Messy People

There are very few books that I actually read a second time. Once I’ve read a book, it usually goes on my bookshelf and doesn’t get read again. One book that bucks this trend, however, is Messy Spirituality, by Mike Yaconelli. I think I’ve read it three different times and have thumbed through it several more times. If you have never taken the opportunity to read this book, I suggest you do it today. It will completely change the way you approach your walk with Christ. I mention this book because I’ve found myself returning to it time and time again as I’ve prepared for the Lord of the Mess series. You’re welcome to borrow it from me – but you have to promise to give it back. 🙂

When we think of the people God uses to accomplish His will, we tend to go to the “superstars” who seem to have it all together. We don’t make room for people whose lives are messed up. The story of the angels’ announcement to the shepherds reminds us that God uses messy people because He is the Lord of the mess!

Manuscript is behind the jump. Audio will be published shortly…

Messy People
The Lord of the Mess
Luke 2:8-20
December 6, 2009
Matt Todd

I’m sure many of you have heard of the book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Although the rest of his writings aren’t nearly as well-known, the author of Everything I Need to Know has also written several other books. One of those books is called Uh Oh: Some Observations From this Side of the Refrigerator Door. And in it, he tells the story of a Kindergarten teacher whose class was asked to dramatize a fairy tale for a teacher’s conference:

After much discussion, the children achieved consensus on that old favorite, Cinderella. The classic old “rags to riches” story that never dies. “Cream will rise” is the moral of this tale – someday you may get what you think you deserve. It’s why adults play the lottery with such passion.

Cinderella was a good choice from the teacher’s point of view because there were many parts and lots of room for discretionary padding of parts so that every child in the class could be in the play. A list of characters was complied as the class talked through the plot of the drama: There was the absolutely ravishing Cinderella, the evil stepmother, the two wicked and dumb stepsisters, the beautiful and wise fairy godmother, the pumpkin, mice, coachman, horses, the king, all the people at the king’s ball – generals, admirals, knights, princesses, and, of course, that ultimate object of fabled desire, the Prince – good news incarnate.

The children were allowed to choose roles for themselves. As the parts were allotted, each child was labeled with felt pen and paper, and sent to stand over on the other side of the room while casting was completed. Finally, every child had a part.

Except one.

One small boy. Who had remained quiet and disengaged from the selection process.  A somewhat enigmatic kid – “different” – and because he was plump for his age, often teased by the other children.

“Well, Norman,” said the teacher, “who are you going to be?”

“Well,” replied Norman, “I am going to be the pig.”

“Pig? There’s no pig in this story.”

“Well, there is now.”

Wisdom was fortunately included in the teacher’s tool bag. She looked carefully at Norman. What harm? It was a bit of casting to type. Norman did have a certain pigginess about him, all right. So be it. Norman was declared the pig in the story of Cinderella. Nobody else wanted to be the pig, anyhow, so it was quite fine with the class. And since there was nothing in the script explaining what the pig was supposed to do, the action was left up to Norman.

As it turned out, Norman gave himself a walk-on part. The pig walked along with Cinderella wherever Cinderella went, ambling along on all fours in a piggy way, in a costume of his own devising – pink long underwear complete with trapdoor rear flap, pipe-cleaner tail, and a paper cup for a nose. He made no sound. He simply sat on his back haunches and observed what was going on, like some silently supportive Greek chorus. The expressions on his face reflected the details of the dramatic action. Looking worried, sad, anxious, hopeful, puzzled, mad, bored, sick, and pleased as the moment required. There was no doubt about what was going on, and no doubt that it was important. One look at the pig and you knew. The pig was so earnest. So sincere. So very “there.” The pig brought gravity and mythic import to this well-worn fairy tale.

At the climax, when the Prince finally placed the glass slipper on the Princess’s foot and the ecstatic couple hugged and rode off to live happily ever after, the pig went wild with joy, danced around on his hind legs, and broke his silence by barking.

In rehearsal, the teacher had tried explaining to Norman that even if there was a pig in the Cinderella story, pigs don’t bark. But as she expected, Norman explained that this pig barked.

And the barking, she had to admit, was well done.

The presentation at the teachers’ conference was a smash hit.

At the curtain call, guess who received a standing ovation?

Of course. Norman, the barking pig.

Who was, after all, the real Cinderella story.

Word of a good thing gets around, and the Kindergarten class had many invitations to perform Cinderella. Sometimes the teacher would have to explain what it was about the performance that was unique.

“It has a pig in it, you see?”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, the star of the show is…a barking pig.”

“But there’s no barking pig in Cinderella.”

“Well, there is now.”[1]

There’s a similar instance in the account of the birth of Jesus Christ. While it doesn’t involve a barking pig following around a servant-girl turned princess, it’s just as unexpected and remarkable. If you have your Bibles with you, please turn with me to Luke 2:8. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. Luke 2:8 is found on page ??? in those red Bibles.

