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.
I have always been fascinated by windows. This probably goes back to my earliest days as a student, staring out of them, daydreaming about what was outside them, and basically doing anything possible to avoid what was being taught at the front of the classroom. Church windows were even better: They were already full of colorful pictures and symbols, and in any case it never took too much to distract me from the sermon send me on a stained glass flight of imagination.
Ironically, years later I became the one talking at the front of the room–first as a high school teacher, and now as a pastor. So if you’re ever tempted to ignore me and just stare at the windows, please know that at the very least, I sympathize with you. And today, we’re all going to indulge in that temptation, and let the windows do the preaching.
For those of you who missed last week’s sermon, the connection between our two scripture passages today and our stained glass windows comes from the book by Rev. George W. Burroughs about these stained glass windows, entitled, “So Must the Son of Man Be Lifted Up.” The symbols and images here in our sanctuary do precisely that: They lift up the story of our faith and our savior, so that those who look upon them and believe might be saved.
This idea, incidentally, is an ancient one. Pope Gregory the Great (the man John Calvin called “the last good pope”) recognized as far back as the 6th century that art and images in the church functioned as the poor man’s Bible. That was in the days before the printing press, when individual Bibles were rare, and costly to reproduce.
Here in our sanctuary, the entire story of the scriptures is told in beautiful stained glass. The story moves from the entrance of the church to the foot of the cross, much like our own faith journeys. It is interesting to note that as we walk down the path of this journey, there is no single point along the way where all of the windows, all of the images and symbols can be seen at the same time. Rather as we travel, new windows come into focus and others are obscured. This too, is symbolic of our own journeys. God reveals his message to us in different ways at different points along the way, and yet in all the windows there is surprising consistency and connected images.
Last week we walked through the story of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, which is found on the West wall, beginning with the creation story and ending with the establishment of Priests, Prophets and Kings in Israel–God’s messengers to his people.
Today we cross over to the East wall to follow the story of another messenger sent from God–his own son, Jesus Christ, as told by the gospels of the New Testament.
I mentioned last week that there are approximately 40 steps between these two walls, representing 400 years of silence, darkness, and waiting between the two testaments. But after the long night, come the earliest rays of light in the morning.
Our first New Testament window represents the season of Advent (which begins for us next week). Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, and in this window we see the rising sun, representing the dawn of a new era for God’s people, and we see the star of Bethlehem which leads the way to the humble stable where Christ will be born. This window is directly across from the Creation window, and reminds us that Christ is the new Adam, and in Christ we are God’s new creation.
The next window is the Christmas window, the nativity window. The rose is an ancient symbol for Christ, the “rose that blooms in the desert.” In our own congregation, whenever a baby is born among us, we place a single rose on the communion table to celebrate that birth, and remind us of the birth of our savior. Above the rose in this window is a crown–one of four in our windows–indicating that already at his birth, Jesus was hailed as the king of heaven and earth.
The next window is the Epiphany window. Epiphany is the holy day where we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and the beginning of his earthly ministry. The word Epiphany comes from two Greek words: ἐπί (over) φαίνω (appear), to appear over. That’s because when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river, God spoke from the Heavens and the Spirit of God appeared over Jesus in the image of a dove. Underneath the dove in this window is a sea shell. In ancient times, where there was not enough water to baptize by immersion, a shell was dipped into the water and poured over the head of the person being baptized. The three drops of water coming out of the shell symbolize the three members of the Trinity all present in that occasion: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also form bookends with the three nails of the crucifixion that mark the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The next window represents the season of Lent. After his baptism, Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness for 40 days and nights, and was tempted by sin. This plant is a thistle, an ancient symbol that represents the thorns and briars of sin. It’s also the national flower of Scotland, the birthplace of Presbyterianism. The flaming heart above the thistle represents a zealous faith–the marriage of God’s spirit (the flame) with human flesh (the heart). The flaming heart is above the thistle to remind us that by God’s spirit, like Jesus we have the power to overcome temptation and sin, though it is a constant struggle throughout our earthly journeys.
There are two lambs in our windows, and they are directly across from each other. Last week we saw the sacrificial passover lamb in the Western window. In this Eastern window, Jesus himself becomes the sacrificial lamb, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah about the suffering servant who is led “like a lamb to the slaughter” and who “bore the sin of many, making intercession for transgressors.” Christ becomes the victorious lamb of God, symbolized by the halo and the banner. Underneath him is a palm branch: This window is the Palm Sunday window, reminding us of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowd hailed him as a king, but later offered him up as a sacrifice. How often do we, like that crowd, proclaim Jesus as our king in public, but then turn away from him in our hearts and our actions?
