The first line of this Michael Card song has challenged me again and again—sometimes in surprising contexts. How could it be? reminds me of centuries of theological debate about the Incarnation. How could it be? still challenges us today—in more than one way.
Joseph appears to be one of Scripture’s shadow figures—you know, those biblical personalities we always see in the picture, yet who appear to be more decorative than substantial.2
Unlike those of Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, and the shepherds, Joseph’s story with God does not begin with an angel. Considering his early disappearance from the gospel narrative and the number of (most likely) older siblings chiding Jesus to finally “stop this nonsense” and return home (see Matt. 12:46, 47),3most scholars agree that Joseph must have been a widower prior to his engagement to Mary. Matthew describes him as a righteous man (Matt. 1:19, NASB)4 who loved the law. When Joseph recognized his fiancée’s pregnancy, he quickly knew what to do: spare Mary the shame of public disgrace and quietly dissolve the agreed-upon marriage contract (verse 19). Joseph must have been a gentle man; a man who was both faithful and caring; somebody who combined mercy and justice. In fact, he was God’s first choice to be the father—or God’s stand-in—of the Messiah.
“Lord, I know He’s not my own,
Not of my flesh, not of my bone.
Still Father let this baby be
The son of my love.”
—Michael Card, “Joseph’s Song”
As Joseph mulls over the best way to unobtrusively defuse a potentially life-threatening situation, he is about to be surprised by an unexpected visitor. During the night an angel of the Lord speaks to him in a dream. The angel knows his name; the angel recognizes his fears and perplexities: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (verse 20).5 What comes next must have confused Joseph even more. “What is conceived in her,” he hears the angel say, “is from the Holy Spirit” (ibid.). How could it be?
You couldn’t have blamed Joseph for sitting up straight at this moment. What did it mean that the Holy Spirit conceived a child in Mary—his Mary? Joseph had no precedents, and 2,000 years later we are still struggling to understand this concept.
Matthew, however, does not record any reaction at this point. No “This does not make any sense!” No “What are you really telling me?” The angel instructs him to name the Child Jeshua, “the Lord saves” (see verse 21), “because he will save his people from their sins.” Suddenly Joseph connects point A to point B. Could it be that Mary’s son—his son—would be the Messiah, the Immanuel, the One eagerly anticipated by prophets and kings?
The last part of Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus contains to-the-point fulfillment language. Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (verse 24). He took pregnant Mary home, securing for himself a favorite spot among the wagging tongues gossiping in Nazareth. When Mary finally gave birth to a tiny infant in a manger on the cheap side of Bethlehem, he gently embraced the little bundle and called Him Jesus. Scripture tells us that he met that angel on at least two more occasions (see Matt. 2:13, 19), when the life of the Savior of this world depended on a graying carpenter from Nazareth.
“He looks so small,
His face and hands so fair:
And when He cries
the sun just seems to disappear;
But when He laughs
It shines again.
How could it be?”
—Michael Card, “Joseph’s Song”
We tend to forget the tactile and emotional elements of biblical stories. People did not just do what they were told (or perhaps didn’t do it); like us, they felt passionately; they agonized deeply; they grieved profoundly; they worried; they needed a warm embrace and a gentle touch to be reminded of God’s embrace and touch. I imagine Joseph was no different. I imagine that he must have felt inadequate for the task at hand. How could he, a carpenter from Nazareth, raise the One who would save His people?
I remember the anticipation of the birth of our first daughter. We knew her name; we had carefully and lovingly prepared her room; we had seen her heart pumping valiantly and her hands clutching each other in the womb. We were excited, and yet a month before D-day I began to struggle with sleep issues. Either I could not fall asleep or I would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and lie awake for the remainder of the night. I wondered about my daughter. I wondered about my relationship with her. I knew she would know her mother (no wonder, after nine months!), but would she know me? Would we bond? Would she recognize me? Would I be a “good father”?
“Father, show me where I fit into
This plan of yours.
How can a man be father to the Son of God?
Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter.”
—Michael Card, “Joseph’s Song”
Matthew’s Nativity story is not just about shepherds, Wise Men from the East, intrigue, and the birth of the Savior of this world. Matthew’s story is also Joseph’s story and connects on many levels with the stories of fathers throughout the ages. God not only chose Mary, the mother of Jesus; God also chose Joseph, the “righteous man” from Nazareth. He would protect the Son; he would teach the Son; he would embrace the Son, because God knows that children need to be protected, to be taught, and—above all—to be embraced.
We know very little about Jesus growing up in Nazareth.6 He must have learned His carpentry trade from His father, as was customary in first century A.D. Palestine. Children took over the family business and learned the father’s trade. He must have accompanied Joseph to the local synagogue and, most likely, sat with him in the section reserved for the men of Nazareth when the Torah, the Law, was read and discussed. He must have observed Joseph closely as he interacted with His brothers and sisters and with His mother.
But, most important, as He watched carefully, He must have caught the first glimpse of the Father, His heavenly Father, because that’s what faithful fathers do. They know that their children are not theirs, but His, and on loan for a brief moment. In their shortcomings and struggles they realize that their main job is to reflect the heavenly Father. “How can a man be father to the Son of God?” sings Michael Card and hits the proverbial nail on its head. How can we frail beings truly participate in something that involves divine creation and the miracle of life? What can we bring to the table that enables us fathers, uncles, and grandfathers to succeed?
In one word: Nothing.
Joseph, faithful Joseph, lurking in the shadows of the Nativity narrative, teaches us that we bring precious little to the table. Right from the outset, he knew that Jesus was not his son but God’s—fully! He also recognized that God put him purposely at the side of Jesus and Mary to provide protection, guidance, and training—for a brief moment.
That sounds familiar to fathers (and mothers) living in the twenty-first century. We do not have to pretend to be superheroes who know it all. Fact is, we are not. My daughters have long caught on to the fact that their papa doesn’t always get it right. They also know that I am not the strongest or the tallest—even though I once was in their minds. They know how to find information online about a complex biology or chemistry question that stumps me. They can see me huffing and puffing as we chase each other in the garden or a park (even though I still am faster!). Yet they come to me when they face a seemingly insurmountable problem. They need their daily hug in the morning, and in all things clothing I have become the ultimate source of affirmation. We need fathers because they point us to our heavenly Father.
“How could it be?
This baby in my arms,
Sleeping now so peacefully,
‘The Son of God,’ the angel said.
How could it be?”
—Michael Card, “Joseph’s Song”
How could it be? still echoes down the ages. It speaks into a world that is full of dysfunctional families. It whispers to children whose fathers are absent—in North America that’s about 27 percent of all children growing up.7 It challenges the increasing number of struggling single-parent households.
I would love to sit in a seminar about fatherhood with Joseph. I am sure he would tell me that he never felt like the one who had to know it all. I would guess that he would constantly be pointing upward toward our heavenly Father. I can imagine that he felt affirmed and empowered—remember, God had chosen him, frail Joseph, to be His earthly stand-in. I would venture that he would speak about commitment—commitment to the family that God gave to him, a commitment that sounds a bit like God’s commitment to us: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jer. 31:3); I hear Jeremiah speak with tears in his eyes as he saw the reality of Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian destruction.
I would guess that Joseph spent a significant amount of time on his knees, asking the Father for wisdom and calmness (in the face of teenage challenges) or patience and endurance. As a teacher he knew how to encourage and say “good job” or “well done.” And when the going was getting too rough, he was not above asking for help from a mentor or a friend who had already walked that way.
How could it be? is a wonderful question that Michael Card put in Joseph’s mouth. It could be only because God wanted it to be. The story of the birth of the long-promised Savior is a story about divine provision and human commitment. It could be because it was the only way of taking back enemy territory and accomplishing God’s wondrous salvation. What awesome grace; what marvelous grace; what matchless grace.
Next time you look at a Nativity scene or an image from a stained-glass window depicting the Christ child and His mother, have a closer look at Joseph, lurking in the background, hovering over Child and mother. He does not need the spotlight. He is there because God wanted him to be there. Joseph, faithful Joseph, has become a close friend over the years as I have struggled with the perplexities and challenges of faith-based fatherhood. He has taught me about commitment; he has modeled decisiveness; he has provided a hands-on illustration of my heavenly Father. He is present. He is willing. He is able. He sees something in us that goes beyond our own comprehension.
And by the way: I did get to sleep again. My worries were unfounded. My daughter loved me (and still does, I am proud to say). She knew who I was; right after birth she clung to my little finger because I was her father.
All quotes from this song have been taken from Michael Card, Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), p. 41. Used with permission.
As a church we studied some of these figures in the fourth quarter of 2010 in the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, “Background Characters in the Old Testament.” My wife, Chantal, and I also authored the companion volume, Illuminating Shadow Figures of the Bible (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2010).
Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), pp. 321-327, makes explicit what the biblical text seems to imply.