Putting Conditions on God – A sermon by Rev. David Fekete

Genesis 28:10-22 – Jacob’s Dream at Bethel

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.*

In our story from Genesis, Jacob is choosing which God he will follow.  There were many Gods for Jacob to choose from in Israel.  In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew word for God is El.  El has different titles which were tied to certain places in Israel.  El-Shaddai, which means “Mountain God, also “God Almighty.”  There is El-Elyon, “God Most High.”  There is the general name of God, the name of the God of creation, “Elohim.”  Elohim is a perplexing name for God because it means, literally, “Gods”—it is a plural noun.  In addition to these Gods, there were other Canaanite Gods.  One such God, who caused much trouble in the history of Israel is Baal.  And in the religions of the ancient near east, Baal’s Father is called El.  Then there are Canaanite Goddesses in Israel like Asherah.  Among all these Gods and Goddesses, Yahweh—also translated as Jehovah—was a competitor.

According to some of the Bible writers, the name Yahweh wasn’t given to the Israelites until Moses asked God for His name.  This happened in Exodus 3.  So these writers never use the name Yahweh in their Bible stories until God gives it to Moses.  But there were many writers whose stories were edited into what we now have as the Bible.  So we find Yahweh in the Bible before Moses.  That is who appears to Jacob in his dream of the stairway to heaven with the angels ascending and descending on it.  Yahweh says that He is the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham.  God makes the comforting promise that He is with Jacob and will watch over Jacob wherever he goes.  

This is an unconditional promise of God.  God does not say, “If you sacrifice a bull to me I will be with you.”  God does not even say, “If you keep my covenant, I will be with you.”  No.  God says unconditionally that He is with Jacob and will watch over Jacob wherever he goes.

That is true for us, too, for everybody.  God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go.  God also always does what is good to and for us.  God is always lifting us out of self and ego upward into charity, neighbor love, and love for God.  God puts no conditions on this effort to save.  God works to save no matter what we do.  

However, we need to respond to God, as does Jacob.  God takes care of us.  God works to save us.  But God can’t save us without us responding to God.  We need to say, as did Jacob, “Yahweh will be my God.”  But what Jacob says before this is interesting.  And it may suggest the way some of us respond to God.  While God unconditionally promises to be with Jacob, Jacob puts conditions on whether he will follow Yahweh.  Listen to Jacob’s response to his vision of God,

“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear  so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

I think that a lot of us put conditions on God.  Also, we have expectations on what belief in God means for us.

One way to call on God isn’t really sincere.  It comes from trouble.  Sometimes when a person is in deep trouble, maybe he or she is facing legal trouble, or is in some drunken calamity like facing jail for drunk driving, one cries out to God, “God get me out of this and I will go to church every Sunday!”  Then the person gets a break, the trouble goes away, and the person forgets about the promise he or she made to God.  Prayers of desperation don’t work all that well for a person’s relationship with God.  But still, God is with us and will watch over us wherever we go.  

There are other strange expectations that we put on God.  We make deals with God that benefit us.  Some of these deals with God are funny.  I remember a long time ago my parents took us children on a trip across America.  One of our stops was Las Vegas.  Of course, my mom played the slots.  She made a vow that she would give her winnings to the church.  But she was genuinely surprised that God didn’t let her win.  She lost money, and God didn’t let her win just because she was going to give her winnings to the church.  Her theology at the time didn’t understand that God made the laws of probability.  And God doesn’t violate God’s own laws.  And casinos are experts on God’s laws of probability and calculate their games and machines to make people lose.  

Another expectation people put on God is that no harm will come to believers.  But Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).  I’ve seen people on TV say that if their faith is strong enough, God will protect them from COVID-19.  I’ve seen on TV a pastor who held church services with reckless disregard to social distancing.  He caught COVID-19 and died.  

A book came out a few decades ago called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  As if only good things would happen to good people.  God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on good and evil alike.  But because bad things happen to us, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t still with us, watching over us wherever we go.

Probably the hardest thing about our relationship with God is when it looks like our prayers aren’t answered.  Some of our prayers are funny.  God give me wealth, power, and total revenge on all my enemies.  Of course God doesn’t answer prayers like this.  And I doubt that many of us make prayers exactly like this.  But I think that we all make prayers that are variations of this prayer.  

