Monthly Letter – May 2019

Dear Friends

Some events become almost immediately ‘iconic’.

The assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. The death of Princess Diana in August 1997. The attack on the twin towers in September 2001.

In each such case, the news of the event had an instant, profound and indelible impact on our minds and hearts. In part it was the shock, the sheer, disruptive ‘unexpectedness’ of this great, catastrophic bombshell which in one quick headline message somehow blew to smithereens the sense we’d fondly fostered that our world (or at least, perhaps, our part of the world) was both predictable and safe.

Most of us carry a picture in our minds of such events: a picture which has captured and expressed so well the huge, horrific impact of that scene – a picture which has stayed with us across the years, as if the seismic nature of the thing had been branded on our memories for life.

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral will, for many I don’t doubt, prove to be another such event, the graphic, shocking images of which have, almost overnight, bestowed ‘iconic’ status on the massive conflagration that engulfed this towering landmark in the centre of the City of Light and of Love.

And rightly so. It was, and it is, an ‘icon’. A ‘likeness’. A picture portraying an important truth we might have been otherwise struggling to see. An image which powerfully highlights a highly uncomfortable reality. An in-your-face depiction of a far more serious, cultural inferno which is raging in the western world today. A stark prophetic statement of what’s happened, and is happening, in so much of Jesus’ church today.

Iconic, for sure.

It tells in a single image a story which spans long centuries. The story of so much of the western world.

It’s a story which traces the way in which our society was carefully rooted, almost a millennium and a half ago, in the liberating message of the gospel of Christ, and was built on the solid, enduring foundations of Scriptural truth: it’s a story which shows how again and again, in the grace and the mercy of God, our lands and our people were brought back from their proneness to wander, and restored to an anchorage in Christ, and a culture which was shaped by the Word.

In the daring, sovereign providence of God, the church has been, as Paul once said, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim.3.15), that truth which has served both to shape and inform all the major facets of our culture and society.

Our every institution was developed and defined by what the Bible had to teach: our education, health-care, and the principles of law; the character of family life, the contours of political life, all of them were hammered out by blacksmith-like believers on the anvil of the Bible’s truth, that sacred ‘good deposit’ of the Word of God, of which the church has been the God-appointed guardian.

Few buildings today, I suppose, give a better visual expression than the Notre Dame cathedral does to just that central, foundational place which the church as the guardian of truth has played in the shaping of our western world across the last millennium and more.

The building is old, pre-dating the Reformation by centuries, construction on it having started in the mid-12th century. And the building has always been a great, impressive landmark in the centre of the capital of France, its two ‘twin towers’ both rising like a pair of huge colossi, and signifiying the overwhelming stature, strength and majesty of Christ Himself.

From far back in time, as from far away miles, this elevated edifice simply dwarfed surrounding buildings – and as such became a symbol of the strong and central role the church has played, as the bulwark of God’s truth, in shaping our society.

And all of that swiftly, suddenly destroyed. On Palm Sunday Monday (I don’t know what the day after Palm Sunday is called!) this building went up in flames. There was something strangely telling even in the very timing of it all.

For on the Monday of that fateful week, you’ll recall, that week which would climax in the ruthless, cruel rejection of the Son of God – on the Monday of that week there was a solemn acted parable at Jesus’ hands. The fig-tree was cursed for its lack of fruit, and was overnight ‘withered from the roots’.

The fig-tree itself a symbol of God’s people: the curse upon it a frightening indictment of their long, perverse refusal of God’s truth: and its fate a declarative portent of God’s forthcoming judgment on Jerusalem.

That was Palm Sunday Monday. April 15th in our language.

A building which had taken the best part of 200 years to construct, now gutted by fire in less than 200 minutes and ‘withered from the roots’. The roof fell in.

Iconic.

That single graphic image spelling out for all to see the stark and sobering truth which surely stares us in the face. The bedrock of our culture has been set on fire: and now the roof of our society is falling in.

It was an accident, we’re told. I don’t doubt for a moment it was. And all because of renovation work going on. Or so it seems.

How apposite the whole thing is! How pointedly descriptive this iconic conflagration proves to be!

For, of course, the roof falling in on our culture today is nothing but ‘an accident’ – or so they say. No one really planned that all the fabric of our western world should start now to collapse.

It’s just that those who are the ‘architects’ of today’s great ‘renovation’ work within the church, intent upon a vacuous and secular ‘renewal’ which will bring the church right up to date with current trends – ‘revisionists’ they’re termed – it did not cross their mind that to set a match to the truth of God is a dangerous game. That the roof is now falling in .. well, that was just ‘an accident’: it wasn’t meant that way.

Don’t play with fire.

Remember the rather ill-fated ‘renovation’ firm of Aaron & Sons? Nadab and Abihu, joint partners in the business of improving on the house of God, saw fit to offer ‘unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to His command’: and the fires which they casually lit grew rapidly into a frightening, holy inferno which consumed them in next to no time at all – and the roof fell in on their venture (you can read their brief ‘business bio’ in Leviticus 10).

Don’t play with fire! Don’t start lighting fires to burn away the bits you think redundant or repugnant in the Word of God!

Perhaps there’s a certain sobering symbolism, too, in the scene being set in Paris. For Paris has long since come to acquire the nickname of ‘the City of Light’ – a designation bound up as much as anything else with the central role the city played in the spread of the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’.

And maybe that’s where the cultural blaze which is presently burning to ashes the heart of our communal life in the western world – maybe that’s where it had its beginnings, there in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’: we didn’t fully realize just what widespread devastation would be caused when we started to light the kindling of our arrogant dissection and rejection of the Word of God.

An iconic event for sure. This great and ancient cathedral going up in flames, with the whole world looking on.

But wait. I’m thinking now in a rather different way, of course, but … but is that not just what Pentecost was?

The church of God on fire.

Just like the Lord Himself. The Lord who gave poor Moses such a fright by appearing to him in flames of fire: there was this former child of the palace minding his own little business and frittering away his existence now in a dry and barren wilderness – and the Lord appears to the man in a sudden, shocking moment which becomes itself immediately iconic for succeeding generations of His church.

On fire .. but not consumed!

And maybe that as well is what we’re meant to see, and where we’re meant to let our viewing take us as we see those furious flames of mighty fire within that ancient building. As if the Lord would thereby speak a word of great encouragement and challenge to the followers of Christ, and say – ‘There, My people: look closely! That is what you need again today.’

The rampant fires of the Spirit of God, cleansing, purifying, renewing – burning away all the dross of a compromised, half-hearted faith. And, who knows, too, maybe the fires of persecution through which the fiery Spirit moves; the real and painful ‘renovating’ work, so different from the self-indulgent tinkering we’d prefer.

A church on fire .. but not consumed!

Oh for such flames to engulf Christ’s church again! Oh for a further Pentecost today!

May we pray together in earnest to that end.

Yours in that prayerful expectancy

Jeremy Middleton