Lesson One: God with Us Wherever We Are
Primary Scripture: Genesis 26:1–6; 28:10–22
Amy Poling Sutherlun, the author of God’s Promise: I Am with You, is busy at work, saddling up to deliver blogs for lessons two through nine. But that gives Carissa Herold, PW’s marketing associate, an occasion to offer her musings on lesson one.
“God’s promise to be with us allows us to consider the surprising and powerful intimacy of God’s willingness to be with us in all our circumstances.” (Focus of lesson one (p. 11).)
Personally, I am thankful that God, who has chosen to “be with us in all our circumstances,” is right here, right now . . . with you and me and the woman who is currently the third person in the third check-out line at the Piggly Wiggly in Foley, Alabama. God is ever-present and available to each of us, whether we are typing a blog, purchasing popcorn, or serving communion. God is with us no matter our foibles and circumstances. God is with us in the mundane (popping popcorn) and the momentous.
Sunday school teachers are ever-busy teaching about God’s covenant with God’s people. There’s that word: covenant! I ever carry with me the cartoonish images of covenant from childhood, lessons of a single dove carrying an olive branch in her beak, majestically circling over Noah’s little boat foundered on a tiny speck of dry land. Oh, and I cannot forget recalling its precious cargo, as this vessel incredibly teams with creatures of every kind (and in twos!). But decades later (never mind how many), I admit that the idea of God’s covenant has sort of stayed stuck in my mind in this way.
How many of us deeply appreciate the gravity—the wildly generous offer—of God’s covenant with us? And deep, deep down in our hearts, who among us trusts (let alone grasps) this unearned offer? Raise your teacup if you feel that there must be a catch here? In this world of broken promises, shady fixes and devious loopholes, how could this most consequential offer not seem a bit suspect? Surely, we would need to earn it too.
John Goldingay, in his book, Genesis for Everyone: Part Two, helped me to better come to terms with the terms! He writes: “I was trying to explain to a group of Christians the difference between a covenant and a contract in order to suggest that God’s relationship with us is more like the former than the latter. I have a contract with the phone company and with the publishers of this book. I pay my phone bill; the phone company makes my phone work. I produce a manuscript; the publisher pays me a royalty. No payment; no phone connection; no phone connection; no payment. No manuscript; I have to return the advance. But I have a covenantal relationship with my wife. I am committed to her no matter what happens . . . When you marry someone, you don’t say, ‘I will commit myself to you on condition that you commit yourself to me.’” (John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone: Part Two, Chapters 17–50 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pages 89–90.)
God has made a covenant with us. No loopholes in sight!
Betsy Ensign-George, PW’s Bible study editor, kindly (because she is always kind) and smartly (ditto) suggested that I add a bit about the Old Testament story that is the foundation of this lesson. So let’s consider Jacob.
Jacob is a wonderful character because Jacob isn’t perfect. Far from it! He spends his energy ensuring that he comes out on top of whatever situation he is in. And that includes stealing his twin’s birthright. Oops. Jacob’s choice doesn’t work out so great for either of them. Jacob’s miscalculation (or put another way: deceitfulness) results in a murderous brother in pursuit. Jacob may be the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, but he is keenly aware that he is in big trouble.
Amy Poling Sutherlun writes, “What should ultimately amaze us is not that God comes from heaven to earth, but that God comes to flawed and faithless folks like Jacob. God comes to the wanderers and the wrestlers, to the lost and the least.” (p. 15)
A fitful sleep with a rock as a pillow brings spent Jacob a dream of dancing angels and a ladder that connects heaven and earth. And it is only then that Jacob realizes that God has “stood beside him” (Gen. 28:13), no matter what. God’s generous offer of covenant just didn’t (couldn’t!) initially compute with someone like Jacob. Jacob measures and calculates. From a bargainer’s standpoint, how could this be a good “deal” for God?
I really appreciate the author’s humor poking through in the last paragraph of lesson one:
Jacob erects a pillar to mark the place of God’s appearance and appropriately names the site ‘Bethel,’ which, in Hebrew means ‘house of God.’ Then Jacob takes things a step further, vowing, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me [sound familiar?] . . . and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, [Jacob is ever a bargainer of blessings] so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God . . .’ [emphasis mine]. Jacob even promises to give back to God one-tenth of all he is given. With this vow, Jacob, who has always sought his own gain, subtly yields his life to the Lord who not only stood beside Jacob in the past, but promises to be with him wherever he goes.” (p. 16)
Jacob carves out a new way of living, albeit with an “if-then” statement or two that seals the deal! Jacob is Jacob, after all. It is interesting to note that Jacob alone offers “if-then” statements here. John Goldingay muses, “If God waited for there to be people who would fulfill ‘if’ clauses before working through them, God would wait forever.” (p. 91) Further: “There is nothing contractual about the relationship God wants to have with Jacob, but there is everything contractual about the relationship Jacob wants to have with God. Jacob is always the calculator.” (p. 91)
So how do we mortals please the One who is Generous and Faithful? Perhaps we can attempt to mirror these traits of generosity and faithfulness. Living out the PW Purpose offers Presbyterian women a way to live in thanksgiving to the One who stands with us.
The author of this year’s study is a Texas native and she sprinkles her presentations with a big bit of Texas pride. In that spirit, I share with you a poem I found in (of all things) a souvenir address book from South Dakota! Here is an excerpt from “A Cowboy’s Prayer” by Badger Clark (poet laureate to boot!):
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!
Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.
PW Marketing Associate
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