This is my sermon from tonight’s Christmas Eve service. What a beautiful night of scripture, carols, communion, and candlelight, shared by so many folks from this little town. Merry Christmas, everyone!
1 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Dear friends, dear people of God: grace to you and peace this night, from our loving God through Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.
“There was no place for them in the inn.”
This is the phrase that stood out to me, as I read this oh-so-familiar story again this year.
There was no place for them in the inn.
And we’ve always thought of this like, say, a Motel 6, right?
But ongoing scholarship has suggested that this may not be an entirely correct translation.
In my reading, I discovered that the Greek word here that is translated “inn” is kataluma. And that discovery led me to yet another: kataluma means “guest room” but not in the Motel 6 way of thinking.
It actually means the space for guests in one’s home.
I have a cousin who lives in Ambler, PA on a property that has a building with a similar arrangement. The main house was built in 1710; William Penn is somewhere on the chain of title. There are all kinds of outbuildings on the property – a chicken coop, smokehouse, barn, and others – but the building I’m thinking of is the carriage house.
The carriage house is built in a hollow, and the upper floor is reached by a small bridge. The carriage and horses would drive up to the top level, and the horses unhitched next to the bridge. The carriage would be wheeled into the enclosure up top, and the horses would be led back down the hill and put away in the lower floor which served as a barn. Both carriage and horses were secure from both weather and predators, and they were kept near each other to make the process of hitching up more convenient.
Homes in Palestine at that time – and, to some degree, today – consisted of familial space and guest space. It was expected when you traveled to a place where you had family, that you stayed with family, in their guest space. Kataluma is, incidentally, the word used to describe the Upper Room of the Last Supper, so perhaps in our story tonight the kataluma is upstairs.
“No room in the inn” – or, more accurately, “no room in the kataluma” – implies that there was already family there. Many like Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem, and the family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier. So it’s likely Mary and Joseph stayed in the main part of the house, possibly downstairs where the animals are brought in at night.
Thus, the manger with hay was a soft, logical place to put a child. (We can assume that any pack-n-plays in the house were in use by other relatives.)
The idea that the Holy Family was in a stable, away from others, alone and outcast is culturally implausible. In such a context – a city in the middle of a massive influx of travelers – it’s hard to be alone at all.
It’s quite a new way of thinking about this story we’ve heard over and over, for so many years.
So – what does this mean? How is this more than just a historical/cultural footnote?
If this theory is true – if Jesus was born among family, in the inner part of a home, awash with radical hospitality – doesn’t this actually make the story better?
If this is true, then Jesus’ birth story isn’t about rejection, or isolation. Those come later, and they lead to the cross. Instead, Jesus’ birth story is about the radical welcome of God, about overflowing hospitality where accommodations are made for ever-increasing numbers of travelers.
Jesus was born in an ordinary way, with peasants, in a simple home. Not in the great palaces of the royal and wealthy. But in a simple home, with the animals brought in for the night, so that ALL creation would be part of God’s coming in Christ – God’s Incarnation as a human in our broken, but still beautiful world. God-with-us means that God is with us, not just the Caesars of the world.
My last work in my former synod in Southern California was to act as camp nurse for a week of confirmation camp at Luther Glen, in the mountains east of San Bernardino. Luther Glen is not only a camp and retreat center, but also a working farm. Confirmation camp is a week of barely-controlled happy chaos created by enthusiastic counselors and about 80 young people between the ages of 12 and 14.
As camp nurse, I was the purveyor of bandaids and Benadryl. The one who passed judgment on the severity of the daily cuts and bruises. And I was the one who was charged with dispensing medication to the kids who took prescription medicines each day.
One of those kids was a young person named Brady.
Brady struggled mightily with his ever-present Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He was obsessed with germs, and carried hand sanitizer with him everywhere he went. Brady was matter-of-fact about this. He announced to the entire camp that this was something he lived with, and that he didn’t want anyone to take it personally but would they please use hand sanitizer before touching him in a game or activity. To the counselors, he disclosed that he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital for his OCD and was hopeful he could continue to make progress.
As you can imagine, being on a farm, at a camp in the mountains, was the most germ-filled environment Brady had ever experienced. And yet, Brady found himself drawn to the barn.
The barn was where the mama goats who were about to kid were housed. The week we were there, every day brought a new bunch of baby goats. There’s a magnetic field between baby animals and children, and Brady was no exception.
But that threshold was one he was not eager to cross. There was no room in that inn for someone like Brady, so terrified of the power of germs. The other kids were in and out of the barn all day; aside from a few asthma attacks from the hay, they were fine.
No room in that inn for Brady. Or so he thought.
On the next-to-last day of camp, he summoned the courage to ask Beth, the farm manager, if the baby goats had germs.
“Everything has germs,” she said, “but when we wash up after holding them we keep the germs where they belong. The babies stay healthy, and we stay healthy. We are really careful about this.”
Brady turned this over and over in his mind.
The next morning at breakfast, his youth pastor showed me a picture on her phone.
It was a picture of Brady early that morning, sitting on a hay bale, holding a baby goat that was only a few hours old. God had reached through this little creature to tell this young man, “don’t be afraid.”
And the look on Brady’s face was almost indescribable. The one word that occurred to me was “transcendant.”
God comes to us in the unexpected, the apparently simple, the everyday.
“Don’t be afraid,” said God to Brady as he held the little goat. “You are beloved, Brady. You are welcome. There is ALWAYS room for you in my inn.”
Dear people, the same is true for us. In God’s inn, in God’s kataluma, God’s guest room, there is room for all. No matter what burdens you carry. No matter what secrets you harbor. God comes not at the center of the world to just straighten things out a bit, but on the edges to call the structures of the day into question, and herald a new beginning altogether.
This is scary, and at the same time thrilling. It’s unnerving to think of setting aside the way things have always been – but the thought of a new beginning just around the corner stirs the head AND the heart.
And so God comes at the edges of the story and of our lives, to speak quietly but firmly through the blood, sweat, and tears of labor pains and a baby’s cry, be those human or goat. God speaks in ways that we know God is without exception FOR US. Our ups and downs, our hopes and fears. Christ comes not just to give us more of the same, but life writ completely anew.
Christ is God’s promise that God will not stop until every single one of us has been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and has heard the good news that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.”
And for all of us, there is PLENTY of room in the inn.