Bethlehem Bound: Home to the Stable

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Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve

Some of you may remember 24 days ago, on December 1st, I invited you to climb on board the train bound for Bethlehem. You remember the hat…the train whistle…  the song… “Get on board, little children, …there’s room for many a more”… Well tonight, I have good news… the train has reached the station….

In my mind (get on board with me here) as the train arrives I see people ready to greet us… I look out the window… and there they are:  

Mom, Dad, sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends, cousins waiting for you… when you go to hug them, they will say two words that are sweet to hear: Welcome home.

Welcome home.

Tonight one of the best gifts of Christmas is to say or hear is, Welcome home… Welcome home those who have been away to college or in the service… Welcome home, to those of you who grew up here and moved away… Welcome home friends and neighbors…we are glad you are here…

In our homes, as people arrive, we have decorated the house, bought the groceries, made the sausage balls or cookies or cheese balls or fudge … we’ve set the table, wrapped the gifts… We couldn’t wait to say, “Welcome home”.

I DO wonder if it was like that for Mary and Joseph as they finished their 80 mile, 9 day trip on foot from Nazareth… as they walk into town to find their relative’s house… Were they greeted by hugs and kisses? Food cooking in the kitchen?

Now, I know this is not the typical picture you have in mind tonight… is it? No, what you have in mind, thanks to what we have learned from Christmas plays and legends and carols is something different.  The usual image painted for us is that of Mary and Joseph arriving to Bethlehem all alone this night… they have been going from hotel to hotel to find a place to stay but the rooms are all booked… they are rejected by an indifferent innkeeper and abandoned to a dirty stable… That’s what we think happened…

But it may not have been that way at all… According to New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, the homecoming was likely more like the ones we experience. Middle Eastern cultures were known for their hospitality and Joseph was coming home with a new wife … and they were expecting their first child. The whole family was gathering- aunts and uncles, cousins and brothers and sisters. All of them coming home.

Yes, there was a census that brought them together but in fun loving culture like this it would not have diminished the welcome or the excitement of a homecoming gathering. (“Haven’t seen you in a long time, Mary and Joe—Mary, how are you feeling? When is the baby due?”)  The expectation of a new baby to be born while they were together would only have increased the excitement.

As Bailey explains, the Greek word (katalyma or kataluma) translated as inn in Luke 2:7 does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers. It is not Best Western or should I say, Best Eastern. It is a guest room, an upper room in a village home.[1]

Village homes in those days had two rooms. One for guests, one for the family. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower, for the family donkey, the family cow, and two or three sheep. They go out during the day and come in at night…

So when Mary and Joseph arrive, the guest room was already occupied. Probably taken by the older relatives. So it was in that lower level of a relative’s home, a house already crowded with family—that Jesus was born.

It was to this same simple home that the shepherds come… shepherds despised and regarded as unclean by their society, are visited by angels and surprise of surprise, THEY are  invited to join the party. They are invited to join in the great homecoming celebration that marks the coming of the child who will become the messiah.

That they were welcomed and not turned away from this home is remarkable. No one ever invited them anywhere! This was very good news for the outcast and despised. This would be a message of welcome Jesus would later share in his ministry to those who were rejected.

So once again, in the spirit of the first Christmas, I say, “Welcome home” because it contains two important truths.

The first is that you are indeed welcome here tonight… I don’t care if you come here every week or if you haven’t been here since Easter (or years) …  One reason I dislike Christmas Easter jokes because they are so inhospitable, so unChristlike.

Some of you may feel a bit out of place….   And if you do, you are in good company… remember how those shepherds must have felt out of place… to you I say welcome home.

I don’t care if you are saint or sinner… if you think your life is all under control and you’ve got it all figured out… or if your life is a mess and you are filled with doubt… you are welcome. The Lord is glad we are here tonight. Welcome

Which leads me to the second truth. Home. I want you to know: you are home. I mean, really home. The stable, the manger is home. We are not guests… we are home.

That’s a truth that changed Frederick Buechner’s life and transformed him forever. Buechner, for those of you who don’t know him, is one of the most quoted writers and preachers in my generation of preachers who has spoken to believers and doubters alike.  Ask any Presbyterian preacher my age and he or she will tell you that Buechner is one of the most influential ministers of the past 40 years.

Buechner’s life changed one winter when he was living in New York. He was a a 27 year old young writer , trying to make it in the world of publishing and not doing so well. He was trying to write a novel ‘which for one reason or another had refused to come to life.” He was rejected again and again by his publisher. He was single and alone in that big city.

And he was by no means a regular church go-er.

But next door to where he lived there happened to be a church, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church- whose pastor was a man named George Buttrick, a giant of a preacher in his time…

Depressed as Buechner was about his novel and with time heavy on his hands, as he says, Buechner started going to hear Buttrick preach… with power, passion and a gift for words…Buechner says,

“It was the middle of December that he said something in a sermon that has always stayed with me. He said that on the previous Sunday, as he was leaving the church to go home, he happened to overhear somebody out on the steps asking somebody else, ‘Are you going home for Christmas?” and (says Buechner) I can almost see Buttrick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again, “Are you going home for Christmas?”—and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel. Home is where Christ is was what Buttrick said that winter morning…that the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is…”[2]

So again I say, Welcome home. Home to where Christ is… Regardless of where you come from… know that home…our real home is here… at the manger… where we are always welcome… accepted, loved, forgiven,  and never forgotten– home where we belong…

Is that not the lesson behind what I think is the most powerful story Jesus later told … the story of the prodigal son—who, after a life of wandering is welcomed home… with the lesson being this: that prodigals, —meaning all of us who have wandered away from God… can always come home to the place where we are forgiven, accepted and loved… and welcomed home? Is that not the point of that story… of this night?

In a letter Buechner would later write for his grandson Benjamin on the day of his baptism… a letter full of wisdom to be opened on Benjamin’s 21st birthday, Buechner wrote something that rings true to me that I want to share with you as we continue our journeys…  He wrote to his grandson:

(Benjamin, no matter who we are or our status in life) ‘our stories are all stories of searching.We search for a good self to be and for a good work to do. We search to become human in a world that tempts us always to be less than human or looks to us to be more. We search to love and to be loved. And in a world where it is often hard to believe in much of anything, we search to believe in something holy and beautiful and life-transcending that will give meaning and purpose to the lives we live.”

Tonight, I welcome you home… to where you are invited to believe that something holy and beautiful and life transcending and life transforming took place…here in Bethlehem… you are invited to believe that in a stable of all places… Christ, the savior is born.Here you are loved beyond your knowing… And here something took place that will give meaning and purpose to your life.

So, on behalf of the Lord of the universe, I say to you, “Welcome home…. Welcome home”. Amen.

This section adapted from several readings

[2] P 7ff, The Longing for Home:Reflections at midlife