Virgins don’t conceive. At least ordinarily. It’s a biological fact, a basic fact of life. This isn’t some modern discovery of which ancient people were unaware. Joseph was not dumb. He was a businessman, a builder from Nazareth. Businessmen, as a rule, are common sense, practical people. They may chase a dream or two, but only so far as it proves successful. Joseph was quite aware of how babies were conceived, and when Mary, to whom he was betrothed, turned up pregnant, he assumed the logical thing. And he resolved to do the just and reasonable thing, to let her out of the marriage contract so that she would be free to quietly go off and marry the father of her child without prejudice.
To picture this correctly in your mind you have to adjust a few things you might believe about the Christmas story. First off, Mary was quite young, perhaps as young as 14, Luther speculated. Certainly no older than 18. And Joseph was likely older, perhaps considerably older. Tradition supports this as does the fact that we don’t hear anything about Joseph in the Gospels after Jesus is 12 years old. He simply disappears from the pages of Scripture. He’s not at the wedding at Cana. He’s not there to take charge of Jesus when the family feared his safety. He’s not there in the synagogue when Jesus came to Nazareth to preach. And he’s not there at the cross where Jesus entrusts Mary to His disciple John. So if you picture Joseph as an old man and Mary as quite young, the scene comes into sharp and rather unromantic relief. Joseph suspects that Mary has a boyfriend more her own age, and for the good of all involved, she should go off and marry him and live happily ever after.
I don’t picture Joseph as “brokenhearted” or crestfallen here. He’s simply a man who wants to do the right thing. We don’t know how he and Mary came to be engaged. It was probably arranged by the families. We don’t know if they are “in love,” but that’s a modern concept. People didn’t marry out of love in those days. What we do know is that Joseph was not only a just man; he was a reasonable and sane man. He knew that virgins do not conceive. It just doesn’t happen that way. And he’s not about to take some young girl’s word for it. Can you imagine how that would sound? “Joseph, it’s not what you think. An angel named Gabriel came to me and told me that I would have a child by the Holy Spirit who would be the Christ, the Savior, and His name would be Jesus.” If any of us heard that from one of our daughters, you can be sure we would not be singing a Doxology and a Te Deum in praise to God.
It takes an angel appearing in a dream to convince Joseph that things aren’t as they appear to be. The Word of the Lord had to overrule his reason and senses, not to mention his common sense. “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. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
There was a prophecy buried under 700 years of Israelite dust. The prophecy of Immanuel. The prophet Isaiah spoke it to the faithless King Ahaz concerning the double threat of Syria and the northern kingdom. Ahaz was tempted to negotiate a deal with Egypt to boost his military might and his inventory of war horses, but Isaiah’s advice was to sit still and wait, trusting in the Lord. And even though Ahaz didn’t want a sign, Isaiah gave him one anyway: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” In other words, in nine months, the time it takes for a young woman to conceive and bear a son, Ahaz would know “Immanuel,” God is with us. And Isaiah even goes on to say that before little Immanuel is twelve years old, in twelve short years, the two kings Ahaz dreaded, the kings of Syria and Ephraim would be no more. But because he would not trust the Lord, something worse would come – the king of Assyria. Reject Immanuel and you get destruction. Reject the God who is with us, and you will be destroyed for there is salvation in no one else.
Ahaz didn’t trust the Word and cast aside the Lord’s sign of Immanuel. He got his destruction instead. Instead of Immanuel, he got Isaiah’s son – Maher Shalal Hash Baz – speedy spoil and swift destruction. And the Immanuel-Word through Isaiah sat there dormant for centuries, like a forgotten seed planted in the soil. But when God speaks, the thing is bound to happen sooner or later, “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” And one marvelous day, an angel appeared to a young girl named Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, and said to her, “Guess what? You’re it!” The Lord is with you. Immanuel! God is with us. The Word has become flesh in the womb of the virgin. Immanuel!
