Bible Text: Luke 2:1–20
Lesson Focus: God’s son Jesus came to save all people, focusing on the outcasts first.
Big Question: I’ve heard this story many times. What else can I learn from it?
Key Words: INCARNATION, BETHLEHEM, MESSIAH/CHRIST, OUTCAST
• The writer of Luke sets the birth of the Messiah within world history.
• Augustus was the honorary name for Gaius Octavius, Roman emperor from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D. He was known as the “bringer of peace,” and biblical scholars speculate that the writer of Luke makes a connection between Jesus’ birth and Augustus’s reign to show that Jesus, not Augustus, is the true bringer of peace.
• Palestine had been under Roman control for about a century and under foreign occupation for nearly 600 years when Jesus was born.
• There were many hopes and expectations with regard to the leader whom God would send to bring justice and peace. Some were expecting a military hero—who would conquer the Romans, rally God’s people, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity for the faithful who had been oppressed.
• The idea that shepherds were the first to receive the news of the Messiah’s birth would have been surprising and offensive to the original hearers and readers of this story.
The writer of Luke sets the birth of the Messiah in world history. The actual birth of Jesus gets only one line in this story: “She gave birth to her firstborn son” (Luke 2:7). However, several details of Roman history are recorded: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1). This style of wording is a traditional format for providing the date of an important event in the ancient world. We know from historical sources other than the Bible that Quirinius ordered a census in A.D. 4–7, and Herod died in 4 B.C. This makes it difficult to determine the exact date of Jesus’ birth. It also suggests that Luke is more like a storyteller than a historian and that dates aren’t as important to him as other details—like details of metaphor and symbol, language and allusion. That said, the writer of this Gospel is intent on placing this marvelous story at a specific time in a specific place. According to Luke, the incarnation happens at a particular point in history.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Palestine had been under Roman control for about a century and under foreign occupation for nearly 600 years. Augustus was the honorary name for Gaius Octavius, Roman emperor from 31 B.C.E. to A.D. 14. He was known as the “bringer of peace,” and biblical scholars speculate that the writer of Luke makes a connection between Jesus’ birth and Augustus’ reign to show that Jesus, not Augustus, is the true bringer of peace. And peace from God was needed. The peace that Augustus provided was through weapons of war and destruction, not to mention the violence perpetrated against the people. The peace that Jesus would bring was based on love and healing relationships.
The Romans exploited the local people, and those people were yearning for a deliverer. There were many hopes and expectations with regard to the leader whom God would send to bring justice and peace. Some were expecting a military hero—who would conquer the Romans, rally God’s people, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity for the faithful who had been oppressed. There were also intense hopes that this leader would restore Israel’s borders and glory to that of David’s legendary kingdom. Luke’s gospel story of the Messiah, however, begins in response to the emperor’s considerable earthly power. Joseph and Mary made the journey to Bethlehem to obey Augustus’s decree that all be registered for the purposes of taxation and military conscription. While they were there, the Messiah was born in the most unusual of circumstances.
There was no innkeeper or drummer boy in the biblical story. Exactly what an “inn” was at the time is vague. Our current images of the “first Christmas” combine stories from Luke and Matthew and fill in a lot of other details. The story of the incarnation told by our hymns, children’s books, nativity sets, and television specials is quite different from what we read in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Perhaps this is as it should be. However, when we bring our own “stuff” to the story ourselves, we run the risk of beginning to think of it as a warm and lovely fairy tale instead of the scandalous story that it is. It is good to look at what the story in Luke really says and to pay attention to the details that are and are not given, because the message is truly profound.
The hoped-for Messiah came as a baby. He couldn’t lift a sword, organize troops, or come up with a stump speech. How could this be the Messiah? Yet Luke tells us that some of those who “walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). Shepherds in the fields were surprised and scared out of their wits by an amazing light in the heavens. “The glory of the Lord” (Luke 2:9) shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel of the Lord announced the good news of Christ’s birth to the terrified shepherds, and the angels sang their praises to God, not to Caesar Augustus, spurring the astounded shepherds to make haste and go to Bethlehem and see that “which the Lord has made known to [them]” (Luke 2:15).
The idea that shepherds were the first to receive such news would have been surprising to the original hearers and readers of this story because shepherds were lower class citizens, yet this is an overarching theme in Luke. This Gospel writer professes again and again that those who are poor, powerless, and oppressed are the ones for whom Jesus came. The idea that shepherds were the first to hear the angels’ amazing message has profound implications for the radical inclusion of all people, and that message should continue reverberating in our sermons, confirmation classes, and service groups today.
Consider the splendor that could have been in this story. We need to remember the scandal Luke points out as we arrange the figures of our nativity sets each year. The claims of this story are truly astounding.
I’ve heard this story many times. What else can I learn from it?
