Part 1 of 4
A Coupon to Rejuvenation
What is the best gift you have ever received? The answers will differ from person to person in light of our unique personalities and passions, but I can I imagine a huge variety of answers. Perhaps your most perfect gift entailed a surprise vacation or a special piece of jewelry, something expensive and unexpected. Even an incredible act of sacrifice can touch the heart in extraordinary ways; a sacrifice such as time, energy, or simply the ‘with-ness’ of presence: time with a good friend, a homemade gift or a letter of encouragement. Some people enjoy the gifts of attention like having someone buy a new washer in place of the broken-down relic in the basement. Maybe your best gift was a long-anticipated room addition or a house mortgage paid off, a gift that completed a season of endurance with long-awaited finality.
One of the best gifts I ever received came to me when my older boys were about age two and five. My husband slipped a coupon book into my stocking that radically changed my next year. In this coupon book were slips of paper entitling me to one day away each month plus a meal out. I remember I would leave the house before dawn and go to a McDonald’s, where I would study and spend time with God, having a quiet time that did not matter when it ended. At 10:00 am sharp, I would drive to the local library and spend the rest of the day with the Lord, studying, reading, meditating, writing, and just recuperating. At supper time, I would go to my favorite Indian restaurant and read some more over a leisurely supper. After I was sure the boys were in bed, I returned home, fresh and rejuvenated for the next month’s trials.
This was one of the most timely gifts I have ever received. I was a young mother, exhausted from years of struggling with David’s health and with another little one in the mix, I literally dragged myself through each of my days. I appreciated that this gift was quite a sacrifice, for after working long hours all through the week, Tony was pretty tired himself; facing two rambunctious boys had to be daunting. And it was thoughtful. Knowing that I am an extreme introvert, Tony gave out of his ‘extrovertness’ to recharge my emotional batteries with no thought of receiving anything back. It was, in short, a perfect, preordained gift for me.
Today is a very special day, a day in which we begin the journey of Advent, with a countdown toward Christmas Day and if you celebrate it, Epiphany. This month we will be looking at the Christmas story from yet another angle, with a specific eye toward the Gift of the season. My goal is to pull out four characteristics of this Gift along with the responses that these characteristics should elicit.
In week one, we will discover the preordained gift, week two, the proffered gift, week three, the priceless gift, and the last week before Christmas, we will study the paradoxical gift. Through the many interconnected stories surrounding Christ’s birth, we will discover how God wants us to respond: with anticipation, with acceptance, with adoration and with
Though this may ruin the surprise for you, I will unwrap the package for you at this very moment: Jesus is the Perfect Gift. No other gift will suffice and as we undo the tissue paper around this glorious Gift, I pray that your eyes will be opened in a new way to this holiday we call Christmas.
From Grinch to Who
It is easy to read the Christmas story with a ho-hum attitude. After all, we know it like the back of our hands. Songs are composed about it. Story books comprise the gist of it and our houses are full of miniature creches, and a million other ‘Christmasy’ items to remind us of it. But do we really know the story, not just to repeat it out loud on Christmas Eve to our children, but to live out its message in our everyday lives in practical form? Do we listen to the message of Christmas in order to inform ourselves of its truths, thereby pushing ourselves to conform to its message and then perform it in rote? Or are we allowing the information to work a reformation in our hearts, moving us to a transformation from the inside out?
I love the theology in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss. The Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, though no one knew why (The new movie recently released informs us that the grinch had been in an orphanage, but the original book is less informative). The author believes his frustration comes from not having his head screwed on right, or from his tight shoes, but that probably, his heart was two sizes too small.
Because of his hatred of the Whos and of Christmas, the Grinch devises a way to steal Christmas. His thought is that if he can take the visual effects of Christmas – the toys, the trees, the trappings, the Who feasts – he can steal the Christmas spirit pervading the air. This, then, is what he sets out to do.
His too-small heart is easily revealed in his “wonderful, awful idea.” He slithers and slinks around with a smile most unpleasant. He steals food and toys and stuffs them into his empty bags. He lies to little Cindy-Lou Who who has gotten out of bed for some water, even filling her water glass before swiping her Christmas tree. There was not even a crumb left over for the mice to eat, he was so thorough in his thievery.
Just when he is about to dump Christmas off the side of Mt. Crumpit, he hears a noise. Hoping the Whos are crying, he realizes that they are engaging in his least favorite pastime: singing, and without any presents in their homes. He has not been able to stop Christmas after all. He puzzles for three hours about this dilemma then he thinks of something he hasn’t before. “Maybe Christmas…doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And in that inspirational moment, the author comments that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And the minute that his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, the Grinch took back all of the toys and food and Christmas items. And…his heart was even changed enough that he enjoyed carving the roast beast.
What happened to the Grinch that day? Before, the Grinch had information that led to a conformation of certain truths and rote performance. He thought that the Whos’ Christmas comprised of things. Because he did not have those same things, nor anyone with which to share them, his information led him to conform to that belief, bringing out the very worst in him. That “worst” behavior from inside led him to perform in a certain way, a certain hateful, ugly way.
