The Unlikely Hero of Psalm 85:1-2

St. Florian's psalter, XIV/XV c.

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“LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.” (Psalms 85:1-2 NRSV)

Jacob wasn’t exactly a hero in the biblical narrative, at least when you look at even a cursory review of his “adventures” leave him to be a pretty suspect character. He refused to give his hungry brother stew unless he could have Esau’s birthright in exchange (is this the birth of capitalism?), he schemed with his mother Rebekah and then lied directly to Isaac so that he could receive his father’s blessing, and I don’t need to mention (though of course that’s what I’m about to do) the tragic instance that took place with his daughter Dinah.   Yet isn’t it this Jacob whose name is repeatedly invoked in the “God of Abraham,  Isaac, and Jacob”? And of course, Jacob is Israel and the Israelites are God’s people. Jacob is an unlikely hero but he isn’t the only one.

But isn’t this really the Psalmist’s point? It doesn’t have anything to do with Jacob, or Israel, at all; it is the LORD who remains faithful, who offers favor, forgiveness, and restoration to those (most) unlikely to receive it.

As we approach Christmas there is a laundry list of unlikely heroes involved in the birth narrative of Jesus, but I can’t help but hear echoes of this Psalm in Mary’s Magnificat.

“…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:48-50 NRSV)

Mary, a young teenage girl living in an occupied land under a cruel and powerful emperor, was able to look forward to God’s promise because her hope was grounded in what God had already done.  Although she demonstrates an inability to fully understand what Christ, even her own son, came to do, questioning why he stayed back at the temple and asking him to perform miracles, she is one of the last remaining disciples with him even at the foot of the cross.  Despite our failings, we too share this hope grounded in the Christmas event: God’s faithfulness and forgiveness at work in human history, as the Psalmist and Mary remind us.

Prayer:  Lord, we rejoice that you work in human history through the lowly.  Let us be faithful to your call even where we are unworthy of the task.

This is a short meditation Emily and I wrote for our church’s advent devotional.

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