No Crib for a Bed: The God of Every Circumstance
December 7, 2003
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7 KJV).
While doing some preparation for this message, I ran across a sermon title that stuck in my mind. Someone preached on this text using the title, “Miracle on Manger Street.” That’s clever and catchy, and it’s also appropriate because there really was a miracle on “manger street” the night Jesus was born. The scene portrayed in Luke 2:7 is so familiar that it has become unmistakable. We call it a creche, a representation of the birth of Christ, either with statuary or in a painting or sometimes with actors portraying Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Usually the setting is quite pastoral, with Mary and Joseph watching as Jesus sleeps in the clean wooden feeding-trough. Sometimes there is a glowing light emanating from baby Jesus. The straw is fresh, overhead the stars twinkle in the sky, nearby the cattle and the sheep rest contentedly and the faithful donkey (there’s almost always a donkey) watches the happy parents. And very often the shepherds and the Wise Men bow before the Babe in the manger. As I said, it is a sweet and beautiful scene.
It is also quite dangerous. I know a creche is dangerous because you can’t put one on government property (or in almost any public place) these days. If you do, you are likely to get sued. Someone is almost certain to be offended. But the real problem with the creche lies not in any supposed offense, but in the fact that this peaceful scene bears little connection to what really happened that night in Bethlehem. It wasn’t very peaceful, it couldn’t have been as clean, nothing would have been as beautiful as we make it appear, and there is no reason to believe that the shepherds and the Wise Men ever saw Jesus at the same time.
But the major problem rests in one fact: The Son of God from heaven comes to earth and is born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. We hear this so often that we take it for granted, but it does not seem right. To help us think about this one fact of Jesus’ birth, let’s think together about three questions: 1) What’s wrong with this picture? 2) Why does God allow it? 3) What do we learn from it? From our point of view, Jesus should not have been born in a stable—but he was. Surely this was not an accident—but a message from God to our hearts.
1) What’s wrong with this picture?
The answer is simple: Jesus doesn’t belong here. He’s the Son of God from heaven. He doesn’t deserve to be treated like a vagrant or a criminal. He deserves the best the world has to offer. He comes from heaven to earth—and ends up in a stable? How can that be? Let me press the point home another way. God could have done better. Think about it for a moment. Suppose you had all power and could choose the time and place and manner of your son’s birth. Would you choose to have him born outside, in a stable? That doesn’t make any sense. What’s going on here? Why is this happening? Why is there no room in the inn?
Perhaps the place to begin is with a note about Bethlehem. If you visit Bethlehem today, you’ll find that it is a fairly large, bustling Arab town located seven or eight miles south of Jerusalem. You reach Bethlehem by traveling to Jerusalem and then driving down a wide paved road. The situation in that part of the world is very tense nowadays, and although it would not be advisable to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, you could do it easily in an hour or two. In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was a tiny Jewish town, a small out-of-the-way village, one of the least important towns in all of Judah. One writer called it a “hamlet,” meaning a quaint little village. A few shepherds lived there, some farmers, a few merchants, and that was about it. It was a small Jewish village made famous only because it was King David’s hometown.
One part of the story involved a man named Caesar Augustus in faraway Rome who (prompted by God) decreed that a census be taken so that taxes could be collected throughout the Empire. The census required that all Jewish males go back to their ancestral hometowns to register. Since Joseph was descended from David, he had to return to Bethlehem. It “happened” that Mary was in her final stages of pregnancy when they arrived in Bethlehem. I put “happened” in quotes because God arranged everything so that the emperor issued the decree at just the right moment and in just the right way so that at just the right time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem so that they were exactly where the prophet Micah said they would be when Jesus was born (Micah 5:2). It all seemed to just “happen,” but what seemed to be by chance was actually the hand of God moving through history to accomplish his purposes. “If God ordains it, he will make a way.”
Not the Holiday Inn
Part of our problem in understanding this story revolves around the word “inn.” We are so immersed in American culture that we read the text this way: “There was no room for them at the Bethlehem Holiday Inn.” Or “They couldn’t find a room at the Greater Jerusalem Hampton Inn.” Or the Ramada Inn. Or the Sheraton. Or the Hilton. We tend to think of a nice building near a freeway exit, three or four stories tall, with a nice parking lot, a large lobby, a pool and a hot tub, a Coke machine on every floor, with hot showers, cable TV, and data ports on the phones so we can surf the Internet. To us, roughing it is what happens when the ice machine is broken.
