Monthly Letter – March 2018

Dear Friends

‘Salvation belongs to the Lord!’

It’s one of the great one-liners of the Bible. Reduce the whole of God’s Word, the sixty six books of the Bible – reduce the whole of God’s Word to a single, summarizing sentence, and this is as good a way as any you might find. It’s the theme of the psalmist, the thrust of the prophets and preachers, the resounding refrain on the lips of believers in heaven.

Reduce the sentence to a single word, and you end with the name, ‘Jesus’: the Lord saves. The Bible isn’t that complicated at all.

And once we’ve got its message, it takes the pressure off ourselves. Saving people is His business, not ours: His initiative, His prerogative, and His ability alone.

We’re not called to be the stuff-of-legends heroines and heroes who go charging in to save the day and pull off feats of bold, amazing rescue all the time: not even some of the time.

God knows better than any that we make hopeless saviours. Salvation belongs to the Lord. We simply can’t do it.

No amount of rhetoric, no amount of erudite communication skills, no amount of eloquence and passion in the arguments we muster in the witness that we bear – none of that suffices to effect what involves in every case pure miracle. Raising the dead back to life: recovery of sight to those who’ve been blind from birth: deliverance from the shackles of addiction and the vice-like grip and downward-drag of sin in people’s lives.

We can’t do that.

But we’re not under any pressure to try to do so at all. That’s emphatically His business: salvation belongs to the Lord.

It’s what He does, and what he does so wonderfully well. It’s the hallmark of His workmanship from day one. Where there was but chaos, void and darkness, He rolled up His metaphorical sleeves and got on with the business of sorting the whole mess out and transforming it all, bit by bit, into a world of well-proportioned beauty.

We think of that as ‘creation’. But there’s a sense in which all that was really little different from the work we call ‘salvation’. Because in a world infected with the dreadful virus of sin, our lives are characterized precisely thus – chaotic, and empty, and groping around in all manner of desperate darkness. God’s saving work in our messed-up lives involves precisely the same transforming and creative power.

That’s just who He is and what He does. It’s His speciality. And we make no pretence at this being something we can ever do: we’re entirely up front about that. We can’t save a sausage. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

That doesn’t mean we end up mere spectators, though, admiringly watching the Lord at His work in the lives of those around us. We get to be participants. We get to share in His work.

Like nurses in the operating theatre, we don’t do the life-saving work ourselves; but we’re there to assist the surgeon as he carries out a heart-transplant operation on his patients in their need. We’ve watched the great surgeon at work: we’ve learned how he goes about what he does: we know the drill: we anticipate how best we can support him in this major operation. So we’re busy in the theatre at the surgeon’s side.

And lives are saved. Saved through the surgeon’s skill. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

We need to remember our place. We’re merely ‘theatre nurses’. That’s no small responsibility, of course, a privileged and demanding set of tasks to which we must attend with all due care.

But it’s the surgeon who’s the saviour. Our calling is as ‘nurses’ in the theatre of the Lord’s life-saving work; and our role requires we work in careful tandem with the skilled consultant surgeon, the gracious, great Physician of our souls.

We make ourselves familiar with the way in which He works. We see what He’s intent upon securing through the sovereign operations of His mighty Holy Spirit; we watch what He does, we see how He works, we learn what He needs.

And soon we are able to more or less anticipate what next He will be doing and therefore, too, how best we are deploying ourselves to tie in our activity with His.

We see the Lord’s reliance on the ‘scalpel’ of His Word.

(God’s Word is described as “the sword of the Spirit”, of course, a picture that’s drawn from the theatre of war – but change the whole analogy and the sword in the theatre of war becomes the scalpel in the operating theatre of God’s grace, does it not?)

We see how very central to salvation is the Word of God: we see from the start that this is the way the Lord works. Through His Word: the sharp, clean, incisive blade of this sacred scalpel in the “Surgeon’s” hand.

And so we have this ‘scalpel’ always ready and available for Him to use. We know with what exquisite care, with what superb precision, He will use His Word – and so we want to have it always ready for those very frequent moments when the “Surgeon” calls out simply “Scalpel please!”

So we build our life in this theatre of war which we call ‘the local church’, a theatre of war which is now as well the operating theatre of God’s grace – we build our life around our observation that the Surgeon needs His scalpel all the time. We prioritise the Word of God in other words, and by humble, urgent prayer (don’t forget that!) we place it in His hands that He may do the business and effect that work which only He can do. Saving lives for time and for eternity.

But that’s not all we do. We’ve learned as theatre nurses, not just all the instruments the Surgeon will be using – we’ve watched Him long enough at work and learned as well just how that work progresses through the sovereign operations of His gracious Holy Spirit.

Start reading the Bible and step thereby into the operating theatre of the living God: you’re learning right away just how the Surgeon works. Genesis 1. Chaos, void and darkness are replaced by order, light and fullness in a careful, loving operation at His hands. Hang around that operating theatre and almost straight away you witness how disordered, dark and empty life became. Human hearts were plagued by the killer virus sin: the Surgeon has a full-time job in remedying the dreadful plight humanity has brought upon itself. Major heart-transplant surgery’s required, which only He can do. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

And as we learn our calling as the Surgeon’s theatre nurses, we start to see that what the Lord is constantly effecting in His saving work is order in the place of all the chaos of our complicated, mixed-up, messed-up lives; fullness in the place of all the void and wretched emptiness which masquerades as life; and light and life in the place of all the despair, debauchery and darkness which have come to be the features of our fallen, flawed humanity.

That’s the world in which we live. Those are the people we’re meeting each day on the streets. A fallen, flawed humanity. Lives that are disordered, empty, dark. Men and women struggling somehow to muddle their way through the murky morass of their day-by-day life in the world. Lost. Loveless. Losers.

The condition is often disguised. People are proud and construct fine façades which suggest that there isn’t a problem. But remove the façade and the rotten condition is clear.

Many of the addicts we’re engaging with have long since ceased to bother with façades. (We’re all by nature ‘addicts’, of course, addicted to the lethal substance ‘self’: that’s the essence of the problem with humanity – it’s just we often will not recognize it as the problem and do not see how terribly enslaved we are).

Poisoned by the toxic, tightening grip of their addiction, their lives lack any sort of structure, their days are largely empty, their experience broadly dark. They don’t have a job, and their prospects are bleak: the only commitments they’re likely to have are appearances down at the courts: and the only real circle of friends that they have is as often as not just a violent, vicious circle which does little more than spiral them relentlessly downwards.

And, yes, I’m painting the picture in extreme and exaggerated terms to help make the point. We can’t save them.

We’d love to be able to help them, and to rescue them from this wretched plight which plagues our whole humanity: of course we would. But we can’t. Only the Lord can save. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

We’re just theatre nurses. He alone is the Surgeon.

But because we know what He’s doing as such, we learn to work along with Him. We can help to put some order into lives which are disordered and chaotic: we can provide for the Lord a place and an environment in which a certain structure can be built. We can start to put some content into lives which are devoid of any content day by day: for those who’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go and no-one who’s willing to risk wasting time in their cause, we can find tasks which need to be done, we can risk finding out where the gifts of such people are found and open up vistas of purposeful service.

That’s not going to save them. Only the Lord can do that. But this is all good theatre nurses’ work: seeing what the Surgeon is doing, discerning just where He is headed, and anticipating what He’ll look for and require.

This is the work of the kingdom to which we’ve been called. Restoration and renewal. Vital heart-transplant surgery, where our role as theatre nurses is itself the very essence of the saving work of Christ: our lives now full (it’s demanding, wearying work), our living now not random but well-ordered (a theatre like this is surely no place for any sort of mess!), and our strength now spent in the life-imparting service of the gracious, great Physician.

May God grant us grace to rise to the challenges of these days!

Yours in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton