In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that census should be taken of the entire Roman world (This was the census that was taken before Quirinius was governor of
A very long time ago I made my first trip to
Only as it turns out, Michelangelo had intended the paintings to have these bright vivid colors all along, even though it was a shock to the system and the art critics freaked out when this was first made known after the chapel reopened. The sense of shock, or even outrage was palpable and the ever rabid Italian press endlessly debated the merits of the new Sistine Chapel vs. the Old with great heat and passion. This is what happens when you tamper with a masterpiece.
At the risk of producing a similar response, I am here this morning to tamper with a masterpiece, or better said, to share with you a rather different reading of Lk. 2.1-7, one solidly grounded in the facts, but nowhere represented in the Christmas carols and pageants. I must tell you that I have heard endless sermons on how there was ‘no room in the end’ and wasn’t it typical of a cold fallen world to cast the holy family and Jesus out into the cold, and so on, often preached with great fervor, but producing no ferment at all. We’ve heard it countless times before. We've all been innoculated with a slight case of Christmas, preventing us from getting the real thing, or in this case from reading these texts in a more historical way. The problem with the Christmas pageant version is, this is not at all likely to be what Luke intends to tell us in this much beloved and belabored Christmas tale.
Let’s start with the first oddity of this tale. Jesus was born while Herod the Great was king of the
Then there is the second anomaly. Notice that Mary and Joseph are not married, they are only engaged. Why in the world would they both travel all the way to
Yes, in Jesus’ culture getting pregnant and having a baby out of wedlock, was consider a major scandal—a huge deal, a big shame and black mark on the family’s name. Our culture does not react this way to such things most of the time, but just the other day I heard the story of a teenage girl in
But there is a further factor in the story seldom noticed. Joseph and Mary are registering for a census in
In other words, this was all about going to see the I.R.S. boys in
Now I have to tell you, this story is too improbably NOT TO BE TRUE. I mean, no one would make up a story like this which suggested to the skeptical in the home town and to latter day skeptics ever since that Jesus the Son of God was illegitimate. The story of the virginal conception must surely be true, for an evangelistic religion in that honor and shame culture would never make up a story like this about the birth of their Savior if they wanted to convince a patriarchal world of its truth. It’s too improbable not to be true!
But there is one more surprise at the end of the tale. When it came time for Mary to deliver the baby, the Greek of Luke’s text says--- “she wrapped him in cloth and laid him in a corn crib, as there was no room in the guest room”. Yes, you heard me right. Luke does not say there was no room in the inn. Luke has a different Greek word for inn (pandeion) which he trots out in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The word he uses here (kataluma) is the very word he uses to describe the room in which Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples—the guest room of a house.
Archeology of the area shows that houses in
In other words, all this silliness about ‘no room at the Holiday Inn’ for the Holy family, is not at all what Luke is talking about. This is not a story about ‘no room in the inn’ or about the world’s giving Jesus the cold shoulder. It's a story about no inn in the room! It’s a story about a family making do when more relatives than expected suddenly show up on the doorstep. It’s a story most of us can relate to in one way or another. Jesus was born in his relative’s home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell in that room, and probably the shock of the Magi when they saw where the King was born.
But this story is not meant to meet our expectations or desires about what a Christmas story must be like. Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or desires—he came to meet our needs. George MacDonald puts it this way—‘We were all looking for a king to slay our foes and lift us high, but thou camst a little baby thing, that made a mother cry.” Jesus came as he did to make clear that no one and no place however humble was beneath his dignity, and every age and stage of life he would hallow, and save and sanctify.
John Donne, the great English cleric summed it up well when he said--- “Twas much that we were made like God, long before, but that God should be made like us—much more.” And the Word, took on flesh and dwelt for a while in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God. It was a strange glory, a glory in humility, a glory without royal robes, a glory without a proper bed.
The question for us this day is—do we still have the capacity to be surprised, enthralled, by this remarkable Christmas story? Do we still have the capacity to see all things new, once more? Can we approach the story like a child—eyes wide open, mouth agape? Can we make him room in our homes, even if the calendar is full, and the head count high on the homefront. I certainly hope so. Jesus traveled a long way to dwell with you Immanuel, especially at this season. Will you not kindly make him room in your abode, however humble?
The old medieval Christmas poem said 'though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he's not born in you, your heart is still forlorn.' Let me just tell you however, if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course.