Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday Inn

Luke 2:1-7
by Daniel Harrell

So during this week’s Christmas sermon block, I wondered on my Facebook status update what else there remains to say about the manger. Thanks to those of you who posted ideas, including Simon’s comforting reminder that since everybody loves the nativity story already, Christmas sermons are the easiest to deliver! The weather outside may be frightful, but the certain hope and peace embedded in Christ’s birth is delightful――not to mention indispensable―― especially this Christmas as our Dickens-like economy threatens to make poor Bob Cratchits out of everybody. Needing a familiar, strong dose of yuletide hope, I went to my files to fetch a favorite manger sermon from Christmas past, only to discover to my surprise that I had none. I’ve never preached a sermon from Luke 2.

Luke’s nativity narrative was, however, the first passage of Scripture I ever read aloud in public. It happened one Christmas Eve when I was around 10 years old. The nice folks running our Christmas Eve service invited me to participate as a reader. I was scared silly—or perhaps I should say I was “sore afraid”—an appropriate emotion for Christmas Eve. King James still reigned in those days, so already I was intimidated by the language. Words like Augustus, Cyrenius, Judea, lineage, espoused, great with child (whatever that meant); you had to say them all right or you were doomed. When my turn came, I had forgotten it would be so dark. Ours was a candlelight service and as I stepped up I quickly appreciated why the letters in the humongous pulpit Bible were writ so large. I began with a little introduction I had prepared, the preacher in me asserting itself early. I then stepped into the passage proper, not bungling any of the words I worried about. No, the only mistake I made was when I got to verse 7 and said Mary bought forth her firstborn son instead of brought forth. Perhaps this betrayed the extent to which the commercialization of Christmas had already corrupted my young soul. True, I was greedy for my presents. More likely however, my slip-up betrayed my nervousness as well as my inability to make out the words in the dim candlelit glow.

Still, I don’t think anybody noticed my mistake. By the time I’d mentioned Mary purchasing Jesus, attention had already turned to the spot-lit nativity scene that was being reenacted at the front of the sanctuary. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim did the Mary and Joseph honors that year, decked out in the requisite bed sheets and bathrobes. While we featured real live holy parents (and a few minutes later, real live shepherds over by the organ watching the flocks by night), our nativity scene didn’t have any real live animals. This definitely put us Congregationalists behind the First Baptist Church in terms of Christmas Eve authenticity. First Baptist managed to rent a house-broken donkey for Mary to ride down the aisle of their Christmas Eve service each year (though word on the street had it that the house-broken donkey wasn’t necessarily church-broken). They even had an Ebenezer Scrooge of an innkeeper whom everyone lustily booed for being so rude to the mother of God.

Interestingly, none of these live nativity scenes ever had a live little Lord Jesus. We always used a store-bought baby doll Jesus (which may be another reason I confused bought with brought forth). Not that some churches didn’t try to use live infants in their outdoor nativity productions. The problem was they had to have several infants on hand for when one did start crying. Additional backstage workers were also required in order to constantly rotate the unhappy infants out and the Christ-like ones in. One season of this baby shuttling and the quiet Jesus doll was usually back in the manger.

This is ironic, of course, since by far the most crucial aspect of the Christmas story is that God came to earth as a real live baby. Think about that for a second and it can still your mind. Rather than swooping down in Superman-like fashion from planet heaven to save the world, the Holy Spirit impregnates a poor, unmarried teenage girl who gives birth to a son. Totally helpless, unable to eat or turn onto his back without assistance, surely crying and needing a diaper change, utterly dependent on the creatures he created. Mary cradles God in her arms, the one whom heaven’s armies herald as Savior, Christ and Lord――the answer to ransom captive Israel’s prayers.

Luke sets Jesus’ birth during the days of Caesar Augustus and governor Quirinius. Israel was brutally subjected to empire power and its citizenry forced to relocate for the purposes of census and taxation. Both Augustus and Quirinius are introduced with reference to their positions as wealthy and potent sovereigns. Augustus Caesar was so powerful he had a month of the year named after him. The month of August was so named in honor of the emperor since that’s when several of his life’s most fortunate events occurred. Furthermore, not wanting to be outshone by his predecessor Julius Caesar, after whom July was named, a day was taken from February and added to August so that July and August would be equal. Augustus himself was described as divine, as the son of God, imperator of land and sea, Lord and Savior of the entire world. For the herald angels’ to proclaim the baby Jesus as Lord and Savior himself directly challenged Roman rule.

