The Isaiah Window
This sermon is part of an Advent series featuring our stained-glass windows at Redeemer.
Text: Isa. 7:10-17, Gal. 4:1-7, Luke 1:26-38
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Time is an interesting concept. It’s captivated philosophers and scientists. It’s been the subject of poems. Religions around the world have held it in awe. The Greeks and Romans made a place for Chronos, literally “time”, in their pantheon of gods. There are countless stories and movies about time—traveling through time, what time does, what it can heal and what it can’t. And individually, we even know something of the mystery of time: how it can sneak up on us, how it can change things without us even being aware of it; how it can move quickly or slowly, depending on what we’re doing and how enjoyable it is.
We mark time in days, weeks, months, and years; even decades and centuries. We celebrate anniversaries, making note of those stretches of time that we deem significant after some event has passed. For instance, we now mark each year as a year of our Lord, or Anno Domini, AD, as in 2021 AD. We write down dates that are important to us, spelling out the exact time that something happened, so that we can remember and celebrate it later. The first records I could find for our windows that adorn our sanctuary show them installed and dedicated in 1967. Others were begun in 1972. That means that these oldest of these beautiful windows have been here for 54 years, roughly 2808 Sundays that people have been able to enjoy and learn from them. That’s a significant amount of time for any of us, so we have all the deeper respect for it.
Time, and what we do with it, how we view it, is a complex and wonderful creature of God. That complexity is part of what we’ll examine tonight as we look at how the artist who designed our window, Rev. Dr. Adalbert Kretzmann, depicted time stretched out in the Isaiah window.
In our window tonight, starting at the top of the main portion, not the pinnacle, we have a circular seal with an altar on it. The altar is covered with fire falling from heaven. This is a thumbnail sketch of what happened with the prophet Elijah when he challenged the priests of Baal to a contest to see whose god was real. The priests of Baal danced wildly, singing their catchy songs as loudly as they could, trying to get their god’s attention so that Baal would send fire down from the sky—supposedly Baal’s domain—and consume the sacrifice. But no fire fell on Baal’s sacrifice. Then, when the prophet Elijah prayed, fire fell from heaven and consumed not only the sacrifice on the altar, but also the stones of the altar and the dust, and the gallons of water that had been poured on and around it. The Lord proved that He was the One true God. Elijah is not pictured in this window, but the flaming altar is a scene that calls to mind all that the Lord spoke through that powerful prophet. Below the seal with the altar, we have three figures. One, with the long brown beard and red cloak, the prophet Isaiah, who lived a hundred years after Elijah, stands in the back, his eyes looking off distantly, hand over his heart as he’s given to see something so great that it fills him with heart-wrenching wonder. The other two figures in the window are Mary and Joseph. Notice Mary, designated by her traditional blue robes, and Joseph, kneeling and praying in the foreground. The prophet’s right hand gestures toward them, constantly drawing our eyes to these two. They are the vision Isaiah is seeing. They are the vision that Isaiah is showing us.
But notice that this is not a nativity scene as we’re used to seeing it. Take a closer look at what’s in front of both Mary and Joseph. It’s a manger. But something is different about this manger. There’s no Christ child in it. The manger is empty. And this is where we get into the complexities of time.
This window pulls together three distinct eras—the time of the prophet Elijah, the time of the prophet Isaiah, and the beginning of the time of Christ, with Mary and Joseph. Past, present, and future are pulled together into this single frame.
But, if I may add to the complexity, there’s more. You see, in Hebrew—the language spoken by Isaiah and the prophets—there’s no such thing as “tenses”, as we know them. When we speak of action words, verbs, we put them into past, present, and future tense. He drove to the store—past tense. He drives to the store—present tense. He will drive to the store—future tense. But Hebrew doesn’t have these tenses. Hebrew only speaks of something that’s completed or not completed; fulfilled and finished; or not yet fulfilled, not yet finished.