But…when new information came in through revelation – Christmas is not about the trimmings, but about the heart attitude – the Grinch began to reflect. He reformed his thinking about Christmas, which led to a transformation in his heart. His behaviors changed as a result of this revelation and new information.
That, my friend, is the theology behind The Grinch and behind our remarkable Advent story. My prayer this Christmas is that you will move beyond the typical information arising from the familiar pages of Advent, that God will begin to reform how you perceive this story, and even more, that God will work a transformation in your life that pervades the entire year of 2019. In short, I pray that God moves in your theology to bring about a Who-Spirit-filled Christmas.
The Preordained Gift
Many of you know that I am a bit of a word addict. Playing with words, discovering their meanings, and arranging them in tasty bites brings me great joy. Poetry moves me in the depths of my soul like Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” Composing the words to a song rivals, for me, the genius behind Michelangelo’s sculptures of “David” and “Pieta.” Brushing strokes of vibrantly colored expressions on the canvas of a mind’s eye evokes pleasure in me akin to listening to the great operatic voices of Kathleen Battle or Luciano Pavarotti. Writing is a fascinating, highly motivating, and Spirit-filled art form.
With this personal insertion as my motivational reason, I want to begin looking into the beloved Christmas story from an angle I have never considered before: the preordained beauty of God’s gift to us. Because words are weighty for me, I did not choose this word ‘preordained’ lightly, for it means “to ordain or decree beforehand.” Let this thought settle upon your Christmas-weary soul like water upon dry ground. God preordained this perfect Gift for you and for me from the creation of this world. “When God sent His Son, He said, ‘Let there be light’ ” (the last line of the chorus from Point of Grace’s song Let There Be Light).
Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” (ESV Strong’s) was on God’s heart long before the Bread of Life was ever wrapped in His swaddling clothes. Nazareth was the native town where Jesus grew up, but this haven of the Holy was formulated in God’s mind from the dawn of time. God knew as He flung stars into space that a group of men would be watching the stars years later for a miraculous sign. As God looked down on the man and woman created in His image naming those ‘baaing’ white animals “sheep,” He foresaw that another poor group would be watching their sheep on a darkened meadow. To the prophets of old, He watched them write down His words of powerful prophecy long before two old people would be watching the doors of the Temple for the consolation of Israel. And He preordained these preparations hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the time came when Jesus would slide out of a birth canal and into this corrupt world. Knowing this simple word – preordained – and its definition can radically change your Christmas theology from a Grinch-like attitude to a Who-like one.
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). You cannot look hard enough for, listen carefully enough to, think through completely enough about, all the ramifications of God’s preparations for you. Jesus, the perfect Gift, was laid in an uterus, laid in a manger, laid in a prophet’s arms, and laid in a cold tomb by careful attention to godly destiny. It was all preordained in the mercies of our God…for me and for you.
“Destine,” a synonym for foreordained and preordained, is composed of three different thoughts: to settle in advance; to designate, assign or dedicate in advance; and to direct or set apart for a specific purpose or place” (Definitions are from the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). God settled the Christmas story in advance. He assigned the characters and places, dedicating each person’s tasks in advance. He oversaw the success of Divine pageantry through the stage direction of the Holy Spirit, setting apart each incredible person for their specific purpose and place. He forecasted the events, foretold the specificities, predicted the places, and prophesied over the people. God had a ball planning for this perfect Gift.
Who cares! is what you might be thinking, but let me draw you into God’s heart. He cares…deeply! He preordained at least six events in the Christmas story by prophecies given by the author of Genesis, by Isaiah, by Solomon and by Jeremiah. Men of God with the ability to see, hear and conceive unbelievable things, thousands of years before the Incarnation, received snippets of God’s preparations for mankind. The Gift would be the seed of a woman (Genesis 3:15). He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). His name would be Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). He was the Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6). Kings from the East would present Him with gifts (Psalm 72:10-11) and innocent babies would be killed in that Gift’s place (Jeremiah 31:15). Coincidence? No, this is the awesome, unbelievable work of a God who predestines, prophesies, and preordains.
My mother-in-law’s love language is gifts. She shows love by giving gifts and she receives love in the same way. Often, when she is out running errands, she may see something that one of her family or friends would like, and she buys it. She is on the lookout for a way to bless others through presents. She is good at knowing what others like because she listens carefully to conversations around Christmas and matches her gifts with people’s wants. She is a very gifted gift-giver.
God is also a gifted gift-giver. Zechariah “saw” this to be true as he prophesied over his own son, John: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven…” (Luke 1:78). You see, God knew that we were a people living in great darkness (Isaiah 9:2) and that we would have need of a sun light our way. So, tenderly, carefully, mercifully, He preordained the rising Sun to be opened on a dark, crowded, starry, glory-filled night to meet our inmost needs.
