Summary: The Christmas story from Joseph's perspective. What was it like to sacrifice all that he had known in his pursuit of righteousness to take on scandal, scorn, and shame? Perhaps we are called like Joseph to follow God no matter what the cost.
My mother and father raised me to be a good man, a just man, a righteous man. I loved God and followed his law to the utmost. I memorized scripture. I studied Torah at synagogue. I sought to treat people honorably. As I grew up, my dad taught me how to be a carpenter, something one day I would do for my own sons. My dad also taught me the values of hard work and a good name. He said, “Son, love God, obey his law, and treat people the way you would like to be treated. If you do those things, you will have lived well.”
Mary was very special to me. She was not only beautiful, but she had a beautiful spirit as well. I could tell she loved God as much as I did. I was quite happy to be engaged to her. We were excited to enter the special year-long period our people called a betrothal. We dreamed of getting married at the end and of having a house full of children. Mary was pledged to me and me alone, and I felt so blessed to know she would be mine and I would be hers someday soon.
And then I got the news: Mary was pregnant. How could this be? I couldn’t believe it at first. I suppose today you would say I went through the stages of grief. Initially I was in shock and disbelief. How could Mary be pregnant? Impossible! She was not one to flirt with men. She took her vows seriously. She knew she was pledged to me and me alone. I certainly didn’t see any other men cross her path. Like all Jewish girls, she was closely guarded with chaperones during our engagement.
But the shock became replaced with anger. We lived in a culture full of pride and shame, and I knew these events would bring great shame for her, and now for me if I didn’t act quickly. I could call her out publicly. That way, I could keep her father’s dowry. She might even be stoned to death for her infidelity. I know today that sounds harsh, but God gave our ancestors this sentence to protect us from ourselves, to keep people faithful to marriage and help our society grow stronger (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). As harsh as it was, Mary certainly deserved it. She had sinned, and she knew sin carries consequences. She knew that when she betrayed me.
My anger quickly gave away to sadness and compassion. Law vs. love, and love won out, of course. As I prayed, I knew I couldn’t hurt Mary. Even though I was hurt and disappointed, I still loved her and wanted the best for her. I would simply divorce her quietly. Yes, in our day, to break an engagement, you had to get a divorce. That’s how serious a betrothal was. With a quiet divorce involving only a couple of witnesses, we could both ride out the gossip until it blew over, especially if the father of her baby did the right thing and married her. Personally, I wanted no part of it. I knew God called me to be righteous, to follow his law as closely as I could. With this kind of divorce, I could honor both God and Mary.
Then came the dream. While I don’t remember all my dreams, this one I would never forget. The main character was an angel of the Lord. He spoke with such majesty and authority; it was clear who he represented. He explained to me in the dream that this baby was fathered by none other than the Holy Spirit himself! We Jews liked to recount how God’s Spirit worked in the lives of special people in historic times to bring about God’s will. We knew the stories of David, of Samuel, of Deborah, the prophets and kings of old, those heroes of faith who were filled with the Holy Spirit for God’s work on earth.
And now this same Holy Spirit had fathered a baby within Mary’s womb. Unbelievable! Something no one had ever seen, and I’m guessing no one will ever see again! The angel told me not to be afraid but to take Mary home to be my wife. The angel also told me what to name the baby. It wouldn’t be one of our family names, as was the custom, but it would be the common name “Jesus,” which simply means, “God saves.” The angel explained that this baby would save the people from their sins.
I recognized immediately the angel’s reference to our long-awaited Messiah, or Christ as the Greeks pronounced it. The prophet Isaiah some 700 years earlier had written of a virgin who would have a baby that would become a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah had written also of a suffering servant who would give his life for his people. Several other prophets had described this Messiah who would come and bring deliverance. And boy did we need deliverance! We had been under Roman occupation for so long that people no longer remembered the taste of freedom. For 400 years, the heavens had been silent, with no prophetic word from God. We all longed for this Messiah to come.