I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not, but some people have a hard time believing in the virginal conception of Jesus. If you are one of them, you are in good company. Joseph had his doubts, too.
Want a Christmas paradox? Joseph is and is not the child’s father. He’s more than a human place holder for the Holy Spirit. We know Joseph is a decent person and of his trust in God’s peculiar ways from Matthew. In Luke he’s merely a quiet member of the holy couple. The Creeds fail to remember he was part of the family. Angel Gabriel announces good news to Mary in our stained glass window. Notice, Joseph is missing.
Here’s Joseph’s problem. Mary’s engaged to him, and she’s pregnant – and Joseph is not the father. According to the law, Joseph could publicly expose Mary as, well, let’s nicely say – an unfaithful girl – or can quietly file for a no-fault divorce. Being righteous and kind – the sort of son who calls his mother on Sunday afternoons, he decides not to humiliate his betrothed. The righteous thing is to drop it, and get on with life. Let her family and friends deal with her.
God has other plans, like sending Joseph an annunciation in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” why does an angel say that? Joseph knows his kin. That’s said for us. God promised David Messiah will come from his line. God keeps promises. Joseph, a devoted Bible student would know that. We must be reminded. “Do not be afraid” – which means, “If you are not yet afraid, you will be when I’m finished.” Here’s God’s word: “Now son, go ahead and marry Mary.” Either Joseph doesn’t know what’s going on, or does and he’s suspicious. “Listen carefully. Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him, Jesus.” The name is important. Jesus means “save.” God is so invested in our salvation and redemption, Jesus removes all obstacles separating us from God. We don’t go looking for God. God comes after us. That’s what the next name, “Emmanuel,” means: “God with us.” That’s why Isaiah tells King Ahaz – “That young pregnant woman over there, her boy to be born will remind you, God is with you, Emmanuel.” The “young woman” of Isaiah is now the virgin named Mary. God keeps coming to us – for us. Joseph is crucial. If Joseph wakes up and thinks, “Oh, it must be something I ate for supper,” the project derails.
Joseph takes a leap of faith. He trusts that in his dream God has come to be with him. That’s all we can safely conclude here. He will say: “This is my boy,” when the child is presented at the Temple. He says it and by Jewish law, Jesus is his son. Throw biology out. Joseph doesn’t do the lawfully righteous thing. He goes further. And that’s miraculous. He sets aside his mistrust and reputation to trust God’s word to him.
Each Sunday we say that Jesus became incarnate from the Virgin Mary. I know people who cross their fingers because they don’t honestly mean it. That’s okay. But how do we say what we cannot explain? Before I left for seminary, my piano teacher, daughter of a minister, warned me: “Don’t you let them take away your belief in the Virgin Mary.” I hadn’t known I had an option until she said that. I’ve learned some Christians think if you don’t believe Jesus is born of a virgin your faith is null and void – even though Jesus never asks a disciple or anyone, “What do you think about my momma?”
A parish member who was a prominent university professor of epidemiology once explained to some of us lowly ones, how it’s possible for a virgin to make a baby, without help from God or man. I hope they never let him teach sex education. Honestly, he made no sense to me, scientifically or theologically. Hearing his explanation, I’d take Matthew and Luke’s account any day – miraculous mystery and all. The older I get, and the more I realize I don’t know, the less likely I look to science or logic to explain God’s work. I am more inclined to believe if God can make this world from nothing, God can make a unique human apart from sex. For God to show up among us in flesh and blood – that’s pretty darn miraculous. I think the bigger miracle here may be that God is with us, as the angel says and Joseph learns, stuck with a mess he didn’t create to finish what God got started. That’s what finally matters. Matthew is more concerned we know that in this child, God draws near to be with us.
Life can get messy when God comes to be with us. We’re not nearly as inclined toward God as God is toward us. Be forewarned, God comes not just in Jesus, but to create and recreate the world in us and with us. Christmas is the celebration of God with us, continually creating – new lives, new hearts, new desires, new faith, new dreams, new possibilities where there are none – in all who make a place for him in our lives. God gives – we respond.
So open your eyes. Listen for all God is doing – to save us all from our sin and fears. It takes the divine and human cooperation. Had God not been working behind the scenes – and Mary gets engaged to the town bozo, where would we be? Remember – the God who is in control is the God of love, forever with us. Look, the virgin conceives and bears a son, Emmanuel – God with us. That’s all you need to know.