There’s an intriguing phrase tucked into Hebrews 13:2. It cautions Christians not to neglect hospitality to strangers because some have unknowingly entertained angels. One implication of this phrase is that not everyone who crosses our path is human, a thought which warrants some reflection. In any case, I suspect the author of Hebrews may have been thinking about the fateful day Abraham entertained celestial visitors who heralded the birth of Isaac [Genesis 18]. He didn’t know they were angels, and some have argued that one of his visitors that day was the pre-incarnate Christ. I often wonder what would have happened if Abraham wasn’t hospitable to them. Could he have missed out on the news he’d waited his whole adult life to hear?
The Christmas story has some similarities from the perspective of one innkeeper. The Gospels say nothing about this character. But, it’s inferred from the Nativity story that an innkeeper told Joseph and Mary that there was no room for them in the inn. Maybe this was the same person who directed them to the manger [Luke 2:7]. Whoever this stranger was, the fact is that on one fateful day, the King of kings stood before him as a vulnerable in-utero baby, needing assistance. The Bible makes no judgement on the innkeeper or his actions. For all we know, he could have been a benevolent proprietor who did everything in his power to help a desperate couple. However, the best he could muster on the day was a stall with a manger. He probably wasn’t their first stop, which would suggest that others sent Mary and Joseph back on the streets in their hour of need.
I read something recently about mangers which made me realise that the circumstances of Jesus’s birth weren’t accidental (of course, there are no coincidences with God). After the Exodus, God would have to teach the Hebrew slaves how to live as His people. Part of those instructions were directives on worship, captured in the book of Leviticus. The worship ordinances of some offerings required animals without blemish, that is, no deformities, to be sacrificed as an offering. When an animal considered good enough for sacrifice was born, it was set apart, wrapped tightly in a cloth and put in a manger, usually made of stone for its protection. So, when the angels sent the shepherds, who would have known about setting animals aside for offerings to baby Jesus, they were given a sign: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It was a prophetic announcement: In that manger lay the lamb of God who would be sacrificed for the sins of the world at the appointed time. So, the innkeeper inadvertently played a role in God’s grand plan by providing a manger.
God gave dominion to humans on earth at creation [Genesis 1:26,28], and He hasn’t taken it back. So, He usually seeks to partner with us to bring about His purposes. We see throughout Scripture that for God’s intentions to unfold, a human being had to say: “yes”; be it Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Peter or Mary. That remains the case today. Whether it’s to help a stranger or inconvenience ourselves to serve others, our little “yeses” often matter to God. He never misses a good deed, especially when it’s towards people who can’t reward us. Like the innkeeper, you may not be able to provide a penthouse, and maybe the best you can do is a little room out back; do that. Imagine the joy of that innkeeper when he found out that he’d helped the Saviour of the world. Imagine finding out in heaven that something you did that seemed minuscule at the time was seismic in God’s plan?
Such a thought should drive every Christian to acts of kindness and generosity. We should never miss a chance to be hospitable, especially towards a stranger. Sadly, the state of today’s world means we’re inundated with such opportunities. We may even become weary of them. Imagine being a doctor who has just finished an exhausting 15-hour shift, and as you’re leaving the hospital, someone asks for your help. It might be hard to summon the strength, but these are the moments we should ask God for grace because His power is perfected in our weakness [2 Corinthians 12:9]. We can’t always be hospitable in our own strength, but God’s grace can give us an endless capacity to show kindness and generosity to others.
One other thought: A commentator pointed out in his sermon notes on Luke 2 that we’re all innkeepers of our hearts. Just as Mary and Joseph stood outside knocking on the entrance of a crowded inn that fateful day, Jesus is also standing at the door of our hearts knocking today [Revelation 3:20]. He’s looking for a dwelling place in our hearts. Jesus desires to come and dine with us. You’ve probably heard someone say: “If the innkeeper knew who Mary and Joseph were, he would have made room for them, even if it meant kicking out another guest”. That may be true, but what’s certainly true for us is that we know who Jesus is. Instead of guests, the inn of our hearts is often crowded with other loves like our jobs, relationships, ambitions, accolades, power, fame, money and so on. So if we’re going to let Jesus in, we must evict the present occupants. Are we willing to do this, or will our response be: “there’s no room in the inn?”
This Christmas, may the example of the unnamed stranger who provided a place for Jesus to be born inspire us to kindness, generosity and hospitality, especially towards strangers, as we make room in our own hearts for Jesus. Amen.