Mary also praised the Lord for His Gift. She “saw” that He was mindful of her humble estate. She “heard” that the Mighty One was going to do great things for her. She “conceived” that His mercy extends to those who fear Him from generation to generation and that He performs mighty deeds (Luke 1:47-51a). The Most High God, whose name is holy, knew that we were a people who were futile in our thinking and hardened in our hearts (Ephesians 4:17-18) so with great mindfulness, He planned great things for us. He gave us a Gift that taught us servanthood (Philippians 2) so that we could cooperate with Him in His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). He, through the perfect Gift, creates us to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). Hallelujah for such a merciful and kind gift-Giver!
My mother-in-law is also notorious for her gorgeous gifts; not just the present inside, but the beautiful wrapping outside as well. She finds the best paper and wraps her presents in a large variety of ways. Some have fancy shapes. Some have fancy curls (What are those curly string things called anyway)? And some have beautiful bows, but all of them are cleverly enclosed. I find that even the cards are a work of art in themselves: the pictures are carefully picked to match the person’s interests, the writing inside is specifically chosen and sometimes, even underlined with personal notes added, and the manner in which the card is attached to the present is thought through. She is indeed a gift-wrapper extraordinaire.
Jesus Christ is the perfect Gift. God, I hope I have shown, is the ultimate Gift giver, but I do not believe that He is the Gift-wrapper. Lest you think I speak heresy, let me try to explain…
The more time I have spent looking at the Christmas story this year, the more I am confronted with a strong Presence I have hitherto mostly ignored. How could I have missed this essential Person? How is it possible that I have not seen this Orchestrator of all events, wrapping up all the details and tying up all of the bows? Children remember the main actors and actresses. Teenagers remember the angels, especially the name of Gabriel. Adults remember the dreams and the way God moved the players around on His divine stage. But sad to say, I, and I daresay many of us, have never seen an Advent calendar depicting, what I am coming to believe, is the main protagonist of Advent: the Holy Spirit Himself. Yes, Christ is the Gift, and a perfect One at that, but the Holy Spirit is the Gift-Wrapper Extraordinaire.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
One morning this week as I was praying over how to flesh out what I have been studying, the Lord led me to a very unlikely passage, one that has nothing to do with the Christmas story, or so I thought. Second Corinthians 2:6-16 is a passage about the Holy Spirit and His work of revealing the message of God. These verses outline the incredible work of the Spirit in our lives and I believe God would have me share these because they define the work of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation. First would you notice with six clear activities of the Holy Spirit that are outlined in this Corinthian passage:
- He reveals what God has prepared for us. We have already met this verse today, but for memory’s sake, let me repeat it. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit” (v 9-10). This means that we have no method of comprehension open to us to understand the wonderful things God has made ready for us on our own. Only the Spirit can show us these gifts; glories, by the way, that are not haphazard, but are in accordance with God’s plan from of old.
- He searches all deep things. “…The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (v 10b). The Spirit is not after information for information’s sake; instead, He penetrates all things, even the deepest thoughts of God. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and HIs ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). We have no possible way to conceive of God’s ways, but the Spirit does.
- He knows the thoughts of God from the inside. “Whoever knows what you’re thinking and planning except you yourself? The same with God – except that he not only knows what he is thinking, but he lets us in on it. God offers a full report on the gifts of life and salvation that he is giving us” (vv 11-12 – MSG). And He lets us in on it because the Holy Spirit tells us.
- He teaches God’s words to us. “This is how we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (v 13). The Spirit’s activity extends to providing the actual words used and they are specific. Mark 3:11 tells us, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” God promises to put His words in our mouths at just the right times through the teaching work of the the Spirit.
- He gives the ability to make right judgments. “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment” (v 15). This word ‘judgment’ means to “scrutinize, investigate, interrogate, determine…examine or judge…to investigate, inquire into, specifically in a forensic sense of a judge to hold an investigation” (ESV Strong’s). We often do not know what to do in a particular situation, but the Holy Spirit is present to help us investigate the matter thoroughly and make a sound judgment.
- He reveals in us the mind of Christ. “‘For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (v 16). This does not mean that every Christian can understand all of Christ’s thoughts. Paul does mean that “the indwelling Spirit reveals Christ. The spiritual person…does not see things from the viewpoint of the worldly. He sees them from the viewpoint of Christ” (Tyndale Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2). You and I can think the way Christ would think when the Spirit reveals Jesus’ thoughts in and through us.
The Spirit-Filled Advent
About this time, you may be wondering if we will ever get to the Christmas story. We have now arrived. Taking the six activities of the Holy Spirit, as seen in 1 Corinthians 2, I want to look now at how the Holy Spirit was a part of the preordained work of God. Open your heart with me. See with eyes that normally do not see. Hear with ears awakened like one being taught and conceive with your mind what God has prepared for us.
Matthew began the Christmas story with these words, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). The Holy Spirit conceived the child. Do you see that? God might have planned it out, but the Spirit created the Gift’s inmost being. He knit Jesus together in Mary’s womb. He wove together Jesus’s little body in the depths of the earth and He saw Christ’s unformed body before even one bone or joint or marrow came to be (Paraphrase of Psalm 139:13, 15-16). He revealed what God had preordained for us.
