Monthly Letter – May 2022

Dear Friends,

What are we to make of the war in Ukraine? And how are we meant to respond?

Those are the questions I’d like to address this month – questions which also provide something of a backdrop to our new Sunday morning series on ‘Jesus and the kingdoms of this world’.

Perhaps it’s helpful to start by disavowing straightaway any particular expertise in relation to these things: I can’t claim to be either an expert or even all that knowledgeable about the situation. And any information that I have is gleaned from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen on television news: much as I guess the Russian population only know no more than what they’re told by those they’re keen to trust.

It’s as well for me to be quite up front about that and recognize that ‘perspective’ is important. The number ‘6’ on the table in front of me, for instance, is a ‘9’ to the person sitting opposite, who’s viewing the thing from an entirely different vantage point. ‘Special operations’ on the part of Russia, is ‘invasion and war’ if you’re sitting at the Ukrainian side of the table. If you’re Russian, you presumably see this major military enterprise as basically defence: while to pretty much everyone else it looks like attack. Even Brazilian footballers get the nuance in the distinction – attack as the best form of defence.

Perspective, as I say, is always crucial. Where you sit, and what you know (or think you know) about the situation, determines what you make of it. That’s the initial caveat I want to make. I’m no expert on the details of the situation; and, speaking ‘horizontally’, I recognize that I’m sitting on one side of an ideological table and that my view is therefore inevitably conditioned by my ‘vantage point’.

What I’m keen to do, however, is not so much to stand back from the table and see the ‘wood’ as well as the ‘trees’: my concern is more to help us rise up from the table and see the whole wretched thing from above – to see the thing from the ‘vertical’ standpoint of God through the lens of His holy Scriptures.

And that, I think, means that we see the thing in its wider contemporary context.

The war in Ukraine (and you see from the terms that I use which side of the table I live on!) is a ‘global’ event: for there are wars going on in countless different parts of the world – but so far as the rest of the world is concerned they’re really fairly localized affairs. Not so with what’s been happening in Ukraine. From the moment the first Russian soldier stepped over the line and the Russian invasion began, the huge reverberations were felt across the globe. Pretty much everyone everywhere knew straightaway that this was a massive ‘quake’, a seismic collision of philosophical and political plates along a major ideological fault-line – a ‘collision’ whose effects were immediately felt far and wide, and which sent a chill down the spine of just about every thinking person.

Refugees by the million. Sanctions at the double. Devastation off the scale. The potential for a rapid escalation and the prospect of apocalyptic scenes. The ramifications have truly been ‘global’.

That’s perhaps what we need to grasp, first of all. Everyone is aware of it; everyone’s been affected by it: and everyone is necessarily ‘involved’. It’s ‘global’.

A conflict with a truly global impact.

But, of course, it’s far from being the only major challenge that there’s been in recent years whose impact has been global in its scope. And the simple recognition that this very ‘global’ conflict in Ukraine is not a thing which stands alone, but one among a number of such challenges, provides us with an insight as to how we’re best to understand the sombre, harsh realities of all that is now taking place in Russia and Ukraine.

There’s a ‘pattern’ of events, in other words, each of which has sent its own peculiar ‘shock-waves’ through the nations of the world: ‘global’ events or phenomena, at least in terms of just how scarily far-reaching their patent repercussions all have been.

For alongside that present conflict on a major, east-west ideological ‘fault-line’, there’s been in recent years the Covid-19 crisis and the ‘climate-change’ concerns: each of which has been, once more, so emphatically ‘global’ in its scope. Not a single nation untouched by that fearful pandemic. Not a single society exempt from the cause-and-effect of the changes there are in the climate.

Three quite startling ‘phenomena’: three very impactful challenges. Each of them quite unexpected. Each of them strikingly ‘global’. Each of them happening more or less concurrently.

It makes you think. Or at least it’s surely meant to make you think. Remember the famous quote from Ian Fleming’s ‘Goldfinger’? Well, maybe you don’t, but I’ll give it to you anyway!

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

Or more simply stated still. Once an accident. Twice a coincidence. Three times a pattern.

A pattern. The same as the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ of the seraphim is a pattern: the same as the 3-fold account of Genesis 1 in describing the creation of humanity is a pattern – “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Underlining an important truth in case you hadn’t quite got it first time round, or had thought the thing mere coincidence.

That’s perhaps what we need to be seeing most of all when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine: it’s part of a pattern, the third in a sequence of challenges thrust on us all in recent years. Each of them ‘global’ in scope; each of them well-nigh catastrophic in the potential they have for harm; each of them near apocalyptic in the landscape that they’re leaving in their wake.

Covid. Climate. Conflict. The three ‘big Cs’ of our world today.

Which together conflate into the biggest ‘C’ of all – the ‘Curse’ of God on sin. Isn’t that what you find in Genesis 3? The curse on sin pronounced by God is felt by the man and the woman in .. wait for it ..  three regards.

It affects them, first, physically: they will die – disease and death come into the world on the back of the curse on sin. It affects them in terms of their environment: it’ll be hard henceforth to work the land. And it affects them relationally too: Adam and Eve at loggerheads with one another, passing the buck, blaming the other, causing resentment and hurt. And to underline the solemn, sad reality of this, the eight succeeding chapters of the book spell this out in detail.

Genesis 4 – relational breakdown: brother against brother as Cain puts an end to Abel. Genesis 5 – physical frailty: the one short phrase repeated like a tolling bell throughout the whole long chapter – ‘and then he died .. and then he died .. and then he died ..’  Genesis 6-9 – environmental catastrophe: the terrible deluge of seemingly endless rain and the consequent flood with its train and trail of destruction. Genesis 10-11 tops it off – a larger scale version of relational breakdown, resulting in a widespread political fragmentation: the nations confused and at odds with one another.

And then there comes, in Genesis 12, the stunning, fresh re-statement of the promise God had given as the curse had been pronounced.

A pattern in God’s dealings with, and His judgment on, humanity: right there from the very beginning. Relational breakdown. Physical frailty. Environmental catastrophe. Or updated into our current, contemporary headlines. Conflict. Covid. Climate.

Once an accident, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern. A deliberate pattern on the part of the Lord to underline the gravity of sin and highlight for a world which in its arrogance and pride has scorned His Son, ditched His truth, defied His sovereign rule – to highlight for this wayward world the dead-end path life lived like that is on.

Warning judgments. Not some random accident. Not some strange coincidence. But a pattern: and a pattern that’s making a point. Whoever you are. Wherever you live. In your face and global in its scope.

You think that that’s far-fetched? Then consider the solemn recurrence of just this particular triptych as the core of prophetic pronouncements which the servants of God sternly brought.

Jeremiah, for instance: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Do not pray for the well-being of this people. Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague’” (Jer.14.11-12).

For ‘the sword’ read conflict. For ‘famine’ read climate. For ‘plague’ read covid.

And don’t think that was any accident. “’I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors’” (Jer.24.10). The same familiar triptych once again: the sword, famine, plague. Conflict, climate, covid.

Or the other great prophet of the exile, Ezekiel – “’They have blown the trumpet, they have made all things ready, but no one will go into battle, for my wrath is on the whole crowd. Outside is the sword; inside are plague and famine. Those in the country will die by the sword; those in the city will be devoured by famine and plague’” (Ezek.7.14-15).

Neither an accident nor coincidence. But a pattern. Sword, plague, famine. Conflict, covid, climate.

And in case by the end of the Bible we haven’t quite got the point, it’s there again in the final book of the Bible – “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a quarter of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth” (Rev.6.8).

The same persistent triptych again – with a ‘bonus ball’ thrown in for good measure!

That’s perhaps the perspective we need most of all. The view from above, as it were. Not so much a case of taking sides, as a case of taking note: taking note of what the Lord is saying, what the Lord is doing through it all – and ministering there, in the space ‘above’, standing in the gap between the sovereign Lord and a sinful, broken world.

The ministry of the church is essentially ‘prophetic’: speaking God’s Word right into the present and praying God’s grace on a world in desperate need. The very first use of the word ‘prophet’ in Scripture sheds light on what a prophet truly does – “He is a prophet and he will pray for you and you will live” (Gen.20.7).

That’s the primary role the church surely has. To discern with clarity just what’s really going on, to proclaim to those with ears to hear the urgent gospel summons, inherent in that 3-fold warning judgment from the Lord; and to pray.

Our prayers will still be, as the psalmist puts it, “against the deeds of evildoers” (Ps.141.5): we’ll continue to bear up before the Lord all who’ve known and still know such hurt and pain and loss and grief on account of the countless conflicts that there are throughout the world: and we’ll pray, as we’re bidden by Scripture to pray, for “all those in authority”, to the end that men and women, girls and boys, not just in Ukraine but across the globe, might “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” mindful that our God and Saviour “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Whatever else we may do (and of course, there’s much that cries out to be done), we must certainly pray. That’s what God’s ‘prophetic people’ do, that’s their distinctive ministry – they pray. And others live. Maybe that’s a timely word for some of us – to be on our knees much more.

As the song we sometimes sing has it – ‘Heal my heart and make it clean. Open up my eyes to the things unseen. Show me how to love like You have loved me. Break my heart for what breaks Yours: ev’rything I am, for Your Kingdom’s cause, as I walk from earth into eternity.’

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton