Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas talk

So. . .moving into a small ward generally means that you're not off the hook for long. Doug and I spoke in Sacrament this past Sunday. Following is more or less the text of my talk.

When we were asked to speak last week, no topics were provided for us. I was tempted to recycle the talk I gave in our last ward just before we moved, but then as we were watching the Christmas devotional last Sunday, something President Uchtdorf said got my mind going, and I decided to follow those thoughts.

He spoke of the gifts that the wise man brought to the Christ child, and the gifts we offer to the Lord. He then spoke of the unfathomable gifts that the Savior offers us and said that this may be the most lopsided gift-giving in the entire universe.

As he spoke, I thought of the little drummer boy. Aside from O Holy Night, my favorite Christmas song has long been “The Little Drummer Boy”—perhaps because I tend to be prone to feelings of inadequacy or smallness, the story of a poor boy with nothing but a drum has always resonated with me. Here he is, brought before not just a king, but the King, told to bring his “finest gifts”, and he feels he has nothing to give that is fit for such a recipient. Yet he steps up and plays his best for the Christ child. And the baby smiles at him. What a marvelous thought. The Savior, who assisted in our creation and knows us intimately, is well aware of what gifts we have and which we don’t. He knows what we are capable of, and he knows better than anyone what we lack. All he asks is that we humbly and willingly offer whatever gifts we have, so long as we offer them with our whole heart.

As we celebrate the Savior’s birth and the marvelous gift of his life, what are the best gifts that we can offer in return for all that he has done for us? As I pondered that, I thought of a remark that was made by one of my loved ones recently. When asked who or what she would be and why if she could’ve been present at the Nativity, she answered that she would like to have been the star—to be a clear, guiding light, so that people could look up and know where they’re going, and that its somewhere good—to know that if they just followed this beautiful light, they would find joy.

I greatly admired the faith and wisdom inherent in that thought. As individuals who have covenanted to take upon us the name of Christ, to do as he would do, this is exactly the gift we should be offering our Savior: to share our testimonies and live as examples to shine his light for those who, wandering in the darkness, are seeking him. We ought to be beacons, shining the light of hope and truth to those who have not yet found him.

All too often, we hesitate to be that light for others. Sometimes that hesitation comes from fear or vanity: we’re afraid that we will be thought simple or foolish or a whole host of other unpleasant things, so refuse to open our mouths or make any bold moves--we hide our candle under a bushel, as it were. Often, that hesitation comes from a different kind of pride: because we know that we are imperfect vessels, we allow the adversary or our own doubts to convince us that we are wholly unworthy ones. We convince ourselves that we can’t possibly have any gifts worthy of the King of Kings and Lord or Lords, because we are poor souls with nothing but a little drum. But the fact is that, though the church has grown by leaps and bounds, less than one half of one percent of the individuals currently living on the earth are members of the church. There is far too much work to be done for us to indulge in self-pity.

At this time of year, as my kids start watching Christmas movies, I always notice how many of them are about belief, about growing cynical with age and losing one’s child-like faith. So many movies set during Christmas are about people wanting to believe in something good—to believe that there is such a thing as purity and selfless love. These movies often carry a theme of homesickness at Christmas, even when you’re home. Too many people are rather blamelessly unaware of the source of purity and selfless love and the resulting joy—they lack the knowledge that much of Christmastime homesickness is a longing for a home we can’t remember, but some part of us knows is there and wants to return to. They don’t understand that that the “spirit of Christmas”, the spirit that inspires them to serve, to give, to be more patient and kind and compassionate, is the spirit of Christ.

In times such as these, that knowledge is so important, because without that understanding, the difficulty of the circumstances that so many people are in causes them to lose their grip on that joy. They don’t entirely understand the source of it, so they aren’t sure how to find it when life gets difficult or messy. There are so many distractions, so many different voices in the world driving people in so many different directions. We ought to speak up more often and more confidently, be a little kinder, a little more thoughtful, a little more patient and giving so that through our testimonies and examples they might find that source of pure joy. We must tend to our testimonies through scripture study and prayer and service so that flame of faith will shine clearly to those who are still wandering in the darkness.

