Stable Snapshots: The Innkeeper
Dusk was settling down on the Judean hillsides. Stars popped into view one by one in the deep purple sky. The little town of Bethlehem found its homes and its hotels overtaxed because of the order of a tax-minded emperor. In the village pubs there was the sound of laughter—coarse laughter—Roman laughter. Out of the dust of the road leading into town, there came a weary traveler leading a tired and unwilling donkey. On the donkey sat the traveler’s wife, even more tired than the beast. There was a brief conversation in the lighted doorway of the inn and then the innkeeper shrugged his shoulders and said: “No room.” Then there was the gleam of a lantern along the pathway moving toward the cave-stable where the animals were sheltered. There in the stable that night there was a cry and a child was born. How does the Bible say it? You know the words by heart. “She brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manager for there was no room for them in the inn.”
That inn has become the most famous of all inns—not because of what happened there, but because of something that might have happened, but didn’t. And that innkeeper, while we do not know his name, nevertheless has become a kind of symbol of the inhospitality of the human spirit. We think of the innkeeper and his inn and we are moved to ask: Why is there no room in so much of life for the Lord of glory? Why is He shut out of so many hearts? I know you may have come here wanting to feel the rosy glow of the season and wanting to hear a syrupy-sweet version of the Christmas story. I’m sorry. I cannot give you that. The Bible states quite specifically that on the first Christmas, in the very first place God in Jesus Christ came to in this world, He was turned away. And I believe that on this Christmas, it behooves us to try to understand why.
Perhaps the innkeeper’s problem was misplaced priorities.
There was no room in the inn because the inn was full. Others had come first. We can sympathize with the innkeeper. He was not a mean man. He harbored no ill-will toward the Holy Family. It’s just that he was in business. He had a hotel to run. There was no more room—and that was that. We can understand. When the motel is full, they turn on a sign: “No vacancy.” It’s a matter of priorities. It’s a matter of who gets there first. We can understand that.
I remember one day when Trisha and I drove into the city of Munich, Germany about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We had no reservation. We went to the railway station where a tourist service could assist in obtaining accommodations. But the man at the desk said: “I’m sorry, but there is not a single room vacant in all of Munich. There is a large convention here and all the rooms are taken.” Hours later, frustrated and weary, we finally found a room above a tavern about 15 miles outside of Munich. Well, there was a convention going on in Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had called it. It was a tax-payer’s convention. So the inn was full. Yes, we can understand that. But don’t you see that by just such understandable circumstances the Lord of life may be shut out of the inn of our hearts? Priorities—the things that get there first—that’s what counts. We aren’t blasphemous when it comes to the things of God; it’s just that we have some things in our lives which we consider to be of more pressing importance. We have no ill-will toward Jesus Christ; it’s just that we fill up all the heart-space we have with other guests and other matters. We get caught up in commerce and convention and custom and people and profits. We’ve got our work, our social life, our civic responsibilities, our hunting trips, our ballgames, our shopping sprees, our family concerns. The place is full, I tell you! No vacancy. How can anything else get in?
So often Christ gets crowded out by other matters—or at least He gets the leftovers, the tag ends, the loose change—whatever we have left after the best has been taken. The things that matter most in life seem to be at the mercy of the things that matter last. We get so lost in the thick of thin things that even at this time of the year we make little time for prayer and meditation. We get so wrapped up in the business of busyness that we forget about sending in our pledge card for the extension of God’s kingdom. We are so quick to respond to the urgent that we forget about the important, like considering the question “Should we make a commitment and join the church?” So many times, it seems, that when the high and holy things come knocking at our door, we aren’t in or we don’t hear or we have no more room in our hearts. A poet has put words into the innkeeper’s mouth which he then addresses to us:
I only did what you have done
A thousand times or more,
When Joseph came to Bethlehem
And knocked upon my door.
I didn’t turn the Christ away
Or leave Him there bereft;
Like you, I only gave to Him
Whatever I had left.
Sometimes Jesus gets shut out of our lives by misplaced priorities.
Or perhaps the innkeeper’s problem was misread opportunities.
This innkeeper has been discussed for two thousand years, and why? Because he missed his moment of opportunity when it came. Granted, it was a pressure-packed time for him. His inn was like a hive at swarming. And when there came yet one more knock at his door, he never realized that what was about to happen was in fact the most important thing that would happen to him in all of his life. Strange, isn’t it that time is best measured, not by its duration, but by its content. One can live more in an hour than in a week. Sometimes whole centuries are defined by what happens in a single day. When a moment comes, we can exalt it or debase it by what we do with it. And so many times, so much is won or lost on the basis of what we do with the moment of opportunity when it comes. The knock at the door was heard, but the innkeeper missed his moment. He said: “Sorry, I have no room.”
If he had known the identity of his guests, if he had even dreamed that the child born in the stable would split history in two and that for all the centuries to come the world would date its letters from that very night, you can be sure that he would have made some room somewhere. He would have made some arrangements. But he didn’t know that traveler and his wife were so important. But then we never do know when God comes knocking on our door.
We are impressed with shiny things, showy things, noisy things. For us greatness must come clothed in garments of grandeur. God must be impressive when He comes, but He seldom is. A manger, straw, peasants, donkey, a woman great with child—who would ever recognize God’s coming in such common, ordinary things? How often we miss Him, shut Him out, because we do not recognize the humility of God. When God comes to us in the person of some hungry woman, or some lonely man, or some confused teenager, or some neglected child, we can so easily turn away—ignore him as if he were not there. Interesting, isn’t it, how in every way that God chooses to come to us, we are free to simply turn our backs and look another direction.
