Monthly Letter – October 2018

Dear Friends

There’s a chapter in the Bible all about holidays. The official guide to the why, what, when and where of all our annual holidays: a manual from our Maker on the rhythms of our living which His people are to learn.

We’re not always all that familiar with this healthy little handbook on our holidays. Partly because it’s tucked away in the ‘troublesome’ book of Leviticus (‘troublesome’ since there are not a few bits which we struggle to get our heads around): and partly, too, because we don’t equate the ‘holy days’ this chapter speaks about with what we call our ‘holidays’.

Which is a pity, because the chapter’s full of guidance as to how our annual living’s both enriched and kept refreshed by these great rhythms of our work and rest which ‘holy days’ define.

Leviticus 23 is a sort of “Holidays for dummies” which God’s people of a former age were given as a handbook by their Lord. And the last of the three great festive ‘get-togethers’ which the manual specifies, the last and in some ways, too, the climactic one, was a great big ‘thank you’ celebration.

And it always took place at this time of year – a timing related, of course, to the ingathered harvest, so vital for a people who were rural more than urban and for whom the crops which had been harvested were the culminating evidence of God’s good hand upon their daily, sweat-stained labour through the previous months.

They were thanking the Lord for the wonder of the harvest which the land had once again produced – the annual, slowed-down version of the feeding of the multitudes whose ‘speedied-up’ expression would become the stunning, ‘trademark’ miracle of Jesus’ 3 year ministry.

And the way in which they offered up their thanks each year afforded them as well an annual, fun reminder of the Lord’s sustained provision for His people’s needs through forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

They were being helped by the Lord in this way to see their world through the wondering eyes of a child, for whom the whole thing appeared to be some sort of wonderful magic. The land, from a scattering (and indeed from what seemed like no more than a smattering) of seed, somehow turning such minimal ‘fuel’ into fields which were waving and weighted with grain. And the Lord, with a myriad mouths needing food, in a wilderness barren and stark, somehow feeding them all for the best part of four long decades with a daily supply of good food which appeared overnight on the ground.

Wow! How does it happen? A child can see and feel the sheer, bewildering wonder of it all.

And the Lord would have His children learn again the great infectious laughter of such wondering eyes. And would have them, too, be thankful.

That’s what this final great holyday gathering was all about. Giving thanks to the Lord. And more than that, their once again having God quietly grow in their hearts (as some sort of spiritual harvest in their souls) a spirit of enduring joy and gratitude.

God’s handbook on how life’s best lived is simply shot full of this constant exhortation to us all to be, above all, thankful: the ‘attitude of gratitude’, as it’s sometimes put by those who like a catchy turn of phrase.

“Give thanks in all circumstances,” instructed the apostle, summing up the thrust of a constant refrain which runs right the way through all the Bible. “For this,” added Paul, “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” And His will, of course, is good and pleasing and perfect.

In other words, this is not something culled from odd-ball-land. This is mainstream, measured living, the way life’s meant to be lived. This is how lives filled with the Spirit of God will look, a primary characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign, gracious work within the human heart. “Be filled with the Spirit .. always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.”

Always giving thanks. Not in a way which makes us either masochists or hypocrites, of course: but in a way which sees us resting assured that God knows what He’s doing and that what God does is good.

There’s something intrinsically healing and healthful in our being always truly thankful. For one thing, being thankful has a potent emotional outcome, reducing to manageable levels the stress, the cares and anxiety we otherwise often will feel.

We weren’t ever meant to be stressed right out of our socks. Martha, remember, had found herself being ever so gently chided for the stressed out way of life that she’d assumed – “anxious and troubled about many things” is how the Lord expressed it.

That’s not the way life’s meant to be lived. And if that’s where your reading of the parable Jesus told (about the so-called ‘good’ Samaritan) leads you .. then you’ve got it’s ‘go and do likewise’ message horribly wrong!

Gratitude is the antidote to worry and stress and anxiety. Isn’t that key to what Paul had to say when writing into the tense and troubled fellowship at Philippi? “Don’t be anxious about anything,” he wrote: a gospel command, rather than a tentative, helpful suggestion. Instead, yes, prayer, take it to the Lord in prayer. But it’s important to see at the heart of it all that it is, and it must be, with thanksgiving, that we present our requests to God.

Gratitude acts as an antidote to the emotional drain of stress. For the very act of giving thanks means that we will concentrate our minds on all the countless different ways in which God’s love and grace and goodness has been shown. Time after time He’s done us good: time after time He’s met our need: time after time we’ve seen how very wise He’s been: time after time we’ve discovered ourselves how sufficient is His grace.

So we learn to apply our minds to those things that are true and noble and right and pure. Like the way God’s so designed His world that a few scattered seeds grow into a field of corn. Like the way God provided for thousands and thousands, through forty long years of their wandering through a parched and largely barren wilderness.

We learn to think with a childlike sense of wonder and astonishment: and tracking the endless display of the living God’s consummate goodness and kindness to ourselves through all the decades of our own very personal history (through good times and hard times alike), we learn, as Paul puts it – we learn a certain contentment, a quiet sort of confidence in God’s providing grace, which eases back anxiety and care. Our God has always wonderfully met all our needs: and our God will, we may therefore be sure – He will meet all our needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus. We slowly cease to worry so much as we grow in that sense of wonder.

Giving thanks enhances our lives relationally as well. It’s no mere coincidence that Paul’s great call to thanksgiving, as he writes to the church at Philippi, is set in the context of a strained and tense relationship between two quite notable women in the church.

How easy it is to find fault in one another! How easy it is to pick holes in each other’s decisions, to question one another’s motives, to misinterpret one another’s actions, to cast a slur on one another’s attitudes! And how readily, therefore, relationships can become strained.

We gravitate naturally to criticism, don’t we, and easily end up at odds with one another: but our adopting an intentional spirit of gratitude acts again as a powerful, healthy antidote to strained and struggling relationships. The disciplined resolve we make to offer up our thanks to God for another individual obliges us to think of all that’s good about their lives, to put the best construction on their words and deeds, to see their many attributes, instead of all their faults.

And it’s striking in that very connection that in writing to the fellowship at Philippi Paul speaks of these two women not as ‘problem’ individuals, but as partners in the kingdom work of Christ, valued, loved co-workers who will share with him eternity.

What a difference it makes to all our relationships when we learn to be those who give thanks! We’ve known just that, for instance, in those times when the building here has been used for the Powerpoint youth event. There’s a whole crowd of people involved in all the major organization such a night requires, of course: loads of folk, with lots of demands and decisions and deadlines; and all of these people so different too – in terms of background, age, personality, needs. It’s got all the ingredients for fraught and fractious relationships!

But the team who put on this whole thing are always so careful to show and express their warm and generous thanks that it makes for a set of relationships as rich as they are rewarding.

Relationally as well as emotionally: spiritually as well as physically: in a thankful heart lies our truest health.

No wonder the Lord is intent on His growing such a spirit of real gratitude within our hearts! No wonder His holy-day year builds to this crescendo of exuberant thanks!

Let us learn, then, to give thanks in each and every circumstance! Let us learn to give thanks for all that He is, for all that He’s done, for all that He’s promised to be for His people in Christ! Let us learn to rejoice in the knowledge that Jesus is King, that God’s on the throne, that right will prevail, that God will provide and protect through whatever it is we may face, ‘til He brings us safely home.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good: His love endures for ever!

Yours in Christ’s glad service,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – September 2018

Dear Friends

We’re all at best in recovery. In a manner of speaking, anyway.

Many, for sure, are still in the grip of addiction, powerless to make a break from this  wretched and terrible bondage which is slowly but surely destroying them: and sometimes it’s not so slowly.

The slavery takes any number of forms.

Some we’re more than familiar with – sometimes ourselves from a first-hand, ‘fingers-burned’ experience: the drink and the drugs, for instance, which, having wormed their way into a person’s life like some deceptive salesman at the door, then tease and taunt their all-too-trusting victims as their lethal, toxic ‘medicine’ starts to poison and corrode the very lifeblood of their unsuspecting host; while all the time, his mind now poisoned too, the person starts to crave the very thing he knows will surely kill him.

Others are subtler, less immediately and openly obvious, and more easily secreted away. Patterns of behaviour which beguile us with a hidden, soft hypnosis ‘til what seemed at first so pleasant and so innocent is found to be enslaving and to lead to our impoverishment.  Gambling. Pornography. Computer games. Sex.

You name it, the list is virtually endless. Because the real addiction is self. Self-indulgence. Self-advancement. Self-importance. The servitude of self which has held us in its thraldom since the day that we were born.

We are all of us addicts, deceived into thinking that if only we satisfy ‘self’ then we’ll find what we’re yearning to know. And so we are from the start self-conscious, self-centred, self-seeking. Tied by the lie to the baseline addiction of ‘self’.

We most of us live in denial for long enough, the very addiction we have to the soaring importance of ‘self’ simply blinding our eyes to the fact of our desperate plight. And the first step on the road to our ‘recovery’ involves a sore awareness and acknowledgement of need: the dawning conviction that we are ourselves enslaved, that the ‘self’ we thought the best friend we could ever have is found to be a monster which has chained us to a suffocating pit of growing darkness and despair.

We have a lot to do with addicts here. We live on the street, the last church standing now to front onto the main street of the city. We see life in the raw. We see addiction in its starkest form; and our building here becomes thereby a holy ‘hall of mirrors’ where the addicts who come streaming in afford a sharp reminder that we, all of us, are addicts in reality.

