I vividly remember the moment the nativity story came to life for me.
I was ten years old and languishing through a midnight Christmas service. My exasperated mother had just roundly disciplined me for provoking my brother. And I wasn’t paying a lick of attention to the service.
My little legs bounced impatiently, my Christmas dress scratched at my neck and my eyes drifted across the candle-lit sanctuary searching for something interesting to entertain my mind.
I noticed my pastor pacing up front and leaned in to listen as he began narrating a harrowing tale of the holy family’s journey to Bethlehem. With dramatic effect, he described a weary Mary in back breaking in pain. He portrayed a stoic Joseph, trying to protect his beloved. And he condemned a town full of people who turned a pregnant mother away.
I followed along with rapt attention as he described the pungent smell of the barn, the animals lowing and how these base conditions were the only choice for the holy family because there was no room at the inn.
I’d never considered how smelly the barn would be until that moment in my life. And the effect was not lost on a young girl who spent copious amounts of time on her grandparent’s pig farm.
I flopped back against my seat and stifled a horrified gasp that anyone would turn away a pregnant mother, forcing her to have a baby in a barn. Particularly when she was carrying the savior of the world. And my indignation towards the callous innkeeper and heartless residents of Bethlehem seared itself into my mind for years to come.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths
and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7
Anyone familiar with the nativity story could tell you that Jesus was born in the stable because there was no room for the family in the inn. Historians would add that inns in ancient times were undesirable and a last resort for any respectable family. So the fact that Joseph sought shelter at an inn indicates that the family’s relatives and other townspeople had also turned them away.
It’s understandable to inject an undercurrent of censure towards the residents of Bethlehem whenever the nativity story is told. Because it’s hard to fathom house after house rejecting a pregnant mother in such dire straights.
But what if we looked at the story from a different angle? In fact, what if we were invited to admire and even emulate the townspeople and the innkeeper?
Bethlehem was overrun with people complying with the mandatory census. And in ancient times, hospitality was ingrained in the culture. It was common and even expected for families to house travelers and strangers. So we can assume that there was no room for the holy family anywhere because the townspeople were already being hospitable.
The residents of the area had filled their homes to the brim with sojourners and relatives. And bless that innkeeper, whoever he was. Because he offered a desperate couple the last bit of space he had available.
So there is much to admire about this town and a culture in which hospitality was simply a way of life. And God used this common practice of hospitality as a tool for the spread of the Gospel.
When Jesus commissioned the disciples to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, he instructed them in Luke 9, “Take nothing for your journey. Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town.”
Jesus sent out a ragamuffin group with no food, no money or even a spare tunic to tell people about the Kingdom. There was no Facebook or text message to alert anyone in the surrounding towns that that they were coming. There was no Homeaway.com or Expedia to book accommodations. Yet the disciples had every reason to expect that they would find families ready, willing and able to welcome them into their homes.
Hospitality was inherent to the spread of the gospel not only during Jesus’s time on earth but also as the early church grew. We find countless examples in Acts as well as throughout the epistles of generous hospitality being shown to missionaries and sojourners. And the countless saints who opened their doors for the sake of the Gospel changed the world in the process.
It might feel a little radical to modern day believers to imagine opening our doors to strangers. But God clearly directs us to continue this practice as committed Christ followers.
Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 1 Peter 4:9
God designed our homes to be places of refreshment for saints as well as spaces of hope and truth for sinners. He directs us to welcome and show radical love to the stranger in our midst. And he clearly intends for us to use our homes generously to share his love.
So perhaps we should be a little more like the townspeople, opening our doors to weary souls. We all should follow the example of the innkeeper, offering the last bit of space we have available to someone in need. And we all should pray for God to use our homes today like He did in ancient times, to continue changing the world for His glory.
FAMILY DISCUSSION QUESTIONS & PRAYER
- In what ways have we shown hospitality to others as a family?
- How can we ensure that our home is ready to receive any unexpected guests God sends our way?
- What are some ways our family can use our home to offer rest and refreshment to friends and strangers?
I am grateful for the blessing of my home. Please give me opportunity to use it for the spread of the gospel. I welcome the stranger, the saint, the souls you send my way for refreshment and rest. May it be for your glory that I open my door.
This post is an excerpt from the advent devotional, A Disciple Making Christmas. I was honored to be a contributor in this collection of daily advent readings intended for the whole family. You can order your copy on Amazon here: A Disciple Making Christmas