This sermon was preached in Dawson Creek, BC, and Grande Prairie, Alberta, on Sunday September 26.
THE DESOLATE LAND YIELDS FRUIT
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
“Thus says the Lord Jehovih to the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes, and to the cities that are forsaken, which became a prey and derision to the residue of the heathen that are round about.” Ezekiel 36:4
Imagine Ezekiel calling out to a desolate land. The kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah have both been taken away into captivity, and the land of Canaan has been overrun by Israel’s enemies. “Thus says the Lord Jehovih …. to the desolate wastes, and the cities that are forsaken.” The prophet is told to say these words not to the people of Israel, and not even to the people inhabiting the land: he is told to speak these words to the land itself.
A desolate land, overrun by enemies, the cities destroyed, no life in the hills or the mountains. We all know this land, because there are times when we see this desolate land in ourselves. We look inward, and see nothing but bare mountains, deserts, “desolate wastes.” We feel alone – that we are distant from the people we love, even that our love for others has left us. And in those times, we can hear the voice of the Lord calling out to us from a distance. We can hear a small voice saying, “But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel.”
This is the message of the sermon: the Lord promises the desolate land that it will bear fruit, and that its people will return.
We can see that there is hope in desolation. But why is the land made desolate in the first place? What’s the use of this desolation? The book Arcana Coelestia says, “The Divine Providence differs from all other leading and guidance in the fact that Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, sometimes glad, sometimes sorrowful, which the man cannot possibly comprehend; but still they are all profitable to his eternal life” (n. 8560).
Every state that we go through, whether happy or sad, is leading to a good end. Does this mean the Lord wants us to feel desolate, like an empty land? No – it is hellish spirits who lead people into temptation and desolation. But the Lord allows these things for the sake of a good end. Think of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. They acted from evil. When the children of Israel were carried away into captivity and the land was made desolate, the conquerors were evil. But when Joseph is reunited with his brothers, he does not avenge himself on them. He says, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” The evil spirits who desolate us are trying to destroy us; but the Lord uses these desolate times as an opportunity to prepare us for renewal.
The book Arcana Coelestia specifically addresses this prophecy by Ezekiel. In number 5376, it says, “The subject treated of here is the desolation that comes before regeneration, the desolation being signified by the ‘desolate wastes,’ and the ‘cities that are forsaken, which became a prey and derision.’” There is a desolation that comes before regeneration – a death that comes before rebirth. We see this cycle in the natural world – in the autumn, leaves begin to fall, and in the winter the land can be desolate – but every spring, new life arises out of the decay and death. The miracle of the redeemed land is a miracle that happens constantly around us, in plain sight. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
But in the winter time, spring is nothing but a fantasy, the far off voice of a prophet in exile. In desolate times, renewal seems impossible. What is the use of winter? What is the use of desolation? We can see from experience one of the uses: without winter, how much less would we appreciate the miracle of spring? Without times of emptiness, how would we appreciate fullness? We go through states of day and night – days when we feel the Lord’s presence, and nights when the Lord seems distant. Even in heaven these cycles take place, as described in the book Arcana Coelestia:
The heavenly state is such that spirits and angels pass through morning, midday, and evening, also twilight and morning again, and so on. …All in heaven undergo and pass through these alternating states; without them they cannot be led to ever greater perfection. For those alternating states establish contrasts for them, and from those contrasts they gain more perfect perception, for from those contrasts they know what does not constitute happiness since they know from them what is not good and what is not true. (AC n. 5962)
Angels can see what is good and true from comparing it to a lack of what is good and true.
Other passages in the Writings say that the cycles in the lives of angels are relatively mild, that their darkness is not very dark. But the desolation in Ezekiel goes beyond this. It is utter desolation; this is conquest by foreign armies, cities destroyed, hills and mountains barren. The desolation that comes before regeneration is far from mild – it is utter and complete.
This is a particular kind of desolation. As mentioned before, this is the desolation that immediately comes before regeneration. Right before a person begins his path of rebirth, he comes into a state of darkness and desolation. The creation story begins in darkness and chaos, and after each day, it is said that “the evening and the morning” were the first, or second, or third day. First there is darkness, first there is evening, first there is desolation, before there is light, before there is morning, before there is re-birth.
This specific desolation that comes before regeneration is pictured in many other places in the Word. In a story from the book of Genesis, Abraham casts out Sarah’s maidservant Hagar because Hagar’s son Ishmael has been mocking Sarah’s son Isaac. Hagar wanders in the wilderness with her son Ishmael, and they run out of water. They are near death, and in despair, Hagar puts her son Ishmael under a bush so she does not have to see him die, then lifts up her voice and weeps. It is a picture of desolation and despair. But just at that point, when all hope seems lost, an angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar and tells her not to fear, that there is water nearby – just as the voice of Ezekiel called to the land that it should not despair, that it would return to life. The passage we read from the Writings earlier describes the inner meaning of Hagar’s despair and hope: that it is despair because of a lack of truth, followed by hope at a promise that truth will be restored
Why is truth taken away or brought into doubt, though? Why was Hagar almost allowed to die? Why is the land made desolate? The general reason we already mentioned – so that from experiencing anxiety and grief, we can perceive the opposite, the blessings that the Lord gives us. But in a more specific sense, why does “desolation come before regeneration”? Why are we brought into a state of ignorance after we’ve learned truth but before we start to make them part of our lives? We read in our reading this morning that the primary reason for this particular desolation is that what is “persuasive” with a person can be broken, so that he or she can see what is true.