A couple of verses later, Joseph was found struggling with a decision. He was a righteous man, but his pledged was pregnant and there did not seem to be a viable father. He had it in his mind to divorce her quietly to save her from public disgrace. Then an angel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). The angel went on to say that the baby will be a boy and that He was to be called Jesus, for He would save His people from their sins. Matthew was clear to give us the prophecy: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:22-23).
Where is the Spirit’s activity in this scenario? I want you to know that I see all six of the Spirit’s activities in these short verses. He revealed what God had planned and even told Joseph what would happen in the future. He searched the deep things of God, knowing those thoughts from the inside, and taught Joseph God’s exact words. We see this in Matthew’s quick addition of the prophecy right on the heels of the angel’s words. He enabled Joseph to make a right judgment, for Joseph, when he awoke, got up and did what the angel commanded. And He gave Joseph the mind of Christ. In his own earthly thinking, Joseph would have divorced Mary and left the Christ-child fatherless, but after hearing God’s truths in Holy-Spirit ways, Joseph’s mind adopted God’s spiritual truths.
The Spirit shows up to another unlikely man with a very unusual prophecy. Zechariah, a priest chosen by lot, stood in the Most Holy Place offering incense for the Israelites. An angel appeared to him and told him that he and his wife were going to have a son, who needed to be called John. Just in case you are wondering, the name ‘John’ means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (ESV Strong’s). Sounds a lot like a predetermined gift to me, right down to the meaning of his baby’s name. The angel gave all kinds of information about his coming son, including the fact that he would be great in the sight of the Lord and that He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth (Luke 1:15). The Spirit was doing His job: revealing God’s plans, searching the deep things of God because He knew them from the inside, teaching Zechariah God’s words, prompting Zechariah to make a right judgment and working to give Zechariah the mind of Christ.
Notice that John would be filled with the Spirit. In other words, the Spirit in him would do all of these activities as well. As a result of this filling, John would bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord. He would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:16-17). John, filled with the Spirit, would reveal what God had prepared for the nation of Israel.
Zechariah’s response to the words of the Spirit is so interesting to me. One of the activities of the Spirit is to give the mind of Christ to each person and help them make right judgements, yet Zechariah completely missed the message. Unlike Joseph, who heard the Spirit’s words, Zechariah doubted God, doubted the gift of God and doubted the Holy Spirit’s power. For that doubt, the Spirit disciplined him, taking away his ability to speak until the day John would be born (Luke 1:20).
This is a crucial point to each of us. The Holy Spirit can work in our lives in miraculous ways, but it is still up to us to be aware of the work of God and to listen to the Holy Spirit when He speaks through God’s Word. Doubt indicates a double mindedness in our hearts, an unbelief, if you will. James says that a doubting man should not expect to receive God’s gifts because he is unstable in all he does (James 1:6-8). The reason is clear to me. The Spirit lives in us to give us the mind of Christ. When we doubt God, we doubt the Spirit in us. We doubt His work in our lives. We doubt the gospel-outpouring of Christ through our earthly vessels. In essence, then, our mind is warring against the Spirit and so yes, we become unstable.
Zechariah paid for that doubt with severe discipline and could not even work through it with another person because he had been struck dumb. Instead, he had to watch his wife’s belly grow with the burgeoning work of the Holy Spirit in her, conceiving in her believing body the product of his own unbelief. But praise the Lord, the Spirit continued doing His work, for while that baby grew, so did that doubting father’s faith. Glory of glories, the Holy Spirit moved in his heart, bringing his own mind and the mind of Christ into harmony by revealing Christ to him. The revelation did its good work and in great faith, Zechariah wrote words from the Holy Spirit on a writing tablet (Luke 1:63), naming his son John as the Spirit had preordained.
Then Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and he began to prophesy (Luke 1:67). Listen to some of these Holy-Spirit filled words. “Praise be to the Lord…because he has come and has redeemed his people…He has come to…enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68, 74-77, 79).
Whoa! These are incredible words, words he could not have known, seen, heard, or conceived, except by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit filled him because he believed and his lips uttered revelations of Christ. His tongue spoke the deep thoughts of God. His mouth taught truths he could not have known on his own. He made the right judgment through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and revealed the mind of Christ. This is what happens when the Holy Spirit unwraps the Gift. It changes a person full of doubt about God to a person with preordained Holy Spirit power. It is a wonder to behold!
An angel showed up at Mary’s doorstep as well. By the Spirit, Gabriel told Mary that she was highly favored and blessed with the presence of God (Luke 1:28). I am pretty sure Mary felt quite normal that day, not highly important or significant, but the Spirit showed her the mind of Christ. And God’s mind toward her was one of high favor. (We would do well to remember this thought for it can change our very identity). Mary, like us on a daily basis, might not have felt the Lord’s presence with her, but the Spirit spoke the deep thoughts of God and shared them with her and with us. That is what the angel did that day: opened up a communication line between God’s heart and hers, between the deep thoughts of how He conceived and her own view of herself. The Holy Spirit connected those dots for her and literally gave her the mind of Christ.
