When I was a little kid, our family used to take car trips across the Southwest. We’d get in the station wagon (remember those?) and we’d drive out to Utah, or Arizona, or New Mexico. We never camped. We always stayed in motels. Sometimes we ‘d drive until way past dinnertime and arrive in a small town looking for a place to stay. We’d pass the nicer motels, the Best Westerns, even the Motel 6, and always, at that hour, the same red neon sign warned us away. What’d it say? “No Vacancy.”
No vacancy. Just two words, but they communicated a bunch more. Too late. All full. Keep moving. Not wanted. We’d press on and finally we’d find room in a seedier motel on the outskirts of town. “No Vacancy.” Not a great sign.
Imagine how Mary and Joseph felt…
Mary and Joseph had walked and camped for about a hundred miles just to get to Bethlehem. They were tired, Mary was in pain and ready to give birth—and the same sign met them: “No vacancy.” The Bible says that she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
Our Christmas pageant this evening explores this story. The Hotel Bethlehem has reached capacity. There’s no vacancy. What will happen to the holy family? Will there be room for them? Will people make space for them?
It’s a foreshadowing of the life of Jesus.
You see, in Jesus, God travels all the way from heaven to earth to get close to human beings. God literally comes to live within us, to re-connect us with himself. The New Testament says that Jesus came in order that he “might dwell in our hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). As with Hotel Bethlehem, there’s a dramatic tension: will there be room in our hearts for Jesus? Or will we already be full up?
So many things compete for residency in our hearts.
Our jobs, our families, our health, the economy, our retirement savings, the world—all of them demand entry and cry out for room. And this season is even more crowded with all the stuff and things trying to barge in: card-writing, tree-trimming, gift-buying, package-wrapping, party-going, cookie-baking, eggnog-drinking—the list is endless.Will we let all this stuff in? If we do, we’ll quickly reach capacity. And when Jesus knocks on the door of our hearts, that same red neon sign will warn him away: “No Vacancy.”
There’s a great, but little-sung, Christmas carol that captures this theme. It’s called “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” Listen to the words of the first verse…
Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home there was found no room for thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.
What’s your heart’s capacity this Christmas? What sign greets Jesus as he comes looking for room? Is it the dreaded red neon one that says “No Vacancy”? Or is it one that says: “Room Left! Come on in!”?
At Advent our family usually has some form of nightly devotion together. For our boys, the prospect of playing with matches (a.k.a. "lighting the Advent candles") and scarfing down chocolates (a.k.a. opening the Advent calendar windows) is too good to pass up. Anyway, this sporadic seasonal spirituality, when it works for us (which sometimes it does), can be very enlightening. The other night we were reading from Luke's Gospel, where, in Chapter Two, verse 7, we heard that Mary "gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger." For whatever reason, the verbs "wrapped" and "laid" leaped out at me.
Quickly flipping to the end of the gospel, sure enough, I saw them again, this time applied to Joseph of Arimathea, who took down the crucified body of Jesus, "wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb" (23:53). "Wrapped" and "laid" again! It's the perfect bookend to the life of Jesus: he enters this world (most likely) in a cave, where he's wrapped and laid for the hope of the world. He then exits this world in cave/tomb, where he's wrapped and laid for the sins of the world. The wrapping of God's gift! Christmas entry, Good Friday exit, the life and death of the Son of God in a perfect symmetry. The unwrapping of the gift we read about a bit further in the gospel, where on Easter the linen cloths that wrap Jesus' body are empty and Jesus is risen.
It's given me pause, this reference to wrapping: I wonder if the next time I'm muttering over my crinkled wrap-jobs and pesky Scotch tape, I will take time to consider the wrapping and careful placement of God's greatest gift. What a whole new way of looking at it!
Interestingly, in this consumerist paradigm, a curious co-dependence can form between leaders and church members: the more professionalized, on-top-of-things, and in-control the leadership of the church appears, the more the membership may be tempted to retreat into the role of savvy spenders, carefully weighing the quality of services and programs in the free market economy of churches in the area. The more active and professional the leadership presents itself, the more passive and consumerist the congregation becomes. Not always, thank goodness, but sometimes.
Times of change and upheaval in a church (just like an uncertain economy for a high-end department store) challenge the paradigm and poke holes in it. What's occurred to me recently, is that the bigger church is not so much like a spiritual Nordstrom, but more like a big family. Like all of our families the church can be a place of successful nurture and celebration, safety, and predictability. But, like our very real families, sometimes the church, even the large one, is a place of brokenness and dysfunction, struggle and sin, uncertainty, vulnerability, and weakness. This is no reason to leave it for a better deal elsewhere--think what happens to families when family members do that! No, the church as family, as opposed to the church as Nordstrom, is the place of deepened commitment and growth. When challenges come, we re-commit, we work together, we try to communicate more effectively, we even call for outside help as needed. Church as family? Or church as department store? If it's the latter, "buyer beware!"
Granted, this is only a season of reading I'm in, and this is only one tool among many I can reach for devotionally; however, I'm finding that it draws me out beyond the narrow confines of my personality, presses me to move outside my pet themes and passages, and reminds me of the grand sweep of God's activity historically. I'm really enjoying it and for those who'd like to give it a try, may I suggest you go to http://www.crivoice.org/advent1.html. There you'll see what I'm reading and you might try it yourself. And, if you're comfortable, please circle back to give me your take on the practice. Happy reading!