Home for Christmas
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
December 24, 2017
Home is a topic of some favorite Christmas carols… I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me.
O, there’s no place like home for the holidays. For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.
As I have been singing these old Christmas favorites, I have been thinking of home.
What comes to mind when you think of home?
In a Presbyterian Outlook article called “Musings on Home,” Marianne Thompson wrote:
Home is often thought of first as a place, but home isn’t only a place.
Home is also connected with people, although the people to whom it is connected can expand or shrink or change. Home is home because of those we have shared it with.
Home stirs in us a sense of longing--for the home we have or for the home we wish we had.
Home is a place that grounds us: where we find ourselves at rest, where we are reminded of who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.
For at its best, “home” conveys a sense of well being, contentment and belonging: I belong to this place, these people.
Perhaps my sentimental thoughts of home are what made me pause when a child asked me a simple question. I was reading the Christmas Story to the Wooden Ladder preschool children. It has become a favorite tradition: They sit around the Christmas tree in the narthex, and with wide-eyes, listen to me tell the story of Jesus’ birth. I start by inviting them to reach into my basket and take out a plastic figure from the story: angels, shepherds, sheep, kings, donkeys, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. All was going well last week until one child asked me: Where is the innkeeper? I want to be the Innkeeper who says “no room in the inn.” I said, “I don’t see an innkeeper. How about a shepherd?” Thankfully, the child took it and we went on with the story. Afterwards, I wondered about the innkeeper. I did some fact-checking, and what I discovered was surprising.
--In the Gospel accounts of the story of the birth of Jesus, there is no Innkeeper mentioned at all.
The Bible does say “there was no room for them in the Inn,” but Inn does not mean hotel; the Greek word kataluma is better translated as “guest room.” The guest room was attached to the house. And because of the census, the house of Joseph’s family was full, even the guest room. In the Bible, there is no mention of a stable. But, we have created children’s pageants based on Mary and Joseph being rejected from the Inn and put out back in the cold stable. But, that’s probably not what happened.
--In an article run by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2002, Kenneth Bailey, renowned New Testament scholar who lived in the Middle East for most of his life, pointed out that hospitality in that place at that time would not have allowed the family to turn other family members away. After all, Mary and Joseph returned to their hometown of Bethlehem, where they had family. They would have opened the door and welcomed them in. Although there was no in the guest room, the family would not have put them out, but would have invited Mary and Joseph in to sleep in the living room, right in the middle of the house.
--I still remember standing in that home in Bethlehem when I toured the Holy Land in 2008. The tour guide explained that this was a typical 1st c. house: The living room space in the middle and around the perimeter, separated only by a few support poles; a couple steps down, was the stable--where the animals stayed at night. There were a few mangers around the room to feed the animals. And that is what was available to Mary on that night when she gave birth to her first born son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, right there in the living room of the house, right there in the middle of it all.
--Ken Bailey claims, “Envisioning Jesus in a living room rather than a stable only adds to the Christmas message.” From the very beginning, Jesus is not out back in a stable--removed and remote and rejected. No, Jesus is right in the main living space, in the heart of the house. The Christmas story is no longer about rejection (no room for you--keep out!), but the welcome of regular people who offer what they have (come on in; we will make room for you); and who inspire us to do the same.
This past Monday, I joined a group of some church members at the Center in Bellevue to serve a home-cooked meal to some hungry people. I watched the room fill up--to over 100 people. All kinds of people--some clearly hungry for food, others for fellowship; some were hungry for a job; others for help in recovery; some hungry for hope or joy or peace this Christmas; others for a sense of home. Everyone there was hungry for something. And so we fed them--with ham and green bean casserole, and also with smiles and conversation. We also came with choir members and Tim Heavner, choir director, so that we could sing Christmas carols. The coordinator of the dinner arranged that we would eat in the room, and then go to the sanctuary to sing, with a piano.
As we finishing serving seconds and desserts, some people began to leave, and we still had people to serve, so I asked Tim if we could just sing right here. He said sure, we don’t need a piano. And so there we stood behind the table where the plates were filled and sang. And I was amazed at what I saw:
-A father holding a 7-month old baby who looked malnourished came up to the front and stood there swaying to the music of “Joy to the World.”
-Three young girls came up to watch us sing, mesmerized as we sang “Jingle Bells.”
-A woman asked us to sing “O Holy Night” and even though some of us struggled to hit the high notes, she closed her eyes and smiled as if she were hearing a host of heavenly angels sing.
-When we announced “Silent Night,” a man asked for us to sing it in German because he was German. Tim said he would. So after English version, Tim sang a verse in German.
The man sang every word with such joy. On his face, it looked as if only for a moment, he was home.
Right there in the middle of the room, in the midst of dirty plates and distant stares, in the loud conversations and lonely faces, in the midst of broken lives and broken hearts, Jesus was born.
This is the true meaning of Christmas. “God in human flesh comes into real, everyday life as we know it. Into the craziness. Into the hubbub. Into the messiness. The manger means from the beginning Jesus is right there with us in the middle of it all. (Heidi Husted Armstrong, Pastor “No Room in the what?)
This is good news for you and me.
Jesus does not wait until we have it all figured out; he comes to us just as we are.
Jesus is not put out by messiness and overcrowded lives; he comes to make all things new.
Jesus is not deterred by selfish hearts; he comes to show us there is always room for love.
So as you sing the old favorite Christmas carols about home, I invite you to imagine God singing to you:
“I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me.”
In the gift of Jesus, God makes this promise:
You can count on me to come right in the midst of your life and make my home there.
Thanks be to God. Amen.