The Overlooked Innkeeper
Almost two weeks ago, I wrote a poem called A Better Place. It concerns the idea that perhaps the innkeeper was not the cold-hearted person in the nativity story that he is sometimes made out to be. After I finished the poem, it occured to me that perhaps I had seen that theme before -- that I had read a devotion which presented that very idea.
I mentioned to Jeff the Methodist the theme of the poem was not new to me -- that it had had its genesis in devotion that I had read before, and I asked him if he had written a devotion for our Advent booklet in years past with the same theme. He had; it had been published in 2002.
It's a great devotion, and with Jeff's permission, I'm posting it here as a Christmas Eve Extra:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!Who is the most overlooked figure of the Nativity?
Speakers often ask a rhetorical question at the beginning of a sermon. Pastor Dale paused longer than usual, however, waiting for vocal responses from the congregation. Many, including me, answered “Joseph.” That was the expected response to illustrate his homily on the example of faith set by Jesus’ earthly father in accepting the unbelievable story of his pregnant fiancée, fleeing home with his new family to avoid Herod’s death threats, and raising the boy Jesus to follow in his own chosen craft of carpentry.
As much as Joseph’s story inspires me, though, I was taken aback by the lone reply of a gentleman on the front row to the minister’s opening question. Don’s words stood out in contrast to the nearly-unison “Joseph.”
Who is the most overlooked figure in the Nativity? “The Innkeeper!”
Until then, I had never thought much about the innkeeper. He is depicted in Christmas stories and pageants generally in one of two ways. Either he closes his door in the faces of the couple, or he shows them around back to the stables with the animals. What is the truth about the innkeeper?
None of the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus even mentions the innkeeper. In fact, the only reference to a manger or an inn is in the Book of Luke. “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke.2:7 (RSV). On the basis of that single sentence, we convict the innkeeper of shutting Jesus out. Perhaps we have been too hard on him.
I think the innkeeper is an improbable hero. He had no reason to know that the strangers at his door were about to bring the Messiah into the world. Had he known, perhaps he would have made room for them, but that would have meant that some other weary travelers would need to be displaced. Yet, rather than making excuses, the innkeeper was resourceful, and gave what he could give—not a room or even a corner in his already crowded inn, but the stable that demonstrates that the King of the world is at home with the humblest of the humble.
The arrival of the long-expected Messiah stood out in contrast to peoples’ expectations. He did not come in a manner befitting of a king. No pomp and circumstance, no great earthquake, no thunder and lightning, no burning bush, but humbly and anonymously in a barn to a young unmarried woman. The Jesus born in those surroundings would grow up to teach us to believe the unbelievable, to be prepared for the unexpected, and that the poor and meek will occupy a prominent place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Less prominent than even the lowly shepherds and animals, the innkeeper is neither mentioned by the writers of the gospel nor placed in the crèches that adorn our mantels and tables during Christmastime. Rather, he was and is behind the scenes, humbly and anonymously playing a major part in God’s great plan. He serves as a reminder to us that God uses what we have. Perhaps we should be more like the innkeeper.
Dear God, Give me the compassion of the innkeeper. Even when circumstances indicate that I have used up everything I have to give, give me the courage to stand out in contrast to the status quo, and the awareness and the resourcefulness to make room for Christ. Amen