(a sermon for December 10, 2009, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on John 1:1-5, 10-14, Matthew 8:18-20 and Luke 2:1-7)
He’s arguably one of the pivotal characters of the Christmas story, and yet he isn’t there; not really.
I mean, he’s never mentioned at all in scripture; moreover, there isn’t this rich tradition of folklore that surrounds him (as in the case of the three wise men, for instance); and unlike the shepherds, the angels or even that mythical and ubiquitous little drummer boy, you’d be hard pressed to find many songs written and sung about him. Even if he’s included in the nativity scene – which isn’t often – he’s usually relegated to a position way in the background, as to not distract our attention from those at the manger!
And yet, in every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen there he is, playing his small but essential role; because somebody has to greet Mary and Joseph at the door and with arms crossed and head shaking back and forth tell this travel-weary couple that there‘s “no place for them in the inn.” Yes, we’re talking about the innkeeper, the one whose part in the nativity story – or at least we assume it is (!) – is to shuttle the holy family off to an adjoining stable, the place where Mary gives birth to the Christ child amongst dirt and hay and farm animals.
Now, how this mysterious innkeeper is portrayed varies with the telling of the story. Sometimes he’s seen as a caring and sympathetic provider of at least some small manner of shelter for this couple when absolutely nothing else was available; other times he’s viewed as this harried entrepreneur who can’t be bothered to do anything better for them than the barn out back! But… either in fact or speculation, the fact is that this “innkeeper,” whoever he may be, comes and goes so quickly we don’t have much of a chance to even consider his motives. So in practical and strictly biblical terms, I guess he truly is “the man who isn’t there;” and yet, I would submit to you that is one character in the nativity story who needs to be “round about the manger,” if only at a distance. And not simply because an inn needs an innkeeper (!), either, but because of what this particular innkeeper represents: the choice he made on that holy night, as well as the choice that every heart must make as regards the Christ Child.
You see, there was room in the inn on that night in Bethlehem. There had to have been; not only was hospitality so central to Jewish culture that there would almost always be an extra room or an additional bed for unexpected visitors or strangers in need, but for the innkeeper there was also a business point of view to consider. As J. Barrie Shepherd notes in a beautiful little piece entitled The Innkeeper’s Defense, there was “always, within reason, one chamber… kept for that noble, but unexpected guest, that personage of means and influence, accustomed to the very best accommodation, who arrives without reservations and [who could] make or break your reputation as a host.”
Not that an inn of biblical times was a place of much privacy or comfort. Historians tell us that these places were most likely very primitive in nature: a rectangular, flat-roofed building of many small rooms opening into an open courtyard with a common well and a fire burning where guests could cook their own food. Some rooms might well have had a small stable attached for the beasts of burden that travelers brought with them; others were just big enough for a pallet on the floor. And, no doubt, there were a few “nicer” rooms that even had meals provided… for a price, of course.
And granted, we all know that the little town of Bethlehem was a inordinately crowded place that night, what with all those who’d come there for the “registration” ordered by the Roman government. And we also know, as “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child,” that there would have been little or no time for discussion or possible alternatives; so perhaps what happened next with the stable was out of necessity. Still, you wonder why the innkeeper couldn’t have possibly found something better for this young couple who were in so much need! Surely there was another place somewhere on the premises where Mary could give birth amidst something less than squalor; at the very least couldn’t he have set them up in the corner of the courtyard where there’d be a warm fire burning nearby? No, there was none of that; only the stable, which contrary to the familiar image we think of, might well have been a nearby cave, hollowed out of soft limestone by time, water, and wind, a small nook barely sufficient to keep animals out of the elements, much less a young woman in the midst of labor pains!
By just about any reckoning, it was about the worst place for a baby to be born; and this is where the innkeeper had sent them! Honestly, you have to wonder if it wasn’t so much the inn that had no room as it was the innkeeper’s heart!
And you wonder why; could it have been that he couldn’t abide the possible liability or the scandal that came with such a sudden and mysterious birth? Perhaps it was that he didn’t quite like the looks of these two travelers who, aside from being tired, dirty and expectant, were also obviously poor and from a place much rougher than Bethlehem; not exactly the kind of clientele that would attract a higher and wealthier class of guest! Or maybe it was simply that he was too busy to get involved: too much else going on at the inn, too much happening in Bethlehem, too much going on in his life to make a commitment or even notice that something wonderful was happening!
I know the scriptural account doesn’t bear this out, but surely there must have been this moment when the innkeeper went out into the night air to check on things; noticing, for the first time, the brightness of a star shining overhead; seeing that a group of shepherds, of all people, were crowded around the entrance of his stable to catch a glimpse of… a baby; all the while going on and on about a heavenly host of angels and good news of a Messiah!