That Augustus wielded worldly authority enabled him to move the whole world around like chess pieces. Yet God checkmates Caesar by having Jesus born in the city of David to fulfill ancient and recent promises made by Samuel, Micah and Gabriel. Caesar’s power submits to God’s purposes. The only thing Joseph had to offer Jesus was his role as King David’s descendant. Yet it was this role that sealed Jesus’ identity as true Savior and Lord. King David was the one in whose image and lineage the Messiah would come, but that Joseph holds his position with none of its privilege sets up God’s subversive power play from below. The stark contrast between Caesar’s worldly authority and Jesus’ humility is intentional. It provides the template for the entire incarnation: strength that will come out of weakness, victory that will come through defeat, life that will come by way of death, glory that will come out of lowliness. As the apostle Paul will famously sing it, “Being in very nature God, Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to death――even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the Christmas story, however, the only bowing knees and confessing tongues belong to shepherds and angels. Previewing the rejection from most everyone else that will hound Jesus all the way to Calvary, Mary gets rebuffed by that Ebenezer innkeeper who refuses
to make room for a woman in labor, forcing God to be born in a barn. I couldn’t help but think of this part of the Christmas story while reading the news last month about the Massachusetts State Trooper who was patrolling a congested Route 2 for cars sneaking into the breakdown lane. A pregnant woman named Jennifer Davis was stuck in the bumper-to-bumper traffic with her contractions just 3 minutes apart. Her husband, John, trying to appear calm for his wife’s sake, veered into the breakdown lane in order to get to the hospital. A couple of other troopers had already waved them on, but when they pulled up behind this third State Trooper to ask whether they could continue using the breakdown lane to reach the next exit; not only did the trooper say no, but he gave them a $100 citation for driving in the breakdown lane. Furthermore, he made them wait for their citation while he finished writing a ticket for somebody else. According to the report he then asked the Davises for proof of pregnancy. He said to Jennifer, “What’s under your jacket?” and Jennifer said, “My belly!” He waited and then gestured with his head like, “OK, let’s see it,” and waited for her to unzip her jacket.

Now the Davises did make it to the hospital where Jennifer gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Their daughter Charlotte did not have to be born by the side of the road. But that didn’t stop readers on boston.com from expressing their outrage anyway. Readers called the State Trooper a pig and a Nazi and even a “state sponsored terrorist.” One irate reader went so far as to post the trooper’s home address (though it was subsequently removed). It reminded me of the boos that mercilessly rained down on the innkeeper at that First Baptist Christmas pageant I attended as a kid. True, he shouldn’t have rebuffed Mary and Joseph, any more than that State Trooper should have issued a ticket. But the innkeeper’s rejection, as with Caesar’s census relocation, served to advance God’s purposes. Strength emerges from weakness, victory comes through defeat, life rises from death, glory comes from lowliness and from our own rejection of him too. As the fourth century church Father Jerome wrote, “Jesus found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins are filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it.”

However the interesting thing about the innkeeper in the Christmas story is that most likely he never existed. The Greek word translated inn in every English translation doesn’t actually mean inn at all. As far as we can tell, there was nothing like motels or bed-and-breakfasts anywhere in first century Bethlehem. The word is accurately translated guest room (it’s the same noun used to describe the upper room where the last supper took place). The reason it keeps getting translated inn is because King James did it and inn became so engrained in the story that no Bible-publisher in his or her right mind would dare change it to read “there was no room in the guest room” because nobody would buy that Bible. But since the word does mean guest room, the picture that should rather come to your mind is that of a family home. The typical Jewish family home of Jesus’ day had one big room for the family with a drop-down at one end where the animals could be brought in for the night. Guests would stay at one end of the big room or the other, either that or on the roof. Now it may be that this explanation only make things worse. While it gets the heartless (and proverbial) innkeeper off the hook, it leaves Mary being sent to the stable by Joseph’s own relatives. While imaginable, given that everybody embarrassingly knew the baby wasn’t Joseph’s, this probably wasn’t what happened either. There’s no stable in the Christmas story.

David, another friend who commented on my Facebook status about the manger, pointed me to a book by Kenneth Bailey entitled “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.” Because Joseph went up to Bethlehem, where his family was, there is no way he would have stayed in an inn (even if such places had existed). Middle Eastern etiquette would have never allowed it. The typical home drop-down where the animals stayed had mangers, or feed troughs for the animals, built into the floor in the house. There was no room in the guest room part of the house (either at one end or on the roof) for Mary to place her newborn because there were so many guests already packed past capacity for the census, so they laid Jesus in a manger at the other end of the family room. When the shepherds went looking for him, they were glad that all was as they had been told, and likely they were also glad to see that Middle Eastern hospitality was being properly exercised and the honor of the Bethlehemites had not been tarnished. Had the shepherds found Jesus in a stable, the shepherds would probably have insisted on taking him and his mother home to their place rather than see them shamed that way.

Whether this ruins the Christmas story for you, I don’t know. It does help reconcile Luke having Jesus born in a manger with Matthew having him born in a house. For me, I actually like the picture of Jesus being squeezed into an already overcrowded house. It’s the perfect Christmas scene. Amidst all the folderol, we stuff our stockings and our stomachs, and fill our minds filled with worries and fears about relationships, family, travel and this year, the economy. Our lives can get so crowded that it’s hard to squeeze Jesus in anywhere. But the good news of Christmas is that even when there is no room, Jesus gets in anyway. And once Jesus gets in, thankfully, he never leaves.

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