Today we continue our series The Divine Commodity, looking at the life and art of Van Gogh, along with consumerism, the church and following Jesus. Through this series we are hoping and praying that we’ll provide tools and spiritual practices that can help liberate us and our imaginations as Christ’s people in a consumer culture opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God.
Over the last 3 weeks of our series we have talked about the spiritual practices of imagination, silence, and identity as a child of God. Today our sermon is entitled “At Eternity’s Gate’ which is also the title of the painting that we looked at by Van Gogh a little earlier.
Van Gogh said this about what inspired him to paint this painting, “This is far from theology, simply the fact that the poorest little wood-cutter or peasant on the hearth or miner can have moments of emotions and inspiration which give him the feeling of an eternal home for which he is near.” And while Van Gogh gave up on the institutional church, and had a difficult time even finding God in the walls of the institutional church, he upheld his belief in God and in one’s ability to commune with Him. He said this about prayer and communing with God, “I think there is no better place for meditation then by a rustic hearth and an old cradle with a baby in it, with a window overlooking a delicate green cornfield and the waving of the elder bushes.” Van Gogh no doubt took time to commune with God. But let’s look at another person in Scripture who took time to climb the mountain and have a mountaintop experience and see how that affected him.
Let’s turn to Exodus 34:29-35 which says, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant) because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.”
So before the verses that we just read we see Moses on the mountaintop communing with God. God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses and then Moses begins to go down the mountain to engage the people with how they should follow God. But as he descended the mountain, his face actually showed the fact that he had met with the Lord. He face radiated from his encounter with the Lord. But Moses with experience with God on the mountaintop is widely misunderstood in a number of ways.
First, the Hebrew word for radiant or shone brightly literally means shot forth beams, it is also related to the Hebrew word for horns. That is why the Latin Vulgate, mistranslated the verb as ‘having horns” and so many medieval works of art have Moses having a pair of horns on his head. Take for instance the sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo (show the picture)
Secondly, we notice a difference between this narrative, and where Paul mentions this narrative in the New Testament. In verse 30 we read, “When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.” And so here we see that Moses veiled his radiant face because the people were afraid to come near him. But in the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 3:13 we read, “we are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.” His radiance was fading and so he veiled his face. His mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious and full of God’s presence- but it did not bring lasting transformation.
Notice the ending of the verses we just read, “But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.” No doubt that close communion with God physically affected Moses. Every time he came from communing with God his face shone brightly, and he had to veil his face. No doubt Moses experienced glorious, transforming communion with God on Mt. Sinai. But the glory faded. Whatever glory and transformation that Moses experienced in God’s presence was temporary. And he couldn’t live on the mountain, he had to come down from the mountain and live his life with his people, lead them and govern them. But his regularly communion with God no doubt influenced how he lived when he was off the mountain. And that is why, I believe, he frequently met with the Lord, to be in relationship with God, to give him wisdom as he lead God’s people, and he knew that he needed close communion with the Lord. The mountaintop experience, while great, wasn’t enough to cut it for Moses, and it really shouldn’t cut it for us.
Notice something else about Moses and this narrative. At the beginning of the verses that we are looking at we read these words, “When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai” And at the end of the text we read these words, “But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out.” Moses didn’t need to go back up onto Mount Sinai to commune with God. He did go into the tent of the meeting to meet with God. I am sure he could have wanted to go back up on the mountain. I’m sure he could have had this reverence for the mountain and his experience there. I’m sure he could have dreamed about the day that he could go back up on the mountain to meet with God. But he didn’t have to go back on the mountain to meet with God. He carved out space and time right where he was to communion and meet with God one on one and face to face. He took what he experienced on the mountain, a deep experience of communion with God, and put it into practice down in the valley. He didn’t live on the mountain, and his spiritually didn’t live on the mountain. We don’t live on the mountain and our spirituality shouldn’t either.
Have you ever had one of those mountaintop experiences where you knew that you had met with God? Maybe it was on a retreat, maybe it was at a Christian event of some type, maybe it was on a mission trip, maybe it was getting away by yourself for a few days to listen to God, and maybe it was literally on a mountaintop. How long did the spiritual high last? Till you got home? A week? Longer? We don’t live on the mountain and mountaintop experiences don’t last. They can be important and can help us grow in our spiritual journey. But we can’t expect to live there and we can’t expect that our spiritual life should be defined by them. What has been happening because of the influence of our consumer culture (and our consumer christian culture) is that we have begun to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. What happens when we believe that transformation is attained through external experiences and through their consumption? We make experience junkies in the world, but in the christian and church culture we create worship junkies. Worship junkies who go from worship experience to worship experience looking for the next high. And when the high begins to fade we go to another event. Or if the church that we are going to doesn’t “do it” for us anymore, doesn’t give us that spiritual high that we want to consume, we go looking for a church that will give us that high again.
It is like when you hear people say something like, “I just wasn’t fed this morning in worship.” It’s almost like people see church like a gas station for their souls and the pastor as the gas station attendant. Dan Kimball in his book “Emerging Worship” says this about a worship service and a gas station, “The weekend worship service has become the time in the week when we go to a church building much like a car goes to an automobile service station. Most people view the weekend worship service as a place where we go to get service done to us by “getting our tanks filled up” at the service station. It’s a place where someone will give a sermon and serve us with our weekly sustenance. In automobile terms, you could say it is our weekly fill-up. We come to our service station to have a song leader serve us by leaning us in signing songs. All so we can feel good when we emotionally connect through mass singing and feel secure that we did “worship.” So if we keep up the analogy, we come to the gas station/church, get filled up, and then drive around all week long, until next week when we are running on fumes, so we again pull into the gas station and get filled up. If we don’t make it through the whole week, we either do a small group thing to top us off, or we blame the gas station or gas station attendant for not filling us up enough. Never realizing that we are to take the role of gas station attendant and fill our own tanks, through spiritual disciplines like prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, etc…
And so what we as a people, unlike Moses, are missing in our consumer society which has definitely infiltrated the church, is a vibrant, self-generating relationship with Christ. When we expect transformation to occur through external experiences we are opting for an inferior model of spiritual transformation. Moses had a sustainable communion with God when he was on the mountain, but more importantly, when he came down from the mountain. All too often we are settling for a temporary filling, a transient dose of glory to carry us along. Instead of doing the hard work of communing with God one one one, face to face. We long to go back up the mountain and get the experience, feeling, emotion, and high of meeting with God but he wants to meet us in the valley where we live, work, do life, and rest.
At Eternity’s Gate was created twice, eight years apart. The first creation was a charcoal sketch of the old man in prayer. In the black and white version of At Eternity’s Gate Vincent differentiated the mans’s clothing in shades of gray. Eight years later his revisited this drawing and proceeded to use oil paints. We aren’t sure why he chose to do this piece twice. But something that we do know is that the second time around he chose to use the exact same color of the man’s shirt, pants and even socks- the color blue. He used this color to symbolize the infinite- remember the sky in Starry Night? And so we see in At Eternity’s Gate, the peasant old man, by himself seeking to connect and enter into the presence of the infinite one by the simple act of prayer.
What about each one of us? Do we need to climb the mountain to commune with God? Are we worship junkies jumping from one experience to the next to get that spiritual high? Are we consuming the experiences for the emotion, feelings, and experience we get? Or are we able, like the old peasant, to sit alone by the hearth, in solitude and silence, praying and being in communion with God, while not having to climb the mountain?
Let’s unpack times that we have had mountaintop experiences, how long they’ve lasted. Let’s talk about ways that we need to sit, like the peasant At Eternity’s Gate. Let’s talk about how Veritas might help us as individuals and as a community, learn how to commune with God, so that we don’t have to hop from mountaintop to mountaintop but that we can live, move, breathe, and deepen as followers of Jesus in the valleys where we live.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. Share a mountaintop experience story. How long did the mountaintop experience feeling last?
3. What spiritual disciplines help you commune with God? What can Veritas do to help us commune with God as individuals and as a community?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?