There are lessons we’re needing to learn: lessons regarding addiction, lessons regarding recovery. We work hand in hand with Teen Challenge. Not in any formal sort of way, but more in the sense that we both see the need for a work of God’s grace in the life of every addict; and are glad to join together in God’s gracious gospel enterprise in Jesus Christ, His great and glorious rescue plan which issues in recovery for the addicts that we are.

Teen Challenge takes the addicts right away from that environment to which they’re so accustomed – and in which, of course, they’ve also been so hopelessly ensnared: addicted in terms of their habits, out of work in terms of employment (who, after all, is willing to take them on board?), and surrounded by constant temptation in terms of the neighbours they’re given to share – alcoholics, druggies, prostitutes. This is, in terms of their environment, a ‘perfect storm’ of catastrophic force, a vicious, swirling vortex of destroying winds from which there’s no escape.

It’s akin, I suppose, to that ‘fearful pit’ of which the psalmist speaks (Ps.40.2), its walls so steep and its slopes so mired with clay that there’s no way there’s any way out.

But taken away from this habitat from hell, their time at Teen Challenge sees addicts being given the Rock on which a whole new life can be built. They’re taught about Jesus, as the One who alone truly saves. The Rock. The Rock on whom their feet can be set, and whereby their way can at last be established.

It’s rarely an immediate, overnight change. Nor is it most times either painless or easy or smooth. As the light of a new day dawns only slowly, and the sun only starts to push its fiery ball across the far horizon after long protracted moments of expectancy and hope, so too the dawning of a new day of deliverance for the addict is, most times, a fitful, slow and very gradual sort of pathway into freedom.

And as a new-born babe soon discovers that her life outside the womb brings with it any number of new challenges, undreamed of in that earlier foetal home, so too the new-found freedom which the addict starts to know is marked by massive struggles, with what seem like a daily dose of mountains to be climbed.

They will be at Teen Challenge for months on end, the better part of a year, as they learn to stand on their own two feet again, and to walk instead of stagger through their days.

Day by day their lives are buttressed by the teaching of God’s truth, as through wise and pastoral ministry their lives are re-created and their living re-constructed by the careful, personal application of God’s living Word.

Day by day they’re supported and helped by the presence all around them of like-minded individuals who themselves have learned to love the Lord and now seek to follow Jesus: others with whom they can speak, others who are on the level with them, facing the same sort of struggles, growing the same sort of faith as they look to the Lord Jesus Christ in a spirit of humble reliance.

Teen Challenge is a safe place, where they’re not on their own and they know there are men looking out for them day after day.

And day by day there is work that at last they can do. Useful, productive employment in all sorts of spheres where they learn what it is for their gifts to be used and their lives to have meaning and point.

We’re all of us addicts, I say. And that work of God’s grace at Teen Challenge reflects in a way the work of the Spirit in breaking the bondage of sin and of self and giving us new life in Christ. It’s more often than not a gradual thing, and in those early days of new found faith there is for us all a certain real ‘fragility’.

We have need of careful instruction, the Word of God being taught and applied to our lives in a personal, pastoral way. We have need of the company, friendship and care of a body of like-minded people who’ll support us and encourage us and help to keep us right when problems come – for it is not good that we should be alone. And we have need of the channels down which all our time and our strength can be poured.

We have a lot to do with addicts here, as I say: and the next step on from Teen Challenge is where a local fellowship such as ours comes in. For the transition back to the streets of Aberdeen (or wherever they stay) is a huge and difficult step. For months they’ve known, enjoyed and benefited from, a healthy and daily exposure to Christian instruction, Christian fellowship and Christian service, in a safe, secure environment, free from both the pressures and temptations of their former life.

But once returned to the city, and having to live once again their fragile lives amidst the shadows of a past which haunts them almost every way they turn – that’s hard enough in itself, but on top of that the framework of support to which they’ve grown accustomed is no longer there: at least most times not anything like to the same extent.

I was speaking with one or two men a few weeks back, who’ve been through such a life-transforming period at Teen Challenge; and one of them proffered the wish that the Teen Challenge programme might run for not one, but for three years. He’s back in circulation and he’s feeling on his own: connected with a fellowship in town, and involved in their own network of ‘small groups’. But still feeling somewhat isolated and so very much on his own.

Fragile. And in continuing need of what he simply called ‘connections’. He wasn’t alone. The other man with him ventured exactly the same. The need to meet with others, to have some folk around him on an almost daily basis, to help him re-adjust to living out this whole new way of life amidst the harsh and unforgiving landscape of this sin-stained world.

The shift from the daily exposure to fellowship with other followers of Christ, to a pattern of local church life which can often feel more like a seven-day­ cycle of grace, a big long gap between such times of coming together – that’s a sizeable gap, and a big ask.

So I asked these men what years two and three might look like in their ideal Teen Challenge programme. And their answer was all about filling the week, when they first came back into ‘real-world’ circulation – filling the week with ‘pit-stops’ of the means of grace: meeting up with others, learning from God’s Word, being held to account in brief, short bursts, discovering spheres of service.

It sounded and felt most remarkably like a re-write in the language of these modern day disciples, a re-write of the sequel to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.42-47): “every day they continued to meet together..”. Meeting together, learning together, praying together, eating in each other’s homes, and sharing with each other.

After the great ‘Teen Challenge’ experience of the day of Pentecost, when these ‘addicts’ of religion were convicted of their sin and then delivered from the potent, deadly poison which had dragged them to the brink of their damnation – after that great ‘Teen Challenge’ day of Pentecost, these were the first and next steps on the pathway to recovery. A kind of decompression chamber, which meant the shift from having dwelt for long enough down in the murky depths of sin to starting once again to live in realms of light and life – that shift was not too sudden or too stark.

And a very real part of that gentle, careful easing of such now recovering addicts back into the life God has in store for them, is affording them work they can do. And here’s why.

We are all of us ‘addicts’, remember. And there’s a sense in which we were made that way by God – made to be pre-occupied with, to find our deepest satisfaction in relationship with God. What David Robertson in the title of that book he wrote describes as a ‘magnificent obsession.’

It’s that original obsession which has gone and got distorted and infected with the wretched virus sin, and now finds itself deceptively diverted down a range of dead-end avenues: we obsess, that is, about all the wrong things. What the Bible calls idolatry.

And addicts, therefore, even when delivered and recovering – they still remain obsessive. They need to find alternative paths down which that instinct for obsession can now run.

Isn’t that what we find in the Scriptures? Isn’t that what we’re seeing when the psalmist declares, One thing I ask, this only do I seek..” (Ps.27.4)? Isn’t that what’s in front of us, too, when Paul affirms, “.. one thing I do ..” (Phil.3.13)? These men were obsessives, recovering addicts, whose obsession is now with the Lord. As it was always meant to be. The ‘magnificent obsession’.

Isn’t that, after all, what’s so strikingly seen in the One who is most truly human, the Lord Jesus Christ? “Zeal for Your house has consumed me..” – words from the psalmist, expressing the same sort of righteous obsession, picked up and applied to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (John 2.17, quoting Ps.69.9).

An integral part of the path of the addict’s recovery is his learning how best he can re-direct the ‘thirst’ in his obsession down the highways of the service of the Lord.

We were not made to be passive spectators. We were made to be workers. And although such work itself can become a misdirected obsession, it’s important for any recovering addict to have things to do. To serve the Lord with an all-consuming passion.

That’s one of the striking features of the reign of king Uzziah (2 Chron.26-1-16) which has impressed itself upon my heart this past long while. He was a man who in his early days sought the counsel and instruction of an older man to teach him the fear of the Lord; and then ensured that all of his people were usefully trained and employed in the wide-ranging work of the kingdom. It was work which devoured all their energy, encouraged new-found creativity, and gave meaning and purpose to all of their lives. They had a cause down which the juices of that obsession with God could be fruitfully poured.

The need is the same for every recovering addict. They all have time, energy, gifts, along with that great and continuing ‘obsessiveness’, which have to be re-directed. Ideally, they all need outlets of service.

And insofar as we’re all still, at best, in recovery, the work of the Spirit of God in our lives sees Him channelling our time and our strength into spheres of fresh labour for God. The path of recovery (what the theologians call ‘sanctification’ – our being restored, in the end, to the likeness of Christ) is invariably gradual and slow: ‘progressive sanctification’ is the tag-line by which it’s described.

God takes His time, but this is the way our inherent, instinctive obsession is patiently recalibrated. And as we ‘keep step with the Spirit’ as a fellowship, in His on-going ministry of recovery, one of the tasks that we necessarily have is that of helping each other discover the ways our ‘magnificent obsession’ with Christ can find fruitful expression in service for each and every addict.

Which, as I said at the start, is all of us!

Yours in Christ’s glad service,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – August 2018

Dear Friends

We’ve shifted seismically as a nation over this past short while.

And it’s definitely ‘shift’ more than ‘drift’. It’s been deliberate, planned, intentional: a marked and calculated shifting of the great ‘tectonic plates’ which form the world-view and the outlook of our nation’s life.

We have shifted, with what is in truth a dramatic and dangerous speed – we have shifted from being a people who were anchored in the Book to being a people who have not just gone and wantonly weighed anchor but who’ve recklessly gone and chucked the thing away.

As a society we have carefully, consciously, and with a wholly miss-placed confidence, moved away from an outlook on life and a pattern of living which had prevailed for hundreds of years – an outlook on life and a pattern of living which was indebted to God, informed by the truths of the Bible, and infused with the grace of the gospel.

There’s been a cultural earthquake: these huge tectonic plates which form the bedrock of a nation’s life, the great foundational premises on which a people’s life is built, these plates have shifted.

One of the tell-tale signs of this seismic shift has been the move towards the litigating mindset of a compensation culture, and the speed with which an attitude of blame’s become the standard, first-stop stance which we adopt.

