The Desolate Land Yields Fruit

Sermon: The Desolate Land Yields Fruit

This sermon was preached in Dawson Creek, BC, and Grande Prairie, Alberta, on Sunday September 26.


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

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Leaving the Land of Our Birth

Sermon: Leaving the Land of Our Birth

I preached this sermon on October 23, 2011, at the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.

Readings: Genesis 12:1-10; Luke 9:57-62; Arcana Coelestia 5135


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“Get thee out of thy land, and from thy birth, and from thy father’s house, to the land that I will cause thee to see.” (Genesis 12:1)

When Abram was seventy-five years old, he left his home.  He left his father and mother, his siblings and most of his family, and began a journey to a land where he had never been before.  He and his wife Sarai and his nephew Laban left the land of their youth to begin a new life.

The literal sense of this story, when we take the time to reflect on it, has some deep emotions in it.  It would not have been easy for Abram to leave everything he knew – but the story does not focus on that.  It rather focuses on Abram’s total faith – the Lord says to go, and Abram goes.

We don’t have to dig very deep to see a clear message in this story: a message about trusting God, and being willing to go to uncomfortable and unknown places simply because the Lord has told us to go.

But there is a lot more to this story than first meets the eye.  Abram is a model for us – but in a deeper sense, he represents the Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, when He was in this world.  By learning about the deeper sense of this story, we can get to know the Lord better.

This might sound like a startling statement to make, that Abram represents the Lord, since it’s not at all clear from the literal sense of the story.  But even the earliest Christians knew that everything in the Old Testament prefigured the life of Jesus Christ.  On several occasions the Lord referred to passages from the Old Testament that referred to David or Israel, and showed how in a deeper sense, they were about Him.  For example, the prophet Hosea wrote, “When Israel was a child, I loved Him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1) – but in the gospel of Matthew, this is revealed as a prophecy of the Lord, who would go down to Egypt as an infant with His parents, and return at the death of Herod the king.  And so it is not at all a stretch to suggest that Abram’s travels into Egypt also represent something about the Lord’s development.

From passages like this, it is clear that the Old Testament stories represent different aspects of the Lord’s life.  What is not so clear is exactly what part of the Lord’s internal life all these different characters and stories represent.

Fortunately, the Writings for the New Church – and in particular the work Arcana Coelestia – reveal what it is that these stories teach us about the Lord.  And this story, in its deepest sense, is the story about the Lord’s first progression, when He was child, toward becoming completely Divine.

This is a story about the Lord’s early childhood.  The Word makes it clear that the Lord, in His soul, was always God, from the moment he was conceived.  But although His soul and the internal elements of His mind came from God, His body and the external elements of His mind came from His mother Mary.  From His mother, the Lord inherited tendencies toward earthly and worldly things, including tendencies toward evil – although He never gave in to these tendencies.  Throughout His entire life, the Lord was going through a process that the Writings call glorification – the process of replacing those parts of Himself that were merely human, that He had from his mother Mary, with things that were Divinely Human, from His soul, the Father, God.

Why does it matter that we know about this process, though?  Is this practical knowledge?  Why does Arcana Coelestia focus so much on the Lord’s process, when this process for the most part is above even the comprehension of the angels?

The reason it is practical and useful to learn these things is that they help us to love God, which is the first and great commandment.  Think about it – how can you come to love someone until you learn about what they are like – not just their external actions, but some of what goes in on their minds and hearts?  The story of the Lord’s internal life, told in the spiritual sense of the stories of the Old Testament, helps us to know Him better and love Him more.

But more than this, the Lord’s process of glorification is the model for a process that every person must go through to reach heaven: the process of regeneration.  Now, the Lord went through His process much more thoroughly and completely than we go through ours – but by looking at the Lord’s process, we can see how he is present with us as we go through that process of our own rebirth.

