When my son Simeon was three,1 he liked to look at the moon. We could be walking through our neighborhood on a partially cloudy night or driving along the highway at the break of dawn, and instead of first noticing the colored Christmas lights on the trees or the cool sports car passing on the left, Simeon would spot the moon. “I see the moon!” he’d belt out from his car seat. “I see the moon,” he’d say, squeezing my hand as we walked.
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One night at home his gift for observing the obvious was especially memorable. He turned to the window, and there it was again. “Dad, the moon,” he said softly and with astonishment, as if he had never seen it before. “I know, Simeon,” I replied mildly and with less astonishment. I added playfully, “Do you think you can touch it?” Without hesitation he turned to the window, climbed up the arm of a chair, crossed over onto the windowsill, and reached his right hand up to the sky. He was only 384,403 kilometers shy of it. Discouraged but not dissuaded, he jumped down and ran to the front room, once again finding the moon. “There’s another one,” he yelled. Then he backed up. He ran. He leapt. He reached. This time I swear he almost touched it.
To Simeon the moon’s movements were mysterious, its light lovely, and its texture close enough to touch. Sometimes when we come to passages like Matthew’s condensed Christmas story, we don’t come with that childlike curiosity and wonder—looking at the everyday with awe, perceiving the familiar as fascinating. But we should. We should become like little children, which Jesus said is the only way to get into the kingdom. Here’s how we’ll do it with Matthew 1:18–25. I’ll show you in this text three important yet oftentimes unobserved observations—ones that when seen afresh, I hope will cause you to see the passage afresh. And perhaps for the first time in a long time, what has become ordinary will once again be extraordinary, as extraordinary as the moon in the eyes of an inquisitive boy.
Let’s begin our spiritual coming of age. The first observation is the scandal surrounding Christ’s conception. Look with me at verses 18, 19. For now I will take out the phrase that de-scandalizes the scene—“from the Holy Spirit.” I’ll take that out so you can feel some of what Mary and Joseph must have felt. So verses 18, 19 now read:
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…. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
What’s going on here? Two facts are clear: Mary is “with child,” and consequently Joseph doesn’t want to be with her. What is not clear, however (at least not to some modern readers), is how Joseph can be called Mary’s “husband” when they are not yet married, and how they are not yet married, but Joseph can divorce her.
The key to solving these riddles is grasping the cultural context. At this time and place in history, “marriage was held to be,” as William Barclay somewhat smugly suggests, “far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.”2 As it was for most couples in this culture, Mary and Joseph’s parents had likely arranged their marriage. Here’s how it worked. First, the fathers of the two families would engage the couple. This would usually happen in childhood. Second, later in life, this couple would be betrothed. The girl was usually a teenager, and the man was usually older. So to be clear, their betrothal is not the same as our engagement. Rather, betrothal was the nearest step to marriage. It was the process of ratifying the engagement into which the couple had previously entered.
During the engagement period, the young woman could break the agreement if she was unwilling to marry the man. Conversely, the man could break off the engagement if the woman had not kept her virginity. But once they entered betrothal (which lasted one year), it was absolutely binding. During that year, although they didn’t live together or sleep together, the couple was actually known as “husband and wife.” This explains why Joseph in our text is called Mary’s “husband” (v. 19; cf. Deuteronomy 22:24).3 Now here’s the final point of clarification: the only way a betrothal could be broken was through a legal divorce, which explains what Joseph was up to in verse 19.
So then, do you see the scandal of it all? Mary is pregnant. Yet she is betrothed to Joseph. Joseph is not the father of this baby. Now, if this scenario is still scandalous in our anything-goes, play-by-your-own-rules culture, imagine how it would have been in their anything-does-not-go, abide-by- God’s-rules culture.