That’s invariably, and inevitably, what happens when the gospel of grace is dispensed with, and the tenets of Scripture are scorned. When we cease to walk humbly with God, as the ancient prophet Micah would have said, when we cease to walk humbly with God then the delicate balance in national life of our acting with absolute justice while retaining as well a perspective informed by God’s grace – that delicate balance is lost, and our thinking and living gets skewed.

A scapegoat-seeking, finger-pointing attitude of blame becomes the default stance society adopts: and a selfie-taking, “I’m-the-one-who’s-suffered” sort of victim-like mentality (in a general rather than in any more technical sense) becomes the prevalent self-assessment people hold.

No-one to my knowledge has done a study on this theme: but my guess is that there’ll be some correlation between the ditching by a nation of a biblical perspective and the simultaneous rise within that nation of this ‘compensation culture’ and its fruits.

Sometimes, of course, both blame and compensation are important and required. Crimes are committed and damage is willfully done. Walking humbly with God means we will indeed act justly: no blind eyes will be turned: high and low, rich and poor alike, will be equally subject to their just desserts. But such processes of justice will always be accompanied by an attitude that’s characterized by mercy.

Indeed, it was surely precisely because our land was the land of the Book, its world-view and life both informed (however imperfectly) by the truths of the Bible and infused (again however imperfectly) with the gospel of grace – it was surely precisely because that was so that our distinctive legal system was itself so highly esteemed: the ‘act justly, love mercy’ balance of a nation intent on walking in humility with their God ensured that such a system worked so well.

But we choose now as a nation not to walk with God: and that balance has been lost. Instead now our first port of call as often as not is to point a blaming finger, and to seek, where we can, a bulky compensation package.

But it’s a flawed and complex world in which we live! Disasters take place. Accidents happen. Catastrophes sometimes occur.

Wild fires break out across the parched and wooded slopes of southern Greece. Boats carrying hundreds of refugee people capsize in the seas of the Med. Typhoons destroy massive swathes of a far eastern land. Tower blocks go up in flames. Half-built dams are breached releasing torrents of destructive power.

And what happens on the larger, louder canvas of the nations of the world is paralleled precisely on the canvas of our own more personal experience. Accidents happen. The bottom falls out of our world. An illness afflicts us severely. An injury comes out of the blue. Disappointments blind-side us completely.

Things don’t always go right – sometimes, indeed, they go horribly wrong. And rarely do they all go to plan. That’s just the broken-down and complicated world in which we live.

And that’s where our world-view and outlook kicks in. Because when we’ve lost our solid, steady anchorage in Christ, our instinct when such hard, unwelcome trials come our way is to take up the cudgel of blame.

Take the Grenfell Tower and what happened there. The block goes up in flames – a wretched, frightening, near apocalyptic spectacle: and for those involved a nightmare now become reality. But hardly have the fires been doused than (with blame as the default response) the question’s inevitably asked: who’s to blame?

The architects? The builders? The contractors? The council? The town planners? The tentacles of blame reach far and wide. Even the fire-men and women, who risked their very lives to douse the fires and rescue those within – perhaps even they are to blame.

Blame is our natural default response in the face of anything ‘bad’.

You see exactly that in all the down-to-earth and very honest narratives we find across the pages of the Book.

Remember the man born blind, whose remarkable story is told in the gospel of John? The disciples of Jesus had still got a whole load to learn when it came to their walking with God and their living the new life of grace. And their opening gambit is way off the mark (John 9.2): it’s the language and outlook of blame they adopt. Who is to blame? is the question they think needs an answer. The man? His parents? The system? The Lord?

Blame.

And Jesus has to correct them. Wrong sort of question, He says. That’s not a land of the Book sort of question: that’s a jungle warfare sort of line.

It’s exactly the same with poor old Job, is it not, in the wake of the disasters which have come his way? His friends, when they finally can’t hold their tongue any more, are all pointing the finger of blame.

(It’s classic ‘Sound of Music’ theology they’re propounding really. You remember that song in ‘The Sound of Music’“For here you are, standing there, loving me, Whether or not you should. So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good..”. It’s bad, appalling theology: but the so-called friends of Job are singing the B-side of that very song: ‘so here you are, Job, sitting there, battered, bereaved, and now beset with terrible sores – so somewhere in your past you must have done something bad.’)

Blame. It’s the stance we most naturally choose when confronted by the harsh and sore realities of life within this flawed and fallen world.

We’ll sometimes blame others. Sometimes it’s only ourselves we will blame. And sometimes, of course, it is God we will blame. But blame is the name of our game.

See where it leads, though. Blaming others will lead to an angry and festering resentment: blame yourself and that over time breeds a lingering guilt and despair: blame God and a stubborn, defiant unbelief will slowly grow.

Do you see what’s really going on then when we’ve ceased to be a people of the Book? Blame is what’s left when we cease to be rooted in Scripture and lose the perspective of grace. Faith, hope, and love have disappeared: and unbelief, despair, resentment now move in, like a sordid crowd of squatters in our hearts and in our land, and take their place.

So how are we meant to respond when such wretched things take place? Because sooner or later, in one way or another, they will take place – often very suddenly, usually unexpectedly, and most times with a trailing sting of grief, pain and perplexity: welcome to a fallen world.

Blame is not the line down which our questioning must go. For one thing, blame always ends with ‘me’ (spell it and see): point the finger and you’ve three other fingers pointing right back at yourself.

No. There are two main alternative routes down which we are to steer the surging torrent of emotions which catastrophes create.

First, it would seem, we are meant to be asking – are there things we can learn from these wretched events, from these terrible trials? It may not be the language which we’d choose for Him to speak, but what is God saying through it all?

There was a tower block disaster in Jerusalem back in Jesus’ day: and news as well of a quite horrific massacre (Luke 13.1ff). Jesus steered the people right away from any instinct which they might have had to blame, and pointed them rather to what they’d do well to be learning. Life is fragile, grace is available, make sure that you’re sorted with God.

When our world is informed by the truth of God’s Word and our outlook infused with the gospel of grace, then we’re learners more than anything: and not litigators.

But there’s a second line of questioning as well to which we’re always pointed by the Lord. How can we best take things on from this point for the glory of God?

The man born blind is .. well, blind. That’s just where he is right now, and no matter how much you debate who’s to blame, you’ll not thereby change things at all. Blame is the wrong sort of question: it burrows away in a past which you cannot undo.

The world of grace, by contrast, has the future as its focus and the cross of Christ its centre-point. It understands that God can take the darkest and most wretched sort of circumstance and use it as the platform for a mighty demonstration of His glory and His grace.

Joseph back in Egypt, it was evident, had learned that lesson well. He’d been through the mill; but just at the point where his brothers expected that blame would be how he’d react, Joseph is focused on how their great God had turned this whole thing on its head and through it all was “saving many lives” (Gen.50.20).

That’s to do with world-view and with attitude. Faith believes in advance what can only make sense down the line. So how do we take this circumstance on in a way that will glorify God? That’s how Jesus instructed His friends in regard to the man who was blind (see John 9.3).

That’s how we learn to be careful ourselves to respond to the trials there are. And that’s how we learn to support one another in the face of the struggles we face.

God’s in the business of “saving many lives” (Gen.50.20): God has come down to rescue us (Ex.3.8): Jesus is the Saviour, the cross the path He trod. In following Him, the shadow of that cross will never be that far away in one form or another: but through the pains and griefs which all the darkness of that shadow-land will bring, we choose by faith to see that He’s intent on ‘saving many lives’.

We pray to that end – for ourselves, for each other – desiring that somehow or other His power will be gloriously displayed in the ‘weakness’ we are called by Him to embrace. And we encourage one another to that end as well, and (as I was saying last month in regard to Jonathan’s care for his friend) we seek in this way to strengthen each other in God.

As the ‘tag-line’ which we use here for the Great Aberdeen Run will say, ‘Glory awaits’. We run the race with that knowledge impressed on our hearts. Glory awaits, a glory with which all the suffering and sorrow the present may bring is simply not worth comparing.

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – July 2018

Dear Friends

For many the summer equates to rest and relaxation. A chance to slow down, to ease back on the throttle of their living and to take a break.

We can easily get jaded and tired by the time these summer months begin: and when fatigue rules the roost in our physical frames, then such weariness warps our perspective.

There are often certain tell-tale signs of jaded living. A creeping negativity takes root. An eager, pulsing hopefulness gives way to gloom and fear. Fatalism starts to rear its head. Cynicism starts to mark our outlook. Criticism becomes our basic, default attitude. We start to ‘turn turtle’: instead of our being slow to anger and quick and careful to listen, the pattern is turned upside down – we lose interest in what they are saying, we lose patience with how they’re behaving. God seems somehow that much smaller, and a good deal more remote: while pressures, problems, people – they all seem that much larger, more immediate.

An eclipse of the spirit takes place, as the ‘moon’ which these things represent drifts across our clear sight of the light of the sun, and our world then goes eerily dark. The moon, of course, is in truth wholly dwarfed by the size of the sun: and the problems and pressures and people we face are in just the same way themselves all as nothing compared to the greatness of God: but fatigue tilts the orbit of our living out of line, and the little becomes very quickly so large, and a gloom casts its pall on our souls.

Jaded. Tired. In need of a rest. And so, for many, the summer affords them the chance to take a break.

Some will head off to all sorts of foreign climes, seeking either the sun or the sights of some faraway place (or maybe ideally both): others will stay nearer home (perhaps even at home), and be glad of the chance to hunker down and hide away from the world in which they have been living.

Some will go looking for peace and quiet seclusion: others will seek out activities, challenge, adventure – something, somewhere, that’s completely and utterly different.

