The Inn?

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Well I don't get to preach next week for Christmas but I thought that maybe it would be OK if we took a brief detour from Zechariah this morning and took a look at the Christmas story. I hope that you have had time over the course of this advent season to set your hearts and minds to meditate on some of the many wonders of what it meant for the Son of God to take on flesh and enter into this world. There is no shortage of content here to keep our minds engaged and I have found that it seems like every year, if I give myself enough time to read and think a bit on the advent of our Lord that, generally, there will be something that stands out, some thought or theme that consumes most of my thinking on the subject for the season.
This year has been no different and it is to that theme that I would like to take us this morning. I shared an article in the Facebook message group that touched on this a bit and I also shared a longer article with Jake earlier in the month and pointed out to him that while I have heard some of this before I hadn't quite put it together along with the theological significance and the practical application of this part of the story that we are going to talk about today. I owe thanks to Tim Challes for sharing the article that got me thinking in this direction on his blog and also to that author Ian Paul for his excellent work on the subject in the article that Tim shared. Ill post that article in the message group for those who are interested but we will cover a lot of what he says this morning as we explore this well know and often, I believe, misunderstood part of the story of our Lord’s birth.
I don't think that anyone would be surprised to find that popular culture and even orthodox Christian thought has gotten certain aspects of the advent story incorrect. We live in a different world from theirs and there are cultural and linguistic barriers that are hard to overcome and as with many aspects of our scriptural understanding we tend to get so locked into the traditional understanding of certain texts that it can be hard for us to even fathom that we have missed something.
This is where I want us to go this morning, something that I think we often miss in this story because of the culture and language and tradition barriers and I think that we will see that when we understand this rightly we will find a richness and depth in the story that we may not have seen before and we will also, I hope, find some ways in which this correct understanding of the circumstances surrounding our Lord’s birth focus our lives together as God’s people now.
So what is it? What have we gotten wrong about the incarnation?
The place that I want to turn is to the notorious Inn at Bethlehem.
But first lets take a moment to pray.
We read in Luke’s gospel:

7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

There is a lot of poignant imagery at play here and while I have read before arguments about the manger and the stable and such this I believe was the first year where I have read and pondered the infamous Inn.
Now as we generally think of the story we can see where our minds typically go. From Nativity books to Nativity scenes and church nativity plays we have this understanding of Joseph and Mary arriving bone weary from their travels to Bethlehem and poor Mary on the verge of giving birth and they travel the streets of the city going from Inn to Inn seeking a place to stay and continually getting told “no room” “no vacancy.” You can maybe even picture the stern face of the innkeeper from a story you have read or a movie watched.
Then depending on your version they either find their own way to the infamous stable or they are given a bit of mercy by one Inn keeper who tells them that while he has no room in the Inn there is some space available in the Inn’s stable and the couple can stay there.
However they wind up there it is there in this dark and lonely stable that Mary gives birth the the Christ Child and lays him in a manger while an ox and donkey and a few sheep look on.
It is a lonely and bleak scene apart from the soft glow that emanates from that manger and the serenity of the silence of the baby Christ sleeping there on the hay. And it is a scene that we are all familiar with because it is almost always the scene that we see in Christmas cards and in and contemporary recreation of that nativity scene.
And, it is highly likely that it is totally wrong, I mean nearly as totally wrong as you can get and it all starts with that little phrase used in Luke:

because there was no place for them in the inn.

Living Room?

When we examine the statement by Luke a little closer though we will find that this is almost certainly not what Luke meant, that Joseph and Mary didn't wander around Bethlehem looking for a place to stay, that there never was a stern yet merciful innkeeper and that there most assuredly was not a neon no vacancy sign flickering away with a dark and dank stable in the back alley with a few raggedy animals and a perfectly manicured manger full of hay.
I embellish a bit but this is what tends to happen to all stories, they get embellished, and when that embellishment is built off of something that already starts off as a miss understanding we can quickly arrive at a place almost as foreign to scripture as a scene from veggy tales.
So lets look at the word there.
The word in the Greek is kataluma. It derives from a word meaning to loose or untie and carries the meaning of taking the saddle or bridle off of your donkey for the night. For this reason it certainly does have to do with the welcoming of visitors who would be preparing to come in and spend the night and when the OT was translated into Greek for the Septuagint this is the word that is used a couple of times to translate something similar to an Inn or location where travelers would seek a place to stay.
However, when we get to the usage of the word in the NT Greek it is interesting to note that it is not used for what we might call an in.
Rather we find this being used of the upper room where Jesus and His disciples ate the last supper together. We find it being used of a spare room in a home where hospitality would be provided to traveling family and even to strangers.
It is also interesting to note that in the very same book, the gospel of Luke, Luke uses a totally different term to describe what is clearly an in when he recounts Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. There the good Samaritan takes the Jewish man who had fallen among the robbers to an Inn and pays the Innkeeper to tend to the man until he is well.
It is likely then that Luke, being the same author, if he had intended to say that our Advent travelers had been seeking a room in such a place that He would have used the word that he associates with that place, however he does not, he uses the word kataluma.
So what then is Luke referencing?

