This Advent season our pastor is focusing on Joseph, the humble husband of Mary, whose small but pivotal role in the early life of Jesus is a powerful testimony to what God will accomplish through an obedient man. I thought of Joseph as I ran holiday errands this week. I live in Alabama, which means political ads were mixed in with Christmas carols on the radio. I addressed cards while watching Elf and endured more ads. My Facebook feed is full of politics and Donald Trump keeps calling my house. Both parties are working overtime to convince voters that their candidate is a good man, and the opponent is a bad one. The race is a tight one because voters seem to disagree about what they value most in a leader.
How do we, as a culture, determine what a good man looks like? More importantly, how do we, as Christians, learn God’s view of a “good man,” considering that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?” And how do I, as a mom of three young men, teach my sons what godly manhood looks like?
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1: 18-19)
During their betrothal, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. He is a “just” man – which can also be translated “righteous” – meaning he knows that the law protects his interests. He is not required to take in another man’s child and raise him as his own. Initially, he seems to want to exercise this right, but he is also “unwilling to put her to shame.”
Mary appears to be in violation of their betrothal agreement, and he owes her nothing, but Joseph is a merciful man. He does not want her to suffer the penalty – death by stoning – for her pregnancy. Perhaps he is thinking of the innocent baby as well. Joseph is also a humble man. In a male-dominated culture, where women were little better than property, Joseph appears unconcerned about his own reputation, but would rather protect defenseless Mary in spite of the fact that she would seem to be guilty of infidelity.
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit.” (v.20)
Joseph does not react out of hot temper or wounded pride. He considers Mary, and is rewarded for his thoughtfulness by a word from God Himself. Joseph receives not only reassurance (“do not fear”) but also very clear instructions about how to proceed in these extraordinary circumstances. Joseph obeys, and from then on is guided step-by-step as he keeps Mary and Jesus safe by faith and by action.
Joseph is a man who takes seriously his responsibility to protect the vulnerable. He values both justice and mercy, and he is a man of obedient faith and decisive action. He proves to be utterly trustworthy as the earthly father to the Messiah. He is, by heritage, as “son of David,” but Joseph knows some things that his ancestor David had to learn the hard way.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof… that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (2 Samuel 11:2-4)
The king of Israel summons another man’s wife because he wants her. He takes what he wants – who knows what she wants? – and because he is powerful, there is no one to stop him. Certainly we do not know what happens between the two of them alone, but at the very least David abuses his power over this beautiful woman. David compounds his guilt by having her husband murdered, and hides his crimes until God mercifully sends the prophet Nathan to confront him.
Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who steals a poor shepherd’s beloved lamb, killing the lamb to serve a guest for dinner. In the allegory, David is the rich man (who already had multiple wives), Uriah is the shepherd (who had one well-loved wife), and Bathsheba is the innocent lamb, sacrificed for the whim of another’s appetite. Nathan, as God’s spokesman, depicts David as a predator, all the more sinister because as king David was supposed to protect the people God has given him to lead. If the story ended here, we would safely be able to call David a very bad man.
But we know David as the “man after God’s own heart.” (1 Samuel 13:14) How is this possible, after all David has done (and there is more, both awful and admirable, throughout the story of David’s life)?
Listen to David’s response when Nathan tells him the story is about his own sin: “I have sinned against the Lord.” (v. 13)
What makes David so special to God is not David’s moral rectitude. He is not particularly good sometimes; sometimes David’s behavior is very, very bad. But David loves God. He is grieved when he sins against God. He confesses and he repents, and his repentance is genuine:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your lovingkindness… cleanse me from my sins. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, and You only, have I sinned and done this evil in Your sight… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit away from me. (Psalm 51:1,3,4,10)
Throughout His Word, God makes it clear that He expects His people to defend the weak and shelter the vulnerable. David’s behavior with Bathsheba is the opposite of Joseph’s treatment of Mary. Joseph treats Mary with dignity and respect, even before he knows she deserves it, even when he thinks she has wronged him. David treats Bathsheba as a worthless object of lust. Joseph insulates Mary; David exposes Bathsheba to shame, kills her husband, and impregnates her with a child who will die because of his sin. Joseph knows who God is, and chooses to act in a manner pleasing to God. David also knows God well, but allows sinful desire to block what He knows God wants from him.
Ultimately, however, both David and Joseph were highly favored by God, but not because they were such “good” men. They pleased God because of their great faith: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6) Even David, in spite of sins that seem outrageous, diligently sought Him. Probably no one in Scripture, other than Jesus Himself, sought God more eagerly, hungrily, earnestly than David.
So the ads and robocalls can talk all they want about what makes a man good. There is only one way for me or you or Joseph or David or anyone else to find right standing with God: …having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)