Sermon preached at Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve (24 December 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve (24 December 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Dean reflects on the nativity story and calls us to spend this Christmas period listening for how God is challenging us to think differently. 

The cathedral – not this cathedral – was full of women. They were having a good day, meeting up with friends in cafés for a good lunch. And they came to the cathedral for their annual carol service, to enjoy the nostalgia of Christmas past and soak up the festive atmosphere, before going back home to see children or grandchildren taking part in a school or church nativity play.

Unfortunately for them and for me, it was my turn to preach the sermon at the Women’s Institutes of Devon Carol Service. 

Unfortunate, because I decided to explore with them something about the Nativity story in the gospel of Luke which we’ve just heard read, something which meant I received complaints that I had ruined their Christmas.

It was an experience that taught me to be more careful in thinking about what a particular congregation was able to hear, and also taught me that our emotions are more powerful than our thinking.

What was my upsetting and subversive comment about the Christmas story? It was simply this. The gospel of Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, Joseph’s family home, and while they were there, Jesus was born, and laid in a manger, in an animal’s feeding trough, because there was no room for them in what Luke calls in his original Greek the kataluma.

Kataluma is the Greek word which is translated in English Bibles as ‘inn’. And the phrase ‘there was no room in the inn’ has given rise to many nativity plays which revolve around the parts of the innkeeper and the innkeeper’s wife, often involving knockabout humour, and the implication that the innkeeper was trying to be helpful by offering the stable round the back to this young woman in labour.

However, the word kataluma occurs once more in Luke’s gospel, where it refers to the room where Jesus wants to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, not to an inn. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word kataluma doesn’t refer to an inn either, but to a sleeping place or even a campsite. A kataluma is a place to rest – it’s not an inn or a hotel.

When Luke tells the story of the good Samaritan who rescues a man attacked by robbers and takes him to an inn, Luke uses the normal Greek word for an inn, which is completely different from the word kataluma.

So what is Luke saying? What is this kataluma where there was no place for a mother with her baby? On a visit to the holy land I asked our Palestinian guide what he understood was happening at the birth of Jesus. And he talked about typical Palestinian homes even today which, like many old houses in country areas in Britain, would have the animals brought in overnight at one end of the building, or in a cave underneath the house, where the animals would be safe and their bodies would provide some heat for the inhabitants of the house above them, whether that was in a separate room or sleeping on a platform set up above the place where the animals would be.

And my Palestinian guide was horrified that Western people could imagine Palestinians being so inhospitable that they would not make every effort to give house room to a pregnant woman in need, in a culture where hospitality is much more valued than in our own.

So it’s very likely that the scenario which Luke describes is one where Joseph and Mary are squeezing into the house of one of Joseph’s relatives, but with a new baby arriving, there simply isn’t enough room for a birth and a baby, and there’s no privacy with all the people who are already in the lodging place, the sleeping place, the kataluma.

And so the baby ends up with his mum having a bit more privacy, away from the rest of the family, down in a corner of the place where the animals are kept; not in an inn but in somebody’s multi-purpose home.

My mistake with the Women’s Institutes was to say categorically that there was no innkeeper. Because of course, we can’t be absolutely sure of what happened on that night over 2000 years ago. But I think my Palestinian guide is more likely to be right than most of the rest of us.

And then – so what? What does it matter exactly how Jesus came into the world? Why is the Dean bothering to tell us this historical stuff?

Luke reports that the angel told the shepherds that God’s Messiah had been born, and the proof of it would be that they would find a baby in a manger – the last place that you would imagine. God would come to a royal palace or the Savoy hotel, not be born in an overcrowded house, surely?

And more than that: God doesn’t announce the coming of his Son to religious people, but to disreputable shepherds, to people of no fixed abode, people more like the homeless men and women you will see on the streets of London, people who are perhaps open-minded enough to believe that God could do things differently from what we expect, could come in humility and be like them – be one of us.

Many people in that cathedral carol service years ago couldn’t imagine the Christmas story without an innkeeper, however strong the reasons for changing their view might be. And that’s true of most of us most of the time: we don’t really engage with evidence and reasoned argument, because our emotional commitment to our own view of the world and of ourselves is so strong. It takes a lot to confront our prejudices and change our minds.

That’s the reality behind fake news and binary divisions in the world around us, behind views on populism and extremism, on race and sexuality and gender, on the state of the environment; on why we like some people and don’t like others, whether it’s asylum seekers and immigrants, or the members of our family we just don’t get on with, or even why we don’t like ourselves very much. We tend to look for reasons to support what we already feel, and not look for reasons to challenge what we think. 

Coming to us as a baby in a poor household, laid in a manger, recognised only by the outcasts of society – God calls us to humility; to listen like the shepherds did; to be challenged and changed by our encounters with others; to prefer the truth about ourselves and other people to the stories we have painstakingly constructed over the years.

The ‘so what’ of this sermon is simply this: spend these days over Christmas listening, like the shepherds, for how God is challenging you to think differently; look out for the times you refuse to listen to reason, or fail to respond to the demands of love; and pray for wisdom as to how you can change and be different.

I think there was no innkeeper. I believe there is a God. That there was a baby in a manger. That God does speak first to those we value least. And I believe that God does challenge us, because he loves us, and wants us to be changed into the likeness of his Son Jesus Christ, who came to us on that first Christmas day.