Hospitality and Honor

Well to understand that we need to know a bit about the ancient near east at the time of Christ’s birth and actually this extends in some ways even to very recent times. We need to know some things about hospitality and honor in this culture.
First we understand that many people had a room specifically to offer hospitality to others, in particular family who were traveling, even distant and unknown relatives. This is Israel remember and the people were very mindful of both their ancestral towns that were given them as their inheritance by the Lord and of their genealogies and who it was that they were related to.
In fact knowing that Joseph hailed from the region of Bethlehem he would have actually ben honor bound to seek out his relatives and seek to stay with them during his visit. This would have been a major slight to these relatives if he had indeed sought a room in an Inn. He was family and even if he was distant family it is still very likely that he would have sought our his relatives and given them the honor of hosting him.
Notice as well that there is nothing in the text that would preclude us from reading it this way, absolutely nothing at all. Interesting how easy it is to read into things!
We also know that there would have been a ton of people returning to the old family stomping grounds at this time. The census had caused quite a stir and due to the fact that Joseph and Mary travel even with her so pregnant it seems as though this was an order to be obeyed with haste. And so we can assume then that our travelers arrived to a packed house.
In fact this is why Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph could not stay in the guest room, the kataluma, because it was already full of family!
So what would have happened?
Well we know that this receiving family would have been honor bound to host just as Joseph would have been honor bound to seek them out and so it is most likely that Joseph and Mary stayed in the main family house with the rest of the household members and any other guest who would have needed a place to stay. The impression that Luke gives us is that this was actually a packed house and in the middle of all this commotion Mary goes into labor and gives birth to the promised Son of God.
Now we aren't done with the picture though. Remember we have the manger and this actually is a detail that fits quite well with this story.
Most houses of the poorer or lower class people at this time would have consisted of a main room what started out lower and then had steps up to the main living area. This lower are was used for the livestock over night. These people didn't have special buildings to keep their animals in, they stayed in the house in an area made just for them.
And on the edge of the raised floor up the steps from this livestock area would have been a couple of depressions or mangers where the hay and feed for the animals would have been laid. These would have been built right into the floor of the main living area and at chest level with the livestock in the lower level.
Incidentally, this is why the scribes and Pharisees have nothing to say in Luke 13 when Jesus rebukes them by saying:

“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?

They would have led their animals out of the house every morning even on the sabbath, they couldn't stay in the house all day.
This manger would have been an obvious place to safely lay a child who had been born amidst the hustle and bustle of this large gathering in this house in Bethlehem.


This understanding of the events even sheds light on the story of the shepherds that follows. Have you ever wondered how it was that the shepherds found this couple and the newborn baby. When you have a vision in your mind of two people in a stable in a dark forgotten alley with a baby and a few barnyard animals you wonder.
However, if you have witnessed the birth of a child, especially with gathered family around you know, this becomes a widely talked about event. It is quite likely that Bethlehem was a buzz with word of this newborn child especially if any of the other events that surrounded his birth had been told and it is almost certain that they were. If this is the case it is not hard to see the shepherds entering town and asking around and quickly finding the location of the child. I also adds some clarity to verse 17&18:

17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

We can imagine the shepherds arriving to a packed house full of vising family a buzz with this newly born child lying in the manger and talking about the events surrounding His birth and then the shepherds report what they had seen and heard and this only adds to the marvel and wonder in the hearts of those in the home as they gaze with the shepherds on the wonder that is the Christ child.
Indeed even the next line:

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20

This line makes even more sense I believe in this context. All of this hustle and bustle and all of these wonderful things and there in the middle of it all is Mary with her child, Mary who more than anyone there could even imagine must have been lost in the awe and wonder of what was happening as she knew the realities of the virgin birth and the visit from the angle and what it must have been like to bear in her womb the Christ and here He was and she hears all of these wonders and experiences the joy and wonder of those gathered and she treasures all of this up, pondering them in her heart.
Now this doesn't fit well on a greeting card, at least you aren't likely to find a card that recreates the scene that I have proposed Luke means to convey to us this morning. However, if we can step back and loosen our grip on tradition I think we will find that there is a glory and wonder in this scene that is greater and more wonderful than the one we are so used to picturing.
Now the article by Ian Paul goes into soem detail explaining why he believes that this error has persisted and persisted so that many can hardly even picture a different scene than the one on you standard nativity Christmas card. There have been folks who have sought to present the correct understanding of the phrase :

no place for them in the inn.

