Sermon: Years of Plenty, Years of Famine
I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 8, at the Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.
Readings: Genesis 41; Matthew 6:19-21; Arcana Coelestia 5342
“And all the land of Egypt was famished, and the people cried to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all Egypt, Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” (Genesis 41:55)
There was a famine throughout all the land. Today, and in this part of the world, it may be hard for us now to imagine what a famine is like. Imagine the hungriest you’ve ever been, and then imagine that kind of hunger lasting over weeks, months, years. That’s the kind of famine we can picture taking place in our story, and the famine does not last one season, but seven long years. But hope was not entirely lost – because there was food in the land of Egypt. We can imagine people from all the nations around pouring into Egypt to receive sustenance – just enough food to survive for a little while longer, until the famine passed. There was food in Egypt, but the famine was there too – the famine was unavoidable, but could be survived due to the seven years of plenty that came before.
But before any of that, before even the years of plenty began, Pharaoh had his dreams. He dreamt of seven fat, beautiful cows that came up from the river, and ate grass by the river bank. But after them came up seven skinny, ugly cows, that ate up those seven fat, good cows. And again he dreamed: seven good ears of grain grew on one stalk – but after them came up seven dry, withered husks, and consumed the good ears of grain. Both were disturbing dreams, and Pharaoh wanted to know the interpretation; but none of his counselors was able to tell him. At that moment, Pharaoh’s butler remembered Joseph, who had interpreted his dream in prison; and after the butler had spoken to Pharaoh, Joseph was called up from prison to interpret the dream. Joseph told Pharaoh the dream’s meaning: that there would be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Beyond this, though, Joseph told Pharaoh what he should do with the knowledge from this dream: appoint someone over the land of Egypt, and appoint governors, to store up the grain during the good years, and then to distribute it during the bad. Pharaoh saw the wisdom in Joseph’s advice, and made Joseph himself that governor over all of Egypt.
Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh was accurate – but it was a natural interpretation, not a spiritual one. For the Word to be the Word, everything in it must have something to do with God, a deeper meaning about love to the Lord and love to the neighbour. And there is a deeper meaning to the dreams of Pharaoh, and a deeper meaning to the events in the story, even though they really did take place as described. Pharaoh’s dreams at first described a state of plenty, of good things. They foretold seven years of plenty, when the crops yielded abundantly and there was more than enough food for everyone. And this described something that happens in our lives. We have times of plenty. Every one of us experiences states where things go well – where we feel the Lord’s presence, where things come naturally to us, where we look forward to the day every morning.
The images in the dreams – the good cows and the good ears of grain – specifically represent things we learn and know. The cows represent a deeper sort of knowledge, the things we know but might have a hard time putting into words; the ears of grain represent the more external knowledges, but still knowledges that contain goodness and love within them, just as an ear of corn contains the kernels of corn within it (see Arcana Coelestia 5198, 5212). The cows are said to be beautiful and fat. All true beauty, the Writings say, comes from an affection for truth, a love for truth. And the fatness of the cows represents love to the neighbour, or charity. These images are all images of true ideas that we learn with eagerness and affection, because they have to do with love.
And so these seven years, the seven cows, the seven ears of grain, represent times in our lives when we are seeing truth from an affection for it. We learn about the ideals of marriage, and we love that picture, and we see how it could be possible. We learn about what it means to be a good parent, by reading the Word and by seeing the example of people we admire. We learn all the things it takes to follow the Lord: to follow the Ten Commandments, and to acknowledge that it is only with His help that we’re able to do this. The state described by these seven years of plenty is a state where it’s not uncommon for us to say, “Yeah, I get it!” or “Hey, I just realized this,” or, “Listen to what I just read, isn’t it incredible?”
We all have these states, where we’re learning truth with affection. Think of a time even when you were a child, when you were learning about something that touches your heart even now: that your parents loved you, that God loved you, that you were being taken care of, that there is a hope for true marriage love, that there is a heaven. When children learn these things, they’re not just abstract concepts, and it’s not a struggle for them to accept them: of course a person can get married and live happily ever after, of course I’ll go to heaven, of course the Lord loves me.
