The Story in Our Windows, Part II
June 18, 2017, Genesis 7:1-5, 8:6-12 & Revelation 5:1-14
Stained glass has been used to decorate important buildings for more than 2,000. It was used in Christian churches in Europe as early as the 5th century. It is an extraordinarily durable form of art. There is only one other artform that requires light to pass through it, motion pictures. It requires very high heat to melt silica to make glass. The colors come either from adding metallic alts to the molten silica, or by painting the glass before firing it in a kiln. In addition to being very durable, it is also very heavy. When the windows in our sanctuary were refurbished almost 25 years ago, a metal bar was added as a brace for the vertical windows. We can expect these windows to last for a long, long time.
When Christians first started using stained glass in their worship spaces, the windows often told stories, or presented scenes from stories in the Bible. At that time the windows helped to educate Christians because most of them were illiterate. Today in many Roman Catholic churches the windows depict different images in The Stations of the Cross.
In my opinion the windows are at their best in the early morning when the Sun shines through the East window, and midafternoon when the Sun shines through the South window. The colors are alive in the direct Sun, and there’s a different quality to the light in the sanctuary that is very, very beautiful.
Our set of windows is a little unusual because they do not depict any people. The living things are plants and birds, each of them is symbolic of important points in the Christian faith.
This morning I’m going to talk about four images from the large window on the East side of the sanctuary. And I’ll move from my left to right.
That’s a beehive. Honey was a popular food in Old Testament times. It was a sign of God’s favor, remember The Promised Land was flowing with milk and honey. But honey also is mentioned many times in the Psalms. Knowledge was often equated with sweetness and security. When little children were taught their letters they would shape them with dough with honey added and the reward for making the letter correctly was to eat it. So the connection between knowledge and sweetness was literal.
When I had just started at this church a visitor asked me what the beehive meant. The first thing I thought of was the story of Ruth. When Naomi returned to Bethlehem and brought her daughter-in-law Ruth with her, it says “the whole town was stirred,” but the word for “stirred” in Hebrew is tay’hom, it really means “buzzing like a beehive.” The camp of the Israelites was buzzing the same way when the Ark of the Covenant was returned. There’s an excitement or energy, or “buzz” around beehives. But I do not think the beehive in our window is to recall those two moments of excitement. I regard this window as a symbol for the church of Jesus Christ, and also this congregation.
Beehives are busy places. Bees fly to flowers and collect nectar which they bring back to the hive. Other bees in the hive work to condense the nectar into what we know as honey. Bees also help the flowers whose nectar they collect by spreading pollen so the flowers can reproduce. In a beehive every bee has a role. And they work together to make sweet food. Imagine this building as a beehive. Each worshipper comes here and is safe and fed, then—and this is the important part—we leave this place and fly off to get more nectar. What we bring and have here is precious, and what we do when we leave is necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached. That’s why the beehive is a good symbol for a Christian church. Look at the background and see it appears that there is warmth radiating from behind the beehive, almost like a security blanket around it.
The image to the right of the beehive is a dove with an olive branch in its mouth. This is from what may be the most recognized story in the Bible, Noah and the Ark. Noah had one week to build the ark because God saw that the world was filled with wickedness, so God decided to blot out all life on earth, except for the people and animals that Noah took on the ark. [There is no word on what happened to the fish in the story. Maybe it was a golden age for them.] After the rain stopped and the water began to subside Noah sent out a raven who flew around and returned to the ark because they was nowhere else to land; water covered everything. Seven days later Noah sent out a dove and there was nowhere for it to land, so it returned to the ark. Seven days later Noah sent out a dove again. And this time the dove returned with an olive branch in its mouth. Noah knew then that the water was receding. After seven more days, Noah sent out the dove and it did not return. Again it appears that the dove is flying in a radiant warmth, and even a brighter light around the circle of warmth.
This window shows the dove flying above the ark.
Doves and olive branches have been signs of peace ever since people have told the story of Noah and the Ark. The destruction was not total; a small sliver of animal and human life survived the flood. Just as the water receded, God’s fury also receded and life on earth was given a new, fresh start. In this window, the red background that the ark rests in conveys a warmth, even comfort of the presence of God. After taking a close look at these windows I wish there were also a window that shows the rainbow that God placed in the sky after the flood. It was a sign not just to people, but also a reminder to Godself to never destroy the world with water again.
This last slide is a startling one to modern Presbyterians. The words “ecce agnus dei” are Latin for “behold the Lamb of God.” In the Latin Roman Catholic mass these words are said by the priest as he breaks the host. The Lamb of God is a title for Jesus that is first spoken by John the Baptizer early in the Gospel of John. When the Baptizer spots Jesus he says, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” One interpretation of this lamb is a symbol of the one mentioned by John. Certainly the pennant indicates this. It is odd, though, that a Presbyterian church would have Latin in a window. And this is one of only two windows hat have words, I’ll talk about the other one next week.
Another interpretation is that this is the lamb mentioned in Revelation chapter 5, the lesson that Nancy read. Look at the platform that the lamb is resting on. There are seven scrolls sticking down from the front of the platform. The number seven appears repeatedly in Revelation. And before I go any further I need to explain that Revelation is written in a literary style known as apocalypse. Today we understand the word apocalypse to describe a violent end to something. And that’s pretty close to what the Book of Revelation is. “Apocalypse” literally means “an uncovering” as in this case, God’s plan for the end of the world is uncovered in this book. The book itself, though is filled with graphic, ghastly images. Many Bible scholars believe that John the author of Revelation, or perhaps we should say the one who recorded his visions as Revelation, wrote in a kind of code to conceal from non-Christians—who were persecuting Christians harshly—a message of hope and deliverance.
Anyway, another interpretation of this window is that the Lamb of God sitting on the platform is the one who is worthy to open the scroll and reveal its meaning. It is John who is distraught because there is no one worthy to unseal the scroll. Only the Lamb is worthy “for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom…”
Now there are two problems with this interpretation, first, this lamb in the window is in pretty good shape, it is not disfigured, it doesn’t have seven horns and it doesn’t have seven eyes, as Revelation describes. So maybe the window artist cleaned up the lamb, because it would gruesome and terrifying to see a Lamb as described in Revelation.
The other difficulty is that Revelation describes one scroll with seven seals, not seven scrolls. This is a confusion that appears in other works of art that attempt to render this image visually. The number seven appears so regularly in Revelation that a lot of people just assume there are seven scrolls.
One final note on this lesson from Revelation. In 1993 just before the Branch Davidian compound was stormed by law enforcement officers, David Koresh was working on an interpretation of this very text. He had dictated a lengthy interpretation of the significance of the first seal. It is now reported that he was in good spirits, as we his followers, because he was close to finally resolving and settling the meaning of these words. But when it was believed that children were being mistreated inside the compound the attorney general could not wait any longer, and Koresh’s interpretation remained unfinished.
I was a new minister when all that happened near Waco, and I was asked what I thought about “that whole situation down there.” And I have to say I was troubled then, and am haunted still. If the people communicating with David Koresh had understood his worldview, things might have ended differently.