We’re all of us different in how we address this issue of fatigue, which seeps its subtly toxic fumes of jaundiced living through our body, mind and soul, and leaves us thereby weary, worn and wholly out of sorts. But all of us, too, well recognize the issue and are looking for refreshment and renewal.

Summer is the season of refreshment. For most of us at least! And one way or another this season of refreshment sends us back into the routines of our daily lives revitalized, re-energised, and raring for the action and the challenges our work entails. The day of that eerie ‘eclipse’ of the soul is then long since forgotten: the ‘moon’ which had clouded our spirits has now shrunk away to the size of a far-away ball. The problems have paled, the pressures have eased, the people are really not bad: and we’re ready to take on the world once again in a confidence borne from the sunshine and rest we’ve enjoyed.

Our perspective’s restored. Our spirit’s renewed. Our energy, our expectancy, our enthusiastic eagerness for all that following Jesus will involve – all that has been restored. Strength: love: passion: hope: and confidence. All restored.

That’s the effect (or at least what we hope’s the effect) of this annual summer season of refreshment.

But would it not be something if our lives and our living had that sort of impact on those we were with day by day? If we, in ourselves, in the manner in which we were living our day by day lives – if we in ourselves were this season of summer to others.

I guess it was that sort of thing to which Paul was alluding when, writing to Philemon his friend, he said that this man had “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Philemon 7). This humble believer was a one-man summer holiday!

Whoever you were, whenever you met and had time with this man, you came away feeling so entirely and truly refreshed: you came away feeling just the way that you do at the end of a holiday break. Eager, expectant, and all fired up. Ready for every new challenge. Motivated, energized, and confident.

Philemon, it seems, brought to the experience of the people he was with this season of refreshment. In the same sort of way that Jesus Himself always does (only far more so in His case).

And it’s striking to see how the same sort of thing finds expression in many another. As if in a gentle, subliminal way, the Lord through His Word wants to marinate our spirits in a ’season of refreshment’ sort of wine.

Job is surely another such man whose whole living had just that effect. Listen to how the man puts it – “They waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain (a different season, I know, but it’s the same idea!). When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it: the light of my face was precious to them” (Job 29.23f – the whole of the chapter expands on this man’s way of life, and illustrates well just how he ‘refreshed’ all of those he encountered in life).

You were always refreshed after time with this man. And as often as not it was just through all the little things that that refreshment came: some well-chosen words, and the way that those words would be spoken: the warmth of his smile and the look in his eyes. Little things, which somehow brought the light of God Himself to bear upon your heart and made you feel re-energised and strong.

The same, in a rather different way, was also true of Jonathan. What a blessing it would surely have been to have known this guy as your friend! Full of an almost ‘boyish’ sort of fun, and full as well of a faith-fuelled spirit of adventure: but what a friend! Thoughtful, kind, and always so encouraging and warm. Like the time he went out to David in the wilderness: and David, his friend, was way out there in a desert place in every sense of the word. Jaded, tired, despondent: fearing the worst, prepared to give up, beginning to think “what’s the point?”

And at no small risk to himself (and at no small cost, as well, because in many ways this was the moment which cost him the throne) – at no small risk to himself Jonathan went out to the desert of Ziph and “strengthened his hand in God” (1 Sam.23.16ff). Refreshing the heart of this saint.

Again, like Job, it was just through all the little things. Like his taking the trouble to go to his friend. Like the simple fact of a hug and embrace as they greeted one another. Like the comfort of his presence in the face of all the pressures David knew. Like the few choice words of re-assuring hope and warm encouragement. Like the spoken pledge of continuing friendship and love.

To have seen the face of this man at that time would have been for David like seeing the face of God. An instant summer holiday. A season of refreshment from the hand of God, brought to him there in the person of his friend.

What is such a season of refreshment? It’s the same as the ‘times of refreshing’ of which Peter spoke in the early weeks and months of Jesus’ church (Acts 3.19) – those ‘times of refreshing’ when the Spirit of God bathes the people of God with such streams of the grace of the presence of God that the saints are enlivened all over again and emboldened for great deeds of faith: it’s those sort of ‘times of refreshing’ which come to be embodied in, and indeed imparted by, the life and daily living of a follower of Christ.

Oh that our lives and our living might always be such! Great reservoirs of grace which daily pour their cool, fresh waters on the dry, parched lives of those who have been buffeted and bruised, and find themselves now wandering in their own distressing wilderness of Ziph.

How do we ensure this is much more than just the cry within our hearts? How do we become such men and women who refresh the hearts of saints?

It surely has something to do, for a start, with the thrust of Psalm 1, with its focus on the person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on His law day and night.” A round-the-clock engaging with the Word of God, that’s what the psalmist is on about there. That does something to us: and the effect it has is just this – “that person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers” (Ps.1.3).

It surely, as well, has something to do with the work of the Spirit of God in our hearts and our lives. Remember Jesus’ gracious invitation? “’Let anyone who is thirsty (isn’t that wonderful – anyone, no exclusions at all, no qualifications required), let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this He meant the Spirit…” (John 7.37-39).

Our hearts becoming reservoirs of Holy Spirit grace, providing for the people whom we meet a constant stream of cool and sparkling water to refresh them as they journey through their wilderness of Ziph.

May we learn thus to live, that in and through the multitude of ‘little things’ which make up all the ‘doings’ of our daily lives, we end up being to others just a walking, talking, living ‘summer holiday’, refreshing the hearts of the saints!

Enjoy your summer!

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – June 2018

Dear Friends

Following Jesus means we’re future-oriented people.

Not that we’re either ignorant or dismissive of the past: far from it – we do what the Lord always calls us to do and remember just what He has done. Always.

We’re lastingly thankful for the grace that He’s shown us in Jesus, for all that He’s wrought by His Spirit in each of our lives, and for all that we owe to our forbears in the faith down through the generations.

But we don’t ever live in the past. We don’t even yearn and hanker for that past. It’s been and gone and we’re not going back.

Nor do we downplay the present, of course. It’s the here and now after all in which we live.

Now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation,” wrote Paul: not because he’d had an off day and jumped ship and embraced a “Let’s-eat-and-drink-and-be-merry” perspective on life. But rather because he knew very well that we may not have a tomorrow. Today is what we’ve been given. God speaks today. We hearken today. We get the chance to serve today.

And yes, our present enjoyment of God, while partial and far from the pure final thing, has nonetheless given a taste of the age still to come.

All of that’s true. But we don’t put down roots in the present. Not just because we’re pilgrims on the high road to eternity; but because as well we’re warriors on the march. There is work to be done, there’s a war to be waged, there are battles which have still to be fought.

It may sometimes seem (when our lives are being bathed in the Spirit of God and the presence of Jesus is palpably, thrillingly real) – it may sometimes seem as if we’re almost there (as the old song says): but we’re not there yet – and sometimes, in truth, it will seem as if we’re a whole million miles from home.

But that’s where Jesus is headed; and that’s why following Him means we’re always ourselves a future-oriented people. That’s the whole direction of our living.

We’re next-generation people. Thinking down the line. Not just upbuilding the saints of today but equipping the saints of tomorrow.

We sometimes sing the Hillsong praise with the line which runs like this (well, two lines, I suppose, so far as the pedantic are concerned!) –

“I see a generation rising up to take their place,

with selfless faith, with selfless faith…”

But that doesn’t happen – neither, in the first place, a next generation rising up to take their place, nor that next generation being marked by a selfless faith – that doesn’t happen by some sort of wishful-thinking magic, far less by any accident of grace. It happens when we are clearly, consistently and prayerfully intentional in embracing and applying to our life here as a fellowship that ‘next-generation’ perspective.

It’s that perspective which on the broader canvas lies behind the foundational training programme we’ve been seeking to establish with both DCF and Hebron: what I wrote about last month. And it’s that self-same perspective which, on the somewhat narrower canvas of our local life, means we’re now intent on raising up that next generation of leaders here.

A new generation of leaders rising up to take the place, assume the sacred mantle, and embrace the privileged role, of their forbears in the eldership: a new generation of leaders marked by that same selfless faith and that self-same passion to move forward the purpose of God and see the King of glory come again at last.

We call these leaders ‘elders’ here, a term which highlights less their age and more a real maturity of faith, a measured, well-informed maturity in Christ which fits them well for all the varied burdens which they’ll bear, enabling them to handle all the facets of that leadership within the church of God which will secure the well-being and the growth of both the people and the on-going work of Christ.

It’s no place for a weak, faint-hearted faith: it’s no place for the volatile or those who seek to use it as a power base: it’s no place for self-confident individuals who haven’t learned that absolute reliance on the Lord for wisdom, strength and grace. The stakes are far too high. Maturity is required.

These leaders are referred to also as ‘overseers’. This way of speaking of such leaders has to do with what their calling is, the role they have, the task which is committed to their care. These leaders are there to watch over the people of God with a view to their growth in grace: and to oversee the on-going work of the Lord in this place.

‘Shepherds of the church of God’ is how such leaders find themselves described. Or pastors, to use an equivalent term.

And when the Bible speaks of the leaders as such, it’s always against the backdrop of the sacrificial system. Sheep were the fuel on which that system ran. Sheep were pastured and nurtured on the hillsides of the promised land with one great end in view: they were fed and led, guided and guarded, with Jerusalem as their final destination, and the temple as their destiny. The shepherds of Israel were fitting their sheep for the altar. For the priest rather than the butcher. For the spiritual life of the people, rather than for their Sunday (or Saturday!) lunch.

And that’s what all present day pastors are called to be doing as well, as they shepherd the flock of God: feeding and fashioning and fitting the followers of Jesus in such a way that they “offer (their) bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God..” (Rom.12.1).

