I often wonder about poor Joseph in all this. He thought he had his world pretty well mapped out. He had likely arrived at a position of some financial stability, enough that he could contract a marriage with an eligible young woman in his village. He arranged with her parents, signed the agreement (that is how marriages were done) and looked forward to entering what his society considered full adulthood – getting married and having children. But suddenly all that blew up on him. His fiance suddenly left to visit a relative down in Judea. Did Mary tell him why she was leaving? We don’t know. But Luke tells us that she was gone for three months. When she returned she was three months pregnant. Joseph knew that he was not the father.
It must have been with his heart roiled and perhaps more than a little broken that he lay down to sleep that night. His work as a carpenter (the word applies both to workers of wood and stone, so he might also have been a stone mason) probably left him exhausted. But could he sleep? He had settled on letting Mary out of the contract without making a fuss. In a little village in conservative Galilee exposing her adultery might have resulted in her stoning, certainly it would have exposed her and her family to shame. That is still a problem in some parts of the world even if it is not here.
That night an angel appears to him in a dream. Already we are far outside the world in which we live. But in Joseph’s world, this was not so unthinkable. The angel tells him that the child is a miracle baby of divine origin. He will be the messiah, the promised One. Joseph obeys the angelic command and marries Mary. Without claiming paternity, he will raise her child as his own. This gave Jesus important legal status in the ancient world. He was an heir of Joseph – He belonged somewhere. For people of the time, this was critically important and we know that a scurrilous charge was being circulated by the enemies of Jesus that he was illegitimate. Matthew seems to be answering that charge at some level.
We are not asking questions about Jesus legal status. What probably attracts us to this text is the fact that Joseph had a dream and believed it. Luther called that the greatest miracle of Christmas – that Mary and Joseph believed any of this. He said it was greater than the virgin birth and incarnation itself. Do we see our own faith and the faith of the folks in the pews that way?