. After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, God brought the Israelites into a land where the grapes were so big they had to be carried on poles between two men. The staff in this window is the staff of Aaron, the high priest, Moses’s brother. The scriptures relate how Aaron’s staff one morning burst forth with buds and flowers and…can anyone guess what this little brown piece of glass represents? It’s a ripe almond. I’m not making this up–read Number 17:8. The idea is that once again, God provides growth, and abundance, and spiritual leadership for us, his children.
But eventually, even in the promised land, the children of Israel forgot God and his promises. So he sent to them the prophets. This window reminds us of the greatest prophets of all, Elijah. Elijah served God faithfully, but when he came into his old age he began to despair, to think that God had abandoned him, and that all his work had been in vain. And so God sent down from the heavens a chariot of fire to carry Elijah home. This window reminds us of another promise, that those who serve God faithfully have no need to fear death or abandonment–God will carry us home.
The last three windows together represent the three offices of the Old Testament, and the primary way God interacted with his people: through Priest, Prophet, and King. The final window represents the establishment of Jerusalem and the royal house of David. We see the crown and castle, representing king and kingdom. David reigned over an earthly kingdom that foreshadows the coming of a heavenly kingdom, a new Jerusalem, and a messiah for God’s people.
Once we come to the end of the Western windows, it takes about 40 steps to cross the sanctuary to the Eastern windows, representing the 400 years of silence between the Old Testament and the New. Next Sunday we’ll begin our journey all over again, but this time through the symbols and events surrounding the life of Jesus, as told in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. We’ll look at the connections between the two sides, the consistency of God’s word through the ages–to the ancient Israelites, to the earliest followers of Jesus, and to us.
But I hope you’ve seen enough already to catch on to something very important:
In every window, there is a promise. The promises are not just those made to ancient people thousands of years ago, or to exceptional people we cannot hope to emulate, but rather they are God’s promises to real people, here and now, people like you and me.
In every window there is a relationship. It is our relationship with God. Like the relationship between God and Moses and the Israelites in our scripture passage today, sometimes it’s a rocky relationship. Sometimes we complain. Sometimes we get bitten by the snake.
In every window there are symbols and signs: God takes the ordinary, common stuff of our world–flowers, flames, rocks, bread, water, or even a poisonous snake.
God takes these things and lifts them up, so that when we look upon them, we are reminded of his promises, reminded of his love.
So that when we look upon them, we may believe again.
So that when we look upon them, we may live again.
And so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.