Who’s at the Inn

Who’s at the inn?  When Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem in order to comply with the Roman decree that a census should be taken, who’s already at the inn?  Well, pretty much everybody that was of the family of David.  Anyone who had not already been “enrolled” was at the inn.  Think of it this way: what if for the American census you had to travel to the place your family originally settled in the United States?  The place your ancestors first lived.  Where would that be?  For me it would be Jamestown, New York.  I’ve never even been there.  

Now imagine that in order to get there, you have to ride a donkey, or travel alongside the donkey on foot.  How long would that take you?  Now imagine that you, or your wife if you are a man, is at the end of a first pregnancy, and you have to make this journey right when the baby is due.  And now imagine that you arrive, tired and hungry, and the baby decides this is the perfect time to be born (and I would lay odds that Mary was just praying that the baby wouldn’t come until after the census, but babies never cooperate that way).  So after a journey that probably took about a week, Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem at “the” inn, meaning there was one.  It wasn’t like today when there are several hotels to choose from and you can make reservations.  Bethlehem is a small place, a hamlet about ten miles outside Jerusalem, and each town had its one inn.  And this inn is crowded to capacity, with so many people there that Mary and Joseph end up in the stable area next to the inn.  It would have been an animal shelter attached to the inn, and the manger was probably hollowed out stone, just the perfect size for a baby.  In the book Knowing God, J. I. Packer sums up this birth story this way: “He was born outside a hotel in an obscure Jewish village in the great days of the Roman Empire.  The story is usually prettified when we tell it Christmas by Christmas, but it is really rather beastly and cruel.  The reason why Jesus was born outside the hotel is that it was full, and nobody would offer a bed to a woman in labour, so that she had to have her baby in the stables, and cradle him in a cattle trough.  The story is told dispassionately and without comment, but no thoughtful reader can help shuddering at the picture of callousness and degradation that it draws.”  So who were these people at the inn?
          We can only guess.  First of all, there were some important people.  Since everyone had to be included in the census, we can be sure there were some wealthy people, people who traced their lineage to King David and were proud of it.  The tribe of Judah, the ruling tribe.  Of course by this time Herod is the king installed by Rome, but he was not from the tribe of Judah, not from the family of David, not even fully Hebrew.  This doesn’t really matter to them, because they know that when God sets things to rights, someone from their tribe is going to be king, just like the prophecies said.  They have made their way up in the world, they have plenty of money and status, and they have a right not to make room for Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.  Middle class people would be there, some folks who are tradesmen or successful farmers, folks who have a comfortable lifestyle and also have the smug complacency that they are also of the tribe of Judah.  These folks certainly think they shouldn’t have to go out into night because some poor woman arrives and is having a baby.  Finally, there would be some poor folks there, people also of David’s lineage, and these would be just like Joseph and Mary, simple folk who scrounged for a living and for whom this trip was a huge interruption in their difficult lives.  They were probably just hoping their credit card wouldn’t be denied when the innkeeper ran it.  But they, too, would think that because they got there first, they had no responsibility to give place to Joseph and Mary and the baby that would be born that night.  So whether because of wealth, or status, or class, or just getting there first, all the people in the inn went on with their lives, while Joseph cleaned out the stable, and Mary’s contractions got closer together, and Jesus forced His way into His own creation in order to save it. 
          Inside the people would have been closely packed, as food was served or as people unpacked provisions they had brought.  Children would be running about the place and playing.  As night fell, they would all settle in for the night, lying on sleeping pallets around the floor.  They had a dry, warm place to sleep, they were alright for the night, they had food.  And just outside as the night grew darker, Mary’s labor intensified, and Jesus’ birth drew near.  A local midwife was probably called to deliver the baby, and in the dark and cold of a Bethlehem night, the Savior, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of man – was born.  His first breath was air mingled with the smell of animals, His first cry pierced the peace of the stable, His tiny body came into the cold brisk night air.  His mother lovingly wrapped him in the traditional swaddling cloths – strips of clean cloth she had carefully packed just in case – and she laid him in a manger.  It had been cleaned out and lined with fresh hay.  Into this world He came, impoverished and marginalized, while the people in the inn socialized, and ate, and drank, and slept. 
          We know that angels appeared to some shepherds outside the town on the hills around Bethlehem.  We know that one angel announced the birth to them, and then a huge army of angels shouted, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those on whom His favor rests.”   We know that they left their flocks unattended on the hillside and went searching for Jesus.  We know that they found Him and that they told Mary and Joseph about their vision of angels.  We also know they returned to their flocks on the hillside praising God and telling everyone along the way what they had seen.  But what about the people in the inn?  Did any of them venture outside to see the new born baby?  Did some mothers bring their children to see the miracle of a tiny baby asleep on the hay, saying, “Look at the beautiful new baby, honey.”?  Did any of the men come out and slap Joseph on the back and say, “That’s the last full night of sleep you’ll have for years, old man.”  Did any of the women come out and offer Mary some care or advice about the baby?  Did anybody even think of bringing a hot meal out to the family in the stable?  Or did they all just stay inside, quietly thanking God that their babies were born at home in a safe and quiet atmosphere with lots of support from family and friends?  When the shepherds arrived with their astounding report did anyone from the inn take notice of the commotion in the barn and come out to hear the news?  Or – did they miss the glory because they were comfortable in the inn, too comfortable to walk a few feet to the stable?  Too selfish to share the indoor comfort with this young couple and their brand-new baby?  Maybe they even called the innkeeper and asked him to go out and tell the shepherds to shut up because they were trying to sleep.
          Jesus came into this world in the humblest circumstances imaginable.  Although He was Creator, He put on a created body.  And He wasn’t born in a palace or even in a welcoming home.  He was born in a stable, a strange place with strange animals and strange people around Him.   II Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”  He takes on poverty, we get riches. Fair exchange?  Not at all.  But that is what He came to do.  Grace is: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. The question for us this evening is, are we out there with the shepherds admiring the new baby boy?  Are we shouting with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!?  Or are we huddled inside the inn, eating some soup and bread, thinking about the census, and not taking the time to meet the Savior outside in the stable. 
          Come outside the inn.  Come out of your routines and your comfort zones. Come meet the Savior.  He calls to you, He sends people: Mary and Joseph and shepherds and angels to give you the good news.  Listen, listen hard, and take some time to see the Savior.  Quietly stand by the manger, and just whisper: “Glory, glory.”  Then the Spirit of Jesus the Christ will fill you with the joy of Christmas, the knowledge that God loves us so much that He sent Jesus His Son to save us.  He sent Jesus His Son to become poor so we could become rich.  He sent Jesus His Son to bring us home to Heaven.  All we have to do is go outside the inn and meet Him there. 

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