GOT ROOM FOR JESUS?
Luke 2:1-7 [NIV]. “1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register. 4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
We’re supposedly familiar with the Christmas story right? How Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem where they were turned away from the village inn by the innkeeper forcing them to take refuge in a barn where baby Jesus was born and laid in a manger? But have you noticed that’s not what the Bible says! Matthew 1 and Luke 2 say nothing about an innkeeper. Which got me wondering: What about the inn itself? So I did a little digging into the word for “inn.” Turns out it is a word that derives from a Persian word that literally translated means “caravan camp.” It was an inn built around a large courtyard for accommodating caravans along trade routes in central and western Asia. Sort of like an ancient Bed and Breakfast or youth hostel.
But the coolest thing about the word for “inn” used in Luke 2:7 is it’s used only one other time in the New Testament. Anybody care to guess where or when? Turn with me to Luke 22:11. Let’s back up a bit and read Luke 22:7-13. “7Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” “9Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked. 10He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room [kataluma], where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there. 13They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.”
So apparently, Jesus life literally begins and ends at the inn. The kataluma. The upper room. One was in Bethlehem and one was in Jerusalem. But how does that fit into the traditional understanding of the Christmas story with the stable and the wise men visiting later on when Mary and Joseph are in a house? Quite well actually. And next week I’ll explain more.
Luke 2:1-7 [NIV] describes how Mary and Joseph came to town with Mary ready to deliver. Arriving in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, they found it already full of other family members who had arrived earlier who were undoubtedly able to travel much faster than an older man with a young wife 9 months pregnant traveling on a donkey. It was obvious giving birth in a crowded room full of people was less than ideal. But that’s what an upper room in a caravan camp in Bible days really looked like.
It’s not like Joseph and Mary checked themselves into the Embassy Suites! There wasn’t a bedroom in the back with a kitchenette and another room in between with a pull out sofa bed and a divider in between. More often than not, when you checked into a caravansary or inn in those days, you were checking into a large room with a bunch of other people already in there milling about with their junk spread out all over the place. Instead of Embassy Suites, think more like a miniature version of the Louisiana Superdome that housed the fleeing residents of Katrina. Not a very nice place to give birth.
So that is when Mary and Joseph went to the barn right? Not exactly. The Biblical accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 2 don’t mention an innkeeper and neither do they mention a barn or cave. So most Christians think they looked around for a place to stay coming to an inn. But there is no room for them at the crowded inn. So we think they must’ve gone to the barn and stayed there with the animals.
The funny thing is when we think about a barn with animals, from our perspective we automatically picture a red pole barn sitting outside a house or a cave in the back yard on the far side of town. But that isn’t necessarily what existed in the 1 st century and probably isn’t what the Bible refers to. Why? Because in Bible days, as well as in primitive modern cultures, the rudest part of any bed and breakfast home or inn or caravan camp was the first floor where the animals stayed and where the feeding troughs, the mangers, were. Animals were regularly kept in homes at night! Not in a barn. A small number of flock animals were housed not in attached exterior sheds, or red pole barns, or caves in the way back of the yard, but inside the house in one of the ground floor rooms. Here, animals, tools and agricultural produce were stored. Here too, food was prepared and consumed. By being inside, the animals were protected from the elements and theft. In addition, their presence provided body heat for cool nights, access to milk for the daily meal, and dung as a critical fuel source.
Excavations in Israel have uncovered numerous rude buildings and obvious installations inside domestic structures. Some are carved, but most are stone built. Wooden mangers, of course, have not survived in the archaeological record. But stone mangers inside stone domestic dwellings have. Consequently, it’s possible that Mary and Joseph did not find privacy or space in the upper room living quarters of the ancestral family home in Bethlehem. So instead, they stayed downstairs in the domestic stable, still within the ancestral home, where a stone manger slash feeding trough was located. Here they were later visited by the shepherds and maybe even the magi which we’ll talk about next time.
But the sleeping quarters of the inn, the caravan camp filled this time of year with those from the line of David, was on the second floor. In the kataluma. In the upper room. Which even if it did have space, lacked privacy. So God in His infinite wisdom arranged the details of that day in such a way that Joseph and Mary HAD to go somewhere else. Which turns out, may not have been that far away. Just down the stairs. That’s why Luke 2:7 says there was no room for them in the kataluma. In the upper room. In the inn.
God knew women in labor want private clean rooms for their babies to be born. And our heavenly Father provided that place. Why? Because point number one: He cares! Our heavenly father cares about the tiniest details of our lives! Matthew 10:29-30 [NIV] says, “29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” And if Jesus cares that much about the tiniest sparrow, imagine how much He cares about you!
Fast forward thirty three years later, back in another upper room, after washing the disciples feet and celebrating the Passover, Jesus explained the details of Communion. How the broken bread symbolizes his broken body and how the grape juice symbolizes his shed blood on the cross. After that, He left the upper room on His way to Gethsemane and ultimately the cross where He died for ours sins. But before He did, on His way, He said these words recorded by John in John 15:11. “11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
What do we have to be joyful about? Number one, God cares! Our heavenly father loves us like crazy! That may not be what you heard growing up. And may not even be true of your earthly father. But that’s what the Bible says about your Heavenly Father. James 1:16-17 [NIV] says, “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.” Number one, God cares. He provided a place for Jesus to be born.
Number two, God cares from beginning to end. Jesus’ life literally begins and ends with stories about an upper room. One was already full. It was not for him. The other one was. Which we’ll talk about next time. But God’s love for us never wavers. From beginning to end. Why? Because unlike our love for Him, His love for us doesn’t depend on his mood. Or our performance. Or the gifts we give Him. His love is constant for us. From beginning to end. Now, that doesn’t mean we get everything we want. Or that life will always be good. He’s not promising you a candy coated Christmas full of fake smiles and fruitcake. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”
It doesn’t say that all things are good. Just that all things, good and bad, can be used by God for good. No room in the upper room? No problem! It’s cleaner and quieter and more private downstairs. What I hear God reminding us that He not only cares. He cares from beginning to end. He knows all about us. But loves us anyway. Even if we have a baby out of wedlock. As a teenager. And marry a much older man. Isn’t that what Mary learned? We forget how controversial this birth was. How embarrassing it was. For Joseph and Mary. What kind of God could approve of such an arrangement? Only the kind of God who loves with reckless abandon. Who cares. From beginning to end. With no strings attached. And I love that about God. Don’t you?
Jesus told us these things so our joy may be complete. So merry Christmas as you commune with Jesus. And may we all make room in our hearts for His care, love, and joy.
Father in Heaven, you know it was cold and Mary and Joseph were fearful. But that did not stop the birth. They were poor and had no place fitting for their child. But that did not stop the birth. They were uncertain about what God wanted from them. But that did not stop the birth. And today Father, we are still sometimes cold and fearful, certainly poor in many ways. We often feel that we have no place and are unclear about what you want of us. But these things did not stop the birth of Jesus then, nor will they now. Dear Lord Jesus, please be born in us today. Like Mary and Joseph, who trusted in your grace, we offer ourselves to you. Bless our offerings. Transform our thoughts. Motivate our actions. So that Jesus and His joy may be revealed through us to those you miss most all around us. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.