A Christmas Sermon: Ben Witherington

No Inn in the Room– a Christmas Sermon on Lk. 2.1-7



In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that census should be taken of the entire Roman world (This was the census that was taken before Quirinius was governor of Syria). And all went to their own towns to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, because he belonged to the line of David. He went there to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the guest room.



A very long time ago I made my first trip to Rome. They say all roads lead there. Among other things I went to see the great art in the Vatican, particularly the Sistine Chapel— Michelangelo’s masterpiece. It was certainly impressive but the colors of the paintings were subdued even sepia tones in places in the Last Judgment, and some of the prophets on the ceiling. Imagine my surprise when six years ago I went back, having heard reports of the massive cleaning job they had carefully done over many months in the Sistine Chapel, only to discover that now the Sistine Chapel was a riot of color—as if someone had used the whole Crayola Crayon box and colored over the old paintings.

Only as it turns out, Michelangelo had intended the paintings to have these bright vivid colors all along, even though it was a shock to the system and the art critics freaked out when this was first made known after the chapel reopened. The sense of shock, or even outrage was palpable and the ever rabid Italian press endlessly debated the merits of the new Sistine Chapel vs. the Old with great heat and passion. This is what happens when you tamper with a masterpiece.

At the risk of producing a similar response, I am here this morning to tamper with a masterpiece, or better said, to share with you a rather different reading of Lk. 2.1-7, one solidly grounded in the facts, but nowhere represented in the Christmas carols and pageants. I must tell you that I have heard endless sermons on how there was ‘no room in the end’ and wasn’t it typical of a cold fallen world to cast the holy family and Jesus out into the cold, and so on, often preached with great fervor, but producing no ferment at all. We’ve heard it countless times before. We’ve all been innoculated with a slight case of Christmas, preventing us from getting the real thing, or in this case from reading these texts in a more historical way. The problem with the Christmas pageant version is, this is not at all likely to be what Luke intends to tell us in this much beloved and belabored Christmas tale.

Let’s start with the first oddity of this tale. Jesus was born while Herod the Great was king of the Holy Land. That is to say, Jesus was born before 1-2 B.C. when Herod died in Judea. That is, Jesus was born B.C.—before Christ.How did this anomaly happen? Well its all the fault of Denny the Dwarf a.ka. Dionysius the medieval monk who was vertically challenged and while drawing up our modern calendar miscalculated the date of Jesus’ birth. As Maxwell Smart used to say—‘He missed it by that much’,which is to say about 3-4 years.

Then there is the second anomaly.Notice that Mary and Joseph are not married, they are only engaged. Why in the world would they both travel all the way to Bethlehem to register for the census when Mary was very pregnant indeed? It seems illogical at first, until we reflect again on that bit about her being very pregnant out of wedlock. The tongues were likely wagging back in Nazareth, a small town where one could not hide something like this. Mk.6 suggests that in fact the hometown thought Jesus was— well… how shall we put it delicately? I once had a bright little six year old girl in a British Sunday school class come up to me during the Christmas season and ask—“If God is Jesus’ Father, and Mary is Jesus’ mother, are God and Mary married? If not, is Jesus illegitimate?” Out of the mouths of babes….

Yes, in Jesus’ culture getting pregnant and having a baby out of wedlock, was consider a major scandal—a huge deal, a big shame and black mark on the family’s name. Our culture does not react this way to such things most of the time, but just the other day I heard the story of a teenage girl inSaudi Arabia who was riding in a car with her boyfriend, and was dragged out of the car and raped by two men.The men did get sent to jail, but the girl herself was to be beaten for having sex outside marriage—even though she was raped! Middle Eastern Law today in that honor and shame culture is not all that different than the practice in the society where Mary grew up. When a betrothed woman got pregnant before marriage and not by her fiance, it was usually deemed to be her fault. One can understand then why even though Mary was very pregnant, Joseph and Mary got out of town to have that baby.

But there is a further factor in the story seldom noticed. Joseph and Mary are registering for a census inBethlehem, but if we ask what the function of such a census was, it was to count heads so that they could be taxed. Every able-bodied male and female between 13 and 62 had to be registered so they could be taxed. Itwas a head tax, and they were expected to pay a silver denarius each—yes ‘the render unto Caesar coin” which Jesus was later to say Jews should ‘return to sender’. These coins had the image of Augustus Caesar on them in those days, a ruler soon to be dubbed a deity. But the real deity was Jesus himself the spitting image of his heavenly Father, unlike the poor likeness of the Emperor on those tribute money coins.

In other words, this was all about going to see the I.R.S. boys inBethlehem. Mary likely was just old enough to be registered, as Jewish girls usually got engaged between 12-14, immediately upon their getting their menstrual cycles. Remember as well that Joseph required some coaxing from an angel before he agreed to go ahead with this marriage, once he discovered Mary had a bun in the oven, and it wasn’t his. Joseph must have truly wondered what he was getting himself into with Mary. 

Now I have to tell you, this story is too improbably NOT TO BE TRUE. I mean, no one would make up a story like this which suggested to the skeptical in the home town and to latter day skeptics ever since that Jesus the Son of God was illegitimate. The story of the virginal conception must surely be true, for an evangelistic religion in that honor and shame culture would never make up a story like this about the birth of their Savior if they wanted to convince a patriarchal world of its truth. It’s too improbable not to be true!

But there is one more surprise at the end of the tale. When it came time for Mary to deliver the baby, the Greek of Luke’s text says— “she wrapped him in cloth and laid him in a corn crib, as there was no room in the guest room”.Yes, you heard me right. Luke does not say there was no room in the inn. Luke has a different Greek word for inn (pandeion) which he trots out in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The word he uses here (kataluma) is the very word he uses to describe the room in which Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples—the guest room of a house.

Archeology of the area shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves as the back of the house where they would keep their prized ox, or beast of burden, lest it be stolen. The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the relatives did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house. Bethlehem was indeed a one stoplight town off the beaten track, and we have not a shred of archaeological evidence there ever was a wayfarer’s inn in that little village in Jesus’ day.

In other words, all this silliness about ‘no room at the Holiday Inn’ for the Holy family, is not at all what Luke is talking about. This is not a story about ‘no room in the inn’ or about the world’s giving Jesus the cold shoulder. It’s a story about no inn in the room! It’s a story about a family making do when more relatives than expected suddenly show up on the doorstep. It’s a story most of us can relate to in one way or another. Jesus was born in his relative’s home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell in that room, and probably the shock of the Magi when they saw where the King was born.

But this story is not meant to meet our expectations or desires about what a Christmas story must be like. Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or desires—he came to meet our needs. George MacDonald puts it this way—‘We were all looking for a king to slay our foes and lift us high, but thou camst a little baby thing, that made a mother cry.” Jesus came as he did to make clear that no one and no place however humble was beneath his dignity, and every age and stage of life he would hallow, and save and sanctify. 

John Donne, the great English cleric summed it up well when he said— “Twas much that we were made like God, long before, but that God should be made like us—much more.” And the Word, took on flesh and dwelt for a while in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God. It was a strange glory, a glory in humility, a glory without royal robes, a glory without a proper bed.

The question for us this day is—do we still have the capacity to be surprised, enthralled, by this remarkable Christmas story? Do we still have the capacity to see all things new, once more? Can we approach the story like a child—eyes wide open, mouth agape? Can we make him room in our homes, even if the calendar is full, and the head count high on the homefront.I certainly hope so. Jesus traveled a long way to dwell with you Immanuel, especially at this season.Will you not kindly make him room in your abode, however humble?

The old medieval Christmas poem said ‘though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he’s not born in you, your heart is still forlorn.’ Let me just tell you however, if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course.



3 thoughts on “A Christmas Sermon: Ben Witherington

  1. Just a few salient points to add – the Magi did not attend the birth, they came later – remember Herod the Edomite King inquired of them when the child was born and then had all male children under two slaughtered? There were not three Magi but three gifts. It was in all probability lambing time – the shepherds being in the fields at night with the flocks to guard the lambs from the wolves. The Passover Lamb was one year old from the previous year’s lambing – Passover is in Aries – the sign of the Ram. Saturnalia (Xmas) would make Him a Capricorn – or goat. Only a religious devil would make that story up…

    And the “star” of Bethlehem which the Magi saw in the East and followed to where He lay? That I think was Gabriel – the only other place the word “astar” is used in the NT it concerns an angel – one who fell from heaven..and His advent was proclaimed by Holy Messengers (Aggelos – or angels).

    God the Father proclaimed through the Angelic Messengers Peace on Earth, good will toward all men. Jesus would later say, “Do not think that I have come to bring Peace, but a SWORD OF DIVISION!” Hence the persecution and affliction for the Word’s sake.

    Through the doorway of the woman came the Savior to His own, and His own rejected Him, they knew Him not, and the world preferred darkness instead of light and this is why it is getting increasingly darker and shall do so until the whole world is enveloped in darkness.

    Christian children suck on candy cane sentiments designed to engender toothless assent and to silence dissent while they are fed a diet of lies and traditions from the pulpits wherein hide the wolves in sheep’s clothing. The shepherds who should protect the flocks too often plunder them and fleece the sheep, but God shall strike the shepherds and scatter the flocks.

    The tradition of Xmas owes much to Coca-Cola (Santa), Calvin Coolidge (Xmas trees), Dickens and Disney. It does nothing to engender faith but simply props up the commercial status quo and engenders mawkish sentiments as substitute for real religion and compassion.

    In America especially Xmas is under attack such that Xians are incensed and see it as an attack on their faith, just like having their guns taken away. I am inclined to think that the best thing that could happen to the Church is some good old fashioned persecution and affliction. You see it is like this, if you are not being persecuted for your faith, you are probably defending a fraud, like Xmas, or Easter, or Circe, or any other ecumenical anachronism manufactured from Man’s Mind of darkness as a substitute for a living faith. The lot that Jesus promised was persecution and affliction, not Xmas presents and a comfortable Christian existence and three car stable.

    Like the people who demand that the 10 Commandments be displayed in public but in whom the One Commandment is not writ upon their heart, Xmas as it is celebrated is about as illusory as the Vatican’s treasures. Iconism = I-con-ism = eye-con-ism and it is all about the glory of Man, and not of God, who is rather disposed to pulling down strongholds and and destroying temples and icons – He is the original Iconoclast.

    The tabernacle of David is outside the gates – the remnant – the number of the elect. As for the Pristine Chapel – it is loaded with Kabbalah – the Jewish mysticism of the Medici – its really just a great big Hallmark card for (closet) Catholic religionists…

    By your traditions (such as Xmas) you render THE WORD of NONE EFFECT. So don’t be offended, be a Berean…and tell Satan Claws in his red suit to rack off…and make every day a celebration of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and wonder that God can keep the heart of the message pure and untrammeled as He is at the Heart of the Message – and that “In the world you will have persecution, but be not afraid, I have overcome the world.”


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  3. ” By your traditions (such as Xmas) you render THE WORD of NONE EFFECT.”

    By your ‘pagan traditions’ (such as christmas), you present the ‘Word of God’ as vanity.

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