The angel said to Mary : “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you...”
Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus. But Jesus could not have been born, and there would have been no story to tell and no good news to proclaim, without the involvement of other ‘key players’ – if I may refer to them like that. First of all there was Mary, of course, and in our tradition she doesn’t always get the attention she deserves. She has her royal place in blue at the centre of the manger scene, but of course everybody looks at the baby – as always seems to be the case. Then there’s Joseph, who gets even less attention, and is generally placed a few steps behind (like Prince Philip!), looking on benignly while the shepherds and the wise men hog the front rows. And that’s a pity really because he clearly plays an absolutely key role both in the birth story and in bringing up this precious boy.
But there’s another key player who generally gets even less attention and doesn’t appear in any manger scene, but without whom there would have been no baby and no story to tell – and that’s the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit who brings God to earth in human form - a miracle that passes all human understanding.
When God acts on the human stage, it is always and only by the working of the Holy Spirit. It seems to be part of our human nature that we are always trying to do God’s work for him. We plan services and events and organise missions, and engage in evangelism, and say our prayers and read our Bibles. But unless we worship in the Spirit, the liturgy is lifeless; unless we pray in the Spirit, the deepest longings of the human heart never surface; unless the Spirit guides us as we read the scriptures or interpret the words of my lips now to the understanding of your hearts, we are engaged in worthy activities, no doubt, but human breath never quite becomes the breath of life; nor in communion does the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And so we wait and pray and say – Come Holy Spirit and work miracles in our midst. The Holy Spirit is the Agent through whom God works on earth – and we have to wait for him to come or our human efforts are in vain.
The Jewish people had done a great deal of waiting. They had suffered oppression after oppression, and every time they had tried to gain their freedom by their own hands and in their own time, they had been crushed. And so those with spiritual insight had come to realise that nothing of significance happens until God acts – and God acts through the Holy Spirit. It is only when God takes the initiative that the miracle happens, and everything changes.
And so the prophets had seen that nothing lasting would change until God came down among them and acted in the love and power of the Holy Spirit, and in the person of the one they came to call ‘Messiah’ – the One anointed and appointed by God – the new Moses, the new David, the new High Priest, the new and mighty Prophet, the one who would stride out and shepherd his people. And so with every new catastrophe, they flung out their arms and cried to God with their complaint ‘How Long, O Lord, how long?’
Listen to the prophet Habakkuk expressing just this sense of waiting and longing for God to act: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, Violence! But you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (1: 2-4).
And the Lord replied: “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2:3)
I have mentioned before that there are two words in Greek for ‘Time’. One is ‘Chronos’ – that is clock time, human time (hence all the English words associated with chronology etc). The other word is ‘Kairos’ – and that is God’s time, God’s moment, the time when the Holy Spirit acts, and God’s kingdom is revealed for all those with eyes to see. We pray for those critical moments in history when God acts through the Spirit and the world changes.
And what we celebrate at Christmas is that Kairos - that moment – that began when the angel met with a young village girl from Nazareth, and told her that the Holy Spirit was at work in her life and, through her, the world was about to change for ever. The Holy Spirit is the agent of Mission, and God’s mission to the world had begun in earnest.
Any mission to God’s people, and to the world beyond, can begin only when the Holy Spirit acts. Until then, we must wait and pray, and watch for the signs that God is on the move.
Since time immemorial this has presented us humans with two difficulties. The first is the we become impatient, and try to get on with it ourselves. How many sides of A4 have been written describing what God might do if only we wrote the right mission statement and started the action and made inspirational plans? But Psalm 127 reminds us that “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain” and “in vain you rise up early and stay up late...”. Ours is not an new problem.
The second difficulty we face is that, when the Holy Spirit does begin to work, we don’t recognise it, because the Holy Spirit specialises in doing something new, something we didn’t quite expect – even though the signs were there all along. When Herod learned from the wise men that God was in action and the great king was born, he summoned all the religious leaders and asked where this birth must have taken place. And they put their learned heads together and came up with the right answer – Bethlehem. But it seems that not one of them bothered to go there to see for themselves. And so it was left to humble shepherds to see the angels proclaiming the holy birth, and wise men from far away to notice the star and follow where it led.
When Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and came announcing that the Kingdom of God was now knocking at the door, fishermen heard and responded, while the religious leaders denounced it all as dangerous nonsense.
The Holy Spirit does something new and unexpected in Mary, and in Jesus, and the religious people can’t cope with it. It doesn’t fit their traditions, their understanding of the scriptures, their expectations. And so the religious establishment writes off the work of the Holy Spirit as clearly a mistake – some sort of computer error! Sadly, religion doesn’t seem to change much. It’s just happened again at the Church of England’s General Synod. The Holy Spirit has manifestly called women to priestly ministry with all that involves in terms of responsibility, and holy people say ‘No, no – that’s impossible! It doesn’t fit our traditions, our understanding of the scriptures, our expectations! That can’t be right!’ But the Holy Spirit blows a fresh wind – always the wind of change – where he will, and either we feel his holy breath and respond, or we dismiss it all as an aberration. And we hear Jesus, as in Mark 7: 7,8 (quoting Isaiah) ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ And Jesus adds: ‘You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’
Contrast Peter, described in Acts 10, when the Holy Spirit takes him to Caesarea and confronts him with the Roman centurion Cornelius, and presents him with clear evidence that the Holy Spirit has fallen on Gentiles as well as Jews. And Peter accepts the evidence of his own eyes and baptises Cornelius and his household. How far would the Christian mission have got if Peter had responded by saying ‘No, no, this is not possible – it’s against the rules and traditions?’
The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, Jesus tells us (John 3: 8). He blew the breath of life upon Mary, and – probably not being hampered by too much religion – she listened and accepted the angel’s message, and went on to celebrate in words that have rung round the world for 2000 years - that God has honoured the humble and those who are open to his word, and brought down the proud, the hypocritical, and the self-important – those who think beyond any doubt that they are certainly right.
One of our Christmas newsletters ends with words taken from a certain Professor M’Pherson: I paraphrase slightly...‘The Christian doctrine of the birth of Jesus and the gospel story, argue for an intervention by God, rather than an emergence from the human imagination. It is difficult to believe that humans, on their own, would invent a crucified corpse as a role-model. The gospel story - part history, part mystery, is too strange and beautiful.’
The story of the annunciation could hardly be a better illustration of that description of the work of the Holy Spirit – so unexpected, so new, so strange, so beautiful.
What does that suggest for us as individual Christians and as St Michael’s this Christmas and in the year to come? I believe it suggests a waiting on God for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Not too many human plans, but a great deal of quiet prayer and an expectation of the unexpected. An openness to the Spirit, who – in your life and in mine, and in our fellowship together – will do something unexpected – new, strange and – in his own special way – beautiful. Here’s to a truly Spirit filled Christmas and New Year!