Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
– Matthew 1:18-25
This message from an angel of God must have been both terrifying and encouraging for Joseph. You see, up to this point, Joseph doesn’t know that Mary will be the mother of Jesus Christ. An angel has already appeared to her and told her that, because she had found favor with God, she would be the mother of the Messiah.
This in and of itself was amazing, but more amazing was the fact that somehow this would happen without her having known a man. Mary was still a virgin.
But she was a betrothed virgin. In first century Jewish culture that was something very similar to being engaged, but the commitment was more serious. Though they were not yet living together as man and wife, nor had they consummated the relationship, for all intents and purposes the couple was already married.
And so miraculously the Holy Spirit creates the human life that is Jesus in Mary’s womb. But she hasn’t told Joseph about any of this yet. And suddenly he stops by after work all day at his carpentry shop and notices Mary’s swollen belly. Or perhaps she had morning sickness.
Whatever the specific sign was, Joseph knew she was pregnant and he was not the father. It would have been devastating to him. And lesser men would have taken full advantage of the Law of Moses and loudly proclaimed her apparent infidelity while divorcing her – branding her for life.
But Matthew says, Joseph was not a lesser man – “And Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” No show, no desire to punish Mary for her apparent indiscretion. But being a righteous man himself, Joseph decided it would be best to break off the betrothal and pursue another woman.
Matthew says he was considering these things. You can imagine him in the shop with a plane, slowly sanding down a piece of wood, taking far longer than normal because his mind is racing about all of these things. ‘How could she do this? Why would she do this? I thought we loved each other?’
But before he is able to take action, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” She wasn’t unfaithful! God has done something miraculous.
And you have to let this hit you. This is all familiar to us, but not to Joseph! Yeas, God has supernaturally given children to couples before, but that’s just it – he did for couples. He gave fertility where there was none, but he still used the natural process of conception and birth. Never before had a virgin conceived and gave birth to a child! Imagine how complete gobsmacked Joseph would have been!
And that’s the point. God chose to send his Son into the world this way because it would have been so surprising, so startling.
There is a story that one day C. S. Lewis was sitting in his office in the English department when a friend, who was an unbeliever, wandered in. There were carolers below in the courtyard singing Christmas carols and as the two were speaking, they could hear them singing a Christmas carol that contained words about Jesus’ virgin birth.
His unbelieving friend said to Lewis, “Isn’t it good that we now know better than they did?” Lewis said, “What do you mean?” “Well, isn’t it good that we now know more than they did?” Again Lewis said, “I am afraid that you will have to explain.” He friend went on, “Well, isn’t it good that we now know that virgins don’t have babies.” C. S. Lewis looked at him incredulously and said, “Don’t you think that they knew that? That is the whole point.”
God desired for Mary and Joseph, for the shepherd and Magi, for all who would ever hear of the birth of Jesus Christ to sit up and take notice. Everyone who hears of the virgin conception either laughs as a skeptic or stands in wonder as a believer. No one ever shrugs it off.