The Christmas Ghost
Preached by Jason Abbott
In recent years, the American cinema has cashed in on stories about ghosts. These movies have been incredibly diverse in genre. There have been romantic ghost movies (e.g. Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost), inspirational films about ghosts (e.g. Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams), and comedic ghost movies (e.g. the 1984 blockbuster film Ghost Busters).
Yet, despite the wide range of genres listed, most movies about ghosts are (by far!) meant to scare us. Ghost movies overwhelmingly fit into the horror genre. People predominantly fear the idea of ghosts. And, this isn’t just a fictitious fear. Some studies indicate that just about one third of Americans believe in ghosts.1 Furthermore, there are really a ridiculous number of websites and online societies which are dedicated to discussions about ghosts. (Simply Google the term “ghost” and see for yourself.)
As I was researching folklore about ghosts for this sermon (yes, you paid me to do that), I encountered a whole lot of discussion which revolved around whether or not ghosts could really harm people; and, as I read, the overwhelming answer from ghost “experts” seemed to be that they could not really hurt us.
But to this I’d say, hogwash. First, if you experience something paranormal, it’s not likely good—or even neutral—but evil. The Bible would warn you that it’s in all likelihood demonic. Second, there’s a very real danger in getting distracted by ghosts, since studying them may keep us from the eternal life-giving knowledge which only the Holy Spirit can bring us—the knowledge that leads to redemption in Christ Jesus. Therefore, being distracted can actually be the most dangerous and harmful thing in the world.
For this reason, rather than focusing our attention on ghosts that bring fear, we’re going to focus our attention this morning on the Ghost who conquers fear. We are going to focus our attention on the Holy Spirit’s role in bringing salvation to us through the incarnation—through the birth of the God-man, Jesus.
Let’s begin by reading the passage and then pray that God would teach us about his Christmas Ghost. You can find today’s text on page 911.
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
As we look at today’s passage, we’ll look at two works of the Holy Spirit—this Christmas Ghost: (1st) we’ll look at the Spirit’s mysterious work with Jesus, and (2nd) we’ll look at the Spirit’s wonderful work with you, if you’re a Christian. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. The Christmas Ghost and Jesus (vv. 18, 20)
As we begin, let me confess that I’ll be leaning heavily on mystery here. When we’re talking about the incarnation, about the everlasting and limitless Son of God being united to a human body as a baby boy in Mary’s womb, we’re talking about one of the most profound miracles ever. We’re dabbling in a divine mystery! Thus, some answers will be beyond us.
And let me point out that that is exactly what you’d expect when wrestling with the mind of God. Those who come to Scripture expecting to find easy answers at every turn have come with the hope of finding a small god. But, the type of god whom we can sum up and pin to a page is really not God at all. If you have a god without mystery, you really have a god of your own making.
Whenever I’m talking to Mike Aiken about his theological master’s thesis, I’m good for about 35 seconds. What I mean is for about 35 seconds I understand what Mike’s talking about. And isn’t this precisely what you’d expect when talking to an expert in a given area. You’d expect some of the things he or she knows to be above you—to remain mysterious to you.
Friends, if this is what we would expect when we encounter a human expert, why wouldn’t we expect something even greater whenever we encounter the God of all creation—when the Lord explains his ways to us? No, as we encounter God, we should expect mysteries.
And that’s what we find here with the work of the Spirit in the incarnation. How does the Son of God become man? Well look at how Matthew answers:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (vv. 18-20).
For any wanting to know the chemical and physical methods involved here, for those wanting the instruction manual for incarnation, Matthew (as well as Luke in his account) gives a dissatisfying answer—the Holy Spirit.
How does the Immortal become mortal? The Holy Spirit.
How does the Creator become creature? The Holy Spirit.
How does God—who existed before time and space began to exist— begin now to exist suddenly as a man inside time and space? The Spirit.
In speaking about the account of the incarnation Luke gives in his gospel, John Piper explains that the angel Gabriel’s answer, to a bewildered virgin Mary, concerning how she could be pregnant was a simple answer: “the Holy Spirit.” Piper then goes on to correctly note: “Beyond this, revelation does not go.”2
So we must be content, at this point, with the mystery of how this happened. We must be content with the simple answer—the Holy Spirit did it.
Yet, not knowing how something happened doesn’t keep us from knowing what that something that happened is. In other words, we don’t know how God put on flesh, but we do know that God put on flesh. We do know the work of the Spirit in the womb of Mary was mysteriously somehow making the eternal Son of God into the man, Jesus Christ.
We do know as Colossians 2:9 says that in Christ all the fullness of God lives in bodily form, and that that miracle happened through the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb some 2,000 years ago. And this is important to know!
