Christmas: Bethlehem had no room for Christ, do we?

I taught a version of this in Sunday School this past week. I hope it gives each of you reading some inspiration.

Luke 2: 1-14

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

This is the story from the Gospel of Luke about Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. My United Methodist and Roman Catholic friends will recognize this passage as the recommended Gospel verse from the Lectionary for Christmas Eve. There are several things going on here and as with most passages of Scripture they can mean a few different things. First, we see in verse 5 a description of the family dynamic. Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was born. Jesus, as with many folks today, was born out of wedlock. What else do we know about Christ’s parents? We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Joseph was a carpenter. We know little about the social status of Mary, though I should think it safe to assume that she comes from a simple working family much the same as Joseph. In verse 6 we read of the birth of Jesus Christ…the Savior, Prince of Peace, King of Kings born out of wedlock to simple working class parents. Certainly there is the divine lineage of Joseph to consider here, but in that context, Christ the Savior comes from incredibly humble origins.

Continuing into verse 7 (which can be seen as something of a parable) we see Mary have to lay her son down in a manger because they were unable to find lodging. First, what is a manger? A manger is a feed trough for livestock. Yes, brothers and sisters, the first place Christ was able to lay his head and sleep was in a filthy (because, let’s face it, the mouth of a cow, donkey, horse, or whatever is not the cleanest place on Earth) feed basin. But why did He have to sleep in this filthy feed basin? Because Mary and Joseph were unable to find lodging in Bethlehem. The verse says “there was no room for them in the inn.” There is no indication as to why there was no room. Were Mary and Joseph rejected because she was having a child out of wedlock? Were they legitimately sold out of rooms given the people who had traveled to town that day? Truly, we do not know. But absolute knowledge in this case is not necessary. The truth that we read here is that for one reason or another, our Savior Jesus Christ was denied lodging in Bethlehem on the night of his birth. The humble origins are building…born out of wedlock, to working class parents, and spends his first night in a feed basin. But it gets better.

As we move forward, who are the first people to come and visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus? Shepherds. An angel comes down and visits some shepherds who are tending their flocks. How many shepherds? The passage does not say and much like the reason for not having lodging, it does not matter. What matters is the shepherds in general and their social stature. During this time period, shepherds were some of the lowest members of society. The New Interpreter’s Bible talks about the shepherds saying “Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time. Although the reference to shepherds evokes a positive, pastoral image for the modern reader and underscores Jesus’ association with the line of David (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15; Ps 78:70), in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” So, while there is obvious theological symbolism here tying Christ to David with the shepherds, when reading straight from the text without 2,000 years of analysis and “religion” to filter it, here we have Christ born out of wedlock, to working class parents, spending his first night in a feed basin, and the first people to receive witness of His divinity and visit him were some of the most despised members of society. Humble origins indeed.

But what did we read in verse 10? “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Yes, indeed, the angels are telling these shepherds that this little child of humble origins brings a universal message of joy. This message of Christ was not and is not intended for some select group of people. This message is for everyone. Everyone within our churches and everyone outside the churches on the streets. In verse 14 we are given what I feel amounts to the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This verse is a verse that I feel we should read as though it is being spoken directly to us and something we must internalize. First, we read “Glory to God in the Highest.” (the NRSV reads “Glory to God in the Highest Heaven” and while that is obviously different from the KJV the LDS Church reads from, it is not at all objectionable given our theology) “Glory to God in the Highest” is meant for us. We are to show glory to God. Why? Because the He is sending us a Savior. We just read about Christ’s birth. It is now directed back to us to show glory and thanks to God for that blessing. Because it is indeed a blessing. Christ is now born and without that birth, there is no death and resurrection. Without that death and resurrection we have no atoning sacrifice for our sins. Without that atonement there is no salvation or exaltation. 

Here is a statement I would like you to consider for a moment before moving on:

THE PURPOSE OF THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST IS NOT SALVATION OR EXALTATION

No, the purpose of the Gospel is not salvation or exaltation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about getting each of us to change ourselves so that salvation and exaltation become possible. That is what we see in the other part of verse 14. Peace on Earth can be obtained by people who become true Disciples of Christ and work to bring people to that message. This does not mean we should use the Gospel or our role as a Disciple to browbeat someone into submission. No, it means we commit to living as Christ did, ministering to all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and treating all people the same way we would treat Christ himself. That, then, is the “good will toward men” part of the verse. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about creating change within ourselves. Without that change, which is us becoming a Disciple of Christ as I just described, we will be unable to attain exaltation. Remember when I started talking about verse 7, I said it could be seen as something of a parable? Folks, the inn described there is our lives just as much as it is some stone building in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Is there room in our Inn?

Christmas celebrates the birth of our Savior. It celebrates the beginning of his ministry and the beginning of what we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As I said before, that Gospel is there to bring about change in our lives. Do we have a place in our lives for the change that Gospel demands? Are we doing our best to be Disciples of Christ?

That’s the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas is about the birth of our Savior. The birth of the great example for us to emulate. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Do we always have room in our Inn for Jesus Christ and that Gospel? A second thought to that would be do we do our best to help others open the doors of their Inn and allow Christ to dwell there?

Let’s really celebrate the birth of Christ this year. Celebrate the beginning of the Gospel that leads to salvation and exaltation. Let’s use that celebration as the start of a change, a rebirth, a renewal within ourselves that allows us to be more like our Savior and example Jesus Christ.

In His holy name, Amen.

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