December 20, 2006

The Mess of Christmas

2006 1535 page8 cap HAVE A THEORY THAT THE UGLIEST PLACE on earth is the parking lot at Costco in December. Christmas shoppers can get oh, so ugly. Last year during the holidays I was at Costco when a car and a pickup rolled toward the same parking space. Both were determined to seize the spot. A grizzly mountain man rolled down his window in his one-ton pickup. An Ivana Trump look-alike rolled down the window of her white Cadillac.
I rolled down my window. (It’s sanctified eavesdropping since I knew it would make a juicy illustration for this article.)
The man hollered “Back it off, lady! I was here first.”
“Tough luck, fellow. You’re coming in from the wrong direction. You can’t do that.”
“The car to the stall first gets to park there. I was here first, so beat it!”
“But my truck’s bigger.”
The lady pulled forward an inch. The mountain man pulled forward an inch. I sat up an inch, watching the drama unfold. The lady got an inch closer, the mountain man pulled closer. Their bumpers were literally touching. Both refused to budge.
2006 1535 page8I’m not sure how long they sat there. I watched for a while but then I got hungry (and I wasn’t sure how long the samples were being served inside, so I had to rush to get my supper). As far as I know, the man and woman are still there.
Every Christmas we hear stories such as this that suggest pieces on earth and bad will toward men. Oftentimes the scenes get even uglier. Perhaps you remember the story in the San Francisco Chronicle that told of two men in San Rafael, California, who were offended by the presents they received from one another. Angry words escalated into a fight that involved flying flowerpots. Both men landed in the hospital.
The LA Times told of 20-year-old Brandi Nicole Nason who was also less than pleased with the gift she received.
So on Christmas day she set her stepmother’s home on fire, causing $200,000 worth of damage.

The Victoria Colonist covered the story of a woman in Victoria, British Columbia, who was arrested for beating a man with her Christmas tree. The incident started when the man grumbled that the load of gifts in his arms was heavier than the tree she was carrying. So she assaulted him with the tree.

Let’s face it: Christmas can get messy, messy, messy. Perhaps you’ve never thought of this holiday as the messiest time of year. But if you wish to be true to the original story, then you have to face the messy facts.

God in a Messy Place

The Christmas story is not a tale of toys, trees, and tinsel. Christmas cards may portray fairytale scenes of a quaint manger and a quiet infant, “no crying He makes.” But if we consider the Christmas story objectively, we would be confronted with a messy mystery that is more blood and barn than peace and pumpkin pies.

Luke 2:8-14 provides the messy details:
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”
The angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news. The Messiah is born! You’ll find this baby born in a barn, wrapped in rags, lying in a feed trough.”
This is not the nativity scene we’re accustomed to seeing at the shopping center, is it? Our replications of this event look so clean and tidy. But in that Bethlehem barn, it wasn’t that way. Barns are nasty. Stinky. Vile. There were no antibacterial wipes on hand to sanitize the scene.
When the shepherds showed up, they didn’t ratchet up the chic factor. Shepherds weren’t known for hygiene. In ancient days, they were considered unstable and shady—perhaps like traveling circus hucksters in our day.
But the angel tells us that this was no accident that Jesus was born in the middle of a mess. This was a sign that Jesus was no ordinary king. That’s the clue that tipped off the shepherds: “You’ll know it’s the Messiah because He’ll show up in the messiest place on the planet.”
No fanfare. No celebration.  No paparazzi. Imagine: The Creator of the universe—born in a barn, wrapped in rags, surrounded by cows. The Christmas story reminds us that there is no place God won’t go.
Shaun Dyer puts it like this:
2006 1535 page8“The Christmas story is a messy mystery because it tells of a holy God becoming flesh in an unholy world. If it was the good, safe life God wanted to affirm, He’d have sent His Son to be born in some king’s court, in a well-decorated, fully equipped royal nursery. However, that would be like giving a gift to someone they neither wanted, nor needed. Because as the Bible says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his Son. . . .’
“Implicit here is that in His loving of the world, there is an awareness of the world. He knew, as we know, that life here is messy.
“If we sanitize the Christmas story—eliminating its earthiness, pain, and struggle, we miss the truth of a God who deeply loves us. The birth of Jesus is the moment God came to dwell in our midst, to join us in our struggle.
“Because therein lies a clue to the mystery. Had He come as He deserved, in royal clothes surrounded by nobility, He would have remained a distant God. But what I know of Him is that He is a present and involved God.”1

Our Mess and the Good News

Here’s the good news: Our God is not afraid of a mess. He will march into the middle of your life no matter how messed up it is. That’s His signature; that’s how you’ll know it’s Jesus.

