Sacrament Meeting talk delivered on 08.26.2018

Text in blue omitted for time when originally delivered


The great and last promise

In 1832, only 2 years after the Church was founded, God spoke to the saints and gave them a commandment, an explanation, and a promise, now found in D&C 88. First, the commandment:

D&C 88:62 …I leave these sayings with you to ponder in your hearts, with this commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall call upon me while I am near—

63 Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

Then a word of explanation to help them understand

66 Behold, that which you hear is as the voice of one crying in the wilderness—in the wilderness, because you cannot see him—my voice, because my voice is Spirit; my Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound.

And, with that commandment and explanation in mind, they were prepared to understand what he called his “great and last promise”:

67 And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.

68 Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.

This “great and last promise” is an invitation for every saint to awake, arise from the dust, and know God; to become prophets and prophetesses; to bear witness of him; and to have eternal life. We need no further authorization to do so. What we need is an eye single to Christ’s glory.


The path to atonement

Who is Christ that we should look to him, and what is his glory?

D&C 93:36 teaches us that “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” We learned from D&C 88 that this truth, light, and intelligence is Christ’s spirit (the very spirit we pray for during the Sacrament prayers), embodied in his voice, or words; we learn that this glory, Christ’s words, proceeds forth from his throne to fill the immensity of space.

How did Christ obtain this intelligence? How did he learn these words such that they emanate from him like light? What did he do that is unique to him?

We are in the habit of answering “the atonement,” and we have various ways of explaining what that means. We say he suffered for our sins; that he died for the remission of sins, and that his blood cleanses us. Our discussion of these things does not always do a good job of showing the truth through these useful metaphors, leading to a fairly unfocused concept of atonement in Latter-day Saints’ minds. For that reason, I’d like to read to you some texts that describe Christ’s work more directly and plainly, and which give us a key to understanding the many metaphors used elsewhere.

The early Christian Father Origen, writing in the 2nd or early 3rd century, recorded a saying of Jesus: “Because of the weak I was weak, and I hungered because of the hungry, and I thirsted because of the thirsty” (Matthew Commentary XIII)

Isaiah chapter 53 records this prediction of the messiah’s work:

¶ Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

11 [God] shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

The purpose of Christ’s suffering was to give him knowledge. By his knowledge, he can justify us, aligning us with fully with God.

 “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him heir infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7: 11–12.)

Christ suffered the natural consequences of all sin throughout creation. He experienced fully both the pain of victims, and the guilt and horror of the perpetrators.

Imagine a small grove of olive trees with two chairs set facing each other. Into that grove walk a victim and a perpetrator, and sit down together. It could be a schoolyard bully and their target. It could be a parent who abused and belittled the child sitting across from them. It could be a murderer and a murder victim. A child soldier and the militia leader who murdered his parents and enslaved him. It could be a child sold into slavery and any of her countless abusers.

Imagine a conversation between the pair. What words could be said to convince each to open their heart to the other? What anguish would the perpetrator pour out when fully aware of the toll of their actions? How could their heart move from the darkness of hate and murder to the light of truth and love? What understanding would the abused have to gain not only to heal completely from unfathomable abuse, but also to fully and freely forgive the abuser without condition? What words would need to be driven into the heart of each to allow them to see eye to eye with perfect love? What words would each of them have to learn and embody to bring their will into perfect alignment with their Heavenly Father and Mother? In short, what is the path to atonement?

Christ entered that grove of trees two thousand years ago as both the offender and the offended. He bore the griefs and sorrows of each. He overcame the lies and hate that cause us to hurt one another, and can heal the mind and heart of even the vilest sinners with his knowledge and charity if they will turn to him. For the victim, he suffered a double portion. Not only did he suffer the wrongs committed against them and learn to heal from the trauma, but he also faced their feelings of bitterness, anger, and hate against their abusers. He had to overcome those seemingly justified feelings and pour out grace to the abuser. When he tells us “of you it is required to forgive all men,” he isn’t asking us to do anything he didn’t already do in that grove. His suffering and triumph also extend to reach those offenders with no clear victim, and those victims of circumstance with no one to blame. He inhabited all, and brought all to God. So perfect was his suffering and triumph that for each of us he can say “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

The knowledge, light, and truth he used to heal those afflictions in the garden are his spirit, glory, and words. How do we find and obtain his glory? He began to tell us how in the verses I read in D&C 88:

D&C 88:66 Behold, that which you hear is as the voice of one crying in the wilderness—in the wilderness, because you cannot see him—my voice, because my voice is Spirit; my Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound.

We need to learn to hear his voice, and then apprentice ourselves to him.


Counterfeit glory

There is a great danger here, though, which is pointed out by Christ at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: he predicted that there will be many who call Christ “Lord,” who believe they prophesy in his name, who believe they do wonderful works in his name, who have not actually been serving him. There is, apparently a great distinction between believing you are serving Christ and actually serving him. Not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven; “but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven”.

For this reason, I think it is important to understand those things that would stand in his place as substitutes or imitations.

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One great irony is that one of the primary substitutes for truly following Christ is religion. The Book of Mormon can be read as a critique of religion and of religious people, one we would do well to pay attention to given that the book was written to us as a primary audience. It warns strongly of

  • the dangers of religious institutionalism
  • the potential to idolize leaders, institutional structures, and great buildings as signs of God’s favor
  • the potential to set our hearts on riches and material comfort, and to allow our religious institutions to become focused on those things as well
  • the universality of the assumption of self-righteousness
  • the tendency of people to replace the doctrine taught in scripture with innovative and incorrect ideas designed to justify their aberrant practices
  • the interplay between the wild, untamed prophetic tradition and the correlated, institutionalized priestly tradition.

Say what you want about the worst characters in the Book of Mormon (Laman and Lemuel, Sherem, Korihor, etc). They were almost all strictly religious. Our gathering together into organized religious bodies is only useful to the degree that it gives us opportunity to hear and obey Christ’s voice, and allows us freedom to do so. It is damaging when Christ’s words are neglected and altered, when people are taught false traditions in place of truth (2 Nephi 28:14), or when people are bound by force against conscience to accept dogmas, practices, and traditions that run counter to Christ’s words. I say this knowingly as a religious person in a room full of religious people: if you are going to be religious, question your assumption that your traditions are correct and take absolute personal responsibility for your search for Christ. You cannot outsource your salvation to a religious institution.

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 A closely related substitute for following Christ is misplaced piety – the belief that you are a good, virtuous, and worthy person because you comply with the outward behavioral expectations of a religion.  People will appeal to Jesus at judgment and say “have we not done many mighty works in thy name? Did we not always wear the right clothing? Didn’t we avoid saying naughty words? Didn’t we banish caffeine from our home and never touch a drop of wine? Didn’t we build wonderful conservatively designed buildings with your name on the side? Didn’t we always use the right words to pray, and weren’t we sufficiently solemn when we worshipped? Didn’t we wear your name on our chests for 2 years? Didn’t we hate the right movies and tv shows and music, and support the right schools, and have the right books on our bookshelves?” 

Joseph Smith had the following to say on this topic:

21 May 1843, Coray Notebook

Righteousness is not that which men esteem holiness. That which the world call righteousness I have not any regard for. To be righteous is to be just and merciful. If a man fails in kindness justice and mercy he will be damned for many will say in that day Lord, have we not prophecie in thy name and in thy name done many wonderful works but he will say unto them [depart from me] ye workers of iniquity

Smith Diary: I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, [while] administering to the poor & dividing his substance [with them], than the long smoothed faced hypocrites

I suggest you re-examine the rulers you use to gauge your own righteousness. Maybe you’re not even conscious of them. Become conscious. Check your internal compass against the principles taught in the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke 6, or in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Once you are fulfilling those commandments, ask God to give you further light and knowledge.

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Another common pitfall is to fall into the belief that we can trust in the arm of the flesh, God has given his power unto men, and that there are people who can and will reveal all that we need to know to be saved. Nephi warned about this belief in 2 Nephi 28. He warned that we should beware of those who teach that God has restricted his ability to work directly with and through everyone, including by miraculous revelations (vs. 5-6). He goes so far as to pronounce a curse on those who would trust in the religious teachings of other people without the confirming witness of the Holy Ghost (vs.26-31). In other words, our default position when listening to religious leaders is supposed to be tentative, withholding trust until the words have been weighed, measured, and tested.

D&C 1 claims that one of God’s primary purposes in the restoration is to invite us to take counsel directly from him rather than trusting in religious leaders. As Alma explains in Alma chapter 12, because there is essential saving knowledge, the mysteries of God, that we can only learn by revelation from God, we cannot and must not put our trust in other mortals to teach us all we need to know. Just as we cannot outsource our salvation to religious institutions, we cannot outsource our salvation to religious leaders either.

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Another common danger, very much related to those above, is the tendency to put culture and tradition in place of revealed doctrine and commandments. Trying to correct this issue in any group, including among Latter-day Saints, is like trying to explain water to a fish. How do you persuade someone to reexamine their dearest beliefs with a critical eye? This is particularly hard in a religion that prizes orthodoxy and adherence to current tradition as a saving virtue. I gave a talk on this topic in 2016, so if anyone in the ward wants a copy of that please let me know and I’ll be happy to send you one rather than dwell on this any further and get myself stoned or cast out.


