Sunday, December 17, 2017

The People and Events around the Savior's Birth

This is a LOT longer than most of my blog posts, since it was a talk I gave in church today.  It tells about all the people who surround the story of Jesus' birth.  

Today I’m going to tell a true story.  So, I want the children to really listen.  Remember this is a true story about a baby. 

Once upon a time, there was a man named Zacharias and his wife named Elizabeth.  Now, Zacharias and Elizabeth were really old.  Older than your big brothers and sisters.  Older than your parents.  They were probably as old as your grandparents.  Zacharias and Elizabeth were very sad because they didn’t have any children.  But, Luke tells us that “they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Luke 1:6 This part of the story is important, because it teaches us that just because someone doesn’t have children, it doesn’t mean that they are unrighteous.

Zacharias was a priest.  Back then, one priest each year was chosen to go into the temple and perform the sacred duties each year.  It was kind of like drawing straws.  And this year, old Zacharias was chosen to do the special duties in the temple.  While he was in the temple by himself, an angel appeared to him!  The angel was named Gabriel.  We know from modern revelation that Gabriel is Noah. Gabriel told Zacharias that Elizabeth was going to have a baby.  Zacharias was shocked.  Elizabeth was very old.  Most grandmas don’t have babies. He asked Gabriel, “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” (Luke 1: 18) 

Now, we know from reading the Book of Mormon that asking for a sign is never a good thing.  Gabriel did give him a sign.  He told him, “behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words…” (Luke 1: 20)  When Zacharias left the temple, he couldn’t speak.  He went home to Elizabeth and they conceived a child. 

Now about six months after that, the angel Gabriel went to visit another person.  He went and visited Mary.  We don’t know a lot about Mary.  We know that she was a righteous woman, engaged to be married, and that her name was probably actually Miriam.  Mary is what we call her in English.  She was also probably quite young, like young women age.  Look around you at the Young Women you know and imagine Mary being about that age.

Anyway, Gabriel came to her and told her that she was going to give birth to the Son of God.  Just like Zacharias, Mary was shocked.  But, unlike him, she believed Gabriel.  However, she wanted to know how this was going to happen because she wasn’t married and couldn’t be pregnant, yet.  She asked him “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”  This shows us that it’s ok to ask questions in faith, just like Joseph Smith did when he went and asked which church to join.  Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was going to have a baby. 

Mary quickly went to visit Elizabeth.  When she arrived and greeted Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.  (Luke 1: 41)  Elizabeth “spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb….For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” 

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months.  The scriptures don’t tell us whether she was there when Elizabeth had her baby, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that she was there.  Eight days after  Elizabeth and Zacharias baby was born, they prepared to circumcise him and give him a name.  It was typical in that day to name a child after his father and the people wanted to name him Zacharias.  But, Elizabeth insisted that his name should be John.  The people didn’t believe her, so they asked Zacharias to write what the baby’s name should be.  He wrote, “His name is John.”  This shows that mothers can have faith and revelation and speak for their children, just like fathers can.  This John grew up to be John the Baptist.  He was Christ’s cousin, he prepared many people to receive Christ, and he baptized Christ.

But, enough about Zacharias and his family.  Let’s go back to Mary.  Mary had returned home.  Her fiancĂ© was named Joseph.  We know that Joseph was a carpenter.  We know that he was of royal lineage.  He and Mary were both descendants from King David.   Many people think that he was a lot older than Mary.  If you look at art, he will often be show as an elderly man.  But, we don’t know if this was true or not.  We do suspect that he died before Jesus did.

Remember that Mary was pregnant.  Joseph knew that he could not be the father.  Back in those days, he had the right to have her stoned to death since she was pregnant with someone else’s baby.  But, he didn’t want to do that.  This shows us that he was a just and kind man.  He was going to break their engagement privately.  The scriptures tell us, “while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1)

There’s something important we can learn from this.  People receive revelation in different way.  Zacharias received his while in the temple.  We think Mary received her visit while at home. Joseph received his angelic visit in a dream after studying the issue.  Elizabeth didn’t have a visit from an angel, she simply believed the testimony of the Holy Ghost.  Each of these people received revelation.  We can receive revelation, too.  We can go to the temple, study, have quiet time, and listen for the Spirit.  We don’t have to have an angel visit us to know something is true.  Zacharias had an angel visit but didn’t believe at first.  But, Elizabeth had nothing more than the Holy Ghost telling her and she believed whole heartedly. 

