This past Sunday, the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary brought us to the story when Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, receives news about Mary’s miraculous pregnancy. We read this in Matthew 1.18-25:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)I found this passage surprising and challenging as I reflected on it last week. The Gospel describes Joseph as “a righteous man,” a man who follows God’s will. To give a sense of how important a designation it was, at the time of Matthew’s writing, the term “a righteous man” was often used to describe the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Here is a person who is close to God, who knows God’s heart, whose character and reason were shaped by God’s teaching over time. Matthew appears to insinuate that Joseph’s plan to dismiss Mary quietly when he discovered she was pregnant with someone else’s baby was the compassionate thing to do and under normal circumstances, would have been godly. Yet despite all that formation, despite being a righteous person, Joseph was going to do something that went against God’s plan. How could that happen?
This story challenged me because I realized I held a skewed view of spiritual formation. Namely, I believed that with enough training, with enough shaping by God, we could reach a point in our lives in which we would no longer need God’s guidance—like the apprentice painter who studies and practices under her teacher for years, but eventually learns enough and develops enough that she no longer needs the teacher and can paint and create on her own. Joseph had been developed by God so much that he was recognized as “a righteous man.” One would think he could use his God-shaped reason to plot his life’s course in a way entirely in line with God’s will. We do want God to form our reasoning and characters, but I realized in reading this passage that no amount of reasoning and wisdom can take the place of prayer. I have to be reminded that maturity in the Christian life is not like how we often view maturity, in which we become self-sufficient, independent beings who do not need others for anything. The Christian understanding of maturity actually works the opposite direction. As one becomes more mature in Christ, one understands and seeks to foster a deeper need on God and community. This is not to belittle our reasoning or spiritual formation, but to acknowledge God’s vastness and our constant dependence on God’s revelation.
We could take the angle that Joseph, though being a righteous man, was still sinful and proud and his pride of being close to God clouded his vision of what God was doing. That view of the text, however, still carries with it the assumption that we can get to a point in our walk with God where we no longer need God. As if all we need is to have God help us shirk off our sinful tendencies and then we would be able to see things completely from God’s vantage point on our own. Another option is that we could despair and wonder if we could ever truly know what God wants of us in our lives. The text does not support those interpretations. Rather, the text seems to say that what God was doing in the incarnation was so big, so radical, so surprising, that even “a righteous man” like Joseph could not understand what was happening without God revealing the plan to him. Yes, the text makes it clear that there was centuries-old prophetic hope in Messiah coming, but few would imagine it would be their fiancée who would be the virgin carrying God’s anointed one. Because God was up to something so far beyond anyone’s imagination, even righteous people would be surprised. Joseph is a hero in this passage because he is righteous, he is close to God. As a person who is close to God’s heart, he understands that the God we read about in the Hebrew Bible is full of amazing surprises. To have a character shaped by God means that one would not only act compassionately and justly, but that one would also be open to surprises. If we read these verses and worry whether we could ever know God’s will, let us remember that one of the pieces of good news in a passage just dripping with gospel is that God does give revelation. Joseph can know God’s will because God makes that will known. The tasks for us are to remain open to God’s revelation, to be humble when we believe we have received that revelation, to act accordingly with the values and character God has already shaped in us, and to pray that God will continue to reveal himself to us.
My prayer is that in this last week of Advent we would be surprised by Jesus’ continual incarnation in the world and through prayer, we would receive a greater sense of our need for God and divine revelation.