The problem with this passage is that we know it to well. We read it every Christmas. But if we are to really understand this passage, we need to shake the jingle bells off it and see it as a testimony to faith. Consider what Joseph had to believe:
1. He had to believe that his pregnant fiancé was still a virgin. This is so ridiculous it’s laughable. It sounds like something a desperate young girl would tell her fiancé if she had been unfaithful and was trying to cover up her sins. There is no doubt that Joseph did not believe it at first. Being a good man, he was willing to put her away quietly—essentially taking the blame for her pregnancy. But at first, he believed that she not only had been unfaithful, but either crazy or a liar. To believe anything else defied common sense.
The Bible doesn’t record how much the people of Nazareth and the closest relatives and friends of Mary and Joseph knew. We don’t know what was said to them about Mary’s pregnancy, if it was well known. But it’s not a stretch of the imagination to picture what would be said. “Joseph, what are you thinking? If Mary is already unfaithful, what will she be when she gets older? If she’s claiming that God is the father of her child, what other nonsense will she put out later? Dump her!”
But Joseph did not do the sensible thing. He did the believing thing. He took Mary as his wife, and believed the message God gave him. As a result, he became the earthly father of the Messiah. His faith made it possible for Him to receive the greatest blessing a father ever had. He believed God and received his reward.
2. He had to believe that something he dreamt was the voice of God. Scientists who study dreams say they are hallucinations our brain produces while we sleep. They express the mood and feelings of our day in symbolic terms.
David Benner, a therapist and spiritual director has written about the value of dreams to reveal our inner self that our conscious mind covers. He suggests keeping a dream diary by our beds and writing down our dreams first thing in the morning. This doesn’t mean that our dreams reveal God, but just out inner thoughts. There are times in the Bible where God speaks in dreams, but most of the time, they are just our own feelings coming to the surface. The ancients knew this, just as we do today.
But Joseph believed God was speaking to him in his dream. Would you make a major decision based on a dream you had last night, when practical common sense pointed in a different direction?
God speaks to people in two ways. One way is objectively, through the Word of God and through nature and His laws. We observe what God has said or done and use our brains and common sense to interpret what we see and hear. This keeps us from following presumption and fantasy. The other way is subjectively though inner voices in our hearts. Both are important. Joseph chose to follow the inner voice in his heart revealed in a dream over common sense. Most people would say that is a little crazy.
3. He had to believe that out of this ordinary girl, God would produce the Savior of the world. Great ideas and great people seldom come out of nowhere. We need families and we need networks of cooperators to be successful. Great men and women are usually the result of generations of preparation, or the work of cooperative communities. It’s no accident that famous people have famous children, scholars have children who are scholars, and great preachers have children who are great preachers. Generations have gone into making us who we are.
We also need networks. Writers get published, because they know some publisher. Scientists must submit their ideas to peer review. Politicians get elected through political parties. The “lone wolf” or the lonely prophet seldom make a difference.
Why then would Joseph presume that a child born in an insignificant place like Nazareth, the son of a carpenter and a little girl would redeem Israel? It was a crazy idea. Even so, he believed.
His belief involved three things. First, he had to look beyond what the world thinks impossible. Second, he had to believe that God Himself would speak directly to his heart. Third, he had to believe that people who were “nobodies” could be used by God to change the world—that their own baby could be the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.
We talk a lot about people hearing God’s voice. Preachers hear from God a vision for the church. People heard from God in previous generations—the foundation of the church, the Protestant Reformation, the founding of our denomination. As a denomination we believe that elders and ministers hear God’s voice. But can we believe the same guidance when we believe God speaks in the present as He spoke in the past? Can we believe that we can hear God in the same way the apostles and prophets heard Him? Or is the voice of God only for people long ago, or for a select few today?
Think about the implications of it. If God is able to put an idea inside the brain of Joseph, then he is able to do it to us. He can inspire us to believe and do, the same way he did to Joseph and Mary. God is with them, but the child they brought into the world is called Immanuel—God with us. He is still with us.
