Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Gifts

We know you are all busily taking care of the last minute details in your preparations for Christmas, but we hope you will pause for a few minutes and contemplate the wonders and joys of Christmas.  Being far from home at Christmas time has given us the freedom and time to ponder and really appreciate the greatest Christmas gift of all.  We would like to share some of these thoughts with you.

Mary wrapped the very first Christmas gift.  She didn't use flashy paper and brightly colored ribbons, only simple swaddling clothes.  This gift wasn't put under a Christmas tree, but was lovingly and gently laid in a manger.  This, the greatest and most magnificent gift of all was given by our loving Heavenly Father to all of his children for all time and has made eternity possible for all of us.  Oh how we ought to rejoice and celebrate, and fall on our knees in gratitude and praise to our Heavenly Father for giving us that gift so long ago.

Now in a day and age where that birth is often dismissed as a fable or folk lore and Santa Claus has taken the prime focus point of Christmas, we want to reaffirm to you our knowledge that it was real.  The Savior of the world really was born in a lowly cattle stall, witnessed by shepherds and heralded by angels.  The truths He taught and the price He paid give us life and hope for the future. 

Paul was asked to speak Christmas day in the Fredonia Branch and as he asked me to proof-read his talk, I knew we needed to share it with all of you, too.

Believing Christ

When President Burke asked me to speak today, he indicated his disappointment that he could not be with us today. He was planning on speaking and his intended topic was “Believing Christ”. As I accepted the assignment, my thoughts immediately went to a book that I read 15 years ago or so. We have it in our library at home, Believing Christ by Stephen Robinson. In this book brother Robinson explores the importance “believing Christ” not just “believing in Christ”. I assumed that this is the theme that President Burke was pondering. I guess it doesn't matter what theme President Burke was pondering, it is what I have pondered that I would like to discuss with you.

We live in a time when some of our fellow “Christians” question whether we are “Christian”. I sense that many of us in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints become frustrated when they question our claim to the title “Christian”. I would suggest to you that we have a much more important question that we need to answer, personally, in our lives. “Do We Believe Jesus Christ?”.

Today we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is a time when we can focus on what that means to each of us. We celebrate his humble, yet glorious birth. The humble surroundings and conditions of his birth, and the glorious manifestations that accompanied his birth.

Who was this babe in Bethlehem? He was none other than the Son of God. The Firstborn of our Father in Heaven in our existence prior to this earth life. He was and is God, the Son. We worshiped Him there. Why? Because He was God, the Son. Because He was perfect to that point and because He was willing to implement Our Fathers Plan of Happiness on our behalf.

Our Heavenly Father wanted us each to have all the blessings that He enjoys. He knew what it would take to make that happen. We needed to come and experience a mortal life. We needed to learn the principles that bring true happiness. We needed to demonstrate obedience to those principles before He could give us all that He has. We needed to become like He was. In order to return to Him we needed to be “Perfect” for “No unclean thing can enter the presence of God”. In the New Testament, book of Matthew chapter 5 we read at the end of the sermon on the mount.

48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Wait a minute! I have to be “Perfect”. I will not be able to do that. Heavenly Father knew that. But His “Perfect” plan accounted for that problem. He needed a Savior for us. One who would be not only “Perfect”, but who then would be willing to pay the price for our sins/mistakes. Jesus Christ, the Fathers firstborn, volunteered to be that Savior. He looked at all of his brothers and sisters and loved us so much that He was willing to make that promise to us and the Father. He would live a “Perfect” life. He then would suffer for all of our sins, so that we could return to the Father.

What a loving oldest brother we have. It is hard to comprehend His love. We could well ask, “What do we have to do to merit this gift, or Grace?”. The answer is there is nothing we can do to Merit it. If we could we wouldn't need it. But He has asked us to have faith in Him. He has asked us to make sacred covenants with Him that we will do “All that we can do”. He will make up the rest.

Can we comprehend the magnitude of those promises He made? What if He failed? What if He made one mistake. He could no longer be our Savior because He would not be “Perfect”. What if He was “Perfect” but could not follow through with the promise to suffer for all our sins? What if it was too much for Him to suffer that much? How could it not be too much for Him to suffer for all of the sins of the world? If He failed in any way, we were all lost. Never to return to Father. These questions, concerns, skepticisms, doubts were so real, that one third of Heavenly Fathers children did not have the Faith to accept Jesus Christ offer to be our Savior. They wanted a risk free alternative and were willing to give up their free agency to get it. In the end they gave up the opportunity to come to earth and receive their body.

We did have enough Faith in Jesus Christ and the Fathers Plan to accept it because we are here. Now back to the question I asked earlier, “Do we believe Jesus Christ?”. We must believe IN Him because we have joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We have been baptized and made covenants with Him to do “All that we can”. But do we really believe Jesus Christ?

I would suggest to you that many of us act as if we do not believe Him. How do we do that? We do not accept fully His promises to us. We believe that while He was “Perfect” and paid for ours and others sins, we do not do enough, or we are not obedient enough to merit being accepted back into the Father's presence. The truth is we can never do enough or be obedient enough to merit this reward. That is why we need the Savior!

So what am I saying? We do not need to be obedient to receive this gift. We do not need to serve others. “Works” are not needed. Only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and I will be saved. Many of our good Christian friends would say “YES, that is all you need.” But let us read Paul's words Romans 6 speaking of those who have faith in Jesus Christ and are under his “grace”

14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law(NOTE the Law of Moses), but under grace.
15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

Obviously, more is required than faith alone. Matthew 5. The sermon on the mount. The beatitudes.

6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Oh, so maybe he is going to judge us based on what is in our hearts. What are the desires of my heart?

