Joseph: Dealing with Disbelief at Christmas

Matthew 1:18-25

The dilemma

Joseph is engaged to be married to Mary.  He is a man in love.  Looking forward to the day when they can share life together in marriage.  He is a good man.  Matthew tells us that he was a just man.  A righteous man.  That means he was an observant Jew, who has kept the law.  He has a high sense of moral ethics. Not only in sexual matters, but in every other area of his life.   He has been named after his ancestor Joseph one of the sons of ancient Jacob.  That Joseph too was a man of deep integrity. He was a man who kept faith with his master as well as his God. (Remember Joseph being chased by Potiphar’s wife?)  Joseph, who is engaged to Mary, is a man of similar character. In fact, he is such a good man that God seems to have very little difficulty trusting this man in the raising of the Christ child.

But then he hears the word.  Mary is pregnant.  He knows that he is not responsible. Imagine the shock, the disbelief, the anger, and the sense of betrayal that rises up within him.

Charles Waugaman has written a play for two voices. It was printed in Christianity Today magazine, in the December 4,1964 issue.  Let me read it to you. I have made some minor adjustments to it. The setting is the carpenter’s shop where Joseph is working.  At the moment the play begins, Mary enters the shop…


Mary               Joseph dear?

Joseph             Yes?

Mary               I’m back, at last!

Joseph             I am so glad.

Mary               Are you? Why do you look away: Why do you turn your back to me?  I had expected you would smile at least when I returned from being gone so long.

Joseph             And I expected you would let me know the instant you returned.  Yet one whole day has passed since you arrived.  I learned this from friends, less than an hour ago.  No word of coming, none you had arrived.  In fact, you gave no warning when you planned to go.  And was Elizabeth so pressed for help you had to stay away from me three months?  Do you not know how day after day my arms have ached to hold you?

Mary               I know too well, my dear.  

Joseph             Then satisfy their hunger for you now. 

Mary               No!  No, there’s something you must hear before I can.  But words to tell it all, evade my tongue, and when they do come, desire will die!

Joseph             Nothing could drive this hunger from my soul.

Mary               If such a feeling lives, after you know my wonder, I shall stay warm in your arms forever.

Joseph             Mary, you torture me.  It’s been so long…

Mary               It is so long!  But I must tell you of something more wonderful and awesome than our love, that’s come to me.  But I do not know the words to use to tell you.

Joseph             You form your words like riddles, Mary, nothing making sense; unless my mind’s more clumsy than I thought.

Mary               He came the day before I left.  I was in the garden, waiting for your coming – we were to meet at dusk …

Joseph             How well I remember.

Mary               And I was thinking only of your love as I was drawing water from the well when suddenly a face was reflected there like flame; and words like music echoed my name.

Joseph             Mary, your face is radiant!

Mary               His hair was rainbows, and the new-fallen snow would look dull against the white robes that clothed his mighty frame.  “My name is Gabriel,” he said. “Do not be afraid.”  Joseph, He said other things …But, how can I speak them so you’ll understand?

Joseph             Just try!  Mary, please try.  I need to know the truth.  If there is someone who has claimed your heart beyond my power…

Mary               Joseph, I love you!  This person was no man.  He came from God.  You know how every girl has dreamed that she might be the mother of the one who’d set our people free from servitude to Rome.   I never dared to think that honour could be mine; but that is what this messenger announced.

Joseph             Mary!  You mean that you will be …

Mary               Messiah is to be my child.

Joseph             You knew and never said a word to me?

Mary               I knew, and never said.

Joseph             What about your family?  Did they know?

Mary               I could not speak a word to anyone till I was sure.  They would have scorned me.  Or laughed.  And though I gave consent to what the angel said, I doubted it would ever come to be.  Think how my friends would react if I professed to be God’s holy choice, and nothing happened.  I had to be sure; so I locked that marvel deep within my heart and fled away to see my cousin. Gabriel told me that she was to bear, in her old age, the child to herald mine.

Joseph             Such news!  I do not wonder you could not believe.  But, Mary, I should have been told at once this thrilling news.  To think my son has been ordained of God to free his land.

Mary               Not your son, Joseph – mine.

Joseph             Or rather ours, we might more truly say.  Come to my arms, my love.

Mary               Wait, my Joseph, wait, I fear you do not understand at all.  The message came three months ago, and I already hold the child near my heart.

