I don’t like messy things. I like gleaming cars that look like you just drove them off the lot, straight offices featuring burled wood and immaculate homes that look they jumped out of a magazine. I like weed-less, fresh trimmed lawns with perfectly edged sidewalks and landscaping that shows someone thought ahead. I know that control is an illusion but it is one of my favorite illusions and if I can’t control all aspects of my life, I can certainly see to it that my shirts are crisp, my suits are pressed, my belt and my shoes are the same color and my socks match.
Christmas is messy. You have the pre-Christmas mess, the actual Christmas mess and the post-Christmas mess. The pre-Christmas mess is the way that every possible dysfunction of families comes out as we go through the stress of trying to sculpt a perfect holiday with imperfect people. It’s like taking motor oil, spare tires and scrap metal and being told to make a good pizza. The actual Christmas mess is just after opening the presents on Christmas morning when all the tidiness of the night before explodes into mountains of ripped paper, towers of empty boxes, discarded plastic cases and bulging plastic bags. The post-Christmas mess begins the very second the last bite is taken; you swallow and wait forty-five seconds and suddenly there are thousands of dishes to wash, food to put away, square miles of carpet to vacuum, a tree to take down, the outdoor decorations suddenly seem suddenly garish and our need for the illusion of control calls us to clean up this mess and clean it up now!
Dr. John Hayes was my Old Testament professor in seminary at Emory University in Atlanta. He used to tell us that people who ate chicken sandwiches but didn’t have the courage to pull the head off a live chicken had no understanding of life in the Bible…Bible life was messy. A few years ago I took up deer hunting and shot my first buck in my first season. On television they shoot the deer, have a religious moment (where they thank God for the writhing, dying deer and try not to cry), find some coffee, do cave art on the interiors of their pick-up trucks and then try to sell you guns and bows and stuff. In real life you have to gut the deer. Anyone who has ever spent a frigid winter morning with a sharp knife inside a warm deer carcass hanging from a tree and has seen the steam that rises from the entrails knows something of messy.
Have you ever witnessed a live birth? The best thing I have ever seen in my life is the birth of my two children. I was truly hoping Melissa would go early on at least one of them and I could do the delivery. When I was serving the St. James Church in Manchester, Georgia, my son Zec was about five or six years old. Melissa was making supper and a National Geographic wildlife special was babysitting him while I gave her a hand. Suddenly, Zec appeared in the kitchen with a wide eyed look of terror, “Mom, you should be glad you are not a sheep.” I could tell what was to come next had shaken him to his core. “They have babies out their bottoms!” Then he rushed back to the living room not wanting to miss another second of the messiest thing he had ever seen.
In Luke we find a Christmas story a world away from antiseptic. Scandal has emerged in a small Galilee town as an un-married Joseph and Mary are having a child amidst her claims she is a virgin and wild stories of angels and dreams. The Romans have required a census and this birth happens on the road in Bethlehem, rather than at home eighty miles away in Nazareth. “No Vacancy” signs are flashing as the labor contractions get closer and closer together. The only shelter they can find is with the animals outside an inn. The child is delivered into the Joseph’s bloody arms and wrapped in strips of cloth…it is a pauper’s birth and the whole thing is quite messy.
We all look so good at Christmas time! We are not messy at all! We look like what you would get if Ward Cleaver hired Norman Rockwell to do a painting of the congregation at Mayberry First. But we are all a bit messier than we appear aren’t we? So is Christmas. Christmas is about this mess called sin that encapsulates us. Jesus was born into a mess and died in a mess to clean up the mess we have made of our lives.
And that…is worth celebrating!
Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.