No Vacancy: Thoughts on how we tell the Christmas story.

Luke 2: 1-7

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.

When my kids were little, we loved to watch “The Muppet Family Christmas” during the holidays.

Fozzie Bear’s mother, Emily, is leaving for a Christmas in Malibu and has rented her home to Doc and Sprocket (of Fraggle Rock fame) for a quiet holiday.

Fozzie is unaware of his Mom’s plan and has invited everyone from the Muppet Show home for Christmas.

They arrive as Doc is settling in for some peace and quiet and Emily is heading for the door with her bags and sunglasses.

As Fozzie and Emily hug, all the Muppets come trooping in.

Fozzie, Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef, Bert, Ernie, Guy Smiley, Animal, Sam the Eagle, and Gonzo the Great, among many others.

As each walk in the door, slipping on the icy patch, both Doc and Emily are more and more stunned.

This was not the plan.

And just as things are getting crowded, in walk the folks from Sesame Street, who have also been invited.

Grover, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and even Jim Henson himself.

Finally, after much ado, Miss Piggy arrives.

Emily finally settles in to the idea that she is not going to Malibu and Doc realizes he won’t be having a quiet Christmas with Sprocket.

It’s going to be crowded, noisy and … well … festive!

Over the course of the arrivals, each visitor is assigned a place to sleep in the small house.

Then the fun begins as they sing songs, tell stories and plan the Christmas feast.

What does this have to do with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem?

Actually, it gives us an image of what their arrival might have been like.

Let’s take a look at the story.

Joseph and Mary are living in Nazareth.

They are engaged, and Mary is 8 plus months pregnant.

Augustus is Emperor of Rome; and he needs money.

So, he decides to levy a tax on all the people in the empire.

They are to go to their home towns and register for the tax.

Think about it.

On orders of the Emperor, everyone in the empire going home, not for the holidays, but to be taxed.

Joseph is from Bethlehem, so that is where he goes.

Mary, his almost wife, must go with him.

So, they get ready to go on the week long journey to Bethlehem.

Did I say Mary is 8 plus months pregnant?

I bet she had some choice words for Augustus.

We aren’t told how they traveled, but in all likelihood, they walked.

Luke mentions no donkey and in a small informal survey of mothers I know, I have concluded that riding on the back of a donkey is not something an 8 plus month pregnant woman is likely to do.

When they get to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph need a place to stay, right?

Where do they go?

In ancient Israel, under these circumstances, Mary and Joseph are not going to look for a Motel 6.

Joseph is from Bethlehem, so he has relatives there.

And Joseph knows where they live.

When a family member shows up, you make room and provide food and shelter!

They will stay with Joseph’s relatives.

There would be no question.

And that is likely what Mary and Joseph did.

Off to the house of Uncle Rueben and Aunt Sarah.

It makes me think of my family’s house on the lake in Edinboro.

Every July 4th we all get together.

My brother’s family and my family.

And lots of friends and neighbors.

Who all stay for the weekend.

We sort of assign sleeping space as folks arrive.

The house is pretty small, so we have people on the porch, in the living room, three to a bedroom and a bunch end up in the attic on air mattresses.

As they come in, we just point to their spot.

It’s a big fat Edinboro 4th!

It’s noisy, crowded and … well … festive.

Back to Mary and Joseph and his relative’s home.

What did that place look like?

There would be a main room for Sarah and Rueben, a great-room/kitchen, a spare room (in Greek it is a katalouma which is also translated as – wait for it – “inn”) and an attached stable.

Yep, the animals are in the house.

What Luke tells us is that when Mary and Joseph got there, the spare room (katalouma) was full.

I bet it was!

Every one of Joseph’s family was coming to town for the registration!

Many of them were staying with Rueben and Sarah.

Everyone is packed into the katalouma.

Just like the Muppets!

Just like Edinboro!

I have this image of Sarah assigning floor space for each family member who shows up!

Its noisy, crowded and … well … festive!

Then there is a knock on the door.

“Hey everyone, it’s Joseph!

And … Mary … who looks like she’s about to give birth!”

As they are about to be assigned a small patch of floor space …

“Uh, Mary, are you OK?”

“I think I’m going to have this baby right now!”

“Well, there’s no room for that in the katalouma!

Besides, I am pretty sure you don’t want to have the baby in the middle of a family reunion.”

Plus, if she has the baby in there, it will be ritually “unclean” for a week at least.

No one will be able to stay in there.

“Mary, we need to find you somewhere else to deliver.

How about the stable through that door?

There is a small seat that can act as the birthing stool and a feedbox we can fill with hay for the baby.

It’s plenty warm, private and if you need anything, we are all right here.”

And Mary says:

“Whatever!”

And then she goes to the stable and has the baby!

Her firstborn son.

Jesus.

And she wrapped him up and laid him in a feedbox.

Despite all the excitement of the unplanned trip to Bethlehem and the packed house, this is kind of an ordinary occurrence.

This is the story of the birth of a baby.

Jesus.

Every year on our kids’ birthdays, we tell them the story of their birth.

The stories are very different, and each is told with the kind of panache that makes entertaining and memorable.

Taken alone, our scripture reading today might be just such a funny story about the birth of a child told every year on his birthday.

“We walked for days and as soon as we got to Aunt Sarah’s, your mother went into labor and they sent us to the stable.

Yeah, you were born in a stable!

After you were born, we put you in a feedbox.”

I wonder if Jesus heard such a story every year?

And yet Luke emphasizes that this birth was no ordinary one.

Luke has been leading up to this birth from the beginning of the Gospel.

Zechariah is told he will father a son who will be great in the eyes of the Lord.

He will be Elijah to the coming Messiah.

He will prepare the way of the Lord.

Gabriel visits Mary.

Mary is told that she will give birth to a son who will be the Messiah.

Mary visits Elizabeth.

She sings that her son will be the one who will bring down the rich and powerful and lift up the lowly and hungry.

When John is born Zechariah sings!

68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 

70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 

71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 

72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 

73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us

74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 

75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 

77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 

78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 

79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke uses these stories to point to the climax of his story.

Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger ….

It is the end of the beginning.

The conclusion of the first episode.

No angels, no kings, no shepherds – yet.

They will come, but for now?

Just God.

Come for a visit.

In the feedbox.

Luke’s story is more than just a funny story about Jesus’ birth, isn’t it?

This is a birth that is going to change the world.

And over the centuries we have added a few details, right?

Shall we sing “The Little Drummer Boy”?

So, is it important that we sweat the details?

Is imagining more OK?

When we look at our manger scene, what do we see?

We see Mary and Joseph and Three Kings and shepherds, and animals, angels and a star overhead.

We think of a “holy night” that everyone seemed to notice and broke out in song.

Hark, the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With th’ angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark, the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new born King”

These are the traditions that remind us that Jesus’ birth was a world changer.

A conglomeration of stories and traditions that combine to give us an image of what made this birth special.

And that is OK.

Because we are telling the story.

This baby is the light from on high that has broken upon us, who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, who will guide us in the way of peace.

However we imagine the actual birth, what we need to understand and proclaim is that this was the incarnation.

God come near.

To the lowly shepherds.

To the gentile magi.

And even to us, who look on from a time long in the future, from right here.

Emanuel.

God with us.

In a stable.

In Bethlehem.

When Quirinius was governor.

When Augustus was emperor.

Thanks be to God.

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