Joseph             What’s this?  Three months?  Already hold …  Oh God! God, of our fathers, what is this you say?  If this is true how can my love preserve your life against our law?  Mary!  Mary, I thought you loved me, but I was wrong!

Mary               You don’t understand.

Joseph             I understand enough to know that you have devastated me!

Mary               This thing has come of God.  I have loved no other man.

Joseph             To think your voice can tell this lie, and still sound so sweet and musical to my ears, when all the logic, all the common sense, all love screams out against its possibility.

Mary               Please hold me, Joseph.  Hold me to your heart!

Joseph             Against this pain?  This knife that stabs me to the heart worse than a Roman sword could ever do?   How can you ask for love?  Shall I match lie for lie with these rough arms?

Mary               A lie can never match the truth!  And I am not the one to ask for lies.
My cousin met me at the door that day of my arrival, when no word was known about my angel visitor.  But Elizabeth knew and cried out when she saw me, “Blessed are you above all women, what an honour to have you in my home!  But, why should the mother of my Lord come here?”  And, Joseph, there was only one reply to make. I started singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.  My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.  The Almighty has done wondrous things within me and holy is his name.”

Joseph             Mary, are you unaware what price our law demands when your pregnancy becomes obvious to every public eye?

Mary               Only too much aware, Joseph, but these months have given me the chance to clear my soul of fear and terror.  God is good.  In all his justice he cannot be less. And since this is of God, I cannot fear what others will do to me.

Joseph             Mary, your faith astounds me!  But I’m confused between the duty I owe to laws that I have always believed were true, and my love for you that is tearing me apart.  I’ve got to go. I need time to think this through.  I must do what’s right.

The Decision

“I must do what’s right!”  That is his first instinct.  And now may I tell you what I think is the rest of the story.

All through that evening and into the night a war rages within him.  The law demands exposure.  Love demands forgiveness.

Love for Mary makes him want to trust her.  But it boggles the brain.  Whoever heard of such a thing?  Virgin births are impossible.  God doesn’t go around doing that kind of thing.  Who out there could believe it?  What will people think of him.  They will all presume that he is the father who got caught up in the haste of passion.

What should he say if people ask him if the baby is his?  Should he tell the truth – “NO” and let the chips fall where they may?  If he does that, the community leaders may end up stoning Mary.

Or does he tell a white lie – and say, “YES.”  It is only a white lie because he will secretly adopt the baby as his.  It will be his legally.  But, to tell any kind of a lie is so out of character for this good man.  And through that long evening his mind goes through confusion, his heart aches, his body will not sleep.  He is in turmoil.

One moment he trusts Mary, ~ the next he says “impossible!”

  • One moment he is saying, “God can do anything he jolly well pleases” ~ and the next moment He is not sure that God had anything to do with this pregnancy.
  • One moment he is saying, “I can’t believe Mary’s story, but I’ll fake it. I want Mary so much. I’ll say I believe her.” ~ The next moment he is saying, “But that would be living with a lie.  I could never deceive her.”

And so the struggle went on in the mind of this good man.

Joseph is not naive.  Like Mary, he knows about birds and bees.  He knows about the conception of babies.  Oh, he believes in miracles. Well at least the ones that happened long ago.  But to believe in this kind of miracle demands a very different kind of faith.

He finally makes up his mind.  He cannot live with lies to Mary or himself.  He resolves to divorce her.  But he will do it kindly so that she is not publicly disgraced.

Some of the teachers who followed Rabbi Shammai said a man could divorce his wife only for adultery.  But those who followed Rabbi Hillel said you could divorce your wife for any complaint, from burning the toast, to too much complaining.  Joseph doesn’t have to accuse her of serious crimes, only perhaps that she lost his interest.

He comes to his decision.  He resolves to divorce her on less serious grounds and without public fanfare. That will keep his integrity intact and let Mary off easy.  But the pregnancy will soon become noticeable, and the solution is only short term. What to do!  He loves her, but he has no choice, he must divorce her.

He is determined.  He has made up his mind. He is resolved.   But, he is not as resolute as he seems.  For, as T.S. Eliot writes, he makes “decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse”.  For even after he had decided, Matthew tells us that “as he considered, this an angel appeared in a dream.”  Joseph is still “reconsidering.”   He has made up his mind, but as he falls asleep he is still tinkering with the decision.  He is a man in two minds.  And as he struggles with his thoughts, he drifts off to sleep, emotionally exhausted.