It’s a role which is tough and demanding, involving the pastor in “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom” (Col.1.28). And the end in view is clear – it is to ”present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col.1.28), every believer marked, that is, by real growth – their attitudes, outlook and living alike being conformed more and more to the likeness of Jesus Himself.

It’s akin to the work we might find in a personal trainer, stretching us right to our limits (and sometimes beyond) to get and keep us fit: it’s akin to the work which a physiotherapist does, wisely (often painfully – for the patient at least!) working with a person ‘til that person is restored and fully functioning again.

That’s what these leaders (our elders or pastors) are called by the Lord to secure: the true health of God’s people, and the progress of God’s work.

Why does it matter so much that there is that sort of rigorous pastoral ‘oversight’? For these three primary reasons.

First, to honour God’s Name. It’s life which God has given us in Jesus, and that life finds expression in growth. Always. He isn’t ever honoured by the stuntedness of those He’s brought to life.

Secondly, to advance God’s work. There’s work aplenty which remains to be done and it’s there to be done by the saints. Believers. Not some elite higher echelon of gifted men and women, but each and every person who has come to trust in Jesus for salvation. They need to be strengthened, equipped and empowered to rise to that calling in Christ – and to do the work.

And thirdly, to enrich God’s people. There are depths of experience which infants can never enjoy and which only really our growing into adulthood affords. Infancy is fine as a stage in our lives – but not as a permanent condition: it’s a fullness of life which God means us to know.

That’s what the elders, or pastors, are called to secure – the growth into maturity of those who’ve come to place their trust in Christ. And we’re seeking now to raise up here the ‘next generation leadership’.

We’d like you to make this a matter of prayer, first of all: that as those presently entrusted with the great responsibility of leadership, we’d be directed clearly by the Lord to those whom He is calling to this role; those in whom we see the needful gifts already given (if only in an embryonic form); those in whom we recognize this sort of pastoral ministry being exercised already in the way that they engage with those around them in the fellowship.

You may well wish to offer us the names of those you see as being well qualified and gifted for this task: we’d only ask that in so doing you offer names in confidence, without in any way alerting those you mention to the Leadership Team that you’ve proposed their name. Please recognize the crucial sensitivities involved in this; and speak only to anyone presently on the Leadership Team* – by the 30th June.

What should we be looking for? We’ll be looking at this in more detail in our Sunday morning worship: but you do well to check the ‘criteria’ which Paul himself sets out in 1 Tim.3.1-7 and in Titus 1.6-9. In brief, when we’re looking for the next generation of elders here, we’re looking for men who are marked first by a clear relational maturity (Titus 1.6), then, too, by an obvious personal integrity (Titus 1.7-8), and finally by an evident pastoral authority – evident in their being committed to biblical truth, their being able warmly to commend and apply that biblical truth, and their being quick to contend for that biblical truth in the life and lives of God’s people (Titus 1.9).

And, yes, men! We take the view that there are complementary roles which men and women play within the life of Jesus’ church, like partners combining in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, and that here in the dance of the gospel that lead’s to be taken by men. We’ll think this through more fully on Sunday 17th June.

But back to where we started and our future-oriented living – and as an integral part of all that, the raising up and nurturing of the next generation of leaders. May the Lord Himself lead us forward and grant us leaders who breathe the spirit of that song to which I alluded earlier on –

Ev’rything I am, for Your Kingdom’s cause.

As I walk from earth into eternity.

May that be the outlook we, all of us, choose to adopt.

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

 

* Those presently serving on the Leadership Team along with the minister are – Brian Gourlay, Rob Howard, Donald Mackenzie, Richard Moon, Albert Rodger, and Mike Strudwick

Monthly Letter – May 2018

Dear Friends

Training figures largely in what we’re about.

It’s one of the four main strands of what might loosely be called our DNA: it is, if nothing else, an integral part of what we understand to be our raison d’etre – something we use the suggestive acronym ACTS to give expression to.

Attracting people to Jesus.

Consolidating their new-found faith.

Training each one for ministry.

Sending them out in Christ’s name.

We want the story of the early church (recorded in the book of Acts) to be our story, too. Jesus hasn’t changed: and neither has the plot-line of His purpose. He’s building His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against Him. The darkness is being driven back: His kingdom is surely coming.

But although the progress of the gospel is sure, and the advancement of His kingdom is certain, there’s nothing either magical or simply automatic about the thing. There’s work to be done; and these are the four points of the compass that we use – A.C.T.S. Attracting, consolidating, training, sending – so that others in turn are attracted to Jesus, and thereby the cycle begins all over again: the ‘revolving door’ of our calling in Christ.

The tag-lines maybe sound good, of course, but ‘til they’re all fleshed out and given solid substance they’re simply empty phrases.

We’ve been working at this: and not least in regard to training.

“Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle” writes the psalmist (Psalm 144.1), who understood what we too must always understand, that following Jesus thrusts us into a battle. There’s a war going on, there are battles to be fought, and a part of the call which is placed on His church is to get us equipped for the fight.

For the past good long while we’ve been giving attention to this.

We’ve been airing the theme, first of all, when leaders from churches throughout both the city and shire have been gathered together to meet and to talk and to pray: asking the questions – like, Isn’t there scope for providing a programme of training up here in these north eastern parts? Isn’t there clearly a need for such ‘on-the-spot’ training provision which doesn’t require a commute of some hundreds of miles? Don’t we have the resources up here to develop, define and deliver a programme like this which will train and equip future leaders for all that the Lord calls them to?

We’ve been pushing this up the agenda as well when leaders from like-minded churches have ‘breakfasted’ sometimes together through the course of the past many months. This has been a substantially smaller forum in terms of the numbers of those involved; but the ground on which we have all been agreed is, of course, correspondingly also larger. And in this smaller gathering of like-minded pastors and leaders, albeit in varying degrees, there has been a consistent consensus that training is clearly important.

And emerging from that, in a grouping yet markedly smaller, we’ve been working along with the Deeside Christian Fellowship and with Hebron Evangelical Church to develop a rolling, two-year foundational course of training which we hope to get up and running as of August of this year.

Where this may lead and just how this may later expand remains to be seen; but it does at last provide up here, at least in even an embryonic form, a basic course of training to equip believers better for the rigours of the ministries to which they are being called.

Ministry of any sort locates us on a battle-field. We need the Lord to train us for such warfare, as the psalmist (in a very different context) clearly understood. And so this foundational programme of training will be very firmly rooted in the teaching of the Word of God – He’s the One who trains us, after all, and so we seek to have His Holy Spirit teach His people through His Word.

With six foundational modules spread across the two years of the programme, there’s scope for those who take this on to get to grips with Scripture and to have their understanding firmly shaped and wholly fashioned by the Word of God.

But it’s intended as well to be very much a ‘hands-on’ type of training which we give. The Lord, as the psalmist expressed it, “trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”

It’s hands-on stuff he’s on about. There’s a real-life war to be waged, not just some classroom test which must be passed. Getting our heads around God’s truth counts for little if we can’t get our hands round the weapons He gives us to use. Theory must always be matched by the hours out there on the practice ground. Both are important.

Musicians know this. Golfers know this. We all know this. You need the theory and you need the practice: you have to put in the hard yards. There simply aren’t the short-cuts we might like.

Our hope is that this whole very ‘practical’ dimension will indeed be part of the basic foundational training which we’re putting in place.

Why are we putting our energies into a programme like this?

There are ever so many good reasons!

  • Because that’s what the call of the Lord will always entail. Training. Our task is to go and make disciples. Not converts – because that’s His business: we can’t raise the dead, we can’t open eyes, we can’t touch a heart of stone and make a heart of flesh. But we can go make disciples; and that involves our ‘teaching them to observe all that He has commanded us’. As parents are called to train up a child in the way that we all are to go, so too within the family of God we’re to train up the children of God to equip them in turn then to go.
  • Because the landscape of our nation has been hugely re-configured in these days. It’s like we’ve had to emigrate, and we find ourselves in spiritual terrain which all seems terribly strange. Generations have long since grown up with either little or often now no real exposure at all to the truths of the gospel we preach. God’s Word is dismissed, God’s Son is ignored; and God’s people who stand on the truth of His Word and who seek in their living to honour the Lordship of Christ, well, they’re more and more branded as odd-balls, perceived and reviled as a menace and threat to the comfortable culture of self. It’s a brave new wave of Christians we’re intent on training up to live the life of Jesus in this so-called ‘Brave New World’.
  • Because the contours of the church of Jesus here in Scotland now have also hugely changed. It once was that denominations ‘ruled the roost’, that that was where the loyalties of Christian folk would mostly lie. But in recent years something like ‘deregulation’ has kicked in, and now there is a far more fluid nature to the way that church life works. And training’s been affected in the whole, extensive shake-up that there’s been. There isn’t now the uniform approach which once there was: and while that makes for greater flexibility, it also means the whole approach to training can be far more flawed as well, with cracks down which who knows just how much vital training content may well slip.
  • Because we have to be what I’ll call ‘next generation’ thinkers. Time after time after time the Scriptures insist that this is to be our perspective. The next generation. Living our life today down the line. It’s a crucial perspective which goes against the grain of every instinct in ourselves. What’s good for us today is all we really want: there’s too much of the Hezekiah mindset in us all. Remember him? “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?” (2 Kings 20.19), he said. He wasn’t all that troubled by whatever might then happen after that. It’s a recipe for ruin which we consciously reject. We’re intent on now putting in place that which will serve that coming generation well.
  • Because up here in this north-eastern corner there is simply a dearth of such training, compared to the rest of the country. There are options galore for the borders and the central belt: there are options as well for the north and the west. But up here in this north-eastern corner there’s the scope for, the need for, and also the evident lack of a basic foundational programme of biblical training to serve the church well in advancing the cause of the gospel.

