Junior Sarah Miller played the organ beautifully during chapel service today. It was thrilling to hear our music fill the whole chapel. What follows is my meditation on Exodus 24: 12-18.
“Come Up To Me”
Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott
February 28th, 2011—MC Chapel Service
Have you noticed how people are always climbing mountains in search of God?
In today’s text Moses is in need of instruction, he is in need of the law on stone tablets, and, I imagine, he is in need of reassurance that God is still with him as he leads his people on an excruciatingly long exodus through the desert.
Elijah, in a moment of great despair and desperation, climbs a mountain in 1 Kings and experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.
Jesus takes his disciples and climbs a mountain in this Sunday’s Transfiguration text where the glory of the Lord shines around them and God’s voice is heard from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”
According to Judaic tradition, the Temple or synagogue was always built at the highest point in the city so when the people went to worship they had to go up, they had to climb the mountain, singing their songs of ascent as they went.
Climbing the mountain in search of God is a tradition that continues today and draws together many religious traditions. It’s a theme that is evident in literature (remember Tolstoy’s story from last week where the emperor climbed the mountain in search of the enlightened old hermit.) It’s a theme evident around the world…I was struck on a trip to Austria how every mountaintop was adorned with a large cross.
Climbing the mountain in search of God is something people have done for centuries and still do today. And all of this is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern belief that the mountain is the pillar of the earth, holding the earth and heavens in place. So in order to experience God you climbed the mountain.
After graduating from seminary, a friend of mine and I took three weeks to go backpacking through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. Austria is one of my favorite places in the world and I was bound and determined to climb some of those beautiful mountains while we were there. I believe we were in Innsbruck, Austria when we tackled our first mountain. The trail was well cut and we set out with confidence. But, after a couple of hours of hiking, my feet hurt, my back was aching, and we weren’t even close to reaching the summit. We made it, eventually, and it was beautiful at the top of that mountain. I still treasure the pictures I took from there. But that night for dinner all I could eat was Ibuprofen as I lay in bed moaning because my body was so sore and hurt so bad.
Climbing mountains is hard work! And it’s important for us to recognize this as we consider this theme of climbing mountains in search of God.
I am a pretty big believer in the idea that experiencing God doesn’t just happen. It takes some work on our part. Sure, we might have the rare experience of God that just happens spontaneously, but most of the time we need to be pretty intentional in preparing our hearts, in opening our minds, in being attentive to the movement of the Spirit, in order to truly experience God. Climbing the mountain is a good and helpful metaphor, then, because it reminds us of what is necessary, what we need to do in order to experience God. Traditionally, as the people of God climbed the mountain, or as they ascended to the Temple, they were singing spiritual songs, they were praying prayers, they were opening themselves up to receive what God wanted them to receive, they were working hard to experience God, they were working hard at worship.
When I met with our Student Chaplains for our first meeting together we talked about the hard work of worship. I said to them that for worship to be done well it would take a lot of hard work. It would take preparation, and prayer, and thoughtfulness, and creativity. It would take us being open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we have to intentionally open ourselves to receive that guidance. Worship is hard work. And it’s not just the worship leaders who have to work hard at worship. For worship to truly be well done, for us to truly experience God in this time and place, we all need to be prepared for some hard spiritual work.
The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard helpfully compared worship once to a play in a theater. With this image in mind, Kierkegaard mourned the fact that too often worshippers come to the sanctuary imagining the minister or the worship leaders as the star actors on the stage, with the musicians or the choir as the supporting actors, and then the people in the seats as the audience. So this is how people typically view their roles when they come to worship. But, Kierkegaard said, this is all wrong. Comparing worship again to a play in theater, Kierkegaard said it is the people in the seats that are on center stage, with the minister and the leaders acting as the directors, and then the audience, of course, is God. As we worship then, we offer ourselves to God as our audience; we sing to God, we pray to God, we attend to God and to our relationship with God. We….every single one of us….work hard as we worship God. And if we do, if we all work hard, then worship will be well done, God will be pleased, and we (more than likely) will experience God in this place.
I have noticed that there aren’t many mountains here in Illinois. It’s hard enough to find a good hill for sledding around here, let alone a mountain. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience God. That doesn’t mean that we can’t go up to the Temple, singing our songs, praying our prayers, and preparing our hearts to be moved by the Spirit of God in this place. And of course, God is eager to meet us here and to move us here, as God bids us to “Come! Come up to me!”
Now to this God who bids us to come and worship, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 1 Kings 19: 11-12
 Matthew 17: 1-9
 Judy Fentress-Williams, in “Exegetical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pg. 439.