Sermon for May 17th, 2020
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.
The Year In Glass, Part II
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 on the other side of 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 boring guy preaching a sermon at the front of the room. God has an ironic sense of humor, so now I AM the boring guy preaching the sermon at the front of the room. But some days...I still like to look at the windows. Today is one of those days.
In our scripture reading from John, Jesus says, "so must the son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." That verse became the title of a book about our stained glass windows, written in 1964 by the Rev. George W. Burroughs. And that is exactly what the symbols and images here in our sanctuary do: They lift up the story of our faith and our savior, so that those who look upon them and believe might be saved.
Last week we moved 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, at the East wall, we follow the story of another messenger sent from God--his own son, Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament.
Our first window represents the season of Advent, which takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas. 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." For many years, it was the tradition in this congregation that whenever a baby was born, a single rose would be placed 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. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river, God spoke from the Heavens and the Spirit of God appeared over him in the image of a dove. Underneath the dove 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.
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 Maundy Thursday window. The cup, or chalice, if you look closely, is the same one that sits on our communion table, which 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 Maundy Thursday 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. 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 that 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.
After Easter comes the Ascension window, reminding us of the day Jesus ascended into heaven, first gathering together his followers and giving 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. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus promised his followers that he would send his spirit to guide them, and in the Old Testament, 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 a flame, representing the tongues of fire that appeared over the followers of Jesus at the feast of Pentecost.
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. We are the story now. We 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?
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' description 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 Savior, 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)'."