The angel told her the deep thoughts of God. Her son would be the Son of the Most High. God would give Him the throne of David, He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom would never end. On top of that, Gabriel informed her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her (Luke 1:31-37). Those are deep, deep thoughts, thoughts that would probably blow our minds. But this virgin Mary was no ordinary girl; she believed God. She had the mind of Christ and the Holy Spirit helped her make the right judgment call.
We know the Holy Spirit did come upon her for when she went to visit Elizabeth, she was filled with praise. We call her psalm the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and it is full of revelation about Christ, deep thoughts of God, and the mind of Christ, which dwelt within her in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Scripture remarks about another Holy-Spirit encounter. When Mary went to Elizabeth’s home, the baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and Scripture said that she was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41). In her short blessing, Elizabeth revealed Christ, calling Mary the mother of “my Lord” (Luke 1:43). She spoke the deep things of God, things she could not have known unless the Holy Spirit showed her, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:45). How could she know this just by looking at Mary? The Holy Spirit revealed the deep things of God and that blessing became the impetus for Mary’s song of praise. Holy Spirit revelation is catching; the one who is filled with the Spirit can light another’s belief flame.
The Spirit’s next stop in the story was at the Temple. Simeon was a man with more mentions of the Holy Spirit in his life than almost any other person in the Bible and his story only takes up ten verses. He was a righteous and devout man, Scripture said, who was waiting for the Christ and was filled with the Spirit. The Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he saw the Christ.
One day, the Spirit moved him to go to the temple where he saw and held the Messiah and prophesied over that baby; prophecies which, by the way, he could not have known without the Spirit’s guidance. He called Jesus a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Israel. This is an incredibly deep thought of God for this did not come true for at least another 30 plus years. After Jesus went to heaven, the Holy Spirit came upon the New Testament church and fulfilled this prophecy by grafting Gentiles into the gospel. Simeon also spoke of the death of Christ to Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). He could not have known about the death of Christ and how it would affect Mary except by the revealing, teaching, guiding work of the Spirit.
The Anticipation in Advent
I hope that this expository look at the Christmas story has not been too tedious. In truth, it is anything but dry, but I feel like my words cannot master the depth of what I feel God is saying. I feel completely inadequate to express these spiritual truths in spiritual words. Even as I am writing, I am praying that God would guide and direct my thoughts, that He would fill me with the preordained power of the Holy Spirit.
The facts are simple: God preordained Christ’s birth, Christ came as the Gift of Christmas, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed and orchestrated the whole event. But facts are simply knowledge if nothing is done with them. I want God to do something with this knowledge and that is to build anticipation for the Gift.
Joseph anticipated the Gift. This anticipation enabled him to overlook social disgrace, to take Mary home as his wife, and kept him from having any sexual union with her. This expectation enabled him to watch his bride-to-be growing heavy with the Son of the Most High.
Mary anticipated the Gift. She felt the baby growing inside of her; imagine being laden down with Immanuel. Knowing God was in her gave her the strength to withstand the ridicule she probably received from friends and family, to take a long donkey ride to Joseph’s hometown in late term, and it gave her the grace to accept that there was no inn open for her. That knowing also encouraged her as she gave birth to the Messiah in a stable and wrapped his naked body with swaddling clothes to put him in a feeding trough.
Zechariah anticipated the Gift. He praised the Lord for sending a Redeemer and for showing mercy to Israel. He spoke of serving the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness all of his days. This was a change from his original encounter with the Spirit, where fear struck him dumb. God’s work in His heart over the ensuing months of his wife’s pregnancy brought great anticipation for the work that the Spirit would do in many hearts for eternity.
Elizabeth anticipated the Gift. Watching her own belly grow was anticipation enough, but she also “saw” Mary as the mother of her Lord. She knew her own child would be a man filled with the Spirit and would become the prophet that would prepare the way for this same Lord.
The shepherds anticipated the Gift. They did not have long to wait, but through the Spirit’s revelation, they “saw” the sign of Christ and went to behold him. This beholding invigorated them to share the Good News with all that they met; their anticipation transformed them into the first missionaries.
Simeon anticipated the Gift. No one knows how long he waited for the consolation of Israel. It may have been years, but he was patient and expectant. One day that anticipation came to fruition and he held the Messiah in his own feeble arms.
Anna anticipated the Gift. After being widowed, Scripture says that she never left the temple, worshiping night and day with prayer and fasting (Luke 2:37). She knew her God because He spoke His thoughts to her, and so she recognized God’s good Gift.
The Magi anticipated the Gift. They expectantly watched the skies for any changes and when they saw a special star, they joined together old prophecy and their present reality. This impactful collision in their thinking moved them to take a long journey in order to find the King of the Jews. God saw fit to show them the way by the movement of His special star, bringing them great joy and bowing their knees in reverence before the Bright and Morning Star come down.