The birth narrative in Luke is so much a part of our Christian history that we seldom question why God would make this miraculous announcement to lowly shepherds. Youth are often dealing with social pressures and trying to fit in or be accepted by peers, by adults, and so on. The culture they see in a variety of media sources is focused on popularity, prestige, status, and so forth. Asking youth for an explanation as to why God would choose to reveal the Messiah to the outcasts first might prove interesting. It may also be a question that they have never asked. Encourage them to ask other “new” questions about this text as they continue through the lesson.
Help students realize that each gospel was written for a specific group of people and has a theme. Help them to explore who those people might have been as you look at the central theme of Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s theme was that Jesus came to save the least, the last, and the lost. This information makes it absolutely fitting that the good news was first told to the least likely people—shepherds—who were near the bottom of the social heap. Youth will likely relate to the irony of this intent.
Welcome and Review
Help kids dive into the Key Words by asking for definitions and/or providing these definitions:
INCARNATION: God taking on human life (flesh) in Jesus.
BETHLEHEM: the town where Jesus was born. Joseph was descended from King David, who was also born in Bethlehem.
MESSIAH/CHRIST: the one promised by God who would come to save God’s people. Messiah is Hebrew, Christ is Greek, but both words translate into English as “the anointed one.” Jesus, son of Mary, is the Messiah.
OUTCAST: a person or class of people who are disdained by others in society. They often are forced to live apart from others and are shunned by the community.
Choose an option to introduce the lesson. Then lead students in the Opening Prayer.
Guest Speaker Option: Unexpected Encounter
Invite a person from your congregation or community who works across boundaries – a police officer, a volunteer at a homeless shelter, a translator or interpreter, a counselor who works with recovering addicts or mentally ill patients, an immigration worker (or come up with another idea). Ask this person to talk about a time when a person they least expected reminded them of Christ. Perhaps it was in a place they didn’t expect it or in a circumstance that surprised them or from someone who had never talked about faith in the past. What were the circumstances in that encounter when they sensed the presence of Christ? Ask them to describe their feelings at that time and how that experience has been an enduring memory for them. Talk with the youth about how they would feel in that situation.
Debrief the talk with these questions.
• What boundaries were crossed by God as this encounter took place?
• How did this encounter show that Jesus comes to all people?
• How can you watch for Jesus’ presence in unlikely places in your own life?
Sing together stanza 1 of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Lutheran Book of Worship 41; Evangelical Lutheran Worship 279): If the group is not a group that sings, perhaps you can have a singer or singers from among them sing this as a solo or small group.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Invite the students to stand and lift their hands high as they read this prayer projected on a screen or the wal
Glory to you, O God. With angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph, we praise you for Jesus’ birth, which is your love come down to earth. Glory to you, O God, now and forever. Amen.
My Faith Story
Ask kids to respond to the Big Question: I’ve heard this story many times. What else can I learn from it?
Then share a part of your own faith story, using the suggestion below or another way to share about how you continue to learn from familiar Bible stories, grow in your faith, and share the good news of the Incarnation with both outcasts and insiders in your life.
Consider a time when a very familiar Bible story suddenly took on new meaning or when you noticed something new in a Bible story that you had not noticed before. How does that experience help you read familiar Bible stories such as Luke 2:1–20 with new eyes? How does this promise that Jesus came to save all people give your reading of the Bible a new perspective? How does Jesus come to you in familiar Bible stories? How do familiar Bible stories like this one remind you that Jesus came to save all people? How have you brought this story and its promise that Jesus came for all people into your encounters with outsiders? If you can, share some tips that might help the students focus their Bible reading to see new angles in familiar stories and to see God’s love as it comes to all people through Jesus the Christ.
Open the Bible
Have the students open their Bibles to Luke 2:1–20. Read this passage together and watch for contrasts within the story, such as between those in power and those not in power, between insiders and outcasts. For example: Augustus and Quirinius lived in palaces, and Jesus was born in a stable; the presence of earthly creatures and heavenly creatures (the shepherds or nomads who could not keep the codes of Jewish law and were generally despised, and angels who were messengers of God); darkness and light (the shepherds keeping watch by night, and the angels lighting up the sky).
Those who believe in Jesus as the Messiah might think of the prophecy in Isaiah 9:2 as being fulfilled as the shepherds in the dark are dazzled by glory! Have the students turn to Isaiah and look at the prophecy and how it is fulfilled by the Incarnation. The amazing aspect of this story is that God’s Anointed One came first to the lowest people in society. It would be scandalous to the people of Israel who saw them as outcasts. It is a reminder to us that God crosses many boundaries in coming to save God’s people – boundaries such as: heaven/earth, rich/poor, insider/outcast, popular/misfit
“And on earth peace” is the cry of the angels in Luke 2:14. Caesar Augustus was the honorary name for Gaius Octavius, the Roman emperor from 31 B.C. to A.D.14; he was known as the “bringer of peace.” Yet the Romans exploited the local people, so real peace was not truly established and was much desired. Jesus was the true bringer of peace. See the list of titles for the coming king in Isaiah 9:6, including “Prince of Peace.” What would peace look like in today’s world? What boundaries would need to be crossed or what barriers would need to come down for true peace to be established?
