So far as Brexit’s concerned, we’ve been there, done that and got the metaphorical T-shirt.
At least an ecclesiastical version of the thing, as, some five and more years ago now, we toiled long and hard to extricate ourselves from what was I suppose our denominational equivalent of the European Union.
(Breathe easy, this letter is not about Brexit at all!)
Negotiating any ‘exit’ deal is a hugely difficult task involving much hard work and painstaking care over long, demanding months: we know that as well as any. But that step of negotiating the exit is only a first step: and challenging as it undoubtedly was, in some ways it’s a whole load easier than the next important step we’ve been having to take – that of hammering out the call we have under God as a local, and now essentially an independent, church, and discerning how what we’re about and how we engage in our ministry here will tie in with the wider work of gospel churches here in Aberdeen.
We’re no longer a parish church, with a part to play and a patch to work (notionally anyway) within the framework of the ‘national’ church: it may well, as I say, have been not much more than a notional thing, but it was nonetheless the context of our ministry, that which ensured a distinctive definition to our life.
That ‘framework’, of course, is no more. We’re a stand-alone and independent congregation now; and as such we’re obliged under God to re-think from the start the calling we have in His work, and (by the help of the Spirit of God) to figure out the present-day parameters which serve to shape the pattern of our future life and ministry.
These are days of considerable and major upheaval – spiritually not least, but also constitutionally, politically and culturally as well: the contours of the landscape of our national life are changing with unprecedented speed. And while that should neither surprise us nor alarm us, it should make us alive to the need in these days for continual, prayerful re-assessment of our life as a local church.
In many ways this season of the Christian year, when once again the narrative of the birth of God’s own Son is rehearsed before us all – in many ways this season is itself so helpfully instructive as we think these matters through. For the birth of Jesus was highly disruptive: it occasioned a widespread upheaval, and prompted significant ‘movement’ on the part of one and all.
Joseph and Mary have their lives turned upside down, and their plans for a low-key and comfortable life as a non-descript couple up north on the quiet outer fringes of their nation’s life – well those plans are blown out of the window! They’re on the move, no matter that such movement is the height of inconvenience for a hugely pregnant, teenage Mum-to-be.
And although this couple are centre-stage in the drama of that narrative, they’re far from being the only ones whose lives are being disrupted and who find themselves obliged to change their slippers for a pair of walking boots and move outside their comfort zones.
The shepherds out there, in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, have the quietness of their night shift rudely interrupted and .. well, this one particular night shift sees them shifted down or up the hills and into town.
The well-to-do, Patrick-Moore-esque wise men of the east, gazing on the night-time sky and poring over text books through each day – they’re on the move as well. Hundreds of miles they’re constrained to be travelling together. A far-sighted, daring resolve: a lengthy and dangerous journey: and they don’t even know just exactly where their final destination is to be. Their friends must have thought they were crazy! But they’re on the move.
Even the angels of heaven get in on the action, and there they are too on the move!
When God comes into history, the whole earth shakes. Everyone feels the tremors. It’s a time of great upheaval. Scary, but significant. It’s a moving experience for all. For all who are believers, anyway. Their future (or at least the future as they previously had figured it would be) – their future is now, overnight, being overhauled and rightly redefined.
Little wonder, then, that in these days of challenging upheaval for us all, we too are re-assessing what God’s future for this fellowship entails, and how that will tie in with what He’s doing in this city and our land.
So here, as a starter for prayerful discussion and thought – here are a few first broad brush strokes to paint in the picture a bit, each of them drawn from the palette which the birth-of-Jesus narrative provides.
The message isn’t compromised at all. That’s the first thing. The upheaval which came with the birth of His Son was not on account of some panicky change of direction in the corridors of heaven: there was never a hint of the Lord somehow ditching Plan A and switching instead to a hastily drafted Plan B. What’s been promised all along by God is now being delivered at last.
It’s no different for ourselves. Our starting point in fashioning out God’s future for us here remains the same. Reliant in prayer on the gracious enabling of God, the four great core components of our calling stay the same.
ACTS. Attracting people to Jesus. Consolidating the faith of believers through clear Bible teaching. Training our members for fruitful lives of ministry. Sending out our people in the cause of gospel growth.
