"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. - Matthew 1:18-25
As a child in a traditional Lutheran church, I loved when Advent came around. The advent wreath, special musical performances and bell choirs all added to the feeling of excitement and majesty. I especially loved when an incredibly gifted couple performed. Each year the husband sang a solo of Joseph's Song by Michael Card. The poignant lyrics brought to life a part of the Christmas story that felt extra mysterious: the ponderings of a young man given the task of raising the Son of God:
"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
How can I raise a king, How can I raise a king."
As an adult, I find the earthly father of Jesus even more perplexing. Matthew 1 tells us that Mary was betrothed to a man named Jospeh. His family line traced back to King David, but he was just a regular guy. We learn that he was a carpenter and infer that he died before Jesus' ministry starts, but otherwise, he's a bit of a mystery.
It's easy to think of Joseph as a caricature - a supporting character in a story that revolves around Mary and Jesus. He is there, but not crucial to the plotline. He is faithful, steady and unrelatable in how he responds to it all. But to see his heart, we must remember that Jospeh was a regular man whose life was turned upside down by God.
Our first peek into his character comes before the angel arrives. Mary, who was in a binding agreement to marry Joseph, tells him that she is pregnant. What a conversation that must've been! Joseph is not naive; he knows how babies are made. It seems like whatever explanation she gave ("It's God's baby! I promise!") he wasn't buying it and plans to end their agreement.
Those of us who have been in love with someone we planned to marry can imagine the pain of finding out our fiancé is pregnant or im pregnanted someone else. It would be a betrayal unlike any other and certainly would bring any dreams of marriage to a crashing halt.
But Joseph wasn't marrying Mary because he was in love with her - that's not how marriage worked in their culture. Families would come together to arrange marriages that were mutually beneficial. Honor was crucial and who you married reflected on your entire family. Marriage wasn't about "being in love" but strengthening familial and societal bonds.
While he may not have been emotionally crushed by the news, he was certainly shamed. To marry her while she carried someone else's child would open him and his family up to public ridicule. To proceed would open himself up to suspicions of unrighteousness. The only logical conclusion to her news was that Mary had committed adultery and he had every right to take the shame she'd forced upon him and put it back on her - publically clearing himself of any guilt and making her pay.
But that's not what he did. We read that "because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly." This is a beautiful glimpse at his heart and the heart of God. Joseph was faithful to the law and obedience to God mattered to him: he wanted to do what was right. But he was also merciful. Instead of making Mary pay by exposing her sin, he determined to find a way to end their agreement quietly, protecting her from disgrace.
His decision to not retaliate would shock us if it wasn't so familiar. He lived in a religious culture where women caught in adultery were stoned to death by their community. He lived in a time when women could not testify in a court of law because their words were deemed untrustworthy. Joseph's choice of righteousness and mercy is one that few would have taken.
When the angel comes and verifies that Mary's words are true and this is indeed God's son, Joseph has to make a difficult choice. To believe God and proceed with the marriage will necessitate taking on Mary's shame as his own. By raising this child, Joseph is opening himself and his family up to ridicule from any who will think that he impregnated Mary before their marriage began.
Right here, in the midst of the Christmas story, we see the heart of God and a hint at what the coming Messiah would do for us all. Joseph takes on Mary's shame because of his love for God, not his passionate love of Mary or her worthiness. Certainly his parents could have found other worthy options for him to marry once he was cleared of his duty and protected him from suffering and shame. Instead, he gives up his right to self-determination and follows God on a path of difficulty and undeserved shame.
Decades later, the boy he raised, whose character was perfect, made the same choice on the cross. But before that, he showed his heart in his response to a woman caught in adultery:
"At dawn (Jesus) appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin. -John 8:1-11
Unlike Mary, this woman was guilty. And unlike Joseph, so was the man with whom she had slept. The religious leaders were rightfully upset, yet blind to their own sin and that of the man they left out of the public shaming. They wanted righteousness but had no mercy. They wanted to trap Jesus in a difficult situation and force him to approve of her death. Instead, he demonstrates perfect righteousness and mercy. He says that anyone without sin can stone her and then watches as they all walk away. Only he is left: the one who is truly without sin. He could punish her for her sin, but he doesn't. He extends mercy and calls her to a different life in which she can experience his love as she goes and "sins no more".
But righteousness must be upheld and Jesus himself, the righteous one, will soon take her deserved punishment upon himself. He will choose to follow the Father, though the path is one of suffering and undeserved shame. He will lay down his life and his right to self-determination to save those God has entrusted to him. He will do this not because they are lovely and deserving in themselves but because the Father is worthy of worship.
In this way, Joseph's choice reflects the heart of God and the baby he raised who is "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Hebrews 1:3). While Joseph was righteous and merciful in his dealings with Mary, Jesus is described as being "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Joseph's response is just a hint at his far greater son who came not just to save his family but all those who will believe in him.