“We Make Room”
December 24, 2023 Cobleskill United Methodist Church - Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
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.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
A few weeks ago in church I showed a hilarious video captured recently in the United Kingdom of a little boy with the most amazement ever sharing with his mom what role he got in the Christmas pageant. When he finally reveals what it is, it turns out he is Door Holder #3. And he So. Excited. And part of what’s funny is that he then imagines that maybe instead of holding the door, he could act out part of the story where they aren’t offered a room in the inn and he could slam the door in their faces. It’s only funny in the video because the boy is 6 and just absolutely delighted with the possibilities of what feels like a really important role in the pageant.
By contrast, here’s another story that I heard this week. A different little boy in a different pageant wanted to be Joseph. But he didn’t get the part. Instead, he was given the role of inn-keeper. He was so sad. So on the night of the performance, he decided to make a change in the story. As it was supposed to go like we always hear it: Joseph and Mary would come to him and ask him for a place to stay. And then he would say: “There’s no room in the inn.” Door slamming in their face as an optional dramatic element. But without telling anyone, this boy changed his line. Instead of saying, “there’s no room here,” he said this: “Sure, I’ve got a room. It’s the best room in the inn. It’s mine. You may have my room.” Needless to say, the whole pageant got turned upside down and there was nothing to do but admire the way the story had been changed. When his parents got him home that night, they asked him why he changed the story. He told them what he learned in Sunday School. Jesus came here to help us love one another. If we don’t make room for Jesus to come at every chance we get, then what are we even doing?
The highlight of the Christmas story is not that there was no room. It’s that room was made.
The traditional interpretation of the famous Christmas story we just heard has us picturing a scene a lot like this (look at the nativity on the altar). No room in the inn so tiny little Jesus is born into a back building where only the animals stay, laid in a manger.
Interestingly, though, we’re learning more and more about what Palestinian culture was like around the time of Jesus’ birth. Jesus and his family were born in Palestine, the small village of Bethlehem, to be exact. And archaeological digs are telling us more and more new things about the shape and character of the average person’s home from the time of Jesus’ birth. Researchers have begun to reconstruct that these houses looked like this. The house includes a courtyard, a loft where people slept, and a small first floor where animals were brought during the night hours to keep them safe. The loft above the animals is where the people slept. Now some of these family homes had a separate guest room attached and the Gospel of Luke tells us that is where Mary and Joseph asked to stay. But those rooms were all full, because of the census. For centuries in our Western culture we’ve just assumed that because the baby was then laid in a manger, Mary and Joseph were put out in the stable. But as we learn more about these houses, we understand better how hospitable people in Bethlehem could have actually invited Mary and Joseph right into their own home to have the baby, a manger among the animals, right in the great room of their family home.
It's a beautiful thing to think about this teenage mom about to give birth, and the cloud of scandal that followed her about who the father was, and then Joseph loyally by her side. They knock at the door of a home, ask about the guest accommodations, told they’re full and perhaps first getting a skeptical look from the homeowner, and then there is a change of heart. A flash of empathy from the person inside the home. Instead of being sent away, they are invited into. It’s not a fancy home, but it’s warm, dry and safe.
The nativity story is about God making room in unlikely places and in unlikely circumstances. The nativity story is about the act of hospitality shown to strangers who had an unknown and strange past.
The well-loved Christmas song, O Holy Night, which we will hear later at our 10pm service includes the famous line, “the thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.” This Advent we’ve been asking ourselves, but how? How does a weary world rejoice? How do we find joy when the world is at war, when the very Holy Land where Jesus was born is piled in rubble. How do we find joy when we are weary ourselves from a pandemic that refuses to stop interrupting our lives. From political tension and polarization as we enter another election year. From grief experienced in the loss of ones we love. How can a weary world rejoice?
Tonight we find the answer in Bethlehem. The days when Jesus was born were fraught, just as they are now. Foreign occupation by the powerful Roman empire cast shadows of fear through the land. Mary and Joseph, trying to do what they think is best, travel to be counted in the census. Pregnant, unwed, surrounded by scandal, vulnerable, undesirable.
Would you open your door if they knocked at your house? Is it possible that joy could be found in this weary world from the act of hospitality?
I look at this beautiful room tonight: the warmth from this space, the accessibility of this space we’ve made recently especially here at the front of the sanctuary, the welcoming nature of this congregation, our proud identity as a Reconciling Congregation. It all signals to me how God works among us to make room for all, in spite of and even because of our differences. No matter who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done. God makes room for us here and loves us just as we are.
Being loved like that, how do we then make room for the weary world around us when we leave this space? How does the birth of Christ change us? Do we see the belovedness in someone who is hurting and find compassion toward them in their hour of need?
I have been moved by the art of a modern-day iconographer named Kelly Latimore. She has helped me to think about what it means to see and make space for those who are vulnerable and on the margins, like the Holy Family once was when Jesus was born. This week she drew a new, profoundly meaningful icon. An image of the Holy Family in a small space beneath the rubble of war. It’s a moving image. One that asks us, how do we make room for this family, too? Do we hear this kind of knocking at our door? How do we then open the door to seeing God in the faces of people who are suffering?
Friends, our world is weary. And yet we are not without a path forward. We are blessed with the gift of connection and solidarity. We are blessed with the gift of rituals like this tonight that help us focus on God’s meaning for our lives. We are blessed with the gift of hospitality and welcome. When we begin looking for the people who are on the margins and in the most need, ours is a God who opens our eyes.
This Christmas I ask you, who’s knocking at your door? Whose story do you need to open your heart to hearing? Who might need a seat at your table? Which news stories should you reframe from the perspective of someone who is hurting? How can we make room for a weary world just as God has made room for us?
It is possible that joy lies in the act of making room, opening our hearts to the knock at our door. Just as that boy in the pageant playing the inn-keeper who was supposed to say no, we, too, can change the story. We can make room; we can open the door; we can see the humanity in the people before us and we can make space for their story. Just as God has made space for ours.
Grace and Peace,