I need, to begin with a disclaimer. I’m about to break two rules of Christmas Eve preaching. I beg your forgiveness in advance.
Rule 1: No Greek. The New Testament was originally written in Koine Greek, and while paying attention to nuances and intricacies makes for good homework for pastors, most people in the pews aren’t super interested. It’s like showing your work on a math problem. Your Geometry teacher is interested, and that’s about it. This rule is doubly true for Christmas.
Rule 2: Don’t mess with peoples’ picture of how Christmas happened. Don’t talk about whether or not Christmas actually happened on December 25, don’t mention that the wise men were probably Zoroastrian astrologers. On Christmas Eve, don’t mess with Christmas.
I’m going to break both at the same time.
Ready. Jesus wasn’t born in a barn or a stable because the greek word kataluma, which gets translated as the inn, in the phrase “because there was no place for them in the inn,” doesn’t really mean inn.
Isn’t rule breaking fun?
No? Ok here’s why this matters.
If you’re at all like me, for most of your life you’ve heard Luke’s Christmas gospel and you’ve imagined Mary and Joseph wandering the streets of Bethlehem looking for a room at first century equivalent of the Howard Johnson or the Motel 6. Right? We hear the phrase, because there was no place for them in the inn, and we imagine this poor couple trudging the streets looking for a place to bunk up for the night, only to be greeted with no vacancy signs.
The problem is, the town of Bethlehem probably didn’t even have an inn, or traveler’s lodging, or even a Ho Jo. Bethlehem was kind of a backwater town. There were no major roads that intersected the town, nobody went there unless they meant to, so it’s pretty unlikely that it would have had anything that even remotely resembled an inn.
Not that Joseph and Mary really needed an inn. After all, they were going home. They were going to Joseph’s home town. Even if he’d been gone for awhile. Even if his family had been gone for decades, all he would have needed to say what that he was family. A scholar of Middle Eastern culture and the New Testament, Kenny Bailey wrote,
Even if Joseph has never been there before he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?”
So it would almost be unthinkable for Joseph and Mary to find themselves in some sort of stable. All alone.
But the gospel says there was no place for them somewhere, so if there was no inn, what was full?
Here’s where we get to our Greek word. Kataluma. Which most folks think should be translated as a guest room.
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 guest room.
When all the relatives come to town for the holidays or a government-mandated census, what’s the first room in the house that fills up? The guest room. Then folks start shuffling beds, cousins bunk together on the couch and people get cozy.
An average home in this part of the world, at this time in history, would have likely had one main room where the family lived. On the back of the house or the roof of the house, there would have been the guest room. But it was the main room, where the family lived, where the animals would sleep at night and where Jesus was more than likely born.
Growing up my family opened our presents on Christmas Eve after everyone went to church. My Grandma insisted that we each open our presents one at a time so that we could see what the other people had received and share in the joy of both the gift giver and the one who received the gift. As a young boy, I found the process to be arduous. I could see my stack of presents under the tree and I wanted to rip into then to see what I had gotten, and my sister was always so slow and deliberate in her unwrapping.
Now as a parent I really like the tradition. I like that moment when we can surround each other and share in what’s unfolding. I love being able to share in each and every gift that is given. Yes at times it gets a little nutty, we deal with the peculiarities and the particularities of my family, nuclear and extended, but I love it.
It’s in a similar way that God enters into the world. In the midst of ordinary life, in the living room, the time came for Mary to deliver her child.
God becomes human, not in a palace among the elite, and not in a stable where no one can see, but in the middle of the house where life happens.
It’s the very visible, very tangible collision of the extraordinary with the ordinary.
Jesus, God’s great gift of love, can be seen entering into the world by the very people he came to be with. God is born into our humanity, surrounded by our humanity. It’s not a secret. It’s not a surprise. God is made visible. It’s there for you and me and the whole world to see. God has come, into our flesh and into our lives.
In this baby, we see the lengths and the depths that God has gone to be seen, to be known, and to love each one of us. Tonight we bask in the joy of that gift, confidant that it gives shape and purpose to our tomorrows. Don’t be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, the messiah, the lord.