Welcoming Jesus In
by Jack Wald | December 22nd, 2019

Luke 2:1-7

We are very familiar with the Christmas story. Is this the story you know?

2019 years ago, at the end of December, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. Mary was pregnant, about to give birth at any moment and when they arrived in Bethlehem, they discovered there was no room for them in the local inn. So they found a stable for the animals and that is where Mary gave birth. That night a bright star lit up the night sky over this stable in Bethlehem and the birth was announced to shepherds in the field. The angels sang to them, “Glory to God in the highest,” and told them to go to Bethlehem to see this baby boy who would be the long-awaited Messiah. The shepherds went and found the baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as the angels had said. Before the shepherds left, three wise men who had traveled from the east arrived with expensive gifts to give to this baby whose birth had been announced in the stars. The stable was quite crowded with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the ox and donkey and sheep, and the wise men, all crowding in to look at Jesus who amazed everyone by how calm and peaceful he was, not making a single cry.

How much of what I just said is true? I count ten errors, perhaps there are more. Jesus was probably born in 3 BC, sometime in the spring. Mary did not arrive and give birth that night. She probably rested for a period of time before giving birth. The star shone over the whole region, not just over the stable. Remember that the wise men had to ask Herod where to find the child who was born. Luke’s gospel says the angels spoke rather than sang their message. The wise men (we have no idea how many of them there were) arrived about a year after Jesus was born by which time Mary and Joseph were living in a house. There is no mention of animals in the stable. And despite what the lyrics of Away in a Manger tell us, Jesus certainly cried, just as all babies do. Many of these details in our popular understanding of the Christmas story have been added over the centuries and there is no great harm done, except that there is a tendency to over sentimentalize the story which detracts from the amazing demonstration of God’s love for us.

I would imagine that these popular additions to what the Bible says about the birth of Jesus do not come as news to you, but about ten years ago I discovered another popular misunderstanding of the Christmas story that I have mentioned every Christmas since then. If you are new to RIC, you may not have heard of this before.

In 2008, Ken Bailey published a wonderful book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, in which he clarifies our understanding of the gospels through his understanding of the cultural setting in which they were written. From time to time I mention Ruth Iskander and her husband, Habib. I lived with them my first six months in Morocco while Annie was still in the US for her job. The reason I mention her is that she was a classmate of Ken Bailey in their one-room schoolhouse in Egypt and she said he was exceptionally smart even as a small boy.

The traditional Christmas story tells of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and being unable to find a place to stay. The innkeeper tells them he has no room for them and finally they find a stable where they can rest and where Mary can give birth.

Ken Bailey’s research caused the NIV scholars to change the language of Luke 2:7 when they revised the 1984 translation in 2011. Luke 2:7 was changed from
Luke 2:7 (NIV84)
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7 (NIV)
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

So let me run through the main points in Ken Bailey’s convincing argument. Because Moroccan culture is similar to the Palestinian culture Jesus in which Jesus lived, we can more easily understand Ken Bailey’s argument.

First, Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important. In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem, and told people, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi” and most homes in town would be open to him.

Second, Joseph was a “royal.” That is, he was from the family of King David. Being of that famous family, Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in town.

Third, in every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention. Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the “City of David” would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village.

Fourth, the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, who Mary had visited when she first discovered she was going to have a baby, was a short distance from Bethlehem. If there was no room for them in Bethlehem, surely they could have gone the short distance to stay with them.

Fifth, there was sufficient time for Joseph to make arrangements. He did not have to find a place to stay the day they arrived. Luke 2:6 says: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,” indicating that there was a lapse of time.

This leads then to the question of where was the manger and what was the inn.

When we read a text from the Bible, we read it and understand it from our own cultural perspective. So, when I read Jesus was laid in a manger, I think about mangers I have known. I had horses when I was growing up and the manger is where we put hay for the horses to eat. The manger was at the level of the horses’ heads so the hay would be kept separated from the straw on the floor that was used as bedding and which absorbed the urine and manure. So for me, when I read manger, I think of walking out of the house, up the road to where the barn was, entering the barn, going to the stables for the horses, and putting hay in the feeding troughs, or mangers, for each of the horses.

When I think of an inn, I think of the many hotels I have stayed in over the years when I have traveled. At the end of a day I would check into a hotel, or inn, and rest for the night before setting out again the next morning.

