Forming Faith Blog

A Tale of Two Births (December 22 & 25, 2019)

A newborn baby
Into the Gospels

We are reaching the end of Advent and the arrival of our Lord! The first two Advent readings from Jeremiah 33 and Isaiah 40 speak promises to a suffering people of God, offering them hope with a vision of a return from exile and a promised Messiah. With the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent and then Christmas (Eve and Day), we see the fulfillment of those promises. Ezra describes the people returning to Jerusalem from exile, and, in these two readings from Luke, we see the fulfillment of the greater promise of a Messiah.

Luke or Mark?

We are in the midst of Year 2 of the Narrative Lectionary, which is the year we focus on the Gospel of Mark. So, why these readings from Luke? The easiest to explain is Christmas. Luke 2 is the Christmas reading for every NL year. I think it’s just church law or something. (Technically Christmas Eve is Luke 2:1-14 [15-20] and Christmas Day is Luke 2:8-20, but for our purposes, we just cover the whole story in one resource/lesson.] Advent 4 is always the first reading from the Gospel, a reading from before the nativity. Since Mark just jumps in with Jesus’ public ministry (and sprints from there), we borrow a story from Luke not covered in Year 3.

John, Not Jesus

The first story that Luke includes in his “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) is not about Jesus, but instead about Jesus’ cousin, John. This makes sense both within this greater story and in real life. John was a historical figure from the perspective of Luke’s audience and possibly still had disciples carrying on his legacy. By including John’s infant narrative here, Luke is making an argument connecting that tradition with Jesus. Second, the story about John’s birth provides a parallel with that of Jesus. This allows Luke to compare the two.

Promises Fulfilled

Both births signal the fulfillment of a great promise. Both are announced by the angel Gabriel and were miraculous in their own ways. John is the voice crying out in the wilderness we heard about in Isaiah 40 and the messenger promised in Malachi 3:1-4 (see Luke 1:76; 7:24-28). Jesus is the one to whom John and all the prophets before him point.

Zechariah’s Prophecy

The prophecy Zechariah gives in Luke 1:68-79 is the second song Luke records, the first being Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat. While Mary sings of God’s mission, Zechariah declares the imminent arrival of the one about whom the prophets spoke, the Messiah. To do so, Zechariah referenced the Hebrew Bible almost twenty times in only twelve verses. With this prophecy, Zechariah becomes the second-to-last prophet pointing to the Messiah, John being the last.

The Beginning of the Gospel

John’s birth is the forerunner of the birth we have all been waiting for, Jesus, who is the Messiah foretold and proclaimed. Jesus is the good news, the gospel. That is Luke’s central claim. The rest is just an explanation of what that means. But, the term “gospel” (Gr. euangelion) was not a term coined by the early Christians. Instead, like many of the titles used by the Gospel writers, it was a political term used by the Romans in reference to the Roman emperor. So, the early Christians were making a political statement as well as a theological statement: the emperor is not ultimately in charge, this Jesus is.

Humble Beginnings

One of the common themes we use when talking about Jesus’ birth as described in Luke 2, is that Jesus was born in the humblest of circumstances. This is as it should be. This emperor-above-the-emperor, the king of creation, was not born in a great palace as he had every right to be. He wasn’t even born at home to respectable parents like his cousin John. Jesus was born to a homeless (at least temporarily) couple in the squalor of an animal keep. Contrary to our beautiful creches, I imagine this “barn” was well-tended by the owners, but it was unsanitary, to say the least. An unrecorded miracle here is that Mary survived this birth. I wonder if she put her newborn down in the animal feed trough because it was the cleanest place around.

Humble Messengers

God doubled down on the contrast with kingly expectations by announcing the birth of the Messiah to shepherds, of all people. I have heard conflicting views, but one is that shepherds were such on the margins of society that their testimony was not allowed in court. This, or similar, corresponds to the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection by another marginalized, disrespected group, women. Neither group had any social status to give weight to their claims.

Luke’s Message

All of this adds one more statement Luke was making in this birth narrative. Not only is the good news of the Messiah a theological and political statement, but it is also a social one. Jesus is God’s promised Messiah; he is Lord, and Caesar is not; and God (through Jesus) sides with those who are marginalized, not with the powerful (Mary makes this statement directly in Luke 1:51-53).

While this focus on Jesus and those who were marginalized is most evident in Luke’s Gospel, it is most certainly present in all of them. The message comes with a challenge we also saw in the festival of Christ the King: how does following this humble king affect how you live your life?

Free Resources

Since this blog post covers both the 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas, our free download also includes an activity/resource for each day. For Advent 4, we provide instructions for a structured cross+generational conversation about prayer and how God answers our prayers. This activity, “Answered Prayers,” comes from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship product. For Christmas, we include a litany for all ages, again from our Cross+Gen Worship product. Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship is a resource that provides a full interactive liturgy for each Narrative Lectionary reading designed to facilitate relationships between worshippers of all ages. You can purchase this as the whole year, by quarter, and by individual lesson.

May you experience God’s comfort this Advent and Christmas!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence