Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How Did the Innkeeper Get Into the Christmas Story?

How did the innkeeper get into the Christmas story? It's time to celebrate Christmas again and it gets harder and harder to separate what really happened when Jesus was born from the layers of storytelling we have added to the Biblical account. For some of us Santa and the reindeer and all the rest of That Story are just fun, and for others annoying, but we don't attach any significance to it. It is more of a distraction to our celebration of Christmas than a meaningful part of it ( for some people that is ALL there is to Christmas but that is for another blog). But, how much of our traditional celebration of Christmas is more fantasy than reality. We have all seen our share of Christmas pageants and we know the parts better than we know the Bible. How does a cruel innkeeper get into the Christmas story? Was Jesus born in a cave, a stable, or a home? Why couldn't Joseph find any place in Bethlehem, his home town, to stay for the census? Was Jesus born the same night his parents arrived in Bethlehem? In a cold, inhospitable, stable surrounded only by animals? Why did the shepherds come?And if they found Jesus and his family shivering around a manger in a stable, why didn't they think to help out this poor family?

Kenneth Bailey, who lived and taught New Testament for forty years in the Middle East, sheds light on our traditional misinterpretations of the Nativity story and when we look at these blessed events from a Middle Eastern perspective they look a little different from what we may be used to.

Joseph was going to his ancestral home when he journeyed to Bethlehem. He was taking his betrothed wife who was pregnant with their first child. There may have been some family talk about how all this came about but he surely had family and friends in town he could call on. He had time to arrange a place to stay, too. Our idea of the holy family making a long trip and finding no place to stay, including being turned away cruelly from the local inn, so baby Jesus had to be born in a cold stable welcomed by no other people, only animals, is not true to the customs and culture of the world into which he was born. Mary had family close by too (Luke 1:39) so if Joseph's relations did not come through, certainly, Mary's would have. Besides, Joseph was from a royal family. He was descended from the great King David. Bethlehem was known as the "city of David". Another good reason why he would have found little difficulty locating a place to stay.

Nearly all village homes in that day were two room dwellings. One was the family living space and the other was a guest room. The family stayed together and at night the family's valued animals were brought inside for warmth (the family's warmth!) and protection. Usually, the animals were separated by a makeshift wall from the family sleeping area. The "inn" in town was actually a guest room in the home Joseph was going to stay at. The presence of a cruel innkeeper and the tradition that Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for his family in the inn (Luke 2:7) can be attributed to the English translation of a word that simply means "a space". In our Western reading of the English text our minds naturally think of a large hotel with plenty of rooms and by the time Mary and Joseph got there the no vacancy sign was already out. There is another Greek word Luke uses in the Good Samaritan story that means a commercial inn but the word he uses here is "katalyma" which means "a place to stay." Luke uses that word to describe the upper room where Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples (Luke 22:10-12). It commonly meant a guest room in a family home. So, is Luke telling us that Jesus was placed in a manger in the living area of a village home because their guest room was already occupied? Because the animals were kept in the house at night, there was a manger dug out in the floor at one end of the room. When Jesus was born, he was laid in the manger. Given the obligation of hospitality in this part of the world, the birth of Jesus makes more sense when we know he was welcomed into the world as any other baby would have been.

Jesus was born in the style of most of the people in his world. He was welcomed by the common people of the village. The obligation of hospitality in that part of the world ensured that any baby would be welcomed. Jesus was welcomed before anyone knew who he was. He was named Jesus which was a common Palestinian name (Hebrew = Joshua) which means "he saves". Many mothers hoped their newborn son would be the God sent Savior of their people.

Since God could have had his son born into any family he chose, it is significant that he was born into a poor family of which there were many. Jesus was not born to privilege or power. To take this theme of common people one step further, there was no group more common than shepherds. Because of their dirty jobs and low reputation, they were looked down on by everyone. How ironic that they were the ones to witness the full angelic chorus and get the first invitation to the birth day. The 'sign" to them was that the baby was "one of them", poor and common, since he was wrapped in "cloths" and lying in a "manger"! Certainly not a birth with rich or royal trappings. One the shepherds felt comfortable attending! So they did. But they were not uncaring rubes and if they had felt that Jesus and family were not properly cared for, they would have offered to take them in! Finding them adequately provided for, they went on their way,praising and glorifying God for all they had seen and heard.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Holiday Stress

Most of us look forward to the holidays. Maybe that is part of the problem. We have expectations that will most likely go unfulfilled. Holidays amplify the tensions that are already present in our lives, our stressed lives. If you are having relationship problems, work problems or financial problems, you can bet holidays will add to the stress. It's no secret life these days is stressful. Add to the normal stress of life our current national problems and this holiday time has the potential to be one we might want to reschedule. Of course, we can't. So what can we do to deal with the stress. Here are some ideas I have found helpful.

Keep it simple. No big plans. Perhaps stay home and keep some time free to do nothing. If you do have guests over or special holiday activities planned, think: what is the minimum I have to do to carry this off. It is good to get together with people you enjoy over the holidays so plan to do that but keep those gatherings simple: a pot of soup, or just coffee or tea. Since holidays often involve gatherings with people we are not getting along with very well, keep your expectations low. Relationship miracles are good for holiday TV but they rarely happen in real life. Plan accordingly. As football coach Bill Parcells used to say when he was questioned about the poor performance of his team: "It is what it is." At times some of the primary relationships in our lives are performing poorly, too. If this is one of those times, repeat the mantra, " it is what it is", and make the best of it.

Keep your eating under control. There are different and special foods during the holidays and we are more tempted to indulge ourselves. Don't. You know how it makes you feel afterward. It only adds stress. Keep your meal plans similar to the way you usually eat. Don't eat out often. Don't go to parties hungry. Fill up on salads (watch the dressings) and water. If you have to have a dessert, try stopping at a bite or two. Wait a few minutes. It satisfies your need for a sweet the same as if you gulped down the whole thing.

Watch your budget if you have one and make one if you don't. There is very little that is worth buying if it will put you into more debt. Figure out how much you can afford to spend without charging more than you can pay off by the end of the year. Live within that amount. If someone will be miffed because you didn't spend more on them, they will get over it. More importantly, you will have avoided the huge stressor of debt. Don't let the holidays add to your family debt.

Exercise. Get a walk in as often as you can. Join a gym over the holidays. Treat yourself to a couple weeks with a personal exercise trainer. What a great Christmas present. Exercise is a proven stress reliever.

Pray. In the busyness of the holiday season, we tend to put off the most important things to make time for least important things. Get up a little earlier so you have time to pray. Read through some of the Psalms, or the early chapters of the Gospels that focus on the birth of Jesus. See your pastor for ideas about devotional readings for this time of year. Better yet, make an appointment to see your pastor for a spiritual checkup! Don't miss worship. Holiday worship services pull us away from so much that is shallow and superficial about the holidays and point us to the meaningful and significant.

Rest. Make sure you get to bed early to get enough sleep. Experts tell us that we need 8 hours a night although most of us get by with far less. "Get by" barely and others notice our irritability. Holiday stress is much easier to handle if we are rested.

Spend time with people that you enjoy being with. There are people that drain us and people that energize us. Often the demands and obligations of life make it impossible to avoid the people that drain us and we are too tired to plan time to be with those people that energize us. Make the time. Meet for a lunch or coffee (although watch the caffeine - too much is a stressor too!).

Laugh. Does anything reduce stress like laughter? Often the people who energize us are people we can laugh with. But even in the hardest circumstances we face, we can find something to laugh at. Like the popular book says: don't sweat the small stuff and it is all small stuff.

One last thought. Each of us has a lot of control over the way we feel. People can only make us feel bad if we let them have that kind of control over us. Situations can make us feel sad if we dwell on them. Life is not usually the way we want it to be or think we want it to be. It is much less stressful to live life the way it is and not romanticize about how much better it could be. And how bad things are because it is not turning out the way we hoped it would. Let go of the "if onlys". It is what it is. And we can thank God in, not for, but in all circumstances.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I'll call him Fred. No one really knew his name or cared to know him. He was homeless even though he had a small room in an old building that had at one time been Secretary of State William Seward's property. Now it was home to several bums as the locals referred to them. I can't remember how our family got hooked up with Fred but we did and he came over for meals and even for Thanksgiving dinner one year. He mumbled a lot and he smelled and he never talked about himself or stayed long. I would visit him from time to time in his room. That was how I found him dead. One day I knocked and knocked and not getting any response I went to get the building caretaker who opened his door. We found him on his bed. Dead for a week was the best guess but no one spent much time investigating. The city paid for a pauper's grave and I gathered a few people from our church to attend a graveside service and we buried him with dignity and the gospel. I never had any idea where he came from, or what his life had been like, or who his family was.

His story came to mind as I was preparing a sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. It has always been a favorite yet unsettling text. The interpretation of it hinges on how you understand two phrases. The first is "all the nations" in verse 32 and the second is "the least of these" in verse 40. If "all the nations"refers to everyone except Christians and if "the least of these"refers to needy Christians, then this parable of judgment is easier to swallow because it's not about us, Christians. However, if the first phrase includes Christians and the second phrase includes anyone who is hungry, naked, sick, in prison or a stranger, then we need to sit up and take it more seriously. I have always believed the proper interpretation was the latter one. I don' think Jesus' intent was to put us at ease. He is the one who also said, " If you are going to follow me, die to yourself and take up your cross and then follow me."

This story seems to me to be about Following Christ. What it means to follow Christ. That was, after all, one of the main themes of his teaching. This story fits into his End of the World, the End Times, and the Last Judgment teaching. It seems pretty plain that he intended to say that all people will be judged based on whether we follow Him or not. Following Christ is not an optional activity for human beings. So here in his story - it is his Ministry to the Least, the Lost and the Left Out - that we are expected to follow.

Fred fit all those categories. No doubt Jesus would have made time for Fred. It is not too surprising that Jesus tells us to make time for the Freds of the world. What is surprising is that he tells us that when we do - we run right smack dab into him. Jesus. We find Jesus already there.

"Come", he says in verse 34, "Come into the Kingdom of God." He is not talking about some pie in the sky place where we go when we die. It is a place we can go to here. It is the Most Real Place we can go to here. It is more real than most of what we call the real world. You enter it like C.S.Lewis's Land of Narnia, which serves as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God in his tales, through a door that we find by following Christ.

It is clear that Jesus is talking to Christians here in verse 34 but the next couple verses are Unlike our usual descriptions of the Christian life. Nothing about going to church, singing hymns, teaching Sunday School or playing on the church softball team. What we do In Church is Important but it is not the most Important thing. It is not as Important as what we do out there in the world. That is where we witness to the Reality of what Really Is. The Kingdom of God. There is nothing too radical in America about going to church. In fact, in some parts of the country it is still the expected thing to do on Sunday morning. But Who the Church is and What it does - now that's radical. And it can cause people to wonder, What are you doing? Why? Who are you Following? Who do you Belong to? Then, they have a chance to make a choice, too. It is a critical choice because as the story says, there will be a great separation at the end of history and which side we are on will be based on that choice.

So back to Fred and Jesus. Jesus never says Come to Church and you will find me there. I think you can find Jesus there. I pray that is so. We expect Jesus to be there. He is in the preaching of the word, the praises of the people, the celebration of the Lord's Supper and the fellowship of the Body of Christ. It's just that he never says Follow me to church. He never says when you visit the church you visit me. But he does say that about visiting the prisoner or the sick. He does say when you feed the hungry or clothe the naked... I am there. It's not just that we do these things for Jesus, for his sake, but he says as we do these things for the Least, the Lost and the Left Out we are doing them to him.

What he says in these verses is clear as a bell and very surprising. Note: Jesus does not say, "I was sick and you healed me... or I was in prison and you set me free... or I was all messed up and you fixed me". The thing I like about what he says here is that it is something we all can do! These are Small Ministries for All of Us. Small ministries of visiting, clothing, hospitality and feeding. Nothing spectacular and showy. In fact, they are almost mundane. But it is through these small ministries that the Miracle of Jesus' presence occurs.

Dr Henrietta Mears taught that "every person we meet is dying for a drop of love." There are as many human needs as there are human beings. Basic needs NEED small deeds of Basic help. That's what the gospels show us Jesus did. That's what Following Him means.

That's what Fred taught me.