THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
Are you into the Christmas spirit yet? Santa’s at the mall, music’s in the air, shoppers are crowding the stores, parties are livening up the office, reindeer are prancing across lawns, trees are blinking and glittering, presents are appearing under the trees, and children are shaking the presents and trying to figure out what’s inside. Just two more weeks till Christmas Eve, and a lot of us are definitely getting into the Christmas spirit.
Some folks complain about how hectic and commercialized and superficial all of this is. But to be honest, I like this time of year. Sure, the stores are eager for money and start the shopping season earlier every year–I saw Christmas decorations go up in stores already in late September, right along with Halloween stuff. Still, I still find it hard to gripe, because I just plain like the fun and the bustle of Christmas. I like to hear carols singing and bells jingling. I like to see lights blinking all through the neighborhood on a dark night. And I like to see how much the children love it, how excited they get and how they counting down the days till Christmas.
So I’m not going to be a grouch and a grump and a grinch. I’m not going to growl and gripe that all of this misses the true meaning of Christmas. There’s a lot more to Christmas than trees and lights and presents and parties, but let’s admit it: the trees and lights and presents and parties are a lot of fun, and we might as well enjoy them as much as we can. So if you feel like you’re in the Christmas spirit, having fun and feeling good about life and feeling just a little warmer toward other people, then I’m glad, and I don’t want to dampen your spirits. I hope this Christmas is your most fun and exciting one yet.
The Real Christmas Spirit
Having said all that, however, I do want to talk with you about the real Christmas Spirit: not the general mood of fun and good feeling that hangs in the air this time of year (enjoyable as that is) but about a Spirit who is a real person, the Spirit who made the first Christmas happen, the Spirit who still makes Christmas happen in our hearts. The real Christmas Spirit is the Holy Spirit of God. That Spirit is the one who came over the blessed virgin Mary and formed the Christ child in her womb. And that same Spirit is the one who can bring Christ into your heart and give you, not just a few weeks of holiday happiness and good feeling, but a joy that lasts forever.
In Luke 1:26-38 the Bible tells of the annunciation, the announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God.
God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. [After all, she was young and poor and very humble. She’d never met an angel before, and she couldn’t understand why the Lord God would single her out for such a special greeting.] But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
You can imagine how astonished and excited and bewildered Mary must have been at this announcement. She was just a poor, unimportant young woman, engaged to a poor, unimportant man. How would she become the mother of a King who would even be called the Son of God Most High? How would she have a child at all, since she was still a virgin? It was overwhelming and confusing, and yet Mary didn’t say, “There’s no way!” She simply asked how it would take place. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God… For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Now do you see why I say that the real Christmas Spirit is God’s Holy Spirit? According to what the angel told Mary, Christmas happened–the Christ child was conceived–because the Holy Spirit worked a mighty miracle in Mary
Christmas is often surrounded by fun and good feelings, and we sometimes call this “the Christmas spirit.” That’s all very nice, but the real Christmas Spirit isn’t just a positive mood or atmosphere. The real Christmas Spirit is a Person: the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit is the one who formed the baby Jesus in Mary, and he’s the one who forms Jesus in our hearts.
When the angel Gabriel told Mary of her upcoming pregnancy and Mary wondered how it would take place, the angel didn’t go into all sorts of details. His answer was short and simple: the Holy Spirit will take care of it. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he said, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God… For nothing is impossible with God.” That’s all we know of how the miraculous conception of Jesus took place, and that’s all we need to know–the Holy Spirit made it happen.
The Holy Spirit somehow formed a tiny embryo in the womb of the blessed virgin. Without any earthly father, a baby began to grow. We don’t know how the Spirit did it, but he did it. Nothing is impossible for the Almighty Spirit of Almighty God.
Why This Miracle?
But why did the Spirit have to form this baby through a direct miracle? Why couldn’t this baby be conceived the way any baby is conceived? Well, because this wasn’t just any baby. According to the angel, this baby would be holy, and he would be the Son of God. If the baby were simply the product of two human parents, he couldn’t be holy, and he couldn’t be God’s Son. It required a miracle that only the Christmas Spirit could do.
