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Will You Welcome Him?

by Greg Howell

The dust was blowing hard, and the shadows around us were growing longer and darker by the minute. My wife, Melissa, and I were trudging down the aged, worn path in the center of the ancient stone-carved city of Petra, knowing that we still had many miles left to walk, and it looked as though our dawdling around the ancient ruins had left us without a quick way to get back to our car.
Feeling the cold of the desert night following close on the heels of those shadows, I thought we were going to be in for a horribly long walk. Noticing a tent filled with firelight less than a half mile ahead of us, we increased our pace, hoping to find some help. Sure enough, the men in the tent welcomed us in. It turned out that they were the camel guides who ferried people out of the city, and in their off-hours they sat around the campfire, drinking mint tea and singing love songs to their unknown future wives.

I was afraid to ask, but pushed forward to see if any of them would be willing to help us. However, before I could even say anything, they invited us into the large tent, shoved steaming cups of tea into our hands, and with smiles asked us to sit around the fire with them. To say this turned out to be one of the more magical evenings I have ever experienced wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration. To top the evening off, one of them volunteered to lead us back to our car on the top of their fastest camels at breakneck speeds through the narrow walls of the valley.

The thing I am still most impressed by is the absolutely generous hospitality shown to us by these local men of the Middle East. They had the best opportunity to take advantage of us, but instead they took us in, gave us drinks, regaled us with music, and then gave us the wildest camel ride of our lives and—incredibly—refused to take any money for any of it.


In contrast, the Christmas story that we all know and love doesn’t seem to have that classic Middle Eastern hospitality anywhere. Joseph and big-as-a-house, pregnant Mary, after a long hard journey through the desert, arrive in Bethlehem only to find every door closed to them. The innkeeper and everyone else shut their doors and refuse to help his labor-pained wife. Finally they wind up, most likely, in a cave filled with animals and livestock, where Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays Him in a feeding trough. Not exactly the hallmark moment for showcasing that famous Middle Eastern hospitality, right?

Except . . . maybe the story didn’t actually happen that way.

Layers of tradition have clouded the details in the Christmas story, and we’ve become so used to the images of the nasty innkeeper, the stable, and the shepherds that we have forgotten to ask if this is actually the story that’s being told. The truth shows a much more satisfying scene unfolding.

Upon closer examination, the story of the rude innkeeper isn’t quite accurate. The word that some English Bibles translate as “inn” (in Greek: pandocheion) is actually not used here. Instead, the word used is “guest room” (katalyma) (Luke 2:7, NIV).* This changes things. All of a sudden it’s not a hotel manager rudely turning away someone in need, rather, it’s regular people whose guest rooms are occupied by other family members in town for the census.

Even the stable is misunderstood in the story. Stables weren’t actually a separate part of the home, but actually placed right in the main part of the house with the family. They were typically lower in elevation, but the extra heat from the animals was a welcome thing on cold nights, and all cows and sheep were herded indoors in the evening. Mangers were set up in the home, even carved into the floor, to allow animals to eat freely during the night, and we can find this today in the smaller homes of modern Middle Eastern countries.

So in truth, when the angel speaks to the shepherds and says they “will find the promised one wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” the angel was actually telling them, “you will find the Promised One in a home just like yours, taken care of by a family that was willing to take in strangers. He is not in some faraway palace; he has come to this world in the most humble of places, and He can relate to you at your own level, because He is one of you! ” (see verse 12).

And isn’t that the truest meaning and spirit of Christmas? That God becomes one of us, a normal person in a normal life. He doesn’t come as a superstar, and He doesn’t come as poor and rejected. He was welcomed into a regular home and attended to by the gracious hospitality of Middle Eastern culture—which He would grow to be a part of. He is human, able to relate and to connect with all of us right where we are, wherever we’re coming from. And in the end, the angel of the Christmas story is calling us to come and see Him as well.

I hope that this Christmas season we are all willing, in our own lives, to welcome Him again with that kind of hospitality.

* Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Greg is a pastor and writer living in the Seattle, Washington, area.

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