Over the past two months or so, I’ve been preaching a series entitled, “Through Their Eyes.” In it, we have considered the perspective of various people in Scripture who are often overlooked, neglected, or ignored. We considered the story of David and Bathsheba from Bathsheba’s perspective, Ezekiel from the perspective of his wife, Jesus through the eyes of children, etc. As we have neared the Christmas season, we have considered the perspective of those in the Nativity story – particularly those whose voice is fairly absent.
This past week, I tried to get behind the eyes of the innkeeper. What would his thoughts have been? How would he understand the unfolding Christmas story? As I considered his perspective, I was drawn to the following passage: Hebrews 13: 2 – “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
This verse has always been a mystery to me. I think we’ve tended to over-sentimentalize it thanks to the likes of Roma Downey and this sense that there are angels walking around among us and we may get a glimpse once in awhile. While I don’t want to flatly deny that, I don’t think that is the point of this text. Instead, I think the Hebrew writer harkens back to the days of Abraham when he had three visitors that ended up being angels with a message from the Lord. I think that’s the point – we never know who may come into our midst with a message from the Lord.
Which made me think of the inn keeper. How could he ever have known that his inn was going to be host to the birth of the Messiah? If he had known, surely someone would have given up their room! In any case, I think the exercise is helpful, and inspired, what I thought was one of my better sermons. Unfortunately, it didn’t get recorded, but I thought I would include it here on the day after. In it, I tell the Apocryphal story of Tobit. I chose this story because I knew it would be largely unfamiliar to the folks in our church. At the same time, it is an endearing and encouraging story that highlights the ever-present working of God in our midst. I used a little creative fiction to place it in the context of Mary and Joseph showing up at the inn – I thought they complemented each other nicely. I hope you are encouraged by it.
December 15, 2013 – Alum Creek Church
A Message from the Inn Keeper
Very seldom do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “Today is going to be the greatest day of my life.” Equally true, we never wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “Today is going to be the worst day of my life.” The greatest days . . . the worst days . . . they just seem to happen, usually when we least expect them. We’re never looking for them – most of the time that’s what makes them great . . . or awful. I can still remember the greatest moment of my life. I didn’t know it was at the time. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know it was for a few days. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. But I probably should back up a minute.
I’m an innkeeper in Bethlehem. I like my job because I get to meet a lot of different people. Bethlehem isn’t exactly a happening place, but being an innkeeper you get to meet a lot of interesting people who happen to be passing through. We would have our busy times, but most of the times business was sporadic, but I did get opportunities to talk with people and learn their stories. People are interesting – I think those conversations is all that gets me through living in such a small town. They give me a lot of stories to tell.
Once in awhile, however, things would get pretty hectic. Life under Roman rule could be pretty unpredictable. The armies would just show up and issue edicts completely out of the blue letting us know that things in Rome had changed and for some reason that was going to affect us. Way out in the boonies, we always seemed to be the last to know. A few years back, Caesar had issued a decree that everyone needed to report back to their hometowns so that a census could be taken. We all knew that meant more taxes and a lot of extra expenses on our behalf having to travel back to our hometowns. But for me, that meant big business because people didn’t stick around in Bethlehem for long. Most people couldn’t wait to get out of here. So, when the government started telling everyone that they had to go back to their hometowns, I could hear the dollar signs cha-ching-ing in my head. There were a lot of folks that would have to be heading back here.
I don’t think we had ever filled up the inn as fast as we did during that census. I had people who had never met each other staying in rooms together so that we could squeeze as many people in as possible. I had people laying all over the floor of the lobby, until I couldn’t squeeze a single other person in. It was stressful and you can imagine how it can be living in such close confines to each other. For the most part, we made due, and everyone just wanted to get the business taken care of so that they could go back home.
At night, we would all gather in the lobby and tell stories to help pass the time. I can still remember the story that was told on the most memorable night of my life. As a matter of fact, I can remember the most memorable people I’ve ever met came in and interrupted this story, because they were looking for a room.
