Joseph: A Teenager’s Dilemma
December 2, 1990
If you were given the opportunity to meet any person in the first Christmas story, who would you choose? I’ve been thinking about that this week, and it’s not easy to decide. There are so many fascinating people:
Herod–That wicked old toad squatting on the throne of Israel,
insanely jealous lest a baby steal his glory.
The Magi–The Wise Men from the East. Who were they? Where did
they come from? Were they astrologers? How did they know
about the Star?
The Innkeeper–I can see him in my mind’s eye. A good man, harried,
frustrated to turn away business. Did he ever discover who he
The Shepherds–Here’s something you probably didn’t know.
Nearly all the shepherds in modern Israel are teenagers–
many of them girls. There is every reason to think that the
shepherds were not the old men of tradition but teenagers
who were 15 or 16 years old.
There are so many others. Anna the prophetess. Simeon who took the baby Jesus in his arms and blessed his parents.
And then there is Mary. Luke wrote his story about her. Wouldn’t you like to meet the mother of Jesus? I would.
THE FORGOTTEN MAN OF CHRISTMAS
But there’s someone else I’d like to meet even more. He is the forgotten man of Christmas. Matthew wrote his story about him. His name is Joseph. He is the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. He’s the person from the first Christmas story I would most like to meet.
When I call Joseph “the forgotten man of Christmas,” that’s not an exaggeration. Not much is said about him in the Bible. Not many sermons are preached about him. As a matter of fact, there’s just not much written about Joseph at all.
This week I flipped through our hymnal to see how many times his name is mentioned. This is what I discovered:
–Mary is mentioned by name 7 times.
–Joseph is never mentioned–not even one time.
In the great hymn “Angels We Have Heard on High,” there is a verse that mentions him–”See within a manger laid, Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth! Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, sing with us Messiah’s birth.” Unfortunately our hymnal omits that verse, which means that Joseph is left out completely.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Let me briefly list for you the things we know about Joseph:
–His father was Jacob.
–His family hometown was Bethlehem in Judea but he lived in Nazareth in Galilee. That meant that Joseph and Mary had to travel about 95 miles in the dead of winter in order to register for the census.
–He is from the royal line of David. The genealogy in Matthew 1 makes that clear.
–He was a carpenter by trade.
–He was a poor man. We know that because when he and Mary presented Jesus in the Temple, they brought a turtledove to sacrifice. Jews only did that when they could not afford a lamb.
–He was a religious man, a devout keeper of the Law, a fact we will observe more closely in just a moment.
–How old was Joseph? We don’t know the answer for sure, but most writers agree that he was a young man and probably a teenager. If we said 17 years old, we would probably be about right.
PLEDGED TO BE MARRIED
Matthew tells Joseph’s story this way:
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. (Matthew 1:18)
What our version calls “pledged to be married,” the older versions call “betrothed.” It refers to an ancient Jewish marriage custom. In those days most marriages were arranged by the parents–with or without the children’s approval. The two sets of parents would meet and draw up a formal marriage contract. When the contract was signed, the man and woman were legally “pledged” to each other other. This period of betrothal would last up to a year, at the end of which period they were formally married in a public wedding ceremony.
Now that sounds like our practice of engagement, but there were some major differences. In the first place, the “pledge” was considered as sacred as marriage itself. During that year, the couple were called husband and wife but they did not live together. If the man died during that year, the woman would be considered a widow even though the wedding ceremony had never taken place. The only way to break the betrothal was through a legal divorce.
In essence, to be “pledged” to each other was the same thing as being married, except that you could not live together until the wedding ceremony took place. The whole idea was that the one-year waiting period was meant to be a time for testing commitment and faithfulness.
This is where the story gets interesting. According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, if a woman was found to be pregnant during the betrothal, that could only mean she had been unfaithful to her husband, in which case the Law commanded that she be stoned to death.
“THAT’S NOT MY BABY”
Now Mary turns up pregnant. Joseph only knows one thing for sure. He’s not the father.
What words describe a man at a time like this? Anger … Confusion … Frustration … Embarrassment … Shame … Rage … Disappointment.
What did he say to her? What did she say to him? Did she tell him about the angel Gabriel? If she did, can you blame him for not believing her?
Did he say to her, “Mary, how could you? You were pledged to me. We were going to get married. I was going to build a little house for us in Nazareth. Mary, Mary, how could you do this? Why, Mary, why? I kept myself for you. Why couldn’t you keep yourself for me?”
I think Joseph cried harder that day than he had ever cried in his life.
A TEENAGER’S DILEMMA
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You’re a teenager in love and suddenly your girl friend turns up pregnant. You aren’t the father but you don’t know who is. What do you do? If you’re a typical American teenager, you give her $200 to go get an abortion. It’s easy, it’s quick, it’s cheap, and just like that, you can make the problem go away. A half-million teenage girls take that option every year. It’s the preferred solution for what people call an “unwanted pregnancy.”
Thankfully, Joseph and Mary didn’t have that option. Abortion was very rare in ancient Israel and Planned Parenthood hadn’t opened up a clinic in Nazareth yet.
Joseph’s dilemma was of a different variety. He was an observant Jew and under the Law he had the right to divorce Mary for unfaithfulness. In fact, the Law forbade him to marry her under those circumstances.
Here is the greatness of Joseph. HE LOVED HER EVEN THOUGH HE THOUGHT SHE HAD BEEN UNFAITHFUL TO HIM. HIS LOVE COVERED HER SHAME.
This is how verse 19 puts it:
Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man (that means he wanted to do what was right in the eyes of God) and did not want to expose her to public disgrace (that means that he although he thought she had been unfaithful, he still didn’t want to humiliate her) , he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
In those days, a man could get a divorce in two ways: First, he could get a public divorce by going before a judge at the gate of the city. That would mean that the whole town would know about Mary’s shame. Second, he could get a private divorce by giving her the papers in the presence of two witnesses.
It is entirely to Joseph’s credit that he chose to do it privately and thus spare Mary the humiliation of a public divorce.
Having made his decision … he didn’t do it. He had every legal and moral right to divorce Mary but he just couldn’t do it. As one writer put it, there was a “short but tragic struggle between his legal conscience and his love.” He hesitated, waited, thought long and hard. Day after day he pondered the matter. Time was running out. With each passing day, it became more obvious that Mary was pregnant. Late at night he lay in bed staring into the blackness, wondering what to do.
Then one night, it happened. He had a dream and in the dream God spoke to him.
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.” (20)
To us, this seems strange. But not to Joseph. God often spoke to people through dreams in the Bible. It was one way he used in those ancient days of communicating to his people.
It worked. Joseph needed assurance. He couldn’t marry Mary until he was sure it was all right. He had to know the truth. God met him at the point of his need at exactly the right moment. He told Joseph the one thing he most wanted to hear: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
CALL HIM JESUS
The angel is not finished yet:
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. (21)
The angel explains just enough and nothing more. The baby is “from the Holy Spirit” and thus not of man. Nothing more is said. We are not told precisely how the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary took place. It remains one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. After 2000 years of debate, we know nothing more about it than Joseph did.
The angel added a detail about who this baby will be. His name is Jesus, which means “Savior.” His mission is to save his people from their sins.
That’s all. It’s not a long message. But it is enough.
JOSEPH’S FINEST HOUR
Verses 24-25 are insufficiently celebrated as great Christmas verses. They reveal Joseph’s finest qualities:
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 had given birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Every step he takes testifies to his greatness:
1. By marrying her quickly he broke all Jewish custom, but he protected Mary’s reputation. She was pregnant and he wasn’t the father but he married her anyway.
2. By keeping her a virgin until Jesus was born, he protected the miracle of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit against slander by unbelievers.
3. By naming the baby he exercised a father’s prerogative and thus officially took him into his family as his own legal son.
The only other comment I would make is that the story is told exactly as a man would tell it. I like Joseph. I wish I could meet him. He strikes me as a very good man.
TOUGH AND TENDER
We give more attention to Mary and rightly so. But Joseph deserves his credit, too. He is a model of the man of faith, struggling with his doubts, persuaded to believe what God has said and ultimately acting upon his persuasion.
In these days of confusion, Joseph is a wonderful model of what a godly man looks like:
He was tough when he could have been weak.
He was tender when he could have been harsh.
He was thoughtful when he could have been hasty.
He was trusting when he could have doubted.
He was temperate when he could have indulged himself.
I pause to ask this question. Men, could we use those same words to describe your life?
–Are you tough-minded, determined to do what is right no matter
what it costs?
–Are you tender with your wife and with your children?
–Are you thoughtful, taking your time to make important
decisions, or are you quick to jump to conclusions and quick to
say things you later regret?
–Are you you trusting even when you think you could figure out a
better way to do things?
–Are you temperate and considerate of your wife and her special
needs, or do you pressure your wife and your children to perform
up to your standard of perfection?
There is one other line of proof about the kind of man Joseph was. When Jesus grew up and began his ministry, he chose one word above all others to describe what God is like. He called him Father.
Where did Jesus learn about fathers? From Joseph. I speak again to the men. The way your children respond to God depends largely on the kind of father you are. You teach them something about God every day–just by the way you live in front of them.
HE SHALL SAVE HIS PEOPLE
The angel said, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” The very next verse says that he will be called Immanuel, which means God With Us.
Jesus means Savior.
Immanuel means God With Us.
We need both. We need a Savior for we are sinners. But the only way God could save us was to leave heaven and to live among us. That’s what Christmas is all about.
It’s about the truth that God actually came down to earth in the person of a little baby. It’s about the truth that Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary in a village called Bethlehem. It’s about the truth that Jesus was fully God and fully man, the God-man.
As the familiar carol puts it,
See Him in the manger laid
Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth!
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
Sing with us our Savior’s birth.
May that be your experience during this Christmas season!