Summary: Joseph’s part in the Christmas story exemplifies a new kind of righteousness.
In nativity scenes he stands silently next to the manger in which the baby Jesus is placed. His name is Joseph and some might think that he plays an unimportant role in the Christmas story. In fact, he is not even given a single line to speak! Should we neglect Joseph? Should we skip Joseph’s story and go on to more prominent characters like the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men? I don’t think so. Because if we do, there are some valuable lessons that we will miss.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph was a righteous man and 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 be with child and will 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 had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
1. Joseph was known as a “RIGHTEOUS” man.
Joseph was known as a “righteous” man (v 19). This means that he was known for his uncompromising obedience to the Torah, the Law of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Joseph didn’t eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn’t keep his carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to make a few extra dollars. He was a righteous man; that was his identity. Everybody knew this about him. Nobody invited Joseph over to have ham sandwiches with tax collectors. He was what people wanted to be. Like a businessman in our day wants to be a CEO, or like an athlete wants to be an all-star, a Jew wanted to be a righteous person. Becoming one meant you were admired and looked up to. You were somebody. And that was Joseph.
But now he’s a righteous man with a problem. The girl he has promised to marry is going to have a baby, and whoever the father is, Joseph knows it’s not him. Nazareth is a small town, and as a general rule, word gets around in a small town. So we have a righteous man and a pregnant fiancée in a small village where, as a general rule, everybody knows everybody’s business.
Because we live on this side of Christmas, we want to rush to the end of the story where everything turns out okay. We miss the anxiety in a young woman’s announcement, “I’m pregnant” and the tension on a young man’s brow as he searches for answers. You might even be tempted to think that Joseph was spiritually slow and should have figured out what was going on a lot sooner. But if you do that, you miss the whole point of what Joseph is learning, and of what we can learn from him—that there’s some amazing stuff going on around Christmas besides how Jesus got here. You miss out on how God is already beginning to redefine what true righteousness is.
2. Joseph AGONIZED over Mary’s pregnancy.
Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment. Your fiancée is pregnant, and your whole reputation and identity revolve around one thing—your commitment to the law. What the law says, you do. That’s who you are. Martha Stewart doesn’t go to McDonald’s for her Christmas dinner. President Bush doesn’t invite Saddam Hussein to his Christmas party. And a righteous man doesn’t disobey the law.
Unfortunately for Joseph—and especially Mary—the law has some clear instructions about what to do to somebody in Mary’s condition. A section in Deuteronomy 22 covers marriage violations. If a woman pledged to be married is unfaithful, it says, “She shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from Israel” (v. 21). (Why God would set down such a harsh punishment for sexual immorality is a subject for another sermon.)