In this window, we see a loaf of bread and a cup, reminding us of Jesus’ last supper with his friends and followers. This is the Holy Thursday window, or Maundy Thursday. The cup, or chalice, if you look closely, is the same one that sits on our communion table, and was crafted for our congregation when the sanctuary was built. The three legs that support the chalice represent the three members of the Trinity coming together into one eternal circle. This window is across from the Old Testament window that represents God feeding the children of Israel with Manna and water in the desert, and we are reminded that in every age, God provides nourishment–spiritual and material–for his children.
We move now from the Holy Thursday window to the Good Friday window, which represents the crucifixion and death of Christ. We see the crown of thorns–different from the other three crowns in our windows–and we see the three nails that held the son of God to a Roman cross. Most of the windows in our sanctuary represent the actions or the promises of God–on this side of the sanctuary, God acting through Christ. But two windows represent the actions of humanity, and our tendency to reject God. This window is our rejection of God’s son, and the one across from it is our rejection of God’s law in the broken tablets of the ten commandments.
Despite this rejection, God still led his children into the promised land. So too, on this side God leads us from the shame of Good Friday to the joy of Easter Sunday. This is the Easter window, where an empty cross reminds us that crucifixion was not the final word; that Christ rose from the grave, and we too have the promise of resurrection. The white flowers are lilies, which bloom around Easter time and are a symbol of resurrection. The vine that is twined around the cross represents the church, which grows and blossoms and reaches toward heaven only when supported by the cross.
The windows in the church appear to be evenly spaced from one another, but they actually represent unequal amounts of time in the church year. Between the Lenten window and the Palm Sunday window, for example is a period of 40 days. Between Holy Thursday and Good Friday is one day. Our own faith journeys are like that, too. Sometimes there are long stretches where not much seems to happen, followed by intense periods of challenge or growth; times when God seems distant, and times when God seems so close, maybe too close for our comfort.
The time between Easter and Ascension (represented by this next window) is one of those long stretches–40 days in which the resurrected Jesus appeared to various people, walking with them, eating with them, fishing with them, and sometimes suddenly disappearing. But on the day he ascended into heaven, he gathered together his followers and gave them the great commission: To go into all the world, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The circular orb in this window represents the world, and the bands around it represent the unity of all people, under the authority of Christ the King of heaven and earth. This window is directly across from Elijah’s chariot of fire, which foreshadowed Christ’s ascension into heaven. The crown, orb, and scepter also signify that all three of the Old Testament offices–priest, prophet, and king (in separate windows on the Western wall)–are finally united in the person of Jesus Christ.
The final window is the Pentecost window. Pentecost comes from the Greek word for 50, and is the feast that occurs 50 days after passover, but it’s actually only 10 days after Ascension. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus promised his followers that he would send his spirit to guide them, and in the Old Testament, the Isaiah prophesied that in the last days God would “pour out his spirit” upon all people. The dove in this window (with a halo to distinguish it from Noah’s dove) is pointed downward, representing God’s spirit descending among us. Below the dove is the seven-fold flame (I think if you count the tips of the flame there are seven), representing the tongues of fire that appeared over the followers of Jesus at the feast of Pentecost, and also representing the seven gifts of the spirit that God uses to equip his church to carry forward the Gospel.
Pentecost, for Christians, is the birthday of the church, and so it is fitting that this is the last window. It is where the story of the scriptures ends, and where our story, the story of the church, begins. Look around you, but not at the windows this time. Look at each other. You are the story now. You are the signs and symbols of Christ in the world today. If these stained glass windows, made with talented hands by people with vision, are beautiful to behold…how much more beautiful are we, made by God with infinite diversity, but alike in his image?
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous psychologist, once said that “People are like stained–glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” There is indeed a light within every one of you, and it is the radiant, redeeming light of Christ. May it shine brightly, illuminating the darkness, for all the world to see.
Postscript (for conclusion of service, before benediction):
There is one more stained glass window in the church building that we haven’t talked about yet, perhaps the most magnificent one of all. It is the cross that rises over the entrance and exit to the sanctuary, designed by Tom Lea, based on a painting he made specifically for the people of First Presbyterian Church. But I want to let his friend and our former pastor, Rev. Bill Burroughs have the last word today. This is from Burroughs’ discription of the window in the closing lines of his book:
“The meaning of history is revealed by the Transcendent Cross shining from the blue dome of infinite heaven over the horizon of every city and valley. That Light shows the work done by the Creator, the freedom given by the Saviour, and the guidance offered by the Spirit. Some may have failed to see it as they entered the Sanctuary. They will see it as they leave. It is the world God gives them. ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Genesis 1:31)’.”