I know you’ve heard of me before – everyone has. Let me tell you what it’s like being me – imagine being remembered as the guy who called the timeout near the end of the Carolina-Michigan championship basketball game when there wasn’t a timeout left? Or the Chicago Tribune back in 1948 predicting Dewey over Truman? Or Napoleon at Waterloo? Well, some will say you’ll find me in this select company.
See, I’m the innkeeper, the one who, on a cold winter night long ago, relegated a scared-looking young man and his pregnant wife to my stables in the backyard. I had to do so, you see, because all the rooms in my inn were booked up. Not one single vacancy, I promise. And yes, of course I felt bad that they had to stay outside in that dirty manger, especially with the young woman about to give birth to her first child. But what were my choices? What options did I have - kick a tenant out? I couldn’t do such a thing.
You see, it had been a very busy couple of weeks. The Emperor at the time, Augustus of Rome, had issued a decree for a massive census to be taken. This census covered the whole Roman empire - which ended up being most of the civilized world at the time. Quite an undertaking - not only for the government, but for its residents as well. You see, everyone had to register in their original hometown, their place of birth. This caused a huge movement of people across the land as they traveled to their destinations. You can bet I was thrilled with this! For quite some time my inn remained booked solid, and in just a few weeks I took in more income than I had all year. Suffice to say that the emperor’s census was good for the empire and even better for my business!
I guess I was so used to turning people away that when the young couple came to my door late that night I didn’t hesitate with my standard response: Sorry, no room. It was then that I noticed two things: first of all, the young woman was pregnant – very pregnant, in fact. Secondly, I saw how tired she was - both of them, for that matter. I guess that was what compelled me, as they slowly turned away and headed back to the street, to call to them: Hold on a minute! Listen, I don’t have any room inside. But I do have an empty stable in the back. It’s not much, but it’s shelter and the hay will keep you and the baby warm. I sensed a ray of hope in their eyes and a slight smile; and they followed me to the backyard.
Now let me stop here for a second to say that this wasn’t a standard business practice of mine – just in case you were wondering! I don’t typically make a habit of utilizing my animal stables as room overflow. But you would’ve thought I gave them the president’s suite at the Taj Mahal, the way they reacted. We entered the dingy, smelly stable and I pulled some hay loose for them. The young man lovingly and carefully helped his wife off the donkey she was riding and lay her to rest in the hay. I brought them a pail of water and a few old torn blankets that had lived out their human usefulness and were now part of stable supply. They thanked me profusely - I actually felt embarrassed. With that I left this couple in the dark of night.
You know, actually I remember now - it wasn’t all that dark. It was strange. Sometimes, when the moon is full it’ll light up the sky to the point that you can see the whole terrain before you. That’s the way it looked this night. But it wasn’t the moon. It was that strange star. I had never seen it before. It hung there high in the sky, glistening in the night. It seemed to warm up the chill in the air. It made everything it touched seem as bright as day. As long as I live, I will never forget that star.
I remember the star not only because it was so bright, but because its light allowed me to witness the strange events that unfolded. You wouldn’t believe what happened next! Actually, I take that back. I know you believe what happened because you talk about it every year around this time. You tell this story over and over again. Your ministers preach about it. Your children act it out in their Christmas pageants. Your choirs sing about it in their Cantatas, and your advent wreaths and the hymns you sing tell the story. So of course you believe all of this. But try putting yourself in my shoes, just for a second, to see what it was like to be the first witness to all of this.
I guess the young woman had had her child by now - I saw her and her husband cradling what looked like a tiny baby in their arms. In my stable - wrapped in my old blankets, they had their child! Later that night a group of shepherds came and visited them. And I thought that was the strangest thing. I mean, shepherds are known for being nomads and folks out on the fringes of society. They didn’t appear to be acquaintances or friends - so how did they know these people?
My question was answered as their excited voices traveled from the stable to my window. They had received a message from an angel, they said, that a child was being born, and that child was….the Messiah! I must confess to you that my cynicism kicked in at first - maybe these shepherds had been spending a little too much time out in the middle of nowhere! But the man and woman seemed happy to have them there, and they showed them the newborn child, to which they paid great honor and respect. It was almost as if the young couple anticipated the strangeness of these events. It was almost as if they knew…
A few days passed and this couple and their newborn child went on their way. They thanked me for the accommodations; and once again I felt embarrassed. I haven't seen them since. But I’ve heard the stories. I heard about how they were paid a visit by three kings from the east not long after they left me; men who had heard of this birth and who followed that star, which still lit up the midnight sky. Imagine that - a child so revered that he would command the attention of both nameless shepherds and great kings! It was then that I began to let go of my cynicism and start believing that perhaps – perhaps – this was a special child.
My beliefs were confirmed many years later; it didn’t take long for me to hear the wonderful tales about this man. How he roamed the countryside, preaching and teaching about God. How he healed those who were sick and even brought a young girl back from the dead. How he challenged the authority of the Sadducees and Pharisees and tried to share with folks something new about the God they believed and worshipped. And, of course, how he would be put to death for a crime he didn’t commit and was resurrected three days later. So now I can see in hindsight what I would’ve never imagined before. Jesus, child of Mary, born in a stable; savior of humankind, Son of God.
I know today you all make a big deal of this. You call it Christmas, and you go all out with it. You decorate your houses and have parties for each other, you give presents to loved ones and remember those in need. Your entire schedule and way of life is dramatically changed for a month or so because of this. Most importantly, you experience the never-ending reality of God’s grace and love for you. And to think this all started in my stable, with some old blankets, some hay, a bright star, and some visiting shepherds.
Some people ask me if I ever regret doing what I did - putting them in the stable. My answer is always the same - No. No, I don’t regret it. I didn’t give them much, but I gave them what I had to give. And over the years I’ve come to understand that that is exactly what God expects of you and me – to give God what we have, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Out of so little came so much. Out of a stable comes the Christ. Don’t you see the truth, the beauty of it? I have; and I’ll tell you, it has changed my life forever. I hope it does the same for you. Thanks be to God. AMEN.