December 24, 1996 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando
My name is Eliazor Ben Yakkov, but I suppose that’s not so very important. The year is 34 A.D. The place, the little town of Bethlehem. That is important. I am an innkeeper. I operate a small hotel right here in the town of Bethlehem. That is also important. Just a short while ago this very night, I had the most astonishing experience of my entire life. That, I think, is most important of all. I would like to tell you about that experience. Ah, but first, let me take you back to where and when it all began. It was 34 years ago, right at this time of the year, and the Roman emperor—his name was Caesar Augustus—decreed that there was to be a census taken in the empire. He wanted to know precisely how many people lived within the bounds of his vast empire. He had in mind, you see, raising the rate of taxation. His orders were quite clear. Everyone was to return to the town of his or her family roots. In the case of families, they were to return to the husband’s hometown. There, each person was to be carefully counted and then reported. Everyone, of course, was complaining about it all; the inconvenience, the possibility of increased taxes. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who wasn’t complaining. You see, I am a businessman and I know a good thing when I see one, and it was quite plain to me, at least, that the emperor’s order meant that the occupancy rate in my little hotel was going to swell—if even for a time. And sure enough, that is exactly what happened. As the people who claimed Bethlehem as their hometown began to arrive, suddenly, my little inn was overrun with guests.
It was this very night, 34 years ago. I remember it well. Just after sundown, I was working at my table, trying to square the accounts in my book, trying to determine my margin of profit for the day—it was perfectly obvious that it was going to be a most profitable day—and in the midst of that, I decided that I would take a stretch and so it crossed my mind that perhaps I ought to walk out around the inn to be sure that the grounds were secure for the night. And so I picked up my lantern and headed out. When I stepped outside, sure enough, the darkness had dropped like a great, heavy blanket. I shivered a bit, not from the chill of the evening air. I guess that I should acknowledge to you the truth. There are two things in life of which I am afraid. I am afraid of the dark and I am afraid of death. This fear of dying—I’ve never been able to get over it, try as I might. The best I can do is to try to ignore it. I suppose that’s why I work so long and so hard tending to the details of my inn. I guess all of it is just kind of a futile attempt on my part to keep from focusing on my fear.
And then I’m afraid of the dark, from my childhood. I don’t know what must have happened, but something must have happened way back there in my past, but whatever the reason, I’ve always been afraid of the dark. That’s why I always keep this lamp closeby. In fact, I never set foot into the darkness without it. That night, so long ago, was no exception. Carrying my lamp, I made my walking tour around the inn and when I finished, I went back inside and returned to my table, and there, once again, began to wrestle with my books and my accounts.While I was working, suddenly I became aware of the fact that someone had entered the room. I turned around and there, walking toward me was a man and a woman. Oh, what a contrast they presented. The man was tall and strong; dark complexioned, his face lined and bronzed by sun, wind, and weather, his hands, oh, they were great big rough hands, obviously accustomed to hard work. The woman…slight, olive skin, dark eyes like Palestinian skies at night, misshapen with the weight of an unborn child; walking in the way the women walk in those last months before birth—that slow, heavy-footed way of walking, almost as if they are walking on the bottom of the sea. As I looked at the two of them, I noticed his eyes. They betrayed a deep, physical weariness—I suppose from a long journey from who-knows-where. As I looked at them, it seemed to me that the man’s strong arm about the woman’s waist was the only thing that kept her steady and standing. Finally, he stammered out the words to me, he said: “Sir, do you have a room for us—even if just for the night?”
I shook my head; “No”, I said, “I’m sorry. People have been coming in here all afternoon looking for a place to bed down for the night. There is no space. I wish I could help you, ah, but I am sorry I can’t.” They didn’t even move. They just stood there looking at me, disbelieving, I suppose. Suddenly the man spoke to me again. This time there was the hard edge of desperation in his voice. “Sir”, he pleaded, “do you not understand that my wife’s time has come. Her pain is already upon her. We must find someplace—anyplace where our child can be born tonight.” I was a bit startled by that and didn’t know what to do. For a long moment there was this awkward silence, and then suddenly I had an idea. I grabbed my lantern, and I said: “Come with me.” And so I led them out of the inn and we went around to the back, around to the stable and around to the place where we kept the animals which belonged to me, but then also the animals which belonged to the guests. I took the fork and I spread some of the hay around a little bit and then I said to them: “You can stay here. There is nothing else I can do for you. It’s not very comfortable, I know, but it is warm, and it is rather private. You can stay here, if you like.” I never even waited for a reply. I just turned around and grabbed the lantern and went back into the inn.