The Dream

As he sleeps Joseph has a dream.  He saw no angel appear to him in broad daylight.  No voice sounded from the heavens that was unmistakably, the voice of God.  It is while he sleeps that he has a dream.  In the dream an angel from God appeared.

The message is simple. “Joseph, Son of David, do not hesitate to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

When Joseph woke up, the battle was over.  He accepts the dream at face value, and knows what he must do.

The angel of his dream had helped tip the teeter-totter of decision for him.   As this good man fell asleep he had been praying, “O God. Help me make the right decision.”   The dream added the necessary weight to his willingness to believe Mary.  It is interesting to note that Joseph’s Old Testament namesake was also given to dreams.  Joseph the Patriarch has his own dreams and interprets the dreams of Pharaoh and others.  Our Joseph will have further dreams after the Wise men leave (2:13) and while they are in exile in Egypt. (2:19) and when they return to Palestine (2:22)  In each case Joseph obeys the angel of his dreams.

What does this all say to us?  It tells me something about faith and doubt.  It tells me something about God and myself.

Doubt & Faith

Faith & reflection must always travel together.  Mary ponders and questions what the angel says.  Joseph wrestles with his emotional and intellectual doubt.  Zacharias the priest will go through the very same crisis of faith & questioning over the birth of his son. The entire Christian church throughout the ages has wrestled with the apparent impossibility of the story of Christmas.

When St. Luke tells us the story of the miracle of Christmas, he infers that if we find such things difficult to believe, how do you think Mary found it?    Luke’s skeptical readers are assured that if they have misgivings about such a story, Mary too was puzzled, but decided to trust God anyway.

When St. Matthew tells us the story of Christmas, he too infers that if we find such things difficult to accept, how do you think Joseph felt?  Matthew’s readers are no more prone to accept miraculous births than we are.  Matthew lets us know that Joseph too found it tough.  But Joseph decided to trust God anyway.

Many of us find ourselves in the same condition of the man who came to Jesus with a young boy who was epileptic.  Jesus says to the man, “All things are possible to the one who believes.”  The man responded with tears, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  There is a man most of understand.  Most of our belief in God is intermixed with some element of doubt. For doubt is never far away from those who live by faith.  For faith is not credulity. It is not easy belief.  It is not wishful thinking. It is, instead, coming to a profound conviction, after looking at the all the evidence, pros and cons.

The Goodness of God

These accounts of Mary and Joseph, however, tell me not only something about faith and doubt, but they tell me something about God and myself.  Mary does not want to disbelieve.  Joseph does not want to doubt.  They simply find it hard to believe.

But God, who reads their hearts’ intention, offers to them insight adequate to help these two tip the balance.  They too cry out “I believe! Help my unbelief!” and the God of all grace will not say “no” to those that pray that kind of a prayer.  And to both Mary and to Joseph, the God who reveals himself to those that seek him, gives to them the assurance they needed to make right choices.

God is good.  To all who seek to trust him, God will intervene with insight and assurance so our hearts and minds can find his peace.

A dream would never be satisfying to me.  I would suspect the dream was due to the pizza the night before, or a committee meeting that had overworked my tired brain.  But to Joseph, and people wired that way, that dream was sufficient to help him in his decision.  For Mary it was not a dream that brought resolution, but the revelation of what God had done in the life of Elisabeth.

For Cynics there is never enough evidence to persuade them to believe.  No matter what proofs are offered, they can never be enough.  In them there is a perpetual disposition to disbelieve.

Skeptics love the questions more than the answers, and so are satisfied never letting the teeter-totter come to rest.  They do not care to resolve the conflict. They keep all options for ever open, and so fail to live lives of conviction.

But believers want to believe in God, and in other people, and feel the pain of it all when they cannot.  To such people God reveals himself in ways that bring peace. Thanks be to God!

The poet Longfellow also found himself troubled by doubts.  Let me read you his poem. The third verse speaks his doubt:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

But in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The Ringing of the bells helped Longfellow tip the scale in Faith’s favour.  May you and I find reasons during this advent season to tip the scales in favour of faith and hope, joy and peace, love and life!  Amen.