This morning we are going to look at probably the most famous character in the Christmas story that isn’t actually mentioned in the Bible—the innkeeper. At Christmas pageants in churches around the world, some child gets tasked with the role of playing the Innkeeper. His part is small, but important—because his one line sets the stage for the big finale. The innkeeper’s line of course, is this, “There’s no room in the inn.” What’s interesting is that this line appears nowhere in the Christmas story. As a matter of fact, the innkeeper himself is not even mentioned in the Christmas story. So, this begs the question, why would a church who believes so strongly in teaching the Bible devote an entire sermon to talking about a character that isn’t actually mentioned in the Bible?
The reason we are talking about the innkeeper is because even though the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about him, we can infer from the Bible that there was an innkeeper. In Luke 2:7, we are told that they had to stay in the stable because there was no room for them at the inn. So there must have been someone who told them there was no room—and probably also offered to let them stay in his stable. We’re going to look at the character of the innkeeper this morning because even though he isn’t mentioned by name in the pages of Scripture, his actions are instructive to us even today.
Because there isn’t a lot of information about the innkeeper in the pages of Scripture, Christians have been left to make inferences about his motives and attitudes. There are basically two ways people view the innkeeper’s motives. One way attributes negative motives to him, and the other attributes positive motives to him.
The Distracted Innkeeper
The first, negative, view of the innkeeper is that he was too wrapped up in his own life to pay attention to Mary and Joseph. When they came to the door, he simply dismissed them so he could get back to all of his other guests. We can certainly see how this might have been the innkeeper’s reaction. His situation was abnormal. The Roman government had ordered everyone to go back to their home town in order to register and be counted. Most towns are a mixture of people who grew up in that town and those who moved into the town from somewhere else. Similarly, in a given town, some people stay, and some people move away. Surely this was the case in Bethlehem—for some people, it was no big deal to return to their home town to register because they had never left, but for others, it was a long trip.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of the citizens of Rome at this time. Many of you aren’t originally from here. If you were ordered by the government to return to the place of your birth, how would you feel? The fact is we don’t even like it when we have to travel to the DMV, let alone having to travel for days at the behest of the government! Bethlehem had likely become swollen with visitors, meaning that probably every bed in the city had someone in it. You can imagine what it might have been like. What would it be like if everyone who was raised in La Harpe all had to come back at once? Every house would be packed!
I would imagine that the mood amongst the travelers in Bethlehem was not a particularly pleasant one. Not only was the town overcrowded, but they had been ordered to travel to Bethlehem on their own dime so the government could make sure they were getting all the taxes they deserved. It probably didn’t make for a fun group of people.
Against this backdrop, you can understand how the innkeeper could have simply been too tired to deal with Mary and Joseph. He had probably been dealing with impatient patrons all day, and was just trying to do the best he could. He wasn’t trying to be mean to Mary and Joseph, he just didn’t have time to deal with them.
Listen to how Jason Gray imagined the innkeeper’s thoughts:
There were no rooms to rent tonight
The only empty bed is mine
‘Cause I’m overbooked and overrun
With so many things that must be done
Until I’m numb and running blind
Jason titled the Innkeeper’s song, “I Need Rest”. We can sympathize with that mentality, can’t we? So often we find ourselves running from one thing to the next: eating in the car, forgoing sleep to get stuff done, trying to do four things at once, and finally hitting the bed late and struggling to sleep because of all we know still needs to be done. We echo the innkeeper’s cry of I need rest!
Here’s what we can learn from the innkeeper though. Some things are worth making time for. We have a choice in how we spend our time. Our schedules are not dictated to us; we get to choose how we spend our time. The innkeeper made his choice. He chose to respond to his paying customers, knowing that if he took the time to deal with Mary and Joseph, there would be consequences with all his other customers. So, he turned them away. As a result, he missed the opportunity to be present at one of the pivotal events of all time. He could have been the hero of the story, but instead he missed the birth of the Savior.
We shouldn’t be too quick to condemn the Innkeeper though, because we are too much like him. How often do we miss the Lord because we are too busy attending to the things that demand our time? We make time for our jobs, for sports, for our kids’ activities, for leisure, for hobbies, for TV, for hanging out with friends, etc. You may not make time for all of those things, but the fact is that we make time for the things we deem important. When we don’t make time for the Lord, it reveals what we really deem important. It shows that we value these other things above Him.
