THE TRUE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS – REV. PAUL DAKIN

THE TRUE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
A sermon on Luke 2:22-40
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 27, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
What is “The Spirit of Christmas?” That’s an appropriate question for this season of the year, isn’t it? If you were to conduct a series of “person-on-the-street” interviews, I suspect that you would get lots of different answers to that question.
In the minds of many, “The Spirit of Christmas” would include things like experiencing the loving feelings that we have towards others. It’s a time for friends and family—of “parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow.” For others, it’s a time to temporarily put away the troubles and concerns of our lives for a time of merry-making. It’s a time when “from now on our troubles will be out of sight,” right along with “Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile.”1
Others might define the Spirit of Christmas in more general terms. For them, the Christmas Spirit might embody qualities like giving and being generous toward others. It is a time of benevolence. It means feelings of goodwill toward those we know—and even to those whom we don’t know. And perhaps best of all, the Spirit of Christmas for many people means peace—a time to heed the call of the One who is known as “The Prince of Peace.” It sometimes happens—at least temporarily—in a fractured and war-torn world—that we put down our guns and “hear the angels sing.” In a world that knows precious little of what it actually means to live in peace, it can be a temporary, but blessed, respite…
And for some, thinking about the Spirit of Christmas would no doubt recall Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol. You all know the story. In that short story, three Spirits of Christmas visit the crusty old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. The spirits were that of the ghost of Christmas Past, the ghost of Christmas Present, and the ghost of Christmas Future. Then after a long night of confronting the horrid old man that he had become, Scrooge neared the end of his encounters with the ghosts. As he grasped at the spectral hand of the ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge made this promise to the spirit before the spirit left him, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”2
1 Lyrics from two popular Christmas songs: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Silver Bells.”
2 www.ibiblio.org/ebboks/Dickens/Carol/Dickens_Carol.pdf Page 84. (Accessed December 22, 2020) Emphasis mine.
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I am sure you all recognize the name of J. C. Penny. You know him as the founder of one of
America’s most well-known department stores—the one which bears his name. What you may not
know is that Penny was raised as a Baptist. (A piece of trivia with which you can amaze your friends—
Penny traced his conversion to the singing of the old familiar gospel hymn “God Will Take Care of You”
during a chapel service.) In talking about the Spirit of Christmas in later years, J. C. Penny wrote,
“Christmas is not just a time for festivity and merry-making. It is a time for the contemplation of eternal
things. The Christmas Spirit is a spirit of giving and forgiving.”3 All of those thoughts and ideas partly
describe what could reasonably be called “The Spirit of Christmas” in the minds and hearts of many
people.
But as I was studying today’s sermon text a few years ago, something struck me for the first
time. Like most of you, I have read and heard the Christmas story probably dozens and dozens of times
over the years. But what struck me for the first time was the prominent role that the Holy Spirit plays as
a part of the Christmas story.
I think that the work of the Holy Spirit has often been shortchanged in the telling of the Nativity
story. Think with me for a moment: How many sermons does one usually hear about the Holy Spirit
during Advent? I honestly do not think that I have ever heard one in all my years of church-going. And
what of all the many Christmas carols that we joyfully sing every year? How many of them celebrate the
work of the Holy Spirit in the Nativity story? I have strained my brain trying to come up with even one
Christmas carol that celebrates the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christmas story. I confess that I cannot
think of any…Can you?
And yet, in spite of the lack of attention, the work of the Holy Spirit is a crucial part of the
Christmas story. The Spirit makes more appearances than one might suspect, given how little the Spirit
is mentioned in Advent sermons and Christmas carols…Both Matthew, and especially Luke, record the
work of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the story of the birth of Jesus. Thus I would submit to you that it is
the Holy Spirit who is the TRUE Spirit of Christmas…
The story begins in Luke 1 with the birth of John the Baptist. John’s father was a priest named
Zechariah. While he was serving in the Temple, an angel appeared to him and told him that he and his
wife Elizabeth would have a son that would turn the hearts of the people back to God. Since both he and
Elizabeth were well up in years, he found the angel’s message hard to believe. As a result, Zechariah was
struck dumb until the time came for the child to be born. When John was born nine months later,
Zechariah’s tongue was loosened. In verse 67, we read that Zechariah “was filled with the Holy Spirit
and prophesized.” And he began to sing the song that we know as the “Benedictus” which begins,
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people…”
The next mention of the Holy Spirit comes a little later on in that same chapter of Luke. It is the
story of “The Annunciation,” the event when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that God
3 www.inspiringtips.com/quotes-about-the-true-spirit-of-Christmas (Accessed December 23, 2020) Emphasis mine.
