David A. Davis
November 28, 2021
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“Because there was no room for them in the inn.” That’s all it says. “And she 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.” So little said about the location, the actual birthplace of the infant Jesus. So little said about the inn that was full and the manger where Mary laid him. And yet everyone of us knows that the family was surrounded by animals. Everyone of us knows Joseph stopped in place after place trying to find a place for Mary to deliver her child. Everyone of us knows there was an innkeeper. There always was an innkeeper. There has to be an innkeeper, right? Maybe the most talked about character, or better said, the most portrayed biblical character that wasn’t. The innkeeper. It is because of the absolute tyranny of the Christmas pageant. Not this Christmas pageant or that Christmas pageant. Just the Christmas Pageant.
Each Sunday in Advent this year we will be taking a look at the biblical characters of the nativity: the shepherds, Joseph, Mary, Jesus on Christmas Eve, and the magi on the Sunday closest to Epiphany. As a solo pastor back in the day, I spent many Advent Times with the Children “building the creche”. Each year I would borrow a creche from a family in the church and then each Sunday I would introduce a new character to the nativity scene in the chancel during Time with the Children. So, this year we are building the creche homiletically. And as you will see in the cover art by our own Sarah Finbow entitled “Creche Building”, it takes more than the characters to build the creche. It is an act of faith. It takes acts of faith. It takes faith action.
Inspired by Jason Oosting’s virtual adult education series last year on “the Art of Advent”, we are pairing each sermon in Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany with a piece of artwork. I invited the staff to join the search. I wrote to Jason and he gave me great suggestions for art that might give inspiration to the character exploration. It has been an intriguing addition to sermon preparation. The search for a diversity of artists, time periods, styles. Of course, there aren’t all that many characters, even with the imaginary innkeeper thrown in. So there are limitations when it comes to choosing out from the abundance of art that portrays the Nativity.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that the most challenging search for a Nativity character on canvas was the innkeeper. After all, the search has been for art of the Nativity not art of the Christmas Pageant. And according to Luke, the closest we come in scripture is “because there was no place for them in the inn.” This portrayal of the Nativity is by the German artist Konrad von Soest. It is part of an altarpiece and he created it in the year 1403. The baby Jesus is not in the manger but nestled into Mary’s neck. Joseph is kneeling down tending to a fire and preparing some food. Joseph looks much older than Mary. Behind Mary in the stable to the left of the animals it seems there is an angel or two who remain in the faint background. Then there are the two animals who are eating and clearly pleased the baby is no longer blocking the way to their food. And to the right, much less prominent than the animals and holding a rope that appears to be attached to one them, maybe, just maybe, that’s an innkeeper who is either looking to the sky with arm in the air tracking the departing heavenly host or it’s a hand going to the head as the innkeeper wonders what on earth is going on and “what have I gotten myself into”. At the very least, the innkeeper/farmer is pretty much penned in more than the animals and falling off the edge of this Nativity.
“And she 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.” But at some point, maybe not in the imagination of artists, but certainly in the church’s traditions and remembering, at some point an innkeeper is created. It could have been as simple as the person who volunteered to direct the pageant in First Church Anywhere, Any-time deciding that every other child just couldn’t be an angel or an animal. Or maybe the first pageants were really put on by adults and they refused to make animal noises. So an innkeeper was born.
Or perhaps, somewhere, somehow in the collective remembering of the people of God, that sacred telling of the birth of the Messiah, perhaps the role of the innkeeper became an affirmation that humanity’s first response to God’s gift of salvation, to the Word of God incarnate, to the love, mercy, and grace of God made known in the birth of the Child Jesus, humanity’s first response was a silent, unseen act of hospitality, a simple act of kindness, an anonymous gesture of mercy. That before the shepherds were completely blown away by the divine announcement from on high and before the magi were captivated by a heavenly sign, someone said, “you can stay here”. That long before the collective shout of humanity’s sin was “Crucify him! Crucify him!”, the last word the child heard in his mother’s womb was someone saying “you’re welcome here”.
Yes, of course, the Nativity, it all started with the voice of God speaking through the angel Gabriel. The first move belonged to God. The angel speaking to Zechariah. The angel speaking to Mary. The angel speaking to Joseph. Yes, God and the angels and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph. That’s where it all starts. Somewhere along the way, just before the child was born, someone saw the exhausted woman great with child, a frantic father to be, someone saw two wanderers from another place in crisis, two strangers desperately in need of help, someone saw them, and whether Joseph knocked, or Joseph asked, or Mary just sighed loud enough for someone to hear, someone said, “here, let me help you”
For the prophet Isaiah, preparing the way for the Lord was an earth shaking, world turning upside down, kingdom coming kind of blast. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” (Isaiah 40:4-5) For John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord came by baptism, confession, repentance. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8) John proclaimed. But when it came to the Mary, Joseph, and the Child Jesus, preparing the way of the Lord came with someone showing compassion, someone who remembered the prophet Micah: “love kindness” , someone foreshadowing what Jesus said after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise”, someone who said, “oh my, my, my, you need some rest. Come with me”
A silent, unseen act of hospitality, a simple act of kindness, an anonymous gesture of mercy. It doesn’t have to be all that complicated does it. For heaven’s sake, there is enough complication and complexity and challenge and just really hard stuff when it comes to your life and mine these days. Too many things near and far, too much in the world and too much close to home, such a cacophony of noise to fill your head and a swirl of life to knot your stomach. So this morning, with the innkeeper, comes the gift of simplicity. Receiving the Christ Child in your heart, in your life, in the world, it begins with kindness, mercy, and compassion. Maybe that’s why the role of the Innkeeper started. So that when it comes to the Nativity of Jesus in the world, everyone of us could have a part to play.
How about a hand for the inn keeper? How about a word for the inn keeper? Yes, the inn keeper is no where to be found in scripture. Yes, the inn keeper is hard to find in the most famous and classic artistic renderings of the Nativity. But someone had to have said, someone must of said to Mary, and Joseph, and the child to be named Jesus, someone said “please, stay here”. Someone said, “you can rest here”. Someone said, “I can help you”. Someone look upon that holy family and having no idea who they were, where they were from, or what would happen, someone showed them mercy. Someone beyond that holy family. It was humankind’s first response to God’s wondrous gift of love made known in the Baby Jesus.
Whoever it was, we should never forget that it all started, the Nativity all started with the smallest act of kindness. Pray that we never forget what she did, what he did, what they did.
Come Lord Jesus. Quickly come.
And as for us, as for you and me. Let’s be Innkeepers. Innkeepers one and all!
*This sermon references Nativity 1403 by Konrad von Soest. An image of this work can be found here.