During this Advent season, we will be looking at key parts of the Christmas story. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the Nativity, I usually think of something like the diorama I made as a child out of Popsicle sticks and plastic figurines. Although the stable is a crooked shack and there’s some straw scattered around the scene, it’s still a very sterile display. I think we have lost the sense of messiness that surrounded the birth of the Promised One.
As we will see during this Advent season, God works through the unexpected and the unlovely to accomplish His will. He uses messy circumstances, messy people, messy choices, and even a messy Messiah to unfold the greatest story ever told. Because He is the Lord of the Mess.
The Lord of the Mess: Messy Circumstances
1st Sunday of Advent – November 29, 2009
I hope you have had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend with plenty of turkey, heartfelt gratitude to our Father in Heaven, good times with family, and if you decided to brave the crowds on Black Friday, I hope the deals were worth it. Just as quickly as the last piece of pumpkin pie was eaten at Thanksgiving Dinner, our thoughts have turned to the Christmas season. Christmas lights are lit, Christmas trees are trimmed, presents have been bought, and it seems like every establishment is piping Christmas music through their speakers. Whether real or manufactured, we are surrounded with reminders that we should be in the Christmas spirit during this month of December.
When we think of the Christmas spirit, it’s probably something like a greeting card commercial. Snow is gently falling outside, but it’s warm inside because of the fire roaring in the fireplace and the friends and family celebrating together in their Christmas sweaters. There’s surprise homecomings and tearful reunions and everyone is laughing and full of happiness as the commercial fades to black.
But when we line up our own experience of the Christmas season, it can be anything but the Christmas card commercials. Yes, there are moments of happiness when families get together. But there are also moments of sadness when you think about the family members who are not there for whatever reason. Joy turns to heartache as you remember the loved ones who have gone home to be with the Lord. And celebration turns to stress as you see the bills pile up and wonder how you’re going to be able to make it through another cold winter season. Or maybe, despite your best efforts, your Christmas seasons generally turn into a comedy of errors instead of a time of celebration of the birth of the Promised King. Your Christmas hasn’t ever been picture-perfect. In fact, they’re generally just a really big mess, with rushing to Christmas concerts and other gathering; fighting traffic to get that final shopping done; and wrapping paper flying all over the place in your mad rush to get everything done. Christmas is supposed to be a season of peace – but that’s not something you’ve experienced recently. And maybe you wonder what’s going on. Why can’t your life be like the one shown in the Christmas card commercials?
There’s good news this morning. Nobody’s story is a Christmas card commercial. In fact, Christmases can be pretty messy. Even the original Christmas story isn’t the serene picture we think of when we remember the nativity story. It was a mess. But God is the Lord of the mess. As we will see during this Advent season, God works through the unexpected and the unlovely to accomplish His will. He uses messy circumstances, messy people, messy choices, and even a messy Messiah to unfold the greatest story ever told.
And the story begins with a man and woman named Mary and Joseph, who are engaged to be married. If you have your Bibles with you, please turn with me to the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. Matthew is the first book in the New Testament, and it’s the first of the four first-hand accounts we have of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It’s found on page ?? in those red Bibles.
If you had told me when I was in high school that I would eventually serve in a pastoral role within the church, I would have laughed at you. My plan was to graduate from Milligan College with a degree in Communication and then move to LA where I’d earn a graduate degree from the USC film school – where top-notch directors like George Lucas and Ron Howard honed their filmmaking craft. After that, I was going to make movies and serve as salt and light in the dog eat dog world of Hollywood.
And if you’d told me when I graduated from Milligan College that I’d someday return to Upper East Tennessee and attend seminary, I would have laughed at you again. While I enjoyed the knowledge I’d gained in the classroom and had a wonderful college experience, I hated all the studying and paper-writing that comes with academic life. Of course, six years later, I found myself sitting in the classroom at Emmanuel School of Religion taking notes, studying for Greek, and writing longer papers than I’d ever thought possible.
And while I was at Emmanuel School of Religion, if you’d told me that I would be pastoring a church located in rural east central Indiana that was more than 115 years old, I would have scoffed at the idea. I had enrolled at Emmanuel with the plan of learning as much as I could about church planting and then returning to my hometown of Evansville, Indiana, and planting a church for people who didn’t like church.
Shows what I know.
My plans have not come to fruition like I had expected. But God’s plans are not necessarily my plans. And when we come to the crossroads of where our own plans and God’s plans go in separate directions, we have a decision to make. We can continue to follow our own plans and live a life we’d set out to have. We could be comfortable in the life we’ve designed. Or we can choose to follow the leadership of our Father in Heaven, which is more like an unpredictable roller coaster than the life we’ve planned for ourselves.
“Spirituality is anything but a straight line; it is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down tobogan ride full of unexpected turns, surprise bumps, and bone-shattering crashes. In other words, messy spirituality is the delirious consequence of a life ruined by a Jesus …who will love us right into his arms.”
Obedience is a messy thing. It leads to unexpected consequences. It leads to our own plans being ruined by the love and grace of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Because He is Lord of the mess.
He was Lord of the mess when He guided Joseph in the land of Egypt. The young man was sold into slavery by his own brothers, thrown into jail under false accusations, and forgotten in prison when his friend promised to remember him. His life was a mess. His plans were upended. But he remained obedient to God’s direction. Because He is the Lord of the mess.
The prophet Jeremiah was given a message from the Lord that he did not want to deliver. In the midst of his people’s arrogance, he was told to call his neighbors to repent or they would be destroyed. That’s not exactly the kind of message people like to hear. And Jeremiah knew it. He told God as much. But he remained obedient, even though he was mocked, his scrolls were burned, and he was even thrown into a pit and left to die. His life was a mess. But He is the Lord of the mess.
Another prophet, Hosea, had a life that was upended by God’s plans. He told him to remain married to an adulterous woman. And even after she cheated on him repeatedly, he continued to welcome her back. Again. And again. And again. The emotional pain Hosea felt was real. And his life was a mess. But He is the Lord of the mess.
Again, in his book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli shares this story: A “young woman on the fast track toward a lucrative business career decided she wanted to delay her career plans in order to work with inner-city young people. God had been working on her heart, and she felt a real sense of calling. She was hired by a church where the ethnic mix was changing, and within weeks she was working with gang members. She successfully convinced a few of them to attend a Bible study at the church. One night she was talking about Matthew 6:33 (‘But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’), explaining that if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, nothing can be more important than him. her words were, ‘If the gang is more important than Jesus, then the gang has to go. If your girlfriend is more important than Jesus, then the girlfriend has to go.’ One of the gang members was so into what she was saying that, after hearing those words, he reacted violently by throwing his arms back, yelling ‘Dude, it’s hard to be a disciple!’ and his elbow crashed through a window.”
“A few weeks later, the pastor accidentally interrupted one of the Bible studies. He sat down and spent a few minutes talking with the gang members. After he left, one of the guys said ‘Hey I like that guy. Let’s go to church this Sunday.’ The youth worker decided to seat them in the balcony rather than with the congregation downstairs. When the minister came out…one of the gang members spontaneously stood up and yelled, ‘Hey dude, you are cool!’ The congregation turned around in shock. After the service, the youth worker was told not to bring the gang members back to the church until they learned how to behave inside a church.”
“The church should have turned around and invited the gang members downstairs. They should have applauded a woman who was doing an amazing job of evangelism. Instead, the youth worker was fired. Apparently this church was more concerned about comfort than it was about a group of gang members’ discomforting search for spirituality.”
Following God’s direction can lead to messy circumstances. It can lead to broken windows. It can lead to embarrassing situations. It can cause others to be uncomfortable. But God didn’t call us to a life of comfort. He called us to a life of obedience. Even if it makes a mess of our plans. And it will. Because an obedient life is a messy life because it means we’re getting involved in other people’s lives. And that gets messy. But He is the Lord of the mess.
You may disagree with me, but I am convinced that Mary and Joseph could have said no. Mary could have asked the messenger if he was crazy. She could have said, “Do you realize what will happen to me? Joseph and I haven’t been married yet. Once it becomes obvious that I’m pregnant, the whole village will start talking. Most of them will be too chicken to say anything to my face, but they’ll look at me, whisper, and snicker. I can already think of the names they’ll start calling me. I’ll be kicked out of my house because this will bring shame upon my family. No one is going to believe me. Especially Joseph. How are you going to convince him? He could easily have me killed because of the apparent shame I’ll bring on him. He’ll be so angry. This cannot happen! Absolutely not! I have my life all planned out. Joseph and I are going to live happily ever after. I can’t let this ruin my life. It’s too uncomfortable. Too messy.”
Joseph could have responded in a very similar way. In fact, he did initially. When Mary told him about that she was with child, he knew it wasn’t his. He didn’t want to cause a scene so he decided to call off the engagement – quietly. No drama. No embarrassment. Just a simple, easy break.
When the angel visited Joseph, he could have easily gone along with his plans. He could have decided to continue with his plans. It would have been the sensible thing to do, after all. How was he going to explain to his friends how his fiancé was pregnant, he had nothing to do with it, and he was OK with that? Who would believe that? He could very easily have decided that the circumstances were too great. The situation was too messy. He could have chosen the comfortable life he’d always planned. But after some nudging, he realized that God is Lord of the mess.
Mary and Joseph could have said no. They could have chosen a life of comfort – not the messy lives they had. If they had done that, however, they wouldn’t be part of God’s telling of the arrival of His son on the earth. Their obedience changed their plans. And it did get messy. But He is Lord of the mess.
God is calling you to a life of obedience. You can sit back on the sidelines and remain comfortable, or you can choose to answer His call and begin doing the work that He has prepared in advance for you to do. He is calling all of us into a closer walk with Him, an upside-down tobogan ride full of unexpected turns, surprise bumps, and bone-shattering crashes. It’s not always easy. It’s not always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a mess. We can choose to remain on the sidelines and watch in the comfortable lives we’ve created for ourselves. Or we can allow Him to do what He wants to do and ruin some of the plans that we have made. It will get messy. But God is the Lord of the mess. And in the end, looking back, we’ll see how God used our obedience to touch others and to bring Him glory and we’ll say, “What a ride! What a ride!”
If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, this Advent season is a call to action. Maybe it means getting to know your neighbor across the street. You know – the one you see every day but can’t remember his name? Yeah…that one. Or maybe it means serving at the Muncie Mission and touching the lives of people who are looking for answers. Or it could mean something as simple as calling someone on the phone or writing them an encouraging note….just because.
If you have not chosen to follow the example of Jesus by being baptized, that’s the first step. If you know you’ve waited too long to make this decision to symbolically participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He is calling you to get up out of your comfortable place and follow Him in obedience. I don’t know what’s holding you back, but I know it’s not a comfortable thing to give up control of your life to the unexpected and unexplainable. It can be messy and ruin whatever plans you have for your own life. But God is Lord of the mess. As we sing our hymn of invitation, Just as I Am, this is an invitation for you. Get up out of your comfort zone and allow Him to use you – just as you are.
 Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality, p. 17.
 Ibid 43-44.