What happened that first Christmas, though, throws a tantalizing spotlight onto something which I think may be important in our grasping what the Lord Himself is up to in these days among us here. For there was first a significant centripetal factor in all that was then taking place. A convergence of people. A coming together. A moving towards the centre.
It’s strange how that land of God’s promise is, as a matter of geographical fact, so very much the centre of the world: a bridge between the east and west, a cross-over point between north and south. And within that land, itself so central, there’s a place which had become in time the centre-piece of so much Bible prophecy – the town in which the greatest king of Israel had his roots, and the town from which great David’s greater Son was prophesied to come. Bethlehem.
And it is to this central, significant point, in the land that is in some ways both the centre of the cartographical world and the central land of history – it’s to this central point that the movement of people is drawing them all. Joseph and Mary coming down from the north, along with thousands and thousands of others from all the four corners of Israel: shepherds coming down off the hills: star-gazing scholars coming hundreds and hundreds of miles from the far away climes of the east: angels coming down from the heights of God’s heaven itself.
All of them strangely converging on this one central point. Bethlehem’s not just a notable town whose credentials are all from the past: the future is being fashioned now by God within her streets. Believers of all sizes, shapes and backgrounds are converging on the place. It’s significantly central.
Ponder that phenomenon. For I’m standing back and noticing something strikingly similar here!
I’m noticing first that the Lord, in His very sovereignly (very sovereignly!) giving us this building, has located us here in the centre of town, the last church standing whose doors still front on to the main street of our city. He’s always wholly intentional in all that he does: and He’s placed us here, in His wise and sovereign providence, in a strategically central location.
I’m noticing, too, that over these past many months, without our lifting a finger to bring it about, we’ve found this building being used, month on month, as a venue, right in the heart of the town, for a range of gospel events: always because we’re so central.
Powerpoint, the vibrant, SU-sponsored youth event, happening here at Gilcomston a few months back in September, and at other times on through the year: Tearfund, with their ‘Cakes, Bakes & Faith’ event hosted here in October, a pack-out occasion with crowds from all over the city, and far beyond, converging on our building for a Jesus-centred evening of worship-laden fun: the Stuart Townend concert on his ‘Courage Tour’, held here just a week or two ago, again a sell-out event drawing into our building believers and friends from the city and shire and beyond, to celebrate Jesus in testimony, music and song: the Christian Unions’ Carol service the following week, with hundreds of students packed into the building again to sound out the praises of Jesus: and then there’s the African Children’s Choir coming up in a few days’ time, whose simple and worshipful singing brings together a whole crowd of people from far and wide for a feast of warm festive praise.
All of them choosing to hold their event here at Gilc, because … well, because it’s so very central. Great crowds of people converging on us here, just as they did at Bethlehem so very long ago. Young and old. Rich and poor. Scholars, saints and sinners.
Then as well we’ve the CU group from RGU now holding their meetings each week in our halls: their request for the use of our halls coming in just because we’re so perfectly central. And now (this is hot off the press!) the monthly meeting of evangelical leaders from the city and the shire – from the start of the year that meeting will be hosted here as well: precisely because we are central. And those who’ve been the drivers of this monthly get-together mean not only that we’re central in a geographical sense, but ‘central’ too on the spectrum of evangelical churches – a safely central meeting place where those from all the compass points of evangelical life can eagerly and easily converge.
Like Mary that first Christmas, we, too, perhaps do well to be now treasuring up these things and pondering them in our hearts. In these days of considerable upheaval, there’s something of real significance taking place: the Lord is shaping the future! It’s for us to discern step by step just how we ourselves now fit in to that ongoing purpose of God in these days.
It’s not without good reason that He’s set us here in the centre! And a part of that is undoubtedly tied to our being as a church a point of important ‘convergence’, a gathering point, perhaps it may be in some sort of sense a rallying point for the progress of the gospel in these days.
Not that the Christmas story ever ended there! The crowds who converged on that ‘little town of Bethlehem’ all went back and went out – and we must too: but that must be the story for another day!
It remains a great pleasure, a joy beyond words, to be sharing this life and adventure in Christ together with all of you here in these days. May you each and every one know the grace and the comfort of Christ Himself in the midst of all the season’s celebrations.
Yours very warmly in the service of the King,