Every bus, trolley, and fire truck in my town has a proud slogan blazoned on its doors: “Charlottesville: A World Class City!” No doubt, what is meant to bring a sense of pride to our 40,000 residents is pretty cute to those who live in any actual city. The claim isn’t totally unwarranted: there’s a good food scene here, our college basketball team is really good, and Ariana Grande is performing at our local arena in a few weeks. But the self-branding (i.e. self-justification) of Charlottesville has noticeably increased since tragic acts of hate and violence put us on the map two years ago.

Alas, the motive to justify my hometown is far more personal. A friend of mine once dubbed me “The Mayor of Charlottesville” since I sometimes run into people I know when I walk downtown (*casually dusts his shoulder*). The truth of the matter is that Charlottesville is a small town. Everyone/anyone is eventually crowned “mayor” if you live here long enough, but I have still cherished the imagined role and hold it very close to my sinful heart. “I like being a big fish in a small pond,” I’ll tell people, but it’s no coincidence that the smaller the pond gets, the more my fragile ego grows.

Cue this classic quote from Anton Chekhov: “The most intolerable people are provincial celebrities.” The quote is funny — you can imagine Chekhov probably had specific people in mind — but it also packs a punch. It’s also completely self-explanatory in that of course provincial celebrities are the most intolerable. Big fish in small ponds can so easily become unaware of how vast the world is and how small they actually are in comparison. I think I am someone Anton Chekhov would have gone to great lengths to avoid. He would smell my small-scale status coming down the street and sneak into the nearest convenient store until I had walked by and turned the corner.

But, what does God have to say to us small-town celebrities? Actually, it’s not that different from what Checkov has to say. Here’s Galatians 6: “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.” Romans 12, likewise, holds nothing back: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement.” What is medicine for the soul is a tough pill for my ego to swallow. In fact, when it comes to my ego, the truth is always initially sad because the truth (i.e. the law) is my ego’s death-sentence. The truth may set me free, but not until it kills the lies that bind me. And yet, after the law has completed its assigned task, I’m able to taste the freedom and relief that comes with being a nobody. To milk every bit of the metaphor: while a big fish in a small pond is always sizing up the competition, a little guppy is just happy to be there.

Thankfully, in the eyes of God, it’s not too late for self-important people. There’s a wonderful story in the New Testament that speaks to how God handles provincial celebrities. In the Book of Acts, a man named Simon had achieved minor fame by practicing sorcery and astounding the people of Samaria. Chapter 8 says, “He claimed to be someone great, and all the people, from the least to the greatest, heeded his words and said, ‘This man is the divine power called the Great Power.” But then, Philip came along, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ. And apparently it didn’t take long for Simon to realize that his gig was up; that he simply couldn’t compete with the power of what Philip was preaching. It says Simon believed and was baptized. He then continued to follow Philip closely, “astounded by the great signs and miracles he observed.” Here, we find that the gospel is not what “separates the men from the boys,” but what separates the power of man from the power of God.

The gospel is the only hook that can drag a fish out of his little world and show him all the beauty he’s missing. Or, as Tim Kreider puts it: “Apparently I can only ever attain that God’s-eye view in the grip of the talons.” I’m grateful that the gospel overpowers all other powers (most chiefly, the power of sin and death, let alone my ego). Nothing can stand in its path because it is the power of God, a power that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). It’s completely different from other powers because it is culled from a place of weakness. Its Savior hales from Nazareth (a place from where nothing good comes), its strength is drawn from His naked body on a Cross. It is a power that stands completely on its own, anytime, anywhere. When I am unwilling to downsize from a provincial celebrity to a nobody, it helps to be reminded that Jesus willingly “made himself nothing” for my sake (Philippians 2). While the law is good to remind us that we are all nobodies, the gospel is still a greater good that transforms nobodies into beloved children. Children who have no power beyond the One to whom they belong (i.e. the Fisher of men).