The promise actually goes back a lot further than Isaiah and Ahaz. It goes all the way back to the Garden, to Adam and Eve, to their fall into disobedience and death, and the threat that was a promise: I will make enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and hers. Her seed. Odd. Normally it is his seed. The seed of the man that begets a child. But no man is involved here. Only the woman. Only a daughter of Eve as bearer of the Promise. The Promised Seed is conceived without a man, precisely because it was through a man that Sin and Death entered this world. Adam’s sin is humanity’s sin. And for there to be salvation to the children of Adam, there needs to be a second Adam, one who is “bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh” but without Sin. And so a virgin must conceive and bear a son. There is no other way to avoid the trap of Adam’s sin except to leave Adam entirely out of the picture. The virgin must conceive.
God must take the initiative. He must do the work. We cannot save ourselves. The virgin conception of Jesus says precisely this. It silences all of our claims, our efforts, our choices, our doing. You cannot rescue yourself from Sin and Death.
Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh –
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.
Joseph believed and he acted. There isn’t a single word of Joseph recorded in the Scriptures. Mary has her Magnificat, but Joseph has no song. His song is his action. “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” He took this pregnant virgin girl as his wife, and he gave her Child the name Jesus, as told by the angel, and he raised that Child as his own. He is silent, faithful fatherhood. He is faithful, full of faith, trusting the Word, he does what the angel tells him to do. And this wouldn’t be the last time. He flees to Egypt at the word of an angel in a dream. He goes up to Nazareth after Herod dies, again by what he hears in a dream. This silent dreamer, this faithful man, is a picture of faith in action. He allows the Word to trump his reason, his common sense, his knowledge. He is captive to the Word, and he serves to provide and protect the Word become flesh.
You too are virgin conceived and born. You may not think of it in those terms, but you are. You are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of your virgin mother, the church, in Baptism. Born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.” Born of water and Spirit. Born from above in a new and heavenly birth that gives birth to spirit, to the new man, the “inner man,” hidden from view but known to God. Don’t expect the Word to come to you in dreams (though God has spoken that way to some). Don’t expect an angel to deliver the message (though God has spoken that way too). You have His Word just as surely, and even more certainly, than Joseph with his dreams and Mary with her angelic visitor.
You have the Word of Christ delivered to you through His office. You have His Word of forgiveness. You have His baptismal Word, recreating and renewing you. You have His Supper-Word, sustaining and keeping you with heavenly food and drink. Your reason and senses, science and logic, cannot deliver these things to you. They’re not made for that. And that doesn’t mean that you become some kind of superstitious mystic chasing every dream and seeking after angels. Joseph silently did his vocation as provider and protector of his family, which happened to include “Immanuel,” God’s Son and our Savior.
Each year at this time we retell the story, the story of an old man and a young girl, of angelic visitors and troubling dreams late at night, of an extraordinary Child born into this world by way of a virgin mother. And each year with the retelling the story seems at once real and unreal. The characters are real and act true to form. Mary wonders “How can this be?” Joseph knows how this can be and resolves to let his bride-to-be marry the father of her child. Their reactions are what we would expect from sane, rational, reasonable people. But the Word of God is at work here. It intrudes, it inconveniences, it rearranges things. A virgin conceives and bears a Son. The Son dies and rises from the dead bearing the world’s Sin. Sinners are baptized into Him and are justified before God for His sake. All because the Word is at work, and with God and His Word nothing is impossible. Improbable. Unlikely. But not impossible. With God nothing is impossible.
We stand on the threshold of another Christmas. Christmas comes with all sorts of expectations and obligations. Family, friends, food. Every year there is the uneasy culture clash of “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” and manger scenes in public places. We are reminded that this Child born of the Virgin brings conflict into a world of conflict. He stirs up trouble. He will not let the world wallow in its Sin, Death, and Decay. He has come to grab hold of it and rescue it. While His entrance is quiet and subtle, announced by angels, the impact of His conception is enormous. The Word became Flesh. The fullness of Deity dwells in utero. That’s what Christmas is at its heart. This is the core of what has distractedly become the “holiday season.” God snuck into the world in a most wonderful and wondrous way. And He didn’t just rearrange the furniture a bit. He grabbed the whole thing and took it through death to life.
And the point of it all – the dreams, the angels, the Virgin, her Child, the manger, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, the glory – is to save you.
In the Name of Jesus,