Most of the world is still familiar the story of a little baby lying in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. But too many people know too little about his life and why it mattered. President Hinckley once said, “There would be no Christmas if there had been no Easter. The babe Jesus of Bethlehem would be but another baby without the redeeming Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary and the triumphant fact of the Resurrection.” That’s what Isaiah meant when he said, “Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given. . .” That’s why we celebrate. That’s why we give presents and make cookies and decorate trees. Because the Father gave his son, and the son gave his life.

Many times I’ve pondered the fact that one of the last acts of service the Savior gave, before the ultimate act of service of the Atonement, was to wash his apostles feet. This has always struck me as one of the most humble acts of his singularly humble life. He made lame men walk and blind men see. He healed lepers and raised the dead. These were all incredible acts of service. But what of this act of washing feet? It was not miraculous. There was no glory in this service. It was a dirty, probably most unpleasant job, and the only result was clean feet. But I’m sure hearts were cleansed, as well, as he, the greatest being who ever lived, kneeled at a basin and scrubbed the filthy feet of the men to whom he was teacher and master. If we serve with humble hearts, out of love for Him and those we serve, the Lord will sustain us. It may take a long time to see any results, but He will help us scrape away the dirt and mud and stains to cleanse that which has been dirtied by the world.

That was the Savior’s parting lesson to His apostles: if you would lead people, if you would teach them, if you want them to ever “get it”, you must serve them, humbly and selflessly. As Christmas approaches, we should stop and ask ourselves, “Have I been the friend that I ought to be? Have I given way to anger where prayerful compassion ought to hold sway? Have I given up where something more could be done?” When we are tempted to hide our candle under a bushel, we ought to remember how the Lord served us.

A few years ago, in a powerful address entitled, “And None Were With Him”, Elder Holland said, “I speak of those final moments. . .that concluding descent into paralyzing despair of divine withdrawal when He cries out in ultimate loneliness, ‘My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?’

“But Jesus held on. He pressed on. The goodness in Him allowed faith to triumph even in a state of complete anguish. The trust He lived by told Him in spite of His feelings that divine compassion is never absent, that God is always faithful, that he never flees nor fails us. When the uttermost farthing had then been paid, when Christ’s determination to be faithful was as obvious as it was utterly invincible, finally and mercifully, it was ‘finished’. Against all odds and with none to help or uphold Him, Jesus of Nazareth, the living Son of the living God, restored physical life where death had held sway and brought joyful, spiritual redemption out of sin, hellish darkness and despair. With faith in a God He knew was there, He could say in triumph, ‘Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. . .May we stand by Jesus Christ ‘at all times and in all things and in all places that [we] may be in, even unto death’, for surely that is how He stood by us when it was unto death and when He had to stand entirely and utterly alone.”

No one, not even the most righteous and talented and blessed among us, will ever come close to repaying even a fraction of the gift we were all given. But if we can stand confidently and humbly and, like the little drummer boy, “play our best for him”, I do think he smiles at us—that he is pleased with our sincere service. “Unto us a son is given.” Without that, every other gift would be meaningless. With it, every faithful effort is sanctified. In the shadow of the ultimate gift, every other gift seems so small. But by faithful exercise of our agency, we very slowly work towards exaltation, and a chance to bless other lives with knowledge of gifts of eternal value. We each have to start somewhere, even if we’re too poor and inexperienced to offer anything but a pleasant beat on our little drum. He makes up the difference in whatever we lack.

That’s the gift we celebrate this time of year: a Savior, a Redeemer, who does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, however valiantly we may try. Someone who steps in and pays the price to cleanse us of our sins, make us whole and carry our burdens that would sometimes be too heavy to bear alone. We all know individuals and families who are struggling and tired, and we may not be able to carry those burdens for them, but as our gift to them and to the Lord, we can try to be a guiding light to point them to he who says, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. . .in the world, ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Truly those are glad tidings of great joy. The angel who announced the Savior’s birth declared, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” We must remember that peace on earth is found person by person, one by one. My Christmas prayer is that as we find peace in the Savior’s love and Atoning sacrifice, we will share that love with those who have not yet known it, that our Father might welcome all his children home.

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