We don’t want to stick with simply ‘tag-lines’, however good they sound. We mean business! There’s work to be done in these days. And we’re eager to be out there at the ‘coalface’, involved to the hilt in the on-going work of our wonderful, warrior God.

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – April 2018

Dear Friends

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a big man. In every way.

His large physique (at least, it looks that way from the pictures you see of the man) was matched both by the largeness of his heart, and by the passion which he had to bring the good news of a Saviour to the lost and needy multitudes who swarmed the streets of London where he lived.

He was a preacher: a preacher with a rich command of English and a certain bold directness in the truths he was persuaded must be preached. He didn’t mince his words. He told it as it was. There wasn’t any ‘flannel’ in the messages he brought. It was always a shoot-from-the-hip sort of thing.

There’s a book in his name called “The Soul Winner.” The title is taken from Authorised Version of Proverbs 11.30 (“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise”), and the title describes very well the man whose addresses the book itself contains.

It’s a book from which we would all undoubtedly profit – and some of us maybe would benefit most if we read it once every year!

Perhaps one chapter in particular: the one entitled – ‘How to raise the dead’.

If that sort of chapter heading doesn’t grab your attention and send a little shiver of anticipated trembling up your spine, I don’t know quite what will! But the title itself is so typical Spurgeon. No beating about the bush. No toning it down to make it seem a little less extreme. He’ll just shoot from the hip and tell it as it is.

The chapter concerned is a message he brought to “the teachers of the south London Auxiliary of the Sunday School Union, at their annual prayer meeting”: as such, of course, the lessons he’s teaching are applied with some force to the ministry then being exercised among the girls and boys of London at the time. But the message is one whose thrust is one we all of us need to be hearing (and the context – ‘their annual prayer meeting’ – is surely not without significance as well).

Because that’s what we’re called as Christ’s church here on earth to do. To raise the dead. As stark as that.

And as stupid and crazy as that, our society today would retort!

Our society today will have none of this at all: neither the fact of our own innate deadness; nor any notion of resurrection. How dare you suggest in the first place that we’re dead! And even if we were, well there’s no way on earth that the dead can be raised – that would be a miracle, and miracles are not on the menu today as something which people will ever swallow (so our society thinks).

And because we’re all out there each day and breathing in that toxic air of unbelief, we can subtly ourselves have our focus taken off the sharp reality of what we’re called to be and do as Jesus’ church.

Which is basically .. to raise the dead. (Except, of course, it’s not us, but the Lord who does the raising.)

We need to be clear about this. The challenge we face is not a case of ignorance or apathy; it’s not a case of people lacking interest or their being too much distracted by the multi-screen environment in which they live. That would be challenge enough, I don’t doubt: but it doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of the challenge which we face.

The challenge we face lies simply in this, that the world is one big cemetery, and those to whom the message must be brought are six-foot-under-ground and wholly dead and buried in their sin.

Outside of Christ, in their natural state, men and women and girls and boys are dead. Spiritually dead. As in a corpse: as wholly unresponsive, as wholly unable to hear, far less to act on, what’s being said .. as a lifeless corpse.

Dead. Dodos aren’t more dead than those we’re meeting and engaging on the streets of Aberdeen. Or wherever it is you may live. Brick walls are no less able to respond.

So don’t let’s think that if we somehow turbo-charged our kindness folk might start at last to see how good and gracious Jesus is: corpses cannot see. Don’t let’s think that watching YouTube TED talks to improve our own communication skills will mean that those with whom we’re speaking will now listen and respond: no amount of eloquence will ever make the dead a fractional percentage point less deaf.

So the one thing above all others which we need to learn is just what C H Spurgeon was going on about. How to raise the dead.

This is taking Easter and translating it from something on the calendar of history to something that’s inherent in our day-by-day engaging with the world in which we live. More than just a doctrine, but now the underlying dynamic to our living.

Isn’t that what Jesus Himself was speaking about when He countered the grief-stricken sisters in the aftermath of their brother Lazarus’ death?

Yes, they believe that their brother will rise at the last from the dead: their doctrine is sound, they believe in resurrection. Doctrinally sound they may be, but they hadn’t quite got the whole point.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replies Jesus to their orthodox confession of faith.

They’re thinking of the resurrection primarily as event. A diary-date in the purpose of God at some point in the mists of the future. And they’re not much different from the way we too have often thought. Resurrection as event.

An event (and yes, of course, an astonishing, wonderful, glorious event) which happened back then when Jesus was raised from the dead: and an event which is still in the future when all the dead will be raised.

So, yes, we believe in the resurrection of the body. The apostles would be proud of us as we recite the creed!

But Jesus would haul us aside, He’d drag us away from any such vain repetition of the great historic creeds, to impress on our hearts that it’s more than just a doctrine we believe – it’s meant to be the Spirit-wrought dynamic of our lives.

The resurrection is emphatically not primarily an event. I mean it is an event – a past event and a future event – but it’s not primarily that. It’s a Person. Jesus. And with this risen Jesus in our hearts and lives, resurrection then becomes an ever-present experience, as well as simply a past and a future event. An experience whereby the dead of today are being raised.

And isn’t it really just that which Paul as well is on about when he says that he’d ditch all his other credentials if only he might “know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Phil.3.10)? Knowing the Person who self-designates as ‘the resurrection and the life’  – and thereby also knowing Christ’s own resurrecting power both in and through his life. That power whereby the dead are raised.

Paul is insistent on that. That’s what the kingdom of God is really about, he declares. Not talk, no matter what eloquence, passion, or TED-talk potential the person may have: not talk, because no amount of any such talk will ever raise the dead.

Not talk, but power. And he means by that this ‘resurrection’ power, that power whereby the dead are raised. Remember how careful he was to contrast (in 1 Cor.4), to contrast the list of able and eminent ‘teachers’ which the church at Corinth had had – he contrasted them all with himself: you may have had a load of teachers, he insisted, but you’ve only got one father. That’s to say, ‘I gave you life’ (it was Jesus, of course, by His Spirit working through the man, who gave them life, but you get Paul’s point).

Isn’t that our heart’s desire and prayer? And isn’t that our greatest need today? To ditch the rest of the credentials we may well have prized, and cry for all we’re worth to God that this is what we long for and require – to know Jesus better; and to know in Him “the power of His resurrection”.

Nothing else does the business. Without such power to raise the dead we end up being no more than just a quaint religious club – offering folk the quietness of a fossil-filled museum, not the hubbub of a manufacturing enterprise where ‘waking the dead’ is not some TV programme but the product of our ministry as Christ’s empowered church.

May we all come to know Him better: and may we learn how to raise the dead!

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – March 2018

Dear Friends

‘Salvation belongs to the Lord!’

It’s one of the great one-liners of the Bible. Reduce the whole of God’s Word, the sixty six books of the Bible – reduce the whole of God’s Word to a single, summarizing sentence, and this is as good a way as any you might find. It’s the theme of the psalmist, the thrust of the prophets and preachers, the resounding refrain on the lips of believers in heaven.

Reduce the sentence to a single word, and you end with the name, ‘Jesus’: the Lord saves. The Bible isn’t that complicated at all.

And once we’ve got its message, it takes the pressure off ourselves. Saving people is His business, not ours: His initiative, His prerogative, and His ability alone.

We’re not called to be the stuff-of-legends heroines and heroes who go charging in to save the day and pull off feats of bold, amazing rescue all the time: not even some of the time.

God knows better than any that we make hopeless saviours. Salvation belongs to the Lord. We simply can’t do it.

No amount of rhetoric, no amount of erudite communication skills, no amount of eloquence and passion in the arguments we muster in the witness that we bear – none of that suffices to effect what involves in every case pure miracle. Raising the dead back to life: recovery of sight to those who’ve been blind from birth: deliverance from the shackles of addiction and the vice-like grip and downward-drag of sin in people’s lives.

We can’t do that.

But we’re not under any pressure to try to do so at all. That’s emphatically His business: salvation belongs to the Lord.

It’s what He does, and what he does so wonderfully well. It’s the hallmark of His workmanship from day one. Where there was but chaos, void and darkness, He rolled up His metaphorical sleeves and got on with the business of sorting the whole mess out and transforming it all, bit by bit, into a world of well-proportioned beauty.

We think of that as ‘creation’. But there’s a sense in which all that was really little different from the work we call ‘salvation’. Because in a world infected with the dreadful virus of sin, our lives are characterized precisely thus – chaotic, and empty, and groping around in all manner of desperate darkness. God’s saving work in our messed-up lives involves precisely the same transforming and creative power.

That’s just who He is and what He does. It’s His speciality. And we make no pretence at this being something we can ever do: we’re entirely up front about that. We can’t save a sausage. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

That doesn’t mean we end up mere spectators, though, admiringly watching the Lord at His work in the lives of those around us. We get to be participants. We get to share in His work.

Like nurses in the operating theatre, we don’t do the life-saving work ourselves; but we’re there to assist the surgeon as he carries out a heart-transplant operation on his patients in their need. We’ve watched the great surgeon at work: we’ve learned how he goes about what he does: we know the drill: we anticipate how best we can support him in this major operation. So we’re busy in the theatre at the surgeon’s side.

And lives are saved. Saved through the surgeon’s skill. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

We need to remember our place. We’re merely ‘theatre nurses’. That’s no small responsibility, of course, a privileged and demanding set of tasks to which we must attend with all due care.