Holy Spirit Living
I shared with you that my mother-in-law is a gifted gift giver and a wrapper extraordinaire. I, on the other hand, am far too practical to spend precious time on the wrapping of my gifts. I figure, The boys are going to rip open the presents anyway, so why spend all that time? Right? But the thought occurs to me, If I actually spent more time wrapping gifts the way Fran does, perhaps the boys would treat the gift more carefully, handle it more reverently, and open it more appreciatively. My preordained planning to make a gift look more special might actually change the way that gift is opened and received.And this change of reception is really what the Holy Spirit is after in our lives.
Jesus is the Gift of this season, but the Holy Spirit is the One who made the Gift appear more special. He wrapped the Gift in the womb of a virgin. He heralded the Gift with angels and dreams. He praised the Gift with choirs of angels and He fulfilled prophecies about this same Gift left and right. In essence, the Holy Spirit signed, sealed, and delivered the Gift right to our front door.
The question is: What do we do about it? The Holy Spirit’s handiwork shines from the pages of Scripture like the Magi’s star, yet we neglect His work. He caused such anticipation to increase the pace of the Advent story, yet we often read its truths with a lackadaisical attitude. What can you and I do to anticipate this Gift? I believe the answer is, once again, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
You and I must begin to live a Spirit-filled life. “A big part of the Spirit-filled life involves learning to recognize the fingerprint of the Holy Spirit. In fact, learning to recognize the Holy Spirit is the first step in learning to live the Spirit-filled life…The Holy Spirit is an integral part of our Christian experience. But because we are so unfamiliar with His ways, we miss Him. As long as we miss Him, we certainly can’t follow Him. And, you guessed it, as long as we can’t follow Him, we can’t experience the wonderful Spirit-filled life” (Charles Stanley, The Wonderful Spirit-filled Life, pp 14-15).
Besides the six jobs that we have gleaned from 1 Corinthians 2, the Holy Spirit is also engaged in convicting (John 16:8-11), illuminating (John 16:12-15), teaching (John 16:12-15), guiding (Romans 8:14), assuring (Romans 9:16), interceding (Romans 8:26), directing (Acts 20:22), and warning (Acts 20:23). Has a sermon ever pierced your conscience, convicting you of sin? Have you ever had a passage of Scripture jump off the page and into your heart? Has a difficult passage made sense after much prayer? Has the Lord brought a clear pathway after fasting? Has God placed a burden on your heart then joined a promise in His Word to it? Have you ever felt like Someone was lifting you up in prayer? Has the way been made clear to you, though the decision was difficult? Were you ever told to change the course of your direction? If you answered a ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you have been led by the Holy Spirit.
The problem is that we do not recognize His work, His fingerprints, as Stanley says. We are unfamiliar with how He wraps the gifts of our lives and so we miss His movement and cannot follow Him. This Christmas, I challenge you to begin building anticipation for the Advent – for the gospel Child – by looking for the movement of the Spirit and joining Him in His work.
The Christmas story shows us many ways to anticipate the Spirit’s revelation of Christ. Let’s look briefly at a few of these, keeping in mind that these actions can help us anticipate the reason for this season more fully:
This word will be translated differently by every person who reads it, but I am reminded of Joseph’s anticipatory stance. The Spirit, by way of the angel, told him the deep things of God, but nowhere in Scripture do we find instructions detailing Joseph’s abstinence from sex. Yet, that is what he did. “But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” (Matthew 1:25). Many people anticipate Lent in this same way, giving up something important to build the anticipation of a God who gave up everything for us. Part of being Spirit-filled is removing things (attitudes, actions, dreams, etc) from our lives that weigh us down.
When I was a junior in high school, the girls in my dorm really wanted to go to a huge breakfast buffet to celebrate the end of the year. Our dorm mom said that, while it was a nice idea, the cost was too prohibitive and beyond the budget. She suggested that we sign up to skip certain meals so that the cost per meal over time could be put against the cost of the buffet. Over many weeks, most girls skipped a meal or two in a week and lo and behold, there was plenty enough money to enjoy an amazing buffet breakfast out. Our sacrifice led to our fulfillment, quite literally.
Being filled with the Spirit is a far better feeling than a buffet breakfast, I’m aware, but I hope you get the picture. The abundant, filling, quickening life often comes from giving something up, from surrendering something. From what can you abstain this holiday season in order to better anticipate the Gift? Maybe you want to tone down the trappings or turn off the television. Perhaps your family can cook a meal and take it to someone less fortunate. Possibly, you can give up a night of parties to take songs and joy to a prison fellowship. I do not know what God is laying on your heart, but I do know that sacrifice brings joy. So it stands to reason that asking the Spirit of joy to guide you in simplifying something this Advent would be a way to live in the Spirit and anticipate the season’s meaning.