If you can, try to clear your head of those notions. In all the Roman Empire, there was not a single inn as nice as the average Holiday Inn. In those days travel was dirty, difficult and dangerous. Creature comforts were hard to come by. Travelers needed safety and security from the robbers that could be found on every highway. An “inn” was simply a building where you could rest safely during the night. Indoor plumbing was not an option—and cable TV was 20 centuries in the future.
In order to properly understand what happened, it helps to know that Luke used two different words for “inn” when he wrote his gospel. One word refers to a small building dedicated to serving travelers. At one end of the building, you tied up your horses and donkeys. For a fee, the innkeeper allowed you to sleep on a rough mattress on the floor. He also kept the fire going and provided fodder for the animals. This was the “inn” Jesus mentioned in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 34). If you ever travel on the old road from Jericho to Jerusalem, your bus will probably stop at the “Inn of the Good Samaritan,” a simple building located at the traditional site of the inn that existed in Jesus’ day.
When Luke told the story of Jesus’ birth, he used a different word for “inn” in verse 7 that basically means a guest room. This “inn” would be even smaller and simpler than the one in Luke 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 wandering away during the night. It was an “inn” such as this that had no room for Mary and Joseph and Jesus on that holy night in Bethlehem.
Why were they turned away? No doubt they were full that night. Perhaps other descendants of David had come to Bethlehem to enroll for the census. And the innkeeper would not have known Joseph because he was from Nazareth. Perhaps because they were poor, they could not pay. And perhaps the innkeeper, seeing that Mary was very pregnant, did not want to drive off the other customers. The only thing we know for certain is that there was no room for them. Everything else is just conjecture.
And that brings me back to the major point. From a human point of view, nothing in this picture looks right. Jesus deserved better; God could have done better. So why did it happen like this? That leads us to the second question.
2) Why does God allow it?
Even though I wrote the question myself, I think it is not strong enough. If we believe in the sovereignty of God, then I think we must believe that God did not simply “allow” his Son to be born in a stable; we must believe that God “ordained” it. There was no room in the inn because God wanted it that way. If God had wanted it some other way, then it would have happened that “other way.”
In order to work our way to an answer, let’s back up a bit. Joseph and Mary were compelled (by the census) to return to Bethlehem in the latter stages of Mary’s pregnancy. It seems clear that they arrived in Bethlehem just a few days before she gave birth to Jesus. The journey itself would have been difficult and dangerous. Pious Jews traveling from Nazareth would have gone east across the Jordan River, then south through Perea, crossing into Judea at Jericho. They would have ascended through the mountains to Jerusalem, and then made the seven- or eight-mile journey south to Bethlehem. That jagged journey—east, south, west, south—allowed them to avoid Samaria altogether. The 90-mile journey might have taken six or seven days, traveling slowly because of Mary’s advanced pregnancy.
Mary Would Still Walk Today
I wondered to myself if things would be any different today. Suppose Mary wanted to fly on Southwest or United or American or Northwest instead of walking. A check on airline policies quickly reveals the problem. All the airlines will allow pregnant women to travel through their 35th week. After that, they must bring a letter from their doctor (written within 72 hours of the trip) saying they are in good enough health to make the flight. A woman in the last stages of pregnancy would very likely be turned away at the gate. The bottom line is that nothing has really changed in 2,000 years. Mary would still be walking today.
So they arrived in Bethlehem, were turned away at the inn, and the baby was born in a stable—outdoors, in the cold, with the animals no doubt nearby. They had no privacy, no sanitation, and very little protection from the elements.
Why would God send his Son into the world like this? In his sermon on this text, Charles Spurgeon (“No Room for Christ in the Inn”) offers a number of answers to this question. First of all, Christ was born like this to show his humiliation. “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 asks. The answer is no, it would not have been fitting for Jesus to be robed in purple at his birth. All his life he would be not much more than a peasant. Nothing is more fitting for Christ than to be born in a manger since he had laid aside his glory to take the form of a servant.
Jesus, King of the Poor
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. “In the eyes of the poor, imperial robes excite no affection, a man in their own garb attracts their confidence.” Spurgeon notes that the best commanders are those who have the common touch, who are not afraid to mingle with the soldiers on the front lines, who aren’t ashamed to get their hands dirty in the trenches of warfare. When soldiers know that their commander has walked where they walk, they will follow him to the ends of the earth. 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 very manner of his birth—turned away from the inn, born in a stable—was an invitation to the rejected, the abused, the mistreated, the forgotten, the overlooked, to come to him for salvation. “We might tremble to approach a throne, but we cannot fear to approach a manger.” If Jesus had been born in Paris or in Beverly Hills, only the rich and famous would feel at home with him. But since he was born in a stable, all the outsiders of the world (and there are far more outsiders than insiders) would instinctively feel a kinship with Jesus.
By being laid in a manger he proved himself a priest taken from among men, one who has suffered like his brethren, and therefore can be touched with a feeling of our infirmities. Of him it was said “He doth eat and drink with publicans and sinners;” “this man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” Even as an infant, by being laid in a manger, he was set forth as the sinner’s friend.
I find this an inspiring thought. The fact that there was no room in the inn turns out to be much more than an incidental detail. Indeed, it is central to who Jesus is. Now that we know why he came, surely we will say, “He had to be born like this. It couldn’t have happened any other way.”
Is there a hint here of his upcoming death? I believe there is. Turned away from the inn and resting in a feeding-trough, he was already bearing the only cross a baby can bear—extreme poverty and the contempt and indifference of mankind. In the words of Francis of Assisi, “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 appointed “sign” to us all. This is a true Incarnation. God has come to the world in a most unlikely way. This is what Philippians 2:7 means when it says that he “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Nothing about the baby Jesus appeared supernatural. There were no halos, no angels visible, and no choirs singing. If you had been there, and if you had no other information, you would have concluded that this was just a baby born to a poor young couple down on their luck. Nothing about the outward circumstances pointed to God. Yet all of it—every part of it, every single, solitary, seemingly random detail—was planned by the Father before the foundation of the world. To the unseeing eye, nothing looks less like God; to those who understand, God’s fingerprints are everywhere.
3) What do we learn from this?
If we stand back and consider this one aspect of the Christmas story, some amazing truths emerge. We learn something about God, something about the world, something about Jesus, and something about his followers.
First, we learn that God uses adverse circumstances that make no sense at the time in order to accomplish his purposes in the future. At first glance the fact that there was no room at the inn seems like an insignificant detail in the larger picture. But I assure you that it was no small detail to Mary and Joseph. Being turned away at the very moment when the baby was coming must have been devastating. Giving birth in a stable no doubt tested their faith to the limit. Certainly it would not have made sense at the time. Mary and Joseph—no matter how devout they were—simply could not have foreseen how this “negative” turn of events would turn about to be part of God’s plan to bring his Son to the world. They might have believed it, but they would not have seen it in advance. Life is like that—we don’t know what is coming around the corner, and many things we endure make no sense at all. Sometimes they don’t make sense for years to come. And sometimes they never make sense to us. This week I heard about a young woman in her early 20s who has just been diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer that has spread throughout her body. The cancer is so extensive that surgery is out of the question. For the moment, very difficult chemotherapy is the only possible treatment. No one can say what her long-range prognosis might be. I daresay that for her parents, there is nothing about this that makes sense. In moments like this, rather than try to explain the mysterious ways of God, or try to answer unanswerable questions, we do better to rest on what we know about God—that he is good and just and merciful, that his ways are not our ways, that he makes no mistakes, and he does whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3). I take great comfort in the fact that our God knows what he is doing, and he uses everything that happens to us to accomplish his purposes in us and through us and for us. Nothing is wasted. That was true for Mary and Joseph. Nothing is wasted—not even being turned away because there was no room in the inn.
Second, we learn also that the world had no room for Christ, and it has no room for Christ now. John 1:11 puts it very plainly: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Jesus came “home” to his own people—and they wouldn’t take him in. He came to the people who should have known him best—and they wanted nothing to do with him. They should have known better. They knew he was coming—God had told them over and over again many times in many ways. They had ample warning. Even some pagan astrologers in Persia figured it out when they saw his star in the east (Matthew 2:1-5). But the rejection of Christ by his own people was a portent of things to come. If Mary and Joseph came to Chicago, they would be turned away from the Palmer House and the Hilton. If they came to Oak Park, they wouldn’t be able to stay at the Carleton or the Wright Inn. And Mary wouldn’t have her baby at Rush Presbyterian or Loyola or West Suburban Hospital. If Jesus were born today, it would happen in a ramshackle tenement building or in a field in the country or in a remote village in India. The world that had no room for him has no room for him now.
Third, we 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. During his ministry he told his disciples that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He owned nothing but the clothes on his back, and when he was crucified, the soldiers gambled for his robe. When he died, they buried him in a borrowed tomb. The whole story is quite remarkable if you think about it. After one of the services on Sunday, a friend came up and said, “It’s a miracle. We worship a man born in a dumpster.” If that’s an exaggeration, his point is still true. Another person asked me what I thought the stable smelled like. “Like a stable,” I replied. It wasn’t a nice place to be born. It’s closer to the truth to say that we worship a man born in a dumpster than to say we worship a man born in a palace. Jesus is more than a man—he’s the Son of God—but he’s not less than fully human either. Our Savior’s birth pictured the whole course of his life. He was born outside the inn and he died outside the walls of Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:11-13). He was an “outsider” in every sense—he came from “outside” this earth, he was born “outside” the inn, and he died “outside” the city walls.
Fourth, we learn that his followers share in his fate. We live with him, we suffer with him, we die with him, and we reign with him. What happens to Jesus happens to his followers sooner or later. Just as there was no room for Jesus, there is “no room” for his followers either. This week I noticed a detail in the Christmas story that I had never seen before. Whenever I had read or heard Luke 2:7, I always read and heard the last phrase this way, “because there was no room for him in the inn.” But that’s not what Luke said. He actually wrote, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” Remember, the innkeeper had no idea that the Messiah was about to be born. I had always read it as if there was no room for Jesus. True enough, but there was no room for Mary or Joseph either. Even that detail tells a story. They are also “outside the inn” when Jesus is born. What happened to him happened also to them. That too is a pattern for the future. Many years later Jesus challenged his disciples this way: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die with him.
Is There Room in Your Heart?
And so we come to the very end of the story. What great truth lies behind the simple words of Luke 2:7. Even the tiniest details turn out to have enormous significance in the Christmas story. Let me say one final time so we will be sure to catch it. The “No Vacancy” signs were there for our benefit. God could have made a room available. He could have created a hospital or a palace in Bethlehem if he had so desired. The sequence of events that unfolded—the census, the long journey, no room at the inn, “no crib for a bed,” the feeding trough, the “swaddling clothes”—all of it was planned by God even though it all appeared to happen by chance. God willed there would be no room in the inn not for the sake of Jesus, but for our sakes, that we might learn who Jesus is and why he came.
Because there was no room in the inn, the final call is always individual. The world has no room for Jesus. Will you make room for him in your heart? The story is told of a little boy who was chosen to play the innkeeper in the annual children’s Christmas play at his church. When the night came, all the children were in their places, nervously waiting for the play to begin. The girls were dressed as angels, the boys as shepherds and Wise Men. While the little girls talked and giggled, the boys poked each other with their shepherds’ staffs. The little boy chosen to play the innkeeper had only one line. When Joseph knocked on the door, he was to open it and tell them there was no room in the inn.
As the play began, parents and grandparents wondered how their children would do that night. Everything proceeded as planned. At last the big moment came for the innkeeper. Joseph knocked on the door. The young boy opened it and saw Joseph and the very pregnant young girl. Something about the sight of Mary touched his heart, and he blurted out the show-stopping lines, “There is no room left in the inn … but you can share my room.” Some people thought the Christmas pageant had been ruined. Others thought it was best one ever. The little boy told the frustrated director later: “I just couldn’t send Jesus away. I had to find a place for Jesus.”
There was no room for Jesus that night in Bethlehem. Will you make room for him in your heart this year? When Spurgeon preached on this text, he made this appeal to his audience:
Even as an infant, by being laid in a manger, he was set forth as the sinner’s friend. Come to him, ye that are weary and heavy-laden! Come to him, ye that are broken in spirit, ye who are bowed down in soul! Come to him, ye that despise yourselves and are despised of others! Come to him, publican and harlot! Come to him, thief and drunkard! In the manger there he lies, unguarded from your touch and unshielded from your gaze. Bow the knee, and kiss the Son of God; accept him as your Savior, for he puts himself into that manger that you may approach him.
Here is good news for the worst of sinners. Though the whole world may turn away, you can open your heart and let him in. And if he comes in, he will never leave you. May God grant to each of us faith to believe and an open heart to say, “Yes, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for you.” Amen.