Advent 3: “The Innkeeper: the Place Where Jesus was Born”
(series: When God Comes Down, James A. Harnish)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered.4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Song was sung: “No room…only a manger of hay….no room…he is a stranger today. No room, here in this world turned away. No room. No room. Angels in heaven up yonder watch with amazement and wonder to see the Son of the Highest treated so…there is no room here in the hearts of mankind. No room…no cheery welcome could find…no room..surely the world is blind. No room…there is no room…no room.”
What if the story of there being “no room in the inn” is not just a story from the past. What if it describes our “crowded, confused, chaotic present? What if there really is no room for Jesus in the midst of our ceaseless chatter? No room for his subversive kingdom in our political power struggles? No room for his call for peacemaking in our addiction to war? No room for his compassion amid our hard-hearted headlines? No room for Mary’s vision of the day when the hungry will be fed and the rich go away empty? No room in our sin-broken world for the angel’s promise of peace on earth and goodwill to all?” (35)
These are the questions I invite you to ponder as we consider the innkeeper on this third Sunday of Advent and look at this one line of scripture: “She laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” This one line has given birth to countless Christmas pageants, stories, artwork, and legends over the years. We have all seen the Christmas play featuring the inn keeper with one line: “There is no room here!” But the reality is that there is no innkeeper in the Gospel story. He is a fascinating figment of our Christmas imaginations. Nonetheless, he has become part of the Christmas tradition. This painting, called “The Numbering a Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel (1566) shows Mary and Joseph heading toward an already crowded inn as life goes on around the people of the village. Children are playing, people are working, and yet the holy family slips in unnoticed, without a place to stay.
Yet our images of the crowded inn and the elusive innkeeper might change when we take a look at the meaning of the words that Luke chooses in his Gospel. The word that Luke uses here for “inn” or “room” is kataluma, which translates to “guestroom.” Incidentally, this is the same word that Luke uses later in his gospel for the room where Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples. This word describes the upper level of a typical Palestinian home (34). Realistically, Mary and Joseph were probably sent to the ground level of the house where the animals were fed and housed, because for whatever reason, they were not able to stay in the main house. There are several possibilities here. Joseph could have brought Mary to a relative’s home, also from “the line of David,” and it was already full of people. Or, Mary and Joseph would not have been welcomed because they were ashamed of Mary and her questionable pregnancy, and they wanted to hide her from view. Or, perhaps the family took the Jewish law seriously enough that they would not allow Mary to give birth in the home because it would make it ritually unclean. Or, it is entirely possible that relatives simply rejected Mary and Joseph.
Either way, we know that they were not able to come into the safety of the house for Mary to give birth to her son. They are sent away to the depths of the home with the animals- set apart from the rest of the world to a desolate place. Possibly feeling rejected, hopeless, empty. We might imagine a No Vacancy sign at every turn. No room here in this world, turned away. No room in the hearts of humankind. No room, surely the world is blind.
The same is true, still today. We look around our chaotic and broken world and find no room for Jesus to come in. We look inside our own hearts and lives and find no room for him as we hang our own No Vacancy signs around our lives. We might even look at the church and see No Vacancy signs hanging here that we need to take down.
Some of you may recall a popular story that was going around several months ago about a 10,000 member church anxiously awaiting their new pastor on a Sunday morning. Unknown to the congregation, the pastor dressed as a homeless person and walked into the church on Sunday morning. Only three people out of the crowd said anything to him. No one gave him change or offered to help him with a meal. He sat up in the front of the sanctuary, but the ushers asked him to sit in the back. He greeted people, but they stared back with unpleasant looks. He watched as the church leaders made announcements and got ready to introduce their new pastor. When the time came, he got up and walked down the center aisle with all eyes on him and began to recite this passage of scripture:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ The congregation was silent, heads hung in shame.
He then said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?”
Another question he could have asked is, “When will YOU make room for Jesus in your life rather than turn him away?” “When will YOU begin to welcome the stranger?” There are churches here in this very community who turn people away at the door for any number of reasons- people are told that there is no room for them. There are times when we as a church could be more welcoming to people who come here…not just saying a hello, but taking time to get to know them and to hear their story, and making room for them…because the God that I know makes room for all people to enter in. And the God that we meet at the manger is the God who never stops knocking on the closed doors of our lives in a relentless attempt to come in. The Savior who is sent away because there is no room is the Christ who challenges us to take down the “no vacancy” signs of our lives, our hearts, and our churches so that he might enter. This is the Christ who makes room for all and asks us to do the same.
And especially at Christmas , we are reminded of the lessons we can learn and the things we can appreciate through the eyes of a child. There is a wonderful story about a 9 year old boy named Wally. Wally was larger and slower than the other kids, but all the kids loved him for his gentle heart and the way he watched over the younger kids on the playground. For Christmas one year, Wally was cast as the innkeeper in the nativity play. He had one line: “No room. Go away.”
Christmas Eve came and the play was going well. No one was tripping over their beards or bathrobes, and the angels’ wings and halos were staying in place. Mary and Joseph made their way to the inn and knocked on the door. Wally responded with his one line: “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded with him: it’s been a long journey! We are tired! Again, Wally responded, “No room. Go away.” Then, the 9 year old Joseph, with all of the dramatic emotion he could muster finally said, “Please! My wife is having a baby! We need a room !” Silence came from the other side of the door. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally with his forgotten line. The teacher whispered it to him from backstage. Still nothing. So Mary and Joseph began to walk off stage, but it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them, “Wait! You can have my room!” (37).
We can all learn a lesson or two from Wally the innkeeper about what it means to make room for Jesus. At the same time, the elusive (and maybe nonexistent!) innkeeper from the Bible haunts our Christmas traditions with reminders that we still have much work to do in making room for Christ in our lives and in this dark world…because truly, we are the innkeepers ourselves. Because there is room for him even in the darkest of places, even in the most chaotic of situations, even in the midst of uncertainty, violence, injustice, racism, hatred, and intolerance. We must make room for him.
I mentioned earlier that Luke uses the same Greek word to describe the guestroom in which there was no room for Jesus to be born and the guest room where he shared the last supper with his disciples before he died. I don’t think this is a coincidence. “The One for whom there was no guestroom in Bethlehem now invites his followers into the guestroom where, as the host at the table, he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it” (36) and invites us all to partake in the feast at the table. This is where we catch a glimpse of the self-giving, compassionate, and welcoming love of God in Christ. This is where we are invited to take down our No Vacancy signs and make room for Christ to come in. After all, the gospel is the story of the relentless intrusion of God’s love that refuses to acknowledge the No Vacancy signs we post around our lives. It means that there is always hope for every one of us. It means that there is still room for Christ in this chaotic world. Is there room in your life for Christ to be born? (39) Will you let him in? Amen.