(Author’s note: This is the complete manuscript and powerpoint pictures for my message at FUMC Winnfield on June 3. This is message #1 of my sermon series “Windows to the Soul” about the church building and stained glass windows at FUMC Winnfield. Much of this information is from “FUMC Winnfield: Christian Symbolism and History” published in 2012. I decided to publish in case some were absent and would like to read my message.)
It was bound to happen. God knew it. Joshua knew it. Someday, a child playing along the banks of the River Jordan would stub their toes on a pile of weather-beaten, sun-bleached rocks and ask, “Daddy, why these stones?” After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, feeding on manna and worshiping in a tent, Moses brought the people to the Jordan River, carrying the bones of Joseph with him. They came just within sight of the Promised Land, and Moses passed the torch of leadership to Joshua. When the people were ready for the final crossing, God told Joshua to pick up twelve stones, carry them over and pile them up on the other side, “And when your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’…then, ah then, you shall tell them what the Lord has done for you.” These stones became symbols of what God has done and point us to God.
Likewise, every time we walk into this church and into this Sanctuary we are surrounded by symbols that are designed to point us to God. Like the simple stones in Joshua, they can be easily overlooked unless we are paying attention. This Summer, I will be preaching about the symbols of God that are all around us in our own building. My main source is this little book from 2012 that describes the symbolism in our building and in our windows, though I also plan to dig a little more in depth than this book does, to think about what these symbols mean and why they are important. Like stones on the side of a river, I hope it will open your eyes to God all around us. What does it mean to be surrounded by symbols?
1. Symbols look back and witness to what God has done.
The stones in Joshua are a witness to God’s deliverance and salvation, a memorial to God’s gracious care, a reminder of God’s steadfast love. Our buildings are a reminder of what God has done for us. We pile up stones and bricks as a witness to God’s great love in Jesus Christ so that our children and all the people in our town will know of God’s redemption.
And every time we gather in this space, Every time we baptize a baby or break the bread together, Every time we share the cup of grape juice or a cup of coffee, Every time we receive an offering or fill a bag for the food pantry, we do it as a way to remember and give thanks for all God has done for us.
When you see the stones of this church’s ministry, how can we help but give thanks to God? When your children ask, “Why these stones?”, “Why does church matter?” tell them what God has done. Why these stones? They look back and witness to what God has done in the past,
2. These symbols look forward to what God will do in the future.
The main verb in this passage is the Hebrew word abar “cross over.” It is used 21 times in Joshua. Commentator John Hamlin says: The word emphasizes the decisive nature of this moment in the history of the Hebrew people—the link between the past and the future. “Why these stones?” They mark the point of “crossing over,” the movement of the people of God from the past into the future.
It’s not enough for the people of God to look back in memory. The Church is not a historical society, even though our history is vitally important. We cannot live on the past—preserving old buildings for their own sake, hanging on to old patterns and practices for their own sake, unwilling to risk new ways of being a church. The calling of God always lays out there somewhere ahead of us in the unknown future, and we are called to “cross over.”
During a stay in England some years ago, a pastor visited a wonderful village church dating back over 500 years…a lovely sanctuary with a high vaulted nave and glorious stained glass. To the eyes of a first-time American tourist, it was a mini-cathedral. He complimented the priest on the beauty of the place and the excellent condition of the ancient building, and his response was, “Oh, we Anglicans know how to care for old buildings.” But on Sunday, the beautiful building was silent and empty! What good is taking care of old buildings, piling up old stones, remembering what God has done in the past, if we aren’t connecting with people today and claiming the future for Jesus Christ?
The stones look back and give thanks, but the stones call us to “cross over:”
Earlier in the service we sang an old American gospel hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second verse says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, my pile of stones, my signpost along the way.” As a child, I always wondered what Ebenezer Scrooge had to do with the hymn. It has to do with placing a sign to remember that “Hither by thy help I’ve come.” It is to say, “I’m marking the path right here, right now. I’ve come this far by the grace of God, and I have confidence to trust him for the future.”
The pile of stones on the riverbank symbolized the forward movement of the people on the journey of faith. The very act of piling them up affirms confidence in the hope that there will, in fact, be another generation of children to ask the question. They piled up the stones as a bold act of faith, a witness of hope in God’s promised land. These stones witness to God’s calling to cross over and discover the land God has prepared for us.
3. There are symbols surrounding us
The word “Symbol” is derived from two Greek words, “sym,” meaning together, and “ballein,” meaning to throw. A symbol “throws together” the known and the unknown, throwing our thinking beyond the symbol itself. Symbols speak their own language, and the understanding of the beholder measures the impact of their message. The Christian church since its beginning has had a multitude of symbols to help persons experience the deepest meaning of the Christian faith.
Symbolism in the church reached its height in the Middle Ages and was used for the purpose of education. Books were very expensive and scarce at that time, and few people could read, so medieval artists and craftsmen made every church edifice a great, glowing picture book of church history and church doctrine. By means of symbols skillfully wrought into stone, wood. painted glass, metal, canvas, tapestries and needlework, great truths met the eye in every direction and proclaimed their spiritual messages to the assembled worshippers. Worshipers could look at these symbols and receive a spiritual message from them. The parts of the church, as well as the church building itself, are symbolic.
The CHURCH BELLS convey an inner meaning, calling worshipers to come and give the worship and adoration that are due God. The STEEPLE or spire, pointing toward the blue of Heaven, is a silent witness to the one true God whom the people come to worship in the church. Our steeple culminates in the cross at the top, signifying that God loves the world and is reconciling the world unto Himself through the worship, meditation, prayers, and hymns of the people in the church below.
The CHURCH DOOR may remind one of Jesus, who said, “I am the door.” In our prayers we approach the Creator “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” When a door IS open, it welcomes everyone, bidding all to advance into the church to worship, learn and serve. The ARCHES above the doors and windows have significance. Since the arches join together the pillars and walls of the church, they are reminders of Jesus Christ and the sacraments by which God and man are joined together. The arch is also said to be Symbolic of the love of God and the hospitality of the Christian faith.The STEPS signify the Christian pilgrimage, or the pathway of the Christian who seeks to worship God and to learn his ways.
The NARTHEX, or vestibule, is entered by the main entrance stretching across the entire end of the church and prepares the worshiper for entering the sanctuary, separating him from the hustle and bustle of the material world, readying him for the quiet of the House of Worship. The NAVE is from the Latin word “navis”, which means ship. The earliest symbolism associated with the church is that of a Ship. It returns us to the ark, and the church in comparison is the “ark of safety.” It was natural that the early church buildings were in the form of a ship. So today the nave is the central division of the church in which the congregation is seated.
The AISLE is the way that leads to the Throne of God. As we approach the altar, we find at intervals ascending levels and steps leading upward until they reach the altar. We note that the carpet is somewhat worn, reminding us of the many persons who have walked this way —- young couples taking their marriage vows, members of the church family who have
professed their faith or who have come to partake of the elements which are the symbolic body and blood of the Christ, funeral processions completing the cycle of life on earth. The PEWS are long seats with a back but without divisions. On the end of the pews in our church are two symbols: the wheat representing Holy Communion, “the bread of life,” and the cluster of grapes, also for Holy Communion. The LIGHT FIXTURES overhead have the quatrefoil symbol, a decorative feature in the shape of a leaf with four foils or lobes, each bearing the symbol of one of the four Gospels- Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John. The trefoil in the chain is for the trinity.
The BAPTISMAL FONT, Latin for “fountain,” is an octagonal receptacle of wood which stands on a pedestal and contains the water for baptism—outward sign of inner change. The cover of the font is crowned with the Cross Pate’e which if formed by four spearheads touching at the center. The eight outer points symbolize the eight Beatitudes and the regeneration of man. The PULPIT, Latin for “raised platform,” is used in delivering sermons. The LECTERN, the desk which stands opposite the pulpit, is usually smaller than the pulpit and used for reading the scripture.
The ALTAR, most important furnishing of the church, is a table placed in the Sanctuary facing the congregation. It may be against the wall or free-standing. At the altar the Holy Communion is consecrated and administered and worship is conducted. Here the hangings, blue cross above the altar, the altar cross, and candles are placed. The HANGINGS, or frontals, are of fine cloth hung on the front of the altar, pulpit and lectern, depicting the divisions of the church year by their color.
Green for the seasons after Epipany and Pentecost. Purple for Lent and Advent. Red for Pentecost. White for Christmas, Easter, and Trinity Sunday. The cross in lights above the altar is the popular Latin style most used of all symbols representative of Jesus’ crucifixion. The ALTAR CROSS is Latin style and stands on three steps, signifying faith, hope, and charity (love). The CANDLES signify Jesus Christ, his human and divine nature when two are used as we see on our altar. Three refer to the trinity. Worshippers should enter the sanctuary in reverence responding to the purpose of its furnishings.
There are symbols of God surrounding us. They look back to what God has done. They look forward to what God will do. They remind us of God and all that have gone before us. When you notice these symbols in our church and in our sanctuary, may they remind you of the God who surrounds us and what God has done for us.