His story can easily get missed in the wonder of angel’s song and silent nights, but it is a story worth telling. He shows up, almost exclusively, in parts of the first two chapters of Matthew – who characteristically suggests more than he states. The first hint of the unusual comes when, at the end of the genealogy leading to Jesus, Matthew breaks form and lists Joseph as, “the husband of Mary.” In the patriarchal culture of first century Palestine, it is worth noting. He will forever be identified as connected to Mary – a connection which, as the story proceeds, he appears comfortable with. He has nothing to prove. Perhaps God can only trust those with nothing to prove.
He is, we are told, a righteous man – a man marked over time by right actions. He can be counted on to do the right thing without thinking about it. So it is not surprising when he hears that his promised bride is expecting a baby by the Holy Spirit, that he seeks to remove himself from a situation for which he feels less than qualified – and to do so in a way that would not shame Mary. It is possible that he is setting her aside because he didn’t believe her story – but it seems at least as likely that he is setting himself aside because he did. It is the angel who clarifies our understanding of Joseph’s heart – he is afraid. Not angry. Not disappointed. Not heartbroken. Afraid.
That fear – that awe – is the appropriate foundation for the first explicit reference in the New Testament to what is really going on in the birth of Jesus – so named because Joseph named him with the revelatory understanding that He, Jesus, would save his people from their sins! From their sins! This was not on anyone’s radar screen. They were looking for a deliverer – a savior – but from Roman oppression! Joseph’s awe-filled righteousness enabled him to be the first man God trusted with the news of a salvation going deeper than political deliverance.
In what becomes a statement characteristic of Joseph, he “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” Three times this is said of him. This obedience both arises from and helps frame his righteousness. His obedience leads him to set aside whatever agenda or plan he might have had for his life – everything else took a distant second to the care for his wife and the baby. He, a nobody from the backwoods of northern Israel, ended up in Egypt – because he was obedient – and returned for the same reason.
What kind of man is it whom God can trust? A righteous man. A man who lives in awe of God. A self-controlled man. An obedient man. A selfless man. A courageous man. A faith-full man. A man like Joseph.
Perhaps it was from watching Joseph in his loving care for Mary that Jesus learned how to treat His Bride.