A Christmas Eve Sermon
The most mysterious character in the annual Christmas pageant is the innkeeper, or rather “innkeepers” if the director has a flourish for the dramatic. You may remember that in the Charlie Brown Christmas, a girl was very excited to be cast as the innkeeper’s wife. Most often the kids starring in these roles get decked out in robes, and they most determinedly—even, dare I say it, heartlessly—shake their heads while mouthing the words “no.” Then they point to some other place where the uncomfortably pregnant Mary and her distraught husband Joseph must go since the last rooms had been taken by the smart travelers who booked ahead on TripAdvisor.
This character of course comes from pure speculation since Luke simply writes, “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.” We don’t really know if an innkeeper or two stood there in front of their establishments pointing up the road to another hotel, or if they had pity and took them around back to the stable for other travelers’ animals so at least they could have a place to lie down after their journey. We just know that Bethlehem’s inns were jammed with people likely because of this worldwide registration by the Emperor, the guy who wanted to know how many people he ruled over so he could stroke his ego a bit more.
Which means of course that Jesus was born on the road.
We like to idealize the whole Christmas story, focusing on the good. I’d be willing to bet all of my Christmas gifts under the tree that none of you has an Innkeeper or an Augustus Caesar figurine among the Holy Family , shepherds, and wisemen in your creche. I’d even go 10 to 1 that Herod the Great — he who based on the intel he got from the magi about the time they first saw the Bethlehem star ordered the killing of all boys under the age of two—isn’t there either. Why would they be? It’s bad enough Mary and Joseph got relegated to a barn, why be reminded of the harshness of the bad guys that sent them there in the first place? We’d never dream of such a thing. And while we’re at it, we try make that stable look cozy and bright. Yeah, it may be a a barn, but in the creches we display they are way more chic than dumpy. The hay gently invites the Holy Family in; the barn itself has been recently mucked out and freshened up, most likely by that innkeeper’s wife. It’s as if this was the place Joseph had intended to be the whole time when he began making arrangements for their travel. “Hey, Mary, there’s a cozy little outbuilding off the main inn that’s listed on AirBnB in Bethlehem. It’s cheap, and we could save a bundle. What do you think?”
And in one sense we should idealize the good. I mean, there’s so much hurt and pain in our world as it is, why can’t we just focus on the pleasant aspects? Jesus came in order to show the love of God. If we cannot, on this one silent and holy night, be filled with joy and happiness, then why even bother? If his first miracle was to change water into wine at a wedding reception, surely we can on Christmas day enjoy a feast and good drink with those we love, and buy gifts for our children and grandchildren. Nearly every Christmas film ever made by Hollywood ends with someone coming to their senses in order to see the best in others and the great gift that life offers to us. It’s to remind us of the joy that came when a baby was born. We’ll likely experience it ourselves later tonight when we softly sing a familiar carol holding a flickering candle. We’ll know deep down inside us that there is so much good in this world of ours, and that we should cherish every single moment that we can.
Additionally, we can—while holding onto all that is good—recognize the real world into which the babe is born. That it’s a place of innkeepers and Emperors and Herods. That there will be times when we will be shut out in the cold because there’s no room for us in the warm places of another person’s heart. Or we will be forced to take a journey which we did not intend to take nor for which we are prepared. We’ll quite suddenly find ourselves sitting at the bedside of a loved one and wonder how we got here, how we didn’t have a chance to be ready.
Yet that’s the beauty of this night in all its stark realness. Mary and Joseph couldn’t get a room at that inn for whatever reason. Jesus was born on the road, among the animals in that smelly barn. I’m pretty sure his parents wished it could have been someplace—anyplace—else; most likely back in Galilee where they knew the midwife, and had the comfort of their own modest home. Luke tells us that the people who came first to welcome this little one weren’t Mary’s mother and father, but the poor guys whose only job prospect was looking after some sheep on the night shift.
And in one fell swoop we see what’s most important to God. Not the images of perfection we post on Instagram and Facebook, but the untidy mess of real life.
Problems arise when we think otherwise. When we think that we have to get everything perfect to welcome Jesus into our lives. We start taking inventory and recognize that we cannot finish all that we want to get done. Perhaps we think it’s better to just hang out the “No Vacancy” sign at the inn of our lives, and then shake our heads no and pointing someplace else when Jesus comes along, hoping that we can just get rid of him.
It was the contemplative monk Thomas Merton who wrote, “Into this world, this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited.” You see, the uninvited Christ doesn’t just keep wandering down the street looking for a better place. He stays there in front of the inn of your life. He doesn’t care if you try playing the role of the belligerent innkeeper, he’s not moving on. You can claim you didn’t invite him, that he didn’t make arrangements beforehand and so things aren’t ready or are too full, but he’ll tell you that it’s alright and gently make his way in because he doesn’t need much room.
You see, Jesus did indeed come into this harsh and cold world in order to bring joy. We just don’t often recognize that we’re missing it. We think the life where we pretend that everything is perfect will one day bring us happiness. But it’s when we take the real stuff of our lives and open it up to the compassion of Jesus that we truly find deep peace. When we realize that the one who began life as a newborn babe lying in a manger doesn’t care at all about the external things, about wealth or status or power, only then can we begin to comprehend the abiding love God has for us.
That’s the beauty of this night. The uninvited Christ comes to us and enters our hearts and offers us life-giving transformation. He brings love, and peace, and joy and hope. May he enter the places in our lives which we claim are too full and have no room. May his love change us, helping us to fully comprehend the gift his way of life can bring. And may we share that unwavering joy of his with others throughout this season of Christmas because our dark world needs his light. Amen.