Perhaps that’s what Joseph thought of the child in Mary’s womb when he found out that she was pregnant. The news must have made him ashamed of Mary; and that shame would fall on himself, too. After all, Mary and Joseph were betrothed. That meant a lot more than that Mary was Joseph’s fiancée, who could walk away from the relationship only suffering a broken heart. In Jewish custom betrothal was a legally binding relationship that was the first stage of marriage. For Mary, that betrothal period would have been a year before the actual nuptials took place, but during that time she would still legally be considered Joseph’s wife. A betrothal could only be broken by divorce or death. But now Mary’s pregnant. Everyone would assume it’s by adultery. And who’d the father, they wonder? I’m sure they took a guess or three.
Joseph has now been shamed for something he did not do, and had no control over, and he’s hurting. And Joseph, being a just man, wanted to do the right thing. He took the Word of God seriously, and looked that Word for God’s guidance here. If she’s an adulteress, he can’t just marry her as if nothing had ever happened. That would just say to everyone around that this sin doesn’t really matter. That the Bible just mandates stuffy outdated traditions which you can cast aside as times change. That sin isn’t serious. That we can cover up real shame by just pretending it’s not really a problem, that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in the first place. That Mary can do what she wants with whom she wants, and expect no consequences, no consequences for her soul, for her heart, for her body, for her life.
Joseph actually believes the Bible is the Word of God, the God who is holy and pure, the God who exposes how sin kills us, how it kills any who are stained by it. Joseph does not want to betray that Word, that God. So Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Now that might seem the right and compassionate thing to do here. As Dr. Jeff Gibbs puts it, “A modern reader might think that Joseph is behaving like some sort of legalist in not ‘accepting’ Mary even though she (presumably) had sinned. However, according to Deuteronomy 22:13-29, Mary, if pregnant by another man, should have been stoned. That Joseph intended to divorce her shows that he affirmed the biblical condemnation of adultery as sin, but that he gave no though to capital punishment shows the triumph of mercy. …in the first century Jewish context, Joseph is showing extraordinary compassion in deciding to divorce Mary secretly, thus both avoiding bringing unnecessary shame on her and eschewing any possible financial profit that could have rightfully been his by impounding Mary’s dowry and perhaps even regaining the bride price that Joseph may have paid at the time of the betrothal.” (from Gibb’s commentary on Matthew)
Because he is a just man, Joseph was about to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. And who could blame him? What other conclusion could this sinful, shame-filled world have taught him to expect? Who could believe Mary’s story? And why should Joseph go through with a union to Mary when she was already joined to someone else, someone she would rather be with, and apparently thought so little of him? I don’t think that, in all this, Joseph is looking out for his own reputation—consider how he takes Mary later, no matter what others think. No, Joseph is a just man, and he is just because he considers God’s will and Word to be more important, more true, more just, than his own.
Now if we’re honest, Joseph seems a lot more just that we are. A lot more willing to take God’s Word seriously and earnestly live according to it. More willing to deal with the hard truth of sin rather than just covering it up and pretending it didn’t happen and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Each of us harbors shame over something. Maybe some you don’t deserve. Maybe some you do. Maybe it’s something you’ve done. Maybe it’s something that’s been done to you. The world would tell you that as long as you don’t feel bad about it, as long as you had good intentions, or didn’t mean it, or were naïve, then you should be fine. Get over it. Move on. Just watch a happy movie, play a fun game, and eat some chocolate. Have another drink. Take another pill. Swallow another lie. But the shame sticks around, stains us, no matter what we do. No matter how we try to rationalize it or excuse it, deny it, ignore it, or drown it out. We’re trapped. There doesn’t seem any way out from under shame’s burden and stigma and stain.
Even if you cast aside God’s Word, deny it, leave the Church and join the world, it won’t help. To many it seems like our country’s culture is utterly shameless, but it’s not true. It stamps its feet and loudly insists that it has nothing to be ashamed of, that all the pain wrenching people’s guts is someone else’s fault, our fault, your fault—but not mine. It will cover its ears and shout down anyone who disagrees. Think of the shame and degradation it heaps on anyone who steps out of line, anyone who even questions the new puritan dogma. I can be whatever I say, do whatever I say—and you have to like it. You have to approve it and support it and celebrate it. To me, that screams a heart full of shame and guilt. It’s trying to make the shame go away by standing in the dark pretending the truth isn’t the truth—but that only works if absolutely everyone endorses the lie. Everyone, because even the tiniest beam of light breaks the darkness.
No matter where we go in this world, no matter what we do, we can’t escape our shame. The devil knows this well, and uses your shame to pry you apart from others, make you think, “What would they say if only they knew? How would they look at me? How quickly would they turn from me?” The devil uses your shame to pry you apart from God, hang your head before Him, make you think, “How can He still love me after what I’ve done? How can a holy God accept me, receive me, why would He want me anywhere close to Him with this stain on my soul? I’m ashamed to call myself a Christian; I’m ashamed to call Him my God. I can’t call myself His; so He must not really be mine.”
Joseph had no way out of shame here. He would either bear the shame of endorsing an adulteress, or breaking the bond of their marriage in divorce. Shame overshadowed Mary and Joseph both as he considering Mary’s baby, “He’s not mine.”
But then God speaks to Joseph. He sends a heavenly messenger to Joseph in the dead of sleep, in the darkness of the night, to enlighten Joseph with His Word. To reveal the Truth to Joseph; to reveal Jesus to Joseph.
The child in Mary’s womb is not from another man, Joseph. Mary has been perfectly faithful, not only to you Joseph, but to God. She was overshadowed not by a shameful act in darkness, but overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, who brought the eternal Light into this world through her. In Mary, God has performed a new creative act, shaping His Son, the second Adam, from the dust of Mary’s flesh and the waters of her womb, the Spirit breathing human life into Him. God spoke His promise into reality, spoke His Word into Mary, and Mary received that Word, received that child, in faith.
"This is the truth, Joseph. This is my Word, Joseph. The world will not accept this Word, because the world will not accept this child. Only faith can. The world will try to heap shame upon you, but do not fear to take Mary as your wife. You know the truth of her purity; I have declared it. Believe me when I tell you who this child is. He is true Immanuel, God with us. He is My own Son, God in human flesh. Name Him for who He is: Jesus, the Lord saves."
Jesus, who saves by being with us. With us in our darkness. With us in our pain. With us in our shame. With us in our sin, to save us from our sin, which is where the darkness and pain and shame come from. Save us from our sin, not just excusing it, or endorsing it, or hiding it, not just say, “It’s ok” and turn a blind eye. Really save us from our sin, washing it away, cleansing us from its stain, atoning for us, restoring us, forgiving us. We may try to cover our shame with fig leaves and excuses, but Jesus covers us with something better—His own blood, His own life, sacrificed for us, to truly save us. To set us free, with the truth; the truth that in Him, we have nothing to be ashamed of anymore, because He’s taken our shame from us, to the cross and grave, to bury it forever. Then come back to bring His freedom to you.
His freedom is for you. Jesus has declared you forgiven. With your own ears you hear the pastor pronounce His absolution. You don’t need to hang your head, because Jesus lifts it to look you right in the eyes and say, “I love you. You are mine, my own, of my people. I was born for you, I died for you, I rose for you, so that I can declare to you now: You are clean. You are pure. No sin can spoil that, no shame can stain you, because I cleansed you of all that sin, the sin that you’ve done, and the sin others have done to you. There is nothing to be ashamed of before me. Receive instead my honor, my love, my life. It’s yours. You now have a place with me forever, right where you belong.”
This is the heavenly message God speaks to you in the darkness of this world, to enlighten you with His Word. To reveal the Truth to you; to reveal Jesus to you. Jesus does all of this because He is just and unwilling to put you to shame, and will never let anything part you from Him. And He doesn’t do it quietly, but has declared it for all the world to hear. Do not be afraid to claim this Jesus as your own. He claims you as His.
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Joseph didn’t father Mary’s child, nor did he even get to pick the baby’s name. But Joseph was faithful to name the child Jesus, as God revealed to Him. It was the only just name to give this boy. Joseph was faithful to hear and obey and trust, enduring the shame this world heaped upon him because he knew the truth now. Joseph believed the Word of God, the God who is holy and pure, who makes we who were stained by sin also holy and pure. Joseph became the faithful guardian of Jesus that day, let the shame and rejection of the world and the bloodlust of Herod fall upon him, so that one day Jesus could bare all shame and rejection on the bloody cross for him, and for us all.
This child is yours Joseph, not because He shares your blood, but because you now share His. He is all of ours; God’s Son, and our Savior.