Later on, as I prepared for bed, even above the noise made by the revelers in the inn, I could hear the haunting cries of human pain, followed shortly thereafter by the triumphant squalls of new life. I couldn’t sleep that night; I tossed and turned. The thought of that man and that woman and that newborn baby out in my stable disturbed my mind and my heart, and also my sleep. Finally, I got up and decided that I would go check on them, and so I picked up my lantern and I stepped outside the door of the inn. Suddenly, I could not believe my eyes! The night was as bright as the day. The sun had set hours before, but then I saw that there was this immense star shining in the skies. It looked like the sun at midnight. And then I noticed that there was a crowd clustered about the entryway of the stable. What was going on? I pushed my way into the stable and I looked, and sure enough, right up against a bale of straw—very much like this one—there she was—the woman, holding in her arms a sleeping infant. I looked around at the face of the…they were shepherds, that’s who was there. I recognized them, they were local boys. What were they doing?
So I pulled one of them aside, and I said: “What’s going on?” And he said: “You won’t believe this, but we were told to come here. We were told to come and see this Child. We were told that in this Child’s hands will rest the destiny of the whole world.” What? Who is he kidding? Well, the idea was so outlandish that it seemed almost laughable to me. The very idea. Some great world leader born in my stable? With such poor, bedraggled peasants? Come on! I dismissed the whole idea as absurd, got my lantern, and headed back to bed.
I want to tell you something. From that night to this, there has always been a strange kind of restlessness and questioning in my soul. But what did it all mean? What really happened there that night? All kinds of questions have plagued me for all these years, and I have never had any answers… until tonight. And you see, just earlier today, a woman came to the inn seeking accommodations…slight, slightly stooped, clear-eyed, dark hair— but streaked with silver—she had a young man with her who doted over her much as a son would watch after an aging mother. I checked them both in. I was troubled. I had the feeling that I had seen her somewhere before, but I just couldn’t place her. Later on, I noticed that she left her room. She was alone. She went out of the inn and out toward the stable. My curiosity got the best of me. I wondered what she was doing. So I followed her. She came out…well, here. Right here, to the stable and she stepped inside and she stood in silence for a few moments and she looked around and then… and then I noticed that suddenly she turned and she walked over to the animals feeding trough and then she began to gently caress the great rough boards. It was then that I knew who she was…it was the mother from that night so many years before. She had come back to the place where she had given birth to her Son. In a few minutes she turned to leave, and she was startled to see me. She didn’t cry out, but our eyes met. “It was 34 years ago tonight, wasn’t it?” I said. “Yes”, she answered. “Yes, it was.” “And where is your husband?” I asked. Sadness rolled over her face like a wave. “He’s gone. He died. It’s been fifteen years ago now.” “Well, what about the Child who was born here that night…your Son…where is…was that your Son who was with you when you came to the inn earlier?” She didn’t answer. She just stood there looking at me. And suddenly, to my great surprise, I saw tiny rivers of tears begin to course their way down her cheek. Then she said, and her voice was barely more than a whisper, she said: “My Son died. He was killed. It was last spring in Jerusalem. He was crucified. You may have heard about it. It was when they released that outlaw Barabbas.” Well, when she said that I had heard of that incident, all right. There was a great controversy which created quite a stir up the road there in Jerusalem. But there was no way that I could possibly make the connection. Questions began to explode in my brain. Why was He killed? And why that, for heaven’s sake. “Why was He killed?” I blurted out.
Her face softened a bit and then it warmed. She kind of brushed away the tears and then she proceeded to tell me the story of her Son’s life. She told me some of the things that He said and some of the things that He did. I tell you, I couldn’t believe it. I was thunder-struck by what I heard. “Tell me more”, I pleaded. “Oh, there is more, much, much more. Yes. Ah”, but she said: “There is someone who can tell you the story better. The young man who was with me earlier. His name is John. He was one of my Son’s very best friends. He can tell you everything you need to know.” And with that, she reached out and she touched me on the shoulder, and I can still right now feel the soft grip of her hand there. And then she turned away, and I…I hurried off to find the man named John. Well…I have just now come from the time spent with John and I must tell you what has happened to me tonight. It is the most astonishing experience of my life. At long last I have found the soothing balm for the restlessness in my soul. At long last, I have found answers to those questions that have plagued me for so many years. At long last, I understand what happened here in my stable all those years ago. You see, I have discovered…it’s so astonishing to me…but tonight, I have found One whom I call My Lord. And what is so amazing, is that He was born right here in my stable. Oh, I didn’t know Him then, 34 years ago. But now, tonight, I have found Him. Or better yet, He has found me. It’s the most astonishing experience of my life. I do not know precisely what is ahead for me in my life now, but there is one thing that I know for sure. I used to be afraid of the dark, but not anymore. But now, I have learned that I don’t have to be afraid of anything anymore. I don’t have to be afraid of the dark, because this One I call My Lord, He will give me all the light I ever need. And I know this for sure. I don’t have to be afraid of dying anymore. No, I know now that one day, yes, I am going to die. But when my death comes, I don’t have to be afraid because now I know that my Lord, Jesus Christ, is going to make room for me in his inn. And I know something else. What He has done for me, He will do for you. You do not ever have to be afraid of anything again…not ever.
Let us pray.