A Tale of Two Cities is a famous novel written by Charles Dickens in 1859 to contrast life in Paris with life in London during the time of the French Revolution. With sales of about 200 million, A Tale of Two Cities is the biggest selling novel in history. Dickens began the famous novel with the oft-quoted line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”
Similarly, when Jesus came to this earth, it was the worst of times. The Jewish people were under the tyrannical grip of Rome. Herod the Great was a bloodthirsty, paranoid leader. One politician said that Herod was so paranoid it was safer to be his sow than to be his son.
The times, however, were also simultaneously the best of times. The Pax Romana had instituted peace. Travel was easy due to the development of roads. And the Koine Greek language had made it relatively easy to communicate. Into these “best of times” and “worst of times” entered Jesus Christ. But His was a tale of three cities.
As we look at our own lives this Christmas season some two thousand plus years after the incarnation, we easily discover that the journey of Jesus to three specific cities becomes our journey as well. We follow in the steps of our Saviour. We also live in the worst of times. Islamic terrorism threatens the globe. Warfare between the youth of our cities and the police departments who protect them has escalated. Moral standards are rapidly declining. Yet, simultaneously, it is the best of times. There has never been an era when communication could take place so rapidly. Social media and internet capabilities have given Christians marvelous opportunities for enhanced witness. But if these “best of times” can be used to effectively help these “worst of times,” a trip to three cities is mandatory.
When Jesus left the ivory palaces to show up on the backside of Bethlehem in a barn, He revealed to us a model of ministry. Effective ministry always takes place in humility. Our society is nauseated with proud politicians, sports stars, and businessmen. It is looking for someone who believes that life is not all about self. When Jesus was born in a cave with the smell of cow dung permeating the air, he revealed to us that He was not part of the “selfie” generation.
Jesus left streets of gold for a city that was “little among the thousands” (Micah 5:2), He took a step that few power-grabbing ministers of today would be willing to take. He exchanged a throne of prominence for a feeding trough of obscurity. And in so doing, He impacted a world. Bethlehem is a stop of humility that all of us should be willing to take.
After Herod slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem, Jesus returned to the land of promise and took up residence in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23). This was not necessarily a step up from Bethlehem. Indeed, Nathaniel wondered, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
If Bethlehem reveals the humility of Jesus, Nazareth reveals His approachability. Though Jesus Himself was not a transgressor, He was numbered with them (Isaiah 53:12).
Jesus was a friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19). There is no way that we can reach a world for Christ when we remain aloof in our fully carpeted, air-conditioned offices. There comes a time when we must leave the church aisle and enter the city streets. Though we are not to be of the world, we are to be in it (John 17:15). We have to live in the places where wicked ones dwell if we are ever to reach them. In a real sense, we all must be “Nazarenes.”
When the magi showed up in Bethlehem, they presented Jesus with myrrh (Matthew 2:11). How unusual to bring embalming fluid (John 19:39) to a baby shower! It was clearly obvious that Jesus was born to die. Simeon prophesied that Jesus’ fate would pierce the soul of Mary (Luke 2:35). And the author of Hebrews clearly states that Jesus was given a body in order that it might be sacrificed for the sins of the world (Hebrews 2:14). The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice, and this is why He set His face as a flint to go to Jerusalem.
Those who follow in the steps of Christ must also sacrifice their ambitions and plans for the will of the Father. A life of indulgence is not the Christian life. The Christian life is a life of denial. Unfortunately, many of us sacrifice very little for the sake of others. We spend our holiday season preparing bigger wish lists, and this strikes against the very tenor of Christmas spirit. All of us need to take a trip to the town of the old rugged cross, for it is there we will discover the true meaning of Christmas.
May our lives be characterized by humility, approachability, and sacrifice so that we may make an impact in these “best of times, worst of times.”