Monthly Letter – February 2018

Dear Friends

You know how there’s such a thing as a ‘nervous laugh’? It’s a kind of defence mechanism. We’re laughing because otherwise we might be crying. We’re laughing because actually we’re scared – but we don’t want to let on that we’re scared to anyone else.

I think that’s why we like to laugh at Jonah: or at least reduce him to ‘comic strip’ status.

From beginning to end the way the man conducts himself is really quite ridiculous. Quite literally. When God says, ‘Go north and east’, Jonah heads straight off west and south: when God stirs up a violent storm, Jonah settles down for the deepest of sleeps: when God shows off His amazing grace, Jonah shows only a fit of the grumps: when God effects a widespread revival, Jonah comes up with a heart-felt rebuttal and presumes to give God a great big ticking off.

Laughable. Of course it is. The guy’s a buffoon! No wonder we like to laugh at the man!

But it’s a nervous laugh, really, isn’t it? Because we’re just a little bit scared, maybe all too aware, that Jonah is just like ourselves, and we’re, in truth, just like him.

Don’t you think so?

There’s a commentary written on the book of Jonah which describes him on its title page as simply ‘the reluctant prophet’. Which sounds quite good. Except it’s not really true.

He wasn’t a reluctant prophet. He was clearly a man who loved the Lord, a well-taught, believing individual, the product in every likelihood of the notable ‘school of prophecy’ which emanated from the ministries of Elijah and then Elisha: and that’s prophetic pedigree of the highest class and calibre.

There’s no indication at all that the man was dragged by the Lord against his will into this significant ministry: no hint at all of a man who’d been kicking and screaming as he took up this prophetic role in the Israel of his day.

This was a man who was good at the work to which he’d been called by the Lord, and who went about his business very faithfully and ministered the Word of God most fruitfully.

The reluctant prophet? Don’t you believe it! He enjoyed what he did, and was glad he’d been called by the Lord as a prophet.

It was just that he wanted to choose his own constituency.

The wayward people of Israel, Jonah? “Yup, I’m OK with that! I’ll bring them Your Word, Lord!” Well, good on you, Jonah – because the king at the time in Israel, Jeroboam mark II, was a good deal south of wayward, he was wicked in the extreme (mark I had been bad enough, and mark II was certainly not any better). “But, hey, I’ll live with that, I’ll bring Your Word to them, Lord!”

How about a group of pagan sailors, Jonah? Fancy a time as chaplain to the Seamen’s Mission, out on the sea with a crowd of cussing mariners? Same again. “Yup, I’m OK with that, I’ll bear witness to them as well.” My word! That’s a pretty radical line for an orthodox Jew to be taking! But then, any prophet trained in the school of Elijah and Elisha was bound to be quite radical.

How about the western Mediterranean, Jonah, and the people of far-off Spain? “No problem!” says our so-called reluctant prophet: “I’ll travel the world for You, Lord!” (the Spanish Riviera has its own particular attraction to this day, I suppose, for hard-pressed, beleaguered preachers in our damp, dreich Scottish context!).

Make no mistake, the guy enjoys being a prophet!

Just .. not them. Not the people of Nineveh.

He wants to choose his constituency: and the fact of the matter is this – you can’t. That’s always God’s call. The people to whom He will send us is always His call: the people among whom He sets us, the people for whom we are privileged to sound out the gospel, that’s His choice and His call. Not ours.

That much is clear.

And it’s clear as well – not just from the short book of Jonah, but from all that the Scriptures declare – that there’s such a thing as growth in how God’s calling on our lives works out.

So here’s this prophet Jonah, trained up in the best prophetic schooling that there was, his skills now honed, matured and sharpened by those years of faithful ministry among a people who at least had got some background in the Word of God – “Now,” says the Lord, “now you should be ready for the challenge of another needy people who must hear My word of grace and truth and life.”

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it..’”

Nineveh? You. Must. Be. Joking.

That’s what Jonah was thinking. And he meets God’s call with a flat, defiant refusal. And off he goes to the busy harbour ticket office at Joppa to take a trip to Tarshish and to run away from God. As if you could!

What a big buffoon the guy is! It’s a job not to laugh!

But it’s a nervous laugh, isn’t it? Because we’re a bit too much just like him ourselves.  We’d prefer to choose our constituency ourselves.

And this man Jonah is finding out fast that that’s never our call.

That much, I say, is clear. What I want to run past you now, though, is this: the question as to whether there may not in God’s wise providence be something of the same disturbing challenge facing us right here at Gilcomston today.

It’s a question I’m raising. Not anything more than that: but not anything less than that either. A question which needs to be aired as we prayerfully listen to God.

For long enough we were very much a ‘student’ church. Others certainly thought of us here like that: and maybe we thought of ourselves like that as well. It wasn’t only students that we had, of course: but there were students in large numbers, and the ethos of the fellowship was very much expressive, perhaps, of an educated, ‘going-places’ people. Not that such a ‘constituency’ is free from its own particular pressures, demands, and challenges: anything but!

It’s been, however, a constituency with which we’ve grown not just familiar, but also, I suppose, quite comfortable. For all the many challenges there are in engaging with the ‘student’ and the ‘academic’ world, there are clearly some attendant ‘benefits’ as well.

There’s always something special, for instance, in having a whole great crowd of eager, energetic students coming in, their enthusiastic idealism spilling over and into our life as a local fellowship: there’s a buzz about the place, as those with the future all before them, share these often very formative years of their Christian faith among us all, and then go on (many of them) to leave their mark upon their generation.

And, of course, there’s a certain ‘kudos’ as well.

We’ve long been accustomed to that. But it may just be that as part of the deal whereby God Himself secured for us our building through last year, there’s a “Go to Nineveh!” clause involved. A change in the constituency for whom He means the gospel to be brought by us.

It may just be that the very remarkable way in which this building has been purchased through His grace is itself a pointer to the purpose which He has for us in these and coming days.

There is work to be done on our doorstep. There is need at the foot of our steps. A constituency very different from that with which we’re maybe more familiar: people who don’t have a future so much as a history; people with problems more than prospects; people living in great bondage and bringing with them ‘baggage’ by the ton.

It may just be that this will be where our God-given centre of gravity is now to be found: in a thorough-going gospel ministry to what are sometimes called the ‘least, the lost, and the last’. (The ‘centre of gravity’, note: not the be-all-and-end-all of what we’re about by any means.)

Ministering the gospel to those in such need is perhaps for us here as demanding and daunting a challenge as the prospect of preaching in Nineveh was felt to be by Jonah. This is ‘low kudos’ and ‘high maintenance’ work – and for both those reasons (and others!) it’s not a sphere of ministry we’d any of us ever choose.

But it’s gospel work: and, remember, none of us get to choose our constituency! That’s always God’s call.

And as Jonah didn’t get the call to Nineveh ‘til he’d had years of preparation from the Lord (because preaching to the Ninevites was always going to be demanding), so it stands to reason that the Lord may call His people here, who for years have been equipped, prepared and fashioned by the Word, to learn now how to bring that gospel message to our Ninevite equivalents.

It’ll still be, without any compromise, a ministry of the Word. It’ll still be the same basic message we preach. Just a rather different context and constituency.

So don’t head off to ‘Joppa’! Don’t start thinking of Tarshish! There’s a city full of lostness on our doorstep – ‘Should I not be concerned?’ the Lord declares.

And should we not be excited that the Lord – Who’s made it clear to us He’s able, pleased and willing to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or think – should we not be excited that the Lord thus calls us ‘northward’ to our Ninevites, ‘enlarging our territory’ (as we prayed through our autumn series), and displaying His life-changing grace in extraordinary power?

Yours in trepidation and expectancy,

Jeremy Middleton