The message of Christmas is so simple and powerful—the eternal Word of God becomes our kind of flesh—that we can easily slide unthinkingly over some of the surprising preliminaries. An example is Joseph's dilemma and its resolution by a dream. Here is a good Jewish man engaged to be married, and he learns that his bride has become pregnant before they have come together. The Law, specifically Deuteronomy 22:23-27, treats such a fact as adultery and calls for the stoning to death of the engaged woman and the guilty male. As a keeper of the Law, Joseph realizes that, given the apparent facts, he must divorce Mary (though death by stoning does not seem a likely outcome at this time). But rather than expose her to the shame of public trial, he decides to divorce her privately. Before he gets a chance to do this, however, he has a dream in which the angel of the Lord tells him that the conception is by the Holy Spirit. Further, he is told to name the child Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.”
We are so accustomed to the message to Joseph that we miss the astounding claim that this child will perform a divine act of saving and that the saving will be from nothing less than sin itself. That should stop us in our Advent tracks. Nothing like that was ever said of any Old Testament hero. This is a claim of divine presence as bold as the prologue of the Fourth Gospel. If we are in any doubt that Matthew means us to hear it that way, his own comment in the next verse confirms it.
Matthew finds in Isaiah 7 words that, applied to Jesus, leap beyond their original context. Isaiah, in his day, was speaking of a young woman giving birth and naming her child Immanuel. Matthew delights in the fact that the Greek Bible translates almah (“young woman”) with parthenos (“virgin”), thereby making the words an especially apt description of Jesus’ origin. What is more, the name given to the child in Isaiah 7, Immanuel (“With-us-God”), applies to Jesus in a way neither Isaiah nor Ahaz, his interlocutor, could have guessed. Let's linger with the wonder of the message to Joseph as we move toward the celebration of God-come-to-save-us from our sins in the flesh of Jesus.