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Beware of ‘second-best’

December 2011

Dear Friends,

How quickly this year seems to have passed. For some, it may have been a difficult year, full of challenges and disappointments; for others, it may have brought particular joy and success. However, all of us can record our gratitude to God for his kindness and mercy in whatever experiences we have gone through. As a congregation, we have proved God’s goodness in so many different ways. We give thanks for the way He has led us and blessed us during the last four months of Peter’s ministry, and during the vacancy. With some 20 people being admitted to membership since June this year, in addition to those who joined us at the end of Peter’s ministry, we have proved the faithfulness of God. We are deeply indebted to Peter’s legacy as minister and pastor, to those who have ministered to us since, to all from near and far who have joined us in prayer, and to so many in Sandyford, whose willing, loyal sacrificial service has made a huge contribution. However, our dual challenge at the start of the vacancy, ‘without God we can do nothing’ and ‘Ebenezer: the Lord our helper’, needs to be our constant watchword for the days ahead in 2012.

At this time of Christmas it is always good to take stock and to renew our spiritual focus on Jesus. It is a truism to say that the secularisation of the Christmas season has robbed the world of the real message of the incarnation. Yet, it is only too easy for us as Christians to be in the situation of those who missed the first Christmas.

Who would we most like to identify with in the Christmas story?

If we were to engage in an adult nativity play I wonder which character we would most like to play. Only the thespians among us would choose those who missed out on that first Christmas, like King Herod and his court, the Roman emperor Augustus (an interesting understudied character in the event), the people of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, the religious leaders, and, indeed, perhaps some of the Egyptians whose path Mary and Joseph must have crossed in their flight as refugees from Herod.

What about the innkeeper?

But how many would choose the innkeeper? One of the problems is that so many traditions have grown up around him giving scope to all who would dismiss the story as myth. None more so than that of the stable, which has been romanticised by artists and writers steeped in European and transatlantic cultures. Obviously, some of the pantomimic accretions, like the little drummer boy, frosty the snowman, or the rotund, white-bearded, red-coated gentleman, who with or without his reindeer or elves, features in so many stores and shows at this time of year, can be great fun for children and stimulate their imagination in pageants and nativity plays. The innkeeper’s role is given only 7 words in the narrative (‘there was no room in the inn’). He is traditionally presented as a mean, almost Scrooge-like character, whom many children would not want to play. Yet this character represents an often unrecognised but very real challenge to the Church and to us as individuals. Whether the stable was carved out of a rock or whether it was attached to the inn, at the back of which the innkeeper might have kept cattle and sheep at night, we cannot say. However, wherever the stable was located, no Western mother would have wanted to give birth to a baby in such surroundings. Archaeologists have recently discovered that one third of expectant mothers died at the time. So when the innkeeper put Mary and Joseph in the stable he may well have known, given the mortality rates at the time, that he might be consigning Mary to an early death.

‘Please pardon the innkeeper’?

So, not unnaturally, various commentators have blackened the character of the innkeeper as a faceless entrepreneur, uncaring and callous. Yet, there is another side to the innkeeper which is very rarely pointed out, a side which makes him a much more sympathetic character, and one with whom we have all at some stage identified. While the innkeeper did not have any vacant rooms, the census having guaranteed that his inn would have been fully booked long before the event, he did at least try to find alternative accommodation. Now, while not wishing to join the campaign to rehabilitate the innkeeper, which gained momentum from the mock letter addressed to President Bush in 2007:

Dear Mr President,

Please pardon the innkeeper […].

we might, however, ask whether history does not owe the innkeeper a partial apology. For, if the innkeeper owned the stable in which there was a manger he did take a risk, given the medical prognosis for expectant women of the time and the social stigma that would have been attached to the birth of a child of whom the husband Joseph was not the father. Yet, the innkeeper missed out on a unique moment in history. Nowadays plaques are put on walls to commemorate the birth of famous people: in Stratford, William Shakespeare’s house is clearly signposted; in Portsmouth, a plaque indicates Charles Dickens birthplace; and nobody visiting Blenheim would be in any doubt that its most famous son was the UK’s most celebrated citizen, Winston Churchill. It would also seem that the value of a property increases disproportionately as a result of a historical event happening within it.

But a partial apology

We are not told anything else about what happened to the innkeeper in subsequent years or how long the inn remained standing. However, his descendants would never be able to put a plaque outside his inn to say that this was where the Son of God was born. Instead, they would have, with apologies, to indicate that it was the stable and not his residence which hosted the birth of the King of Kings. So the apology to the innkeeper can only ever be partial because he missed out on the most famous VIP that anyone could ever have in his or her house. We too can miss out, and not just at Christmas. And we have to ask ourselves if we offering Jesus the stable, or our best room? As a denomination, it would seem that we are offering the stable. Our confession of faith puts Jesus in the best room. Yet if he were truly offered that room our churches would be revolutionized. On a personal level, what accommodation are we offering Jesus? Often, we can give him the periphery of our lives. Just as Jesus was crowded out of a more appropriate birthing place in Bethlehem, so He can be crowded out of our lives.

Beware of God’s second best

These days we have perhaps lost in our post-modern society any concept of ‘the best’. For those who lived through the last war, or who were brought up in its immediate aftermath, the best was kept for something or someone really special, whether it be clothing, crockery, food, or whatever. So, too, in spiritual terms, the best should be reserved for someone special, our saviour Jesus. In the early days of the revival of the Word of God in the ministries of William Still, James and George Phillip, there was much emphasis on the danger of our forfeiting service, in fact, on experiencing what they called, ‘God’s second best’. In one sense, that is the experience of the innkeeper. We too can put people or things before Jesus. Even some of the wonderful provision God has made for us, whether it be our family, our relationships (I still recall how a godly minister’s wife in Wales said she had to learn daily to put Jesus before her husband), our work, our career, our leisure pursuits, or money, desire, or even church activities, may dethrone Jesus from the centre of our affections. Not that God does not want us to enjoy life (‘God has given all things richly to enjoy’ (I Timothy 6: 16)). Yet, how much easier it is for us to put Jesus in the stable of our lives, even during a Christmas season, when the focus of attention should be on Him.

A stable or a throne?

One of the amazing aspects of the Christmas narrative is that Jesus is prepared to come to a place which was even worse than the Bethlehem stable: to our hearts. Where will we put him? Back in the stable? Or in the best room? As Christina Rossetti penned, in one of the best loved carols, In the Bleak Midwinter, the best and only gift that Jesus wants, is the throne of our hearts:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

With renewed thanks for all your support and prayers over the last year, which have meant more than words can say, and with very best wishes for Christmas and for 2012.

Noël Peacock

Session Clerk

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