Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
It was a busy day in Bethlehem that day. Busy was an understatement, really – it was sheer pandemonium. The innkeeper sighed as he fought his way down the street to the market, fending off the crowds with his elbows. He was already tired, even though he knew all the travelers in town were good for business. His wife kept reminding him of that.
Over the last few days people had been streaming into town for the census, descendants of David or at least they claimed to be. They showed up, some tired and dirty and ready to argue about the price of a room; others laughing and greeting friends, glad for the disruption to their ordinary routine. One by one, his rooms filled up until there were none. And yet still the travelers came, and he sent them away to find other rooms, in other corners of town.
That’s what the innkeeper would have wanted you to know – they weren’t the only travelers to be told there was no room that night. They weren’t even the first.
He wasn’t a monster. He would have wanted you to know that. He saw that the woman – barely more than a girl, really – was already groaning and bending over in labor. He saw the slightly ragged clothes that she and her husband wore, certainly not the clothes of people who could pay to make everything work out in their favor. Still, they weren’t the only ones with needs, and over the past few days he’d done his best to accommodate all the needs he could. He hadn’t charged exorbitant prices just to meet the surge in demand – unlike some of his neighbors, he might add. He’d let a family with 6 tired and squirmy children negotiate the price down to what they could afford. He’d felt compassion for them. He’d even fed a couple of desperate and hungry looking travelers for free. The innkeeper would have wanted you to know that he was the kind of person who would do these things for people.
But he couldn’t help everyone, after all. He was just one person. The problems of this world were bigger than him. He would have given them a room if he had had one, really he would have. But they were full. Which weary traveler was he supposed to kick out?
And still, he saw the pain that racked the woman’s body, and he saw the panic in her husband’s eyes, and so he agreed to give them the only space he had to offer, and showed them the way to the animal stalls.
That baby wasn’t born there, among the cows and goats, because he wanted to turn them away. The innkeeper would have wanted you to know that. It was because he didn’t turn them away, even when he could have. He arranged some soft hay for the woman to lie down on, and put some in the manger to make a little bed for when the baby came, and left to attend to business, of which there was plenty.
And yet when everything was attended to and things had largely quieted down for the night, when all the innkeeper wanted to do was sleep, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it hadn’t been enough. He didn’t just forget about that poor couple – he would have wanted you to know that. Instead he tossed and turned, wondering if he should have done more, remembering stories of Abraham, who welcomed travelers who turned out to be angels in disguise. He tried to talk himself down from his own discomfort. He told himself that he had done what he could, given what he had, within reason, of course. He told himself that their emergency couldn’t be his emergency. He reminded himself that his wife was always telling him not to get so wrapped up in other people’s problems all the time, that it wasn’t his job to save everyone. He told himself he had a business to run.
But none of it helped him sleep, so he got up and went down to the animal stalls to check on them.
What greeted him was a sight he would never forget as long as he lived. There, on the ground in the hay, were the man and the woman, dirty but smiling. There, in the little bed he’d made of the manger, lay a tiny baby waving tiny arms and trying his best to break out of his swaddle. There, also, were a group of newcomers who appeared to be shepherds, cooing over the baby and singing lullabies and saying prayers in synagogue Hebrew and their native Aramaic. And there, in the night sky, an almost blinding light, and the strains of something that sounded like music.
The innkeeper felt the sudden urge to kneel.
Instead he backed away, feeling like an intruder on the scene. But what he knew then is that this couple whose makeshift quarters he had hastily arranged out of hay was no ordinary couple, and that this baby who now slept in the trough his animals ate from was no ordinary baby. That he would be no ordinary man.
And, in fact, as time went on, many years later, the innkeeper began to hear things, rumors about a wandering preacher who did miracles and healed people and told stories of the Kingdom of God. Some said he was a holy man. Some said he was a revolutionary. Some said he hung around with loose women and traitorous tax collectors. Some even said he was the Son of God, the Savior of Israel, even the Savior of the world. And they said he’d been born in Bethlehem, in the city of King David, to parents who had traveled there for the census. And though he never could have proved it, the innkeeper knew.
It was meant to be, his wife told him, that he was born here in the animal stalls. It couldn’t have happened any other way. But the innkeeper wondered.
What he would have wanted you to know is that that night changed him. That he vowed then and there that he would never again miss an opportunity to extend hospitality to someone in need.
It wasn’t true, he knew, even as he vowed it – not quite. He was human, and he’d miss those opportunities again, just as all people do.
But the next time his inn was full and a poor family came looking for room, he gave them his.
This time no shepherds gathered and no angels sang. But, thought the innkeeper, they might as well have.
He was pretty sure the wandering preacher would agree.