I just finished reading a book filled with tales of mysterious transformations, stories about people radically altering their successful lives in order to serve others in humble ways.3 And these stories push back against the wisdom of our world.
- Like the story of a young man named Daniel who graduated from college with honors and two lucrative job offers before him but didn’t take them because he felt the need to serve impoverished people around the world.
- Like the story of Ed and Patty who had finally reached their retirement which they imagined would be all about them doing things they wanted. But, instead, they decided to change plans and spend their retirement doing disaster relief wherever there was a need.
Friends, in each case, I’m sure there were people who saw what happened but wondered why it happened. I’m sure there were family members or friends who witnessed the transformation which took place in Daniel, Ed, and Patty’s lives but couldn’t calculate what caused it.
And there were probably even some who asked: Why are you doing this? But just as with those who would want the instruction manual for the incarnation, these people would have likely been dissatisfied with the answer they received from Daniel and Ed and Patty. A mysterious, simple answer—Jesus Christ did it.
Friends, we may not know how this Christmas Ghost—this Holy Spirit— united the eternal Son of God to human flesh, but we do know and see the results whenever we witness people being transformed through his good news message—transformed by trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man.
Consequently, I must ask you the $1,000,000 question: How is the mystery of the incarnation being revealed in your life? If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, how are you engendering radical transformation which signals the reality of Christ in you—of the Holy Spirit in you?
We are blessed to have a number of young professionals in this church. How are you looking at your career prospects? How are you doing life? Does it signal the self-sacrifice and humility of the incarnation to others? Would your life leave them asking why?
There are many here who are in retirement or approaching retirement. What does that time in life represent to you? Are you finally off the clock for Jesus when you retire? Or would the way in which you use this time of your life be a beautiful mystery to your family and friends—a mystery which signals Christ in you to them?
We have to move on now but please don’t neglect to ask these kinds of hard and introspective questions of yourself. They’re a vital part of following the Lord in obedience, of seeing the mystery of Christ working in you (Colossians 1:27). Well, let’s turn finally to our second theme.
2. The Christmas Ghost and you
I mentioned at the beginning of our time that we’d be focusing on the Ghost who conquers fear as opposed to ghosts who create fear. So I want to do that now. And to do that, I want to ask you what you’re afraid of. Just think about your fears for a moment.
Maybe you are afraid of losing a loved one.
Maybe you are afraid of losing your job or your social status.
Maybe you are afraid of facing your own death.
These are all things that people are commonly afraid of. And they are scary. But, in reality, the Bible tells us that there are things far scarier than these things. There are more fearful things than these. Jesus made this clear when he said:
. . . do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
What does Jesus mean here? Well, he’s talking about the wrath of the Lord. He’s saying that God’s wrath (bar none!) is the most fearful thing in the world. Thus, in comparison, all other fears are minor.
But here’s where the Holy Spirit intervenes.
If the mysterious job of the Christmas Ghost in the incarnation was to unite, in the person of Jesus Christ, both divinity and humanity, then the mysterious work of that same Spirit in you and me is to unite our humanity to God. In other words, the Holy Spirit mysteriously takes God and unites God to humanity in Jesus Christ and, then, mysteriously takes humanity and unites humanity to God in Jesus Christ. This is the good news that conquers our greatest fears!
Just look at what the Apostle Paul says about the Spirit’s work:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption…by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:14-15).
As children of God, we are no longer under his wrath but, rather, in his love through the work of Jesus Christ. We can boldly call God our Father at any time and with any need. And this is how the Holy Spirit begins to cast out fear in us.
Friends, when you contemplate the mystery of this Christmas Ghost’s work in the incarnation, be encouraged, because even though we don’t know precisely how he was putting flesh upon the Son of God, we do know that that was precisely what he did. And we do know that that was the start of our salvation through faith in Christ—a salvation that makes us the heirs of God.
Jonathan Edwards—the great 18th century American theologian—marveled at this divine truth. So let me close with his words concerning the infinite glory that is ours through our union with Christ, a mysterious union worked by the Spirit in order to cast out fear. Edwards writes of our riches in Christ:
God three in one, all that he is, and all that he has, and all that he does, all that he has made or done—the whole universe, bodies and spirits, earth and heaven, angels, men and devil, sun moon [and] stars, land and sea, fish and fowls, all the silver and gold, kings and potentates…are as much the Christian’s as the money in his pocket . . . by virtue of his union with Christ . . .4
Or, as Paul simply writes, in his letter to the Romans:
I consider that the sufferings [or all that we fear] of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us [who are in Christ] (8:18).
Friends, may the mystery of the incarnation give you courage this Christmas, and may this Christmas Spirit, this Holy Spirit, give you confidence, as he more and more and more unites you to the Savior—Jesus Christ. Be led by the Ghost who casts out fear! Will you pray with me?