Over and over in this Christmas story, the main characters are described before the Spirit approaches them. Matthew 1:19 calls Joseph a righteous man. Elizabeth and Zechariah were described as being upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly (Luke 1:6). Mary, we saw in Luke, was a virgin and the angel made sure to tell us that she was highly favored by God (Luke 1:27-28). Simeon was righteous and devout (Luke 2:25) and Anna was a prophetess, who never left the temple, but worshiped night and day. (Luke 2:37).
Now, I need to be very careful here so please hear me through. I am not saying that you can try your hardest to live in a righteous way so that the Spirit will come to you, speak to you, and teach you the deep things in God’s heart. You cannot force something to be true if there is any type of deception lurking in your soul.
But you cannot get around the truth. What I am saying is this: the Spirit appeared to godly people. A righteous heart preceded this flow of righteousness from heaven. You and I can anticipate the Gift of this season by settling accounts with God, seeking HIm with sincerity of heart, and making sure that there is nothing unrighteous within. If you are unsure, ask the Holy Spirit. He will teach and guide and illuminate, helping you make the right judgments. Living blamelessly before God is one of the best anticipatory actions you will ever take.
I love the way the NIV describes Mary when she arrived in Bethlehem. Most translations say that she was with child or that she was pregnant, but the NIV says that she was “expecting a child” (Luke 1:5) To be with child means to be pregnant; there’s nothing profound about this verb, but the NIV captures what the Incarnation was all about. Romans describes this expectation in vibrant words, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).
Groaning as in the pains of childbirth…
Mary probably had cramping on that trip to Bethlehem. She might even have had some spotting as they went door to door to find shelter. She knew the time for groaning in pain was at her own body’s doorstep. She was eagerly expectant, both to have the baby and to be done with a long pregnancy. The time of giving birth could not come soon enough. Mary’s expectancy included both groaning and unbridled joy.
Simeon was described as a man “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). This word ‘waiting’ is complicated, but the figurative meaning is “endurance, awaiting with confidence or patience, looking, expecting the fulfillment of promises” (ESV Strong’s). The ESV Bible says that “Simeon was waiting…and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” There is something very Spirit-filled about confident waiting; Scripture links the two very clearly. Expecting God to fulfill what He has said He will do is a way to live by the Spirit. Do you want some Spirit filling? Attach some of God’s promises to your faith and expectantly hope that God, through the Holy Spirit, will bring them to pass. Simeon’s expectancy included groaning, by way of waiting interminably, and then unbridled joy.
Do you have the same expectation as Mary and Simeon did? Are you pregnant with hope and confident patience this Christmas season? Do you know that the arrival of baby Jesus in that manger signified a turn-around for you and me? Without Jesus, we would have no adoption, no redemption, no heaven. Without Jesus, there would be no Spirit, no guidance, no connection between God and man. Jesus broke the time barrier, the silence of the testaments, and dropped into our laps the possibility of being the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” Jesus’ manger stay translates into our heavenly stay. That’s a lot of hope that included both groaning and unbridled joy.
As you wait for Christmas this year, dwell on what Jesus has brought to us. Read Ephesians 2 over and over, for it signifies much more than adoption for you. Focus on heaven as you focus on that manger and most of all, remember that you are a first fruit of the Spirit as a result of Christmas Day. This anticipatory attitude of hope can be cultivated in the fertile ground of your soul as a result of the Holy Spirit living in you.
You do not have to look very far in the Christmas story to see the importance prayer plays in the work of the Holy Spirit. Once when Zechariah was serving as a priest before God, he went into the temple, past the Holy Place, and into the sacred Holy of Holies to burn incense on behalf of the people. Luke 1:10 tells us that “when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.” On the heels of that concerted prayer meeting, the angel appeared to Zechariah right there in God’s presence and the Spirit’s words began to flow.
Anna, besides fasting and worshiping, was a prayer warrior. Scripture says that she never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:37). This was a woman devoted to anticipation of what God could and would do. The word “Spirit” is not mentioned in describing her life, but her portion of the story begins with the fact that she was a prophetess (Luke 2:36). In other words, as she made a habit of praying and worshiping God, God made a habit of speaking His deep thoughts into her life by way of the Spirit. After all, that is the meaning behind prophecy: speaking spiritual truths with spiritual words.
If you are interested in a greater filling of the Spirit, prayer must be a priority for you. How else will you know the deep thoughts of God? How else will you understand the work of Jesus? By what other means will you understand the Word or gain guidance or make right judgments? You must pray and pray heartily! There is no better time to develop this hard-but-fulfilling discipline than on the calendar’s march toward Christmas Day. At the very least, learning to pray in the Spirit will create an anticipation for the Gift, but it just might blow your mind by all the things God has prepared in advance for you to know and do.
Watching and Seeing
The shepherds were social nobodies, yet they encountered a glorious outpouring of the Spirit. How was this possible? I believe it has to do with the word ‘watching.’ These shepherds were living out in the fields, Luke 1:8 tells us, “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Watching entails guarding either a group of people, animals, or at a certain time. A watch in Scripture often referred to a specific period of time where the guard was on duty. This word actually has an interesting root: the idea of “isolation, implicating preserving, obeying, avoiding, keeping self safe so as not to violate…” (ESV Strong’s).
