The two cousins, Jesus and John the Baptist, are inextricably woven together. Before either is born their mothers celebrate together the promise that God will use their sons for something important. As the story moves forward we encounter John, dressed in rugged simply, in the style of the prophets, preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God. The people come from the cities, repent, and are baptized by John in anticipation that God was about to do something that would change everything. On one of those hot afternoons Jesus emerges from the crowd and asked John to baptize him. In dramatic fashion John resists – telling Jesus that he does not consider himself worthy of baptizing Jesus. Jesus insists, is baptized as an act of faithfulness, the dove decides, the Father speaks, and heaven is torn open. God is ready to move.
We see the gospel story from this side of Easter. Most of us know how the story ends. Many can tell you about the ministry of Jesus, about a cross on a hillside just outside of Jerusalem, and an empty tomb that paved the way for to become children of God through faith. Some of us have heard the stories of Jesus since before we could read or write. But John the Baptist was a player in the middle of the story. He had witness the grand moment of Christ’s baptism, but now found himself sitting in a dungeon waiting on his death. He began to wonder. He began to doubt. He, it seems, like many others assumed the Messiah would deal the Romans and the corruption that infested the Jewish royal ranks. He was now its victim and longed to know how the story would end. Was Jesus the Messiah or had he been wrong? If Jesus was the Messiah, would he deliver him? John’s followers left his side and went to Jesus with a question that echoes from that moment to ours. They come to Jesus and asked; “Are you the One?” and then in what I imagine is offered in whispered voice they asked; “or should we expect someone else?”
We ask these two questions, sometimes subtly, and sometimes more directly, when we come the moment of faith decision. You hear it when people ask, “if there really is a loving God, why is their pain and suffering in the world?” You hear it when people try to explain faith away. You hear it when people make choices that place something else, someone else, in place of God. You hear it when doubt seems stronger than faith. You hear it when explore the world’s great religions seeking the authentic face of God and you hear it from others when they say that all religions are the same. In each of these questions and moments people are trying to see if Jesus is any different than the cultural icons or religious symbols that clutter our world. Jesus could have simply said, “Yes, it’s me, I am the one.”
But Jesus takes another path. He knows the heart of the question and the pain that lies behind it. He knows the quiet doubt that ripples in their words. He knows that they have come looking to hear if the time is soon when he will fulfill their expectations and become the military Messiah that brings justice to that place, that moment in time. Their pain, their doubt, their broken expectations would make any words insufficient – for them and for us. Hear again Jesus reply; “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” I keep thinking of the way that unexpected music in that Moscow subway station stopped me in my tracks and opened my ears to something beyond my wildest expectations for that time and place. My friends could have tried to prepare me for the moment, they could have tried to explain the situation, but I do not think their words would have been enough. It was something I had to see, to hear, to experience. Jesus wanted the disciples of John the Baptist to see what was going on and to understand, not because he told them it was true, but because they could see lives transformed. He wanted the picture of the transformed lives to shatter the veil of their pain, the doubt, and their broken expectations and let them see the transforming power of a Messiah who would not just change things in one place and one time, but was doing something that would change the story of eternity.
Across the centuries countless babies have been born in conditions like the manger. Across the centuries countless men has walked and talked and gather followers around them. Across the centuries countless people have been persecuted or killed for their ethnic identity, religious beliefs, and for politically expedient reason. Even in the time of Jesus there were others who tried to claim the mantle of messiah. Even in the time of Jesus and the years soon after there we people that the crowds tried to proclaim as messiah in hopes of they would rise and destroy their Roman occupiers. The story of Jesus was more than a dramatic birth story in a second rate Middle Eastern village. The story of Jesus is more than a religious epic that draws our attention at Christmas and Easter. The story of Jesus is more than the words of an itinerant preacher or healer. It is the story of one who is The One.
The story of Jesus is rooted in the testimony of transformed lives – of those who can now see the face of God – of those who are untouchable who are now cleansed and are called the children of God. It is the story of those who can now hear the voice of God and have become a people of resurrection and good news. The witness of the work of Christ flies from the pages of scripture and from the bounds of the plastic manger scene the neighbor down the street plugs in each night – and finds life in the testimonies of changed people and changed lives. The disciples of John the Baptist, and many like them across the passage of time, came with a question. Jesus wanted them to leave with a testimony that could sustain them in the hour of doubt and despair and change their lives forever. He wanted them know – He wants us to know - He wants the world to know that He is the One. We do not have to look for another.
Our Christmas witness is more than enjoying Linus reading the Nativity narrative on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It is more than having a beautifully decorated house. It is more than sending a pretty Christmas card. Instead, it is found when we share the story of how the babe born in the manger has changed and transformed our lives. We are the living testimony Jesus points to. We who have been changed are the demonstration of good news. We are the proof that the Christmas story is not a pleasant religious story but instead is the answer for those who seek the face of God.
It’s time to celebrate! Let the songs ring out! The babe born in the manger is the promised One of God! Come and see – not the manger where he lay – but the lives that have been transformed by His love and grace. Come and see – and then share the good news – that Jesus Christ is born and all of eternity is changed because of him.