So to return to the story of Abram.  The story begins, “And Jehovah said to Abram…”  That voice of Jehovah was the Lord’s first mental awareness of the Divine that was within Himself.  And that voice told Abram, “Get thee out of thy land, and from thy birth, and from thy father’s house, to the land that I will cause thee to see.”  That land where Abram was told to leave was a land of idol worship, and because of this, in the internal sense it represents a state of relative blindness or obscurity.  It represents the lower levels of the mind.  And Abram was told to go to a new land.

The Lord felt within Himself a calling to leave behind the things He had inherited from His mother – the merely natural things – and to begin the journey that would last throughout His entire life, the journey towards becoming completely Divine – and yet still completely human.  And the first step in that process was to leave behind those comfortable things of his infancy and move toward something new.

This specifically is describing the Lord’s mind as an infant and young child.  But in general terms, it is also an image of a call that comes to us over and over again: to move from lower things to higher things, from where we have been to somewhere new – from what is comfortable and known to what is uncomfortable and unknown.

We see this call in several places in the Lord’s Word.  From the creation of Adam and Eve, the Lord said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.”  In our reading from the New Testament this morning, the Lord went even further: He would not even let a disciple return home to bid his parents farewell.  What did He mean by that?

We know that in other places the Lord did command His disciples to honour their father and mother.  But what He was telling His disciples in this case was that they would have to let go of things that they had from their past, and specifically from their parents.  They would have to move on to new things.

What are those things that we have from our parents that we need to leave behind?  The Writings tell us that from our parents – even if they are very good people, even angelic people – we inherit inclinations toward evils of every kind.  We are born with a tendency toward selfishness.  Little children are clearly selfish – they have to be taught to share with others.  This is not to say that they are bad, because their selfishness is from innocence, and can even be lovable because it’s so sincere.  But at some point we have to move beyond that childhood desire to have everything the way we want it to be.  We have to leave behind the land of our birth.

But the truth is that it is not only bad things that we need to leave behind in our childhood.  There are many things that are very good and absolutely necessary for us in our childhood states, but that we need to leave behind, or at least to change, as we get older.  No matter who we are or what religion we were raised in, at some point we have to let our faith develop into something new, something deeper, than it was when we were children.

The Writings describe this process, and we read a passage this morning describing the way this takes place.  And again, this does not necessarily mean we reject our childhood faith.  In fact, that is not the ideal way for it to happen.  Abram leaves the land of his father – but he does not cut off ties.  He sends his servant back to this land to find a wife for his son Isaac.  Isaac’s son Jacob, too, is commanded to return to this land, to Abram’s relative Laban, to find a wife to marry.  But the person’s relationship to that childhood faith changes – it grows and deepens.

The faith we have as children is based primarily on things we have been taught, especially by our parents.  It is good for us to learn this way – this is the orderly way for things to happen.  The Lord, too, learned things in the way we do.  But at some point, as a child grows up, he begins to question things.  This is often strongest when a person is in their teen years – but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us still have things that we believe simply because we were raised to believe that way.

But there are different ways of progressing on our journey, some ways better than others.  Sometimes a person will look within himself, and ask, do I really believe this?  Or do I only believe this because this is how I was raised?  For some people, when they realize that they’ve never really believed in God, or angels, or life after death, they say, “I’m going to start being honest with myself – and that means not pretending to believe these things that I don’t really believe.”  Many people who reject faith in this way say it is freeing, because they are no longer lying to themselves.

But this is not the only way to journey on from childhood faith – or even the ideal way.  The essential thing in developing our faith is always to remain committed to loving others.  If we continue to make charity to the neighbour the primary thing, the Lord will keep leading us toward Him, no matter what the path may look like.  And so, when we realize that we are not sure of the things we’ve always believed, we can at least hold on to this: we should love others.