I remember reading something many years ago that gave me a different perspective on my schedule. It talked about the difference between urgent things and important things. Urgent things loudly demand our time. They are things that declare they must be done right now! Important things may or may not be urgent, but they are the things that really do need to be done. They are the things that should take precedence in terms of our time. The problem is that when we spend all our time trying to do the things that are urgent, we often don’t have time for the things that are important.
Let’s be honest, a lot of the things that demand our time claim to be really important…but they aren’t. They are really only urgent. We are constantly bombarded by people shouting for our time, energy, and money. The problem is that if we set our priorities based on who is shouting the loudest, the Lord will never be a priority. God doesn’t shout—He whispers. We have to decide to make time for what we know is most important, rather than making time for what is loudest.
We would be better served to choose to do fewer things in favor of doing better things. It’s ok to miss a ball game every so often. It’s ok to not participate in every community event there is. It’s ok to take a few hours away from your job in order to worship together with your family. It’s ok to occasionally tell friends that you just don’t have time to plan something extra right now. It’s ok (and probably beneficial) to be careful in choosing how much time we devote to our leisure activities. It would be better for us to limit those things so that we make time to read our Bibles, to attend worship regularly with our families, to be a part of a Sunday School class, to attend a small group study, to pray for and with those we care about, and to instill and model a genuine faith for our children.
It’s hard to make those kinds of decisions, because if we make time for the things of the Lord, we will not have time for other things—sometimes these are things that we want to do, but we have to make a choice. We have to choose to devote our time to the things that are important, instead of constantly chasing the urgent. The innkeeper was only able to see the urgency of what was going on around him, and so he missed what was probably the most important event of his life. We don’t want to make the same mistake.
The Sympathetic Innkeeper
There is a second way that people think about the innkeeper. The first view sees him as indifferent to Joseph and Mary because all he could see was his own life, the second view sees him as sympathetic to Joseph and Mary and giving them what he could.
This view sees the innkeeper as someone who felt bad for Mary and Joseph and really wanted to help them out, but knew there wasn’t any space left at his inn. He couldn’t bring himself to turn Mary and Joseph away, because he could clearly see that they needed a room (Mary was surely in labor by this point). So, being resourceful, he took them to the only sheltered, private space he had available, the stable. He couldn’t offer them what he knew they deserved, but he did give them what he could.
When you think about it, it’s actually pretty remarkable that the innkeeper made them the offer he did. You see, we know the background to the story. We know that this poor young couple showing up at his house late at night is Mary and Joseph, and that the child this woman is carrying is the promised Messiah. We know that Jesus would change things for all men in all generations for all of time. The innkeeper knew none of that. All he knew was that this couple needed a place to stay and that there was no room left inside. He didn’t know Mary and Joseph or their back story, but he still chose to give them what he could.
His response really shouldn’t surprise us. The Jewish culture was one of hospitality. The culture was such that you always did what you could to help out someone in need. It is interesting that part of the ritual of the Passover Seder held in Jewish homes each year was to set an extra place at the table, because God had promised that one day he would send the Messiah. They set the extra place to be ready in case God brought someone to them. Parents explained to their children from a young age the importance of making room, because you never know who God might send your way!
How fitting is it that this innkeeper actually got to show hospitality to the promised Messiah! If he had known who was standing at his door, I’d like to think that he’d have given them his room and gone and slept in the stable himself. He didn’t know who they were though—but he still gave them what he could.
This view of the innkeeper should challenge us. It’s easy to look at the story in hindsight and say what we would have done, but try to put yourself in the shoes of the innkeeper for a moment. Imagine that you have a house full of people for the holidays. You have been running like crazy for days, trying to get things ready and making sure all of your guests are comfortable and cared for and you’re just getting ready to sit down with everyone for your first few moments of rest in days when there’s a knock at the door. Two young people are standing on your doorstep and ask if they could stay with you for the night.
I’m not sure I’d be as charitable as the innkeeper. I’d like to think that I’d try to give them some leads on where they could stay, but I don’t think I would do much to help them myself. The innkeeper helped them himself. Rather than simply passing them off to someone else (knowing full well that no one else had any room either), he met their needs to the best of his ability.
This is the attitude that we ought to take with the people around us. We need to view people not as annoyances to be dispensed with, but rather as people to be loved. Rather than declaring that we can’t help, we should do what we can, even if it seems like it’s not enough.
This should be our attitude with the Lord as well. How often do we feel that prompting from the Lord to do something, but we ignore Him, saying that we can’t possibly do that. We don’t have the time, or the skills, or the money, or the energy to do what God is asking. Rather than focusing on what we can’t give to the Lord, maybe we should focus on what we can give. We should start with a simple act of obedience and trust, and believe that God will use our meager offering to accomplish great things through us.
The Bible doesn’t really tell us which of these views of the innkeeper was correct. It’s possible that he was a heartless man who was so wrapped up in his own life that he ignored the needs of Mary and Joseph. I’m inclined to think that probably isn’t who this innkeeper was though. I think he probably saw the needs of this couple and wanted to do what he could to take care of them. He made room for them in the stable when there was no room for them in the inn. In truth, I don’t know that it matters which view is true. Both views teach us about how we ought to live. The negative view gives us a pattern to avoid and the positive view gives us a pattern to emulate. No matter what, we can learn a couple different things from the innkeeper’s experience on that fateful night in Bethlehem.
First, we learn that we need to be open to the opportunities God puts in front of us. The innkeeper got a chance to play a part in the story of Jesus’ birth. Because he gave them a place in the stable, he got to be part of the coming of the promised Messiah. I wonder if Mary and Joseph had stopped at other places in Bethlehem and been turned away before this man gave them a place in his stable. Because he acted, he got to play a part in God’s plan.
If we want to be a part of God’s plan, then we need to take action when the opportunity presents itself. I think that we often miss out on the blessings God has for us because we choose not to act when he gives us the chance. I can’t tell you how often I hear from people who say that they simply tried to take the first step of obedience and God blessed them in ways they couldn’t have imagined. So today I challenge you to take that first step of obedience and see what God does. I don’t know what God is calling you to do. Maybe it’s:
- To sponsor a child through Compassion or another Christian agency
- To give sacrificially to the church or another ministry
- To volunteer to serve in (or start) a ministry in the church, even though you are a little scared to do so
- To talk to that friend or family member about your faith
- To show love to the person who annoys you
- To take time to visit with a person who is lonely, sick, or grieving
- To help a single parent with childcare or repairs around the house
- To cook a meal for someone who is just home from the hospital, under great stress, or is newly alone
The point is this. When we choose to give to the Lord (even if we can’t manage much), He will use us to play a role in the story He is planning.
Second, we learn that serving the Lord usually isn’t easy. I’m sure the innkeeper would have happily given Mary and Joseph a place to stay if they had come at a time when the inn was empty, but that’s not how God chose to do things. It was when the innkeeper was under stress and would have to make a real effort to take care of these people that God brought them to him.
I think that tends to be the case more often than not. God often brings us opportunities to serve him at times when it won’t be easy to do so. I think God brings those opportunities to us, knowing that we will have to make a decision of whether we will make room for Him, or whether we will turn Him away. We should learn from the innkeeper’s example—always make time to serve the Lord, even (especially) when it isn’t convenient or easy to do so.
- When the alarm goes off on Sunday morning and you’re tired, you are faced with the choice of whether to go to worship or whether to stay in bed.
- When money gets tight, you are faced with the choice of cutting back on some of your luxuries or on cutting back on giving to the Lord.
- When your schedule is busy, you are faced with the choice of prioritizing your time with the Lord both on your own and corporately, or simply letting those things fall by the wayside.
- When people are mocking Christianity, you have the choice of being silent, or standing up for the Lord, in spite of the ridicule.
- When someone is hurtful to you, you have the choice of responding in kind, or in showing love.
- When someone comes to you with a need, you have the choice of saying there’s nothing you can do, or doing what you can (even if it’s not much).
God brings each of us opportunities to be part of the story He is writing. Those opportunities will usually require some effort and some sacrifice on our part. We might have to sacrifice our comfort, our time, our money, our skills, or something else in order to make room for things God has called us to. But we need to remember that it’s worth it to take part in the opportunities God has placed before us. We may not feel like what we are doing is of much importance, but you never know. I bet the innkeeper never thought that people would still be talking about how he made room for a young couple one busy night in Bethlehem, but we are. You never know how God will use you if you will just make room for Him.