The story came from time of the exile, when Israel had been ruled by the likes of the foreign kings like Shalmaneser, Sennacherib and Esar-haddon. Maybe these names don’t mean anything to you, but these were foreign kings that completely destroyed the pride of Israel. They took us captive. These were dark times for Israel, and stories like this of hope and overcoming are what helped us keep our optimism.
It was the story of Tobit, a faithful follower of Yahweh. Tobit was a righteous man much like Job was a righteous man. His acts of charity and care were well known throughout the land. He was the only one out of his family who kept the festivals, maintained a kosher diet, and upheld the laws of Moses. He tithed, as commanded, in Jerusalem, but went beyond the required tithe. He distributed an additional tithe around Jerusalem, and gave a third tithe away to orphans and widows. By all accounts, Tobit was a righteous man.
God rewarded Tobit’s faithfulness by making him the buyer for King Sennacherib. He would travel to other nations to buy things for the kings. With his high position, Tobit maintained his devotion to Israel: he still kept a kosher diet, if he came upon any Israelite corpses, he would wait until evening and provide them proper burial, and kept feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and anyone the king would have killed, Tobit would make sure the body was buried. That is until someone told the king about what Tobit was doing. When the king found out, Tobit ran away so that he wasn’t killed, and all of his property was confiscated.
Only a short time later, 40 days, Sennecherib’s sons killed him, and his son Esarhaddon took over the throne. He appointed Tobit’s nephew to an important role within the cabinet: chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and accountant. He helped Tobit return to Nineveh. He returned to his practice of burying the dead, until one night, after he had buried someone, he went to sleep next to a wall. He didn’t know there were sparrows in the wall, and one of the birds pooped in his eye. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. It blinded him. He went to the doctor but it just made it worse. He was left to the care of his wife who took care of the family as a seamstress.
Tobit becomes depressed and prays for death. At the same time, a woman named Sarah prayed that God would end her life. Sarah had been married seven times, but each time she was married the husband died before he was able to consummate the marriage. A demon named Asmodeus was in love with her and killed all of the men who were married to her. No one knew that this demon was involved, so they all believed that she was cursed, which made her distraught, and she, like Tobit, cried out for God to end her life.
The Lord heard both of their prayers.
Tobit had a son named Tobias. Tobit’s dying wish was for his son to be taken care of. Tobit told Tobias about some money that he had in a far away land that would be his if he went to get it. Tobias found a guide named Raphael to help him on his way. As they went along their journey, a large fish jumped out of the water and attempted to swallow Tobias’s foot. Raphael told him to capture the fish. When they had done so, he instructed Tobias to cut the gall, heart, and liver out of the fish. Raphael told Tobias that the smoke from burning the heart and liver would keep evil spirits away, and the gall was a powerful anointing oil that could be used to heal people’s eyes.
Raphael led Tobias to the household of Sarah – who happened to be single and was his kinswoman – someone who in the ancient world could be taken as a spouse. Tobias was told of the woman’s problems with her previous seven husbands, but was reminded by Raphael of the ability of the burning fish liver and heart to keep demons away.
Tobias took Sarah with great delight, and Sarah was delighted to have Tobias. They were married, and as they set out to consummate their marriage, Tobias remembered the words of Raphael and put the fish’s liver and heart on the fire. Asmodeus fled to the remotest part of Egypt where Raphael chased him and bound him.
Sarah’s father was so sure that Tobias was going to die, that they actually had a grave buried for Tobias. When they sent in a maid to check on them, and she reported that she had seen them both lying there, they immediately praised God.
The family threw a huge wedding party – by the way, they filled the grave in while they slept so Tobias never knew their doubts, and Tobias subsequently went and found the money that was his father Tobit’s. By this time, Tobit was becoming worried by his son’s long absence.
