Krister Stendahl writes that “wherever, whenever, however ever the kingdom manifests itself, it is welcome.”
If you were with us in worship through Advent, you know that we have been talking about the idea of welcome and welcoming Christ into our hearts and lives as we prepare for Christmas. Our theme has been “The Inn” and we have riffed off our traditional Christmas story that tells us every year that the Christ child would be found, swaddled, and lying in a manger because there was ‘no room in the inn.’ We have sung in worship words that exhorted us to ‘make of my heart at stable, an Inn for the holy’ and we have talked about what it means for us to prepare for this day, the day that Christ comes to us, our Immanuel—our God with us—a babe lying in a manger.
Twenty years ago, in my own spiritual journey with Jesus, I became enthralled by the idea of welcome and hospitality as a picture of the gospel. My own call to ministry is wrapped up in understanding our Christian story as being about welcome. We have passages in both Testaments, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, which exhort us to care for the vulnerable strangers. The poor, the widow and the orphan, and the resident aliens dwelling in our land. We are told in one of Jesus parables that when we give food to the hungry, drink to thirsty, when we give clothes to the naked, welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner, it is as though we are doing these things for Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). We read in Hebrews that when we show hospitality to strangers (Heb. 13:2) we are ‘entertaining angels unaware.” And the biblical narrative also tells stories, that reveal the scandal of when God’s people failed to care for the vulnerable and strangers in their midst.
And so here we are at the Christmas story. It happened just like you think it did, but not in the way that you imagine it. Several years ago, Everett Patterson, a Portland-based comic and graphic artist made this picture of a modern nativity entitled Jose y Maria. Maybe you encountered this image on Facebook. http://www.everettpatterson.com/?p=1835 It is where I first saw it. Here is a depiction of the holy family. Jose, and very pregnant Maria at a phone booth outside a convenience store. Mary is sitting on a grocery store pony while Jose is frantically searching a phone book to find a place where they can spend the night. In the window of the story is a sign that exhorts us to smoke Weisman cigarettes, and sign for Star beer. In the background is a roadside hotel with the No vacancy sign alit and the g missing from the New Manager sign so that reads ‘New Manger.”
Most recently I saw a friend share this image and a Facebook post, with the words, “accurate.” And certainly, if Christ came in the flesh today, this is believable, except I don’t know where Jose would find a phonebook or a phonebooth except by some divine miracle. But our imagination about how the story unfolded, is clouded by centuries of pageantry and religious art and we read back into Luke’s telling of the story.
We are told that there was no room at the Inn and while the Inn has been our theme, I need to tell you. There was no inn. Certainly, the passage never mentions an Inn keeper, but what we imagine an inn to be, did not exist in first century Palestine. This was not a roadside Motel 6, more likely, it was a spare room constructed on the flat roof of a traditional house in Bethlehem, made to accommodate out-of-town guests. Unfortunately, Mary and Joseph could not stay in this spare bedroom, because it was already occupied in the place that they were staying.
We also imagine the stable as something very different from what it was. I picture in my mind a thatched roof of grasses and hay, supported by wooden columns, no walls to protect the animals from the elements, just a roof. This is a Thirteenth century creation which may go back to St. Francis, the Christmas Creche. In our imagination, everybody turned a very pregnant Mary and Joseph away and so they found a makeshift barn to bed for the night and there had the baby Jesus.
But that is wrong. Mary and Joseph found a place to stay, and the stable was inside a house. The typical home in first century Judea had a stable at their entry, usually a few steps lowers than the rest of the house. It was fully enclosed within the walls and the animals would be brought inside to keep them safe through the night. Basically, the stable would be what we’d call mud room today.
This was a culture and a people that prized hospitality and welcome as cultural and religious virtue. No one left the holy family in the cold. Instead, some loved one and relative made space for their out-of-town guests, the way we would make space for loved ones, with couches and camp mats and air mattresses if we didn’t have enough beds and space for each to have own room. The story that Luke tells us is not of the city of Bethlehem’s inhospitality to Mother Mary but of somebody making room for them. Cleaning out a manger to use as a makeshift cradle for a newborn and making sure that this pregnant, betrothed couple was cared for through the night. They were welcomed an
How about us? What have we done to welcome Christ into our world? You heard in scripture and song today how Christ was God come in the flesh, and how in this child there would be God’s shalom on the earth and peace for all people. This Christ child would one day grow into a Galilean Rabbi, who would proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim a Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor. One day, the newborn child would die on a Roman cross as the Savior of the world and rise again with the promise of Life and Salvation to all who trust in Him—a welcome of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and freed person alike. We have talking about how to welcome Christ, but in Christ we all find our welcome.
As we welcome Christ, we experience the welcome of God. And this sets us free to welcome those who are different from us and the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the vulnerable stranger. We welcome Christ and are welcomed, and we become God’s welcome for a world in need. This is a season where many of us, give generously to those who are in need, knowing it is more blessed to give than receive. I would like to challenge us to prayerfully consider who in our lives we need to extend God’s welcome toward. Who is a stranger to us, who is vulnerable? Who needs our help? And when we welcome them, it is as though we are welcoming Christ, and we inhabit together the welcome of God
“Wherever, whenever, however ever the kingdom manifests itself, it is welcome.” Merry Christmas.