Even in adulthood, we do have states where things come more easily than at other times. And Joseph gives Pharaoh advice about these times: if you’re in a state of plenty, appoint someone to store those good things up. In this story, Joseph represents something deeper in ourselves, and in the highest sense He represents something of the Lord with us. And the truth is that anytime we’re learning truth with affection, the Lord is storing those truths up within our minds. But we can also try to make sure we are open to that. A truth is stored up within us when we see how it can apply to life and when we want to apply it to life. And so in those good states, we can do several things to ensure that the Lord stores up those good things in us. We can make an effort to immediately take what we know and see how it leads to greater love for the neighbour. We can make an effort to learn as much as we can from the Lord. And we can remind ourselves to thank the Lord for the good things He is blessing us with. And the Lord does store up every single good and true feeling and thought that we have – we never lose those.
There are seven years of plenty. But immediately following those seven years of plenty, the famine comes. Remember, this is not merely talking about a time of hunger – this is talking about a time of complete desolation, of starvation and need. And as much as we would like to avoid it – and it’s true that we do not want to seek it out – there will be times in our spiritual lives when we experience spiritual famine, spiritual desolation. The Lord Himself experienced it, many times; He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46) – and He said, “I thirst” (John 19:28). The Lord’s despair and thirst came from an inability, in that moment, to see how His goal could possibly be accomplished, to see the truth that the human race could be redeemed. And just as there are times when we learn the truth and see it clearly, there are times in our lives when we feel blind and hungry.
Remember, those good cows and those good ears of grain represent things we know, things that come into our minds with affection. But they are not the only things that we take in with our minds. Even as we learn truth and rejoice in it, we have voices from hell pouring in thoughts and ideas that are harmful and destructive – those seven skinny cows, those seven parched ears of grain. These are the ideas that say, “Look around you – what makes you think there’s anything other than the physical world? We have a physical explanation for everything.” We look around and see all the failed relationships, all the broken marriages, and we think that there’s no such thing as true, lasting love. And those ideas start to eat up the good and true ideas we had earlier. We lose our ability to see things that were so clear before. We thought we knew what it meant to be a good parent, but now we find ourselves at a loss. We thought we knew what it meant to love other people, but now we find that as much as we want to, we don’t know how. We experience these times of desolation, when we want so, so much to follow the Lord – and yet the truth seems to be lacking.
These are times when there’s a disconnect between all those ideals we had before, and the way we experience our everyday natural lives. The truth is, all those good things and true ideas we had before have not gone away. They’ve been stored up more deeply inside of us, and at times we catch glimpses of them still. But they can seem so foreign, so distant from where we are now, that they might as well not be there at all. And often, we can’t even catch glimpses. The Writings say that those true ideas tied to affections for goodness are drawn up within us for a reason. There’s a reason for desolation – even though the Lord never wants us to have to experience desolation, He allows it so that good can come of it. One primary reason that the Lord allows this to take place is that without experiencing times of famine, we do not really appreciate the times of plenty. By contrast, we’re able to be grateful when we do have those times of plenty. Also, by times of desolation – which the Word also refers to as times of temptation – we learn that there is nothing good or true that comes from ourselves. Before experiencing those times, we can think that we know the things we do because we’re good people, or wise from ourselves. But when those certainties are taken away – when everything is brought into doubt – then we realize that we are not in control of those things. They don’t belong to us. We don’t earn salvation – the Lord grants it to us, by giving us the ability to love Him and follow His truth. By going through times of desolation, we come to a state where we can acknowledge that everything we have, we have because of the Lord’s mercy. And when they return to us, they are softer, more gentle – we do not hold them with pride, but with gratitude and humility.
But what do we do when we are in those times of famine? Even if we have some idea of why the Lord allows them, we still feel the pangs of starvation. We still have that desire to love, but lack the knowledge of how to do so. And those goods and truths that are stored up within us, again, seem remote – the storehouses of Egypt are far away. What can we do for those true ideas to come back down to the natural level of our levels, into our everyday reality, rather than just being a fading memory?
The people of Egypt did not have immediate access to the food that had been stored up. Pharaoh told them how they would receive it. He said to them, “Go to Joseph, and what he says to you, do.” The way for them to receive as much food as was useful for them was to go to Joseph and then act in obedience to him. Now remember, Joseph in this story represents something deeper within us, specifically a love for the Lord within the spiritual level of our mind. And for us to receive food in times of famine, we need to submit the lower levels of our minds, and the natural level of our lives, to something higher. The book Arcana Coelestia describes it this way:
It is the internal man that should command, and the external that should obey, and that does obey when the man does not have the world as the end, but heaven, and does not have self as the end, but the neighbor, consequently when he regards bodily and worldly things as means and not as the end. (Arcana Coelestia 5368)
The way to submit our external lives to what is higher is to act based on principles of love toward our neighbour.
Now, in times of famine, it is not always easy to see how we can do that. That is where the hunger is. But even if we can’t see the specifics of what we should do in a given situation, we can at least act in obedience to this general rule: we ought to submit our own desires for pleasure and worldly things to a higher desire that we act in love toward our neighbour. This does not mean we have to do away with everything we find enjoyable – but it does mean that we have to look as our own enjoyment – our relaxation, our fun, our pleasure – as only a means so that we can better serve others.
The thing, is, though, that when we do this it does not usually feel very connected to those higher ideals. It takes compelling ourselves to shun evils as sins, and when we compel ourselves, it mostly feels like hard work, and it contains almost nothing of that inspirational, higher delight that we had in those times of plenty. The reason for this is that when we seemingly compel ourselves, it is really something deeper within ourselves compelling us, our true selves – but we are mostly conscious on the level of our external selves in those times of famine, and so we feel like we’re being pushed around. And being fed in times of famine is not the same as being fed in times of plenty. We do not suddenly end the famine, we do not suddenly force truth to start coming easily again. But when we compel ourselves to shun selfishness, to shun harsh thoughts and actions even toward people we don’t like, when we force ourselves not to give into the things we’ve always given into before – then we can be fed. Slowly but surely, we start to see that those deeper things, the things we thought might never have been real, start to take root even in our everyday, normal interactions.
All this takes place, though, only if we acknowledge that these things do not come from ourselves. It takes place only if we rely completely on the Lord Jesus Christ, praying to Him and acknowledging that He is the source of everything good. Even that self-compulsion, which feels so much like it comes from us, is actually from the the Lord and all His angels stirring those good things in us, causing us to desire them. We can’t determine when or how we will once again start to see the Lord around us, or to feel His presence; in fact, the Writings say that the Lord does not answer prayers for a temptation to end, because He knows that if it were ended early, it would do more harm than good for a person. But we can trust that He will give us as much wisdom and as much love as we need for every day – our daily bread. And we can trust that, even though it may take seven long years of famine, years of scraping through, the times of plenty will come again.
Joseph himself experienced these cycles again and again. From being his father’s favourite son, he found himself a slave in Egypt; from being the head of Potiphar’s household, he found himself in Pharaoh’s dungeon. He experienced times of plenty, followed by times of hardship. And yet, he trusted that even in the times of hardship, the Lord was doing what was best for him. Because of the famine, his brothers came from the land of Canaan to seek food – and Joseph was able to save them, to forgive them, and to be reconciled to them. And in their reconciliation, Joseph expressed the great truth about times of desolation: although the Lord does not cause it, and the evil spirits who bring it about do so for evil causes, yet the Lord uses it for good. When Joseph’s brothers feared for their lives because of the evil they had done to him, Joseph said to them, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).