When the Gospel of Luke was translated by the Greek/Romans, they had an understanding of manger and inn not very much different from mine. Ken Bailey’s contention is that these translators were distant from the culture of Palestine and did not always appreciate what the gospel writers were trying to say. In his research, Bailey paid much closer attention to the Arabic translations of the gospels over the early centuries because those translators were much closer to the culture of Palestine than the Greek/Roman translators.

The key word to be translated is katalyma. In our Bibles this word is translated as inn. There was no room for them in the katalyma. But Luke uses this same word at the end of his gospel in Luke 22:10–12 when Jesus gives instructions to his disciples about where to find a room for their celebration of the Passover.
“As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room (the katalyma), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

The word translated guest room is the same katalyma translated as inn twenty chapters earlier.

If Luke had meant that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, there is another Greek word he could have used. In fact in Luke 10 the Good Samaritan takes the wounded man to an inn, pandocheion, so he can recover, but Luke did not use that word in Luke 2 when our Bibles say, for there was no room for them in the inn. Luke used katalyma, there was no room for them in the guest room.

In your bulletin there is a drawing of a typical Palestinian home and you see on the left side the stable where the animals were kept. From there you climbed steps into the family room. The family room was raised to prevent the animals from wandering into the family living space but the stable was not separated from the family room. In the drawing you can see the manger, the feeding trough, at the edge of the family room. In the barn I am familiar with, the manger was made of wood. In Palestinian homes the manger was a bowl-shaped hollow in the floor where the feed was put. As in the barn when I was growing up, the manger was elevated so the feed would be kept clean. As the family sat and ate their meal or slept, the animals could eat their food from the manger at the edge of the family living space.

Then on the right side, if a family could afford it, a third room was added, the katalyma, the guest room. If you remember the story of Elisha in II Kings 4, a woman and her husband built a guest room onto their house so Elisha the prophet could have a place to stay when he passed by.

So this seems to be the story of Mary and Joseph when they arrived in Bethlehem. It was most likely a relative who invited them to stay with them. Because they already had someone staying in the katalyma, the guest room, Mary and Joseph stayed with them in the family room and when Mary gave birth, Jesus was laid in the manger, on the side of the family room. Because there was no room for them in the katalyma, the guest room, Jesus was laid in the manger.

Ken Bailey summarizes:
Joseph was not obliged to seek a commercial inn. He does not appear as an inept and inadequate husband who cannot arrange for Mary’s needs. Likewise, Joseph did not anger his wife’s relatives by failing to turn to them in a crisis. The child was born in the normal surroundings of a peasant home sometime after they arrived in Bethlehem, and there was no heartless innkeeper with whom to deal. A member of the house of David was not humiliated by rejection as he returned to the village of his family’s origins. The people of Bethlehem offered the best they had and preserved their honor as a community. The shepherds were not hardhearted oafs without the presence of mind to help a needy family of strangers.

Our Christmas creche sets remain as they are because “ox and ass before him bow, for he is in the manger now.” But that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Looking at the story in this light strips away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around it. Jesus was born in a simple two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years. Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them, the story is enriched, not cheapened.

Thousands of sermons have been preached about Mary and Joseph being rejected by the innkeeper and how we must be certain not to reject Jesus. That’s a great message. There were many who rejected Jesus: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, for example, and we do not want to be among them. We do not want to be like Pilate who asked Jesus, “What is truth?” and did not understand the silence of Jesus as his answer to that question. But that message does not come from this part of the Christmas story.

What are the lessons we can draw from Ken Bailey’s understanding of the Christmas story?

First, we need to open our hearts and welcome Jesus in.
Second, sacrifices are required if we are to make room for Jesus in our lives.
And third, in order to love Jesus, we need to open our hearts wide enough to make room for others.

The traditional understanding of this story, that Joseph and Mary were rejected by the people in the town and the innkeeper and had to find a place to stay in a stable, brings us a lesson in the negative. We are told not to be like the innkeeper and reject Jesus.

I much prefer the positive lesson that comes from Ken Bailey’s understanding of what happened. We are to make room and welcome Jesus into our lives.

This is what the family did that welcomed Joseph and Mary to their house. This family welcomed Mary and Joseph into their home and then had a story that was passed down through the generations. The children in that family told their children and their grandchildren about the events that followed the welcome of Mary and Joseph into their home.