So, back to our story.  Joseph woke up from his dream, and quickly married Mary.  In the Spring, they went to Bethlehem to be taxed.  It was here, in a humble stable that Jesus was born.  We celebrate Jesus’ birth in December, but he was really born in the spring. We know this because there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that night.  This only happens in the spring.  While they were watching over their flocks, an angel appeared to them!  They, like the others in this true story, were shocked to see an angel.  They were afraid.  The angel told them not to be afraid, that he was bringing them a joyous message, that the Savior, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem.  We know this happened the same night that Jesus was born because the angel also told them that in order that they would know that they found the right baby, they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  Then suddenly, there were a “multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2: 13-14)  When the heavenly visitors left, the shepherds rushed to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. 

The shepherds’ part of the story teaches us that we need to hurry to do what the Lord asks us to do.  If they had waited, they wouldn’t have been able to see Jesus.  They also teach us to share our testimony and what we see that is good.  The scriptures say, when the shepherds “had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. …  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”  Luke 2: 17-20

Eight days after this, Jesus was circumcised and given his name.  As a religious practice, we don’t circumcise today.  That was part of the old law that was done away with when Christ died and was resurrected.  But, Jesus needed to obey the old Mosiac law, which was still in effect. 
In addition, Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after he was born.  As part of the law, they needed to offer a sacrifice.  They offered a pair of birds as the sacrifice.  This shows us that they were a very poor family.  Luke 2: 24

There was also a very old man named Simeon in the temple that day.  He lived in Jerusalem and was prompted by the Spirit to visit that temple that day.  It had been “revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Luke 2: 26  When he saw Jesus, he took “him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…” Luke 2: 28-30. 

There was also another special person in the temple that day.  Her name was Anna.  She was a prophetess, a widow, and very old.  She served in the temple.  When she entered the room with Jesus, she instantly recognized him as the Savior, and “gave thanks unto the Lord.”  Luke 2: 36-38.  These two people beautifully show us that as we get older, we can still serve the Lord.  They also show us that women, as well as men, can have equal revelation.  Women can also testify of Jesus Christ with as much meaning and power.  And, their work is just as valuable to the Lord.

After Jesus was presented in the temple, Mary and Joseph returned to “Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.”  Luke 2: 39  Now, you may be thinking that I forget some people.   Where are the wise men?

Well, the wise men hadn’t arrived yet!  The wise men came with very expensive gifts for the Christ child.  If they had arrived already, Mary and Joseph would have been able to give a more expensive sacrifice than a pair of birds in the temple. 

A lot of times we think there were three wise men.  That’s because there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But, we really don’t know how many there were.  It may have been more or less than three.  We know that they were scholars since they studied the scriptures and the stars.  They travelled a long distance to worship Christ.  The star took them to Jerusalem, where they asked King Herod where the new prince was.  Herod didn’t know, but his priests and scribes told them that he was born in Bethlehem in Judea.  They also told him when the star had appeared, so King Herod was able to guess at how old the baby was then. 

Herod told the wise men to go to Bethlehem, and when they had found the baby, to come tell him, so he could worship, also.  But, Herod was wicked and really wanted to kill Jesus.  He was afraid Jesus would take his throne.  The wise men, left Herod, and the star once again became visible.  It lead them to where the child really was.  One way that we know that they came later, after the birth, was that they found the young Jesus in a house and not in a stable.  When they found him, they worshiped him and gave him their gifts.  They were also warned in a dream to avoid Herod on their trip home. 
After they left, Joseph also received a dream that warned him to take his family and flee into Egypt because Herod was going to try to destroy Jesus.  “When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt….”  The family stayed there until Herod died.  Matt 2
There are a couple of important lessons from this part of the story, too.  Sometimes, we don’t know what our service will do for another person.  Remember that Joseph was very poor.  It would have cost a lot of money to just get up in the middle of the night and flee to Egypt.  The wise men didn’t know that the family would need their gifts in order to finance their trip.  The wise men probably never even knew what Joseph and Mary did with their gifts.  But, their generosity and service in traveling so far, saved Christ’s life. 

