Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Innkeeper

As we talk about Christmas and coming home and not coming home, can we talk for a second about the innkeeper in Bethlehem? The innkeeper is one of the most complicated, challenging characters in perhaps all of the Christmas story, despite the fact that one of those characters is somehow miraculously God-in-baby-flesh. 

On one hand, we want to be upset with the innkeeper. How could he be so callous, so cold? There is a very pregnant young woman in front of him who is already obviously in labor pains, and he can't change his 'no vacancy' sign for her. He can't find one human place to house her for the night. He can't figure out how to accommodate one more person? Most of us look around our homes and know that if an unexpected relative knocked on our door this Christmas, we'd find a place for them to sleep. We'd figure it out. And it wouldn't include putting a blanket and a pillow in the dogloo. 

It's not like they had the kind of strict regulations regarding businesses back then like we do today. There weren't fire codes and occupancy limits like we have. No one was coming by to check (I don't think) whether the innkeeper had 72 or 74 persons in the inn that night. Almost no one would have noticed two more, except perhaps the person who had to skooch a little bit to make room. But this guy, this innkeeper, has the gall to say, sorry. No more. 

Now, we don't know the whole story. It's entirely possible that the innkeeper had been making room for 'one more' all day. Maybe he'd already let twelve 'one more's in, and there just really was nowhere else to put them. Maybe the innkeeper was having a bad day and desperately needed to get off his feet for a bit. Mary and Joseph obviously showed up pretty late. Maybe he was just worn down. Maybe he had needs of his own family that he needed to tend to. Perhaps he was taking care of a widowed mother and because of the busyness of the day, he hadn't even had time to make her dinner yet. There are all kinds of things that we don't know about the innkeeper, any one of which could change entirely the way that we understand him. 

And yet, the first thing that we remember about him is that he's the one who had no room for Mary and Joseph (and Jesus). 

Neither can we ignore the fact, however, that he made room for them. It wasn't glamorous. It wasn't clean. It wasn't comfortable. Like we said yesterday, it wasn't anything you'd think would be worth remembering, except for the exceptional baby who happened to be born there. But he did, in fact, take time out of the end of his very busy day, when he should have been closing down and going home himself, to somehow make a space where there was no space. 

He somehow made a manger, and who would have thought that the trough from which he fed the traveling animals would become the most famous trough in the all the world, even two thousand years later? When he laid some of that clean-ish hay down to make a little tiny bed, how could he have even known what he was doing? I have a painting of that hay on a little postcard, for crying out loud. Who could have imagined? 

So somehow, while we remember that the innkeeper had no room for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, we remember also that he made room for them anyway. And these things just sort of compete in our hearts and minds. We want to be indignant, upset for some reason - how could he turn them away? But in the same breath, we know that he didn't turn them wholly away. We hate him, and we love him, and there's just something wonderful about this character that it's hard to know what to do with in the Christmas story. 

Because there's something about the innkeeper that is something about all of us. It's the same ambivalence that we deal with in our own lives, in our own hearts. Do we have room for Jesus? Do we make room for Him? What kind of room do we make for Him? What is our legacy if thousands of years from now, someone tells a story about how we put Jesus in a barn? 

These are important questions as we look at our own hearts this Christmas. It's home; it's not home. It's a place that's almost no place at all, except that it becomes a place we can't forget. And what are we doing with it all? 

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