Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for December 22, 2018
Texts: Exodus 2:5-10, Luke 2:1-7
Years ago, before smartphones, we were headed over Blewitt Pass. We had four horses in a 25-year old horse trailer. Our tow vehicle was a fourteen year old Ford van. We were almost to the summit when the motor quit. We managed to back down to a broad shoulder area where we were off the highway.
What to do? It was late in the afternoon. Besides the four horses we had four kids and three dogs. We waited a while thinking maybe it was just overheated and would start after it cooled off. No luck. Karin did not want to be stuck up there on the pass in the wilderness, so she decided to go for help leaving me with the kids, horses and dogs. She flagged down a passing car–a Cadillac with two old people in it.
The angels in the Cadillac dropped her off at the first place with a phone, the Ingalls Creek Store, which had snacks and a couple of gas pumps. There was a pay phone outside. Karin went into the store to ask for a phone book. The people asked what she needed. She explained our van and horse trailer were broken down up at the pass. A man who was there in the store asked what was her plan for the horses.
She didn’t rightly know.
Dean Dewes said he lived across the street. He had a pasture where we could camp and care for our horses.
It was after dark when Karin and the tow trucks made it back to where we were stranded up at the pass. One truck hauled the van away to a garage in Leavenworth. The other tow truck hauled our horse trailer to Ed’s pasture.
We tied out our horses. (The pasture did not have a secure fence.) Set up our tents and about midnight settled down to sleep.
One last element in the story that connects our experience with Christmas night of long ago:
Karin and the girls slept in the tent. Garrett and I spread our sleeping bags under the stars. We lay down and looked at the sky, and suddenly the sky began to dance with Northern Lights. Shimmering, waving, enchanting. A perfect ending to a difficult day.
Which reminds me of this morning’s New Testament reading.
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. . . . 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2:1-7 NLT
We can picture Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and stopping at the first inn. There was no vacancy. But no worries. This is the Holy Family, so we know there will be room. They just need to go to the next inn. But there is no vacancy there, either. How can this be? They are the mother and father of God. Their baby, the Son of God is going to be born this evening. Obviously, there has to be a room. Surely God would not allow the Holy Family to arrive in Bethlehem only to discover there is no vacancy! But that is, in fact, what happened. There was no room in the inn.
Sometimes we “horribilize” this. How terrible! The innkeeper should have realized how special these people were. The innkeeper should have given up his own bed. Instead, he turned away the Lord of Glory.
I’ve read meditations this week that spiritualize this and urge us to be careful not to copy the innkeeper. Let’s not allow our lives to be so full that there is no room for the Christ Child.
But I think all this misses the point. The “no vacancy” was not some evil thing. It was certainly a difficult spot for Mary and Joseph. It was an emergency for them. But it was an ordinary emergency. Like a car breaking down on a lonely stretch of road. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time. And that is just the point. Joseph and Mary, the father and mother of God, had trouble like the rest of us. If we are alive, we will encounter difficulties.
Sometimes when trouble happens we try to think, What did I do wrong? Where did I miss God’s guidance? Often the answer is simply: I did nothing wrong. I did not miss God’s guidance. Life has problems. Evil people have trouble. Good people have trouble. Jerks run into difficulty. Saints run into difficulty. That’s life. It’s okay.
Trouble is ordinary. It’s normal.
And the innkeeper? He did not fail. He did not screw up. His beds were full. That was legit. It was not evil when he refused a bed to the Holy Family. There was no call for him to turn out a customer already inside so he could accommodate this late-arriving family.
But he did what he could.
The text does not say it was the innkeeper. But I like to imagine it was.
“Look, I’m sorry. Every bed in the place is occupied. In fact, there are two people in every bed. I have nothing to offer you. No. Wait. I’m embarrassed to offer it, but you could bed down in the barn. It would be a roof over your heads and walls to keep out the wind. And you’ll be off the street safe from prowlers. I’m sorry but it’s all I’ve got.”
All he had. The best he could offer. And it was enough.
So baby Jesus was born in a barn. Which was way better than being born outside the barn.
The innkeeper did what he could. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t dramatic. But it was helpful. He did what he could.
With this simple act, the innkeeper goes from villain to hero. He sheltered the Lord of glory.
Not in a palace. But he didn’t have a palace to offer.
Not in a motel room. Because he didn’t have a room to offer.
He sheltered the Lord of Glory in a barn. Because that’s what he had.
No. How wonderful.
He did what he could.
This story portrays essential Christianity. First, it acknowledges that in human stories that God writes–in the stories where people perfectly follow the guidance of God, trouble still comes. God is with us in the trouble. God does not always lead around the trouble.
Second, we become heroes in the stories God is writing by doing what we can. By acts of ordinary goodness.
I received a call just yesterday from someone who asked me about helping someone in the church. I was struck by his explanation: he wanted to do this because he had been in a similar difficult spot once and knew what it felt like. Metaphorically, he had tasted no vacancy, so he wanted to offer room in his barn.
I listened in on a conversation about someone connected with the church who is in difficulty and learned of this person and that couple and this other person who has reached out to help. In small ways. But real ways. Performing ordinary acts of goodness.
Christmas is the perfect season to remind ourselves that at the very heart of our faith is a tenderness toward people in trouble. They are our people.
Refugees on our southern border and starving children in Yemen. They are still part of us. They are our people. Even if we don’t have room in the inn, we can still offer them shelter in the barn–whatever that looks like. We can do what we can.
Closer to home:
Our children struggling with mental illness or addiction.
Our friends who lose their jobs or lose their health or lose their minds.
Neighbors whose lives have been ripped apart by personal disasters.
Church members whose lives have been battered by all the various troubles that are available in this world. They, especially, are our people.
Let’s do what we can.
Their troubles are ordinary.
Let’s make sure our goodness is also ordinary. Frequent. Generous.
Like the innkeeper.