It is a fond and familiar thing among mothers to tell birth stories. Sometimes, the stories are peaceful, beautiful, and astonishing. They can be quite disturbing. Often enough, they sound like the war stories. So many babies are “almost” born in the back of a car, in an elevator, in a boiler room, somewhere between the toilet and the delivery table. Sometimes the mother’s partner will even tell a birth story as a war story—complete with the war scars to prove it, teeth marks on the arm, or a bump on the head from fainting.
Tonight we are celebrating a famous birth story, the story you are surely familiar with—the Christmas story. It is the birth narrative of Christ found in the Gospel of Luke. The ruling powers of Rome ordered the registration and a count their subjects, forcing folks to be uprooted and relocate. It is the story of a young woman and her fiancé looking for a place to give birth and rest, only to be turned away and forced to find a “safe” place among the animals,
This is the story of Christmas, a story that lays the groundwork for the rest of the gospel.
It is Christmas time, and Christmas is all about hospitality. At Christmas, most of us either welcome guests into our homes, or we travel to become guests in the homes of others. Most of us visit our families during the holidays. But if we are honest, isn’t it often our family members who we have the hardest time with. I often think that when Jesus said we should love our enemies…he may have been talking about our family members.
Hospitality is at the heart of our Christmas traditions.
It’s important for me to preach about hospitality on Christmas. Several years ago, right around Christmas time, I was working as a missionary in India. I traveled a lot, and I lived on the hospitality of others. I ran out of money and found myself very sick with food poison. I remember lying in a puddle of my own mess in someone’s bathroom. I was scared, broken, and alone.
What was I going to do?
Where was I going to go?
But right at the moment I needed him, God showed up. A man named Dr. Chopde came in and rescued me. He was a surgeon who worked for the Salvation Army. He took me to the hospital, paid for my hospital stay and my medication, and then gave me an apartment to stay in for a few weeks until I recovered enough health to return to traveling. I felt like that pilgrim on the roadway and he was my Good Samaritan. He picked me up and took me in, cared for me, clothed me, fed me, and nurtured me back to health. I tell you, Dr. Chopde was the closest thing to God’s Word becoming flesh than anything I’ve ever seen. There is hardly a Christmas season that I don’t think about how close I came to dying homeless on the streets of India, and how Dr. Chopde’s hospitality saved my life.
So for me, hospitality and Christmas are eternally linked on a very personal level.
Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who are weak and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”
I believe God desires for all of us to be in a place of embrace, of safety, nourishment, restoration, and growth. Like a soil prepared so that the seeds of life God has granted to grow, be fruitful, and flourish.
Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions, and I’m going to prepare a place for you.”
Whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever you have done or have not done, God has a place for you. God welcomes you!
Christianity is rooted in the notion that the primary characteristic of God is that God is welcoming.
God welcomes us!
But the birth story we read every Christmas should challenge us. Will we welcome others? Will we welcome God among us?
Tonight, I want you to hear the story of Christmas through the challenge of hospitality. I want us to focus on learning about God from the cradle. In traditional Christological terms, this is not just the story of God choosing to be in a lowly state, born of a virgin, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Why–by the way–do we only use manger on Christmas? Why not cradle or crib?) The manger, the focal point of our Christmas tradition, does not represent a welcome place.
Before my daughter was born, we had showers and parties with gifts all in preparation for her birth. We had a room painted up with a new bed all prepared for her arrival. I bet Joseph—who traditionally is thought to have been a carpenter—had his heart set on building a nice baby bed that would set in a room that had been all prepared for him. But that’s not how it happened for Jesus. The manger wasn’t a cradle or crib built by his carpenter father in the room he had prepared for him.
And I imagine Mary had her own hopes and expectations. On the night my little Joey was born, we had bags packed filled with welcoming goodies. Zion had prepared a long list of things to make sure we take with us to the Birth Center. What clothes did we need for the baby to wear? What food will we all eat to celebrate the day? I’m sure there were some special baby clothes Mary had prepared to welcome the little baby. Maybe she had one of those cute hats. Maybe there were homemade blankets or burp cloths. Maybe she had on her own special blanket or outfit to keep her comfortable and clean. We don’t know any of that information. What we do know—“there was no room for them.”
He was her first born. He was wrapped in bands of cloth, and he was lying in a “manger.” A MANGER! What is a manger? Do you ever use this word for anything other than at Christmas?
You see, this is the secret to how religious language works. We call it a manger so that we can remember how special it is. But a manger, and this is the first definition you will find in any dictionary you choose, is a box used to provide food and water for animals. It is a feeding trough! Jesus was born, and they swaddled him and put him in a feeding trough.
We do not have too many details, but there is a lot we can infer from these short three verses in Luke’s gospel. Mary (as the New Living Translation puts it) was “obviously pregnant.” Joseph was her fiancé. The ruling powers had “issued a decree,” that resulted in this expecting family to be forced to leave their home. Mary and Joseph, the mother and father of Jesus, had wandered around looking for a place to stay—but found themselves homeless. I do not know what the manger looked like, what it sounded like, what it smelled like. But this one phrase at the beginning of Luke always gets me: “There was no room for them…”
Many of us may want to reason this away with some complicated theological trickery: God chose this. It was God’s will for this to happen. This was predestined, preordained. God chose to come in the form of human flesh, in the weakness and innocence of a child.
Sure! God chose it… Maybe. (We’ll save the argument about predestination for another day.)
But a divine ordering of every event in the history of cosmos—if you believe that kind of thing—can only be half right.
The other half of the story is that there are consequences to our actions. Our choices matter. And “there was no room.”
Jesus wasn’t just born into a homeless family, in a dirty, smelly feeding trough. Mary and Joseph were homeless because no one let them in. Jesus was in a feeding trough because “heaven came down” and no one offered them a place to stay.
We can’t just lay the responsibility of the situation on God, saying that the divine ruler of the universe decided things should be this way. No! Our choices matter!
The manger holds the interpretive key that unlocks the mystery of the whole gospel. A feeding trough is no place for a newborn. The manger reminds us that God welcomes us in spite of the fact that we did not welcome God. The holy family was in search of a place to give birth to God, but they found that “there was no place for them.”
In a world that was lost, God chose to be among us. God welcomes us! That’s the heart of the gospel message!
This is what humanity looks like—a criminal, violent, abusive people that would take the innocence of God and crucify him.
That we would would see the hunger, and thirst, and sickness, and need of a vagrant pregnant woman and turn her away so that the savior or humanity would have no safe place to lay his head.
And yet, here is the beauty of our God: God says, “welcome!”
Hospitality is at the core of the Christmas message, because in the birth of Jesus we hear the truth.
In the midst of a violent world, the cradle cries to us these: “Peace be with you.”
In the birth of the excluded, unwelcomed Christ child we hear God saying, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.”
Though he would be despised and rejected, like the homeless shivering on the street corners all across America. And yet, God says, “You are highly favored!”
The Word became flesh. Perhaps God could have done it another way. But the Gospel of John tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The promise of the Christmas message is that God welcomes us. But the challenge of the Christmas message is “Will we be welcoming to God?”
The promise of Christmas is that God welcomes us. The challenge of Christmas is to be a people who follow Jesus.
To love our enemies.
To pray for those who persecute us.
To look out for the lowly and the meek, the needy and hurting and those who morn.
The promise of Christmas is that God welcomes us. The challenge of Christmas is to be a hospitable people who welcome, comfort, and nourish the lowly, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the hurting, the homeless—who welcome, comfort, and nourish Jesus, the gift of life among us.