Ron: "Thickly Settled" is the final sign in this series of six sermons, "Road Signs Along Life's Journey." This sign comes from New England, something Tim Smith shared with us. In communities where the population is dense, "Thickly Settled" warns approaching drivers to practice extra caution in the coming community.
On the night when Jesus Christ was born, Bethlehem was so "thickly settled," that Mary and Joseph "found no place for them in the Inn" (Luke 2:7). Tonight's story comes to us from the one keeping watch over the Inn that night. Let us go to Bethlehem and see . . .
Tim: Let us pray: May the words of our mouths & the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock & our salvation. Amen.
Ron: A Long time ago, a decree went out from Emperor Caesar Augustus that there would be a worldwide census. In the region of Palestine and Syria, the much hated Qurinius was Governor. Across the entire Roman Empire, people had to return to the places of their family's origin to be registered for military conscription and tax purposes. Mary and Joseph were two such people in the land of Palestine. They were Jews from Nazareth, they had to return to Bethlehem. While Jews did not serve in the Roman military, a heavy tax was exacted on each household. So, through mountains and valleys, this very pregnant 14 year old teenager and her devoted fiancé headed south to a "thickly settled" little town called Bethlehem. It was there that she would give birth to her firstborn child. If it hadn't been for St. Luke's story naming Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, most of us would only know one name today: Jesus, a child born in a barn. Another, whose name we do not know stood in the doorway of history. He was, the Innkeeper. Listen to his story.
Tim: "I remember that night. That was a long, long time ago. But memories of men are also long and none of you have forgotten anything about my sad part in it all unless maybe you have forgotten the truth. You can never blame people for forgetting the truth because it is, after all, such a terribly subtle and evasive commodity. The flutter of an eyelid, the tone of a voice. If I were to tell you, `I BELIEVE!' that would be a lie, but if I were to say, `I believe...' that might be the truth. So I do not blame all of you and history itself for forgetting the subtleties of that night and time and making me out to be the village villain, the heartless one who said, "No Room! No room!' I will grant you that there may be a villainy in part of the truth. But if you choose to call me a villain, you will have a catch in your voice, a tremor, a hesitation maybe, perhaps with a tear in your eye. But, my wayfaring friends, nothing is entirely dark, not even the human heart.(A KNOCK FROM RON). You see, it all starts with someone knocking on the door - the door of your house, the door of your heart. (RON KNOCKS AGAIN.) Here it comes again. Maybe I shouldn't answer this time. You don't have to answer the door. If you hide, they may go away. Be truthful, you have all hidden from a visitor knocking on your door. (RON KNOCKS AGAIN - THIS TIME, TIM ANSWERS). May I help you?
Ron: I need a place to stay for the night. My beloved is heavy with child and we need a bed for the night. I think she is about to give birth.
Tim: (to the congregation...Ron freezes). Here we go again. I remember this tongue-tied, bedraggled man. I remember this slow, heavy-footed woman. I remember the silence before I spoke. It was different than the clumsy silence of the poor. I remember that my eye caught the sight of a star over her shoulder. It was the clearest, brightest star in the sky. It was unmistakable. But, only for a second did I see it. I spoke again, "There is no room. We have nothing here for you."
Ron: Please, sir. Something? Some place? You must have some place for us this cold night?
Tim: (again to the congregation while Ron freezes)... Can't people take NO for an answer? What is it about the poor that makes them ask AGAIN!? As I looked at them, I thought of my stable out back. They looked more suited for a stable than an Inn. Now, I don't mean to be unkind. But, it is the TRUTH. And so, I spoke. "We have a stable in the back. You can stay there for the night."
Ron: Thank you, so much, my kind friend. (Ron turns and steps a few steps away...).
Tim: Why was this man so kind to me when the truth was I was unkind to him and his wife. I didn't offer help. I didn't offer food. I didn't offer water. There was no kindness in my voice or my actions. Later that night, when the baby was born, I could have been a million miles away, for all that I cared. I was lost in my world of keeping an Inn. I missed his coming.
I can't tell you about the baby born in our thickly settled town of Bethlehem. I can't tell you how I feel. I have lost touch with my feelings. But, I can tell you this. I have traveled the journey of life. I have seen many things and met many people. But, that night...in the doorway of my Inn, God Almighty Himself, came knocking and I did not know him. All your life, you seek for truth. You wait for love. We want to experience our own heart's desire. And this is the truth! When God comes to the doorway of your heart, do not miss His coming! Do not turn away. Pray for me. Pray for us all, that you, that I, do not miss his coming, again! (The story of the Innkeeper is drawn from Frederick Buechner's "The Birth," in The Magnificent Defeat, Harper and Row, 1985, pp. 66-68).
Ron: That night, Mary gave birth to a son. She named him Jesus. She wrapped him in bands of cloth. She laid him in a feed trough. She huddled with Joseph amidst the cattle, the sheep, and the stable animals. Throughout the night, angels came. They brought shepherds. In time, the star brought wise men from the east. She pondered all these things in her heart. With the threat of death hanging over them, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled shortly after his birth to Egypt, to escape persecution and certain death at the hands of Herod the King. But on this night, so long ago, the Innkeeper, in the thickly settled town of Bethlehem, missed the birth of the One we call "Savior," "Messiah," "Ruler of the Nations." When he comes knocking on the door of your heart, I pray that the sign will read, "Open for Business." In the "thickly settled" realm of your heart, open wide the doors and invite the Christ child in.
Tim: May God bless you and keep you this night and in the days to come.