“The historical impact of Jesus' thinking is so pervasive that it is often taken for granted.”
— John Ortberg in “Who is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus.”
The image of Jesus as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothing is typically front and center throughout the Christmas season.
The beloved Christmas story culminating with His birth in a humble manger is a tale that is recounted in countless homes and churches.
However, local church leaders and noted author John Ortberg said Jesus' life story just kept getting better.
In fact, they said Jesus' message and ministry continues to influence the world more than 2,000 years after His birth.
Ortberg, senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in northern California, discussed Jesus' impact on the world at the Religion Newswriters Association's annual conference held in the fall in Bethesda, Md. Ortberg said he wrote his new book “Who is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus” to explore the many ways Jesus' message and ministry has impacted the culture through the years.
“I think most people, not just outside the church, but inside the church, have no idea of the impact that Jesus has had on the world,” Ortberg said. “It's just striking how Jesus is the man who just won't go away.”
Ortberg said Jesus' influence can be found in the positive light people see virtues like compassion, humility and forgiveness to the desire to help one's fellow man, which led Christians to start hospitals, universities and charities.
He said the controversy earlier this year surrounding a recently discovered fragment of fourth-century papyrus seemed to emphasize how much Jesus has affected today's world. A Harvard Divinity School professor brought the fragment forward saying that it included, in ancient Coptic, a phrase where Jesus refers to his wife. (The incomplete fragment was ultimately inconclusive on Jesus' marital status.)
“Who would have guessed 2,000 years ago that Jesus' marital status would have generated more conversation than (A-list actress) Jennifer Aniston's?” Ortberg said. “Who would have thought?”
Several metro-area clergymen said the premise of Ortberg's book seems to fall in step with the Christmas season, as Christians around the world celebrate Jesus' birth. The Rev. Marty Grubbs, senior pastor of Crossings Community Church, said he has been preaching a Christmas message series that explores the ways the world changed when Jesus arrived.
He said the series, called “Everything Changed,” challenges people to examine the ways that Jesus' ministry and message should alter the broken world in which He came to save.
Grubbs said Ortberg's book presents a well-thought-out, well-documented look at who Jesus was.
Grubbs said Jesus was considered different in his day particularly because of his message of inclusion. He said Jesus preached to everyone and was particularly critical of hypocrites and judgmental people whose legalism kept them at a distance from the people who seemed to need the most spiritual and tangible sustenance.
“The harshest words He had in the Bible were for the religious people,” Grubbs said of Jesus. “He just had a broader love for people. He saw a ‘big picture' in everyone.”
Grubbs said Christians must be careful not to get caught up in a denominational creed or their own cultural background in order to see clearly who Jesus was and reflect His light.
“I think for a lot of people, they rejected Jesus before they ever encountered Him,” Grubbs said. “I think a lot of people encountered Christians and said ‘not for me.'”
Meanwhile, the Rev. Joseph Alsay, rector of St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, said Jesus' ministry has influenced everything from academia to hospital care.
Like Grubbs, Alsay said Jesus' message of inclusion was key. “It was so radical, it crossed boundaries,” Alsay said.
Alsay said he has been discussing the ways that Jesus' has transformed the world in his Advent homilies. He said his series will culminate during Christmas Eve services, with a message of hope for troubled times.
“In the midst of mankind's mess, the Messiah is born, whatever the mess may be. Whether that be Newtown, Conn., (Dec. 14 shootings) or something else,” Alsay said. “In that environment, that is when Heaven and humanity hug — where they meet.
“That's Jesus. That influences everything — how you relate to life, your ministry, how you relate to your fellow man.”
The Rev. Rick Stansberry, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, said Jesus' teachings are needed now more than ever.
“His main influence has been to give us guidelines for life — a moral compass by which we could make not only our own lives better but the whole world better,” Stansberry said.
Like Grubbs and Alsay, Stansberry said Jesus was inclusive and admonished people to treat their fellow man with less judgment and more compassion.
“Part of the problem nowadays is we've lost that great respect for humanity that Jesus taught. We put ourselves first and the world second and we can't do that in order to be messengers of hope in a world of darkness,” Stansberry said.