All of us who welcome Jesus into our lives have a story we tell. My children have heard my story and as my grandchildren get older, I tell them my story.

The most important events in my live have their beginning in that first visit of Jesus to my life. I became aware of the presence of God and put it on the back burner for six years before I paid attention once again. And then, when I was once more aware of the presence of God, it took me two or three months before I chose to submit to God. But from that decision, from that moment in time, my life began to grow.

Jesus said in Revelation 3:20
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

What really matters in life starts with our invitation to Jesus who stands and knocks at the door to come into our lives. But we have to choose. Will we let him in? If we do, then life begins. If not, then we continue moving through life without his presence. Jesus will not force himself on us. Jesus waits for us to respond. Jesus knocks through our life circumstances, sometimes through dreams, perhaps through providential acts in our lives, but Jesus never gives up. Jesus continues to knock at the door of our lives because he loves us and longs for us to come into his kingdom. And then when we open the door and invite Jesus to come into our lives there is yet another celebration in heaven.

I hope you sense that we are not just a group of churchgoers meeting for our Sunday service before Christmas Day. We are people who have discovered we were lost and in need of rescue. Jesus knocked on the door of our lives and we responded by opening the door and inviting Jesus in.

If you have never acknowledged the presence of God and made the decision to submit to him, then that would be a great present to give to yourself this Christmas. Your prayer does not have to be deeply theological and complex. It is simply praying, “Jesus, I need you in my life and I invite you to come and teach me how to love you and follow you.” There are such riches that will come but they begin by the simple act of inviting Jesus in. That is the first lesson from this Christmas story.

The second lesson is that sacrifice will be required if you invite Jesus in. The family room of the house where Mary and Joseph were invited to stay was not a mansion. The family ate, lived and slept in that one room. When Mary and Joseph came to stay, the room became more crowded. People had to squeeze together to make room for two more people to sleep. The family made a sacrifice when they invited Mary and Joseph into their home.

The same is true of us when we invite Jesus to come into our lives. We no longer live just for ourselves. We no longer do whatever we want to do. We now serve Jesus who is our master. We seek to do what pleases him. When a desire rises up, we realize that we are no longer slaves to our desires but ask ourselves if this is a desire Jesus wants us to satisfy.

We no longer spend money any way we want to. When we see something we want, we have to ask if that is how Jesus wants us to spend the money we have. I almost said “our money” but that is no longer true. It is not our money. It is God’s money and we have to give account for how we use it.

We no longer spend our time as we want. The question we ask ourselves now is, “What is it you want me to do Jesus? How do you want me to live my life? Who are the people you want me to be with?” We have to turn away from old habits that are not helpful to us and make new habits. We need to ask ourselves if we are wasting the time God has given us.

We no longer use our talents to serve ourselves. To follow Jesus is to turn our attention and focus from what the world can offer, fame, money and power, and (Hebrews 12:2 )
fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,
We surrender our talents to Jesus and ask him how we can use them to build his kingdom.

What is so wonderful is that as we follow Jesus we will discover that the things we thought we were sacrificing were not the treasures we thought they were. We will drop pornography to gain love. We will drop love of money for riches in heaven. We will drop our pursuit of success and gain contentment. We will drop the pursuit of popularity and gain happiness. We will drop our lust for fame and discover that our name is written in the Book of Life. We will drop our search for power and discover that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. We will drop our search for comfort and ease and discover the gift of fulfillment. As we follow Jesus we will discover the joy of giving, the elation of working with Jesus to build his kingdom, the deep satisfaction of knowing our life is meaningful.

What we thought were sacrifices will turn out to be precious gifts that gave us what we most needed.

The third lesson is that in order to love Jesus, we need to open our hearts wide enough to make room for others.

Mary and Joseph were not alone with the animals the evening Mary gave birth to Jesus. The family who lived in that room were there. The people in the guest room were there. Perhaps the men went into the guest room leaving the women alone with Mary as she gave birth. But in addition to those women, as is true in every small town or village in the world, other women – “experts” because each of them had already had four or five children of their own – were gathered around as Mary gave birth.

When Jesus was born he was laid in the manger at the side of the room where the animals in the stable could have nuzzled him out of curiosity. Then later that night the shepherds came to see this baby the angels had told them about. Neighbors heard the news and came to see the baby. That family room was a crowded room that night.

I wonder who it was that was staying in the guest room. And I wonder if they ever really knew who it was that was born in the family room? If they did, I wonder if they ever regretted that they did not give up their room for Mary and Joseph.

There is a story Matthew, Mark and Luke all recorded in their gospels. After a long day of teaching and healing and casting out demons, Jesus and his disciples set out on the Sea of Galilee to cross to the other side. Jesus was exhausted and promptly fell asleep. As he slept, a squall came and their small boat was in danger of being swamped. Waves were crashing in over the sides of the boat and the disciples, even the more experience fishermen among them, were terrified. They woke Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus got up, rebuked the storm and the lake was calm.

This is an incredible story and it is not a wonder that Matthew, Mark and Luke all recorded the incident. This is a story that stood out in the minds of the disciples as they told others about what it had been like to be with Jesus. But there is a detail in Mark’s telling of the story that is not in the other two. (Mark 4:38)
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.

This is all speculation, of course. It could be Jesus found the cushion himself. But perhaps, one of the disciples saw Jesus sleeping on the hard wood of the boat and out of affection and admiration for his teacher who had worked so hard all day long, he put a cushion under the sleeping head of Jesus. When Frederick Buechner was writing about this incident, he asked, “Wouldn’t you like to have been the one who put the cushion under Jesus’ head?”

When Jesus was hot and tired, wouldn’t you like to have given him a drink of water? When Jesus was arrested and abandoned by his disciples, wouldn’t you like to have been there to encourage him by not running away?

Wouldn’t you like to have been the one who opened your home to Joseph and Mary so she could give birth to Jesus? If you had been the one staying in the guest room, wouldn’t you have liked to offer up your room to Mary and Joseph?

We have a longing to have been able to do kind things for Jesus but in another of his parables, Jesus said we still have a chance to do kind things for him.

In a parable about the day of judgment, Jesus said, (Matthew 25:31–46 )
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

So this third lesson tells us that if we want to love Jesus, if we want to do something kind for Jesus, then we will love others in his name. When we distribute backpacks to schoolchildren, when we distribute baby packages to mothers of new babies, when we pay attention to the people around us and treat them as people of worth because they have been created by God, when we do these things, we are loving Jesus.

The difficulty for us is that we become so involved with the needs of our lives that there is not much room for others in our heart. So we need to pray the prayer Augustine of Hippo prayed: “Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge it so that you may enter in.”

A.W. Tozer commented in response to Augustine’s prayer:
“The widest thing in the universe is not space; it is the potential capacity of the human heart. Being made in the image of God, it is capable of almost unlimited extension in all directions. And one of the world’s worst tragedies is that we allow our hearts to shrink until there is room in them for little beside ourselves.”

“Enlarge my heart, make room for others in my heart,” this should be our prayer. It is obvious that we cannot care for every person in the world who has needs. We are not God. But who are the people God is putting on our hearts? Who are the people God wants us to love in his name?

When we have a busy schedule, making room for people in our lives is difficult. When our finances are limited, it seems too much to make room for someone in our budget.

When you volunteer to help with ministries of the church, you are making room in your life for Jesus. We think we are helping children, but Jesus sees what we do and accepts our work as being done for him.

We don’t know who the family was that made room for Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. They may have had limited finances. They may have had busy lives. But they made room for Mary and Joseph and throughout the history of the church there have been many people who have made room for others in their lives.

I am certain of this, those people who are now in heaven have no regrets for having made room for others in their lives. They have no regrets for the sacrifices made to do this. And I am certain of this as well, those who have regrets are those who wish they had been more willing to make sacrifices to make room for others in their lives.

When we make room for people in our lives, we make room for Jesus. When we clothe someone, feed someone, visit someone, we do this for Jesus.

When we love others in the name of Jesus, we are giving up our place in the guest room so Jesus can come in. We are loving Jesus by loving the people he loves.

Who is asking to come into your life, your schedule, your budget, your home? We cannot care for everyone, but who can you help? Who is God asking you to help?

Pray the prayer of Augustine, “Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge it so that you may enter in.”

Open your heart. Make room for Jesus to come in along with those he loves.