In D&C 76, speaking of the degrees of glory, and specifically those who will be in celestial glory, we read:

69 These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.

Just men, made perfect. Not perfect men. What is a just man or woman? Perhaps one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. Perhaps one who is doing the best they can. What is the “best we can do”? Is it being perfect? I would suggest that in some particulars we may become perfect during this life. But in general we will not. Only we and the Father can judge if we are doing the best we can. In the meantime if we are doing the best we can we are “Perfect in Christ”. He makes up the difference and we are perfect now.

Through our lives and in the eternities, as we do our best, He can change us and improve our ability to be perfectly obedient in more and more aspects of our lives,.and we will become sanctified as we do that. In the meantime we can be “Perfect in Christ” now. We can be “Justified” now. If we died today, we can have confidence in the Saviors promises. We can be judged “worthy” to enter the Fathers presence.

So what is the bottom line. What is the Covenant we need to make and keep in order to return to our Heavenly Father. I refer you to the Articles of Faith.

4 We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

This opens the gate to the celestial kingdom. You notice as a part of that covenant he gives us a most marvelous gift. The Gift of the Holy Ghost not only provides guidance, knowledge, and inspiration in many ways throughout our lives it also serves as a witness to us of the validity of the covenant. If we are feeling the effects of the Holy Ghost in our lives, we are keeping our part of the covenant. Even when we are not perfect in all we do. Each week we can repent, and covenant again that we will do our best and do better the next week.

As we celebrate the birth of our Savior today, let me read from D&C 128, a letter from the prophet Joseph to the church in 1842. He was speaking of doing baptisms for the dead, but it certainly applies to us in our lives and our baptisms.

22 Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Emmanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.
23 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

I think I have enough time to share with you an experience Sister Sherwood and I had some 10 years ago at a family reunion with our family in Colorado. We have these every two years, although we missed the one in Montana this year because we were here on our mission. We have had 9 children, and have 28 grandchildren now. These reunions are organized mayhem, but we love them. That may be the only sacrifice we have made coming on a mission. But our family was greatly blessed by our being here instead of at the reunion so I guess that was not a sacrifice. We just missed them. At the reunion in Colorado, Susan and I made a promise to our children and grandchildren. “We are going to be in the celestial kingdom with our Father in Heaven. We want each of you to be there.” We challenged them to find out for themselves that they were going to be there.

Two years later, our youngest son, Scott, received his mission call to go to Argentina just before we were in the Hill Cumorah pageant that year. While he was in one of his cast team devotionals he made that same promise to his cast team friends. “I am going to be in the celestial kingdom with our Father in Heaven. I want each of you to be there.” We heard about this from several people who were in the meeting and we rejoiced. Two weeks after the pageant was over, Scott drowned while sharing a marvelous day with a friend in Watkins Glen. One week prior to going to the temple and going to the MTC and his mission, he was in paradise, going to that MTC so he could preach in the spirit prison. We know with assurance that he is there because of the promises of our Savior.

I testify to you that I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, and my Savior and your Savior. This innocent babe whose birth we celebrate today, fulfilled in every way what He said He would do for us. I know and rejoice in the fact that He won the fight. He was “Perfect” in every sense of the word. He paid for Adam and Eves transgression and has broken the bands of physical death. He was resurrected and we will be resurrected because of Him. Physical death will not be the end of our lives.

He loved us so much that He was able to fulfill the promise that He would pay for our sins. Somehow in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross he took upon himself all of our sins. He felt the guilt that all of our Father's children deserve. He paid the price that all of our Father's children owe to justice. He did this because He loves us. We cannot do enough, or be obedient enough to merit this gift He has given us. But we can accept His gift by making and keeping our baptismal covenants. We can rejoice in our life. We can know with confidence that we will be with Him in our Father's celestial kingdom. We can live without the guilt of our past mistakes, as well as the frustration of our not being able to do everything perfectly now. As we hunger and thirst after righteousness and do our best we can be filled with the spirit and filled with confidence in his promises.

I know his promises are real and true, and rejoice in the knowledge that I will be with my family and you and with the Father and the Son in the resurrection.

I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Weekend in the Branch


This was a great weekend in the branch.  With one of our investigators we have set a date for baptism on Christmas eve or Christmas day.  This will be a great way to celebrate Christmas.  We will see how that one plays out.  He wants to be baptized before a family, his home teacher, moves away on Dec 27.  This week we have to get the district leader to come up from Jamestown, and do the interview.  We then need to get the father ready to perform the baptism.  This is an hispanic family and the two parents struggle with english.  All are baptized except the oldest boy(18 years old).  They have been very faithful in attending since we have been coming to the branch.  The oldest is now ready.  Sunday afternoon, we spent an hour with him reviewing the lesson topics, commandments, etc. to make sure he was ready.


Sunday evening we had a fireside with our college students.  All but one of them are majoring in music.  The topic was the power of music.  The brother who presented it was a professional musician in his younger years. 

He discussed the power that music has on our spirits both for good and for evil.  It was a very enlightening discussion.  We were very impressed with our young freshmen, how much they understood the issues and how committed they are to being a positive influence.  Two of our non-member college students were there and they contributed greatly to the discussion.  One of them, Becky, has now had all the lessons.  She is faced with the challange of convincing her parents that she should be baptized.  The other, Noel, has come 3 weeks in a row to church, and was at the fireside tonight.  We have given her a Book of Mormon, and hope to begin teaching her when they get back from Christmas break, at the end of January.  We gave both of them the video, "The Birth of Christ", to take home and share with their families for Christmas.  Pray for both of them, that their testimonies will grow and strengthen.  We would love to have some more baptisms before we come home.