Monthly Letter – December 2019

Dear Friends,

December General Elections are collectors’ items.

It must get pretty near to being the experiential equivalent of the so-called ‘perfect storm’. The constant hustle and bustle of the festive season, colliding with the hustings and babble of election campaigns, and all in the context of the ongoing hassles and battles of everyday life.

Not the place to be for those who’re after the quiet life.

But then Bethlehem back at the time of Jesus’ birth was hardly the place or the time for those who were simply after the quiet life.

They were ‘strange days’.

The circumstances of the birth of Jesus Himself were strange and surprising, to say the least. The substantial series of ‘side-show’ events which accompanied His birth were themselves no less striking and strange.

But all of these were entirely side-lined (at least so far as the headlines went) by the on-going political drama, which at the time was being played out right across the Roman Empire.

The issues back then were not altogether dissimilar to those with which we’re presently having to grapple.

Remain or leave, in or out, was simply not an option, of course: the Empire’s ‘storm-troopers’ saw to that – you were In (the Empire), whether you liked it or not (just about everyone didn’t) and whether you’d voted for it or not (they hadn’t).

The tensions were very real. The atmosphere was highly charged. And proposals for an Indy revolution (referenda didn’t figure in the politics of the day) – proposals for an Indy revolution were being whispered, sometimes none too quietly, in the dark and shady corners of the taverns of the towns.

Into that was flung a bureaucratic bombshell, a civil obligation which required of each and every person that they fill the needful forms.

For although way back then it wasn’t quite your vote on any ballot paper which the powers that be were after, it was still your name on the relevant form they required. Whoever you were, wherever you lived, it was an inconvenient, ‘on-your-bike’ requirement, laid on one and all, to head off to your old, ancestral ‘polling station’, and get yourself registered.

A census. A census imposed by the much maligned machinery of the Roman Empire’s bureaucrats.

There was no resorting to postal votes. There wasn’t the internet option of an on-line registration. It was time off work, loss of pay, and as often as not a hefty hike to the place you’d to think of as ‘home’.

Though your residence might have been way up north (as it was in the case of the teenagers, Joseph and Mary), if your roots were far in the south (as they were for both of those two) -then you were headed south. And I guess for many it must have seemed a picture of the world in which they lived.

They were all ‘going south’. Their nation and their history. Their economy and their politics.  Their peace and their prosperity. Their hopes and all their dreams.

For some at least it must have felt that there was something almost relentless about the thing. A momentum of something like madness had started to grow, a momentum which triggered great movements of ordinary people, which would issue in both overcrowded cities and a catalogue of men and women sleeping rough, and which down the line would see a whole-scale massacre of unsuspecting two-year olds.

They were all now ‘going south’.

Like lemmings sucked seemingly headlong over the edge of the cliff, there must have seemed to the people of God at the time – there must have seemed a terrible ‘southward’ suction in the things which made the headlines in the news: an irresistible force, an irreversible pull, which saw all the bathwater of God’s former blessings on their life going relentlessly down the tubes.

And the Baby with the bathwater?

No chance!

However confusing, chaotic and cruel the political turmoil might be, whatever the ripples of popular discontent were now becoming as they grew into dangerous waves of resentment and anger in the face of a government clampdown – however big the headlines in the papers were, something infinitely bigger was (unbeknown to most if not all) happening on the ground.

Behind the scenes, God was at work. The living God had come.

‘How silently, how silently..’ as the Christmas carol rather quaintly puts it. Well, not really.

Not if you read the extraordinary accounts of what was going on.

Not if you’d gatecrashed at just the right time the unsolicited 3 month stay which Mary took with her aged Aunt Elizabeth, when out of the blue this teenage girl just opened her mouth with a spur-of-the-moment burst of praise and .. well, just gave it laldy.

Silently?

Not if you lived through the wall from Zak and his wife Elizabeth, and heard the old man erupt into heartfelt song with a good nine months’ of stored up lung capacity poured into the singing of his song. Which was hardly any sort of lullaby, conducive to sending little John to sleep. The poor wee mite must have got as much of a fright as all of the rest of them did.

Silent? Hardly.

Not if you’d had a sleepless night and gone out for a midnight stroll on the sheep-strewn hills round Bethlehem, and found yourself listening in to that spontaneous, ‘pop-up’ carol singing by ‘a great company of the heavenly host’ as they burst into a one-time-only rendering of the original ‘Gloria’: cross Mariah Carey with the choir of King’s College Cambridge, amplify the output, and turn the volume up to full – you might get some small sense of what the thing was like!

Stunning. Symphonic. Even seismic in a sense, maybe.

But silent? Anything but. And yet …

‘How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.’ Well, only in the sense that all this sacred, spine-tingling music was drowned out, and crowded out by the noise and the bedlam of everything else that was going on at the time. And simply missed.

As if the Lord’s decisive personal entry into human history, resonant with the loud reverberations of that great, audacious promise from the dawn of time and heralded with strong trumpet blasts of eager and excited praise – as if all that was providentially ‘camouflaged’ by the loud, cacophonous ‘static’ of the tough, disruptive politics of Rome.

Only those with eyes to see, like the ageing individuals introduced to us by Luke (the temple-squatting Anna, and the Spirit-driven Simeon), only those with eyes to see, only those who watch what’s going on throughout their world with eyes that see beyond the surface and who look behind the headlines of the daily news to trace the subtle moving of the Spirit of Almighty God – only they discern that there has been an ‘earthquake’ which will change the whole of history for good.

There are lessons we maybe do well to be learning from this. For there’s a lot of cacophonous ‘static’ in the global world of politics today.

Not just here in our own land, with the noisy debates and the spiraling volume of protests, demands and rebellion. But right across the world as well. From the rioting in Hong Kong to the Middle Eastern crises.

Australia in ashes. Bolivia on the boil. Chile a cauldron of upheaval. Almost a total alphabet of countries: right on through to the violence in Venezuela, and the overbearing zealots in Zimbabwe’s corrupt officialdom.

The global world of politics creates its own cacophony today. The sights we see are scary. The ‘noise’ the news is making can be deafening.

But perhaps that very noise itself serves as today’s contemporary ‘camouflage’, which hides the mighty moving of the Spirit in these days.

We learned from one of our missionaries there of how in Bolivia today, amidst all the chaos and crises that country at present is knowing, there’s a turning to God on the part of large swathes of the people: whole police forces on their knees before God in prayer: Christians uniting to meet with each other and to cry out to God in earnest, communal prayer in the public plazas.

A lady from Venezuela comes to our ‘mainly music’ week by week, grateful that we pray for her land where her parents and her wider family still live – and she speaks of how in Caracas today large numbers of people, not least among the young, are turning to the Lord in faith.

‘How silently, how silently …’ Perhaps. Perhaps. But only in the sense that these things never make the news.

The cacophony of chaos remains to this day the camouflage which hides, except from those with eyes to see, the music of His mighty Holy Spirit and the symphonies of grace which He is gloriously playing through so many different lives.

May we dare, even in the midst of these dark and difficult days – may we dare yet to look for the moving of the Spirit of Almighty God, and listen, through the ‘static’ of this ‘perfect storm’, for the sound of that great ‘blowing of a violent wind’ with which the Day of Pentecost was marked – those sounds of Jesus coming once again to work within our city and our land?

Wouldn’t it be good to have that sort of glorious coming of our Saviour once again!

Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton