The Word: More than a guest room

Published 11:38 am Friday, December 29, 2023

It’s a staple of the Christmas play we’ve probably seen before: kids in bathrobes as Mary and Joseph, knocking on a door.  Another kid, the innkeeper, opens the door and says, “I’m sorry, there is no room in the inn.  Would you like to stay in my stable?”  It’s a scene that has birthed millions of tiny Nativity scenes and launched untold numbers of Christmas sermons.

But what if the tradition has erred?

The traditional Christmas story portrays Joseph and Mary arriving in a bustling Bethlehem, with so many folks in town for the census that the inn is completely booked.  Yet in the ancient world, many travelers – especially those with family roots in the town – would stay in a local home belonging to an uncle or far-flung cousin.  Joseph, though a resident of Nazareth, had family ties to Bethlehem; that’s the whole reason he and his betrothed were there!  They wouldn’t have been looking for a room at the first-century Sheraton; they would have been bedding down at Grandma’s house.

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Such a reality is backed up by the biblical text.  The stable is nowhere in sight in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  Neither, surprisingly, is an innkeeper.  Even in the verse in question – usually translated “there was no room for them in the inn” – uses a Greek word that doesn’t mean a hotel or commercial inn, but rather a guest room on a family dwelling.  Indeed, some modern translations use “guest room” instead of “inn.”  And archeology tells us that many first-century farming families didn’t have external barns or stables for their livestock; rather, if they had to be inside, animals were kept in a lower level of the home, which usually had mangers or feeding troughs built into the floor.

“So what?” you may ask.  “What difference does it make?”

It makes a difference because of the story it tells about Jesus’ birth, and ultimately the challenge it gives us.  If Jesus was born in the home of a relative that was so crowded he was laid in a manger instead of a guest room, it means that God always intended to be as close to us as possible.  And it means that we, like the first-century cousin or aunt or uncle who took Joseph and Mary in, can’t sequester Jesus in some peripheral place in our lives.  Jesus wants to be right there, in the midst of everything, even if that means he’s right there in the hay.

As we enter 2024, I want to invite you to consider where you invite God to be in your life.  Is God an add-on, someone you think about occasionally or make room for when nothing better is going on?  Or is God at the center, part of everything you do?  I know where God wants to be, because he “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Rev. Dr. J. Adam Tyler is the Senior Pastor for Farmville Baptist Church and he can be reached by email at pastor@farmvillebaptist.org.