During the course of this Advent season, we will be looking at different snippets from the story of the birth of Jesus. 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 when we look at these stories, God works through the unexpected and the unlovely to accomplish His will. Last week, we looked at the story of Mary and Joseph and how their comfortable lives were turned upside down by their obedience to God’s calling. God uses messy circumstances. He also uses messy people, messy choices, even a messy Messiah to unfold the greatest story ever told. And as we’ll see today, He also uses messy people as part of His grand story. He writes His own script and uses the unexpected and the unlovely to tell His story. Because He is the Lord of the Mess.

Read Luke 2:8-20.

The learned religious leaders of the day were on the lookout. They knew from the messages of the prophets of old, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, that God would one day send a deliverer to rescue them from their captivity. And they looked with great expectation for the Promised One…the Messiah. But they had their own expectations of what he would look like and what he would do. They anticipated a mighty military leader who would throw off the bonds of their oppressors and re-establish Jerusalem as the capitol of their independent nation. Once the kingdom was re-established, the Messiah would rule over the nation and turn the people’s hearts back to God. It seemed reasonable to assume that such a God-ordained leader would arrive with much pomp and circumstance. Maybe he would be trained as an interpreter of the Law. Maybe he would be born to one of the rich and powerful families. And when he was born, his arrival would be trumpeted throughout the land with much pomp and circumstance. The Promised One of God deserved nothing less – right?

That’s probably how we would write the story, just like the religious leaders did. But God writes His own script. Instead of announcing the arrival of the Son of God to the upper-crust of the Jewish people, He chose to announce the birth of His son to one of the lowest classes of people in the region: shepherds.

While we think of shepherds in a rather romantic notion today, it was really a messy endeavor. Because of the nature of their work, they were considered ritually unclean. In society’s view, they usually ranked right up there with tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their families, which was also considered quite dishonorable. Because they often grazed their flocks on other people’s property, they were also considered by many to be thieves.[2]

But it is to this unlikely and unworthy set of characters, that the good news of the arrival of the Son of God is announced. Not to Caesar or Herod. Not to the high priest or the scribes. Not to the movers and shakers of Jewish society. But to a lowly group of social outcasts is the greatest news in all of history first announced.

That’s not the way the story was supposed to go. Just like pigs aren’t supposed to bark, the arrival of the Messiah wasn’t supposed to be revealed to a bunch of shepherds. In their script, Messiahs don’t hang out with losers. He doesn’t disregard reputation, befriend riffraff, or allow himself to be seen with questionable people. But God writes his own script. And He has chosen to use the uncommon and the unexpected to tell His story. In short, He uses messy people. Because He is the Lord of the mess.

This is great news for us. The invitation to faith is an invitation to an equal-opportunity faith, open to all. Jesus came as the deliverer of those who have no place. He invites every barking-pig-playing Norman he can find: sleazy businessmen, dockworkers, bully tax collectors, hopelessly deranged, outcasts, and even shepherds…and also invites the successful, rich, and overprivileged elite of society. He invites all messy people and becomes a place for those with no place.[3] The world may say that you have to look a certain way or act a certain way to be godly. But the story of the shepherds reminds us that God will take you just as you are and He will shape you into the person He wants you to be. There’s plenty of room at the manger, which leads to the cross for messy people. Because He is Lord of the mess.

Not only is there room at the manger for us, the messy ones, but God intends to use messy people, too. When you think of people God wants to use to accomplish His will on this earth, we immediately think of characters like a President or Congressman. Or maybe a Hollywood actor who has come to Christ. Or maybe a famous football player who writes Scripture references on the eye black he wears on his cheek bones during football games. Or maybe the racecar driver who gives God glory after each victory. Or maybe it’s the highly-educated or the successful businessman.  Or the gifted musician who sings to people every night…

While those are all people that God will use to accomplish His will, they aren’t the only ones. In fact, they aren’t even the majority. Most of the activity of God is accomplished with little fanfare to the leaders of the world. It’s accomplished behind closed doors in your prayer closet. It’s accomplished when you share a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus Christ. It happens when you get to know your neighbors and begin acting like neighbors with them. We don’t have to wait for some grand, public moment to begin ministering to a world that is dying without Christ. I must say, however, that if you do choose to do this, it can get a little messy. Because people are messed up. But He is the Lord of the mess.

The kingdom of God is not going to look anything like many imagine it’s going to look like. Because it has messy lives in its midst. And that’s great news for people like you and me. We don’t have to get our lives straightened out before we come into a life-giving relationship with our Father in Heaven. Christ came down to His messy people so we can have a way to Him. Although our script might not include trouble-making, too many question-asking, weird looking, swearing dancers who are too conservative, too liberal, or have too many neon colors in their hair, there is room at the cross for them. Just like there’s room at the cross for Norman who insists he’s a pig who barks. Just like there’s room for shepherds who are outcasts from society. Just like there’s room for me. Just like there’s room for you.

Because God writes His own script. And He’s the Lord of the mess.


[1] Robert Fulghum. Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door , pp 33-38 Author bio: http://robertfulghum.com/index.php/fulghumweb/about/

[2] http://www.holytextures.com/2009/11/luke-2-1-20–luke-2-1-7-8-20–luke-2-1-14-15-20-christmas-eve-day-year-a-b-c-sermon.html

[3] Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality, pp. 75-76

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