The first time we drove to Florida with our kids we learned a lesson. Well, we learned many lessons, really – but one in particular about hotel reservations.
Before kids the trip to St. Petersburg was a ten-hour drive straight through, eating fast food in the car and happily passing the time with an audiobook. After kids that same drive has become a twelve-hour marathon filled with Chick-Fil-A playgrounds and Disney music. To save our sanity, we split the drive and spend the night someplace with a pool.
On our rookie venture Alan wanted to make a hotel reservation. Full of road-trip hubris (I’ve made this run in less than ten hours!), I objected. “What if we’re making good time and we want to drive further?” I reasoned. This is, of course, completely insane; no one wants to drive further with small children in the car. But I didn’t know that at the time.
So we stop at the exact exit where Alan wanted to make our reservations. We’re exhausted and stuffed full of chicken nuggets. It was a pretty typical Friday night – no spring break, no holiday weekend. And yet it seemed we were far from the only people travelling I-95 and in need of a place to lay our heads, because the first hotel we went to was booked. And the second. Seeing Alan walk back out from a third hotel shaking his head I felt panicky and poorly qualified for parenthood.
There was no room at the inns – Hampton, Holiday, Quality, or Days.
Finally we found a room at an off-brand motel that would have normally been far below our standards. When the man behind the bulletproof glass window handed us the keys to a double queen room with a view of the parking lot, we thanked him as though he’d just given us a place at the Ritz.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt this same sense of gratitude for their spot with the animals. The text doesn’t tell us much, only that “there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
An innkeeper isn’t even mentioned in the passage, but we might assume that somebody told Jesus’ parents about this “no vacancy” situation. In Christmas reenactments I’ve seen that innkeeper portrayed as cold and uncaring: “No room, suckers! You should have planned ahead!” I’ve also seen a conflicted and compassionate innkeeper: “I’m so sorry, there’s no room… oh, the tragedy!” I wonder, what was the innkeeper really like?
So I asked a few. We’ve got some modern-day innkeepers connected to our congregation. One works with a local hotel; the other, with a bed and breakfast. I asked them, “What would you do if someone came by and you were all booked up?”
Neither person described a cold and uncaring response. I heard about making referrals, calling other hotels, even contacting the local churches for help. If you showed up at one of their institutions and there wasn’t any vacancy to be had, they’d do anything they could to help you out. But I also heard that sometimes there simply isn’t any room, anywhere. On busy weekends in the summer the motorcyclists and white water rafters fill the hotels and motels and B&Bs all over Cherokee county. Sometimes there’s truly nothing they can do.
But there’s another scenario we ought to explore here, beyond the traditional innkeeper. The word so often translated as “inn” – katalyma – is not really an inn at all. It’s more like a spare room in someone’s house. Luke 2:7 really translates more like, “there was no place for them in the guest room.” *
Now remember that Joseph is hauling the nine-month-pregnant Mary to Bethlehem because he’s required, by a census, to return to “his own city.” Presumably this is where he grew up, where his people are. And like any trip back home, we might imagine Joseph intending to stay with some relative. But when he gets there…
“…there was no place for them in the guest room.”
In this case, our innkeeper is a family member. He’s standing at the door and looking at his brother and pregnant bride who desperately need a place to stay, but their second cousins have already taken over the guest room. So what does he do?
I asked the same thing of our innkeepers. What if it was a family member who needed a place to stay? What then?
I bet you can guess. In that case, it doesn’t matter if every room in Cherokee County is booked; they’d be calling up friends, researching cabin rentals, opening up the sleeper sofas, whatever it took. And if all they could come up with was a barn it wouldn’t be an uncaring way to them off their front porch, but a compassionate way to bring them in.
Perhaps the holy family didn’t receive their place as rejection but as an offer to make room for them in whatever room was available to be made. Maybe they were relieved to have something, somewhere, whether it was a no-name motel or a place where a feeding trough counts for a crib. When they didn’t have anyplace they just needed someplace, and a barn is a better someplace than no place at all.
Later – thirty or so years later – Jesus would be in need of a place again. He’d be getting ready for the last days of his life, wanting to eat the Passover meal with his closest friends. Luke 22:11 tells us that he was in need of a guest room, a katalyma; he sends his disciples into Jerusalem with the instructions to ask a particular person, “Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?” It’s the same word, and these are the only places it shows up in the New Testament. First, when a baby Jesus is in need of a guest room to be born in. And then when an adult Jesus is in a need of a room for the last meal of his human life.
The Son of God, the King of Kings, asking for people to make a place for him. Not barging in and demanding it, not making reservations at a five-star hotel – but asking for a place in someone’s guest room.
Just like he does still.
God has this way of waiting to be invited in. He wants a place in our hearts, in our lives, but he’s patient. He doesn’t barge down the door. He needs a place to be and he’s asking if we have a spare room to give. What will we do?
Many of us have hearts that are already full. We have people we care for, things that we worry about, schedules that need keeping, jobs that we must work or lose. Where could we possibly make room for Jesus?
And if we do manage to find space in our hearts, sometimes it can feel pretty unworthy. We’ve got all this sin in there, dark things that no one else sees, and if we let Jesus in there – what will he think? It seems a lot like offering a barn to a newborn king.
But this Jesus that wants some room in our hearts is no stranger off the street, no tourist coming through who should have thought to make a reservation. This Jesus is like our brother, our friend, our family. He can’t just be left outside in the cold. We have to clear out some space, even if it’s messy, even if it’s just a corner somewhere.
A messy guestroom is just what Jesus is looking for.
If you’d like to open up a katalyma in your heart to Jesus Christ, now is a great time. If you have music or a TV on, put it on mute. Or maybe find a quiet room where you can sit still. Then hold your hands out in front of you, cupped together but closed.
Now pray: Jesus, my heart is full – full of people, full of hopes, full of worry, full of responsibility, full of my life. I could almost think there wasn’t any room to spare. But Jesus, I am going to make room for you.
Open your hands a little bit.
Jesus, my heart is messy, about as messy as that barn you were born in. It’s got sin in it. There are things in there I don’t ever talk about. There is hate, and jealousy, and lust, and arrogance. I’m afraid to give you room in there – but I know you need room, and I’m not going to leave you out in the cold.
Open your hands all the way, so they look like two doors open wide.
Jesus Christ, I am making room for you. Come into my heart; come into my life. Make as much room as you need. Clean out the sin that’s in there. Let this space of mine become a space of yours.
* See the Abingdon Bible Commentary on Luke, or the Peoples’ New Testament Commentary.