But it’s the surgeon who’s the saviour. Our calling is as ‘nurses’ in the theatre of the Lord’s life-saving work; and our role requires we work in careful tandem with the skilled consultant surgeon, the gracious, great Physician of our souls.

We make ourselves familiar with the way in which He works. We see what He’s intent upon securing through the sovereign operations of His mighty Holy Spirit; we watch what He does, we see how He works, we learn what He needs.

And soon we are able to more or less anticipate what next He will be doing and therefore, too, how best we are deploying ourselves to tie in our activity with His.

We see the Lord’s reliance on the ‘scalpel’ of His Word.

(God’s Word is described as “the sword of the Spirit”, of course, a picture that’s drawn from the theatre of war – but change the whole analogy and the sword in the theatre of war becomes the scalpel in the operating theatre of God’s grace, does it not?)

We see how very central to salvation is the Word of God: we see from the start that this is the way the Lord works. Through His Word: the sharp, clean, incisive blade of this sacred scalpel in the “Surgeon’s” hand.

And so we have this ‘scalpel’ always ready and available for Him to use. We know with what exquisite care, with what superb precision, He will use His Word – and so we want to have it always ready for those very frequent moments when the “Surgeon” calls out simply “Scalpel please!”

So we build our life in this theatre of war which we call ‘the local church’, a theatre of war which is now as well the operating theatre of God’s grace – we build our life around our observation that the Surgeon needs His scalpel all the time. We prioritise the Word of God in other words, and by humble, urgent prayer (don’t forget that!) we place it in His hands that He may do the business and effect that work which only He can do. Saving lives for time and for eternity.

But that’s not all we do. We’ve learned as theatre nurses, not just all the instruments the Surgeon will be using – we’ve watched Him long enough at work and learned as well just how that work progresses through the sovereign operations of His gracious Holy Spirit.

Start reading the Bible and step thereby into the operating theatre of the living God: you’re learning right away just how the Surgeon works. Genesis 1. Chaos, void and darkness are replaced by order, light and fullness in a careful, loving operation at His hands. Hang around that operating theatre and almost straight away you witness how disordered, dark and empty life became. Human hearts were plagued by the killer virus sin: the Surgeon has a full-time job in remedying the dreadful plight humanity has brought upon itself. Major heart-transplant surgery’s required, which only He can do. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

And as we learn our calling as the Surgeon’s theatre nurses, we start to see that what the Lord is constantly effecting in His saving work is order in the place of all the chaos of our complicated, mixed-up, messed-up lives; fullness in the place of all the void and wretched emptiness which masquerades as life; and light and life in the place of all the despair, debauchery and darkness which have come to be the features of our fallen, flawed humanity.

That’s the world in which we live. Those are the people we’re meeting each day on the streets. A fallen, flawed humanity. Lives that are disordered, empty, dark. Men and women struggling somehow to muddle their way through the murky morass of their day-by-day life in the world. Lost. Loveless. Losers.

The condition is often disguised. People are proud and construct fine façades which suggest that there isn’t a problem. But remove the façade and the rotten condition is clear.

Many of the addicts we’re engaging with have long since ceased to bother with façades. (We’re all by nature ‘addicts’, of course, addicted to the lethal substance ‘self’: that’s the essence of the problem with humanity – it’s just we often will not recognize it as the problem and do not see how terribly enslaved we are).

Poisoned by the toxic, tightening grip of their addiction, their lives lack any sort of structure, their days are largely empty, their experience broadly dark. They don’t have a job, and their prospects are bleak: the only commitments they’re likely to have are appearances down at the courts: and the only real circle of friends that they have is as often as not just a violent, vicious circle which does little more than spiral them relentlessly downwards.

And, yes, I’m painting the picture in extreme and exaggerated terms to help make the point. We can’t save them.

We’d love to be able to help them, and to rescue them from this wretched plight which plagues our whole humanity: of course we would. But we can’t. Only the Lord can save. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

We’re just theatre nurses. He alone is the Surgeon.

But because we know what He’s doing as such, we learn to work along with Him. We can help to put some order into lives which are disordered and chaotic: we can provide for the Lord a place and an environment in which a certain structure can be built. We can start to put some content into lives which are devoid of any content day by day: for those who’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go and no-one who’s willing to risk wasting time in their cause, we can find tasks which need to be done, we can risk finding out where the gifts of such people are found and open up vistas of purposeful service.

That’s not going to save them. Only the Lord can do that. But this is all good theatre nurses’ work: seeing what the Surgeon is doing, discerning just where He is headed, and anticipating what He’ll look for and require.

This is the work of the kingdom to which we’ve been called. Restoration and renewal. Vital heart-transplant surgery, where our role as theatre nurses is itself the very essence of the saving work of Christ: our lives now full (it’s demanding, wearying work), our living now not random but well-ordered (a theatre like this is surely no place for any sort of mess!), and our strength now spent in the life-imparting service of the gracious, great Physician.

May God grant us grace to rise to the challenges of these days!

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – February 2018

Dear Friends

You know how there’s such a thing as a ‘nervous laugh’? It’s a kind of defence mechanism. We’re laughing because otherwise we might be crying. We’re laughing because actually we’re scared – but we don’t want to let on that we’re scared to anyone else.

I think that’s why we like to laugh at Jonah: or at least reduce him to ‘comic strip’ status.

From beginning to end the way the man conducts himself is really quite ridiculous. Quite literally. When God says, ‘Go north and east’, Jonah heads straight off west and south: when God stirs up a violent storm, Jonah settles down for the deepest of sleeps: when God shows off His amazing grace, Jonah shows only a fit of the grumps: when God effects a widespread revival, Jonah comes up with a heart-felt rebuttal and presumes to give God a great big ticking off.

Laughable. Of course it is. The guy’s a buffoon! No wonder we like to laugh at the man!

But it’s a nervous laugh, really, isn’t it? Because we’re just a little bit scared, maybe all too aware, that Jonah is just like ourselves, and we’re, in truth, just like him.

Don’t you think so?

There’s a commentary written on the book of Jonah which describes him on its title page as simply ‘the reluctant prophet’. Which sounds quite good. Except it’s not really true.

He wasn’t a reluctant prophet. He was clearly a man who loved the Lord, a well-taught, believing individual, the product in every likelihood of the notable ‘school of prophecy’ which emanated from the ministries of Elijah and then Elisha: and that’s prophetic pedigree of the highest class and calibre.

There’s no indication at all that the man was dragged by the Lord against his will into this significant ministry: no hint at all of a man who’d been kicking and screaming as he took up this prophetic role in the Israel of his day.

This was a man who was good at the work to which he’d been called by the Lord, and who went about his business very faithfully and ministered the Word of God most fruitfully.

The reluctant prophet? Don’t you believe it! He enjoyed what he did, and was glad he’d been called by the Lord as a prophet.

It was just that he wanted to choose his own constituency.

The wayward people of Israel, Jonah? “Yup, I’m OK with that! I’ll bring them Your Word, Lord!” Well, good on you, Jonah – because the king at the time in Israel, Jeroboam mark II, was a good deal south of wayward, he was wicked in the extreme (mark I had been bad enough, and mark II was certainly not any better). “But, hey, I’ll live with that, I’ll bring Your Word to them, Lord!”

How about a group of pagan sailors, Jonah? Fancy a time as chaplain to the Seamen’s Mission, out on the sea with a crowd of cussing mariners? Same again. “Yup, I’m OK with that, I’ll bear witness to them as well.” My word! That’s a pretty radical line for an orthodox Jew to be taking! But then, any prophet trained in the school of Elijah and Elisha was bound to be quite radical.

How about the western Mediterranean, Jonah, and the people of far-off Spain? “No problem!” says our so-called reluctant prophet: “I’ll travel the world for You, Lord!” (the Spanish Riviera has its own particular attraction to this day, I suppose, for hard-pressed, beleaguered preachers in our damp, dreich Scottish context!).

Make no mistake, the guy enjoys being a prophet!

Just .. not them. Not the people of Nineveh.

He wants to choose his constituency: and the fact of the matter is this – you can’t. That’s always God’s call. The people to whom He will send us is always His call: the people among whom He sets us, the people for whom we are privileged to sound out the gospel, that’s His choice and His call. Not ours.

That much is clear.

And it’s clear as well – not just from the short book of Jonah, but from all that the Scriptures declare – that there’s such a thing as growth in how God’s calling on our lives works out.

So here’s this prophet Jonah, trained up in the best prophetic schooling that there was, his skills now honed, matured and sharpened by those years of faithful ministry among a people who at least had got some background in the Word of God – “Now,” says the Lord, “now you should be ready for the challenge of another needy people who must hear My word of grace and truth and life.”

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it..’”

Nineveh? You. Must. Be. Joking.

That’s what Jonah was thinking. And he meets God’s call with a flat, defiant refusal. And off he goes to the busy harbour ticket office at Joppa to take a trip to Tarshish and to run away from God. As if you could!

What a big buffoon the guy is! It’s a job not to laugh!

But it’s a nervous laugh, isn’t it? Because we’re a bit too much just like him ourselves.  We’d prefer to choose our constituency ourselves.

And this man Jonah is finding out fast that that’s never our call.

That much, I say, is clear. What I want to run past you now, though, is this: the question as to whether there may not in God’s wise providence be something of the same disturbing challenge facing us right here at Gilcomston today.

It’s a question I’m raising. Not anything more than that: but not anything less than that either. A question which needs to be aired as we prayerfully listen to God.

For long enough we were very much a ‘student’ church. Others certainly thought of us here like that: and maybe we thought of ourselves like that as well. It wasn’t only students that we had, of course: but there were students in large numbers, and the ethos of the fellowship was very much expressive, perhaps, of an educated, ‘going-places’ people. Not that such a ‘constituency’ is free from its own particular pressures, demands, and challenges: anything but!

