Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
I remember standing over the sink in our bathroom at our home on Hiawatha watching the blue line come in clear as a bell on the pregnancy test. We had been trying to have a baby, we were expecting it to happen, but the moment it becomes a reality it’s a different story. The staggering reality hit me like a brick. I remember standing there for a while with this blank look and Stephanie asking, “aren’t you happy”? I was thrilled and scared to death.
Joseph is really one of the overlooked characters of Christmas. The baby gets top billing and Mary is right there with Jesus. As a father, I can relate to Joseph. I mean, when I assemble the nativity set in our home, I can pick out Mary and Jesus – even the wise men are pretty easy with their crowns and gifts, but come on…let’s be honest – how many of you confuse Joseph with the shepherds? This is the plight of fathers everywhere. I watch our home movies from the past 15 years and I think I show up in about 2 minutes of over 100 hours of family footage.
I can relate to Joseph.
The only thing we really know about Joseph shows up here in Matthew, but the little bit we see tells us a lot!
First, we know he is engaged to Mary, but they are not living together. The custom of Joseph and Mary involved in a two-stage process of marriage. The first stage was the betrothal, or engagement, but this is a much stronger relationship than what we think of when we say engagement today. When a woman was engaged in ancient Palestine, she was bound to him through formal words of consent. Engagement and betrothal would occur quite young, 12-13 years old. At this point, she was viewed as the man’s wife, waiting a period of time, usually a year, for the second stage of the process, which was moving her out of her parent’s home and into the home of her husband. Joseph and Mary were between these two stages. Viewed as “married” but not yet living together.
Second, we know about Joseph’s moral sensibilities. Matthew tells us Joseph is a righteous man which means he is very scrupulous about keeping the commandments of God, the OT law, and striving to live his life in harmony with God’s will. Joseph’s morality puts him in an extremely difficult spot. He would conform to the expectations of his day. That’s what you did. If you tried to be different, you were ostracized. You weren’t different in their day. He is an honorable and kind man, but he is a man of the law. Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. There is only one logical conclusion. Mary has been unfaithful to him. The OT law is clear on how to proceed. The woman is to be cast aside, possibly even put to death. But we see that Joseph is a compassionate man. So, his intention is to deal with Mary quietly, but since he is a righteous man, he is not going to put away the law of God. Mary will be dismissed.
But here is where the story makes an unexpected turn. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and reveals that what he sees as a moral outrage is really God’s holy disruption. The child of Mary is not a violation of God’s will, rather an expression of God’s will. As the angel speaks to Joseph he says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” We hear in this statement from the angel, two things.
Joseph is in the line of David and as Jesus’ adoptive father, he bridges the historical kingly connection. Jesus will be a “son of David” as well.
We also hear the angel say to Joseph, “do not be afraid”. In every way imaginable, Joseph was afraid. To keep Mary is to go against law he is so faithful to. God is doing a new thing, do not be afraid of how God will move in new and different ways. This reminds me of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 when he is told to eat from the unclean animals. Every fiber of his being would be to fight against that command, but God declares something new and that opens the door to ministering to Cornelius and to all Gentiles.
So Joseph is not faced with a difficult test. Will he hold to the old law? Or will he shatter the old law in order to keep the new law? Joseph is transformed. He is surprisingly responsive to this new and strange work of God. By accepting Mary as his wife and receiving Jesus as his son, by going against the old law, he becomes a model of discipleship in Matthew’s gospel. Here is true righteousness in Joseph. Here is faithful responsiveness in Joseph. In this brief look at the father of Jesus, Matthew sets the stage for how God will enter into our lives and challenge our sensibilities.