Monthly Letter – December 2017

Dear Friends

I’d never have made it as a doctor myself (for a whole load of reasons): but I think I’d have liked Doctor Luke.

I like his style; I’m a fan of his careful approach; I like his holy boldness; and I like his wholesome balance too.

I like how the man has a sense of the sacred, and yet has a great sense of fun.

I can almost hear him chuckle as this thoroughly Gentile gentleman discovers in hindsight he’s almost the writer-in-chief of an essentially Jewish production (Paul might argue the toss, I suppose, as to which of the two in fact wrote more of the New Testament, but ‘the Doc’ has a pretty strong claim).

He understands the humour in the heart of God, I think: he can see how the whole great enterprise of God is no laughing matter at all – and yet is so ridiculously bold! He can see that that the good news of God in Jesus Christ is serious stuff, of course it is – but it’s meant to be enjoyed.

Faith was never meant to be a tick-the-boxes, regimented exercise: it’s meant to be a ‘get-on-your-bike’ and ‘streamers-from-the-windows’ sort of outing of a lifetime. It may involve a clear and costly parting of the ways – of course it does, he doesn’t downplay that at all: but it’s meant to be something of a party too.

I love how ‘the Doc’ just seems to get it! How order (and you can see in so many ways how strong the guy is on order: you’d expect no less from a man with his medical bent) – how order is matched by real freedom. As much as anyone else, this man whose attention to detail means that everything’s just where it should be, he’s a man who delights in the Spirit, and refuses point blank to be tying the hand of God down and insisting God works in predictable, traditional ways.

So I love his take on Christmas! He gives it the full treatment: he starts early and revels in the season at some length. Not like Mark who skips the whole thing, or John with his potent portrayal of the coming of our Lord, which scores high marks for sheer artistic impression, or Matthew with his Christmas-for-the-serious-Bible-scholar type of line.

I love the way Luke’s not ashamed to show himself a child at heart; for he starts his story of Jesus with … well, with all the excitement a young child has at Christmas, as he helps tear off the wrapping (you can almost hear the noise of the paper being ripped away!) from a pile of different presents from the Lord. It’s one big surprise after another.

Christmas for him is party time, with the folk involved erupting in an unrehearsed, infectious sort of singing which spontaneously combusts. Everyone’s suddenly at it! Staid old pious people who you’d think were long since past such outbursts of enthusiastic song. A teenage girl, too shy (we’d have guessed) to ever have auditioned for an ‘Israel has got Talent’ sort of show. Even the angels are at it, with an impromptu choir disturbing the nocturnal peace of the Bethlehem hills with their song of the peace we’re all seeking.

The Doc doesn’t skimp on his Christmas celebrations! It’s party time, he insists from the start: and he’s keen that all his readers share his own great childlike pleasure in the wonder of it all.

As a doctor he’s always adept, of course, at observing the people involved. He’s trained to look for symptoms: he’s quick to spot the cryptic clues which tell you what is really going on, beyond what meets the eye.

For there’s lots going on! And he doesn’t want his readers to miss out on anything.

So it’s striking to find that the story begins (in the Doc’s perceptive account) with the central Person, Jesus, surrounded by three very different couples. And, yes, I mean surrounded, flanked as it were, in a balanced, symmetrical way by these three significant couples.

Luke’s strong on order, remember, and he wants us to see how careful God is in sending His Son to ensure that He’s well ‘wrapped up’ as an infant, held and protected by the loving care of those God can trust to look after His Son.

There’s young Joseph and Mary to start with, the two of them there either side of their Boy in the real-life nativity scene – two still-teenage believers, thrust in the most unexpected and awkward of ways into the demands and dilemmas of parenthood. And then surrounding them, like a wider extended family, two other, older couples; like solid, stable bookends which will keep all your books from collapsing, these two older couples are there in what we can see is very much a ‘supporting’ role for this Child who is the Word, the One who Himself fills all of the books of the Bible.

It’s all so very well ordered: or, better still, so marvelously orchestrated well, by God, because the whole great surging story, as ‘the Doc’ is careful to note – the whole thing is very much a ‘musical’ with all the different ‘instruments’ being carefully positioned by the Lord.

God’s anything but foolhardy in this daring intervention of the Trinity. He has people in place to look after His Son from the start. It’s God who’s come as Saviour – but it’s ordinary folk like you and me who are called to play our ‘bit-parts’ in the story.

For they are very ordinary folk. All of them. Joseph and Mary are up-country youngsters, almost certainly viewed by their peers in the south as good-for-nothing, hill-billy types – pleasant peasant people who are never going to hit the front-page headlines. Which, of course, is just fine by the Lord: He doesn’t need publicity, He’s never ostentatious, and He’s happy with this ‘hiddenness’, with His Son tucked away in the arms of two careful young parents, and the two of them in turn enveloped in the faltering faith of a couple of elderly couples.

The Doc is maybe not a midwife, but he clearly is familiar with, not just the natural biology whereby a growing baby is first shielded in the mother’s womb and then is well protected by the sheltering shawl of the parents’ care – he’s clearly, too, familiar with the gospel’s own ‘biology’, whereby the ‘Seed’ (that’s how we’re meant to think of Jesus, is it not? For here at last is the ‘Seed’ of the woman whom Adam was given, the ‘Seed’ about whom the first promise was long ago made) … whereby the Son who’s the ‘Seed’, like a seed in the ground, is now hidden and shielded when He’s ‘planted’ incarnate in the earth.

This, I suppose, is the ‘..hid from sight’ of that haunting Christmas carol, ‘Still the Night’. Except it clearly isn’t hid from the Doctor’s sight, even if it’s lost on a world which only scrolls through headlines on sophisticated smart phones. These are the people, Luke sees, who snuggle God’s Son in His infant vulnerability, and who by their very non-entity-ness (I know that’s not a proper word!) smuggle Him into an unsuspecting world.

It’s ordinary folk who get to be part of God’s great and extraordinary adventure!

And it starts with an elderly couple. That knocks on the head straight away the ludicrous line that Christmas is all about the children!

For the story begins with an elderly couple, who have long since accustomed themselves to an old age without any children, and whose thoughts have surely turned towards retirement.

But there’s not going to be any easing off for them: the adventure begins in old age – it’s never too late to begin on this crazy and carnival path which the coming of Jesus lays out. Ask Abram and Sarah! They could tell you a thing or two about any thought of easing into a quiet, relaxing retirement being blown right out of the window: and all on account of a promise God’s made, a promise so rich it’s ridiculous.

“Elizabeth was barren: and they were both well on in years.” Luke, remember, is a doctor: polite and discreet in the way he records his “patients’” condition, but his writing is patently legible, and his meaning is clearly intelligible. The prospect of this elderly couple giving birth to a healthy young child is .. well, medically miraculous: and a promise that this will indeed be the case is for any level-headed person plain ridiculous. Except it’s no laughing matter, as the two of them will soon themselves discover!

The Doc is getting us into the mood from the start. The whole great message of Jesus is a roller-coaster adventure, where no one can lurk on the sidelines and hope they’ll not be noticed.

You can’t hide behind your ‘seniority’, the fact that you’ve now got your bus pass and are drawing your well-earned pension.

You can’t hide behind your ‘obscurity’, the fact that you’re nobody special and live, as Joseph and Mary have done, in a non-descript, outlying place.

You can’t hide behind your ‘piety’, the fact that you’re already very busy with a load of church activities. Because there’s another older couple, too, caught up in this opening birth-of-the-Saviour scene, and (like Zac and Liz at the start) playing a supporting role to the young teenage couple who’ve been left to hold the Baby.

Simeon and Anna are a couple, not in the sense of their being married (dear me, no!) but in the sense that they share a kindred spirit which sees them open to the Spirit of God and living their lives day by day in the hallowed temple precincts.

The whole momentous happening may well be ‘hid from sight’; but ‘the Doc’ would have us see that, nonetheless, there’s no hiding!

Those who’d be written off by the world on account of their age get written in to the story by the Lord. Those whom the world thinks are past it .. well, they’re passed it by the Lord – the ‘it’ in this case being a part in this crazy adventure! Those who are right off the radar are caught in the spotlight of God, and caught up in His whole daring drama.

That drama may well be well hidden, but there isn’t any hiding!

Please God we shall all share that ever-fresh sense of excitement as we too, this month, get into the story again; and may we all thrill once again at just what it is that our great God‘s called us into – a daring, disturbing endeavour; a crazy, confusing but wholly coherent adventure, whose ripples reach out to eternity!

Yours with an eager expectation in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton