By Brandon Lemons
At the conclusion of Sunday’s sermon, I read a quote from pastor John Ortberg about Joseph and Jesus. After reading the quote, I said, “Gives us something to ponder, doesn’t it?!” I’d like to take a few minutes now to ponder God’s work through Joseph.
First, here is the quote from Ortberg. “Maybe God decided that Jesus, who would be called a friend of sinners, should be raised in a family that knew firsthand what it feels like to be regarded in the spiritually second-class category. Maybe part of why Jesus had a heart for unrespectable people is that he was raised by a father who sacrificed his respectability for his son. Maybe one reason Jesus had compassion on women who were walking scandals is that he knew what it meant to his mom that his father had stuck by her side when she was single and pregnant, and when all the righteous folks would have said ‘take a walk.’ I think of how Jesus, as he was growing up, must have admired his dad's courage.”
As I ponder the life of Joseph, one of the main things that strikes me is his humanity. It is common to treat people in the Bible as something more than human – to put them on a pedestal, to think they were super-spiritual in a way we can never be. But when I look at Joseph, he seems so normal. When he discovers his fiancé is pregnant and he knows he’s not the father, he reacts in the way you would expect. He was upset, to say the least.
We don’t know how Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy. It’s possible that Mary told him about the angel’s visit, and he just didn’t believe her; it’s also quite possible that Joseph found out “through the grapevine,” for Mary was visiting her relative Elizabeth in a distant town for the first three months of Mary’s pregnancy (Luke 1:56). In the account of Joseph learning of Mary’s pregnancy, it merely says “before they came together she was found to be with child” (Matthew 1:18). This wording is ambiguous in terms of how Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy.
What we do know, though, is that Joseph was upset. Matthew 1:20 says, “Joseph considered these things.” The Greek word for “considered” is not about a calm, logical process. The word here for “considered” is a very emotional word, usually referring to anger and indignation. Perhaps a better way of reading verse 20 is to say: “But as Joseph fumed over these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” Joseph was upset and angry, as any of us would be if we discovered our fiancé had apparently cheated on us.
It is also evident that Joseph was a kind, caring man. Matthew 1:19 says, “unwilling to put her to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.” In cases of adultery, Old Testament law called for the guilty party to be stoned to death. But since the Roman Empire forbade Jews from executing people, divorce became the norm by the first century. Divorce proceedings for adultery were typically carried out via public trial so as to heap additional shame on the guilty party. If this happened, Mary would essentially bear a “scarlet letter” for the rest of her life, publicly labelled as an adulteress. Joseph, however, didn’t want to pile more shame on Mary than she already had. Therefore, he would divorce her before just a couple of witnesses (“quietly”) rather than before the entire town. This shows that being upset and being merciful are not mutually exclusive. Joseph embodied both.
Then the angel appeared to Joseph, explained the divine origin and plan for Mary’s pregnancy, and called Joseph to marry Mary and be a father to Jesus. Joseph obeyed. In taking these steps, he probably incurred shame upon himself. After all, in the eyes of the townspeople, he was either marrying an adulteress, or he was admitting he engaged in premarital sex (thus impregnating Mary). Either of these perceptions would have tarnished Joseph’s reputation as a righteous man (Matthew 1:19).
At Christmastime, it is important to remember that the people depicted in our nativity sets were ordinary people…whom God used in extraordinary ways. Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Magi (wisemen) – they were all ordinary, unlikely people who were swept up in a whirlwind of events that God was orchestrating to bring about the most amazing and important event the world had experienced up to that point – the incarnation of God in human form.
Thinking back to the quote from John Ortberg, we don’t know exactly what Joseph’s impact was on Jesus, although I like to think there is truth in what Ortberg wrote. What we do know is that God was pleased to work through Joseph – an ordinary man – to accomplish His extraordinary purposes. This can give hope and meaning to our lives as well. None of us have any chance of being father to the Messiah. That ship has already sailed; it was a one-time event. But God is continuing to work in our world to grow people as followers of Jesus and to glorify Himself. He loves working through ordinary people just like you, me, Joseph, Mary, and countless others!
So if you think your life is of little significance, think again. As we submit to God’s will, we may find ourselves caught up in a work of God that is far beyond anything we can ask or imagine, all for the praise of His glory! Like Joseph, we may only see hints of it during our earthly lifetime, but we can trust that God is faithful and can follow Him one step at a time…just like Joseph did.