Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden
Christmas Day 2005
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
This year in the Advent course I spent an evening with some of you looking at the nativity stories and we asked, ‘are they true?’
We saw that on one level people have raised all sorts of questions as to whether pieces of the nativity events really happened. The truth is that we will never know the exact historical details and we have to be careful about filling in the gaps with our own ideas - something which perhaps the church has done with the added information about Mary and the Magi.
But whatever misgivings we might have about the nativity stories, the truth
of the message which they convey should never be in doubt. As Christians
these stories are true for us and they remain as a challenge to us. We read
this story of the birth of Jesus time after time and year after year and
still we discover new truths about our God and our faith. We need to strip
away some of the layers which cover over the truth of the Advent stories,
but for me this process is more about discovering the message of the Gospel
writers which lies hidden beneath years of carols and nativity plays.
Does the lovely carol ‘Little Donkey’ blur the impact of the brutality and exhaustion of that dangerous 90 mile journey which the pregnant Mary endured?
We like to comforted and to remove the reality of what is often a dreadful world. In the same way we sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ but we need to be reminded that Bethlehem is imprisoned by a wall and militarised fences, with only two gates to the outside world. The current situation is grim and Archbishop Desmond Tutu asks us to pray for Bethlehem ‘it is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.’
The early Church believed that these nativity events expressed clearly the type of person that Jesus was, the teachings which he had passed on. The way in which Jesus was born and the attitude of people around is all presented in a way which challenges us. The Gospel writers recorded information for a reason.
Take this simple statement,
‘because there was no room for them in the inn.’
In one sense it is just a descriptive note, but in another sense it is penetrative comment upon the fact that when Jesus was born nobody made room. The Gospel reading today is pretty clear about the fact that when Jesus was born Mary and Joseph couldn’t get a room. I have read all kinds of stuff saying that really it was probably quite nice with the animals, for example, Jesus might have been born in the animals quarters underneath the inn where it was warm, etc. etc.
But the message that the gospel writer is giving to us is that Jesus was not
allowed into the inn. It is presented as a failure of hospitality. Our
Christmas cards, our carols, our images all tend to romanticize the event,
but Luke is making the point that Jesus was refused a fitting place to be
born, I cannot read it any other way.
I telephoned my favourite Chinese restaurant the other night to place an
order for a takeaway, only to be told that they were not taking orders. I
had four adults and four children waiting for their dinner, this was not
good news. After pleading I managed to speak to the owner who recognised my
voice and said no problem Mr Royden we will cook for you. This is so good
for the ego.
I now know how those people feel at restaurants or clubs with queues. Imagine the scene a long queue people all in line waiting and somebody famous arrives and they straight in, miraculously a table appears or room is found. Would a hotel ever be full, or a restaurant ever closed to Elton John? Fame and wealth open doors which to the rest of us would remain closed. We all make room for the things and the people that matter.
So it was that there was loads of room in the inn at Bethlehem on the famous night. There were many people who could have spent the night in the cave or the stable or wherever it was that Jesus was born. People could have made room but they didn’t. We would expect that a mother about to give birth would take a high priority over most other people. But the point is that nobody would make room. You can imagine the things they said about the pregnant teenager, 'it is her own fault', 'she's only doing it to get a flat.'
Mary was just not important enough to make people
loose their room and go to the inconvenience.
The nativity stories are about the rejection by society of Jesus and his family,
Correspondingly Luke is also keen to show that those whom society had
rejected welcomed Jesus. The shepherds saw in Jesus a kindred spirit.
We tend to think of those shepherds as decent country sorts, looking after sheep. But
they were not valued members of their community. They were unclean in terms
of their way of life and also spiritually. They were not able to keep the
Jewish laws and they were despised and looked down upon.
Luke took delight in making the point that these were the very people who were told about Jesus first! Right from the start the stories of Jesus show that God goes out of his way to invite the very ones which society disapproves of. God acts in an unexpected way.
God has a special place for the waifs and strays, God cares most for those we do not make room for. Luke knew that you didn’t have to be rich and famous, his Gospel was full of this teaching that everybody mattered.
We are told that it was angels who told the shepherds. You might not believe in flying angels with wings, but what you cannot get away from is the fact that the angels are messengers of God. The point that Luke is making is that God spoke directly to the hearts of these ordinary folk.
Luke knew that God did that when Jesus was born to the shepherds and he wanted the reader of his Gospel to know that God could do it to each one of us. God can touch each one of our lives with his message of hope. He doesn’t care about our status, so this Christmas let us make room and welcome him in our lives.