BYU devotional: Oct 21, 1971 Transcript was written by me, for the audio version, click here.
You've heard no doubt of the hard-nosed politician who decided to attend the convention of the opposite party. He sat on the back row and was immediately asked if he would give the opening prayer, he said "no", they said "why" and he said "well, in the first place I am not accustomed to praying for your party, and in the second place, I don't want the Lord to know I'm here".
I'm in the opposite dilemma this morning - I am accustomed to praying for those who face the exacting terror of this podium, and I do want the Lord to know I'm here, and in great need. Though it has been said, I have felt from a great many of you the expectation that I would this morning that I would report or relay something of the Spirit of my recent visit to the Holy Land with a seasoned veteran and discipline of Christ, Elder Hugh B. Brown.
It now is expected that he will speak here to speak for himself, three weeks hence and I do not want, except perhaps to introduce to you that he perhaps has a message to you that only he can deliver. I do not want to say anything that would encroach upon anything that is his calling. It is in his heart to come, it is in his doctors wish that he not. I hope you will combine your faith in behalf of his heart - it may be his last message.
I would however, this morning, like to for a moment with me, and to take you to a place where we were together, just he and I and his doctor a land known as Hebron, a place now beautifully fruitful-green has appeared on the desert, and a place where as you know the tradition has it, there is a tomb to father Abraham.
As we approached, I the guide, but in need of guidance, said "What are the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?" Elder Brown thought a moment and answered in one word, "Posterity." Then I almost burst out, "Why, then why! was Abraham commanded to go to Mount Moriah and offer his only hope of posterity?" It was clear that this man, nearly ninety, had thought and prayed and wept over that question before. He finally said, "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." That's my text this morning. You are aware that the record speaks of the incredible promise that Abraham after years of barrenness - which in some ways to the Israelites was the greatest curse of life - would sire a son who would in turn sire sons and become the father of nations.
This came about after Abraham had left a culture where human sacrifice was performed. You're aware to, I think, that Abraham was then counseled; and if that is too weak of a word he was commanded to take [his] miracle son to the mount.
We often identify with him, we somethings think about less about what that meant to Sarah, the mother, and to Isaac the son, if we can trust the Apocrypha, and the Prophet taught us that there are things contained therein that are true, to be recognized by the Spirit. There are three details the present narrative omits: One, is that Isaac was not a mere boy. He was a youth, a stripling youth on the verge of manhood. Second, Abraham did not keep from him the commandment or the source of the commandment- but having made the heavy journey; he then counseled [with Isaac]. Now comes the third point, it was Isaac who said in effect 'my father, if you alone had asked me to give my life for you, I would have been honored and would have given it. That both you and Jehovah asks, my willingness only doubles'.
It was at Isaacs request that his arms were bound, lest involuntarily but spontaneously he resist the sinking of the knife, only in the Book of Mormon, though many have assumed this, that that was in similitude of the Father and His Only Begotten Son. And as we later ascended the mount, as traditionally know as Mount Moriah, that is just inside the east wall we remembered a statement by brother Rasmussen "that one can believe that it was that same mount that naother son ascended and this time there was no ram in the thicket".
I would like to say to you that scholars split widely over this account. At one extreme are those who say 'it could not be. It did not happen. It is an allegory. We have here a description of the internal struggle that Abraham went through in trying to leave behind his boyhood training in human sacrifice. God would not require such a thing'. One man put it to me this way, "That is a terrible way to test a man. A loving God would not do it."
At the other extreme are those who have held that the story whether true to history or not is true to life. But they go further. They almost rejoice in the contradiction. They say 'this story illustrates that not only must faith somehow go beyond reason, but faith pulverizes reason. We must be as Kilcogaurd puts it "crucified upon the paradox of the absorb"'.
My testimony this morning is that both the Rationalist and the Irrationalist have misread, for in modern times, we have been taught that this story does not simply lie in our remote past but in our own individual future. "We" says a as modern revelation states, "must be chastened and tried, even as Abraham" (D&C 101:4). Do you remember after that more than 900-mile march from Kirtland to Missouri; a march that from all mortal appearance was a failure- it achieved nothing. We call Zion's Camp-a march that from all mortal appearance was a failure, for it achieved nothing, someone came to Brigham Young and said, "What did you get out of that fiasco?" He replied, "Everything we went for - experience." He could say that because he had only within hours been with the Prophet Joseph in a meeting where the Prophet had declared in substance,"Brethren, some of you are angry with me because you did not fight in Missouri. But let me tell you, God did not want you to fight. He wanted to develop a core of men 'who had offered their lives and who made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.' Now God has found his leaders, and those of you who are called to positions who have not made that sacrifice will be required to make it hereafter" (DHC, II, p. 182).
