St Andrew, Glencairn

Glencairn Methodist Church

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January 2015

Well, here was are again on New Year's Day. That’s Christmas done and dusted for another year, all over bar the shouting and paying the credit card bills. After over two months of preparation, several Carol services and two full days of feasting, Christmas is as far away as ever – only 359 days to go!.

 Through November and December there were frenzied shopping days, people getting more and more frazzled as the days counted down. And then high anxiety in case the turkey was overcooked or undercooked! We hardly had time to relax at all, until it was all over.

 Since Christians are among those who experienced this trauma, is it any wonder that many people will say “Ba humbug” to everything about Christmas, and give many reasons for deriding the incarnation and all those who believe. For example they may say things like: -

 1.    If Jesus really existed at all, how do you know that he was born on 25th December? Isn’t this really nothing more than a pagan, mid-winter celebration? The idea of God becoming Man is just borrowed from Greek mythology.

2.    I don’t see how you could possibly believe in the Virgin Birth.

3.    How could you possibly follow a star and find one particular small building?

4.    What sort of an inn-keeper would make a young pregnant woman give birth in a stable instead of letting her use a proper room in the house?

 I'm sure you have thought about these questions and have found satisfactory answers to them. In this message I want to look at the last one about the innkeeper and show that some scholars think we have got it wrong. We need to look at the nativity story in Luke chapter 2 through Eastern eyes rather than our Western ones.

The behaviour of the inn keeper is curious – he turns them away - not very hospitable. The word “inn” appears only twice in earlier editions of the New International Version New Testament, once in the nativity story in Luke 2, verse 7 “ no room in the inn”, and also in the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10 verse 34 “brought him to an inn”.

 But a different Greek word is used each time. [The word in Luke 2 is katalyma and the word in Luke 10 is pandochesion.] Furthermore the word [katalyma] used in Luke 2 is also used in Luke 22 verse 11 as the “upper room” or “Guest Room” where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. Biblical scholars now suggest that we are using the incorrect translation in the nativity story. This of course would be bad new for all the budding actors playing the role of the inn-keeper – they would be out of a job! [The most recent edition of the NIV says simply that no guest room was available.] A similar translation is also found in the New Living Translation - "no lodging was available for them".

Palestinian houses at the time mostly only had one room wherein all the family lived on a raised part of the room and the animals lived in the lower part, but all under the one roof and with no division. There are two reasons for this – the animals were safer from theft inside than outside and the heat from the animals helped to keep the people warm. I dare say they got used to the smell fairly quickly.

 Now some bigger houses also had an upstairs room for guests and the Greek word used for this guest room (in Luke 22 verse 11) is also used in Luke 2. So we should understand Luke 2 verse 7 as saying that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the Guest room, and so they were brought into the family room. This would have been standard eastern hospitality. And there Jesus was born and he was laid in a manger or feeding trough, which were handy for the animals to snack from during the night. Our word “Manger” is similar to the French word “mangier” meaning “to eat”.  

All of this changes our traditional understanding somewhat, but not in the essentials – Jesus was born in lowly circumstances, not in the grandeur of a palace. The story of Jesus’ birth thus tells of an all-pervading harmony:- the infant Jesus is at one with Mary and Joseph, who are at one with their hosts. And the presence of the animals broadens that sense of harmony all the more, In such harmony lies and image of God’s will for the whole created order and of the healing salvation that Jesus brings through his very incarnation.

 But this harmony was soon disturbed by King Herod who descended on Bethlehem with his troops to kill this infant whom he saw as a threat to his throne. By the grace of God, the holy family escaped to Egypt, but all the boys aged two and under were slaughtered. The church remembers this on the 28th December,  the Festival Day we dedicate to the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. Children are still being slaughtered or traded  by tyrants today. The church also reminds us of the darker side of Christmas on 26th December - St Stephen’s Day – when we remember St Stephen the Deacon who was the first member of the Church to be martyred for his faith We  tend to ignore these special three days in our Christmas celebrations. Of course some churches and cathedrals are scrupulous in observing these days. (27th Dec is dedicated to St John the Evangelist, who, according to tradition was the only apostle to live to old age and to die in his bed.

 Birth and death are the two aspects of every life that we cannot avoid. Even as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, his naming and circumcision on 1st January, and his Presentation in the Temple on 2nd February there are reminders of death. It is true to say that Jesus was born to die. Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God and that all people who came in to him would be saved. This was sealed through his death on the cross, and his resurrection – birth, and death, and resurrected life. Our HOPE for resurrection and eternal life is in him.

May 2015 be a happy and healthy year for you and your loved ones.


1 January 2015


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