Why would the Spirit burst upon that dark night over shepherds out in the fields? I think it was because they were watchful. They were awake and guarding. They had caring lives. And buried in the meaning of this word is the idea of obedience. These men received the Holy Spirit’s grand light display because they were men who guarded the weak and watched out for the safety of a flock. They were anticipating danger and therefore, were prone to hear a divine whisper or in this case, respond to a tumultuous angel song and dance.
The Magi, though they were Gentiles, cultivated this same watchful attitude. They made a habit of watching the stars, which is why God plopped into their heaven-lifted faces, an attention-grabbing anomaly. They must have known the Scripture. And might they even have been looking for a special sign? I ask this question because with one out-of-place star, they made a trek months long to Jerusalem, asking the location of the king of the Jews. They spoke as if he was already born because they associated the king with their special star (see Matthew 2:2). Not only were they watching – looking out, expectantly guarding an Old Testament truth – but they “saw” something everyone else missed.
Dear one, this Christmas season can be one of Spirit-anticipation, but only if you are watching. You can watch for Jesus by guarding the the truths you know (1 Corinthians 16:13, 1 Timothy 6:20): the good deposits that God, by the help of the Holy Spirit, has entrusted to you (2 Timothy 1:14). Guard that you are not carried away by the error of lawless men (2 Peter 3:17). Be on your guard against bitterness and anger and hypocrisy, which can creep into a complacent, Grinch-like heart.
Watching also entails keeping: keeping yourself from sin, keeping in step with the Spirit Galatians 5:25), keeping hold of deep truths (1 Timothy 3:9), keeping pure (1 Timothy 5:22), keeping watch over people God has placed in your sphere of care (Hebrews 13:17), keeping reign on your tongue (James 1:26), keeping yourself from idols (1 John 5:21), and keeping yourself in God’s love (Jude 1:21). Watching also involves asking that God will give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17). And as you keep watch over your life, your family, your purity, your ministry, God, the one who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy (Jude 1:24), will be watching over you.
Charles Stanley said that we miss the Holy Spirit because we do not recognize His fingerprints on and around our lives. This Christmas season know this: God has preordained Jesus, the most perfect Gift, for you. He has sent the Holy Spirit ahead of Jesus to reveal Him to you. As you practice abstinence, righteous living, expectant hope, prayer and watching, I pray that you will SEE Jesus, that the Spirit will reveal His fingerprints of joy.
These fingerprints may not be something worldly eyes can see; they may take a special Spirit-filled vision, but possibly, anticipating Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit may give you Who-filled eyes instead of ‘Grinchy’ ones. The Gift, unwrapped by the Person of the Holy Spirit, may be found in unlikely places, appearing somewhat ordinary, but I can promise you, it is anything but ordinary. Extraordinary is the word that describes how the Holy Spirit will reveal the preordained Christ…
- Through the words of an age-old prophecy.
- In a dream, or two, or three.
- In a young father abstaining from union with his wife so as not to muddy the waters of divine intention.
- By an appointment in the Holy of Holies and as a result of concerted prayer.
- In a young adult acquiescing to the most tumultuous news of her life.
- Through an old, unlikely mother-to-be exclaiming a blessing over a young mother.
- In a grateful mother who bursts into songs of praise and thanksgiving.
- In an unusual baby child, full of the grace of God.
- In a dumbstruck, unbelieving father who manages to eek out a tiny measure of faith by the action of writing.
- In the growing faith of a father praying and prophesying over his baby.
- Through an unexpected census.
- In the most unlikely of places: a long trip, full inns, open stables, and manger troughs.
- On dark, sleepless nights and at lonely, unusual hours.
- In a group of social outcasts who were really good at watching and caring.
- By means of heartbreaking persecution.
- In the traditions of a culture: circumcision, giving of names, times of purification, and sacrifices of consecration.
- By way of the customs of the Law.
- In an tired, old man just waiting around for some consolation.
- In an old widow who loves to pray a lot.
- In some smart, like-minded men searching the skies for a heavenly sign.
Do you see anyone you know in these normal-but-incredible Holy Spirit-filled vessels and events? Do you see yourself? Jesus, the predetermined and perfect Gift, has already been born and the Holy Spirit has already come to dwell in our hearts through faith. That is a predetermined fact, but I know that some of you may not have true intimacy with the Godhead; I know many of you do not know the Holy Spirit experientially. This Christmas could change your life. The Spirit could move in your vicinity in mysterious and powerful ways. Your inner life could come alive to this unseen parallel world called the Kingdom of God, but only if you train yourself in anticipation and open yourself up in surrender to the Gift of Jesus.
My prayer as we begin this Advent season is that you would have an life-changing encounter with the Holy Spirit, that God would “strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19). I pray that the Holy Spirit – the divine wrapper extraordinaire – would unwrap for you an anticipatory vision that would blow your spiritual mind.
Dear one, by the power and revelation of the preordained Holy Spirit, let the Who-filled Christmas season begin.