What is this “persuasiveness”? It is a tendency to believe that we already know everything we need to know, a reluctance to change our minds or be challenged, the desire to always stick to the way we’ve always seen things. Further in the passage from Arcana Coelestia about Hagar, we are given the example of someone who feels like that they have power and intelligence from themselves, not from the Lord. They can be intellectually convinced that the Lord is really in charge, but they don’t believe it in their hearts until they are able to experience their own helplessness for themselves. In their hearts, they still are persuaded that they do not need the Lord’s help. The passage says,
But when anxiety and grief are induced upon them by the fact of their own helplessness, and this even to despair, their persuasive is broken, and their state is changed; and then they can be led into the belief that they can do nothing of themselves, but that all power, prudence, intelligence, and wisdom are from the Lord. … (AC 2694)
Why is the land allowed to become desolate? So that we can experience the truth of the Lord’s saving power, to break us out of our own comfortable self-assurance that we can take care of everything. We might “know” a lot of teachings from the Word but not really understand or believe them on a deep level. When we come into states of desolation, we realize that we don’t actually understand those truths. We feel like they’re being taken from us. We experience a devastating feeling that we don’t know anything at all, that despite our years of being taught we haven’t really learned anything.
Have you ever experienced this? You realize that you don’t understand something you’ve always known is true? Maybe it’s the truth that all good and truth come from the Lord; maybe it’s the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is God; maybe it’s the meaning of one of the Ten Commandments, for example, what it really means to “not covet”. We can know the words that express a truth but realize we don’t understand actually understand the truth itself at all. We can despair over the realization that a truth has apparently been taken from us. But then it can come back, and when it comes back, it’s a deep truth – a truth that you feel, that you live, that you may no longer even be able to express in words.
When we first learn what is true, it enters our head, and doesn’t get much further. We might take pride in our knowledge, we might love that others think well of us. But in time we find this kind of truth leaves us desolate. The land comes under attack from enemies, and we do not know how to defend ourselves, because the true things we know are only intellectual, and they’re tied up with pride and selfishness. In our path of regeneration, we will all experience this if we have not already: a feeling that we are lost, that the things we once knew and took comfort in, the love we felt for others, even the most basic spiritual truths – that there is God, that He loves us – even these feel like they have been taken from us. The land is made desolate.
We cannot force an end to these states. The passages we read tell us that we will go through them, if not in this world, then in the next world. There is not a simple solution, an easy way to avoid those long nights of doubt and despair. But we can take some comfort in knowing that this is still part of the Lord’s plan, that he is allowing us to go through this for the sake of salvation. It is OK for us to be experiencing this. The Lord is allowing it to happen so that afterwards we can come into a much deeper understanding, a much fuller sense of His presence. In those states of darkness, we can try to hear the Lord’s voice, try to obey Him even though we have lost sight of Him. Like Hagar, we can cry out to Him. We can call to mind the truth that all states lead to a good end. But still, we may come almost to the point of total despair. But eventually a voice will call to us. The prophet Ezekiel sings out to the land –
But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to My people of Israel; for they are at hand to come. For, behold, I [am] for you, and I will turn unto you, and you shall be tilled and sown: And I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, [even] all of it: and the cities shall be inhabited, and the wastes shall be builded: And I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and bring fruit: and I will settle you after your old estates, and will do better [unto you] than at your beginnings: and you shall know that I [am] Jehovah.
Lessons: Ezekiel 36:1-15: Mark 4:35-41; AC 2694
AC 2694. That they who are being reformed are reduced into ignorance of truth, or desolation, even to grief and despair, and that they then for the first time have comfort and help from the Lord, is unknown at this day, for the reason that few are reformed. They who are such that they can be reformed are brought into this state, if not in the life of the body, nevertheless in the other life, where this state is well known, and is called vastation or desolation, … They who are in such vastation or desolation are reduced even to despair; and when they are in this state they then receive comfort and help from the Lord, and are at length taken away into heaven, where they are instructed among the angels as it were anew in the goods and truths of faith. The reason of this vastation and desolation is chiefly that the persuasive which they have conceived from what is their own may be broken; and that they may also receive the perception of good and truth, which they cannot receive until the persuasive which is from their own has been as it were softened.
This is brought about by the state of anxiety and grief even to despair. What is good, nay, what is blessed and happy, no one can perceive with an exquisite sense unless he has been in a state of what is not good, not blessed, and not happy. From this he acquires a sphere of perception, and this in the degree in which he has been in the opposite state. The sphere of perception and the extension of its limits arise from the realizing of contrasts. These are causes of vastation or desolation, besides many others