I remember a long time ago praying for God to get me into Harvard.  I was feeling very alienated from society being raised a Swedenborgian, and from certain issues that devolved from the family life of my upbringing.  I pleaded with God to get me into Harvard, which I thought would solve these feelings of alienation.  God did answer this prayer.  And attending Harvard opened my mind to a great world that my parochial Swedenborgian upbringing blinded me to.  And going to that great, open-minded divinity school did two important things for me.  First, I was accepted as a Swedenborgian there for the first time in my life.  Second, I accepted peoples of other faiths who weren’t Swedenborgians.  This ecumenical attitude persisted through my whole life—even through my presidency of the Edmonton Interfaith Centre.  

I related that story to show that God does answer our prayers when good comes from it.  Going to Harvard was good for me, and it led to good deeds I did later as a direct result of my attendance at Harvard.  But I started out talking about when prayers aren’t answered.  Like my CD selling millions and that world concert tour that was supposed to come from it.  

Just recently, I made an earnest prayer about my poetry and my musical endeavors.  God did answer that prayer, too.  But not in that way I wanted at the time.  My prayer was like Jacob’s.  If you do this for me, I will follow you.  Only it was a little different.  It was more like, “Why can’t you give me these things?!  I know you can do anything.”  

My first impression was to recall the original words I made in my Harvard prayer.  I told God back then that if He gets me into Harvard that my score with Him is settled.  All the bad and wrongs I had suffered would be atoned for and I would consider us even.  So why was I still discontented, now?  Hadn’t I promised that our score was settled back then?  But God gave me a better answer to this prayer.  And it basically was, is that what you really want?  God then gave me memories of things I’d done in my life that were profoundly meaningful.  And they were not about fame and fortune.  They were memories of playing music at Convention, about playing in chapel at Almont.  About connections I made with young people that meant a lot to them and to me.  These experiences sit in my mind with pleasant and deep meaning.  Other experiences, such as me playing solo trumpet on stage before concert halls, or playing rock in bars are easy to forget, and don’t make much of an impression on me when I recall them.  

So my peak experiences were not ones of popularity or mass approval.  They were experiences of emotional connection and spiritual meaning.  Maybe to sum it all up is an email I recently received from a musician friend of mine.  He has played with international music stars in venues as large as arenas.  He wrote me that he plays for God wherever he is at.  That is an answer to prayer.  And that is how God works.

When God promises to be with us and watch over us wherever we go, it means that God will take care of us.  God gives us what is good for us.  And this may not be what we want.  Sometimes going through troubles opens our hearts up and breaks up self-will run riot.  As the musician Heather Brooks sings in one of her songs, “Without those desperate hours, would we turn to you, and recognize our weakness.”  Without being broken and beaten down, we would think ourselves invincible.  Our ego would rule.  We would never come to God.  We would never become humble.  Then we would not be saved.

We are conflicted people.  We are torn between ego and God.  We are torn between sin and salvation.  We are born with self-serving, destructive tendencies.  Swedenborg says that we need to be turned upside down.  That means ego needs to be below and God above. But we are in process.  God’s saving love is grafted on our egos like a cultivated fruit branch on a wild plant.

If God took our egos away instantly, before heavenly affections had deep roots in our souls, we would fall down dead.  Our life would be taken away from us.  So our spiritual process is one in which both sin and love grow up together.  That is the meaning behind Jesus’ parable.  The weeds of our ego grow up with the wheat of heavenly good.  Ego gives us drive, and God refines ego into heavenly love for others.  At the end of our spiritual process, heavenly loves will be separated from our lower drives.  That is what heaven is—when we are living a life of love.  But here on earth, we will notice weeds within our garden of love.  God will not water and feed the weeds, even if we set our hearts on them.

So by watching over us, God may not cooperate with the conditions we put on God.  God’s love for us is unconditional.  God gives us what is good for us.  God ever lifts us toward heaven and into communion with God.  God makes us kinder, gentler, humbler, more loving.  And we might never get there if God gave us what we want from God… 

*Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Rev. David Fekete, PhD, is pastor at the Church of the Holy City (Swedenborgian) in Edmonton, Alberta, and contributing editor of “Our Daily Bread” at spiritualquesters.org. His passions include literature, ecumenism, music and the arts, as well as interfaith dialogue.

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