For most of my young life I was not much of a reader. I did not appreciate it and would not read much beyond comic books. It was really only in college that I began to see the usefulness of being widely read and I slowly began to find great joy lost in the pages of great authors. As I got older, my sensibilities on such things made a drastic change and with a new appreciation for impactful literature came the desire to play catch-up for all the things I had never read. I found I would read books because they were considered great by other more intelligent people but there were some authors who had a way to draw me further into the worlds they created. One of these was certainly Charles Dickens. Throughout a year, while in seminary, I read through almost all of his major writings: Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, his Christmas stories and perhaps my favorite, A Tale of Two Cities.
It turns out, many great writings have profound and captivating opening lines, bridging a gap between the reader and the world the author creates. It draws you in to the story. Moby-Dick begins with, “Call me Ishmael.” Peter Pan with, “All children, except one, grow up.” But perhaps one of the most famous is the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
He goes on to say these opposites were not unique to the time he described, but actually the same as in any age. They are the same as all mankind experiences, same as our age today.
In fact, especially for Christians, this is the truth of our lives. Your life as a believer may be described as a tale of two cities. Not London and Paris during the French Revolution as in Dickens, but something more akin to what Saint Augustin spoke of in his work, the City of God. There he describes the tension between the eternal city of God, the New Jerusalem, and the temporal city of Rome, or this fallen world. You live in an age of sin and destruction, of fear and pandemics, of broken promises and war and terror. At the very same time, you live in the promises of life and salvation and eternal glory. You are residents of this eternal city of forgiveness and love and compassion. Part of the struggle for us is we have this tendency, this constant desire to comingle these two cities. We push one into the other. While we struggle with both in the worst of times and the best of times, we forget they are two different cities. We live in them both. We experience them both, but they are not the same. When we make them one, we create a delusion which is difficult to undo.
Mercifully, you know the promises of God. These promises have been made to you and secured by the blood of Christ. They speak of all that is good and beautiful and true. You are called the children of God; you are heirs of eternal life. But the life you live does not quite look like that. Realistically, it often looks like the exact opposite. You fail to act very much like the children of God, and you do not seem to be those who live in the promises of forgiveness. No, your life is marked by sin and failure, suffering and regrets, and more fear than you care to admit. So, what you do is look toward yourself, toward your own effort to fix this disconnect. Then what happens is you elevate your ability to make the promises of God more evident in your life.
A perfect example of this delusion is found in the exchange between our Lord, the religious leaders, and His own disciples, in Mark chapter 7. The issue at the center of the conversation deals with how one can be made clean. How can someone be pure and holy and come into the presence of God? You see, they had a very well-defined system of how this all worked. It was a system which dealt with everything within their control. You eat the right foods, wear the right clothes, pray at the right times, observe the right traditions, hang out with the right people, and you can make yourself clean, or at least cleaner than you were yesterday and one step closer to entry into the City of God. You want to see the promises of God more active in your life? You want some hope that what He has declared is really yours? Perhaps you need to take a closer look at how you behave. You need to go to church and read your bible and stop cussing and drinking and smoking and all the other things which so easily defile you.
But Jesus does not let you search for hope in what you can control. He does not turn you inside yourselves to clean up the problem. No, He says without any hesitation or caveat, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23). What defiles you is your own heart. What defiles you is beyond your ability to change. You can control what goes into your body. You can control what you eat and what you observe and how you dress and who you hang out with, but these are not the real problem.
When you encounter this Word of our Lord, when this proclamation echoes in your ears today it truly is the worst of times. For there is no hiding in your good work, no hope in your own accomplishment. Jesus simply empties you out and declares how the root of the problem is much deeper than any of you thought. Did you believe you were going to be saved because you walked the walk and talked the talk? Did you think God loves you because you are better than you were yesterday or that you gave it your best shot. No, you are sinners one and all. That sin does not come from the outside-in, it comes from within you, it pours out of your hearts. It is terrible and devastating. The suffering and hatred and corruption of our age flows from our own hearts.
So, where is our hope? Where do you turn for the assurance of life and salvation? Where is there hope for defiled hearts? It is truly the worst of times when we realize the answer is not found in anything we can do? But your Lord does not leave you in such despair. He does not leave you without hope and assurance. He ends the delusion of your control and then gives Himself as the savior of all. He does what your hearts would not allow you to do. He who knew no sin, who was anything but defiled became your sin, your defilement, to face the wrath of God. He alone pays the price of your entry into the City of God. His body is broken, His blood is shed, a pure and holy sacrifice without spot or stain. It is God alone who can turn the sinful hearts of mankind. God alone can make them clean. God alone can make you worthy of entrance into eternal life, and this is precisely what He has done.
So today, in the midst of all that is going on in our age, amid the foolishness and incredulity and darkness and despair of having nothing before us but only the threat of Hell, right in the midst of it all we find it is the best of times. For there is hope. There is the promise of joy and laughter and eternal glory. The same God who exposes your sin and failure speaks to you of hope and promise. My friends, in Christ you are forgiven. You are made clean. You are declared righteous. Not by your work but by His work. Not by what you do but by what He has done. In Christ, you face an eternity of love and welcome. You are already saints of the Most High. What then can this age do to you? What is there to fear?
It is truly the best of times!