1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Ever since I was a teenager, the Innkeeper has been my favorite character in the Christmas story.
I know exactly why, too. My church youth group did a Christmas musical pageant every year, and the innkeeper got to sing this song: “You’ve got to keep on listening, keep on watching, and when Jesus knocks let him in.” I was a teenager in the 1980s, and this was right around the time that New Kids on the Block were popular. The song sounded a little bit like that; it was peppy and upbeat, with drums and synthesizers.
The first time I auditioned for the role of the innkeeper, I didn’t get the part. But the nice thing about Christmas pageants is that they don’t really change much from year to year, so I kept trying, and eventually, I got to be the innkeeper. I have identified with him ever since.
So this summer, when I was putting together a sermon series about the person-to-person, human encounters in the Christmas story, I thought “Perfect! I can talk about my favorite character again, and his encounter with Joseph the night Jesus was born.”
Imagine the surprise and dismay of your seminary-educated-bible-expert pastor when he opened his bible to the gospel of Luke, second chapter, to discover what you’ve already figured out if you were paying attention during the scripture reading a few minutes ago: There is no inkeeper mentioned anywhere in the Christmas story. All we have is a kind-of-maybe-sort-of implication that comes from verse 7: And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
My hero… my favorite character… my Christmas inspiration… is at best just an assumption. And whe all know what assuming does. But it gets worse. In a desperate attempt to salvage the narrative of my childhood, I turned to the skill and passion of my adulthood: Etymology — the study of the history and origins of words. Specifically I turned my focus on the word, “Inn,” because where there is an inn, there must be an innkeeper, right?
That may be true, but unfortunately, it turns out that in this particular story, there might not even be an inn, let alone an innkeeper! The Greek word that Luke uses, which we translate as “inn” is καταλύμα, which simply means any broad kind of dwelling place. In fact, Luke uses that same word later on in his story to describe the place where Jesus and his disciples have their last supper. There, we translate καταλύμα as “upper room.” Worse, there actually is a specific word in Greek that means “a place where travelers stay” — πανδοχειον — it’s the word that Jesus uses in the story of the good Samaritan. Luke knew what an inn was, and it wasn’t the place that turned Mary and Joseph away.
So what was the καταλύμα, in which there was no room? Most likely it was a house, possibly even the house of Joseph’s family, since we read in verse 3 that “all went to their own towns to be registered.” If Joseph and his betrothed, Mary, were staying in a small upper room with several other relatives, there probably wasn’t enough room to give birth to a baby. Fortunately, most Middle Eastern homes in that time period had a large downstairs courtyard area where the animals lived. That’s where the manger would have been. It’s where the water would have been, the soft hay to serve as a birthing bed, and the warmth generated by the animals. In short, the most ideal place to give birth, even if it wasn’t the “first choice” of Mary and Joseph.
But this sermon series is about the human encounters in the Christmas story, and I need to get back to that now. Even though there was no inn, and no inkeeper, there must have been an encounter of some kind, when Mary went into labor, and the decision was made to move her downstairs into the stable. Joseph, from everything we read in the Christmas story, was an honorable man and a good father. If he was anything like me, when my children were born, he was probably an anxious father, too. Anxious for his wife, Mary, for her comfort and safety. Anxious for the child in her womb. I can imagine him looking around the crowded καταλύμα and thinking anxiously to himself, “This won’t do. No space. No privacy. No peace. No room to breathe.”
And then Joseph sought out the head of the house, the keeper of the house, if you will. Ok. You know what? I’m going to call him the innkeeper. Why? Because in English, the word “inn” comes from the word “in.” As in, “in-side” and not outside. So the innkeeper, literally, is the one who keeps the inside. How’s that for some fancy etymological footwork?
So Joseph appraoches the innkeeper — maybe it’s his own father, or his uncle, or a cousin — and he shares his fear and anxiety: “There is no space, no room in this καταλύμα. Please…Mary can’t give birth in this place. Not like this.”