To be holy, the child had to have something besides unholy parentage. What King David once wrote of himself is true of everybody: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). This doesn’t mean that sex and conception are sinful, but it does mean that parents are sinful, and that sinful parents produce sinful children. Babies conceived by sinful parents are born sinful, with evil tendencies just waiting to come out and show themselves. But this baby was to be different. He was to be a holy chil., He couldn’t be conceived from the intercourse of two sinful parents. He had to be formed in a completely different way.
Jesus’ conception had to be a miracle to produce a holy human, and that’s not all. The Christmas Spirit didn’t just form the perfect human baby. He did something even more amazing. He made a baby who was perfectly human and perfectly divine. The Holy Spirit somehow took the being of God the Son, the second divine Person of the Holy Trinity, who existed with the Father and the Spirit before the creation of the world and from all eternity, and he united that eternal Son of God with the cells and organs and flesh and personality of a developing unborn infant. He joined eternal deity to fragile humanity to produce someone who is both God and man. To explain it is impossible, to do it is even more impossible–and yet the Spirit did it. “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
The baby Jesus was holy, and he was God’s Son. The angel announced it; the Holy Spirit brought it about; and Mary accepted it. Isn’t Mary’s response amazing? Her response, the attitude of her heart, is as much a work of the Holy Spirit as the baby that began to grow in her womb.
Notice the different stages in Mary’s response. At first, when Gabriel appeared and greeted her, Mary was troubled and wondered what it meant. Next, when the angel said Mary would give birth to Jesus, the King of kings, Mary believed him, and asked how it would take place. And then, when the angel explained that it would be the work of the Holy Spirit–for whom nothing is impossible–Mary accepted and submitted to God’s will. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Shortly after that Mary sang, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46).
How could Mary believe that she, a virgin, would become pregnant? Virgins don’t get pregnant! But Mary believed. And even if she could believe, how could she accept it so willingly? On the one hand it was a great blessing and privilege to become the mother of the Lord, but on the other hand it was also a great burden. Her life would never again be business as usual. This would upset all her plans, and it might even ruin her. What about the man to whom she was engaged? What would Joseph do? And what about her relatives and neighbors? What would they think? When an unmarried woman gets pregnant, she’s not going to convince anybody that she’s still a virgin and the baby is a miracle. But Mary left all that in God’s hands. She not only believed God’s message but she willingly submitted and even joyfully celebrated God’s goodness.
Mary’s response isn’t natural; it’s supernatural. There’s only one explanation for it: the Holy Spirit brought this about. The Holy Spirit gave her the grace to believe the impossible, to offer herself in service to God, and to see the Life within her not as a burden but as a blessing. No wonder the angel said she was favored of God, full of grace! No wonder Mary’s cousin Elizabeth told her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! … Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:42,45) No wonder Mary herself sang: “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name” (Luke 1:48-49). All generations of God’s people have called Mary blessed, and our generation, too, should call her blessed–not because Mary did anything great of herself, but because the Mighty One did great things for her.
Some people are so impressed with Mary that they pray to her and almost worship her alongside of Jesus. Others have gone to the opposite extreme and downplay Mary so much that they neglect the great things the Bible says about her. But when we know the Holy Spirit’s role in Christmas, we’ll know the truth about Mary. We’ll see that the conception and birth of Jesus are entirely the work of God, and we’ll see that the faith and obedience of Mary are entirely the work of God, not something Mary achieved on her own. So we won’t exalt Mary beyond the wonderful role God gave her, but we certainly will call her blessed for her faith and obedience and for being the mother of our Lord through the Spirit’s work.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t move us to put our faith in Mary, but he does move us to have faith like Mary. In that sense, Mary is the mother of the faithful. She was the first of God’s people to hear the name of the promised Savior, the first to believe in the name Jesus, the first to welcome God’s Son and give herself fully to him. The Christmas Spirit, God’s Holy Spirit, came upon Mary, and before he filled her womb with God’s Son, he first filled her heart with humble faith and obedience and joy. As St. Augustine put it, “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.”
Spirit Brings Jesus to Us, and Us to Jesus
The physical miracle of God’s Son becoming flesh, and the spiritual miracle of accepting him by faith–both alike are the work of God’s Holy Spirit. Mary experienced both miracles, and now, two thousand years later, the very same Christmas Spirit is still at work, introducing people who are favored by God to the Lord Jesus and creating a living faith in him. That’s the Spirit’s work: he brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus.
The Holy Spirit brought Jesus to us first when he formed he formed that baby in Mary’s womb. He formed a whole new humanity, holy and sinless. Jesus is like us in every way except for sin, and so he can be our perfect substitute and representative. If Jesus had been just another sinner, he could not have helped us. He would have had his own sins to worry about. But because he was born holy and lived a holy life, he deserved God’s favor and earned that favor for all his people. And by dying in our place as a holy sacrifice, he absorbed and removed God’s wrath from all his people.
But that’s not all. Jesus doesn’t just take away God’s wrath and give us a new status. Because he is both God and man, Jesus unites us to the life of God and makes us partakers of the divine nature as the Bible puts it. As God in human flesh, he perfectly reveals God’s will and character, he has power to bear all our griefs and to crush the grip of death, and he gives us a share in God’s glory when we are united to him by the Holy Spirit.
So then, Christmas isn’t just a time to get sentimental about babies and warm feelings. It’s a time to believe and rejoice that the Son of God became like us and that we can become like him through the Holy Spirit.
Just as the living Jesus didn’t enter into Mary’s womb by natural means or human decision or a husband’s will, but by the Holy Spirit, so the living Jesus won’t enter into our hearts by any human effort but only through the Holy Spirit. The Bible says in John 1 that when Jesus came, many did not receive him. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).
Jesus himself said very clearly that becoming a child of God isn’t natural or automatic. It’s a supernatural new birth that only the Holy Spirit can bring about. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).
Secret Process, Obvious Results
We don’t know exactly how the Spirit caused the miracle of the virgin birth. The process is mysterious and secret, but the result is Jesus. Likewise, we don’t know exactly how the Spirit causes the miracle of the new birth. The process is mysterious and secret, but the result is faith in Jesus. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the results. You can’t see the Spirit, either, but you can see the results: you see a turning from sin, a living faith in Jesus, and a life being formed into his likeness. If these things are present in you, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is living and working in you. If not, then you don’t yet have the Spirit.
Remember A Christmas Carol? Most likely you’ve either read the book by Charles Dickens, or else you’ve seen a movie based on it. In the story, Ebeneezer Scrooge is a self-centered, hard-hearted old grouch. But after visits from various spirits of Christmas, he realizes how wrong he’s been and begins a new life that is far more loving and joyful. A Christmas Carol is only a story, of course, and the Christmas spirits in it are imaginary. But Dickens was a Christian author, and he used imaginary things to communicate important truth. Scrooge is fictional, but his story makes an important point: sinful, self-centered people won’t change and begin a new life until we get a visit from the Christmas Spirit, the Holy Spirit himself.
The Bible says the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us of sin (John 16:8) and the one who makes Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17). The Holy Spirit is the one who formed Jesus in Mary, and he’s the one who forms Jesus in us. The apostle Paul, preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, spoke of being “in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). That’s what the Christmas Spirit does: he forms Christ in you.
Do you have the Christmas Spirit? Do you believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary? Do you trust that he is God become flesh to rescue you from sin and give you eternal life? Have you been born again into the new life of Jesus? The good news of Jesus is more glorious than anything else in the world, and at the same time it’s more upsetting to all your own personal plans than anything else in the world. But if you have the true Christmas Spirit, you’ll receive Jesus, and you’ll be able to say with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
Father in heaven, we praise you for sending your beloved Son into the virgin’s womb through the working of your Holy Spirit. In this Christmas season, may that same Spirit bring Jesus into our hearts. Dear Lord, we enjoy so many of the fun things that have come to be associated with Christmas, and we thank you for every kind of joy and happiness that comes as your gift. But now, Lord, give us the supreme gift, and fill us with the true Christmas Spirit. Convict us of sin, give us new birth, and strengthen us by your Spirit in our inner being, that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. We pray this in the name of our loving Savior, Jesus. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.