It’s been, however, a constituency with which we’ve grown not just familiar, but also, I suppose, quite comfortable. For all the many challenges there are in engaging with the ‘student’ and the ‘academic’ world, there are clearly some attendant ‘benefits’ as well.

There’s always something special, for instance, in having a whole great crowd of eager, energetic students coming in, their enthusiastic idealism spilling over and into our life as a local fellowship: there’s a buzz about the place, as those with the future all before them, share these often very formative years of their Christian faith among us all, and then go on (many of them) to leave their mark upon their generation.

And, of course, there’s a certain ‘kudos’ as well.

We’ve long been accustomed to that. But it may just be that as part of the deal whereby God Himself secured for us our building through last year, there’s a “Go to Nineveh!” clause involved. A change in the constituency for whom He means the gospel to be brought by us.

It may just be that the very remarkable way in which this building has been purchased through His grace is itself a pointer to the purpose which He has for us in these and coming days.

There is work to be done on our doorstep. There is need at the foot of our steps. A constituency very different from that with which we’re maybe more familiar: people who don’t have a future so much as a history; people with problems more than prospects; people living in great bondage and bringing with them ‘baggage’ by the ton.

It may just be that this will be where our God-given centre of gravity is now to be found: in a thorough-going gospel ministry to what are sometimes called the ‘least, the lost, and the last’. (The ‘centre of gravity’, note: not the be-all-and-end-all of what we’re about by any means.)

Ministering the gospel to those in such need is perhaps for us here as demanding and daunting a challenge as the prospect of preaching in Nineveh was felt to be by Jonah. This is ‘low kudos’ and ‘high maintenance’ work – and for both those reasons (and others!) it’s not a sphere of ministry we’d any of us ever choose.

But it’s gospel work: and, remember, none of us get to choose our constituency! That’s always God’s call.

And as Jonah didn’t get the call to Nineveh ‘til he’d had years of preparation from the Lord (because preaching to the Ninevites was always going to be demanding), so it stands to reason that the Lord may call His people here, who for years have been equipped, prepared and fashioned by the Word, to learn now how to bring that gospel message to our Ninevite equivalents.

It’ll still be, without any compromise, a ministry of the Word. It’ll still be the same basic message we preach. Just a rather different context and constituency.

So don’t head off to ‘Joppa’! Don’t start thinking of Tarshish! There’s a city full of lostness on our doorstep – ‘Should I not be concerned?’ the Lord declares.

And should we not be excited that the Lord – Who’s made it clear to us He’s able, pleased and willing to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or think – should we not be excited that the Lord thus calls us ‘northward’ to our Ninevites, ‘enlarging our territory’ (as we prayed through our autumn series), and displaying His life-changing grace in extraordinary power?

Yours in trepidation and expectancy,

Jeremy Middleton

Monthly Letter – January 2018

Dear Friends

The coming of Jesus changed everything. It always does.

The fact that in God’s providence our celebration of Jesus’ birth is followed so immediately by the start of a new year is a gentle reminder that He came as the One who will ‘make all things new’. He changes everything.

The Bible is full of this theme, from beginning to end. There may be chaos, void and darkness as the Bible starts, but that unholy trinity is not allowed to rule the roost. Change is in the air from the get-go. God is around.

So when Jesus is born and the name tag round His wrist reads ‘Immanuel’, notice is being given that history is turning a corner and that life is not going to be the same again. Everyone in the Christmas narratives discovers that. Immediately. No one’s life is the same.

The retirement anticipated by Zechariah and Elizabeth gets turned on its head: the nuptial plans of Joseph and Mary are torn up. Scholarly men out east put down their books and get on their bikes.

When God pitches up a page gets turned. A new year. A new start. A new life. A new chapter gets written. The Bible is full of it.

I got that much from the very first Bible I had. I don’t recall much from my youth of who gave me what at Christmas, and in which year: but I do recall that Christmas 1963 was the year when I was given my first Bible. It was a small, thick, black leather-bound Authorised Version of the Bible, and it certainly felt to a 10-year old boy that it was what it said on the cover – the Holy Bible.

It was a gift from my parents, and I guess they figured that I was old enough then to know how to look after a good quality Bible: and to know what to do with it. My Dad wrote the briefest of greetings in the front, and then added two Scripture references – Joshua 1.9 and John 3.16.

In that simple way he made sure that I would understand, first of all, that the Bible is all about Jesus. And from the moment I looked up that Old Testament text as a 10 year old boy, I got a first real sense that the business of following Jesus was more than just believing certain doctrines: a life involving adventure (and sometimes some scary adventures at that) was part, it seemed, of the deal.

In time I would get the connection between the two great texts my Dad wrote into my Bible: but long before I’d started to see that Joshua was Jesus’ namesake (and as such let me see what Jesus being my leader and my Lord entailed), this Joshua held a certain fascination for my not yet teenage mind.

“Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Here was a man of action, a man who was clearly going places. And a man who did indeed have, I soon discovered, any amount of good reasons for being afraid.

How do you follow an act like the mighty Moses?

How do you provide a lead for people who have dragged their feet consistently and shown themselves to be so constantly perverse?

How do you lead all this people right into the land that the Lord has promised to give them when there’s a massive big river in spate which has got to be crossed?

And how, even if you conjure up some clever scheme which will somehow get them all across that raging river Jordan – how on earth are you going to settle them there in the land, when the land is already chock-full of battle-hardened nations who’ll be ancient-times-equivalents of noisy, nasty neighbours from hell?

The man would have needed a barrow-load of straight-from-the-Lord re-assurance! Even way back then I got at least that much.

I guess my Dad in writing in that well-known Scripture reference was keen that I would have that same intrepid confidence in facing all the challenges which life might later bring – a confidence which stemmed from the conviction that in Jesus it is God Himself who comes to dwell among us and to be there at our side.

Do not be afraid, therefore! That ringing exhortation (which I later found runs right the way through Scripture) was set from the start in the context of a whole great smorgasbord of challenges which Joshua faced.

God was moving His people forward and onward. They weren’t allowed to make the desert home – which it was clearly tempting to do. The desert had quickly become a bit like a spiritual ‘ghetto’ for these folk.

I mean, OK, it’s the desert, but after a while you get used to that; and it’s not that bad when you get your food provided for you day by day with no real effort needed on your part; and there aren’t a lot of enemies to face or battles to be fought; and you’re having practical gospel truths expounded to you week by week from as fine a Bible teacher as the whole Old Testament affords – think of men like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Don Carson, roll the three of them into one, and you’re maybe near to getting a sense of the sort of Bible teacher Moses was. And you get that every week!

The desert had quickly become their comfort zone. And now the Lord was moving them on to a war zone. Conflict, not comfort. The desert was only ever meant to be a training ground, not some sort of never-ending, lower-budget holiday camp.

It’s a river of life into which we are swept by the Lord, not a stagnant pond. We’re rarely allowed to settle for long, for the Lord is the mighty Creator and He delights to be doing a new thing: moving forward His purpose and building on all that is past, and calling us, therefore, to rise to the challenge of change.

Not ever change for change’s sake. But change for the sake of the kingdom, change in the interests of moving God’s purposes on. Change with a view to the glory of God being made known.

Deliverance doesn’t end in desert living – even if the miracles of manna day by day, and a Bible teaching ministry to match the best, make such a life the sort of thing you’d settle for. The ghetto is not where the gospel of Jesus will take you.

There was work to be done for the people back then. The desert was only the training ground, equipping and slowly preparing God’s people for what they were called now to do.

In the face of, and surrounded by, a host of hostile, godless nations, they were to live out their communal life as God’s “church” in that tiny patch of middle-eastern land and show the watching world what life with the Lord at the centre is actually like. What life is meant to be like. How life is meant to be lived. Why fullness of life has its source in our friendship with God.

So cross the river, the Lord now said – because He was opening a door for them now in a truly remarkable way so they’d be able to do just that: head right into the land and start spreading that life, that fullness of life, that life as it’s meant to be lived, that life of the Lord being now lived out among and in His people – start spreading that life throughout the length and the breadth of the land.

For ‘the land of Canaan’ you might read ‘the garden of Eden’: for there’s a sense in which this was Eden all over again: the Lord boldly taking His people and placing them there in that latter-day ‘garden of Eden’ and telling them then “to work it and take care of it” [Gen.2.15].

And haven’t the bounds of that ‘garden of Eden’ been now stretched and expanded to take in the whole of the earth? Isn’t that the little patch of land we’ve been called to “work” and to “care for”? Isn’t that what Jesus commissions His people to do? To go out in the power of the Spirit and to ‘work’ the nations and make disciples of them all.

“And surely I am with you always,” says Jesus. Immanuel. Just in case we forgot.

That’s the business before us as we step out now into all that 2018 will hold: there’s a river to cross and land to claimed. The Lord has opened a door for us here through the course of the year that is past: and far from it being just a door through which folk can come in, it’s a door through which He now forcibly pushes us out.

Spring-time was the entry date the people of God were given back then in Joshua’s day for crossing the flooded river Jordan and stepping at last right into God’s destiny for them. And perhaps for ourselves as well there’s some sort of spring-time now coming. Time for us, too, it may be, to be stepping right out and into ‘the garden’ of God, to ‘work’ the land He’s given us with all we’ve got, confident that the Spirit of almighty God will do amazing things.

Immanuel.

As the wheel window always reminds us – God with us. Anything is possible! Anything can happen!

May you enter this year with the prayer in your heart that there’ll be big rivers crossed, and giant steps forward being taken through the course of these coming months – in your own life, and in our life as His people here.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton