Can you blame Joseph for doubting Mary? If a woman said she was pregnant and no man was involved in any way, would you believe her? Sometimes a person’s claim may be surprising, but believable. At other times they go beyond surprising to being unbelievable.
We are not explicitly told what Mary said to Joseph, but it is unimaginable that she would not have shared about the angel visitation we read about in the Gospel of Luke. We do learn how Joseph responds to the surprising pregnancy:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Matthew 1:18-19
Joseph was a righteous man, and the right thing to do was get out of the betrothal. Joseph was also a good man, and the good thing to do was to get out of the betrothal quietly so that Mary would not be exposed to scorn and disgrace. Joseph is also a reasonable man, and the reasonable thing to think is that Mary is covering up a lack of faithfulness with an angel story. That is the most reasonable explanation. At least until an angel shows up:
But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:20-21
So Joseph believes the surprising news, with some help. But what about us? Why would we trust this one account of a virgin conception, and no other? Joseph, so we are told, had the evidence of an angel to help him believe. Is there anything that will help us know that the Christmas story does not cross the line from surprising to unbelievable?
History helps us believe the Christmas miracle is true and reasonable.
Can anything make the surprising story of Christmas believable in our scientific age?
Doesn’t science tell us that belief in such a conception is unreasonable? First, we should recognize that science is limited in its subject matter to what can be seen and observed in some way. Therefore, there are two kinds of facts not available to science; spiritual and historical. You will never be able to “see” God out in space no matter how powerful your telescope. God simply is not in our realm that we should see Him. Also, you cannot “observe” events that have already happened. When we want to know about history we turn to historians, not scientists.
Knowing that science does not specialize in spiritual or historical facts, let us now consider the Bible. The Bible primarily speaks not about science, but about spiritual and historical truths. The Bible records for us historical events that speak about the relationship of God with people. Now let us consider that history very briefly. God created a world of great order and beauty. God created humanity for relationship. Humanity fell out of relationship with God having rebelled against Him. However, God did not give up on a relationship with humanity, rather He made loving promises which we find throughout the Old Testament. The only way God could keep those promises was through dealing with the sin that separates us from Him. The only way to deal with sin while maintaining both perfect justice and grace, is through becoming the suitable sacrifice Himself. The only way to become that sacrifice is for God to be “killable,” to be “crucifiable.” The only way to do that is to become incarnate:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:4-6 (emphasis added)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 (emphasis added)
This is what we celebrate at Christmas. God Himself was “born in human likeness,” “born of a woman,” through God the Son, Jesus. When you follow the history of humanity’s relationship with God, then of course there would be a virgin conception. How else could the events of Easter be effective in reconciling us to God except by the event of Christmas? And of course, such historical events, both Christmas and Easter, would only happen once. So yes, virgins do not conceive, and dead men are not raised from the dead (yet). But these things did happen this one time. The history between God and humanity, as recorded by many different people, over many centuries, leads us to consider that the virgin conception is not just believable, it is not even that surprising!
Jesus helps us believe the Christmas miracle is true and reasonable.
Look at the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is all unique. Look at the impact of Jesus on the world and individual lives. He is unique. He is widely held to be the greatest figure in history. If your Mum told you one day that that you were conceived without a man, is there anything about you or your life that would make you believe her? Are you unique in some way, or in many ways, that such an announcement would suddenly make sense of everything else about you? Of course not! But ask the same question about Jesus.
Consider what the apostles were saying about Jesus following the events of Easter. To give a summary, “Jesus rose from the dead, we knew him, we heard his teaching, we saw his miracles, we experienced him as being someone, or rather Someone unique. He is both the promised Messiah and Lord.” They were not going around talking primarily about the virgin both, and oh, by the way, he also died and rose again. Rather, he, as the impressive and unique figure that we experienced him to be, died and rose again, oh, and as you might expect, even his birth was unique. Too many people dismiss the story of Christmas without really considering the whole story of Jesus.
What makes a unique conception believable is the fact that Jesus himself is unique in every way. What makes Jesus believable, is the fact that he fits with what God had promised to do. The good news of Jesus, though surprising in some ways, fits the fact that “God is love.” Therefore the Christmas story is not only believable, it is not that surprising after all.
For Joseph the news of the baby was surprising, even unbelievable. But Joseph, with some help, trusted and good things happened. When we trust God good things happen. We might not have an angel appearance in a dream, but we do have history and Jesus as evidence that the story of Christmas is reasonable and true.
(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)