When the Spirit Comes

Before Jesus was born, we are told that the Angel Gabriel paid two visits, one to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) and one to Mary the mother of Jesus. In both cases, the angel announced that they would be vehicle of God’s action in the world. In speaking to Mary Gabriel says:

Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him 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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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 1:30-35).

We can over-spiritualize what is happening here and miss an important point about discipleship: Gabriel does not say, “Relax,  Mary: God by the Holy Spirit is going to do this no matter what you do, so stand aside and watch.” Gabriel says, “You will conceive and give birth to a son….” In explanation he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” We sometimes miss the importance of the “you.”

The Holy Spirit does indeed work in our world. It works through “you” and me, everyone who is open to the power of God and willing to step out in faith. For a long time, I wanted to go into full-time ministry, but I did not do anything but pray that God would allow me to do that thing. Nothing happened. It was only when I applied to seminaries and took steps to move in the direction God was leading that the power of the Holy Spirit became evident in the situation.

At one point in The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr says,

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of God dwelling within human beings But this indwelling Spirit never means the destruction of human self-hood. There is therefore a degree of compatibility and continuity between human self-hood and the Holy Spirit. [1]

In other words, when God acts by the power of the Holy Spirit, God acts in and through a human being whose personality, strengths, capacities and weaknesses are known and accepted by God. What is done will be both the act of the person and of God, just as the birth of Jesus was the act of God in and through Mary.

This Christmas season, as we reflect and ponder what God has done in the past, we might ask perhaps the most important question of life: O God, what can I do so that you send your Spirit upon me, so that your kingdom may be more perfectly present in our world?”

We become the people God wishes for us to be as we allow God to act in our sin and weakness that the power of God be seen “in us.” Then, we can say with the Apostle Paul: “God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 99.