Jesus Christ stands as one of the most fascinating and influential people in history. A Time magazine article looking to the turn of the 21st century stated: "The memory of any stretch of years eventually resolves to a list of names, and one of he useful ways of recalling the past two millenniums is by listing the people who have acquired great power.
"Muhammad, Catherine the Great, Marx, Gandhi, Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Mao come quickly to mind. There's no question that each of those figures changed the lives of millions and evoked responses from worship through hatred. It would require much exotic calculation.
"However, to deny that the single most powerful figure — not merely in these two millenniums but in all human history — has been Jesus of Nazareth ... A serious argument can be made that no one else's life has proved remotely as powerful and enduring as that of Jesus."
From our perspective, now two millennia later, this is clear whatever our faith stance. When Jesus began his ministry, this was not at all clear. He lived in obscurity for the first 30 years of life. He began his ministry by being baptized by John the Baptist, a renegade prophet who rejected the Jewish religious establishment.
People wondered who this man was. As a boy, I enjoyed watching the TV show "The Lone Ranger." It would always end with the Ranger riding away in the sunset and people asking, "Who is that masked man?"
In many ways, Jesus was like that masked man. His true identity was hidden while he taught the people and did acts of healing. People wondered, "Who is that man?"
Some suggested he was a prophet. Others concluded he was a madman. Most had a politicized understanding of the Messiah and expected him to overthrow the dominant Romans. Jesus did not want to start a military or political revolution, so he forced people to see his deeds and hear his teachings about God and about loving one's fellow human beings, but he held off fully revealing in words his true identity.
This week we see the beginning of Jesus' ministry as several churches in Lodi continue "The Story." The people of his day were wondering who he was. He did not fit in any of their categories.
I remember first being confronted with the claims of Christ as a young man. What was I going to do with Jesus? I knew that C.S. Lewis was right when he wrote, "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God.'"
Lewis said, "That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice.
"Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.
"He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God."
I couldn't ignore him. I had to decide about Jesus. How about you?
Steve Newman is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Lodi.