A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "When There's No Room in the Inn"

     The children were presenting their annual Christmas play in front of the congregation, much to their delight.  With the innkeeper pretending to sweep at the front door of the inn, Mary is letting Joseph know how worried she is that they’re probably not going to find a room for the night.
     Joseph, on cue, tries to calm her fears, assuring her that they’ll be able to find a place.  He looks over at the inn keeper and tells Mary that this person might be able to help them out.  So Joseph asks the inn keeper if there’s a vacancy for the night and explains that they are very tired and in need of a place to stay.
     The Inn Keeper can’t believe that they didn’t already book a room ahead of time and then turns to the congregation and says, “Something tells me that these two don’t visit ‘hotels dot com’ very often!”
     Tonight, our Gospel reading reminds us of a very basic need that we have – sometimes, we just need a place to stay during our journey.
     Luke tells us that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
     No place for them in the inn.  Sounds like a nice place, doesn’t it?  An inn.  When I hear that word, I think of a room with a comfortable bed, a shower, and a complimentary breakfast.
     According to some bible scholars, it seems as though the word “inn” may not be the best translation of the Greek word that is in this text.  The Greek word that is being used here literally means a “guest room,” not a motel type of place at all.
     When we read about an inn in this text, Luke is probably referring to a residential house that belonged to Joseph’s family there in Bethlehem.  And since everyone in Joseph’s family would have needed to travel from all over the region to be properly enrolled in Bethlehem, you can imagine how crowded that home must have been. 
     Joseph’s extended family who lived in Bethlehem must have been inundated with all of their out of town relatives all because of the dreaded Roman census that was taking place. 
     So here, Joseph and Mary are, at the doorstep of a home of one of Joseph’s relatives, hoping for there to be at least one guest room left in the house. 
     The other relatives from out of town had probably already taken the good rooms and so the family invites Mary and Joseph to stay in the only place left which would have been what was called “the outer room” where the family’s animals were brought in for safe keeping during the night.
     Especially in cold weather, the family livestock was brought in to this outer room where the animals stayed the night, then these animals were led away in the morning, the room was swept, and was then used for family activities during the day.
     This is where the manger was.  The manger was the feed trough for the animals in this outer room.  That’s where Jesus was born.
     And of all times to have a baby – while you’re on a business trip with your spouse.  Mary is away from her side of the family and they now find themselves staying in a cold outer room with the animals.
     I wonder where some of you might be sleeping tonight.  Maybe you drove to Athens from out of state just to be home to be with family for the holidays. 
     Hopefully tonight, you at least have a nice guest room with a soft bed and some clean sheets.  It’s nice to be home for the holidays and to be with people who care about you.
     Tonight is a special anniversary for Penny and me. On this night, thirty years ago, I was serving as an associate pastor at a church in Lima, Ohio. The Senior Pastor gave me his blessing for me to be away over the Christmas holiday. 
     Well - not exactly.  I had to stay and help lead the Christmas Eve services, which meant departing on our nine-hour journey a little after midnight.
     So Penny and I got our car packed before the service so that we would be ready to go as soon as the last candle was blown out. 
     Being a responsible traveler, I called Triple A earlier in the day, to verify the number of gas stations that would be open along the highways we would be traveling and they assured me that at least half of the stations would be open.
     As we left Lima late on that Christmas Eve, I couldn’t help but notice how much we resembled the Holy Family.  Only instead of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and a donkey.  It was Penny, me, Kibby our cat, and a Ford Escort.
     Off we went, excited about how we would surprise our family upon our unannounced arrival the next morning.  Yes, this would be a surprise visit.
      How many of you know where East Liverpool, Ohio is?  I never really knew where this town was, until that fateful night.  It’s located right where Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania come together.  That’s where our donkey just about ran out of gas early on that Christmas morning.
     I hadn’t found a single gas station open from one in the morning on.  It was around 3:30 in the morning when I knew that I was facing a desperate situation because my gas gauge needle was getting dangerously close to empty.
     I decided to get off the highway and I don’t remember if we were actually in East Liverpool or not – maybe we were in a small town near East Liverpool.  But we got off the highway, not because I saw a gas station opened, but because I didn’t want to be stranded along the highway.
    There was a station off this exit, but the sign said they wouldn’t open until 6 that morning, which meant a two-hour wait sitting in a cold car.
     We were stuck!  Not only was it bitterly cold, but a couple inches of snow had fallen, with more snow coming down.
     And so I braced myself to do one of the most humbling things I have ever done in my life.  I parked in front of a nice looking suburban house that had an inside light on, and I rang the doorbell of this house at 4:00 o’clock on Christmas morning.
     To my amazement, more lights were turned on.  And then I saw the front curtains open a bit.  But then the curtains closed again.  Then all the lights went out.  There was no room in the inn.
     I went back to the car which I had turned off to help conserve the little fuel that we had left.  And there Penny was in the front seat with our cat, “Kibby” wrapped in a swaddling blanket.  The irony was too much for me to take in that moment of desperation.
     I then walked over to another house.  The same thing happened.  I rang the door bell, some lights came on, and then the lights went off.  No room in the inn.
     I even had a little speech prepared if anybody would actually open the door.  “I’m sorry to bother you at this hour of the morning, especially on Christmas morning, but I’m a United Methodist minister from northwest Ohio, and my car ran out of gas on my way to see my family in southcentral Pennsylvania.  That’s my wife in the car and she’s keeping our cat warm.  Could you help us find a way to put gas in our car?  We’ll pay you for any help you can give us.”
     No such luck.  I got back in the car because by this time I was getting pretty cold and the rest of the homes were dark inside.
     It was now desperation time.  The inside of the car becoming colder by the minute, I decided to turn the car on and drive to a different neighborhood.  In what appeared to be the older part of town, we drove until we finally spotted a very modest two-story house, which had its upstairs lights on. 
     This house also had a black wrought iron stair case that took you up to the second floor.  “Ah.  It’s an apartment that someone rents.  Maybe they’ll think I’m the landlord or something, and they’ll actually answer the door.”
     And so, I made my way up those stairs and knocked on the door.  A lady came to the door and I gave her my speech. 
     Seeing how cold and pitiful I was, she invited Penny, Kibby, and me into her warm apartment.  Thank God for cat lovers.  I think that had something to do with it.  This very kind lady told us that we could stay with her as long as we needed.
     She was up at that early hour, because she was still assembling her son’s toys.  She was a single mother and she had all of these toy parts and directions spread across her apartment floor. 
     Penny helped her put together her son’s toys while I watched since I’m not very good at following directions.  This single mother also gave some food to Kibby our cat, and she gave each of us some hot tea. 
     After a couple of hours sitting in her very modest but warm apartment, we said our goodbyes, got to the gas station when it opened at 6, and we finally were able to surprise mom and dad late Christmas morning. 
     When we told them the story about running out of gas, dad said to me, “Do you realize that you were only 20 minutes away from your cousin, Gene who works for Quaker State oil?”
     OK, maybe I should have considered that as an option, but looking back on that experience, I’m actually glad that the story ended the way it did.
     What a wonderful way for a United Methodist minister, his wife, and their cat, to spend their first Christmas together with a single mother at four in the morning, helping to put her little boy’s Christmas toys together.
     But I do need to point out that ever since that humbling Christmas journey thirty years ago, we have decided to just stay home for the holidays with one exception.  That exception was seven years ago.
     Somehow, my brother and sisters were able to convince us to end our two decade Christmas day absence with the family. 
     They said, “We know that you use the excuse that you’re a pastor and have to work late on Christmas Eve,” but we really want all of us to be together this year.  So here’s our offer.  As a Christmas gift to you, we’ll buy plane tickets for the four of you to fly in this year.  You can get a flight out of Dayton early Christmas morning and we’ll be able to spend Christmas day together.”
     As we drove to the airport on that early Christmas morning, Penny and I couldn’t help but to remember our first Christmas morning when our car had run out of gas several years ago.  “At least this time, we get to fly, we thought to ourselves.

    I’m just curious, how many of you have heard of the term, “de-icing?”  Well, evidently, our plane had a long delay on the runway because of a de-icing situation.
     Ok, here’s the thing.  We were supposed to fly from Dayton to Cleveland to Baltimore/Washington, then rent a car and drive about 45 minutes up to Pennsylvania and be with our family by early afternoon that day for a big Christmas meal.
     But here’s what really happened.  The whole de-icing thing delayed us so much that we ended up in Newark, New Jersey, and the next connecting flight to Baltimore/Washington wasn’t until 6 in the evening on Christmas Day.  So we ended up spending most of our Christmas day that year stranded in the Newark airport.
     Somehow, we managed to create a new Christmas day traveling memory by eating our Christmas meal at a TGI Fridays near the terminal.  Please do me a favor and talk me out of ever traveling on Christmas Day again.
     Actually, when we finally made it to see my family later that evening, our long day of traveling was still worth it.  To see my brother, two sisters, and their families, and to be with my mom which was the last Christmas I was able to spend with her before she passed away, it felt like I was home.       
     One of the things that Luke helps us to see about that first Christmas is that even when there doesn’t appear to be any room for us, God is still there to guide us, and will help us find our way home.
     No room in the inn?  No problem, God can even use an animal trough.
     No room in the inn? No problem, God will use the hospitality of a single mother at 4 am on Christmas morning.
     And from there, Luke tells us about the shepherds, the outsiders, who upon the appearance of God’s messengers, end up hearing the good news of the Messiah’s birth and go to Bethlehem to see for themselves.  
     And after arriving at the manger, they can’t stop praising God and rejoicing over this good news.  They end up sharing their joy with everyone around them.
     Not being able to find any room in the inn isn’t the end of the story for Luke.  In fact, it only leads to even more people experiencing the joy and hope of Christmas. 
     For those of us who might feel like there is no room in the inn, this might be a time to think about this old story again.   Maybe you’re like the shepherds.  You made your way to church on Christmas Eve and the good news of Christ’s birth is just what you needed to hear. 
     This is news that will make an eternal difference in your life, to know that God loves you, is the hope of the world, and invites you to be part of his family.  You will leave here tonight and you will keep on singing, “Joy to the World” for days and weeks to come.   
     Or maybe you’re here tonight, and you’re more like Mary, pondering what this good news will mean for you, your family, and the world.  As you hold the hope of Jesus in your arms, you don’t want this night to ever end.  This is a holy moment.  One that needs to be treasured.
     When there’s no room in the inn, Luke tells us, that either response is perfectly acceptable. The important thing isn’t how you arrived here tonight. The miracle is that we are here, and there is room for each and every one of us.

     Welcome home!

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