St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 24th December 09
Reading – Luke 2:1-14
One of the problems with the Christmas story is that so many of the details have to be left up to the imagination. Take, for instance, the visit of the wise men from the east. We know they saw a star and we know they came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but Scripture is silent on whether they were kings or whether they came riding on camels. Or take the visit of the shepherds. Did they see the ox and ass round the manger, and did they bring their own lambs as an offering? Again, Scripture is silent on this point. And maybe the fact there are so many parts of the Christmas story left unsaid should make us pause and think why the gospel writers wrote their accounts as they did. Was it to provide the script for a nativity play? Or provide a scene-by-scene eyewitness account of every last detail? Or was there some other purpose behind their telling of those momentous events 2000 years ago?
Maybe we can start to see something of the answer when we consider a little phrase in our reading from Luke’s gospel we heard just now, a little phrase that perhaps is easy to overlook, but one which I want to take as my text this evening there was no room for them (that is Joseph, Mary and Jesus) in the inn. Now I know that nativity plays up and down the land have the character of the innkeeper slamming a door shut in the holy family’s face, and maybe that’s what happened. After all, as we know, Bethlehem was full to overflowing with families returning to be counted in the Roman census. But the fact Luke doesn’t mention an innkeeper or describe what the inn was like surely points to the fact he was less concerned to show us what happened as to point to people’s reactions to the events of that night, that there was not only no physical room for the new parents, there also no room in their hearts to welcome them and to share in the good news.
So why might this be?
First of all, Joseph and Mary were strangers in town. True, both of them had historic links to the place, but the fact they had no family to stay with suggests that they were probably unknown in Bethlehem. They were outsiders, people who had as we say in Plymouth come from “up the line”, from a town some 70-80 miles up north. And as someone who was born in a certain county town 50 miles away from here, I am well aware there can sometimes be rivalry or even suspicion between people from different places. It could even be that Joseph and Mary had a slightly different accent or a slightly different way of doing things. It seems to be an inbuilt part of human nature that we do not really trust those who are outsiders, who are not, so to speak, “one of us”.
Not only that, but Joseph and Mary were also poor. How do we know this? Because when the time came to present baby Jesus in the temple, they could only afford the offering prescribed for the poorest members of society, a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24). And again, it is part of our fallen nature that we do not seem to take kindly to those who are less fortunate than ourselves, that we tend to look down on those who have less than us.
And of course Joseph and Mary were not only poor, but they were in need. We don’t know exactly how long they were in Bethlehem before Mary gave birth, but she must have already been quite close to term. Her immediate needs must have been fairly apparent as she arrived in the town, and maybe folk reckoned it would just cause too much disruption, too much upheaval to get involved with someone they didn’t know. After all, it wasn’t their fault she was expecting, and shouldn’t she have realised what was doing when she got pregnant?
You could almost imagine the tabloid headlines today if a couple like Joseph and Mary suddenly turned up in Armada Way. They would be labelled scroungers, people who exploited the system, outsiders who expected others to provide for them – even if none of this was true. The fact there was no room in the inn only serves to highlight the prejudices and the injustices that are sadly still prevalent even 2000 years later. And maybe this story should serve as a reminder to us to consider how we treat the strangers, the poor, the needy.
But this account of Luke’s gospel is far more than simply an account of how our sinful human nature operates towards others. Because at a deeper level it is also the account of how, when the Son of God was born, there was no room in the hearts of men and women to receive him.
There was no room in the hearts of the ordinary people of Bethlehem. Yes, they were a people under foreign occupation and yes, they had been taught there would come a Messiah who would free them from the oppression of others. But when Jesus actually came they were too busy doing other things. They were watching the final of X-Factor or playing on their Wii Games console or stuffing the turkey, and they didn’t notice that here was someone who would change the history of the world.
