Beneath the Mountain of Smoke
From Gospel Translations
Recovering the Awe of Worship
What happens every Sunday when the church gathers? We meet with God. Do such words still hold weight for you?
Some of us arrive late and sneak in the back. During songs we don’t prefer, we wonder what’s for lunch. If tears fill our eyes, they stream from yawns between choruses. We finally get to sit down so we can listen to sneezy Bill try to survive another congregational prayer. As the preacher mounts the pulpit, we “hear from Almighty God” and doodle in the margins of the bulletin. We sing a few more times, perhaps receive communion, and then wrestle our kids out of the door to get them fed and down for naps.
My contention (and sad experience) is that the drama of meeting with God every week can be so hijacked by carelessness, worldliness, and unbelief. Too often we saunter into church drowsily and distractedly and leave as we came. We are too often Elisha’s servant. When he woke up and saw Syrian chariots surrounding the city, he cried, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” “Do not be afraid,” came the reply, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). The man of God prays for him, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see” (2 Kings 6:17). God answered, and he sees the hillside anew: “the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).
Until then, the servant could not see the spiritual realm. Too often on Sunday mornings, neither can we. We look around the congregation and see nothing upon the hills. O Lord, please open our eyes.
Upon Eagle’s Wings
We all might learn something from watching Israel draw near to God for the first time.
From the burning bush, God promised Moses, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Through mighty plagues, a splitting sea, several battles, and a few tests, they had finally arrived at that mountain to worship.
The meeting with their Great Redeemer was set. Three days and God would meet with them at Horeb. In the meantime, they needed to prepare. “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day” (Exodus 19:10–11). In the meantime, God sent his people a message dipped in myrrh:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3–6)
As a mighty eagle, their God reminds them how he swooped down into the land of Egypt and lifted them from their groveling life of slavery. His actions and message drip with good intentions. He saved them to bring them to himself, to make them his special kingdom. He rescued them to bless them, bore them up on eagle’s wings, and treasured them above all others.
Draw Near the Mountain
Finally, the third day arrived. With garments washed and boundaries around the mountain strictly observed, the people arrive consecrated and ready to meet their unseen God.
None, however, could truly prepare to meet this God. “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). Their Lord descended in flaming fire. “The whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:18). Triviality and levity shattered in the quake. As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, “Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Exodus 19:19).
God then booms his Ten Commandments. He spoke from the blaze, erupting from the darkness of the mountain. The people could not endure the sound,
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18–19)
The sight of their gracious God would kill them; his unmediated voice would break them. “Do not fear,” Moses consoles them, “for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
Where Has Wonder Gone?
How different is this experience of drawing near to God from our normal experience of worship on Sunday morning? Important discontinuities exist, yet the questions remain: Is there any evidence of us drawing near to anything like this living God? Does our pulse ever quicken? Has he changed his complexion so drastically by sending his Son? Are wonder, reverence, awe, thoughtfulness, carefulness, and seriousness no longer befitting his worship?
If you’re like me, you too seldom consider the grand things we profess to be doing. How do we then worship God in holy reverence? How do we see the God who Is, rather than the god of our comfort and carelessness?
Practical considerations can be drawn from this first meeting. Like Israel, we can dedicate time to prepare to meet with God. “Let them be ready” should be our command as well. Study the sermon text beforehand. Pray until your heart is tenderized to meet with God and his people. Repent of any known sin. Abstain from heart-numbing activities leading up to Sunday, and by all means, don’t cut your sleep short to indulge them. Dress in a respectable manner. If possible, arrive early and unhurried. Meditate beforehand on God’s great redemption in Christ — our only means to meet with God and live.
But alongside these, I wish to consult your holy imagination, as the author of Hebrews does when he reads this scene in the Old Testament.
Tale of Two Mountains
The author of Hebrews brings the new-covenant people back to Horeb in order to teach them about drawing near to God. Unlike Israel, he tells us,
You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. . . . Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” (Hebrews 12:18–19)
Rather, in Christ’s new covenant,
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22–24)
We now draw near to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, where countless angels and the redeemed saints gather with merry reverence — and to Jesus, the great mediator of the covenant, whose blood secures our place with him in heaven. Through him, we glimpse the countless chariots on the hillside celebrating the accomplishment of Christ’s atonement.
Will You Refuse or Revere?
How do we draw near to God in worship this Sunday? What is it like to again come, on earth, with God’s people to the heavenly Zion?
The author of Hebrews concludes his tale of two mountains this way:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25)
Notice, the stakes rise in the new covenant, not fall. The refusal becomes more severe, not less. Worship is not more laxed or frivolous or casual or light.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28–29)
We, like Israel, draw near to a consuming fire — one whose flame devours all froth and presumption. He is good, not safe. Like Israel, we draw near to a great God solely on his terms and within his boundaries — by his Spirit, in his truth, covered in Jesus’s atoning blood. Our worship, then, will be heavy with thanksgiving and happiness, with holy fear and wonder. For this Sunday, we gather joyfully and fearfully together to worship before the Fire who is our God, and we meet him — really — and do so with reverence and awe.