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The Two Mountains

This morning our church was privileged to have a guest speaker to deliver the sermon—my twin brother Gil.  Unsurprisingly (and completely unbiasedly), I thought it was a great sermon.  Gil was preaching on John 4 and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  There’s a lot going on in this passage, but Gil zeroed in on the two mountains that the woman queried Jesus about:

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Bound up in her statement are all kinds of important questions: Where is God to be properly worshiped?  What kinds of people does God blesses?  Who understands God and his purposes right?  Where is God available?

Gil compared the “two mountains” in the story to two conceptions of God that we find in modern culture—God as either 1) an absentee landlord who just kind of sets things in motion and is not really heard from again; or 2) a genie-in a bottle whom we call upon to meet our inner needs and has little to do with ordinary life.  Against these popular misconceptions of God, Gil argued that we need to learn how to see a God who transcends these two options—a God in whom we truly live, move, and have our being.  Here’s a few quotes:

In the same way, God inhabits our world. We don’t find God by taking our world apart, analyzing every rock and twig, looking under every bush hoping at last to maybe find some evidence of God. God doesn’t occupy the world, he fills it, he overflows it. God is as present with us as the breath in our lungs.  To worship God in Spirit is to recognize this and thank him for it. It means becoming attentive to the many ways in which God’s Spirit gives life, breathes life into our lives.

The fact that we sometimes find it difficult to ‘see’ God might mean that we’re looking in the wrong places or in the wrong ways. We have to be looking in a certain way. We have to be attentive to life in a different way. And when we are, we will find that the life of God and the love of God are all around us.  When we do this we will find that God is not someone who periodically invades our lives from another place. No, God is truly the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Gil left us with a few questions:

So do we believe what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman? Do we believe that God is available beyond the two mountains? Do we believe that, in Jesus, God has literally invaded every corner of our world, of our experience, of our excitement and our mundane daily tasks and offered us the opportunity to recognize him in it and to praise him for how he is making all things new?

You can read the rest of the sermon here.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Your brother’s discussion of the two mountains reminds me of Mircea Eliade’s discussion of this topic in The Myth of Eternal Return. He found in the religions of many cultures the same mountains. In the religions of ancient Israel and Canaan, Baal was something like a genie in a bottle. People turned to Baal when times were stable politically, when they were concerned with fertility, and they turned to YHWH, the absentee landlord, the celestial god, in times of political crisis.

    At the time of the enlightenment the only god that remained plausible was the absentee landlord, and he was only plausible to some. The genie in the bottle god was especially associated with superstition, even more than the landlord. I think it is still that way.

    Alfred Kazin observed that in protestant America God had become ever more remote, even Jesus. He was observing what he saw in American literature, not in popular culture in which the genie in the bottle was the one.

    I think the existentialist theologians attempted to define God as you have here through the idea that God is being itself – as you express it, “a God in whom we truly live, move, and have our being.”

    It is this existential theology that I grew up with. I still connect most with the existentialist theologians. At the same time, their god is so abstract, too abstract to have enduring meaning in times of crisis. I think we still find meaning in the two mountains. While not disagreeing with your brother’s point, I think that the two-mountain-tendency is not a bad thing. It is ancient and enduring.

    July 13, 2009
    • Eliade’s take on things certainly sounds interesting. On the face of it, I find it hard to believe that YHWH would be considered an “absentee landlord” by anyone. If anything, I’ve heard people refer (often bitterly) to YHWH as a tribal God, intimately (obsessively?) concerned with the precise details of his people’s everyday life and ritual observance. A quick scan of the OT can yield a wide variety of adjectives about the nature of God, but “absent” or “uninvolved” do not strike me as obvious options.

      I think I would agree with you that in the postmodern West we tend to view God in remote and/or abstract terms. I think this is part of what Gil was getting at in his sermon—we need to learn how to see God better. We tend to look for him in “stuff we can’t explain in other ways” or warm feelings in our hearts. But if God is who he says he is (and who centuries of his followers have understood him to be), these approaches are far too limited.

      Our vacillation between the two mountains may be ancient and enduring, but I would like to think that there is a third (better) option somewhere between them. I think this is the option Gil tried to steer us toward in his sermon.

      July 13, 2009
  2. Ken #

    Last night I happened to read a prayer/poem by Robert Frost. The title is: A Prayer in Spring. At the same time I was listening to choral music from the time of the reformation in England, Compline, performed by Stile Antico.

    The words in the compline prayers imply that in those days people saw God as a protector, one that would protect them from “terrors of the night,” from the “enemy” (the devil) and from loss of their souls. These prayers are similar to the Psalms, except that in the Psalms the enemies were originally political enemies of Israel rather than the devil.

    The words in the Frost prayer/poem imply that the person and the sympathetic reader have quite different concerns. They struggle with melancholy and anomie rather than political or supernatural enemies. They are concerned with finding a way to enjoy this life, and with letting go of concern for the future. They are concerned with connecting with nature right now: “give us pleasure in the flowers today, and give us not to think so far away as the uncertain harvest; keep us here….”

    I think Frost, like so many of us in since Darwin, was trying, somewhat reluctantly, to come to terms with life in a world without God, with life in a world that came about by evolution, a world of reason in which the old myths were no longer believable. At the same time, there is a subtle continuity with the Psalms in his poem, with the tone, with the desire.

    I think today we suffer from a greater estrangement from God than any generation since the time of Christ, and even since the time of the Babylonian exile, or even the reign of David. It is there in the Frost poem. Clearly estrangement concerned the Christians who wrote the compline prayers – they feared it would cost them their souls, their relationship with God. They feared the enemy would separate them from God. But the words of the prayer indicate that they were not nearly as estranged as we are in our era.

    I think this estrangement accounts for both mountains. In both, I hear crying; in both despair. Neither reason nor will, nor forgetting, nor even the most determined faith, seems sufficient to overcome it. We await a move from heaven.

    July 15, 2009
    • Very nice summary Ken. I resonate with much of what you’ve written here. I might not attach quite as much significance to the figure of Darwin as you, but I do think that our generation is afflicted with a unique mixture of estrangement from and longing for God (or at least what he represented in the past). For me, this presents unique opportunities and challenges for re-articulating how Jesus addresses our most basic human need.

      I don’t see our longing for the two mountains quite as bleakly as you do. I think that we can cultivate a faith that, while perhaps not sufficient to overcome our perceived estrangement, can locate it within a hopeful narrative.

      July 15, 2009

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