A second lesson is closer to home.  Not all of us live with our biological mother and father.  Sometimes, we have a step parent, like Joseph was to Jesus.  Joseph was still the head of their family and received revelation that protected Jesus.  He was a good man and loved and cared for Jesus.  Our families can be the same.  In Disney, step parents are evil.  But, in real life, there are lots of people who are righteous and love us and help us be safe from worldly and spiritual harm. 
Finally, we are reminded that when we are given instruction from the Lord, we need to act right away.  Joseph didn’t know that Herod was going to have every baby in Bethlehem and around it, under the age of two killed.  He simply acted and did what he was told to do.

You may think this finishes our tale.  But there are two more groups of people I haven’t mentioned yet.  First, five years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Samuel told the people in the Americas to watch for the sign of his birth.  As that day approached, the wicked began to “rejoice over their brethren, saying: Behold the time is past, and the words of Samuel are not fulfilled; therefore, your joy and your faith concerning this thing hath been vain.  And it came to pass that they did make a great uproar throughout the land; and the people who believed began to be very sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass. But behold, they did watch steadfastly for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain.”  3 Nep 1: 6-8

Do you see this happening sometimes in your life?   People tease, make fun of, or put you down because of your beliefs?  The more righteous people were very sad because of this.  Does it make you sad?  They sometimes wondered if the sign would come.  This shows us that it’s normal to sometimes wonder.  The trick is to be like these believers and continue to watch for the promises so that you know that your faith is not in vain.

“Now it came to pass that there was a day set apart by the unbelievers, that all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except the sign should come to pass, which had been given by Samuel the prophet.”  3 Nep 1: 9  The prophet Nephi was very worried about this and prayed to the Lord.  But, that night when the sun went down, it stayed light.  Many people who hadn’t believed, then knew the truth.  It stayed light all night into the next day.  And, then a new star appeared.  Many people were converted to the Lord.

Our last people to talk about are us.  We haven’t seen the baby Jesus, but we have received many different testimonies of him.  We have the testimonies in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon.  We have the examples of the many faithful men and women who looked forward to His birth.  We can choose to continue to have faith even when it’s hard.  I hope we can be like the prophetess Anna who waited her whole life to see Jesus, never losing faith.  I hope that we can be strong like the Nephite people who were mocked and threatened.  Christ lives and loves us.  This is my testimony.  In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.  

A few of my other short blog entries about Christmas:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Accepting Callings

Trust the Lord and council with your Bishop when it comes to callings. During my divorce, I was called to nursery. I had all kinds of reasons that I could have resented the calling. Common gossip would say that this is where divorced women are sent because they aren't "worthy" to hold any other calling. I had five kids at home; I needed the break. One of my own kids was in nursery! I needed support of other women. I'd already served my time in nursery. I don't like little kids. But, the Lord knew my situation, my needs, and my heart. He knew how fragile I was. he knew that I sobbed through every sacrament meeting. He knew that my heart couldn't handle two additional hours of the usual teaching. He knew that I needed the gentle, simple teachings in nursery: "God loves you," "God made the trees," "God gave you loving parents." He knew that I needed the one-on-one visits with the other sisters in nursery. He knew that too many people and too many questions was more than I could handle. He knew that I was worthy to enter His temple and that His children needed a worthy teacher. He knew that my baby in nursery needed the extra time with me and he grew more confident. I served there a short time. I wasn't excited for the calling. I never loved it. I went home exhausted each week. I celebrated the day I was released. But, I am deeply grateful for the calling and a perceptive Bishop who extended it to me despite the fact that I might have been offended by it. I'm grateful for a loving Father in Heaven who gave me what I needed even when I didn't know it was what I needed and didn't want it anyway. We are blessed when we accept His gifts.

All that said, Bishops are human and sometimes I also think they are prompted to extend callings as a way to get us in their office and share what's going on in our lives. It's ok to council with your Bishop and explain your concerns with a new or current calling. Your time spent in council may result in solutions that hadn't occurred to you before, the calling being withdrawn, revised or released, or you accepting the calling with more peace. Whatever the case, don't just unilaterally make the decision. Take advantage of the opportunity for a two way discussion with the Lord's representative. Callings are a gift from God. They aren't all fun, but they can all be a blessing.