Tobias’s mother became overwhelmed by grief, certain her son had died. She would rush out to the last place she had seen him, and look down the road as far as she could, and for as long as she could, just praying for his safe arrival. When he didn’t arrive, she would go back to her home and cry herself to sleep before arising to do the whole thing over again the next day.
Then . . . finally . . . one day as Anna looked down the road down which she had last seen her son, off in the distance, she began to make out what looked like him and his traveling companion – though there were additional members of the party now. In a scene similar to your parable of the prodigal son, Anna, Tobias’s mother, came running toward him and embraced him, and kissed him, and said, “I can now die in peace knowing you are alive and well.”
Tobias has already had his servants prepare the gall from the fish and as soon as he saw his father, he rushed to him and rubbed the gall on his eyes. He rubbed the ointment on his eyes blew on them, and then peeled the ointment back. Eyesight came flooding back to Tobit and he cried out to his son, “I can see you! I can see you!”
Tobias introduced his wife to his mother and his father, and the rest of his family. They celebrated with yet another wedding festival.
It came time to pay their guide Raphael, and Tobias had no idea how he could ever repay him. He had helped him find a wife and remedy her demon problem, he had led him safely to recoup his father’s money, and had healed his father’s blindness. He and Tobit both believed that he was due half of all that he had brought back with him.
They called a meeting with Raphael and prepared to tell him how grateful they were and how they could never truly repay him for his kindness and over-and-above job as a guide. As they met with him, he was about to tell them something that would blow their minds.
And it was right here . . . right at the perfect moment in the story – the climax, when everyone is on the edge of their seat there in that jam packed lobby, that two wayfaring Jews made their way into the lodge. They were exhausted and looked distraught. “Sir, forgive our intrusion,” the man began, “but we have had a long and difficult journey. My wife is near full-term with our child, and we have returned to Bethlehem for the census, but can’t find a room. Can you please help us? We’ll take anything – even a space here in the lobby. Just a corner, a floor – anything to get us from the exposure outside.”
My heart was moved, but what could I do? We had already turned away many. If it wasn’t for his pregnant wife I would have been less patient and certainly less cordial in my response, but my hands were tied. If exposure was their concern, we could grant them safety, but nothing in the way of personal accommodations. We had a stable that was secure. They could stay there. I didn’t feel as though I had done them much of a favor, but I had done all that I could do. Tired from their travel, they were glad to have come to some kind of destination, even if it meant sleeping next to a horse and cow.
We helped them move their things into the stable and did the best we could to help her get comfortable. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone more exhausted. She was asleep nearly as quickly as her head hit the straw. Once they were settled I came back to the lobby and was surprised to see several who were still there waiting my return.
“How does the story end? What did Raphael say?
Something none of them saw coming. Tobit and Tobias had prepared to give Raphael half of all the money and possessions he had returned home with – this was no small fortune. But, Raphael had had a secret the whole time. Raphael was the answer to Tobit’s and Sarah’s prayers. God had heard them and sent Raphael. Raphael was one of the seven angels who stand before the Lord. God had sent him especially to minister to Tobit and Sarah, and none of them had ever known it.
At that, everyone in the lobby burst out into a rambunctious applause – I had to get them quieted down and remind them that people were sleeping! But that was how the story always ended. People like to know that God is involved in this world. People like to know that God works among us.
And that’s the moral of the story isn’t it? You never know when you are in the presence of one of God’s servants. You never know when someone comes your way who will alter the way of your life forever. But seldom do they come with a tee shirt on them that says, “I’m here to change your life” or “I’m here on God’s behalf.” Instead, we fumble around and do the best we can to figure it out on our own. I figure we miss opportunities here and there, but hopefully we catch them once in awhile.
Oh . . . and that couple that stopped by in the middle of the night when there wasn’t any room in the inn and they had to spend the night in the stable . . . there was something about them too. She ended up having her baby out there – you know. And I haven’t gotten that all figured out yet . . . but . . . something tells me . . . there’s more to that story too.