Friends, as you prepare your heart for Christmas, I want to direct you to a single verse today. It’s Matthew 1:19, and it packs a powerful punch: And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Now, before you jump to any conclusions about an angel having visited Joseph to reassure him, I’ll simply remind you that the verse I’m referencing is before the angelic visitation. Even before there was any miraculous encounter for Joseph, Joseph’s character was such that he chose to show mercy to Mary. I find such grace both extraordinary and revolutionary.
You may remember that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. Much more official than what we think of as “engagement” today, betrothal was the legal equivalent of what was then the first stage of marriage. So by this point they were already “husband and wife” in a sense. In this betrothal period, they had not celebrated their union with a public feast, or physically consummated their marriage. But sexual relations with another would have been adultery, and it certainly would have appeared to Joseph that Mary had wronged him in this way. (Thus the need for the angel to straighten things out.)
From one key verse in the Christmas story, we discover something amazing: Joseph wanted to protect Mary in any way that he could. Small-town scandals were absolutely awful, then as now, and Joseph wanted no part of creating that for the young woman who was to have been his bride. It would appear on many levels that Joseph chose to honor a gracious God by demonstrating undeserved grace – by restraining himself from giving Mary “what she deserved” – and I think that we can all learn from Joseph’s righteous and selfless example. According to the law, Joseph had grounds to demand that Mary be stoned to death, but Joseph was a man of compassion and mercy. Despite his legal grounds for retribution, Joseph wanted to make sure that Mary was not made into a public spectacle of any kind. I think we can safely conclude that noble Joseph – despite his broken heart – truly loved Mary.
Friends, we know that love is really love when it overcomes anger. Let’s not sugarcoat this story: at this moment in time, Mary is the person who has wounded Joseph and shattered his dreams. You and I know that Mary did not commit the sin of adultery, but Joseph doesn’t know that yet. The culture of that day was a culture of honor-and-shame. Marvelously, even in his fear (which we know from the next verse), he chose to honor Mary – and to protect her from shame. This was perhaps the most vulnerable moment of Mary’s entire life. And, instead of judgment, condemnation, or revenge – which would have been the normal and natural course of human emotion and behavior – gentle Joseph showed her love. Supernatural love.
And Joseph’s life will be marked by such powerful love. In sheer obedience to God, he will take a pregnant Mary to be his wife. The public embarrassment and humiliation must have been overwhelming at times. I wonder if the stigma ever evaporated, and I doubt that it ever did entirely. And Joseph will go on to face even more stringent troubles. He will learn of Herod’s diabolical plan to kill Jesus. So this simple carpenter from Nazareth will be forced to flee from a murderous dictator and his army … to somehow make a way, as best he can, for his little family to get safely down to Egypt … and to face with steadfastness there the harsh demands of a strange people and government which undoubtedly landed squarely in Joseph’s lap.
Joseph will raise Jesus as His own, choosing by faith to work through and overcome all of the complex and difficult emotions that would come with that scenario for any man. But it will not be about Joseph, friends, any more than it will be about you or me. In fact Joseph will be nearly unknown in the New Testament.
When I grow up, I want to be like Joseph.