Matthew begins Jesus’ birth narrative with a young girl named Mary who is engaged to a man named Joseph, but, before they are married, she is found to be with child. Though Matthew relates her pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit, only Mary would have known at the time. By all appearances, it is scandalous. Joseph, however, is a righteous man, wanting only to privately send her away instead of having her publicly condemned and stoned. After considering this option, however, is when the reality of what is really happening is set into his awareness.
An angel appears to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Here insight is given Joseph to see the sacred beyond the scandal. This is not Joseph’s child, but it’s not any other man’s child, either. It isn’t the result of Mary’s infidelity, random chance, or magic. This child is God at work. The angel describes the child in terms of both identity and function. Who is he? “The child…is of the Holy Spirit.” What will he do? “He will save His people from their sins.”
His function is inseparable from his identity; it is only salvation because a sovereign Savior achieves it. Commenting on what is taking place, Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophecy “’Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ which translated means ‘God with us.’”
Matthew’s intention here is to expand his readers’ imaginations with the divine reality that is becoming intimate with human reality. Having related the angel’s message of a child “of the Holy Spirit” who will “save His people from their sins”, Matthew characterizes both the child’s identity and function with Isaiah’s “Immanuel”—“God with us”.
As “God with us”, Jesus is God stepping into humanity’s story; Heaven’s righteousness is being set amongst Earth’s rebellion. In order for the sinful to be saved, salvation has to be sown into the cursed mire of all human reality so salvation-reality can fill it full, blooming into abundant Life. Jesus is that sacred seed sown in sinful soil—“God with us”.
When Joseph awoke, now aware of how God was at work in this child, he committed himself to the guardian role he’d been given, despite whatever rumors, gossip, and scorn might circulate through the community. He took Mary as his wife, kept her a virgin, and when the child was finally born, they called him Jesus, “the LORD saves”.
Joseph is the context framing this specific text. In a way, Joseph is like a stand-in for the reader. As we read, wonder, and grapple with Mary’s incredible and scandalous situation along with Joseph, his demeanor is formational in showing us how we can respond to this sacred scandal.
Jesus often comes with social stigma attached to him; the way of Jesus is littered with rumors, misinformation, eye-rolls, condescension, or evasiveness. Matthew never includes any dialogue from Joseph; perhaps this constant textual silence displays Joseph’s commitment to Jesus in a way that is quiet, yet resiliently faithful. Joseph exemplifies how to humbly trust God and just do our duty to Jesus without being boastful, defiant, or want of attention amidst the resistance. In a sense, Joseph is Jesus’ first disciple, simply by embracing God’s salvation work embodied in this child.
Discipleship does require us to responsibly respond with many active efforts, but at the heart of all our work is the humble acknowledgment that God is at work behind the scenes, especially when those scenes don’t appear how we imagined. Once our understanding is enraptured by the wonder of God working out salvation on his own terms, we are able to relax, acknowledge God as God, and devote ourselves to our daily sacred duties. For Joseph, this simply meant working his trade, providing for his family, and, at the end of the day, holding “God with us” in his arms, and wonder…