Dec 24, 2018

“No Room for Them” 12-24-18

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2018
Faith Presbyterian Church

The power of Christian hymns often lies in the way that they move us from the central events of salvation history to our own personal experience of saving grace. Thus, in Christmas hymns, Christ's entrance into the world becomes a metaphor for the savior's presence in our lives, or for the mystery of the new birth.  So, for example, in O Little Town of Bethlehem we sing that Christ is born of Mary.  We confess this in the Apostle's Creed as essential to our Confession of Christ as Lord.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary.  But, in the hymn we move from redemption accomplished to redemption applied, and so we love to sing, "O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today."

These hymn writers are essentially saying, "There are things about Jesus' birth that remind us of Christian experience, and it deepens our celebration to reflect on these things."   There is a rhyme that goes, Though Christ ten thousand times in Bethlehem were born, if he's not born in thee, thy soul's forlorn.”  Like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" it plays on "born" to connect Christ's birth with something that happens to us.   It reminds us that there are (at least) two dimensions to God’s one saving act in Christ.  After all, Christ is not born in us the way he was born in Bethlehem.  There he was born the way we all are born, and this is the staggering mystery of the incarnation.  The eternal Son of God became a particular human being--Jesus of Nazareth—to save us once and for all by offering himself for our sins.  But that is not all that needs to be said.   What he did for us in history long ago is brought home to our hearts in our time on this earth by the Holy Spirit.   The New Testament writers call this “new birth.”   So it is not idly that we sing, “Be born in us today.” 

We should also appreciate that, where Christian experience is concerned, the Christmas hymns speak not only of the new birth, but also of the changed way of life that flows from new birth.  Thus, for example, Emily Elliot's hymn, “There is Room in My Heart for Thee,” looks back to the Christmas story in Bethlehem and identifies the “no room in the inn” as the beginning of the rejection of Christ by the world.  “But in Bethlehem's home there was found no room for thy holy nativity.”  Now, the circumstances of Christ's birth certainly point to what we call the “humiliation” of Christ and Elliot's hymn expresses this well. “But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth, And in great humility.”  However, in Eliot's contrast between “no room” in Bethlehem and “room in my heart” there is an implicit suggestion that Bethlehem was lacking hospitality. She apparently does not consider the possibility that the provision of shelter and a manger, such as it was, might have actually been someone's act of hospitality.  The text of the gospel does not say one way or another.  Luke just says, “And 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.”  

Now my intent is not to take issue with Elliot's hymn, which we all love and find very edifying.  The openness of the narrative creates space for sanctified imagination to instruct us in the grace of receiving Christ.  Elliot moves from the birth of Christ, to the life of Christ, to the death of Christ, and on to the second coming of Christ and challenges us to be sure that there is room for us at Christ's side when he comes.  This too, is not idle sentiment.  The last place in Scripture where “no room” appears is in the last book of the Bible, in Revelation 20:11.  “Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place [literally “no room” = Luke 2:7] was found for them.”  There is no room to be found for anyone in the presence of the one who sits on the great white throne!  But, we know that the one who sits on the throne is the one born in Bethlehem.  When heaven and earth flee his presence, there will be room for those who have received him.  So, it is not idly or sentimentally that we sing, “There is room in my heart for thee.”
This connecting of the historical with the personal in Christmas hymns always flows from a conviction that the historical is central.  This should caution us against our natural tendency to let the personal displace the historical in our celebration.   Some folks sing, "Be born in us today," convinced that the true meaning of Christmas is feeling (perhaps as a matter of right) especially good and close to Jesus for at least a few days.   Some others sing, "Be born in us today," believing that the Bethlehem story is pure myth and IN US is the only place where God intended Jesus to be born.   But Christmas is about what happened in Bethlehem.  There Christ was born.  There "for us and for our salvation" the Son of God "came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made human."   And for all the joy that Christmas brings, it does not diminish our longing for the day when the Savior who was born in Bethlehem will come again to us and be with us, and the meaning of Christmas will be complete. Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906