As if that were not enough, there is the recorded testimony of Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor, who described the Kirtland Temple experience-"an outpouring so rich that quite honestly, some of those present believed that the Millennium had come, that the era of peace had been ushered in, for they were so filled with nothing but the spirit of blessing and love."
The prophet arose in that setting and said,"Brethren, this is the Lord that is with us, but trials lie ahead. Brethren [he was speaking to the Twelve], God will feel after you, and he will wrench your very heartstrings. If you cannot stand it, you will not be fit for the kingdom of God."
All too prophetic was that statement. You are aware that half of the original Council of Twelve later, as the Prophet put it, "lifted up the heel" against him and against Christ. Four others were at least temporarily disaffected. There were only two, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, who did not buckle under the pressure, and they were tried, too. Now, let's look hard at the implications for now. We live in a time, do we not, when many are saying we need commitment, a total kind of commitment, a "risk-everything" kind of commitment. On that subject, many contemporary writers are eloquent But on the question of, "To what does one commit?" vagueness and often vagaries are all that are offered. Someone asked me once, "What is the definition of a fanatic?" I answered in Santayana's phrase, "A fanatic is a person who doubles his speed when he has lost his direction."
So beit, but what then is the name of a person who doubles and quadruples his effort when he has found his direction? That is commitment.
It is a mistake to assume that Abraham acted in total ignorance; That his leap was a leap in the dark. If you consult the Inspired Version or even the King James Version, it is apparent that Abraham saw the Son of Man with a capital M, meaning Man of Holiness, the Eternal Father. He saw Him, and saw his day and rejoiced and received promises and accepted them. He was told, as our Pearl of Great Price reminds us, that he stood, even before, among the mighty, the noble and the great. That he was one of them. That he was chosen, which is we know is more than being simply called before he was born, and there therefore lingered in him a residual power of response to Christ, that came out mightily in the hour of need.
We have been told that we are of Abraham. We are his children. We have been taught that those of us who have joined the Church by conversion are just as much so as those of us, as we put it, are born under the covenant (See D&C 84:33-34). We are taught that there is a spiritual process that is to occur within us, and it isn't just a matter of changing names, is a process whereby the blood itself somehow is purged, purified and we become literally the seed of Abraham. But those who are Abraham's descendants must also bear the responsibility of Abraham (See D&C 132:30-32).
We live in a time when everybody is willing to talk about rights- civil rights, other rights, but it is rare to hear the words duty and civil duty. There never was a right, I submit, that did not have a corresponding duty. There never was a duty that did not have also entail eventually... a right. and responsibility. There never was a right, I submit, that did not have a corresponding duty. We talk often as if the priesthood is solely a privilege. It is also a burden and many who have lived long in this Church, and many know there are times, sometimes lengthy times when the priesthood is much duty and very little right. Which leads us to the statement allegedly made by the quotable J Golden Kimball, one of a hundred he didn't say, but might have wished he had. Some asked him how he accounted a call to a certain brother to a certain position. He is supposed to have replied 'the Lord must have called him, for no one else thought of him'.
Then someone was complaining about difficult it is to follow a certain leader, and you see, it is not just a matter of following the request to give a spectacular amount. What if you are called to give less than you can give? What if you are called not to be called? What if you are told only to wait for a decision and be patient? Someone was complaining and J. Golden, says the legend, replied, “Well some of them are sent to lead us and some of them are sent to try us.” After the laughter and delight of that sentiment passes- it's true! All of them, all of us are sent to lead and to try each other. And the priesthood is given to try us to the core.
Now may I speak only for a moment out of the abstractions about some modern examples. We have a historian who has recently been through 800 journals and diaries of our early forefathers. Two sentences leaped at me. One, from John Pulsifer says "a man can be happy in a cave, if it is his duty to be there". The other is from John Pulsifer; he is down on the Colorado where water is the source of all life and irrigation is the critical survival factor. And again and again they build a dam, and about every four pages he records that the dam breaks. On about the thirtieth page it only says "the dam broke again. We are not discouraged."
What about the Stegnar article entitled "Ordeal by Handcart".You are aware that the Donner party, under the terror of their trauma west of here, lapsed some of them into cannibalism. Not so with these modeern human, but super human Saints. Some of them died with their hands frozen to the cross bar, always with their faces west. Then there is Brigham Young's weeping over the account of the three young men–Brother Huntington, Brother Grant, Brother Kimball–eighteen years of age, who went with the relief party the second thousand miles to help with the Martin Handcart Company. And now they face a stream that was swollen with ice and snow. Have you ever walked, even to the knee level, through such water?
The pioneers almost hopelessly stood back, unable to go through in their weakened and emaciated condition to go through. Those three boys carried every one of the company across and then crossed back, sometimes in water up to their waists. All three from the exposure, later died. And when Brother Brigham heard this, he wept and then rose in the majesty of his spirit and said, “God will exalt those three young men in the celestial kingdom of God.”
