When Mary and Joseph found their way to Bethlehem, they found a town that was at capacity. The inn, such as it was, was full. People likely had arrived in the community to comply with the census. And, of course, there likely were a good number of family reunions going on across the town. Many super-spreader events were occurring here!
And so Mary and Joseph found no place to stay – at least no good place to stay. “There was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
And so here was the Messiah, the Savior of the world, being laid in a manger, out where the animals were kept, because the world had no place for him. The holy family was gathered around a feeding trough. What kind of life was this?
We know the story so well that we sometimes forget how this story – about the beginning of the life of Jesus Christ on earth – also is the story of the church and its members. We follow Jesus, and we find ourselves at times in a world that leaves no place for us.
The world too often leaves no place for people who pursue justice and righteousness. It leaves no place for those who are humble in heart and for the meek. It leaves no place for those who first desire to be forgiven and to forgive. It leaves no place for those who would sacrifice themselves unconditionally. It leaves no place for those who set aside their privilege to become servants.
As Jesus was, so are we. He told his disciples one time, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
Of course, we don’t like the word “hate.” That’s a strong word. Does the world really hate Jesus’ followers? The Spirit-led person can see that it does – that the world does not tolerate the things of God. The “world” crucified Jesus Christ on a hill outside Jerusalem. Once again, he was outside – in a place that left no place for him. We can be sure, Jesus said, the world would do the same to believers if given the opportunity.
The world has a capacity limit. Ah, we can understand this. Our COVID-19 restrictions say only 50 percent or 25 percent of capacity is allowed in some buildings. It’s too dangerous to pack more than that into a confined space. The person who shows up after capacity is reached is out of luck. He or she might hear, “I’m sorry. We are at capacity, according to the government’s public health order. There is no place for you. Go away.”
We try to understand this the best we can. Or we might try to argue. But in the end, the answer is the same. There is no place for us. We must find somewhere else to go.
The church ought to come to terms with the idea that this is its lot in life in this world. Closed doors are the expectation – not the exception.
But then we see something else here at the very end of the New Testament. A new city descends from heaven. This is not Bethlehem. And this is not the “Babylon” of the world. This new Jerusalem is different.
This is a city of light. God’s very presence in this city sheds light throughout it. And there is no temple in this city. The old order of “religion” has come to an end. We will not need our church services and our prayers and our gatherings and liturgies to point us to God. This is because we will be with God and in God at every moment. There will be no more lines between sacred time and space and ordinary time and space. Everything will be holy.
And in this light from God and his city “will the nations walk.” Where are they walking? They are walking into the city – a place that apparently has no capacity limits because its gates are always open. “Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.” The nations and the kings of the earth will come to this new city – the home of the King of kings and the Lord of lords (19:16) – and they will bear gifts. Like the three wisemen of Jesus’ birth, they will bring all of their own glory into this place of God. They will give it to him.
We can picture a constant flow of people into this city. They just keep coming. Nothing prevents them from coming. No one says to them, “There is no place for you.”
This is the picture we are given of eternal life. That eternal life started in a stable in the town of Bethlehem, surrounded by doors that were shut and capacity limits that already had been exceeded. And eternal life reaches its fulfillment in the new Jerusalem. The gates will be open. We always are welcome to come in.
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”
We ought not to forget the Lamb. Here is the key to all of existence. That baby born in Bethlehem is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world on the cross (John 1:29, 36). He died for you and I. He was spotless and pure. And he died the death that we deserve. And we are made spotless when we put our faith in him. We are forgiven. We become the people of God.
And we walk by the light of the lamp of the Lamb. Jesus once said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This light of Jesus, this light in the new Jerusalem, is life itself. It is everlasting life. To live in the new Jerusalem, to enter its gates, we must first receive the Lamb. We must receive Jesus (John 1:12).
This is the story that we come to celebrate during the Christmas season – the story of overcoming closed doors and capacity limits and walking in the light of life.