Springfield Cathedral—Luke 2:7
During the first nearly eight years of my time as Bishop of Springfield, Brenda and lived in a spacious home in Leland Grove, as some of you know. It had four bedrooms, including a former master suite, bearing that title before the current master suite was developed over the garage. I can’t say we used those bedrooms very many times, other than when our children and grandchildren were visiting us at Christmastime, but it was nice to be able to say, at least, “We have a guest room,” and we did, in fact, use the former master suite a few times for people other than family. Now, of course, we live in a 1500 square foot apartment that has three rooms that are classified as “bedrooms,” but only one actual bed! So, on those rare occasions when we want to have overnight company, they stay up on the third-floor apartment, our daughter’s, where there are all of two beds.
Yet, not having a guest room doesn’t necessarily prevent the exercise of hospitality. Have you ever had the experience of making arrangements to stay with friends or relatives, and arriving—perhaps in time for dinner, or at least some late-night conversation in the family room—and then being shown to your bedroom? You settle in, look around—although it may not dawn on you until the next morning—you realize that you’re not in a guest room, but in a child’s bedroom. There are posters on the wall, toys in a pile, clothes in the closet, all belonging to a child whom you realize is still very much an active member of that household—and, apparently, sleeping somewhere else. It makes you stop and think. No one, least of all a child, enjoys having their domestic routine disrupted, and being told that something they think of as their own is not quite 100% their own. Your comfortable night has come at the cost of somebody else’s inconvenience.
Of course, there’s a pecking order. If the anticipated guest is somebody special, we make allowances; we go to great lengths to make that person welcome and comfortable, even if it involves considerable inconvenience. I still remember an episode of the PBS TV series Upstairs, Downstairs from the ‘70s, when the Bellamy family entertained King George—or was it Edward? I can’t remember! —the Bellamys had the King and the Queen at their home for dinner. They inconvenienced themselves, and their household staff, in a big way. If it had been Uncle Bill from Canada dropping in for a visit, there wouldn’t have been quite so much rigmarole.
I don’t really know anything about the state of the hospitality industry in first century rural Palestine. In most movie depictions that I’ve seen, Bethlehem looks like an inauspicious collection of low-lying and tiny houses made of rough-hewn stone. There was certainly no neon sign that flashed the letters H-O-T-E-L. There wasn’t even a hanging wooden shingle that advertised the location of an “inn.” But there was apparently some sort of commercial enterprise—perhaps just a room or two in somebody’s home—where a traveler might expect to find lodging. Whatever this place was, there was somebody in charge of it. Now, perhaps whoever that person was just didn’t want to be bothered, but if we take St Luke’s account at face value, he had simply let out the available space on a first-come first-served basis, so when Joseph came looking for a room for himself and his wife who was about to have a baby, the innkeeper just followed standard operating procedure. “Sorry, we’re full up. No vacancy.”
And who can blame him? It’s the same message any of us would expect to get if we pulled off the interstate and drove up to a Hampton Inn without a reservation on a weekend when the Cornhuskers Guild is having its annual convention. “No Vacancy” means no vacancy, and we wouldn’t hold it personally against the desk clerk who gave us the bad news. We would just thank him and ask directions to the Motel 6.
Fiction writers over the centuries have been inspired to speculate in any number of ways about the character of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of the Son of God. Did it weigh on him? Did it haunt him the rest of his life? Or did he never have the slightest inkling of the cosmic magnitude of the event he made happen? For my part, however, I wonder about that innkeeper. Let’s grant the assumption that the spaces he had for rent were indeed taken. But what about his own personal living space? Now, we wouldn’t ordinarily expect a hotel desk clerk to make such an offer. But what if he had known? What if he had known the true identity of his prospective guest? Do you suppose he might have found a more appropriate place than a barn for the incarnation of the eternal Word of God to make his entrance into the world of time and space? Do you suppose he might have been willing to inconvenience himself some? Might he have asked, say, his twelve-year old daughter to give up her room for the night?
Of course, the innkeeper didn’t know. He was operating at a disadvantage, and we should cut him some slack. You and I, on the other hand, have all the advantage of hindsight. We know who it is that is knocking on our door tonight. It’s the One by whom and through whom all things were made, the light that no darkness can overcome, the perfect visible image of the invisible God, the infinite made finite, the eternal made temporal, the great made small—Jesus, Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. Do we have room for him? We know who he is, but the question remains, and is all the more pressing precisely because of our knowledge: Do we have room for him?
Can we make room for Jesus in our affections? Can we love him above all others? Can we grant him access to the innermost chambers of our hearts, even as he draws us into his own heart? Can we make room for Jesus in our minds? Can we yield to him our intellectual autonomy, and let our minds be formed by the mind of Christ, and delight in the truth that he proclaims? Can we make room for Jesus in our wills—our decisions and actions? Can we let Jesus have a say in our finances? Can we listen to his advice about our relationships, our sexual behavior, and even our politics? Can we make room for Jesus tonight? Are we willing to allow him to inconvenience us, to change our routine?
The innkeeper of Bethlehem can be easily excused for turning non-yet-born Jesus away. Our excuse isn’t so good, because we know exactly what we’re doing. One of my favorite poets of Christmas is Robert Herrick, who wrote in seventeenth century England. He wrote poignantly about making room for Jesus:
Christ, He requires still, wheresoe’er He comes,
To feed, or lodge, to have the best of rooms:
Give Him the choice; grant Him the nobler part
Of all the house: the best of all’s the heart.
Tonight we have an opportunity that the desk clerk of the Bethlehem Super 8 didn’t have. We know who it is that’s knocking on our door, asking for a room. I’m going to let the truly immortal words of Bishop Phillips Brooks articulate our response:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tiding tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
Merry Christmas, and Amen!