Merry Messy Christmas

Beginning with the January 2001 issue, Karl Haffner has written 84 Fresh Start columns for the GLEANER and this story finishes the series. Karl is leaving his post as pastor of the Walla Walla University Church to go to Kettering, Ohio, where he will pastor the Kettering Church and work in strategic planning and mission for the Kettering Network of Adventist hospitals. Thanks, Karl; we all hope your ministry in Ohio will be meaningful and rewarding. — the editors.

Every Christmas we hear stories that suggest pieces on Earth and bad will toward men. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle 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 Victoria Colonist covered the story of a woman who was arrested for beating a man with her Christmas tree. The incident occurred because the man grumbled that the load of gifts in his arms was heavier than the tree she was carrying.

Let's face it: Christmas can get messy, messy, messy. Perhaps you've never thought of this holiday as the most, messiest time of year, but if you wish to be true to the original story, then you have to face the messy facts. While Christmas cards portray fairytale scenes of a quaint manger and a quiet infant, "no crying he makes," the real story in Luke 2 confronts us with a messy mystery that is more blood and barn than tinsel and peace.

In verse 2, the angels tell the shepherds, "This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Notice the "sign" that identifies Jesus: a baby born in a barn, wrapped in rags, lying in a feed trough. This is not the nativity scene at your local mall. Our replications are clean. But in the real barn where Jesus was born there were no antibacterial wipes on hand to sanitize the scene.

When the shepherds showed up, they didn't ratchet up the chic factor. They 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 money. No celebration. No paparazzi.

Shaun Dyer warns, "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 came 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."*

The Christmas story is good news because we're messy people. And we belong to a messy church. Sometimes young people abandon our church because of the messiness; you know, the hypocrisy, legalism, cattiness. But not all young people are jumping ship. As this issue attests, there are lots of young folk who understand that our church is a messy place, but they show up anyway.

And in the mess, they hear the angel proclaim: "Here's the good news of Christmas: Our God embraces our mess. This infant child will come into your life 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 pounded to a cross.

* Shaun Dyer, "The Promise of Shalom: A Child is Born," as quoted at

Featured in: December 2007


Karl Haffner

Walla Walla University Church senior pastor, 1997–2007