Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christmas
Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Generally speaking, we tend to think of full things being good things. Full refrigerators. Full bellies. Full bank accounts. Full lives. But full is not always good news. When you’re a laboring woman, “no vacancy” at a full inn is not the news you want to hear. The inn was full in Bethlehem. Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn.”
The Bible story doesn’t talk about the innkeeper. The one who has to deliver the bad news isn’t mentioned at all. But we imagine him. We are entertained by children playing the innkeeper during Christmas plays. One such story has made its way through the preaching circles over time. James Harnish, long-time pastor and writer, tells it this way:
“It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally. Wally was larger and slower than the other kids. All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids on the playground. Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story. The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line. All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room. Go away.” Christmas Eve came and the play was going well. The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes, and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts. The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place. Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.
Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way, and we are tired from the journey.” Again Wally called out, “No room. Go away.” With all the dramatic emotion the nine-year-old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby. Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?” There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line. Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage. The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy. Sadly, they began to walk off the stage. But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them. “Wait! You can have my room.” [end of Harnish story]
Wally’s story inspires a bit of wondering, kind of like that television show, “What Would You Do?” What would we do as the innkeeper? He is sometimes imagined as an over-worked, short-tempered guy who snarls at the holy family. Other times he is depicted as humble and hospitable, offering the holy family what he has to offer. Regardless of tone, the end is the same. There is no room. But then there’s sort of a room…out in the back with the animals.
The question of Jesus and roominess has been on my mind about this Bible reading. Whether or not we cotton to the idea of an innkeeper – it’s fairly easy to become sentimental about Bethlehem. There are times for sentiment. Give me a candle, a dimmed sanctuary, start singing Silent Night and watch out. All I’m saying is that there may be room for more than sentiment in this beautiful, 2,000 year old story. In the Bible story, there is political unrest, a registration is ordered by Emperor Augustus while Syria is governed by Quirinius. The Emperor’s order results in a massive migration of people that uproots the holy family and sends them to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.
No room. Full. This makes me wonder about room for Jesus in our lives and in our world today. Room in the schedule. Room in the mind. Room in the heart. Room for compassion in the face of suffering. Room for Mary’s vision of God scattering the proud, casting the powerful from their thrones, and feeding the hungry. Room for the glory of God. Room for the peace proclaimed by the angel and the heavenly host. Room for peace between nations, for peace between peoples.
Roominess may be as much in short supply in our time as in the holy family’s time. Luke uses the word “room,” the Greek word kataluma. This same word translated as “room” in Luke chapter 2 is translated as “upper room” in Luke chapter 22, describing the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with the disciples at Passover. Shares the meal that prefigures the meal we share in Holy Communion today.
Might Luke’s double use of kataluma mean that Jesus claims room where there once was none? Claiming room in spite of what was originally offered as available. Showing us from manger to upper room, from cross to grave to new life, that there are no lengths to which God will not go to get to us despite our best efforts to the contrary? Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, says it this way: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited…It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.”
You see, while we like to imagine ourselves as the innkeeper, as a gatekeeper of sorts, Jesus arrives uninvited. We can say, “No room, go away.” We can even be prompted by the people around us to say, “No room, go away.” We can point away from ourselves to an outlying manger that is removed from our everyday lives. We can think ourselves tucked into secure space away from a meddling God. Here’s the good news. Jesus is born anyway. Jesus, Emmanuel “God with Us,” arrives on the scene. Jesus arrives in our world, our demented inn, as “a Savior who is the Messiah.” Arriving in “mean estate,” of lowly birth and social class, God slips into skin and vulnerability. With his fragile humanity, Jesus pursues a relentless ministry of love and life at the cost of his own.
Celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remind each other of God’s promise to come to us whether or not we think there’s room, of God’s promise to come to us uninvited through no virtuous merit or roominess of our own. We remind each other that God is born as this child, Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; as this child, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary. Thanks be to God and Amen.
 Luke 2:7
 James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 37.
 John Quinones. “What Would You Do?” abcNEWS: http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo
 Harnish, 35, regarding Luke 1:51-53
 Luke 2:14
 Luke 2:14
 Marty Haugen. “Litany and Prayers” in Holden Evening Prayer. (Illinois: GIA Publications, 1986), 10.
 Harnish, 34.
 Harnish, 34.
 Harnish, 35, from A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Doubleday, 1974), 365 and 367.
 Matthew 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
 Luke 2:11
 Hymn fragments from “What Child is This,” #296 in Evangelical Book of Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).