Galatians 4:4 Luke 2: 7
Christmas 2013 – 2. No Crib for a Bed: The God of Every Circumstance
The scene portrayed is so familiar that it has become unmistakable. Nativity scene - Mary and Joseph watching as Jesus sleeps in the clean wooden feeding-trough. Sometimes there is a glowing light emanating from baby Jesus. The straw is fresh, overhead the stars twinkle in the sky, nearby the cattle and the sheep rest contentedly and the faithful donkey watches the happy parents. Often the shepherds and the Wise Men bow before the Babe in the manger. As I said, it is a sweet and beautiful scene.
It is also quite dangerous - this peaceful scene bears little connection to what really happened that night in Bethlehem. It wasn’t very peaceful, it couldn’t have been as clean, nothing would have been as beautiful, and there is no reason to believe that the shepherds and the Wise Men ever saw Jesus at the same time.
But the major problem rests in one fact: The Son of God from heaven comes to earth and is born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. We hear this so often that we take it for granted, but it does not seem right. To help us think about this one fact of Jesus’ birth, let’s think together about three questions: 1. What’s wrong with this picture? 2. Why does God allow it? 3. What do we learn from it? From our point of view, Jesus should not have been born in a stable—but he was. Surely this was not an accident—but a message from God to our hearts.
1. What’s wrong with this picture?
The answer is simple: Jesus doesn’t belong here. He’s the Son of God from heaven. He doesn’t deserve to be treated like a vagrant or a criminal. He deserves the best the world has to offer. He comes from heaven to earth—and ends up in a stable? How can that be? What’s going on here? Why is there no room in the inn?
If you visit Bethlehem today - fairly large, bustling Arab town 15 kms south of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was a tiny Jewish town, a small out-of-the-way village - few shepherds lived there, some farmers, a few merchants, and that was about it - made famous only because it was King David’s hometown.
One part of the story involved a man named Caesar Augustus in faraway Rome who (prompted by God) decreed that a census be taken so that taxes could be collected throughout the Empire. The census required that all Jewish males go back to their ancestral hometowns to register. Since Joseph was descended from David, he had to return to Bethlehem. It “happened” that Mary was in her final stages of pregnancy when they arrived in Bethlehem.
God arranged everything so that the emperor issued the decree at just the right moment and in just the right way so that at just the right time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem so that they were exactly where the prophet Micah said they would be when Jesus was born (Micah 5:2). What seemed to be by chance was actually the hand of God moving through history to accomplish his purposes. “If God ordains it, he will make a way.”
Not the Holiday Inn
We are so immersed in our culture that we read: “There was no room for them at the Bethlehem Holiday Inn.” Or “They couldn’t find a room at the Greater Jerusalem City Lodge.” Southern Sun, Hilton. We tend to think of a nice building, 3 or 4 stories tall, with a parking lot, large lobby, pool and a jacuzzi, a Coke machine on every floor, hot showers, DSTV, and wi-fi. To us, roughing it is what happens when the ice machine is broken.
In those days travel was dirty, difficult and dangerous. Creature comforts were hard to come by. Travellers needed safety and security from the robbers that could be found on every highway. An “inn” was simply a building where you could rest safely during the night. Indoor plumbing was not an option.
Luke used 2 different words for “inn” when he wrote his gospel. One - refers to a small building dedicated to serving travellers. At one end of the building, you tied up your horses and donkeys. For a fee, the innkeeper allowed you to sleep on a rough mattress on the floor. He also kept the fire going and provided fodder for the animals. This was the “inn” Jesus mentioned in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 34). If you ever travel on the old road from Jericho to Jerusalem, your bus will probably stop at the “Inn of the Good Samaritan,” a simple building located at the traditional site of the inn that existed in Jesus’ day.
When Luke told the story of Jesus’ birth, he used a different word for “inn” - even smaller and simpler. The animals would be kept in a stable that was often nothing more than a cave in a hillside with low rock walls to keep the animals from wandering away during the night. It was an “inn” such as this that had no room for Mary and Joseph and Jesus on that holy night in Bethlehem.