Memories of God’s promises, quiet for some time, come to the forefront in the telling of Jesus’ birth. Read Micah 5:2–5 and its description of the significance of Bethlehem, out of which comes one to rule Israel. Do you remember who else from the Old Testament was born in Bethlehem (see 1 Samuel 16:1, 12–13)? Also notice what that soon-to-be king was doing when God chose him to be king (1 Samuel 16:11). David was out watching the sheep when Samuel came to anoint him as the new king. What other boundaries were crossed when David was chosen? The youngest son was chosen, not the oldest. Accept all thoughtful answers as you discuss this passage.
Though Luke is somewhat interested in history, he is more interested in telling the good news of Jesus’ salvation. Connect the angels’ song in Luke 2:14, which is near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, to the peoples’ song in Luke 19:38, which is near the end. Talk about these songs with the students. Do you recognize these songs from the communion liturgy? When do we sing them? Can you find them in your congregation’s worship books? (Bring in your congregation’s worship book and look for these songs in the communion liturgy.) What does this tell you about whom God will welcome at Holy Communion? In what ways does your congregation show this welcome?
Open the Catechism
Student Book page 299: Pass out a sheet of paper and a marker to every student. Have them write “Divine” on one side of the sheet and “Human” on the other side. Read the second article of the Apostles’ Creed aloud to the group. Instruct the group that while you’re reading, they should listen and decide if what’s being described is a divine Jesus or a human Jesus and to hold up their signs accordingly. If needed, repeat the reading so the youth can think about this idea once more. Follow up this activity by reading Luther’s explanation of the second article, emphasizing that Jesus is both human and divine. Ask these questions of your group: How does Jesus’ being true God and true human being cross boundaries? How might it be scandalous for some people that God became a human being?
Multiple Choice Questions
1. How many angels appeared to the shepherds?
b. One million
c. Seventy times seven
d. An unknown number—but a lot (Correct)
2. Where was Jesus born?
b. Bethlehem (Correct)
d. None of the above
3. Why did Jesus’ family travel to Bethlehem?
a. To visit family and friends
b. To see the new king of Israel
c. To register for a Roman census (Correct)
d. To do a genealogy study on Joseph’s family tree
4. Which Old Testament king was Joseph related to?
d. David (Correct)
5. How did the shepherds first respond to the angel?
a. With singing and dancing
b. By chasing after the sheep that had scattered when the angel appeared
c. With great fear (Correct)
d. By falling on their knees and worshiping the angel
6. Besides shepherds, who was in the stable with the baby Jesus to care for him?
a. The wise men from the east
b. The innkeeper
c. The little drummer boy
d. Mary and Joseph (Correct)
7. Where did Mary and Joseph live before Jesus was born?
b. Nazareth (Correct)
8. When we say “Jesus Christ,” we are . . .
a. Saying that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed leader. (Correct)
b. Saying Jesus’ first and last names.
c. Using code language that early Christians used.
d. Using foul language.
Take a Break
Select one of the options below to explore in your small group. Then finish with the Best/Worst activity and prayer.
Option 1: Game Option: The Bible and Our Memories
Have the students pair off. (With a larger group, they can work in threes rather than pairs.) Have half of the pairs name from memory all of the people, animals, and things that were present in “the manger scene.” Have the other half of the pairs read Luke 2:1–20 and make a list of the people, animals, etc. that are named as being present. (Remind the reader groups to be VERY CAREFUL in their reading and to list ONLYwhat is included in the Bible reading.) Give them 2–3 minutes for this part of the activity.
Have each pair find another pair to form a foursome (or have the threes join into groups of six)– joining those who had worked on opposite tasks. Ask them to compare their lists. Have each new group of 4–6 students prepare two collaborated lists: people, animals, and things that they expected to find in Luke 2 that were not present in the Bible story, and those that were present in the Bible story that they had not expected. Give them 2–3 minutes for this discussion.
Return to the whole group and debrief the game with these questions.
• Does the story look or sound or feel different when you hear it through Luke’s specific version? How so?
• Christmas pageants generally include shepherds, wisemen, and angels. Where do you think that version of the story comes from? What do you think of having that version of the story told at Christmastime?
• What point do you think Luke was making by writing the story this way?
