Summary: Because Joseph opened a window of mercy, God’s work carried forward in the best possible way. Through Mary's willingness and Joseph's mercy, we are all offered hope for the future through our Savior, Jesus Christ!
As you all remember, we are taking a special Journey this Advent season, we are traveling the road to Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and others, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, and open our hearts to welcome Christ into our lives in a new and special way this Christmas. Last week, we spent some time with Mary, and we talked about Mary’s willingness to follow God’s will, even though it would take her through what would certainly be many trying circumstances. Mary was a humble servant who willingly said to God, “Here I am, use me. May it be with me according to your will.”
To a great degree, the same is true of Joseph. Here is a man who was prepared to marry this woman, who as we see, had just revealed that she was pregnant, and not by him. Joseph had decided to dismiss young Mary and move on with his life, but as Matthew tells the story, he didn’t. After the angel visited Joseph in his dreams, Joseph changed his plans. He set aside his bad feelings against Mary and he disregarded the future struggles that might come because of this unplanned path that had now been laid out before them, and he, like Mary, submitted himself to the will of the Father, and God’s new plans for their lives. We see that Joseph, too, was a humble servant of the Lord. But there is something more at work here with Joseph, and that is the mercy and compassion that he shows in the face of Mary’s unexpected news.
We heard again this morning the story of Joseph and Mary’s engagement, their pledge to be married. Among Jews at this time, the marriage vows were made at something called a betrothal, and the law required that only death or divorce could end them. The normal interval of time between this pledge to get married and the time that the husband and wife would live together and have a physical union was a year. But during this interval Mary became pregnant. And according to the law, this is a situation that could be punishable by death. Imagine what a difficult problem this must have caused! We talked last week about the challenges Mary would have faced, so let us think now about what this news means for Joseph. Mary was pregnant, but Joseph knew that he had nothing to do with it.
Can you imagine how Joseph would have felt? I mean, think of a time in your life when you felt you had been betrayed by someone you loved and trusted. You feel angry, frustrated, hurt, let down, wounded, heart-broken, sad, hopeless, perhaps jealous. I imagine that Joseph probably felt all those emotions, and maybe many more. Matthew tells us, “[Mary] was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Period) “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” It seems like it was all so simple doesn’t it? Mary was pregnant. (Period) So Joseph decided to divorce her. But think of all that is not said. There is a whole lot that happens where that period is. Joseph has to sort through all those emotions. He may even think about what he’d like to do to that guy who got Mary pregnant. He has to think about the implications of this news, and his own actions related to it. If he turns Mary in for adultery, she could be put to death. If he claims the child as his own, they could both be punished for their failure to follow the marital laws. It’s not just that Mary was pregnant and so Joseph decided to divorce her. There was a lot to sort through, I’m sure Joseph lost some sleep over the decision, but finally, he decides what to do.
Matthew tells us, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” And here’s where we get the first glimpse of Joseph’s deep level of mercy and compassion. Joseph could have decided to publicly accuse Mary—making a spectacle of her, and thus causing her to be stoned to death. He could have gotten his revenge! After all, the law was on his side. Joseph already had a career as a carpenter, and there were probably plenty of other fish in the sea. These thoughts must have crossed his mind. It would have made perfect sense, and the townspeople might have been more than happy to participate in a public stoning. Joseph could have been a hero in the eyes of the people. Joseph could have decided to do things the way most people would have done them, but instead, Joseph decided he would dismiss Mary quietly. This would allow him to save face, but it would also save Mary’s life. Joseph chose mercy over the law of retribution.