And then the innkeeper, ah my innkeeper, he thinks about this for a moment. You know, we sometimes make the innkeeper a bad guy. He callously turns Joseph away: “There’s no room for your kind here. Go stay with the animals where you belong.” But not *my* innkeeper, and if he’s related to Joseph, it’s not too likely he would say something like that anyhow.
The innkeeper, my innkeeper, has compassion. He has creativity and imagination. He doesn’t despair or freeze up in the face of a challenge for which there is no easy, time-honored solution, no room in the καταλύμα. He does not limit himself to “the way we’ve always done things before.” Instead, he dares to propose something that would raise a few eyebrows. Something that might have been seen as improper. Something beneath the dignity of a child descended from the house of David. And yet, something that, image and social convention aside, was the very best thing for Mary, for Joseph, and for the baby.
Christmas is a season of traditions and time-honored customs for many of us. No doubt our traditions are important, and can be a source of joy and comfort. But sometimes they can be stressful, and more about keeping up appearances and social conventions: Giving the right Christmas cards and the right Christmas gifts to the right people, showing up at the right parties and family gatherings with the right behavior, putting up the right Christmas decorations at the right time. Sometimes we’re so locked into our traditions, and so worried about doing what’s “right” that we miss the chance to do what’s best — for our families, for our neighbors, for our community. We could learn a lot from Joseph and the Innkeeper.
Christmas is a busy season in our already busy lives. We rush from place to place trying to “get everything done” before the December 25th deadline, and we don’t have time or space for anything new. Our lives are just as full and crowded as the καταλύμα that was no place for a baby to enter the world. Too often, our Christmas routines leave no room for a savior to enter into our lives. We could learn a lot from Joseph and the Innkeeper.
Ok, pastor Neal. What exactly could we learn from Joseph and the Innkeeper?
I keep going back to the words of that song I sang in high school: Keep on listening, keep on watching, and when Jesus knocks, let him in.
Most of our Christmas traditions are about repeating the same old thing year after year. But the arrival of Jesus was, by its very nature, something brand new, something unexpected and without precedent. The kind of thing you can only receive if you are always listening, always watching, always open to new experiences, always ready to open the door and let Jesus in.
Keep on listening, keep on watching, and when Jesus knocks, let him in.
It’s hard to listen, hard to keep watch, in a crowded, busy space. Or in a crowded, busy season in a crowded, busy life. If we want to care for ourselves and our families in the way that Joseph took care of Mary and Jesus, we need to be willing to stop, look around, say, “This isn’t working. Not here. Not like this.” We need to seek out our innkeepers (and usually the keeper of the inn is, in fact, us). We need to be willing to let go of “what’s expected” in order to do what’s best. Even if it raises a few eyebrows and smells like livestock.
But most of all, when Jesus knocks, let him in. Jesus once said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” But what he didn’t say is that he’s usually not the only one knocking. In fact, sometimes it seems like everyone is knocking at the door, clamoring to be let in to our already over-crowded καταλύμα. They are generally well-meaning. Usually they’re family and friends. But they’re not Jesus, and it’s easy to let so many people in that you look around and realize there’s no room for the one person you were watching for and listening for and hoping for. When that happens, it’s time to get out of the καταλύμα and into the stable.
Two days from now is Christmas Eve. Our Christmas Eve service is full of tradition, to be sure. But if you come, I hope God will speak something new and unexpected to you, and that you’ll be listening. I hope someone new will be sitting near to you, and that you’ll be watching. We’ll sing Christmas carols and tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and near the end of the service, we’ll sing Silent Night. We’ll turn down the electric lights and light our tiny candles instead. We’ll leave the sanctuary in silence, and I hope you’ll carry at least some of that silence, some of that peace, some of that light out into the darkness and into your lives. And I hope it stays with you for a long time yet to come.
Keep on listening, keep on watching, and when Jesus knocks, let him in.