Option 2: Learning in Motion Option: Pageant “Freeze Frame”
With limited props, encourage the group of students to creatively put together a tableau (a still grouping of bodies) depicting the following scenes from the Nativity. See how quickly the youth can move from one scene to the next. Encourage them to be creative in using all members of the group—even if that means some represent buildings or parts of nature or animals. If there are not enough students, be creative in how the scene can be created with as many actors as you have present.
1. Registration of Joseph and Mary
2. Jesus’ birth
3. Shepherds keeping watch
4. Angels shouting “Glory!”
5. Shepherds going to Bethlehem
6. Mary and Joseph, with Jesus in the manger
7. Mary treasuring things in her heart
8. Shepherds glorifying and praising God
Option 3: Learning in Motion Option: Tour the Worship Space
Take the group of students into your worship space. Perhaps you can have your pastor or one of your Communion servers meet you there. Walk through the process by which your congregation serves Communion with words or with the actions themselves. Have a copy of the bulletin or the Communion invitation that is used in worship. Who is welcome to receive Communion? Why is that the case? How is that made clear to the worshipers? How does this welcome bring the good news of Jesus Christ to all people regardless of their personal situations?
Best/Worst and Prayer
Go around the group and have each student share the best and worst thing from his or her week. Remind them to pay special attention to (for example) the person on their right, as they will be praying for that person in a moment. Alternate prayer partners from week to week.
Use the prayer below (or write your own) to begin a Circle of Prayer. After each of you has shared your best/worst moments, instruct students to stand in a circle, making sure that their prayer partner is to their right. Join hands. Open the prayer and pray for your prayer partner who is standing to your right. Gently squeeze the hand of your prayer partner as a signal for that person to begin his/her prayer for the next person in the circle, and so on.
You may use this prayer to open and close the Circle of Prayer:
Dear God, you sent your Son to live among us and bring people together in new ways. Help us to see others more clearly today and to learn from one another . . . (insert prayers for partners, and when the signal comes back to you, close the prayer) . . . You know our hearts and our needs. Help us to help each other. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Student Book Connection
Student Book page 46: Have students open their Student Books to “Ten Important Things That Happened Between the Old and New Testaments.” One of the marvels of Jesus’ birth is that God entered into human history in the flesh. While the story Luke tells is to help us believe in Jesus rather than tell us just the facts, it is important (and interesting) to know something about the world in which Jesus was born. Read the article aloud together. Notice the figures, events, and movements that were prominent during that time. Look particularly at points 9 and 10. In the space below them, write what comes to mind as you read them and think about Jesus’ birth. How can Jesus be the descendent promised to King David and also the one who came for the sake of the Romans?
Student Book page 72. Take a look at numbers 2, 3, and 4 in the “Top 10 Angel Sightings in the Bible.” Angels can tell us very important things. Have each of your youth put themselves in one of these situations. Ask them these questions: How would you have reacted? How did the Bible character react? How does this show us the importance of listening for God’s message? Note that the people to whom the angels came were lowly shepherds and a poor unmarried couple. Jesus came to earth for all of us.
Talk about last week’s Life Connection. Ask your group what they did this week to live out last week’s lesson. What did they learn? What might they do in the future to keep living out that Life Connection?
As a challenge for this week and to apply the lesson, ask the students to pay close attention to who winds up alone and on the outside of groups at school, church, school activities, and extracurriculars. Without naming names, ask them to focus on who is an outcast. Challenge the students to break down the barrier and include those outsiders through being inviting, welcoming, and friendly.
Kids this age have lots of questions about right and wrong, stories in the Bible, and faith and life. Provide time for them to ask questions. Remember, there isn’t always a right answer, but encouraging discussion is great! Questions help kids explore their faith. Help them explore on their path to confirmation.
After their questions, ask one or more of the following questions to connect your conversations with the Lesson Focus:
• What are the glorious and ordinary circumstances surrounding the Incarnation?
• What are some ways that the good news of Jesus Christ is made known to all people today?
• What does it mean to you that Jesus came first to the outsiders of his day?
• What does it mean to you that Jesus came for all people, especially the outcast – in the past and in your own time?
Have the students stand or sit in a circle with their hands extended in front of them—as if to receive the bread at Holy Communion. In the center of the circle, lay a large sheet of paper with the following prayer printed on it. Pray the prayer together.
Holy Jesus, born of Mary, make your presence known to us today and throughout the week. Help us to see your face in the faces of others. Help us to show your face to others with our actions and words. Live in us and among us, now and forever. Amen.
With the students still standing in the circle, place a small reminder of Jesus (a cross, a pocket coin, etc.) into each student’s hand or simply put your own hand into theirs as you give them this blessing.
You carry your Lord with you into the world. You are the manger in which he lies. May God call others to you so that they may meet the Lord through you. To you is born a Savior, who is the Messiah, your Lord. Go now in peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.