There Was No Innkeeper!
Hope for the Sinners
Luke 2:1-7, Matt 1:18-25
Setting the Situation
You’ll have to forgive me if I get a bit agitated tonight; I don’t get to vent about this very often. I have been unfairly maligned for two millennia, and no one even knows my name. It is Elkanah, and if that sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because I’m named after the judge and prophet Samuel’s father (not after a large antlered animal). Ironically, my life was radically changed by a miraculous birth in my home, just as my namesake’s was.
I do well for myself and my family, but I am a normal guy. I have lived in Bethlehem my entire life, not far from Jerusalem. Many of my siblings and relatives have spread out through Israel, a few even to Egypt, but I remained. Being the oldest, my family’s temple sheep raising business passed down to me. I am more ranch manager than shepherd, responsible to sell sheep for sacrificial purposes to the Jerusalem temple. I am honored to be carrying an active link from my distant relative, the great King David, who was a shepherd outside of Bethlehem, where my land is now. Jacob was Joseph’s father and my brother. Joseph married Mary. Much to my father Matthan’s chagrin, Jacob preferred woodworking to sheep management, and Joseph followed in Jacob’s footsteps.
A census had been called by Caesar Augustus—may he painfully be eaten by worms—so most of my family members were making a trek to Bethlehem to be registered (taxed if you want it bluntly). Being the firstborn and successful offered me a large home, and in my culture those bring expectations of willing hospitality, so all those trekkers were coming to me, expecting I would provide a place to stay. My wife still grumbles about the extra work Caesar created for her with many relatives and boatloads of their kids overrunning our home for weeks. At night, we packed as many as would fit onto our upstairs main room floor. New relatives arrived faster than we could find room for them. Soon we had a house full of guests. The grain and mutton bills were threatening to give me ulcers. It is surprising how many ways you can prepare and eat sheep. Our home was full, but when my nephew arrived, things really got interesting.
It surprised me that Joseph brought Mary. She was very pregnant, and neither of them wanted Joseph to miss the birth, plus things weren’t going so well with Mary’s folks and neighbors, so Joseph likely wanted to guard her from scorn. Being in her final month, I wanted Mary to be comfortable. Before I could ask anyone to give up their floor space, M & J offered to sleep downstairs. Our lower room had a dirt floor, and animals would be sheltered there on cold nights. At least it was less crowded, and my shepherds had occasionally slept down there with injured lambs. It didn’t feel right to me, but Mary wouldn’t have it any other way.
Setting the Record Straight
So, despite all the cute little Christmas plays, frilly Christmas songs, and thousands of trinkets, figurines, toys, and plates, (By the way, it strikes me as ridiculously weird that Americans paint, but won’t eat off of plates with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus for some reason surrounded by livestock), there was no lonely, isolated stable. Most of the households in Bethlehem had some animals that when necessary were kept in lower rooms like mine, or in one of the many caves that surrounded the town. That mean, gruff, uncaring innkeeper advent calendars are so quick to skewer is me. I don’t keep or run an inn. No one calls the home owner in Luke 22 that hosted Passover for Jesus and his men an inn keeper. They used his upper room. For some reason, that same word is translated “inn” in Luke 2, talking about my house. My upper room was full of people. Christmas plays make the guy who plays me (never with the right name mind you) rude and uncaring. Good grief, it was all I could do to convince my wife they wanted to sleep downstairs. She nearly lost it with me for “making” them sleep there.
There was no inn; there was a house. There was no innkeeper; there was me and my wife. We had a house full of people crowding our lives and space. I understand if you feel obligated to throw out your historically inaccurate nativity scenes when you go home. Actually, I insist that any pictures, depictions, or stories involving an angry or cold-hearted innkeeper be burned for my sake.
Joseph and Mary were not turned away. The text doesn’t say that. When Mary went into labor, they had been at my place for days. Luke 2:6 says “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” I am no doctor, but I am guessing the 90+ mile walk may have pushed her towards labor. Joe didn’t have a donkey to travel with; I make more money than he does, and I don’t have one either. Sorry, now you’ll probably have to ditch those ornaments and plates too. Joseph and I were well acquainted, though my brother Jacob had died several years earlier. Joe planned to stay with me all along, but he didn’t realize we’d be so strapped for space. He wasn’t frantically running door-to-door through Bethlehem hoping to find a place for his contracting wife to have a baby. Joseph had neither the desire nor the experience to attempt a baby delivery by himself. Mary went into labor in my home, with a house full of women fighting for midwife duties, offering all kinds or random advice and help. Despite the sketchy conception details, no reasonable Jew would deny help to a family member in need, especially a young, laboring mother.
I get the impression births today are a little more clean and comfortable than they were then. There were no medicines. There was fire-warmed water, rags, a bunch of fretting mother hens, and a lot of moaning, grunting, and coaxing. Alone in my bed upstairs, Mary’s anguished cries made me glad it was her and not me. All males except Joseph were banned from the lower room until the baby was born. But soon, everyone was crowding around to see the newborn that was supposedly born of God by a divine miracle. Whatever Joseph, at least the baby was cute, alive, and breathing.
Several large stones had been heated by our hearth and placed around the room for warmth. But as people packed into the room it got uncomfortably warm for Mary who was already sweating like champ, and Joseph looked a little woozy, so the children were hustled upstairs to their mats, and several parents went with them. Mary sat cuddling the baby, trying to get him to nurse, while Joseph beamed proudly at her side. It was beautiful.
There were no animals present. The nights were getting colder, but the sheep were lambing in the fields. There was no room or patience for animals in the midst of the estrogen-infused hulibaloo surrounding Mary in my lower room. Now you’ll have to throw those cute little animals out of your nativities too; they weren’t there. There were no cattle lowing, no camels, and definitely no drumming boys. Camels were a luxury Bethlehemites could never afford, and the Magi were many months away at that point. But since we did bring animals in at times, there was a feeding manger down there. Joseph, wanting to do something constructive, realized it would make a simple crib, so he filled it with straw and cedar chips. My wife showed Mary how our babies had liked to be tightly swaddled for sleep so many years ago, supposedly mimicking the womb or some such nonsense, and then Mary laid Jesus down to sleep in the manger.
Setting the Stage
Everything was finally serene, until an unexpected knock was followed by a familiar voice at the door. It was Zeb, my lead shepherd. He had Seth, Phineas, and the brothers Jacob and Joshua with him. Benjamin stayed with the sheep. They breathlessly piled through the door. It was the wee hours of the morning, what were they doing here? They ignored me, and stood gawking at the baby. They all started talking over each other in hushed voices about how an angel had announced “good news of great joy for all people. “ They said “born this day in the city of David” was “a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The angel said they would “find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Unbelievable, how could they have known that? The shepherds sounded sure about the angels’ message.
But the birth was so normal. This wasn’t a savior; it was just an “oops” baby that Joseph didn’t want to cause disgrace. God surely wouldn’t come to earth in my basement! Zeb said they didn’t know where the baby would be, so they came to ask me if I might know, and there was Jesus, just as the angels said he would be. I couldn’t believe he was the savior they claimed. M & J believed them, but the rest of us that had seen this normal baby, born in the normal way, and though we were impressed by the shepherds’ story, we couldn’t possibly accept their message. Everyone was exhausted, so I ordered Zeb and the others back to the fields. They left, singing about this newborn king, Immanuel-God with us. I decided I needed to shorten their shifts to get them a little more sleep; they were clearly delirious. Almost all of us doubted divine intervention.
Setting Us Free
A week later, Caesar August’s –may toe fungus forever ravage his family–registrars finally finished their tasks and my house guests began leaving. Mary and Joseph were congratulated and many gifts were given to their baby Jesus. My wife and I agreed they shouldn’t travel with a newborn and offered to put them up for a few more weeks. Joseph explained that since relations with Mary’s family were quite strained, and his carpentry business had been slow, they were contemplating a new start. I offered to help my nephew. My wife was thrilled that a newborn would be staying in our house for a few weeks. I offered the basement and my tools to Joseph to set up shop in Bethlehem, which he humbly and gratefully accepted. With mostly daughters and my two sons far off, I longed for some guy time. I dusted off my carpentry skills to help on a few small projects. Joseph’s skills as a carpenter began drawing attention as far away as Jerusalem, and soon M & J got their own place in Bethlehem.
In those first months, Joseph and I had many conversations about Jesus and the prophecies he was supposed to fulfill. Joseph explained how the angel Gabriel told him that he should not divorce Mary because the baby was born of God’s Holy Spirit. The angel said he was to be named “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” I asked Joe if he really believed that. Why on earth would God pick Mary to bear his son? Why would he pick Joseph to parent him? This seemed like such a strange way to save the world.
Joseph couldn’t answer many of my questions. But he believed the angel. He wanted to be free from sin, and God promised that freedom through Jesus. Joe pleaded with me to accept what the angels had proclaimed. That Jesus was God’s Savior, Christ the Lord. His birth, his entrance into human flesh, was to save people from sin. My shepherds said he was “good news of great joy for all the people.” They were so convinced they worshiped God for the baby Jesus. It seemed so unlikely that the messiah could be born in my basement, where I brought my lambs in when it was cold. How could a normal baby boy, born to ordinary parents whom I knew, be the Savior of the world and the hope for sinners? Mary and Joseph believed that this boy, Jesus, offered hope for those orphaned from their heavenly father, hope for the helpless and lowly, and hope for the outcast people of God. Maybe if Jesus really was the hope for sinners; he offered hope for me. I resisted this at first. I was a good Jew who attended synagogue, treated my workers fairly, gave to worthy causes, cared for my family, and met my temple requirements, so how could I need a savior? On reflection, I recognized my heart could be terribly dark. There was much I was ashamed of, and my personal holiness had a lot of holes. Eventually, Joseph’s faith, Mary’s faith, and Zeb’s faith persuaded me to trust God and put my faith in Jesus to forgive my sin.
Today, you have the rest of the story. The baby born in my basement grew and matured. He followed in Joseph’s footsteps for many years, and when the time was right, he began to proclaim he was Jesus, God’s own son, who had come to save his people from sin. He was born and placed in a wooden manger; he was placed on a wooden cross as he was killed, substituting himself for us. He gave his life, so we can have his eternal life. He accepted separation and punishment from God so we can be in loving relationships with God and have his righteousness. Jesus told Paul, I am sending you to the Gentiles (Acts 26:18): “To open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Will you place your faith in Jesus today to forgive your sin and set you free?
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