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Lu. 2:7 says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
As you may know, my wife Kari loves nativity scenes. We have them in almost every room in the house and some remain out year round. Those scenes are generally the same give or take some animals, wise men, or shepherds. They show Mary holding baby Jesus with Joseph lovingly looking down on her. Maybe Mary and Joseph are standing looking adoringly at Jesus as He lies in the manger. Nativities have Jesus wrapped tightly in white linen swaddling clothes lying in a pristine manger on fresh hay. Put that same manger in front of a City Hall or public park and watch a few very vocal people have a conniption fit screaming separation of church and state. There’s always going to be someone offended by this peaceful, wonderful depiction of the birth of the Messiah, but I wonder why people aren’t offended at the liberties taken with the scene.
Gal. 4:4 says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.”
There was no room at the inn. This is a something we hear all the time and probably don’t give it much thought. What’s wrong with this picture? When I was growing up, I liked to look at those cartoons that show two seemingly identical scenes and you have you figure out what’s different about the two. In the manger scenes of today, what’s different about the scene portrayed in Scripture? If you’re God, why would you make it happen like this? Think about it, if Joseph and Mary had hurried along, maybe they would have gotten that last room. Can you picture Joseph, “Come on Mary, hurry up, it’s late and we want to get a room.” God could have ensured there was room at the inn. He could have spoken it into existence. It’s like He planned for it to happen. Bethlehem is located about eight miles south of Jerusalem. Today, it could be classified as a tourist trap. It’s very commercialized and very anti-Israeli as it is controlled by the Palestinians. Back in the first century, it was a no nothing town, hardly a blip on the map. The only thing of note was that it was the hometown of King David. The whole reason Joseph and Mary were there was because of Caesar Augustus and his decree. He ordered a census be taken so that taxes could be collected throughout the Roman Empire. In order to do that, you had to go back to the place of your birth and be counted. Joseph was a descendant of David. It just happened that Mary was in the final days of her pregnancy. I’m sure you women can imagine what a fun journey that must have been. So they end up in Bethlehem at just the right time for Mary to deliver. “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Mic. 5:2)
This was not your typical inn. No room at the inn brings up all sorts of connotations. We have a hard time separating ourselves from our modern conveniences. Maybe we picture a quaint bed and breakfast. Nobody was leaving the light on for you in the Roman Empire. There were no global leaders in hospitality. There was no choice of pillows or free breakfast. The best the Empire had to offer pales in comparison to even our mediocre hotels. The only thing travelers wanted back then was a place to lie down and not be attacked by bandits. The inn was a building without the creature comforts we would expect. Luke uses two different words for inn in his writings. One word refers to a small building dedicated to serving travelers. At one end of the building, you tied up your transportation. For an additional fee, the innkeeper allowed you to sleep on a rough mattress on the floor. He also kept the fire going and provided food for the animals. This is the kind of inn mentioned in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Lu. 10: 34.
When Luke told the story of Jesus’ birth, he used a different word for inn in 2:7 that basically means a guest room. This inn would be smaller and simpler than the one in Lu. 10. 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 getting out during the night. This was the kind of inn where there was no room. Why was the place full that night? Why were they told there was no room? There were lots of people traveling due to the census. Maybe they didn’t have any money. We really don’t know. From our perspective, there’s something wrong with the picture. Jesus deserved better and God could have done better. If you want to play the sovereignty of God card; that was the way it was meant to be. There was no room at the inn because that was part of God’s plan.
Why was it that way? Let’s back up the story a bit. Mary and Joseph had to return to Bethlehem as part of the census. Mary was pregnant and they arrived in the little town of Bethlehem in the very last stage of pregnancy. It was a difficult journey because of the route they took. They would have avoided Samaria because it was Samaria and they would travel about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It would have taken about a week because Mary was pregnant. Have you ever traveled with a pregnant woman? Even today, traveling by the quickest mode of transportation is made impossible by pregnancy. Several major airlines refuse travel to women in the last days of pregnancy. The most restrictive is American; you can’t fly within 30 days of your due date unless you have a note from your doctor signed within 48 hours of traveling. All the airlines require you to consult with your doctor prior to flying. So Mary and Joseph would be taking the slow route – driving today. They arrive in Bethlehem tired and most likely hungry to find a place to stay, yet there was no room at the inn.
In writing about this text, Charles Spurgeon answers the question “Why would God allow it like this?” in three ways. He asks, “Would it have been fitting that the man who was to die naked on the cross should be robed in purple at his birth?” He says that Christ would be a peasant His whole life. Nothing is more fitting since He laid aside His glory to take on flesh. Second, 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. Spurgeon goes on to say, “In the eyes of the poor, imperial robes excite no affection, a man in their own garb attracts their confidence.” The poor of the earth know that in Jesus they have a friend who cares about them. Third, He was born like this in order that the humble might feel invited to come to him. The whole scenario of there being no room at the inn, born in a stable to relatively poor and unmarried parents is an invitation to those that are rejected by society, the abused, mistreated, overlooked and forgotten people of the world that desperately need a savior. In His flesh, Jesus was like us. Jesus had to be born like this. If you look into Jesus’ future, you can even see why. Is there a hint here of his upcoming death? Sir Francis of Assisi said, “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 sign to humanity. God has come to the world in a most unlikely way. Phil. 2:7 says, “But emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” On the surface, there was no glow around baby Jesus. There was nothing about Him that seemed super natural or God like. At the time of His birth, there were no choirs singing the Hallelujah chorus. He was just a little baby born to ordinary parents. And this was exactly the way God wanted it.
What do we learn from this? When we stand back at look at this aspect of the Christmas story, some really incredible truths emerge. We learn that God uses adverse circumstances to accomplish His purposes that make no sense to us. No room at the inn is really an insignificant detail that few people take time to evaluate, but since it’s part of the story, we have to ask ourselves why. Put yourself in Mary and Joseph’s place. It wasn’t some minor detail, but a huge obstacle. Even though an angel had spoken to Mary and to Joseph, there still must have been doubt. I think of all we have available to us, and we still doubt. Sometimes we don’t see things clearly until years later. We also learn that the world really has no room for Jesus. Jo. 1:11 says, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” He came to the people who should have known him best. He came to the people who knew He was coming. Even those wise men, the Magi from the east recognized the sign that God gave them. But His own people rejected the Christ Child. We also learn that His humiliation started early and continued to the very end. He was born outside because they wouldn’t let Mary and Joseph come inside. In Matt. 8:20 Jesus told a scribe, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” When He went to the cross, He had nothing except what He was wearing and the soldiers gambled for His coat. When He died, He was buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus was an outsider. He was born outside and He died outside. Finally, we learn that as His followers, we share His fate. We live with Him, we suffer with Him, we die with Him, and we will reign with Him. What happens to Jesus happens to His followers sooner or later.
One verse has so much packed into it. There was no room at the inn is more than a minor detail – it was there for us. Every detail of the Christmas story is there for us. The sequence of events, the timing, the census, the journey, no room at the inn, no crib for a babe are all details for us to recognize Emmanuel – God with us. Will you make room for Jesus in your life?