And so, in the window tonight we have the scene of Christ’s birth…almost. It’s there, with Isaiah, almost 800 years before Mary and Joseph, but it’s also not there yet; Christ isn’t in the manger. At least for the prophet Isaiah, it’s there, but not yet fulfilled. It’s begun—it began all the way back in the Garden of Eden when the Lord promised that the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head—but it’s not yet finished. Everything is moving toward that crucial fulfillment, but it’s still in process.
Hebrew is a challenging language for us who think in terms of past, present, and future. I remember Hebrew was at times completely baffling for me in seminary. But here’s a secret of translation: when Isaiah, or when any of the prophets prophesy, they speak as if it were already completed. When they prophesy about something still coming, they speak of it as if it’s already happened. They don’t speak in the future tense as we know it. We would not find something like “God will do this or that.” That’s because for the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, it’s not future tense, as if it’s distant and far away. It’s spoken of in what we could call the perfect tense. The perfect tense is what we use to talk about something that was begun in the past and is completed: as in, he had driven to the store. Prophecy in this form, spoken of as if it were already completed, like what Isaiah is seeing here, is sometimes called the “prophetic perfect” by those who get to coin such terms.
But why would the prophets speak this way about something that has yet to happen? Why would it be spoken of as if it’s already done? Because when God promises something, it’s as good as done. When God tells us that He’s going to accomplish something, rest assured, it’s going to happen, no matter what. So when the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah, tells Ahaz, king at the time, that He will give Ahaz a sign, it’s as good as done. When the Lord says that the virgin will give birth to a Son and He will be called Immanuel, God with us, it’s as good as done. When the angel Gabriel speaks God’s word to Mary that she’ll give birth to the flesh-and-blood Son of God even though she’s a virgin, it’s a certainty that it will happen. Past, present, and future are simply one big now to God. When He says something, it’s happening. So the language of the prophets reflects that.
So when the Lord says that He will forgive the sins of the world for the sake of the Messiah, because of His sacrifice on the cross, it’s a done deal. That’s why over the manger in the window, there’s a cross, showing the forgiveness, the salvation, given at the cross of Jesus. That sacrifice of Jesus rolls forward and backward through time, covering it in that one greatest moment when God’s love poured out of His veins to redeem all of His creation, all of His beloved human creatures. It rolls all the way back to the foundation of the world. The same cross that forgives our sins forgives Isaiah’s sins—forgives all sins past, present, and future.
It’s that forgiveness that’s depicted at the very top pinnacle of the window. In it, we see tongs holding a red hot coal, with a scroll behind it. This is a summary of how Isaiah was called to be a prophet. He saw the Lord in the temple. He was given access to the heavenly throne room of God, seeing what’s beyond our mortal realm and peering into the majesty of God’s presence. He reacts as a fallen human should, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” No sinful person can see the perfect holy God and survive. Holiness consumes unholiness. But then one of the seraphim around the throne of God flew to Isaiah, holding a burning coal that he had taken from the altar of sacrifice with tongs. He touched Isaiah’s mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Then Isaiah was sent to prophesy and his words were recorded on the scroll. The forgiveness of Christ’s cross reached out backwards through the ages and using the altar as an instrument, a channel, Isaiah’s sins were atoned for. He now had clean lips to speak God’s Word. Past, present, and future bound together in forgiveness.
We would be remiss if we didn’t also notice that this third pinnacle completes a set for us. In the first pinnacle we see the symbol of the priest: the breastplate of Aaron. In the second pinnacle there is the symbol of the king: a crown. Here in the third pinnacle we see the symbol of the prophet: the tongs, the burning coal, and the scroll. These three pinnacles not only tell a story about God’s people of old. They also tell us about Christ and His three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the ultimate Prophet who speaks God’s Word to us, having perfect access to the Father. He is the ultimate Priest, making the one sacrifice that covers the sins of the world. He is the ultimate King, bringing God’s gracious and merciful reign to us. He holds these three offices forever. The fullness of time has come. God has sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem us who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Christ has entered our world of time and space, and He has brought eternity with Him. He has brought immortality to us mortals. Past, present, and future are His; and He makes past, present, and future ours as well. In the name of Jesus, to whom belongs time and eternity, Amen.