Monthly Letter, April 2021

Dear Friends,

We put a poster up outside the church which simply says, ‘Breaking out of lockdown!’

Which we hope, of course, we are! The pandemic restrictions have gone on for so long that the prospect of finally breaking out of lockdown, however slowly, cautiously, tentatively – the promise of that prospect surely resonates with everyone who passes by the church.

But it’s the King more than Covid that the message on the poster is about! Easter takes the whole idea of ‘lockdown’ to an altogether deeper, darker level. It’s the lockdown that couldn’t ever last.

Jesus, the Son of God, locked down.

That was always the intention behind every single sordid bit of scheming in which the movers and the shakers of the day had stubbornly indulged. All the plots; all the crafty questions which they’d fired at Him to see this Man incriminate Himself and sign His own death warrant; all the vile, behind-the-scenes, negotiating ploys to corner Him; all the careful jockeying for position to maximise their own political clout and thereby, too, deliver what would be (they thought) a final, lethal hammer-blow.

The intention was always to lock this Jesus down.

That was always the intention behind every blow of the Roman soldier’s mallet as they nailed Him to that cruel cross and left Him out to dry. Unable to lay His life-giving hands on any needy person anymore: the ultimate social distancing. Unable to walk any distance at all: a total travel ban. Unable to trouble their conscience with His teaching. Unable to rock the boat of their wrecked and ritual religion. Unable to duck out of their clutches. Unable to hide from their malice. Unable to move. And at last unable even to breathe.

Locked. Down. For good.

And that was always the intention, too, in taking the battered carcass of His blood-soaked, punctured body and placing it in the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph. A sizeable stone placed bang across the entrance. An ‘ask-no-questions, take-no-prisoners’ team of Roman soldiers stationed there as well. Dead. Buried. And the lid nailed down. One more final nail being hammered in the coffin of this Man’s demise.

It was all about locking Him down.

Except you can’t!

Well, you can, I suppose, in the sense that people can try so to do. But any attempt so to do is soon found to be utterly futile.

The attempt was certainly there, as the passion week narrative shows – that, after all, was hell with its kitchen sink getting thrown at the Son of God. Good Friday displays the intensity of the endeavour.

Easter Sunday declares its futility. Locked down. But raised up.

Talk about breaking out of lockdown! It was impossible for death to hold Him. Death, whose grip on every other person has been absolutely total – death simply could not hold Jesus.  Wear Him down. Clamp Him down. Nail Him down. Chain Him down. Total lockdown. But not even death itself could hold Him down.

That’s the core of the gospel: what makes it good news. And what makes it good news to this day.

Because ‘lockdown’ is the default line a defiant world always takes. You don’t believe me? Read the book of Acts! What were the Jewish authorities seeking to do in dealing with Peter and John if not engaging in a legislated lockdown? “They commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4.18). What’s that if not the default line of ‘lockdown’? Putting the lid on the gospel. Zipping the lips of the preachers and teachers; and intending thereby to put God’s Word on ‘mute’.

And what was Saul of Tarsus himself but a leading light among the lockdown louts, shutting down and silencing the messengers of God? Locking them up and thereby, so he hoped – thereby locking down the Word of God.

Or trying to.

Because lockdowns don’t work with the Lord. Lock Jesus down and you’ll simply release the resurrecting power of God Himself. The leaders in Jerusalem should surely have figured that out. They had their Bibles, after all. They knew the story of Samson. It’s all there in the narrative. Rope the man down. Tie the man down. Lock the man down. Even that man! But you reckon without the Spirit of God to your peril – the mighty Holy Spirit of the resurrecting God who breaks every chain and ensures that the Word gets out!

That’s what you read of in Acts, is it not? Lockdowns don’t work with the Lord. The command from the Jewish hierarchy to Peter and John that they were not to say certain things .. well, it was designed to lock Jesus down, was it not? If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again. They’re trying again. Very trying! And what happened? The believers rightly figure that lockdowns like that don’t work, so they look to the Lord in earnest prayer – and the whole place shakes, the Spirit of God breaks the chains, and the Word gets out once again. Resurrecting power.

Lock Jesus down. God raises Him up.

That’s what happened at Philippi, too. Jesus at work through the preaching of Paul and his pal. The default line of a defiant world is always the line of lockdown. Paul and Silas stuck down in the innermost part of the prison there in Philippi. Another local lockdown. But it’s a dangerous game to play with the living Lord. It’s the Samson story all over again. Chain them up. Lock them down. But you reckon without the Spirit of God, you reckon without the resurrecting power of Jesus Christ – and an earthquake there in Philippi turns the whole thing on its head: their chains fall off, new life erupts as the jailer comes to a living faith. Jesus marches on.

That’s surely what Paul himself was on about when, later on, he wrote in his swansong letter to Timothy – “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s Word is not chained” (2 Tim.2.8f). Lockdowns never work with the Lord! Remember that, Timothy. Remember Jesus Christ: and remember He’s raised from the dead. So, you can chain me down and try thereby to shut me up: you can lock me up and try thereby to lock Christ down. But it doesn’t work. God’s Word is not chained.