Its not as though this is somethign new that modern skeptics have trumped up to try and draw a doubtful eye on the adevent story. Now this is a view that has been known for a long time and depending on your distance from a typical middleeastern culture it makes mroe or less sense.
Now, I am not going to go into the reasons it has persisted. As I said I will share the article and you can take a look if you would like.

Theological Implications: Immanuel

For the remainder of our time I would like us to see how this understand of the advent narrative might have an impact on how the story influences our theology, how this understanding of the story might lead to some interesting application in our lives.
This is what really got me thinking. Like I said I have read similar things before and while I have appreciated them it really hasn't done much to affect my overall view of the advent narrative. However, as I thought about it this year I began to see, especially starting with the light that these authors have cast on the story, that there are some significant ramifications or implications for us when we view the scene this way.
Basically, as we see this picture now we dont see Jesus being born mostly alone in a seculded and dark alley stable with just his parents and some farm animals to take in the event. Rather we see Christ being born in the midst of a crowded house to the wonder and amazement of his mother and all those who were gathered there or who heard of the events as this news must have spread quickly through this small jewish town.
Dick France says it well being quoted in Paul’s articke:
“The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. But the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Jewish home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.”
This line in particular got me thinking of that wonderful name name given by Isaiah as he foretold the coming of the messiah and picked up by Matthew in his gospel account of Jesus’ birth.

23  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).

God with us! Christ came not to be isolated from us, not to be squirreled away in some dark lonely corner of a back alley of Bethlehem. He didn't even come to be relegated to the room where visitors would have been granted to stay. No, when Jesus came he came right into the thick of things, he came, basically born into the living room with all of the family surrounding him.
This theme of God with us got me to thinking about the tabernacle. We have talked a lot about the tabernacle and the temple and how it is that those things find their NT fulfilment in Christ when He came and these are directly tied to the idea of Emanuel or God with us.
The reality is that those things were intended to be a central part of the life of the people of Israel. We find in the Exodus account that in actuality the people of Israel actually were arranged and camped in a giant circle, almost like a dartboard, around the Tabernacle with various tribes camped in different directions and then various priestly families camped directly around the tabernacle itself.
To stand back from this we see from a high level the idea that God was to be central and as we add more to that we find that the community of God’s people was to be organized around a shared participation in His worship at the place where He had chosen to dwell.
Now just because when Israel got to the Promised land they no longer camped in their giant dart board formation around the temple this did not mean that the centralizing influence of corporate worship in the Tabernacle was any less significant. We know that God had intended for His people to of necessity to continue to travel to the Temple for corporate worship and to present their offerings and tithes to Him.
When we get to the NT we find that Christ came to bring to the full all that the Tabernacle and Temple had pointwed tward. Christ is the Temple, He is the Tabernacle. Through His incarnation He quite literally became God with Us. We no longer come to God through a building and an alter, we come to God through our Lord Jesus Christ who is the God Man.
When Christ cleansed the Temple in John 2 the leaders fo the Jews asked him, in escence by what authority are you doing this? His reply:

18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The temple of His body. The disciples remembered this after all that was to take place at the cross and in the resurrection had transpired. Suddenly on that side of the cross through the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit these first followers of Christ were granted to see Jesus Christ as the true temple, that it wasn’t through a place but rather through a person that God would dwell with his people.
Again, I love the richness then of seeing Christ, from the moment of His birth being so central to and among His people. The focus of all who were in that house was clearly on this one who would grown and one day make clear to all of His people that He was Emmanuel, that He was God with Us!
When we see Christ as isolated and for the most part alone I think we don't necessarily get then this connection of how it was that even His birth spoke to the reality of who He was.
Just think back across the gospels with that thought in mind. Christ literally had to rise early in the morning to get away from people to pray, from his birth, to a caravan of travelers as a boy, to wedding feasts, meals with tax collectors and sinners and teaching thousands on the hillsides, Jesus was always among His people!
I think we get so focused on the nature of His birth as poor and lowly and how it is that Christ identifies with His people in that way and indeed that imagery of a dark quiet stable does enhance that image. However this image doesn't do any sort of injustice to that. Jesus was born to a poor family, there were farm animals and he was laid in a feeding trough. Jesus wasn't born in a palace, not by a long shot, and in this He can relate to the poor and despised amongst us.
However, He also was not born alone, He was born there amongst His family, His people, He would have been the center of attention and likely the talk of the town. People marveled and Mary pondered and cherished.

Application: Community

Now as we come to a close this morning I mentioned that I think this understanding of the events surrounding Christ’s advent also provide a good opportunity for reflection and application for us.
I think that this has really struck a cord in me specifically because of all that I have been learning through the prophets of what it means to be built up together into the people of God, what it means to be the Church.
Jake has often talked about the ditches on both sides of the proverbial road and when it comes to community there are ditches on both sides and I think that this beautiful picture of Christ tabernacled amongst us as Emmanuel in the community of His people from the moment of His birth speak to both.

The Loners

The first error is one that is common, especially in the world today and one that I am particularly prone to. When we see Jesus isolated and relatively alone save his mother and father and a few farm animals we might be tempted to hold a similar view of life whith Him. Outcast, alone, rejected by the world and yet there in the stable with our Lord.
For those prone to the error of isolation the picture of a overly crowed house with a newborn baby in the center of it all with a visiting crowd of shepherds and the ever growing buzz around town sounds downright awful. And yet this is the reality of the scene, Christ came to be God with us not just God with you. Form its inception Israel was called to come together as a community of people with the shared experience of worshiping God together being what bound them together. Community is essential to what God is seeking to do through the redemptive work of Christ as He came into the world to ultimately die on the cross and redeem us from our sins.
Do we allow the situations and circumstances of life to provide us with excuses to remain isolated from God’s people?
We live in a social media world that has only heightened the dangers of this error. Social media allows for people that are naturally prone to seclude themselves to pull back even farther and take part in the artificial community of the internet. If you spend more time interacting more freely and openly with some “community” online than you do with your Church family, you may well be dipping your toes over the edges of this ditch, you may be laying flat in the bottom of it.
If this is the ditch you are naturally bent toward then it is imperative that you take steps to avoid it and I will admit they are often uncomfortable. Like I said this is my ditch! A crowded living room with loud noisy distant relatives surrounding a newborn baby is not my first idea of a good time and yet it is this type of community that God is seeking to build us up into. This will often take a great deal of self sacrifice in laying aside our own comfort to pursue this type of community as the old man that dwells in us will tend to use any type of personal discomfort and inconvenience, real or perceived to keep us from pursing a covenant community of believers as God calls us to do.

The Community Seekers

There is a ditch though on the other side of the road too. You see the community there in Bethlehem was gathered around that child. The buzz in the air, the visit of the shepherds, everything there had to do with that little child, He was Emmanuel. The community of God’s people has always been intended to be directed to and gathered around the place where it was that God’d dwelt among them.
This was what was so significant about Jeroboams building of the alters and golden calves when God gave him the 10 northern tribes. He knew the power of a community gathered around a shared worship of God and rather than trusting God’s promise to give him the 10 tribes he sought to eliminate the draw toward reunion that might have existed had he continued to allow his people to go to the Temple to worship.
For those naturally inclined toward seekign community there will be the tendency to seek and create community around virtually anything. Even within the church we have a tendency to create community, not around a shared love and focus on our Lord but on other things that are of interest to us. This is why we see, in churches larger than ours, various special interest groups. Moms group, youth groups, small groups for those who like to hunt, play video games, knit, there really is no end to it.
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying an activity with other like minded believers who enjoy that too we must be careful that our communal life is not primarily defined by these other interests. The primary community in our lives ought to be the people of God gathered for corporate worship. This is because as we have seen Christ is the fulfilment of the Temple, He is Emmanuel, God with us, and as we have also seen it is through being joined to Him by faith that we also becomes living stones in that Temple structure. Therefore it is in the community of the Church when it is rightly functioning that God dwells with us, that we find the Emmanuel.
Many of the same cautions that we had for the isolationist believer and social media hold true here as well. Again, an online community isn't truly a community, I would argue even when there are real people behind those names. Again, our primary community ought to be those of the household of faith that we regularly and consistently gather together with for corporate worship.
Honestly for many of us there is a mingling of both sides of these ditches in our lives, its not just one or the other and so we ought to be familiar with both.
We have to seek to develop right ideals of community and to stay out of the ditches on both sides of it and to continually seek to keep in the center the glory and wonder of the Son of God entering into the world and taking on the flesh of a man that He might take upon himself the justice that we deserved and that in turn we might receive from him the pure white righteousness with which all of those gathered at the wedding feast that Jake was talking about last week are to be clothed.
From the moment of His birth Christ was drawing to himself a community of His people filled with awe, wonder, and worship and that remains the goal even today. I am so glad to be a part of a community that sets its goal to seek to be as like that as possible!
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