Christmas With Luke: Jesus Comes to Those Who Feel Left Out
When The Washington Post broke the October 2016 story on Donald Trump’s lewd conversation with Billy Bush, I immediately wondered how we should engage with students regarding the event. The media erupted with feminist sentiments, and the scenario presented a unique moment for the Church to speak about the intrinsic worth of women as image-bearers of God.
I fretted for a moment about how our team might address this cultural conversation with students, sensing it was too important to avoid, but not wanting our coverage of the topic to be disproportionate. As I looked to our high school youth group schedule that week, I breathed a sigh of relief at the sweet timing of God’s Spirit. Our planned content was Luke 1:26-56 from our “Christmas in October” series where we make our way through Luke’s Gospel once every four years. What could be more aptly timed to communicate how our God regards women made in His image than a study on Mary and Elizabeth?
In our present cultural moment, our students are increasingly socially aware and concerned for those who feel on the fringes of society (although we may observe that their lived ethics don’t always seem to match their expressed concern). Thankfully, God’s Word is not silent on these matters. As we read Scripture, we find that our concern for those who are left out comes from God Himself. The Advent season provides a powerful opportunity to discuss this topic with our students, as Luke puts God’s care for the marginalized on center stage in Jesus’ birth narrative as well as throughout the text of his whole Gospel.
God Dignifies Women (Luke 1:26-56)
Starting in chapter 1, Luke shows us how two women receive the unexpected birth announcements of John the Baptist and Jesus. Mary and Elizabeth’s immediate trust in the word of the Lord from the angel is contrasted with Zechariah’s slowness to believe (Lk. 1:5-21). The fact that Joseph’s perspective is not even mentioned in the account highlights Luke’s emphasis on the dignity shown to these women.
The unplanned pregnancy would have been especially precarious for Mary as an unmarried teenager. We know from other details in the four Gospels that she has very few means. She has no education beyond what she may have received at home and at the synagogue, where she would have learned of God’s promises through the history of Israel and recitation of the Psalms. She most likely has no way of earning an income herself, but is dependent on her father and her betrothed, Joseph. She also knows that once her pregnancy is discovered, she will be publicly shamed. At best, if Joseph shows mercy (which happily, we know he does), it will look like they have consummated their marriage before the proper time. At worst, Joseph himself will assume that she has been unfaithful, leaving her vulnerable to scorn. Either way, her reputation and her family name will be tarnished.
The fact that God would reveal himself to two women, one so disadvantaged, in this particular cultural context illustrates the beauty and the reach of His welcome in Christ. It’s not the pious male leadership of Israel who get a front row seat to the kingdom (although Zechariah certainly had his chance); instead it’s those whose voices have been silenced who hear the Good News and believe.
This is one of Luke’s favorite themes (Lk. 8:1-3), and he will draw on it again at the end of his Gospel, when it is women who first witness Christ’s resurrection, while the men are found doubting (Lk. 24:1-12). In a culture that did not validate the testimony of women, Jesus exalts and dignifies his sisters. This remarkable truth tells us something of the gospel and something of God’s own character—something our students (both male and female) desperately need to hear in an age of #MeToo and increasing confusion about the beauty of our God-given genders.
For women around the world enduring oppression and indignity, Jesus’ radical treatment of women is truly Good News. It’s also Good News for the young men and women in our youth ministries who experience righteous anger about these things, as well as for those who are struggling to understand what it means to be made male and female.
God Welcomes the Outsider (Luke 2:1-21)
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see a reversal of who is outside God’s kingdom and who is inside. Luke wants to show that those who imagined themselves to be “insiders” often proved themselves to be far away from Jesus, while those who felt like “outsiders” surprisingly came near to follow him.
For example, we learn later that when Jesus began to teach in the Temple, the Jewish leaders—the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes—often rebuked him. Instead it was those on the outside—the sick, the lame, the poor, the disenfranchised—who quickly turned to him in faith. In the first moments of Jesus’ life, we already see this great reversal happening as humble shepherds are the first to receive the announcement of Jesus’ birth and rejoice.
While we should be cautious of labeling the shepherds as social outcasts, it’s safe to say that they fit in the category of “outsiders” in both the economic and religious sense. The religious elite, had they been paying attention, would have been scandalized by God’s revelation of His promised Messiah first to these herdsmen.
This, too, is Good News for the teenagers we love! Whether our students feel like outsiders themselves or are concerned about those who are marginalized on the basis of their race, income, or social status, the truth that God sent and revealed His Son to those on the outside should at least make them curious about Jesus. As a former pastor of mine used to say to skeptics, “Read the Gospels and get to know Jesus—I think you’ll like him!”
The Gospel Speaks to Students’ Concerns
In the year 2020, Luke’s birth narratives stunningly address some of our students’ deepest concerns for those who are often still on the fringes of society. As we teach Luke’s birth narratives and explore them with our students this Advent season, we can proclaim to them the lovingkindness of our God, who dignifies those our world maligns and welcomes those who are often held at a distance. We serve a God who sent His own Son into the world to empty himself, becoming like us in order to rescue us from sin and all its devastation.
In light of our counter-cultural God, the apostle Paul will later write in 1 Corinthians 1:27-30, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”
We can joyfully proclaim to teenagers the welcome of Jesus: Through God’s grace to us in the gospel, we who are spiritually far off are invited to come near—and in the Second Advent, Jesus will fully demonstrate God’s heart for the weak, lowly, and despised as he rights the wrongs of our world and makes all things new.
Questions to Get Students Talking
As you study the birth announcement and narrative from Luke’s Gospel, here are some questions to consider with your students.
How did Mary receive the angel’s news in spite of her concerns? How did Elizabeth and her baby receive Mary’s news?
What does it tell us about God that He planned for His Son to be born to a poor young girl?
Has there been a time when it was hard for you to trust God’s care for you? How can God’s favor and care for Mary help us to trust Him?
How did the shepherds respond to the things they saw and heard? (vv. 15, 17, 20)
What does it tell us about God’s character that He announced Jesus’ birth first to shepherds in a field? How does this challenge us to live differently?
As you’ve heard this story again, is there anything new you’ve noticed that helps you to know God and His love?