Summary: In a bad-news, good-news world, we need to remember that God’s good news 1. Is greater than the world’s bad news. 2. Transforms the world’s bad news. 3. Will do away with the world’s bad news.
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. . . .” So begins Charles Dicken’s classic work, A Tale of Two Cities. The French revolution had brought the worst of times and the best of times to both France and England. Dicken’s words were truly descriptive of the mood of the world. But these words could also have been spoken about our time. In many ways we, in America, are experiencing the best times the world has ever known. At the same time, and in other ways, these are the worst of times.
The same was true of the time just prior to the birth of Christ. There was both despair and hope residing in the hearts of the people of Israel, sometimes both emotional extremes made their home in the hearts of the people at the same time. It was the worst of times. The Romans were occupying Israel. Cruel soldiers walked the streets and the taxes of Rome kept the people in poverty. A mood of despair had settled among many of the people, for not many years before they had experienced victory over their enemy, the Syrians, which they celebrate to this day in the holiday called Hanukkah. But now they were again subservient to a foreign power. When the Romans came to power, the Jewish rulers first tried compromise. When that didn’t work, they tried to assassinate Herod the Great, ruler of Palestine, only to find their revolt crushed by Rome. The Maccabees, or Hasmonaeans, who had liberated Judah from the Syrians had been looked to as modern messiahs, but when Herod killed their last leader, Hyrcanus II, deep despair settled on the people.
But it was also the best of times in some ways. The Pax Romana, or peace of Rome, pervaded that part of the world and there was a measure of political stability. Roman law brought order. Progress and commerce came to Israel with the building of Roman roads. Best of all, even though it was a political maneuver, Herod had rebuilt the temple for the Jews. But greater still was the promise of the prophets that God would send Messiah into the world. Holy longings filled their hearts. They clung to the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7). The people of God were living with this hope and holding on to the dream of a homeland which was free, independent and centered on God’s law. They saw a united Israel which would freely and fully worship God.
Into this good-times-bad-times-world, Jesus came. The world had grown hard and cynical, but there was a breath of hope blowing across the hearts of the people as well. There was a sense that God was about to do something wonderful. God’s good news was coming into a bad-news world. The first thing that I would like to bring out is: God’s good news is greater than the world’s bad news. John described Christ’s coming as light coming into the darkness, and he said that the darkness could not extinguish it. The Greek literally means: “The darkness could not take it down.” It could not conquer it, or overpower it. Darkness is negative. It is simply the absence of light. It has no power of its own. All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish a single candle. But light is a positive force. It does overcome darkness. There have been times when I have come into the sanctuary at night when it is totally dark. The lights are off and it is dark outside. I cannot see a single pew. There are no colors visible. As far as I can tell, the sanctuary has nothing in it since I cannot see anything. Or, as far as I know, there may be people hiding everywhere. Darkness creates illusions. But if I turn on just one light, or even light a small candle, I can see everything. And the more light I turn on the clearer I can see. I can see the red carpeting and drapes, the white pews and the walnut trim. I know where to go and where not to go. I can see clearly. When the lights are on there is no way to let enough darkness in to overcome the light. It is light that overcomes darkness, not the other way around.