Monthly Letter – December 2020

Dear Friends,

‘Normal’ got blown right out of the window a good few months back now – and it may well be that the notion of ‘normal’ itself may prove to be a thing of the past as a much more ‘fluid’ landscape takes its place.

What now is ‘normal’? And when all the talk is of our seeking as-near-as-normal a Christmas, it rather begs the question – what does a ‘normal’ Christmas actually look like?

Because what we’ve come to think of as a ‘normal’ sort of Christmas is perhaps, in truth, not really that ‘normal’ at all. Not, at least, if the ‘norm’ (by which we determine degrees of true normality) is the actual event which Christmas seeks to celebrate.

If the circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ provide the ’norm’ for our thinking in relation to Christmas (and they surely have a far greater claim to fulfil that role than most of the other ‘drivers’ in what we view as a ‘normal’ Christmas) then perhaps it’s no bad thing that ‘normal’ has got rather mangled in the wash of these last months.

Consider a few of the things which happened back then when Jesus was born.

Number one. Government regulations knocked everyone’s plans for six. That’s the first thing. Because that’s where, at one level, the whole thing really started.

There was a census. An official edict, imposed by central government, telling you what to do. It had to do with numbers. It had to do with travel: where you were to go – and where, by definition, you were presumably not to go. It had to do with a Roman Empire ‘track and trace’ procedure (albeit in a very different context and for very different ends). It had to do with every single sphere of life, and it proved to be exceedingly disruptive. Plans were shelved: businesses were obliged to close for a good few weeks on end: and the hospitality sector clearly struggled to cope.

It was the government telling you what to do – and that, they’d have argued, for the health and the good of the Empire as a whole. Of course. Everyone had to toe the line, despite the inconvenience. You do what the government tells you to do. That’s the role of government, to tell people what to do.

And they did. Even if it meant an exhausting hike from your out-in-the-sticks and up-country life in the northern town of Nazareth way down the road to Bethlehem far in the south. Even if it meant you’d to shut up shop so far as your carpentry firm was concerned.

Talk about disruption!

Number two. The abuse of power and a total disregard for human rights issued in the callous death of countless poor young men. Part of the story. Part of the world into which Jesus was born. I’m talking about king Herod and the ruthless, barbaric massacre of Bethlehem’s babes.

In a different age, in a day of television coverage and of widespread social media, the anguished cry of devastated parents might well have mushroomed very rapidly and grown into a rightly angry movement for reform. “Bairns’ Lives Matter!” Of course, they do. They did back then and they still do now. And who across the length and breadth of Israel in those days, who would dared have argue with that line?

But who could have dared to argue with that wicked king and come out from the argument alive? The odds were stacked against the weakest in society: the system saw the mighty throw their weight around and get away with murder. Literally.

It bred both resentment and tension. Anger against the injustice. A time-bomb about to explode. A people increasingly up in arms – at least in their thoughts and their dreams.

Number three. An influx of people from more easterly lands. We’re not told how many, but enough to make their presence felt: and there they were, bedraggled perhaps after weeks and months of journeying across the continent, arriving on the doorsteps of Jerusalem. Looking for a better life. Looking for a future which they knew was somehow waiting to be theirs. The city and her rulers clearly troubled: and no wonder, for maybe they sensed in this movement of people that the world itself was in turmoil, and that their whole way of life might never now be quite the same again.

Just a feeling, perhaps. Just a premonition, a foreboding. But enough to leave them all deep-down disturbed, disquieted, troubled. A sense, they knew not why or how, but a sense that the applecart of regular ‘normality’ was thereby being upturned. Romans as their rulers. Gentiles in Jerusalem. A rising star. A challenge to the status quo. Enough to send a shiver down their spines. Life might never be the same again.

And number four. The church, on Government orders (capital G, for God, this time), now strangely and totally mute. Struck dumb. The priest to whom the people always looked – especially in a time of growing crisis – a priest, unwilling it seemed to heed God’s Word, and therefore unable to open his mouth and sound out the praises of God. Silence from the church of God. Yes, silence from the church of God when the noise of events in the world around was growing in intensity.

The priest with now nothing to say. Had the Word dried up? Had God Himself left the building? Was God Himself somehow lost for words in the face of all that was going on?

You want to know what a ‘normal’ Christmas is really like? Well, there you have it. That’s the ‘norm’, if you’re really intent on finding one: that’s the world into which Jesus was born.

A world that was full of disruptive governmental intrusions into ordinary everyday life. A world that was full of political intrigue and of criminal uses of power. A world that was full of the movements of people with the hints of a new world order in the air. A world that was full of a deafening silence on the part of the household of faith.