Why were they turned away? No doubt they were full that night. Perhaps other descendants of David had come to Bethlehem to enrol for the census. Perhaps because they were poor, they could not pay. Perhaps the innkeeper, seeing that Mary was very pregnant, did not want to drive off the other customers. The only thing we know for certain is that there was no room for them. Everything else is just conjecture. Brings me back to the major point. From a human point of view, nothing in this picture looks right. Jesus deserved better; God could have done better.
2. Why does God allow it?
If we believe in the sovereignty of God, then I think we must believe that God did not simply “allow” his Son to be born in a stable; we must believe that God “ordained” it. There was no room in the inn because God wanted it that way. If God had wanted it some other way, then it would have happened that “other way.”
Joseph and Mary were compelled (by the census) to return to Bethlehem in the latter stages of Mary’s pregnancy. They arrived in Bethlehem just a few days before she gave birth to Jesus. The journey itself would have been difficult and dangerous. Jews travelling from Nazareth would have gone east across the Jordan River, then south crossing into Judea at Jericho. They would have ascended through the mountains to Jerusalem, and then made the journey south to Bethlehem. That jagged journey—east, south, west, south—allowed them to avoid Samaria altogether. The 150 km journey might have taken 6 or 7 days, travelling slowly because of Mary’s advanced pregnancy.
So they arrived in Bethlehem, were turned away at the inn, and the baby was born in a stable—outdoors, in the cold, with the animals no doubt nearby. They had no privacy, no sanitation, and very little protection from the elements. Why would God send his Son into the world like this?
A. Christ was born like this to show his humiliation.
“Would it have been fitting that the man who was to die naked on the cross should be robed in purple at his birth?” The answer is no -All his life he would be not much more than a peasant. Nothing is more fitting for Christ than to be born in a manger since he had laid aside his glory to take the form of a servant.
B. He was born like this because he was the King of the Poor. The poor and the outcasts knew Jesus was one of them because of the way he came into the world. The best commanders are those who have the common touch, who are not afraid to mingle with the soldiers on the front lines, who aren’t ashamed to get their hands dirty in the trenches of warfare. When soldiers know that their commander has walked where they walk, they will follow him to the ends of the earth. The poor of the earth know that in Jesus they have a friend who cares about them.
C. He was born like this in order that the humble might feel invited to come to him. The very manner of his birth—turned away from the inn, born in a stable—was an invitation to the rejected, the abused, the mistreated, the forgotten, the overlooked, to come to him for salvation.
If Jesus had been born in Paris, Beverly Hills or Sandton, only the rich and famous would feel at home with him. But since he was born in a stable, all the outsiders of the world (there are far more outsiders than insiders) would instinctively feel at home with Jesus.
By being laid in a manger he proved himself a priest taken from among men, one who has suffered like his brethren, and therefore can be touched with a feeling of our infirmities. “He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners;” “this man receives sinners and eats with them.” Even as an infant, by being laid in a manger, he was set forth as the sinner’s friend.
I find this an inspiring thought. The fact that there was no room in the inn turns out to be much more than an incidental detail - it is central to who Jesus is. Surely we must say, “He had to be born like this. It couldn’t have happened any other way.”
Is there a hint here of his upcoming death? I believe there is. Turned away from the inn and resting in a feeding-trough, he was already bearing the only cross a baby can bear—extreme poverty and the contempt and indifference of mankind. Francis of Assisi - “For our sakes he was born a stranger in an open stable; he lived without a place of his own wherein to lay his head, subsisting by the charity of good people; and he died naked on a cross in the close embrace of holy poverty.”
This baby lying forgotten in an exposed stable, resting in a feeding-trough, is God’s appointed “sign” to us all. This is a true Incarnation. God has come to the world in a most unlikely way. Philippians 2:7 - he “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Nothing about the baby Jesus appeared supernatural. If you had been there, and if you had no other information, you would have concluded that this was just a baby born to a poor young couple down on their luck. Nothing about the outward circumstances pointed to God. Yet all of it—every part of it, every single, solitary, seemingly random detail—was planned by the Father before the foundation of the world. To the unseeing eye, nothing looks less like God; to those who understand, God’s fingerprints are everywhere.
3. What do we learn from this?
If we stand back and consider this one aspect of the Christmas story, some amazing truths emerge. We learn something about God, something about the world, something about Jesus, and something about his followers.
God uses adverse circumstances that make no sense at the time in order to accomplish his purposes in the future. At first glance the fact that there was no room at the inn seems like an insignificant detail in the larger picture. But I assure you that it was no small detail to Mary and Joseph. Being turned away at the very moment when the baby was coming must have been devastating. Giving birth in a stable no doubt tested their faith to the limit. Certainly it would not have made sense at the time. Mary and Joseph—no matter how devout they were—simply could not have foreseen how this “negative” turn of events would turn about to be part of God’s plan to bring his Son to the world. They might have believed it, but they would not have seen it in advance. Life is like that—we don’t know what is coming around the corner, and many things we endure make no sense at all. Sometimes they don’t make sense for years to come. Sometimes they never make sense to us. I take great comfort in the fact that our God knows what he is doing, and he uses everything that happens to us to accomplish his purposes in us and through us and for us. Nothing is wasted. That was true for Mary and Joseph. Nothing is wasted—not even being turned away because there was no room in the inn.
The world had no room for Christ, and it has no room for Christ now. John 1:11 - “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Jesus came “home” to his own people—and they wouldn’t take him in. He came to the people who should have known him best—and they wanted nothing to do with him. They should have known better. They knew he was coming—God had told them over and over again many times in many ways. They had ample warning. Even some pagan astrologers in Persia worked it out when they saw his star in the east (Matthew 2:1-5). But the rejection of Christ by his own people was a picture of things to come.
If Jesus were born today, it would happen in a ramshackle building or in a field in the country or in a remote village. The world that had no room for him has no room for him now.
His humiliation started early and continued to the very end. He was born outside because they wouldn’t let Mary and Joseph come inside. During his ministry he told his disciples that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He owned nothing but the clothes on his back, and when he was crucified, the soldiers gambled for his robe. When he died, they buried him in a borrowed tomb. Our Saviour’s birth pictured the whole course of his life. He was born outside the inn and he died outside the walls of Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:11-13). He was an “outsider” in every sense—he came from “outside” this earth, he was born “outside” the inn, and he died “outside” the city walls.
His followers share in his fate. We live with him, we suffer with him, we die with him, and we reign with him. What happens to Jesus happens to his followers sooner or later. Just as there was no room for Jesus, there is “no room” for his followers either. Luke 2:7 - “because there was no room for them in the inn.” Remember, the innkeeper had no idea that the Messiah was about to be born. I had always read it as if there was no room for Jesus. True enough, but there was no room for Mary or Joseph either. Even that detail tells a story. They are also “outside the inn” when Jesus is born. What happened to him happened also to them. That too is a pattern for the future. Many years later Jesus challenged his disciples this way: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die with him.
Is There Room in Your Heart?
What great truth lies behind the simple words of Luke 2:7? Even the tiniest details turn out to have enormous significance in the Christmas story. The “No Room” signs were there for our benefit. God could have made a room available. He could have created a hospital or a palace in Bethlehem if he had so desired. The sequence of events that unfolded—the census, the long journey, no room at the inn, “no crib for a bed,” the feeding trough, the “swaddling clothes”—all of it was planned by God even though it all appeared to happen by chance. God willed there would be no room in the inn not for the sake of Jesus, but for our sakes, that we might learn who Jesus is and why he came.
Because there was no room in the inn, the final call is always individual. The world has no room for Jesus. Will you make room for him in your heart? There was no room for Jesus that night in Bethlehem. Will you make room for him in your heart this year? Here is good news for the worst of sinners. Though the whole world may turn away, you can open your heart and let him in. And if he comes in, he will never leave you. May God grant to each of us faith to believe and an open heart to say, “Yes, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you.” Amen.