What about Brother Helaman Pratt, who had been in four states – driven from all–and who now had a toehold within an adobe house in the valley. We speak so often of the arrival of the pioneers, as if that ended it. No. He was called, and said Brigham Young, “Brother Pratt, we are calling you to colonize in Mexico. You will be released when you die. God bless you.” He went. He was released when he died. One of the great things that came out of that Nazareth was a man named Henry Eyring who spoke to you only within this week.
There are sacrifices. But the prophets again and again insist that we ought to use a different word. How can it be called a sacrifice to yield up a handful of dust when what is promised is a whole earth? But, you see, we think we know better than God. We think that what we want for us is greater than what he wants for us. And then we simply violate the first commandment, which is to love God first and over all.
And the moment that pattern is followed that he seeks in us that one thing or several things that we do not really want to give up now. We don't respond. Many of us will say "I do". I don't have that kind of faith. But I submit to you that you do not have that kind of faith until you pass that test. And now we are back to that statement, the wise statement of Elder Brown “Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham.”
What did he learn? He learned that he did love God unconditionally, learned that God could now bless him unconditionally. Do you think that his prayers had a different temper and tone after that? Do you think he could pray in faith and say 'Lord you know my heart' and the echo could say 'and I know it'. John Taylor said that the Prophet taught that "if God could have found a deeper way to test Abraham he would have used that" (See JD 24:264).
As Paul looked back and wondered how Abraham could and have it accounted for righteousness, his conviction was that Abraham believed Jehovah could raise his son from the dead if necessary in order to fulfill the promise, which that sacrifice scene contradicts. Exactly that is what God did ultimately with his own Son. (See Hebrews 11:19)
Now, brothers and sisters, there are all about us there are quibblings, demeanings, oppositions, negations... shrinkings. But I, as one who has feet of clay that go all the way to my groin, bear by testimony that is it the love of God that cries out for us to prove our love for him; that He cannot bless us until we have been proved, cannot even pull out of us the giant spirit in us unless we let him. That if we come offering what we think He wants, without having testimony that we are doing what He really does want, we are not yet prepared. I bear testimony that joy can attend us even in the midst of such sacrifice.
It is a sweeter, perhaps a bitter-sweeter joy, but it comes when we know that we are acting under the will of God. There is also the testimony that he delights, he rejoices, with a power that is born of the descent in pain, when we thus respond.
Abraham was called the Friend of God, the Son of God, the Father of the Faithful. Modern revelation tells us that now, that he is a little higher than the angels. Abraham says the revelation, sits with Isaac and Jacob because they did none other thing than that which they were commanded. On thrones, they are not Angels, but are gods and have entered into their exaltation.
Years ago, and I have hesitated to be this personal, but will. There was a moment when I became intoxicated with the idea that I could become a Rhode Scholar, and it didn't take me long to be convinced that that was also what God wanted for me. The greatest shock to my life, to that point, was after passing the preliminaries with the Committee and they announced two other names as going to Oxford. I was so baffled. You must be kidding, dont you understand, this is for me; they didn't make a mistake. I remember giving a talk the following Sunday, a hypocritical talk. On prayer.
In a local ward, where I announced where one of the great principles when we pray we must always say "thy will be done and then listen for it", that half of prayer was listening. As I said that, I heard something. A kind of an imp on my shoulder saying "you're a fine one to talk that way, you've been saying 'thy will be done, as long as it's my will' for months, now your bitter- bitter as gal." Suddenly, without any introduction that the poor audience could have understood I said "I prophecy"-strange thing for me to say never done that before- "that the thing that I have expected and wanted this week will somehow be made up to me, that what I am to do, and I don't know what that is, will somehow be better than what I thought I was to do" And then quite confused at what I had heard I sat down. You know I forgot that [experience] completely, until the time came and circumstances I cannot relate it, but it became clear that I could do graduate studies at Harvard and New England, and I had forgotten in that [experience] until the hour came suddenly, 35 years earlier than I hoped it might occur. I was called to be a missionary again, and a mission President in New England. Now I know there are those who might well say 'you might have well gone to England had you been about to cut the mustard and go to Oxford, and it's only a coincidence, but I'm here this morning to say that I am convinced in my soul that was what was intended for me and when I prayed the bitterness out and the lingering peace of the Savior in; I had nothing but gratitude.
Brothers and Sisters, We. Need. Today. Abrahams, Isaacs and Jacobs. We need those who are willing to stand and having done all. Stand. We have people now, and need more. Who can listen to the Living Word and the present commandment of the Lord Jehovah, even Jesus Christ through his prophets, and stand!
We are not a generation... I hope, who will be recorded who crumbled about dress standards at BYU. It seems to me, such trivia is being beneath the dignity of our heritage, the dignity of our calling and the potential that God has in mind to help prepare the world for the future.
May God help us to respond and become sons of Abraham, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.