Try locking Jesus down and you’ll find to your cost that all you’ve done is pressed the resurrecting button in the throne-room of eternity. Even death itself could never hold Him.

This is my gospel, wrote Paul. And, yes, this is the gospel. The gospel writ large across the canvas of church history. Remember what happened in that great far-eastern country half-way through last century? All the missionaries expelled. Another government clampdown. Another local lockdown. Silence the message. Shut out the Saviour. Lock the Lord down, keep Him out of the way.

Lock Him down? No chance of keeping Him there. Not even death could hold Him. And, as you’re aware, the church there has since then grown remarkably! It’s the same in the Middle East today. Phenomenal growth in the number of new believers in a country where the default line of lockdown’s been employed.

Breaking out of lockdown is the heart of gospel growth. We need to be clear about that in the world in which we live today. Because the lockdown life we’ve been obliged to live these past twelve months is not the primary ‘lockdown’ that we face. It’s the recurring desire to stifle God’s Word, the persistent intent to be rid of the Lord, the instinctive resolve to suppress God’s own truth – it’s that sort of lockdown with which we’ll be having to deal.

That default line of ‘lockdown’, to which a world in its defiance of the living God invariably resorts, is once again being evidenced throughout our land: and that in two main ways.

First, a sort of legislative ‘lockdown’, akin to what the early church confronted from the start. The command from the powers that be as to what believers may, and may not, say.

No ‘Jesus is the only way’ – because that will be offensive and oppressive.

No ‘This is what the Bible says’ on matters which relate to gender, sex and marriage – because that is deemed intolerant and harmful to the vulnerable sensibilities of others in society.

Lockdown. A land now committed to lockdown. Close the lid on God’s own, uncomfortable truth. Silence the Word of God. Lock Jesus down. And use the chains of legislative power to tie Him down and keep Him there.

Don’t for a moment try to bury your head in the sand and pretend that it’s not going to happen: it’s happening already, and it’s likely to happen yet more. But remember Jesus Christ. Remember He’s raised from the dead. Remember that not even death could hold Him there. Lockdowns don’t work with the Lord: they simply release fresh waves of the Holy Spirit’s resurrecting grace! The Word of God is not chained! Try it and see. Try chaining the Word, and you’ll soon begin to see it can’t be done.

The tomb couldn’t hold Him. Death couldn’t hold Him. Hell couldn’t hold Him. So, people of Scotland today, don’t kid yourselves on that you’ll be able to do so! Lock Jesus down and resurrection power gets released: and you’re no match for that. As the children’s song says, ‘He is mighty (x11) to save!’

That’s our confidence. What Paul was on about in 2 Cor.4. Struck down, but not destroyed. Knocked down, but not knocked out. Locked down, but not cast down. Always carrying around the death of Jesus (we experience ‘lockdown’) that the life of Jesus (His resurrecting power) may also be revealed. This is my gospel, he wrote. Remember Jesus. Remember He’s raised. Lockdowns don’t work with the Lord.

There’s a second, subtler way, though, in which this default line of ‘lockdown’ shows itself: and it’s really just the flip side of the same subversive coin, the same concerted effort to lock Jesus down, to dispense with the offence of the cross.

You see this in the dogged, repeated attempt to deny and suppress the truth of our basic, innate sinfulness. That’s really what’s been going on in the surging crowds of protest on the streets of countless cities through the land. The BLM movement. The vigils in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder. The rather lawless protests (as they ended up) over lockdown laws. Even, dare I say it, Oprah’s lengthy interview with her friends, the Duke and his Duchess. All of them surely – and quite rightly, of course – recognizing that there’s something far, far wrong in our society.

There is something wrong in our society. Painfully so, of course. And the Word agrees! But He speaks an uncomfortable truth about this world, and underlines our fundamental sinnerhood. As G K Chesterton once famously wrote in a letter to The Times in a correspondence titled, “What’s wrong with the world?” – “Dear Sir, I am. Yours sincerely. G K Chesterton.”

But that’s a truth our society’s keen to suppress. Lockdown kicks in. It’s victimhood, not sinnerhood, that our world is so keen to affirm. George Floyd, we’re with you – a victim. Sarah Everard, we’re standing right beside you – we know what it’s like, we’re victims too. Even the Duke and the Duchess – we feel your hurt because we’re victims too. And yes, in a sense, we all of us are: we all get hurt and we feel their hurt. But how much more comfortable it is to view ourselves as victims, not as sinners. That’s therefore the line we take. Victims, victims, victims. That’s who we are – victims: not the problem.

The protests, vigils, movements, and the 2-hour Oprah interview, are all just illustrations of the latest line of ‘lockdown’ in our cultured, modern world, whereby the cross of our Lord is sanitized, and the need for that Saviour is buried. If you’re really just a victim and you have no sin .. well, you hardly need a Saviour, do you? Just justice, please. Jesus locked down once again.

But it doesn’t work. Even death itself couldn’t lock Him down. And neither dukes nor dudes nor any sort of democrat you like will ever lock Him down.

Celebrate Easter then, this year, with joy – and with a better understanding of what our breaking out of lockdown’s going to mean!

Yours in the glad service of our risen Lord and Saviour,

Jeremy Middleton