I have never believed that faith was one of my most prominent. Faith doesn’t come easy to me. When I hear God’s voice, I usually regard it with suspicion and skepticism. But this passage teaches me something. God really can speak, and the voice inside my head in a dream can really be a Divine message. God can make ordinary people like us part of His cosmic plan. He really can and does speak to us.
The virgin birth is a one-time miracle that will never be repeated. But something similar can and does happen all the time to believers across the world. God can conceive in us an idea and put it in our heads, just like He put Jesus in Mary’s womb.
It may be an idea with no human source, to someone who has no legitimate credentials to carry it. It can be an idea that comes directly from God. It doesn’t come, because we are smart, or because we have the right upbringing, or because someone else has put it in us. In fact, if we think that the idea is the result of our wisdom or experience, it isn’t from God. But God can put in us a thought or feeling that comes directly from Him. It may defy logic, but it is real and we need to obey.
We know God’s voice, not because it’s practical, but because it isn’t. It doesn’t match what we would ordinarily do. When we see a problem, we solve it using our education, experience and common sense. If we can fix it ourselves, that is good, but it is no miracle. We have simply used the tools at hand, and the glory for solving it is ours. That’s enough for people without God—find a need, fix it, take the glory for it.
But if there is a need without an earthly solution, then God must solve it. When things are humanly impossible is where miracles occur. We can’t solve our children’s problems, for example. So the only place we can look to is for God. When something happens with no earthly solution, then the miracle comes from God and He gets all the glory. Our cleverness and self-assurance doesn’t help miracles to happen, and they just get in the way. Real miracles are virgin births, coming out of the barrenness of our soul. God births a solution in us where there is none. Others may not hear the voice we hear, but God is there. If He can cause a child to grow in a virgin, He can cause a new idea to grow in an old heart.
God speaks to us inside our hearts. My scholar and educator friends hate this. In scholarship all truth must be verified. They are right to say this. There are a lot of crazy people in the world who think they have heard from God, but haven’t. But how could Joseph verify a voice of a dream? He could only believe or not believe.
Notice the first thing the voice said to Joseph “Do not be afraid.” It didn’t say people would believe them. It didn’t say everything was going to work out the way they hoped. It didn’t say they wouldn’t be rejected by their family and have to sleep in a stable. The voice of God simply said, “Don’t be afraid. This is from me.” God doesn’t give details. He just says, ‘Do this and don’t be afraid.”
The GPS on my phone gives me directions when I drive. I can’t read the map and drive at the same time, so a nice lady’s voice says, “Turn left,” and I turn left. She says “turn right” and I turn right. She says, “Stop,” so I stop. God doesn’t give us a map. He just gives me directions today. I don’t know what the next turns are going to be. That’s all he needed to know. I must trust the subjective, internal voice of God in my inner being.
God’s message to Joseph’s did show him a destination, though. God told him that this child would fulfill Biblical prophecy and be the savior of the world. He and Mary were nobodies, but to God, they were very, very important. When we look at ourselves objectively, we can’t see what God is capable of doing.
Don’t try to measure your worth by looking at what you are or what people think of you. Measure your worth by God’s love for you. It is God who works through you and in you.
The child who is coming was given two names—one by Isaiah and one by his parents. Both names came from God. He is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He is also Jesus, which means “Salvation.” Mary and Joseph aren’t better than anyone else—they are just the ones who bore the God and salvation into the world.
And so are you. You bear in yourself the Spirit of God. Do you have faith to believe this? Can you accept that you might bear God’s word to the people around you, that the Spirit of Christ within you is greater than all the power of this earth?
This is a small church with a lot of problems. Sometimes, they seem insurmountable. But our problems don’t matter. All that matters is that you can deliver God’s love to others. You are not nobody. You are the holy ones of God. As long as you are here, God is with you.
Don’t despise small things. When Bach was selected to be the church organist, the committee complained that they had to settle for second best. When Fred Astaire was given a screen test, a reviewer said, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can dance a little.” The world doesn’t know what it has, but God does. Wherever God is working there is a miracle. You are a miracle of God.
Expect miracles, and God will give them. Expect the ordinary and that’s what you get. God has great things for you if you believe.