Viewed as such you’d soon end up really thoroughly depressed! The world gone crazy. The foundations beginning to crumble. The future uncertain and bleak. A bleak mid-winter indeed, with not just the water but the Lord Himself as silent as a stone.

But of course, you’re familiar with the narrative, and you know that that is only half the actual story. You know that’s just the headlines which the papers have. You know that’s just the ‘breaking news’ the TV screens flag up. You know that’s just the story which the media makes its money from.

His story’s rather different. God’s story. Something else was going on. Behind the scenes. Behind the big, bold headlines. Behind the cruel scheming of the would-be power brokers. Behind the noisy anger of the politics. Quietly, discretely, in a way that was hidden from all but the discerning eyes of faith, something else was going on; something fraught with huge significance, something far more enduring and far more defining than all of the eye-catching hubbub.

The one who made the universe, the one whose purpose spans eternity, the one who changes everything – He was slipping in. And so quietly! How silently, how silently, as the carol rightly says. No ear may hear His coming (and by and large none did), precisely because the sin in this world is a din, so discordant and noisy, demanding the attention of all.

The discord’s a distraction. The sin itself so seductive in the scandal that it wreaks and in the headlines that it writes: it generates its own distasteful noise.

The edict of Caesar was a noisy affair: everyone had an opinion, and there would have been loud voices of resentful dissent at the census legislation, at the harmful effects of their damaging regulations.

Bethlehem, too, was a noisy place. The ‘little town of Bethlehem’ suddenly enlarged, and swollen to its bursting point, by the influx of countless visitors – Bethlehem would have overnight become an overcrowded, noisy bit of bedlam: and subsequently, too, the noise itself intensified yet more with the clamouring indignation of the populace at large and all the screams of anguished parents at the cruel, brutal treatment from the God-ordained authorities.

Noise and more noise. Bethlehem – busy, bustling, bursting at the seams. Jerusalem – troubled, disturbed, and dissonant. Everywhere noise. The noise of the everyday news. Even the silence of the muted priest was somehow almost deafening.

So yes, how silently, therefore, the dear Christ entered in. God simply tiptoed in to do His gracious business. No fuss. No fireworks. No noise – apart from the squawks of a new-born babe tucked away in His make-shift cot. The only fanfare at all far out on the hills – and missed both by Reuters and writers of newspaper headlines alike.

The eagle had quietly landed. The lion had noiselessly left His lair and was silently on the move.

That’s the ‘norm’, is it not? And those with ears to hear today are able to discern beyond the clanging noise of the headline news – they’re able to discern the soft tread of the living God as the ‘dear Christ’ enters in again, intent upon His saving work throughout the world.

For the world has become a noisy place again. And it’s much the same sort of ‘noise’ as there was back then when the Son of God was born those long millennia ago.

Our lives interrupted, obstructed, derailed by edicts from the seats of power: government regulations causing stress and loss and widespread inconvenience to so many in society.

The mass migrations of people, great waves of human traffic, rolling on relentlessly towards the west, having glimpsed in the sparkling stars of European affluence the promise of a better life.

Growing indignation at the systemic abuse of authority and power and the killing of countless young men. And what about our own contemporary Herods? What about the ‘massacre of the innocents’ today, the number of abortions day by day which far outnumber any Covid deaths? But, of course, too awkward and too shameful to put on any television screen.

And the church. The priests of God on mute. Visibly masked and audibly muted; not allowed to sing the praise of God. Symbolic surely. The priesthood which spurned the Word of God now silenced and speechless and stagnant. The life-giving flow of words dried up.

This isn’t the ‘new normal’ for Christmas at all. It’s the old normal. It’s the only ‘norm’ there is, if the world at the time of the birth of our Lord is the gauge we’re bound to use.

And if that’s the case, then with ears that can hear and eyes that see (which is all that the priest was left with when his voice was gone) we’re no longer disturbed by the ‘noisy news’, by the ‘din of sin’ in the world of today; but instead we discern the soft and silent footsteps of our risen Lord, the dear Christ entering in again.

How silently! Yes, how silently! But how sovereignly too. On the move and at work and intent upon a whole new chapter in the progress of His great eternal purpose for His world. Watch and see if it is not so!

Wherever you are, then, and whatever your present situation, this comes with my warm Christmas greetings and the prayer of Mary of old that it be to us today as He has said.

Bereft of our voices of praise, gracious God, grant us eyes to discern what it is that You’re doing these days: grant us ears to be hearing the word which Your Spirit is speaking: grant us grace to rise up in expectant hope, to press on in Your service with eager hearts, and to rest in the quiet assurance that a better day is coming!

Yours in the glad service of the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton