What makes you tremble.
The night that my son was born, I was wearing scrubs - waiting in silence outside the operating room.
Only steps away from where I sat, my wife was being prepared to have an incision made in her belly so that we could meet our boy.
The silent clock on the wall told me that David was minutes away from delaying a November birth so that he could be a December baby. I found myself wishing that the clock would tick, just to break the silence of that lonely hospital bench.
And then someone called me into the operating room to be with Sarah. There I was in my scrubs, having the appearance of a trained surgeon, but in truth, having none of the skills to bring my son into the world.
This was a threshold moment. My life was about to be forever altered, and I didn’t know what I should expect, or if I was ready.
I walked towards the double doors, and involuntarily, I trembled.
The operating room was cold when I sat down beside Sarah. A blue sheet separated us from her lower half, where an incision would be made, and our lives would change.
Sarah kept apologizing because she couldn’t stop trembling.
Less than an hour later, we were in the recovery room, and Sarah was holding David Zion Madsen, our firstborn. Overcome with emotion, and still waiting for the numbing agents to wear off, Sarah was scared that she would drop David, because she didn’t have full use of her limbs, and she was still trembling.
When was the last time that you trembled?
There are these threshold moments in life, when we are encountering something larger than ourselves, more powerful, more frightening, more real. These are moments that can cause us to tremble.
When was that moment for you?
That moment happened 3,000 years ago for a mass of recently freed slaves at the foot of a mountain called Sinai.
The Living God wanted to meet with the people that he had rescued, and to describe to them what their relationship with him would be like.
God says, “I will be who I will be - the One who brought you out of Egypt so that I could be yours, and you could be mine.” (Exodus 20:1)
But the One who wanted to be their’s was terrifying. The effects of his arrival were too much for the ones he had rescued.
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Exodus 20:18-19)
The whole group insisted that Moses, their leader, would meet God in their stead.
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:20-21)
From this story, we surmise that God’s original plan was never to have a mediator standing between us and him. That was our idea.
For generations since Sinai, people have insisted that others have a relationship with God on their behalf.
We want you to speak with God.
You tell us what God says.
What God desires.
We are trembling with fear, and we don’t like it.
Tremble for us, so that we don’t have to.
And so the routine was that Moses would draw near to God on the mountain and also in a sacred tent. As a result of his time in the presence of the Living God, when he returned, the people were terrified - because Moses’ face was shining.
The effects of the Divine Presence were being brought out of Moses’ skin!
But it was too much for the people to handle, and so he covered his face with a veil whenever he was around them.
But when he would draw near to God, he would remove the veil.
History is full of examples like this - where people keep their distance from the Divine, while a select few approach the thick darkness where God can be known.
We don’t want to tremble, we want someone else to.
We fear the effects of God’s Presence, so we throw up a sheet.
History is full of mediating people, and rituals, and layers that keep people at a distance from the God who draws near.
But then we are regularly disappointed by those mediating people and rituals and layers.
People don’t maintain their integrity.
They manipulate our desire for the transcendent, abusing the authority that we’ve given to them.
Rituals become meaningless.
No one explains why we are doing what we are doing, and it causes us to disengage.
Layers make us disconnected.
We become numb to what could give us life and renew our spirit.
In response to our common disappointment, I’ve heard different church leaders advertise their church communities by telling people, “If you’re not religious, don’t worry - neither are we!”
And my response is, “Are you sure about that?”
Now, I can sympathize with the heart behind the apologetic.
These are folks who want you to understand, “at our church, we’re real! We don’t just go through the motions. We’re rejecting those forms of church gatherings that are irrelevant and lifeless.”
And I want to tell them, “That’s fine, just don’t tell people that you’re not religious, because that just isn’t true.”
Our problem isn’t with religion itself, but with bad or false religion.
And rejection of bad or false religion is nothing new.
James, an early church leader, railed against it when he talked about those who seemed to be religious, but lived a life that was full of hypocrisy and lacked integrity. (James 1:26)
But he never said that we shouldn’t be religious.
And that’s because everyone is incurably religious.
The word that James uses for religion - it’s a word-picture that describes those times when you and I involuntarily tremble.
They are religious.
They respond in awe to that which causes them to tremble.
So when have you trembled?
It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Trembling is a universal human response to those times when we come face-to-face with something tremendous
dare I even say - holy?
What makes you tremble?
Entering a room to meet a newborn?
A song that unlocks something deep inside of you?
The intimate affection of another person?
Leaning over the edge and realizing that its a long way down?
Trembling reminds us that we are human.
That we have encountered something powerfully other-than.
The Divine is the greatest Other-Than, and the greatest source of our trembling.
But out of great fear, some of us demand mediators and veils.
We choose watered-down over concentrate.
Filtered instead of full force.
Because the Real is just a little too real for our taste.
Others of us have never know the Divine, but we’ve experienced a divine echo.
We’ve had an experience that was powerful on us.
But these are only ripples across the water, and they should signal to us that something Larger has plummeted into our reality, something that is the Source for these smaller effects.
At Sinai, the people asked for a mediator and a veil.
But on another mountain, the Divine attempted once again to make direct contact with us.
In Matthew 17, we read that Jesus took his disciples up a mountain, and their experience is strangely familiar to Sinai.
The face of Jesus begins to shine.
Moses appears, along with the great prophet Elijah.
Out of fear, Peter offers to construct sacred tents.
A cloud surrounds them.
From the cloud, the voice of God speaks.
The disciples fall facedown in terror.
The people trembled at Sinai.
And here, the disciples tremble.
But this time we’re told that Jesus touched them.
And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
The mediators of old are gone.
Only Jesus remains to meet us in our trembling.
So what will we do with our trembling?
In Jesus, God has drawn near to us.
God has made himself accessible.
God made an incision in the world so that we could meet his son.
No sheets, no barriers - just God with skin.
Will we pursue the Source?
Will we draw near to the Other-Than?
Or will we put up a veil?
The voice of the Divine has told us: This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!
Will we listen to the voice that speaks to us in our times of trembling?
Make every effort - with fear and trembling - to discover what it really means to be rescued by God. God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him. (Philippians 2:12-13)
And as you pursue God with your community, please don’t describe yourself as not religious.
Because that’s ridiculous.
Of course you’re religious! Haven’t you ever trembled?
The question is never will I tremble?
The question is always what will I do with my trembling?
May you do something different with your trembling.
May you choose not to remain at a distance,
may you draw near to the One who has drawn near to you.