The Phantom Innkeeper

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Christ the King, November 20, 2016. The gospel reading was Luke 23:33-43.

That may have been a surprising reading to hear. Today is the final Sunday of the church year, a day called Christ the King. We might expect to hear about Jesus seated on a throne, reigning in glory. But instead, we hear a story that sounds more fitting for Good Friday. This isn’t where we expect to find a king. Not on a cross. Well, I may surprise you even more now, because before I talk about this story, I want to talk about the story of Christmas. Because I think Jesus the King has been showing up in unexpected places throughout his life, starting with his birth.

There’s a part of the Christmas story I’ve never talked about from the pulpit, because it just doesn’t fit the emotion of Christmas Eve. But it fits today. It’s the surprising story of the innkeeper and the inn. What’s the surprise? That there is no innkeeper, and probably no inn either.

Let me explain. Luke tells us in his gospel that Emperor Augustus sent out a decree that all the world should be registered, and in order to do this, everyone was supposed to head to their own hometown. Joseph lived in Nazareth, but his family was from Bethlehem, so he traveled there for the census. He took with him Mary, his pregnant fiancée. Luke tells us, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.” No place for them in the inn. Now, in our imagination and in many Christmas pageants and movies, we add a lot of details there. We imagine a bustling inn full of travelers, and a kindly innkeeper who tells Mary that she can at least go sleep in the stable with the animals. It makes some sense. But Luke mentions no innkeeper. And actually, I’m not convinced he mentioned an inn either. And here’s why:

The Greek word that Luke uses, the one that’s translated “inn,” can also mean “guest room.” In fact, in two other places in Luke, that same word clearly does mean “guest room.” And I think it means that here. Think about it this way. Joseph traveled to his hometown, his family’s birthplace, and so surely there  extended family there. Hospitality was so important in those days that it would simply be expected that a cousin, a nephew, an uncle, some kinsman, would welcome Joseph to stay with them for the census. And in what room would he stay? Well, in their guest room, presumably. But Luke tells us, “there was no place for them in the guest room.” Now why would there be no place for them there? Because so many other relatives had also arrived? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was because Joseph arrived there with Mary, a woman to whom he was not yet married, a woman who was nonetheless obviously nine months pregnant. Perhaps Joseph told his relatives that she conceived through the Holy Spirit. I wonder what they thought of that. And I wonder if their sense of morality outweighed their sense of hospitality. Perhaps Joseph and Mary weren’t welcome because Joseph’s relatives viewed them as sinners. It would not have been unthinkable in those days.

And so perhaps Jesus was born in a place where he was unwelcome, a place where he and his family were shunned by the very people who should have shown the greatest level of support and hospitality. I don’t know this for sure. I’m adding details in that aren’t there. But I think it makes at least as much sense as the story of the kindly innkeeper. And in a way I think it fits more with the Jesus we see throughout the gospel of Luke, the Jesus we see in today’s gospel, up on the cross, abandoned, tortured, and taunted.

A Jesus who is nonetheless a king. A Jesus who is nonetheless the king. A Jesus whose throne is not made of gold and rubies, but whose throne is a cross. Who does not wield majestic power from a place of strength and glory, but who wields his awesome power from a place of suffering. From the trenches. From the ditches. A king who started his earthly life not in a palace, but in an unfamiliar town, unwanted and unwelcome even by his relatives. A king who ended his earthly life not surrounded by trusted advisors and loving family, but nailed to a cross surrounded by criminals and leaders who taunted him.

But a king who brought hope to all who encountered him, throughout that life. On the day of his birth, hidden in a manger, the king brought hope to a group of unwanted, disrespected shepherds. On the day of his death, hidden on a cross, the king brought hope to the thief crucified next to him, who asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus told him, not only will I remember you, but today you will be with me in Paradise. Jesus, the king who was always surrounded by those who hated him and feared him, nonetheless brought hope to all who asked. Jesus, the king who is always hidden, hidden in a manger and hidden on the cross. Jesus, the king who is even today hidden. Hidden in the words of the gospel, hidden in bread and wine. Hidden throughout our world, throughout your life. Jesus, the king who even today brings hope to all who ask. Who brings hope all who suffer today, for whatever reason they suffer. Who brings hope to you in the midst of whatever suffering you may endure.

Jesus our king does not stay on some throne far away, listening to us from afar. Jesus our king is with us here. On the cross. In the manger. In the bread and wine. In your suffering. In your home and your workplace and your school. Jesus our king is here with us, and if you ask him to give you hope, you will receive it. Our world is full of suffering, and our king deals with that suffering by coming to us, in that suffering, and bringing us hope. Your king is here. Call to him, and receive his gift of hope.


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