Growing grace for grace

So, avoiding those dangers so we can keep our eye single, how do we set that eye on Christ’s glory, which is his spirit and words?

I have a few suggestions.

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Become as a little child (3 Nephi 11) – accept that your current beliefs, attitudes, and actions are not perfect or complete. They have not led you into God’s presence yet, so you must be missing something. Your religion is not enough in some ways, and too much in other ways. Until you are one with God you need to repent, and to help you maintain that mindset God has commanded you to become as a little child. Until Christ fulfills his great and last promise to you, your constant question should be “what lack I yet?”

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Become familiar with the scriptures, particularly the commandments given in them. Those commandments are a description of Christ’s character and a primary way we can begin knowing him and our heavenly Father and Mother. The Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain from Luke 6, and the Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi are repetitions for a reason. We are expected to hear and do the things Jesus said there. Don’t let anyone convince you they are impossible to keep.

Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so to do, he shall in no wise be saved in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach these commandments… the same shall be called great, and shall be saved in the kingdom of heaven. (JST Matthew 5:21)

Use the words of Jesus in scripture to measure your religious beliefs. If you try to force an interpretation of them that conforms to your current beliefs, you will rob the scriptures of their corrective power and waste your time.

Make time to study them. Read carefully, and re-read key chapters over and over. Mine them for meaning. King Benjamin explained to his sons that if they didn’t have the brass plates, could not read and understand of God’s mysteries, and did not have Christ’s commandments always before their eyes, they would have fallen into incorrect traditions just like the Lamanites had done (Mosiah 1). If we don’t spend time studying the scriptures, or if we attempt to read our preconceived notions into them, then we may as well not have them. We will fall into incorrect traditions as well.

Search the scriptures–search the revelations which we publish, and ask your Heavenly Father, in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, to manifest the truth unto you, and if you do it with an eye single to his glory nothing doubting, He will answer you by the power of His Holy Spirit. You will then know for yourselves and not for another. You will not then be dependent on man for the knowledge of God; nor will there be any room for speculation. No; for when men receive their instruction from Him that made them, they know how He will save them. Then again we say: Search the Scriptures, search the Prophets and learn what portion of them belongs to you and the people of the nineteenth century. (TPJS. P. 11)

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The commandments of God exalt you in the act of keeping them. They reveal God’s nature by causing you to emulate his mercy, integrity, and loving kindness. They will keep you focused on how you treat your brothers and sisters rather than on far less important religious pursuits.

By following his voice we discover it in ourselves. We begin to be remade in his image, a new creature who can be made at-one with our brothers and with God.

Lecture on Faith 5 The Father and the Son possessing the same mind, the same wisdom, glory, power and fulness: Filling all in all—the Son being filled with the fulness of the Mind, glory and power, or, in other words, the Spirit, glory and power of the Father…a Mediator for man—being filled with the fulness of the Mind of the Father, or, in other words, the Spirit of the Father: which Spirit is shed forth upon all who believe on his name and keep his commandments: and all those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all: being filled with the fulness of his glory, and become one in him, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.

As we grow in our capacity to keep the commandments that Christ caused to be written in scripture, we will find that one of the most important is “ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Christ has more to give us than he caused to be written, and he demands that we ask, seek, and knock to discover it. The gifts of the spirit are the graces of the spirit. Christ manifests his grace to us not by erasing the commandments he has given us, but by teaching us how to keep them and then by giving us more instruction. “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many” (Isaiah 53).

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If you find yourself overcome by unmanageable problems, unable to see the way forward, unable to get along with people around you, unable to forgive, unable to understand why you couldn’t stop yourself from saying or doing a hurtful thing, too busy, too distracted, unable to juggle competing demands; please remember that those moments are where you can break the rock to find the gold. They are grist for the mill. They are absolutely invaluable. Christ faced them all, and he can teach you how as well; how to overcome, or how to endure. You will find Christ in the combat of daily life as you learn to embody him. There is no circumstance that does not demand Him.


I’d like to close by reading a psalm that means a lot to me. It was written by my wife:

Rejoice

Because the path of sackcloth

and ashes we travel leads

to the eternal mountain

of Ezekiel, Enoch, and Moses—

where the holiest of holies

sings with every figure of creation.

 

Because the Father’s tears, suspended

over the children of men,

the wo, wo is me, from the Earth,

our Mother, will finally fall

into the Waters of Life, blooming

every soul into an abiding

measure of its creation.

 

Because through all things and in all things

is love outside of time—the Son

who knows the paths

of everything that lives.

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