Love for the human race was always the thing that motivated the Lord.  It was never love for Himself.  Right after Abram was told to leave the land of his father, he was given a promise: that he would be made into a great nation; that Jehovah would bless him, and make his name great.  From these things, it could sound like the motivation for Abram – and thus the Lord – was to be selfish.  But the promise continues – that Abram would be a blessing, and that in him all the families of the ground would be blessed.  And in a deeper sense, this prophecy is about the people who the Lord would reach, and draw into His kingdom.  The great nation that would come from Abram represents all the people who would have faith in the Lord.  And the Lord would be a blessing to the whole world.  It is for this reason – and not for Himself – that the Lord willingly pushed Himself to fight against the forces of hell that assailed Him.

And so the primary thing we can do to ensure that our faith will develop is to focus on loving others and living in charity.  Charity is the life within faith, and our faith will never feel real if it isn’t connected to love for others and love to the Lord.  And when we see that the faith we have within ourselves doesn’t seem real to us, rather than saying, “I’ve been lying to myself,” we can ask, “How can this faith come to life in me so that it is real?”

But that’s not the only thing.  The truth is, what we actually believe will change, even if we don’t throw it out.  For example, the passage we read this morning described important things that we learn as children and that form the core of our faith – but it included the teaching that God rewards the good and punishes the evil.  We do need to have this idea as children – but as we grow, we come to understand it in a deeper way – that the Lord punishes no one, but evil punishes itself.

It is important for our childhood faith to be joined to charity, and so to come alive; but there are also ways that in this process, it will change.  How do we know what to believe?  How do we know what parts of our faith are from God, and what parts are merely from our culture or our parents or our ministers?  Again, the primary thing here is to focus on love: love to the Lord, and love to the neighbour.  And when we are focusing on love, then we can move to the next step – seeking what the Lord actually says.

This means turning to the Lord’s Word, and seeking for truth there – seeing if what we’ve been taught actually measures up to the Lord’s revelation.  In our story, Abram journeys down through the land of Canaan.  His stops along the way represent a growing perception in the Lord, a perception that came from His celestial love.  But it represents a dim perception, because even though He had the love, He had not learned the truths He needed to clearly see and comprehend that love.  In that state He could not stay in the land.  He needed knowledge as a vessel for that higher love within him, to clarify His perception.  And so He continued down to the land of Egypt.

Egypt was well known in the ancient world as a storehouse of knowledge.  And so Egypt itself came to represent knowledge, and sojourning there came to represent being instructed in that knowledge.  And in the Lord’s case, all that knowledge came from the Word.

This exploring of knowledge helps develop a person’s faith if he is approaching knowledge for the sake of love, for the sake of usefulness.  Abram would not stay in the land of Egypt, nor would his descendants.  The Lord did not learn knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but for the sake of using that knowledge to serve.  And so in the course of developing our faith, the right order is for us to first learn the doctrine of our church from parents and teachers and ministers – but as we get older, to seek what the Word really says when we look to it in the light of the two great commandments – to love the Lord, and to love our neighbour.

Learning truth from the Lord’s Word does not only deepen our faith – it also gives us the ability to fight against the tendencies toward evil that we develop.  In the story of Abram, we read that as Abram first passed through the land of Canaan, “the Canaanite was then in the land.”  The Canaanites – the enemy of the people of Israel – represent those evil spirits who tempted the Lord and attacked Him through those merely human things he had acquired from His mother.  Here Abram is not able to fight them – he merely passes through the land and goes down to Egypt.  And for the Lord, it was only later, after He had gained knowledge from the Word, that He knew enough to be able to resist those evil spirits, to do battle against them.

And so if we want to develop our faith, we can turn to the Lord’s Word, and ask, “What is the Lord really saying?”  It can be a difficult process, as ideas we’ve grown up with may be overthrown.  But if we approach the Word always seeking for ways that we can live by it, for ways that it can help us grow in love to the Lord and love to the neighbour, it will always be leading toward a place where we have a more and more real faith, and truer and truer love.  And throughout this process, it is really the Lord who is fighting for us, fighting to give us a place in heaven – just as He fought for the entire human race when He was in the world.  “And I will make thee into a great nation; and I will bless thee, and will make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.” Amen

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister