Summary: Doing what God asks of you often leads down very strange paths. It's a good idea to stop, pray, and listen before you leap to conclusions.
Joseph couldn’t sleep. He had thought he would drop off immediately, after nearly twelve hours of travel through the rocky desert country south of Bethlehem. They had tried to get as much distance possible between them and Herod’s soldiers. But after he had made sure that Mary and the baby were well wrapped against the cold night air, he went outside the small cave they had found and looked out over the starlit expanse which stretched out below them.
He felt guilty. “Should I have told them?” he wondered. “When the angel warned me to take Mary and Jesus and flee at once for Egypt, should I have at least asked someone to spread the word to all the other families in Bethlehem?” Joseph stirred restlessly and looked upward, as if expecting an answer. “They wouldn’t have believed me anyway,” he told himself. “They don’t know me, and after all it was only a dream, just because I know it was true doesn’t mean that anyone else would. And then it would have taken us far longer to get out of town, and anyway the angel didn’t tell me to do anything else but to get out of town as soon as we could. Besides, if Herod’s soldiers can’t find us, surely they’ll just go back to Jerusalem and report. Surely they won’t do anything to the townspeople.”
Joseph sat down abruptly and put his head on his hands. Six months, it had been. Only six months ago that Mary had come back from visiting her cousin Elizabeth and told him she was pregnant. He shook his head, as if to shake out the memory of the feelings that had flooded him at the news. His Mary! Good, pure, modest Mary, with the sweetest smile in Palestine! He had had to walk out to keep from saying something that he would regret. Thank God he had not even had the impulse to strike her, although he knew men who would have. After all, a betrothal was as binding as a marriage, and no one argued that a husband should not chastise an unfaithful wife. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t hurt Mary, no matter what she did. So after walking off his fury and shame, he went back to the home he had dreamed of bringing Mary to, and tried to decide what to do.
As Joseph sat in the darkness, quietly guarding his sleeping wife and child, he continued to remember back to the beginning. They had gone into the courtyard to be alone, just the two of them, after Mary had said there was something she needed to tell him. And then the blow fell. She was pregnant.
Mary swore to him that she had not lain with any man. But that wasn’t possible! Maybe she had been overcome with the heat after working too long in the sun, and abused as she lay unconscious. Or she could had been attacked by a stranger and been too ashamed to tell anyone. But this tale of being approached by an angel, and filled with the Spirit of God! How could she expect to believe that? Perhaps if she had confessed to what she had done and begged for forgiveness, he would had taken her for his wife anyway. But how could he trust someone who thought he was so gullible as to believe such a far-fetched story? Joseph rose and paced some more. It was probably close to sunrise by the time he had decided what to do. He resolved to divorce Mary quietly, and send her away where she could start another life where no one would point their fingers at her, shaming her before people who had known her since babyhood. Yes, that was it. He could not marry her, but he could not shame her, either.
Having made the decision, Joseph fell into a restless sleep. And in his dreams he saw the same glowing angelic figure Mary had described, speaking his name. “Joseph,” it said. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Mary has told you no more than the truth. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, the savior of Israel. You need not fear to take her as your wife, for she remains the pure maiden you have always known her to be. Your name will be honored along with hers as long as people tell the story, and you will be the father of the redeemer of Israel until he is old enough to begin the work the Lord of Hosts has called him to do.”
When Joseph woke a part of himself tried to shake off the vision, saying that it was shock and disbelief that had conjured up the night’s imaginings, but he really knew. Joseph knew in the deepest part of his soul that he, too, had been honored by the messenger of God, and that his marriage to Mary would be even more deeply wonderful than he - or, indeed, any man - could have imagined. Their earthly marriage would begin after this miraculous child was born, but their heavenly marriage began now, here, as he accepted the call God had placed upon his life. Joseph often thought, later, of the surprising truth of his own name. Surely his parents hadn’t known, when he was born, why they should name him Joseph. But it meant “God grant posterity,” and God certainly had.