Outside the Inn: Pastor Bob’s Christmas Eve sermon

(Here’s the sermon preached by pastor Bob last night. Wishing all of you the greatest possible Christmas.)

“You know this story by heart—and even if this is your first time ever in a church, you likely know the Christmas songs from sacred places like Target, Walmart, or the new Kohl’s. This story is so familiar, so embedded in us, that sometimes it’s hard to really hear it, touch it. For myself, the story always leaves me with questions: Couldn’t God have timed this baby’s birth to not take place during a major Roman census? This would have saved Mary and Joseph a lot of trouble. And Mary on a donkey in her last trimester? Really?”

Outside the Inn

A sermon by Pastor Bob

December 24, 2011

Text: Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

–It’s good to be together tonight, this Christmas Eve.

–When angels of all ages sing to us that Christ is born in Bethlehem.

–When shepherds gather their flocks and gather us into a story, a remembrance, a reality that Christ has come.

–He is in-fleshed, incarnate, real.

–You know this story by heart—and even if this is your first time ever in a church, you likely know the Christmas songs from sacred places like Target, Walmart, or the new Kohl’s.

–This story is so familiar, so embedded in us, that sometimes it’s hard to really hear it, touch it.

–For myself, the story always leaves me with questions:

–Couldn’t God have timed this baby’s birth to not take place during a major Roman census?

–This would have saved Mary and Joseph a lot of trouble.

–Mary on a donkey in her last trimester? Really?

–And why would God send a bunch of guys to a birth?

–I suppose that the shepherds had some experience with birthing sheep, but the three kings and gifts should have been saved for Jesus’ bar-mitzvah.

–Wouldn’t it have been better if the angels had encircled a group of midwives or doulas, and sent them ahead to attend to the birth of the Messiah, the Son of God?

–Or sent a group of mothers and grandmothers who would know what to do with the baby afterwards, who could tend to Mary, clean the stable, knit some onsies?

–But the big question that nags me about the birth narrative of Christ is the issue of the inn.

–Can anyone here explain to me why Joseph and Mary cannot find a place to stay, when Bethlehem should be crowded with relatives?

–Why, after all the uprooting from Nazareth and pre-birth travel to Bethlehem, their only option was a stable? A barn?

–Why, after all this work coordinating angels, shepherds and kings, do they end up outside the inn?

–This is exactly where Jesus ends up: Outside the inn.

–Not inside a nice (but inexpensive) inn, but outside, where the animals sleep.

–Outside, where the outsiders are kept from coming inside.

–Now, I’m not sure who was running that inn, but I can tell you that if my friends Lyle and Laura had been in charge, things would have been very different.

–Lyle and Laura are teachers from northwest Washington. And though they had two children of their own, you wouldn’t have known that if you visited their house, because they tended to pick up stray children whose own families made them feel like they belonged in a stable.

–These children often came from abusive family situations, and so, along with feeding them and helping them with their homework, Lyle and Laura listened to them, and inevitably loved them.

–And these children became family, and some would even live with Lyle and Laura for periods of time.

–I don’t know how many children they helped get through high school and even college.

–All I know is that as I learned their story over the years, I realized how much they had touched the lives of these children.

–How desperately they had given and still give of themselves so that these now adults would know that they always had a place at the inn.

–Maybe you’ve had someone in your life that has taken a chance on you.

–Someone who has transformed you from outsider to insider, from stranger to friend, from estranged to beloved.

–In some ways, I think that is a taste of God’s grace.

–Of what it means to catch a glimpse of the Christ child in the midst of our everyday lives.

–But it is not always easy, is it?

–It’s not easy to let someone into our homes, let alone into our lives.

–As I think about it a little more, maybe I’m being too hard on the innkeeper.

–Maybe Joseph and Mary didn’t arrive in a timely manner to get a room.

–Perhaps Mary got motion sickness from being on the donkey, and their trip took much longer than expected.

–Or maybe they were just lolly-gagging, looking at the sites around Jerusalem.

–What was a poor innkeeper to do late at night, in the rough part of Bethlehem?

–They had missed the check-in time. It was too late. Didn’t they read the sign? What part of “No Vacancy” did this young couple not understand?

–There are rules to follow, and if everyone flaunts these rules then what will happen?

–There is only so much room at the inn!

–There are lots of good reasons for maintaining the rules for who gets to stay inside the inn, and who doesn’t.

–There are boundaries to be maintained that keep everyone safe.

–The world is not necessarily a safe place, and we must be circumspect as to who we will trust, who we will let into our lives.

–It is always tempting not to even open our door.

–To not let anyone into our lives.

–Especially when we’ve been hurt before.

–If we let just anyone into our lives, won’t we risk being hurt again?

–Maybe there really was room at the inn that night long ago.

–Maybe it was saved for the loved one of an even later arrival.

–Or maybe the reason that Mary and Joseph didn’t have a place in Bethlehem, let alone the inn, was some family squabble or scandal that left the young family on the outside.

–We will never know.

–We know only that they ended up outside the inn.

–Now, next year we will be celebrating 50 years of inviting people into this inn, and of doing our best to make outsiders feel like insiders.

–Of eating together, playing together, worshiping together.

–I have to say that last Sunday’s live nativity experience—with Roman soldiers, docile animals, a busy market place and a lovely baby Jesus named Anna—was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had as a pastor.

–You have no idea how much you all mean to my family and me.

–We are truly blessed by you, and love you.

–And we are equally impressed by your sense of service.

–That, as inviting as we try to be as a congregation to bring people into this place, we are also aware that there is a world outside this inn, and that God calls us into it.

–Over the years, you have given of yourselves, your time and resources to care for those who are considered by the world to be outsiders.

–This is who you are, and we have a “Giving Tree” just outside the narthex to remind us each month of a new project with which we can help out.

–As one member likes to say, “Giving is in the DNA of the congregation.”

–We even have scientists in our community who, I have no doubt, can prove this.

–But I have to warn you that such good work is very dangerous.

–That if you continue to serve people who are considered outsiders, then you will become associated with them, and even, in vulnerability, begin to love them.

–That the more you do to care for others, the more you will be changed.

–And that, as you care for the world, some people may begin to call you an outsider.

–If you risk going outside the inn, you may in your vulnerable state stumble upon the Christ child.

–The one who came into the world so that in God no one would ever be an outsider again.

–That we are all simply, profoundly, God’s children.

–This cool, dark evening reminds me of an evening I shared with my family a little over a year ago.

–Before the successful hip surgery of our oldest daughter this past summer, we had flown out to New York to consult with specialists.

–We were trying to figure out what to do with her chronic pain: whether she would be able to have arthroscopic surgery, or would need the larger open surgery.

–I’ll never forget coming into that very big city with buildings that, from a Colorado boy’s perspective, looked like canyons of glass.

–Of a taxi driver intent upon getting us to our destination, with the intensity and focus of an Indy car driver.

–And of then being left in the middle of the night on the doorstep of an apartment building in the middle of Manhattan.

–There we stood in the quiet noise of the city, hoping that we would have a place to stay that night.

–And then the door opened, and a smiling face emerged.

–It was Rebecca, the daughter of Lyle and Laura.

–She let us into her tiny apartment.

–She gave us her bed.

–She even showed us how to use her Netflix.

–We were safe that night.

–We had found our place at the inn.

–2,000 years ago, a young woman would give birth to a son who would change the world.

–Who would enter the hurt of this world and transform it:

–Darkness into light. Death into life.

–Can you feel the Christ child in your midst?

–Can you sense the soft folds of warm, newborn skin?

–Small, short breaths that warm the face as you come closer?

–Where is Christ tonight?

–I ask you: Where isn’t he?

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdgalloway

    Thank you! Your message was unintentionally coupled with the sermon I heard this morning at my home church, but the tone,the intent was so similar. To remember the outsiders, to have compassion those on the outside, and to consider that we could ourselves be an innkeeper. Do we have vacancy or not?

  • http://www.ebendale.com Dale Nixon

    A few years ago I heard a seminary profesor explain that the reason for the innkeepers’ turning Mary and Joseph away was two-fold. First it related to the nature of first century inns–they were typically a large open room with many travelers bunking down for the night under one roof, and with Mary about to give birth to a child any moment—well, the extenuating laws of Talmud instructed that anyone under the same roof when the child was born would be unclean for seven days in the case of a male child or fourteen days if it were female. Inkeepers just couldn’t justify doing that to their paying guests.

  • Allie

    I like the part of the sermon about modern people, but I think you’re being a touch unfair to the innkeeper. It seems pretty likely there really wasn’t room, and he did the best he could for them by letting them sleep in the barn. If you showed up to a modern day hotel which was full and the staff let you sleep in the lobby, you’d be grateful, not writing sermons about how you were discriminated against because they didn’t turn someone who was there first out of a room. Early inns, from what I’ve read, packed people in like cordwood to begin with – when they said “full” they meant there wasn’t space for another bedroll on the floor!

  • Sarah Wilbanks

    Have some thoughts that may shed light on in the inn. The word for inn was the same for the word for the second floor of the house that was reserved for children and guests, kind of like a loft. The first floor of building of that time and place was what we would consider kitchen, living room, and master bedroom. Everyone else when up. They most likely were at one of Josephs relatives along with a lot of other family coming in for the census. The loft would have been crowded and had no privacy, making the cellar much more suitable for the the birth.

    As for the stable, they didn’t use wooden stables there because wood was very scarce. They usually built their houses on large rocks and dug caves into the rocks as barns and/or cellars. The rocks of the area were relatively soft and easy to dig out. So Jesus was probably born in the cave under the house.

    • textjunkie

      Oh too funny, that was the topic of the sermon at the Christmas Eve that I was at–instead of focusing on the marginalization of Jesus’s birth, the focus was on the actual sense of community, the gift of God both to the human family, and to all of creation (as symbolized by the animals). The idea that God came from heaven, and he didn’t stop ’til he got to the ground floor, smelly and sweaty as it might be down here. :)


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