December 31st, 2017
We don’t know his name. Nobody knows his name. It wasn’t recorded, so there’s no way of finding out. What’s more, we know nothing about him. Was he married? How long had he kept that inn? Did he own it or just run I t for someone else? How many rooms did he have to rent out? Was his the only inn in Bethlehem? Those questions are unanswerable.
There’s only one thing we do know. He shook his head no to the latecomers who knocked at this door that night. He had no more rooms. They were all taken. One of the biographers of Jesus includes the detail: There was no room for them in the inn. So, you see, in that one brief sentence, my imagination was turned loose.
It’s fair to say that no sentence in the entire gospel has provoked more meditation than this one. Preachers have had a field day with it. Anyone reading this simple account would have to pause over it. Since we have had little to do with that kind of thing ourselves, we identify with it to a degree. Remember when your children were small and you were on a long road trip ... and how you were able to make better time than you first thought, so just passed the motel where you had a reservation, saying to yourself, well, we’ll stop in plenty of time to get a room. And then, mile after mile there were the signs of neon getting brighter and brighter as night fell ... No Vacancy ... No Vacancy ... No Vacancy ... It gives one an odd feeling to see that No Vacancy sign.
The scene has even inspired artists. One painting I’ve seen is called Arrival in Bethlehem. The artist, whose name is Merson, has placed the hour late. No one is in the street. All is still. Joseph knocks at the door. His knock has aroused the dogs that come running and barking. The innkeeper’s wife has opened the little window to look out and see who’s bothering them at this late hour. Mary slumps in the street, unable to go on.
As for me, I think we’ve been too hard on the innkeeper. He happened to be on the spot. Oh, I know. When you have a responsibility, you have to carry it out. What comes up while you’re on duty is yours to handle. That’s what it means to be in charge. You have to make decisions. That innkeeper, whatever his name, was in an extremely difficult position. If he needs a defense attorney, then I’m offering my services today. I don’t think he’s the one who should have to take all the blame forever.
For example, was it his fault that they built the inn with
twelve rooms instead of thirteen? Was it his fault that the Roman census had brought such an influx of strangers into their little town? Was it his fault that all the rooms had long since been taken? Was it his fault that Joseph and Mary was so late arriving? Besides, what he did is no more than what we do all the time.
Maybe it’s just a little thing, but the person left out probably feels the same way that Joseph and Mary did. We rush into the lunchroom and stake out our seats for ourselves and our friends. We like to sit together. Of, course we do. When a stranger, a visitor, comes into the room, then that person must hunt for a place to eat lunch. Sorry, we say, but these are all taken.
Never forget that Joseph and Mary did find a place to stay that night. Despite appearances, I suspect that the innkeeper was especially sensitive to the situation. He didn’t leave Mary out in the street or in the public courtyard for people to stare at while she was giving birth. I suggest that today we give that innkeeper a vote of appreciation for that he did for these out-of-town strangers that night. He came to Mary’s rescue. He didn’t have a room, they were all taken, but he did provide shelter out of the elements. And because of what he did, the world’s most beautiful scene is played out not in the street, but in a stable, in a setting of straw and starlight. But, you know something? That simple statement about there being no room in the inn is also symbolic. Luke has latched onto something which becomes the theme of the biography he is writing. This little line ... there was no room for them in the inn ... from the infancy story will run all the way through Jesus’ life. Where will there ever be room for him?
Well, there wasn’t room for him in the business world. One day he and his disciple stepped off a boat in Gadara. They hear a man screaming, a wild man. Jesus walked up to him and asked his name. He said, My name is legion, for we are many. He was right; he was possessed. He was not a single person. Jesus commanded the spirits to come out of that man, and which went into a herd of pigs nearby, and they promptly ran off the cliff and into the sea.
So, what did the community do? Hold a tribute dinner for Jesus who had healed one of their citizens? Build a hospital and name it for Jesus? Neither of these. They got together in quick order and chased him out of their country. He was hard on their wealth. He had hit their pocketbooks. Their economy would suffer if he did that again. They couldn’t afford to lose their livestock. They had to get rid of him before he did any more damage. No, there was no room for him in Gadara.
There wasn’t room for him in the world of the church, either. Annas and Caiaphas and the others already occupied all the available positions. They had inherited the; they deserved them. Who was this new Teacher from Galilee, anyway? Who did he think he was? Where was he getting all this information? There’s no hint whatsoever that the chief priests and their cohorts were interested in accommodation. That is, they were not interested in changing their lifestyle for this itinerant preacher and his claims. In fact, his claims were absurd. Blasphemy, they said. So they got organized and set out to get rid of this troublemaker, and, indeed, they did. Their plan worked and the Romans did the dirty work and nailed him to a cross. Because, you see, there was no room for him in their world.
Let’s come back to us, again, even though that might be uncomfortable. The question is, how read are we to meet the opportunity when it comes along? Unexpected joys ... unexpected pleasures ... unexpected opportunities ... what’s that knock on the door of the inn that night, ... you know. It happens all the time. But we have our schedules, and we’re awfully busy. There isn’t any room for anything else. Whatever it might be, well, we just miss it.
That small town in Iowa will never forget the year when the 2nd graders put on the Christmas pageant. Wally was big for his age, so everyone wondered what the teacher would have him do. It was assumed that he would pull the curtain. But, to everyone’s surprise, the teacher chose Wally to play the part of the innkeeper. He was delighted. All he had to say was one short line. There was no room in the inn. He learned that in no time. Came the night of the program. The parents took their seat, and every seat was taken. The children entered singing, O Come, All Ye Faithful. The lights dimmed, a hush moved over the audience. The curtain opened on scene one. Joseph and Mary walked along beside the two boys draped in a brown cloth to resemble a donkey.
The couple stopped and Joseph knocked on the door. Please, he said, my wife is not well. Could we have a room for the night? Wally was ready, poised for his line. He had practiced it, and he was feeling good about getting ready to say it. He began, but he made no sound. Everyone was embarrassed for him, hoping he would pull through the nervousness. He just couldn’t seem to speak. Joseph turned away. That’s what he was supposed to do. And then, just then, Wally called out ... wait a minute, come on back, Joseph, you can have my room.
The people in that community, as I said, never forgot that night. The Christmas story had gotten into Wally’s heart. When Christ comes knocking, as he does again and again, in various forms, in various persons, will we recognize the opportunity before it’s too late ... to make room? You see, we are the innkeepers of our hearts, who decide who and what gets the rooms in our life.
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