So what about the religious leaders of the day, those who had so faithfully taught and practised the Scriptures over the centuries? Surely they would make room for Jesus and welcome His birth with open arms, wouldn’t they? Well, sadly as we know from the visit of the wise men, the answer was no. OK, so they knew all about Bethlehem and the fact it would be the place where the Messiah would be born, but they made no effort to go there. They were quite comfortable with the same old religion and the idea that the son of a peasant woman could be the Messiah – even if he also happened to be the Son of God – was something they just couldn’t countenance.
And what about the political leaders, those with the ultimate influence and clout? Well, the Roman leaders like Caesar Augustus weren’t interested. To them, all this talk of the Messiah could be safely ignored until someone actually went round pretending they were the Christ and started to make trouble. After all, they had their empire and everyone knew their gods were superior, didn’t they? And what about the Jewish leaders? Again, as we know from the visit of the wise men, if they thought about the Messiah at all, they only saw Him as a threat to their privilege, their authority, their status.
That’s why on the night Jesus was born there was no room in the inn. So maybe now we can understand the real reason why the angels went to the shepherds – because the shepherds too were outsiders. Not only outsiders in the literal sense because they worked away from the town in the fields all year round, but also outsiders in a more religious sense because they were unable on account of their working week to keep all the rituals that the law demanded at the time. They were people who in every sense were living on the edge, people not considered quite respectable, tough, rough people who didn’t easily fit into the popular idea of a good person. And yet it was to these people that the angel brought the wonderful news Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Isn’t that a wonderful message? Not only in what it actually says, but also in terms of the people to whom it was delivered. That the message of Christmas is not only for the rich, the religious, the powerful. But it is one that includes everyone, even the poor, the not very religious, the weak and the downtrodden. The fact that we too can know there is a Saviour born to us should on this night of all nights be a source of deep, deep rejoicing.
But this night also should be one where we also stop to pause and reflect. Because the reason why Jesus had to be born as a Saviour is that one way or another none of us have given God the room in our lives that He deserves. All of us to a greater or lesser degree have ignored His will for our lives, chosen not to listen to that still, small voice of conscience, decided to go our own particular way without thinking what He might want us to do. With what result? That in a sense we all have become outsiders – people outside the love and peace of God, people shut out and excluded from the hope of heaven.
Now I realise this is not an easy or popular thing to say. It is not an easy thing to say now, it wasn’t an easy thing to say then. Even when Jesus began His public ministry and proved by word and deed that He was a Saviour there were still so many who rejected Him. OK, they tolerated Him for about three years or so, and they saw Him heal the sick and cleanse the leper and raise the dead. But in the end they took Him outside the city and He died alone, rejected, and in agonising pain on a cross because they had no room for Him in their hearts.
And that should have been the end of the story. But if it was, then it does not explain why we are all gathered here tonight. After all, there have been plenty of remarkable people born in poverty who ended up persecuted for their beliefs, and indeed even as we speak their number continues to increase year on year. Yet no-one is suggesting that we invent a new worldwide festival to commemorate anyone else, or that we all exchange gifts and cards in the name of anybody else.
Which tells us a very important point. That the Christmas story is on one sense a story without an ending. Because this baby born in the manger really was the Son of God, and it was impossible even for all the horrors of death to overcome and conquer Him. This same Jesus laid in a manger did not end His existence laid out in a tomb. But rather three days later rose again triumphant and victorious with the free, undeserved offer of salvation to all who are prepared to recognise Him as Saviour.
And that offer still stands today, if only we are indeed prepared to make room for Jesus in our hearts. The risen Lord Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Isn’t that a most marvellous, a most wonderful invitation? So how will you on this most of nights respond? Will you like the innkeeper in the nativity play shut the door and say, “No room”? Or will you let Jesus be born in your heart as your Saviour, as your Christ and Lord? Surely this Christmas present there can be no greater gift than turning to Jesus in penitence and faith and accepting His offer of eternal life. So tonight may I urge you to receive this gift, to ask Jesus to come into your heart, and give Him the room that He deserves in your life.