Every year at Christmas time when I teach the actual biblical texts, I have to spend a little time "correcting" the misconceptions that we have easily come to accept over the years, due in no small part to the manger scenes on our mantles. No the magi weren't there that night. And there is no mention of three and they weren't kings. They were most likely astrologer/astronomers who didn't arrive until Mary, Joseph and toddler Jesus were settled into the house that they were probably staying in all along. (Matthew 2:1-18)
In a post at his site, Ben Witherington offers the best Christmas sermon I have heard (in this case, read) in a long time. He uses good old fashion scholarship to help us read an old story with fresh eyes challenging the notion that Mary and Joseph was turned away by a callous innkeeper, but more likely that they crammed into the back of a house of a relative who had "no room in their guest room" and could offer up nothing else but the stable. Witherington asks us to consider that the real thing is both more believable and more challenging than many of our best intended morals-of-the story.
Please read it in its entirety but here are some snippets:
Now I have to tell you, this story is too improbable NOT TO BE TRUE. I mean, no one would make up a story like this which suggested to the skeptical in the home town and to latter day skeptics ever since that Jesus the Son of God was illegitimate. The story of the virginal conception must surely be true, for an evangelistic religion in that honor and shame culture would never make up a story like this about the birth of their Savior if they wanted to convince a patriarchal world of its truth. It’s too improbable not to be true!...
Jesus was born in his relative’s home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell in that room, and probably the shock of the Magi when they saw where the King was born.
But this story is not meant to meet our expectations or desires about what a Christmas story must be like. Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or desires—he came to meet our needs. George MacDonald puts it this way—‘We were all looking for a king to slay our foes and lift us high, but thou camst a little baby thing, that made a mother cry.” Jesus came as he did to make clear that no one and no place however humble was beneath his dignity, and every age and stage of life he would hallow, and save and sanctify.
The question for us this day is—do we still have the capacity to be surprised, enthralled, by this remarkable Christmas story? Do we still have the capacity to see all things new, once more? Can we approach the story like a child—eyes wide open, mouth agape? Can we make him room in our homes, even if the calendar is full, and the head count high on the homefront. I certainly hope so. Jesus traveled a long way to dwell with you Immanuel, especially at this season. Will you not kindly make him room in your abode, however humble?
The old medieval Christmas poem said 'though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, if he's not born in you, your heart is still forlorn.' Let me just tell you however, if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course.
For me the payoff of this sermon is the reminder: Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or desires—he came to meet our needs.