What really happened in that moment, we don’t know. Maybe the innkeeper went down to see this thing for himself; or perhaps he dismissed the whole thing as another of the late night revelries that had been taking place all over Bethlehem, and went back to bed. But either way, at some point – and maybe it was months or even years later – the innkeeper must have come to the realization that for the sake of his business and busyness, his rush to judgment or whatever reason, when he’d sent this refugee couple and their soon-to-be newborn off to the stable, he’d missed something and someone important; someone who was no less than the Savior of the world!
And you know what? I could find a great deal of fault with that this morning; I could pass judgment on that innkeeper and portray him as one of the villains of this story (many preachers have, to be sure!); except for one thing. As I stand here now, 2,000 years later, I realize that the innkeeper… is me. And he’s you.
I said before that the innkeeper in this story represents something very important; and it’s every one of us who has tended to put the Lord Jesus aside in our hearts and lives as though there’s no room for him there. As Jesus himself would say many years later to those who would blithely declare a sense of loyalty without any real conviction about it: “’Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” The innkeeper of the Christmas story actually serves to remind us of a very hard truth: that it’s all too easy for us to put Jesus “away in the manger” of our thoughts and good intentions, in the process keeping him away and apart from the ways we really and truly live our lives.
It’s one thing, you see, for us to suggest that that we need to put Christ back in Christmas, and that’s true; but it’s quite another come to grips with the fact that in so many ways, there’s never been enough room for Christ there in the first place; or anywhere else, for that matter. Jill Briscoe, a pastor and writer from Wisconsin, has written what is admittedly a disturbing piece of poetry that nonetheless strikes an all-too-familiar chord:
“Room in my inn for my business affairs,
Room in my inn for my worries and cares,
Room in my inn for the drink and the smoke,
Room for the act, for the off-color joke,
Room for my family, room for my wife,
Room for my plans, Lord, but no room for your life,
And room for depression, when the party’s all through,
Room for myself, Lord, but no room for you!”
How sad a thing it is, friends, that the this season comes and goes every year without some new kind of awareness of what Christmas really is; that we become so preoccupied that we fail to notice that far above and beyond the decorations and music and gifts and fun, beyond even what we do here at church is this miracle of spiritual birth, this utter reality that God is being born (!), and that in Jesus, God is seeking to make himself at home in our lives! Think of it, beloved! God Almighty, the King of the Universe, is taking his rightful place on the throne of our hearts, and does it in the guise of a tiny, crying helpless baby. How could such love and power not change our lives? How could anything be more urgent than this? How could we possibly allow ourselves to miss it?
And yet, like the innkeeper of Bethlehem before us, so often we do just that.
John’s gospel, of course, does not include any version of the nativity story; in fact, John opens his account of Jesus’ life with an affirmation of Christ as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) coming into the world. So there’s no mention of shepherds and angels, mangers or innkeepers; but there is this: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” It’s a reminder that that there have always been, and shall always be, those who will miss out on that light because they refuse to recognize God in the midst of it. Beloved, we are beginning now the second week of Advent, our season of waiting and watching and preparing for the coming of light in Jesus, our Emmanuel. How awful it would be if we choose to stand so distant to the manger that we end up missing the miracle that soon and very soon will happen there! What a tragedy it would be for us not to make room in our hearts for his coming?
But the good news is that even now we’re being called to draw closer to the manger and to take notice of what is about to happen; and make no mistake, it’ll be wonderful. But as Tim Roehl writes in his book Christmas Hearts, “oftentimes the Lord comes to us in ways we don’t expect. The nudge we feel in our hearts is the whisper of His Spirit beckoning us to discover the miracle just beyond the mundane. Too often our minds, frazzled by the rush of life, overrule the voice we hear speaking to our hearts” he goes on to say, “and God is moved to the back of our lives, out of the way again… but [even now] there’s someone knocking at the door of your heart. [The question is] have you any room?”
Well, believe it or not, there’s only two weeks left to go before Christmas comes; and I suspect that for most of us, there’s still shopping to do, places to go and lots of things to do before we can feel in any way, shape or form ready! It’s a busy time, to be sure; and hopefully a good time as well. But I hope and pray that in the midst of all of it we don’t lose an ear for that voice that keeps asking us for a place to stay; and that we might answer in such a way that the Lord of love might truly be born in our in our hearts and lives, so to live there now and forever.
Let there be no regrets that we didn’t make room for his coming; but rather that we truly invited him in, to “Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”
Thanks be to God who comes in Christ to live in our hearts!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry