The Midrash of Christmas: The Innkeeper

Luke 2:1-7
December 1, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Introduction to scripture]  We are a multi-denominational church which respects the various Christian traditions represented by the members of our church and so today, in honor of those who come from a Catholic, Anglican, or some other high church tradition, I will be preaching a homily instead of a sermon.  I grew up Baptist so I’m not exactly sure of the official difference between a homily and a sermon but in my mind, a sermon requires a preacher to pontificate for at least 20 minutes whereas a homily can be wrapped up in ten minutes or less.  Given everything that is happening in today’s service, then, I have chosen to preach a shorter “homily” if I am capable of doing that.  We’ll see.

First, I want to give a little background for my Advent series, and this doesn’t count toward the sermon time!  The theme of my Advent series this year is “Christmas Midrash.”  Midrash is a Hebrew word that refers to the stories that rabbis in ancient Judaism told in order to better interpret scripture.  If a particular passage in scripture was unclear, or seemed to be missing details, the ancient rabbis would fill in the gaps by telling stories around that text.  For example, in the story of creation, when the Bible says, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” one ancient Jewish scholar explained the “us” by saying, “When God suggested creating humankind, a debate arose among the angels as to whether or not this was a good idea.  Some said it was a wonderful idea because human beings would perform acts of love and righteousness while other angels argued that it was a terrible idea because people would lie and fight with one another.  The  angels argued and argued but while they were arguing, God went ahead and created humankind.”  This Rabbinic story both explains the use of the word “us” in that passage and accentuates the struggle between good and evil found throughout the book of Genesis.  That’s midrash.

While Judaism has a wealth of respected midrash, Christianity has historically made a clear distinction between scripture and extra-biblical commentary, except for one time of year:  Christmas.  At Christmas time, Christian midrash abounds!  We take story of the Nativity found in the gospel of Matthew, and the very different story of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Luke, and resolve the contradictions between those two accounts by mushing them together until Matthew’s star appears over Luke’s manger, and Matthew’s magi kneel next to Luke’s shepherds.  We even throw in extra characters — a donkey, an innkeeper, sometimes an innkeeper’s wife, oxen and doves, and the littlest angel — but none of them are in the Bible.  The Bible doesn’t even mention a stable.  It’s all Christian midrash.

In spite of what biblical purists may shout at us from their internet blogs, midrash is not bad.  The Jewish people understand that the details we add to the stories in the Bible can help us to better grasp what is in the Bible.  I create midrash all of the time when I tell the kids Bible stories during Children’s Time.  I add details and make up dialogue between the characters in order to better immerse the children in the story and help them grasp the central teaching of that story.  Many of you tell me that you like Children’s Times better than the sermon, and that’s because midrash appeals to all of us.  Good midrash doesn’t contradict the Bible but illuminates and clarifies the biblical message, and much of the midrash that has grown up around the nativity story in fact adds to our understanding of the meaning of Christmas.  During Advent, then, I am going to look at some of the non-biblical details that have become central to our telling of this story which I believe bring the gospel message into clearer relief for us.  

This week I want to begin with the midrash of the Innkeeper. 

Luke 2:1-7  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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 room for them in the inn. “There was no room for them in the inn.”  This is one of the more poignant lines in Luke’s story of the nativity. Jesus, the one who will grow up to give his life for our sake, was unnoticed and unattended at the moment of his birth, the gospel says.  As Jesus himself says later to his disciples, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  The nativity story declares that the man who will reveal to you the life changing power of grace, who will save you from the worst of the world even from your own sinful self, is a man whose beginnings were so humble that no one took any notice of his birth.  He didn’t enter the scene in a glorious carriage pulled by parading horses, nor was he held up before the cameras by beaming parents so that his birth might be splashed across the newspapers.  When Jesus entered the world, his parents were away from home staying in a place where no one could even be bothered to scare up a decent bed for the baby.     

“They laid him in a manger — in the animals’ feeding trough — because there was no room for them in the inn.”

And it is here that the first character in our Christmas Midrash enters the scene:  the innkeeper.  The Bible doesn’t mention an innkeeper and to be honest, scholars are not even sure that the gospel mentions an inn since the Greek word in this passage can also be translated simply as “lodging.”  It might be that the gospel wanted us to envision Mary and Joseph staying at a relatives’ house, or a local home that had opened its doors to the many visitors in town who had come to be registered for the census.  Nevertheless, whether this was an inn or an AirB&B or the home of Joseph’s second cousin three times removed, what we are told in the story remains a sad condemnation of Joseph and Mary’s hosts, whoever they were.  Not a single person in that lodging thought to say to the weary parents of a newborn baby, “Here, take my bed for the night.  A baby shouldn’t have to sleep in a feeding trough.”  We shudder at the cold neglect shown by others that night and condemn their selfishness and disregard, yet at the same time, we secretly entertain that disquieting question:  would we have done differently?  Would we have turned over our warm bed to Mary and Joseph so that they could sleep in comfort while we shivered in the cold?  How far will we go to accommodate the needs of others?  How much will we sacrifice?  Even if we had known that the baby coming into the world that night would grow to be our Savior, would we have welcomed him, made room for him, slept on the floor next to the manger so that he could have our bed?  Do we make room for him now?

Though the Bible says nothing about an innkeeper, tradition has added him to be the focus of those questions and the mirror for our own disquieting self-scrutiny.  The innkeeper is there to be the voice for all of our excuses so that we can listen to him and hear the echo of our own rationalizations and be profoundly uncomfortable.  

The innkeeper is our midrash of confession.  

I read through several Children’s Christmas pageants as I prepared this sermon to see what sorts of things we have made this fictitious innkeeper say.  Sometimes he is presented simply as a grouch, a man whose heart has turned so cold that the plight of the young couple or the imminent birth of a baby can’t penetrate his grumpy exterior.  He is portrayed as the first century equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge, growling at the young couple before him, and saying, “Bah humbug.  Babies.  Can’t stand the noisy little brats.  Go away.”  In these plays, we are invited to ask ourselves whether we, like the callous innkeeper, have become so disillusioned with the world that our proclamations of “Joy to the World,” are only hollow sentiments with no real faith behind them.  Are we simply going through the motions at Christmas?  Do we really believe that Christ can make a difference to our lives and to the world, or have we been swallowed whole by our cynicism and despair, leaving no room for the promise of Christmas in our hearts?

The innkeeper is our midrash of confession.  

More often, in most of our Christmas pageants, the innkeeper shoos away Mary and Joseph with a outpouring of excuses: “I’m busy, I’m overwhelmed here, I have an inn full of people all demanding my attention, and I’d like to help but I just don’t have any time for you right now, let alone a room.”  This innkeeper strikes awful close to home for many of us at Christmas.  How many times have we felt that the central message of the season is lost in the busyness of the season?  Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and we still have gifts to buy, decorations to put up, cards to send out, travel arrangements to make, Bazaars to organize, coats to collect, parties to host, and parties to attend.  Great Aunt Petunia is threatening to come and stay for a week, while Cousin Sylvester says that there is no way on earth he will join you if Great Aunt Petunia is here. The kids are beginning to bounce off the walls; husbands and wives have grown impatient with one another; by the time Jesus is finally born, we can barely keep our eyes open to greet him.  The Innkeeper channels our frustrations with what Christmas has become in our modern world and yet, we don’t know how to stop it all.  With the innkeeper, we protest, “I’d like to make room for Christ but I just don’t have any time for him right now.”  Nevertheless, as we watch that innkeeper point the holy family toward the stable out back, we know that something has gone terribly amiss.  This is not the way it should be, for the innkeeper or for us. 

The innkeeper is our midrash of confession.  

Those brief words in Luke contain a world of heartache — “and they laid him in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn” — and those words call us to ask whether we would have opened our homes and hearts to the Christ child; whether we will open them now.  

The innkeeper is our midrash of confession.  We look at him and we see ourselves, and what we see is flimsy excuses, misplaced priorities, and missed opportunities.  The midrash of the innkeeper calls us to be better than that.  When Christ comes to enter our world, may we put aside our hesitation, our cynicism, our doubt, and all that distracts us from this holy moment, and let him in.