But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’.
May is going to be a very special month for me. My wife, Claire, and I are expecting a baby. This will be our first child, and we are already busy making plans for the arrival. I’ve recently spent several days converting a spare bedroom from an office back into a bedroom. We’re reading lots and trying to work out exactly what it is that we need to buy in advance. A pushchair? A pram? A cot? An estate car? As time ticks by we find ourselves caught up in the excitement of bringing a child into the world, but also that daunting feeling of uncertainty about what we need to do.
I suspect that Mary and Joseph would have had similar feelings. For them, though, there was another factor at play. Mary and Joseph were not married, and to bring a child into the world in these circumstances, at this point in time, would have been very difficult. No doubt they would have felt the disapproving stares of their neighbours and been at the centre of much gossip. I wonder what these people would have said when Mary and Joseph told them that their baby was not the result of premarital sex, but was the consequence of a visitation from the Holy Spirit, God himself? I’m sure that many would have laughed on hearing this, and come to the conclusion that the carpenter and his fiancée had gone mad. What a bizarre excuse! Perhaps there would have been some, though, who thought that this attempt to justify the pregnancy was just too bizarre. Could there, they would have thought, perhaps be any truth in this incredible story? Surely the idea of Mary bearing God’s son was just too fanciful to be made up. Maybe those who knew their scripture would have been reminded of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, which states, “therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” They might have found themselves wondering if Mary’s pregnancy was the fulfilment of this promise. After all Joseph hadn’t left Mary. Surely if she had simply been naughty with a Roman soldier he would have quickly fled. Maybe they were telling the truth after all?
I do feel some sympathy for Joseph. Mary (quite rightly) gets a great deal of attention. Perhaps it’s worth sparing a thought for poor Joseph. Matthew clearly thought so, because he chose to tell of the origins of Christ through Joseph’s eyes. He was a good man who wanted to do the right thing by Mary, but he must have had many different thoughts and emotions running through him when he discovered his beloved Mary was expecting a child, and that he was not the father. In the midst of this trauma, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that the baby developing in Mary’s womb was ‘of the Holy Spirit’. What an astonishing revelation, not just to Joseph, but also to us. Mary’s baby did not have a human father. This child’s father was God himself. God had chosen Mary, an ordinary poor girl, to be the vessel through which he entered his creation. The Messiah, whom Matthew introduced us to in the first verse of his Gospel, was to be God himself, born through a human woman. As Isaiah predicted, Jesus would be ‘Immanuel’ – God with us.
Why did God decide to act in this remarkable way? What was the reason for him being born as a human being, the son of Mary? Matthew illuminates this for us through the words of the angel to Joseph. Mary and Joseph were to call their son Jesus, meaning ‘God saves’. In case there is any confusion over the reason for this name, the angel continues by saying that Mary and Joseph should name the child Jesus ‘because he will save his people from their sins’.
Here, then, is the reason why God sent his son, Jesus Christ. He sent him to save us from our sins, from our wrongdoings that prevent us from having a relationship with God. Ever since the fall, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, humanity had been prevented from approaching God. The Jewish people had an elaborate means of sacrifices and temple worship through which they tried to keep God’s wrath at bay, but it was impossible for them to truly know God, since their sinfulness and disobedience had resulted in a broken relationship that it was impossible to truly repair. That was until God sent Jesus. Jesus was the remedy to this situation, the solution to the problem. Through his actions, people would be saved from their sins and brought once more into a relationship with God. This is the message that the angel brought to Joseph. And this is the story that Matthew intends to recount in his Gospel.