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had chosen her to be the vessel through whom the Savior would be born. When Mary asked Gabriel
how this would come to pass, the angel answered in verse 35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and
the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”4
[Side bar here: There’s a word in this verse that is of particular interest. It’s the Greek word that
is translated as “overshadow”—episkiazō. This word episkiazō is only used in one other place in the
gospels. It is also used in the story of the cloud that descended upon Jesus and three of his disciples on
the mount of Transfiguration.5 The meaning of the word is to cast a shade upon; to envelope in a
brilliant haze.
You remember the story. Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to the top of a mountain,
ostensibly to pray. As he was praying, we are told that Jesus’ face and his clothes began to radiate with
an otherworldly light as bright as a flash of lightning. As the three disciples witnessed Jesus talking to
Moses and Elijah, the scriptures tell us that a cloud “enveloped”—episkiazō—them. And from this cloud,
they heard the voice of God speak to them saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to him!”
We are not given a physical description of what Mary being “overshadowed by the Holy Spirit”
looked like. Was it similar to what the disciples witnessed on the mount of Transfiguration? No one
really knows. It is tantalizing to consider what that experience of the Holy Spirit that Mary had looked
like. The point is that what happened to Mary was unmistakable evidence of the presence and the
power of God working in her life through the Holy Spirit…]
Back in Luke 1…After her encounter with Gabriel and being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit,
Luke then tells us that Mary left to visit her cousin Elizabeth. By this point in time, Elizabeth was already
six months along in her pregnancy. When Elizabeth greeted Mary upon her arrival, we are told in verse
41 that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed to Mary, “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!”
And then we come to today’s sermon text, Luke 2, beginning with verse 22. According to the Old
Testament law, each male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. The law also
stated that women were considered to be ritually unclean after giving birth. After a period of forty days,
she would be required to go to the Temple to bring an offering. And in accordance with the Jewish law,
Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to perform these acts of worship.
While they were there, they encountered a man named Simeon. Simeon is described as being
righteous and devout. Luke also tells us in verse 25 that “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” What’s more “It
had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”
4 See also the mention in Matthew 1:18, 20.
5 Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, and Luke 9:34.
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Simeon approached Mary and Joseph, took the baby Jesus in his arms and sang a song that has come to
be known as the “Nunc Dimittis”:
Sovereign Lord, as You have promised,
Now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes had seen your salvation,
Which You have prepared in the sight of all people,
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
And for glory to your people Israel. (Verses 29-32)
These are the instances in the Nativity story where the Holy Spirit is mentioned. It’s a lot more
than one would think, isn’t it?
The point of reviewing and highlighting the essential work of the Holy Spirit in the Christmas
story is to say that this same Spirit is alive and active in the world and in the lives of God’s people. The
very same Spirit that elicited words of praise and thanksgiving from Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and
Simeon is still at work in the world today. The very same Spirit that led Mary and Joseph through those
nine difficult months—days when they wondered what life would bring next—days when they faced the
consternation and ridicule of family and friends who doubted their unique story—the difficulties of a
pregnancy like no other—the Holy Spirit was there leading and guiding them through the midst of it all.
The same Spirit that wrought the miracle of miracles—that Almighty God, Creator of all, Maker of
heaven and earth, the holy One who was, and is, and is to come—should be born to a lowly peasant girl
from an out-of-the-way place like Nazareth. And yet this child would become the Savior of all…
Followers of Jesus have access to this same Spirit at work in the nativity story. It is the same
Spirit that leads us to praise…the same Spirit that disturbs us and rouses us with redemptive shame…the
same Spirit that inspires us to greater heights of love and service in the name of Christ…the same Spirit
that inspires in us greater devotion to the Lord…the same Spirit who “works in you to will and to act
according to his good purpose.”6 The true Spirit of Christmas did not cease working when Jesus grew to
be a man or when the New Testament days were over. No—this same Spirit is still alive in the lives and
hearts of God’s people…
As 2020 draws to a close and 2021 is about to begin, what will you do? Will you allow the Holy
Spirit more freedom to work in your life? Will you cooperate with the true Spirit of Christmas to be an
even more profitable servant of the Lord, helping to enlarge the Kingdom of God in our world? The
power is there. The Spirit is available to you. What will you do?
To God alone be the glory! Amen.