The story of Joseph and Mary, along with the baby Jesus, is a great story and one which has our attention during the Christmas season . Yet, had it not been for hearing the angel of the Lord, Joseph would have carried out his intention to divorce Mary believing her to be an unfaithful adulterous woman. That, however, did not happen. Instead Joseph listened to and believed what the angel said which resulted in Joseph acting in obedient faith to the will of God. That’s what we are told in Matthew 1.18-25.
That all sounds great and makes for a nice story. However, it seems too easy for us to overlook just how much the scale of faith and fear had to be tipped in favor of faith for the story to turn out as it did. First, there is the shame factor. For Joseph to do as the angel of the Lord said, he had to do so knowing that the outsiders (those not privileged to the angel’s revelation) would likely scoff in shame at Joseph for taking Mary, who appears to be an adulteress, to be his wife. Secondly, Joseph had to believe the angel speaking to him was actually a messenger  sent from God in order to hear God speak and subsequently obey.
The later of these two faith factors is something that accompanies every great act of faith in the history of God’s people. It’s called discernment. Yet to be clear, as in the case with Joseph, to discern that God is indeed speaking through this angel also requires Joseph to believe what seems unbelievable. It requires a faith which accepts that now, against all conventional wisdom and common sense, the impossible is now possible because God says so. How does Joseph make this discernment, believing that God is indeed at work through the Holy Spirit and now is calling Joseph to participate with him in this work?
At first glance it seems as though Matthew does not tell us, or does he? What Matthew does tell us is that, “…Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (v. 19, NRSV). That the passage speaks of Joseph as “righteous” is very telling. Joseph is righteous not just because he desires to keep the Law which is what the NIV 2011 would leave us to believe by translating the word dikaios as “faithful to the law”. Rather, Joseph is righteous because he not only seeks to keep Torahbut also because he is willing to show mercy towards Mary when he believes she has been unfaithful . Comparing Joseph to the Joseph of Genesis, Stanley P. Saunders writes:
…Joseph is morally upright, caring for the preservation of life and relationships above all. Joseph refuses to put Mary to shame, although it would be within his rights, but seeks rather to end the relationship quietly… .
So by describing Joseph as “righteous”, we are being told something about the spiritual formation of Joseph. Joseph has been spiritually formed in the will of God because he has become a man who values obeying to God in both keeping the Torah as well as showing mercy to others.
Well, what does this have to do with discerning the will of God? I want to suggest a possibility here. As Saunders further notes:
Joseph takes his place alongside the women mentioned in the genealogy, reminding us that God’s will comes to fruition through the faithful actions of individuals whose obedience may hardly be noticed by others, sometimes even in actions that strike others as odd or incongruous .
Where does such faith come from? How can Joseph hear the words of the angel, believe the angel against all conventional wisdom, and become obedient to the will of God? Could it be that Joseph, because of his spiritual formation, was in the position to hear the angel’s words and discern them to be the will of God? I believe so but the point I want to make has to do with the spiritual formation aspect.
A very big question is the question of discerning God’s will, however God chooses to reveal that will. Many books and articles have been written on this question. Some of them are helpful, some are not so helpful. Could it be though that the first step in learning how to discern the will of God is giving attention to how we are being spiritually formed?
What I do know is that to participate in the mission of God as Joseph did, by believing that the impossible has become possible because of God, requires a deeply convicted faith in God. My hunch is that without our lives being spiritually formed in the righteousness of God, it will be very difficult to have the necessary faith to participate in God’s mission.
1. A slightly shorter version was originally written for the Connecting Newsletter, vol. 26, no. 30 (December 2011) published by the Columbia Church of Christ. I have made a couple of changes for my own blog.
2. The word angelos simply means “messenger” though it is typically translated “angels”.
3. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, 2nd ed., New York: Doubleday, 1993, 127-128.
4. Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 6-7.
5. Ibid, 9.