Sometimes we think, Before God will accept me, I’ve got to do a little mess management. Then I can come to God.
Nope. Truth is, you’ll never get yourself out of this mess on your own. I got a snapshot of this on a recent trip to Dallas, Texas. I was cruising on a frontage road that paralleled an interstate below. Suddenly the monstrous Cadillac Escalade in front of me spun out of control. The SUV tumbled down the embankment toward the highway. Miraculously, the vehicle got snagged on a boulder. It was perched precariously, as if daring nature to hiccup and drop the driver into the violent traffic below. I pulled over, not sure what to do. The driver emerged from her broken window. She was a young woman who was obviously shaken . . . and drunk. She staggered toward my car.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I think so.” Then she asked the silliest question I’ve ever heard: “Could you pull me out?”
Here I was, sitting in a rented GEO Metro, and she was asking me to pull her SUV up off this steep embankment.
I said, “That’s not going to happen.”
“Well then, could you get in my Escalade and drive it down the hill to the freeway below?”
The request was so ridiculous I had to mask my amazement that she was still smashed enough to even ask it. “No way am I getting in that SUV. What I will do is call a wrecker to pull you out.”
“No!” she was quick to protest. “Don’t call anyone. . . . Fine! Be that way. I don’t need you. I’ll pull it myself out!”
I drove away and called the police, marveling at how foolish people can be. But we can be just as foolish with God. “I don’t need a Savior,” the temptress whispers. “I can pull myself out of this mess. I can clean myself up on my own.”
But you can’t. The Bible says we are buried in a mess that we’ll never fix. Our only hope is for Someone to come to the site of our wreck and pull us out. And there you have the Christmas story. God comes to our mess in the form of a baby to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.
2006 1535 page8That’s why the Christmas story is such good news—because we’re messy people. And this is a messy place that is scarred by domestic violence, terrorism, AIDS, business scandals, child abuse, road rage, hate.
Amidst this mess, the angel proclaims, “Here’s the good news of Christmas: Our God embraces our mess. This infant child will come into your life and mine—no matter how messed up it might be. That’s His signature, His sign, a dead giveaway that it’s Jesus.”
Jesus doesn’t care how messy your life is. It doesn’t scare Him at all. For He started His life in a mess: wrapped in rags and placed in a manger. And He ended His life in a mess: wrapped in rags and hammered to a cross. And in between the first day and the last day, He loved all the messed-up people He could find. Then on the cross He took upon Himself the messy sin of the whole world. Mess doesn’t scare Him at all. It’s His signature.

The Mess on Main Street

This messiness of Christmas is illustrated by Dina Donohue’s story entitled “Trouble at the Inn.” She tells of a community Christmas program presented annually in a small town in the Midwest. Whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in that town, someone is sure to mention the name Wallace Purling. Wally’s performance that year has become legendary.

Wally was 9 years old and in the second grade that year, though he should have been in the fourth grade. Everyone knew that he had difficulty in keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind. Still, Wally was liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he.
Wally was always a helpful and smiling boy, a natural protector, paradoxically, of the underdog. Sometimes if the older boys chased the younger ones away, it would be Wally who’d say, “Can’t they stay? They’re no bother.”
Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year, but the play’s director, Miss Lumbard, assigned him to a more important role. After all, she reasoned, the innkeeper did not have too many lines, and Wally’s size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.
And so it happened that the usual large, partisan crowd gathered in the auditorium on Main Street for the town’s yearly extravaganza of bathrobes, beards, crowns, halos, and a choir of squeaky voices. No one was more caught up in the magic than Wallace Purling.
At last the time came when Joseph appeared, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally the innkeeper was ready.
“What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open with a brusque gesture.
“We seek lodging.”
“Seek it elsewhere.” Wally looked straight ahead, but spoke vigorously. “The inn is filled.”
“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. Please! We have traveled far, and we are very weary.”
Suddenly the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause, long enough to make the audience tense with embarrassment.
“No! Be gone!” the prompter whispered from the wings.
“No!” Wally repeated automatically. “Be gone!”
Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary and led her away. But the innkeeper did not return inside the inn. Wally stood there in the doorway watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, and his eyes filling with tears.
2006 1535 page8That’s when this Christmas pageant became different from all others.
“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally called out. “Bring Mary back.”
Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”
The onlookers gasped.
Some people in town claimed the pageant had been ruined. To this day there are some who refer to it as the “Mess on Main Street.” After all, Wally royally messed up the traditional story line.
However, there are others who consider it the most Christmassy of all Christmas pageants.2 After all, the mess on Main Street does capture the crux of Christmas, doesn’t it? For the story of Christmas reminds us of a God who ventured into the mess of humanity and said to you and me, “You can have My home. You take what I deserve, and I will take upon Myself the punishment that you deserve.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “In the child of Bethlehem, the life of the world that is to come has come into the life of the world that is.”
The prophet Isaiah put it this way:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3-5).
Ellen G. White explains, “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed.’”3
On that note, I wish you a merry, messy Christmas.
1Shaun Dyer, “The Promise of Shalom: A Child Is Born,” as quoted at .
2Dina Donohue, “Trouble at the Inn,” as quoted at
3Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 25.
Karl Haffner is senior pastor of the Walla Walla University church in College Place, Washington.