The cry of a child in a manger—who but God would have thought of that as the way to lay hold of the human heart forever? Oh, we try to gild the story. We try to provide it with splendor and grandeur and romance we think it needs. But there is no way to get around it—that stable was a dirty, unromantic place. God was trying to tell us, you see, that the holy things are the lowly things—that the mighty things are the little things. That’s the way God’s greatness comes to us—born small in a sorry place, often rejected and shut out, with only a few lowly shepherds and a few Wise Men with the insight to see in it the glory of God. You see, it takes a most receptive heart to recognize God’s knock at the door when it comes. Yes, so many times Jesus gets shut out of our lives by misread opportunities.
Or perhaps the innkeeper’s problem was misdirected desires.
Christ was shut out by His own people, and still is, because in some rooms of our inn He is not welcome. That is the tragic note in the Christmas story—the rejection of the way of Jesus Christ—the rejection of the revolutionary changes He brings. If you do not see what happened in the doorway of that inn as a foreshadowing of the cross, then you have not really heard the Christmas story. There were those in His day who listened to Him, and when they heard what He was really saying, they asked Him to get out. Ultimately, of course, they pinned Him to a tree, because they did not want to yield to the demand that Christ’s way is the only way. Make no mistake, Jesus Christ cannot enter a life without radically changing that life.
Do you remember the story of Bret Harte called “The Luck of Roaring Camp”? It’s always been required reading in high school American Literature classes. Roaring Camp was a rough, tough mining town. The town was all men, just one woman. Her name was Cherokee Sal. She had a baby and then she died. So here were all these men with this little baby girl in a crude wooden box. The men decided that the baby shouldn’t be in such a box, so one of them went to Sacramento and purchased a beautiful crib. Then they noticed that the rags the baby was wearing didn’t look appropriate for that crib. So they ordered up some lacy, frilly clothes for the baby girl. Then one of the men said: “Did you ever notice how dirty this floor is?” So they got down on hands and knees and scrubbed the floor. Of course that just made the walls and ceilings look worse, so they whitewashed them and they hung curtains in the windows. And because the baby needed to sleep, the men agreed to cut out their carousing at night. Periodically they would take the baby out for what they called “an airing.” Of course, they couldn’t have the mines looking ugly then, so they cleaned up the area and planted flowers. They even refrained from using rough speech because it wasn’t appropriate for the baby’s ears. The whole town of Roaring Camp was transformed because of the coming of that little baby.
Of course, it’s an allegory of Christmas. It’s at this season, especially, when Jesus comes seeking to gain entrance to our hearts. But when He enters in, He changes things. He seeks repentance. He seeks reversal. We can fool ourselves some of the time, and we can fool other people a lot of the time, but we cannot fool Him even for a moment. He comes with the searchlight of His purity right into the center of our lives. He is ready to work the same miracles in our heart that He worked in Bethlehem and other places so long ago. He is ready to take blindness away and enable us to see His will. He is ready to make mute lips speak a good word for His kingdom. He is ready to remove deafness so that we can hear the cries of need in our world. He’s ready to cleanse us from the leprosy of sin and to take death and to transform it so that it begins to tremble into life. He is ready and willing and able to do these things. He is ready to change our lives. The problem is that there are those who don’t want to make the changes He requires. So they say, “No room.”
Here is the great message of Christmas I want us to grasp. We must make room for Jesus Christ here—in our politics, in our business, in our learning, in our playing, in our homes, and most of all, in our hearts. And we must do it soon. We need to quit fooling ourselves into thinking that someday we shall find room for Him. You see, we’ll never find room—we have to make it—and we have to make it now. We need to choose now between things that do not matter and the one thing that matters above all else: Jesus Christ. For if we have no room in our hearts and lives for Him now, then in the end He will have no room for us.
Which brings me to Wally Pearling.
Wally Pearling is nine years old and he lives not far from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a bit disabled mentally—as we say these days, he is “intellectually delayed.” In other words, he is not as quick and bright as the other youngsters his age. Everybody loves Wally Pearling because he is so gentle and loving, but he just can’t keep up with the other students. The big event in his town every year is the Christmas pageant. Wally Pearling was anxious to be in the pageant year before last, and he wanted to be a shepherd. However, the shepherds had large speaking roles and Wally just couldn’t remember the lines, so they made him the innkeeper instead. He had only one line—”No room.” The teacher said to him: “Now Wally, when you say your line be very stern and tough.” So Wally practiced and practiced. The night of the pageant arrived. Then came that point in the performance when Joseph and Mary stood at the door of the inn and they knocked. Wally came out, walking as tough as he knew how. Joseph said: “My beloved Mary is about to give birth and we need a place to rest a while.” Wally looked at Mary, and then there was one of those long pauses, like sometimes happens in children’s Christmas pageants. The people in the audience were made so uneasy by the long silence that they didn’t even notice Wally. Wally wasn’t looking tough anymore; now Wally had tears in his eyes. Suddenly he blurted out: “I’m supposed to say ‘No room’, but you can have my room for the baby!”
What does the Bible say?
“And a little child shall lead them.”