One of my favorite Christmas stories has nothing to do with Christmas.
July was hot and humid in Tennessee the summer I was sixteen years old. I had traveled there with my youth group for my first short term mission trip. I knew the coordinating organization would assign each of us to a separate group to do light construction and repairs on low-income housing.
The first night I met my group; the next morning we headed out to our assignment. Life was changed.
Our assignment was a single man in his 40’s or 50’s. He lived in a garage haphazardly converted into three rooms. The front room was trashed – no sheetrock, concrete floors, junk everywhere. The junk included a toilet which the man used, despite the lack of plumbing attached underneath. The back half was divided into two rooms. The first one, despite the filth, wasn’t too bad with a couch and console TV in it. The second one, the man’s bedroom, was a pornography pit. I’m not going to describe what was on those walls. I wish the images weren’t in my head and I’m not going to try to create them in your head.
We decided to begin our work in the bedroom. We quickly removed the pictures from the walls, each of us wishing we could destroy them but knowing we couldn’t destroy the man’s property. The room only needed minor repairs so we finished it that first day. Most of our week would be spent sheet rocking the front room (remember – the one with the toilet?). Even though we knew we couldn’t destroy the filth on the walls, we knew we didn’t have to hang it back up again either. So we didn’t.
Each person on our team had a specific job duty; mine was leading the devotional time each day. The coordinating organization had provided resources for me to use. They told us to invite the people at our work site to join us for the devotional time. Our man, however, left every morning as soon as we arrived and didn’t return until after we were done. He didn’t have a job so I’m not sure where he went; I think he just didn’t want to be with us.
Sometime during the middle of the week our devotional message focused on the birth of Jesus Christ. It included a little cardstock nativity scene for us to assemble and give to the people in whose home we were working. I admit it; I was a little embarrassed. This was nothing nice – it reminded me of something I would have made in Sunday school as a young child. Insert tab A into slot A; insert tab B into slot B. This day I was a little relieved our man wasn’t there. I could leave the nativity in his bedroom and not have the embarrassment of giving him our “gift.”
I entered the bedroom cautiously. We hadn’t worked in there for a couple of days so I didn’t know if he had rehung his pictures. Peeked in…all was good. I entered and left the nativity on a shelf by his bed.
A couple more days passed and we wrapped up our last workday. The toilet had been removed, sheet rock had been hung, and walls had been painted. The front room wasn’t too bad of a place now. I gathered my tools and realized I couldn’t find my hammer. Everyone looked through their tools – no hammer to be found. Looked in the van – no hammer. I knew my dad was going to want me to return home with his hammer.
I knew where the hammer was. I knew I had left it in one of the back rooms. I knew I had to go back in to find it. I looked in the first room – no hammer. Two more days had passed – would the pictures be back on the walls? I looked in the second room. Three things now lay on the shelf where I had left the nativity scene. The first was the missing hammer but that’s not what changed my life. The second was a Bible lying right beside the third item – our nativity scene gift. The nativity had been reinforced with tape; someone had obviously taken care to make sure tab A stayed in slot A and tab B didn’t tear out of slot B. More than that, rather than rehang the filth of before, our man had found a Bible to read about that cardstock Baby in that cardstock manger.
Lots of things came together in my mind in that moment as I looked at the reinforced nativity aside the Holy Word of God.
I should never be embarrassed by the simplicity of God’s gift.
I should never assume anyone is too far down for God to pull them out of a pit.
God has the power to use anything to change a heart.
Even at 16 I realized - Serving God may take me into some filthy, disgusting places. It’s worth it.
Now this next part I don’t think I realized then, but I do now. God may call us into some filthy, disgusting places but it’s only because He first descended into a filthy, disgusting place. Think of the glories He beheld in heaven’s eternity past – do you think the manure and stench of the stable compared? Consider the light and sinless perfection in the presence of the Father – do you think the darkness of sin in the presence of mankind was anywhere near as brilliant?
And yet, because of love, He did it.