A disclaimer: I am aware that this season can be anything but a time of joy. For a multitude of reasons, mostly related to family dynamics or the lack there of, there is pain where it seems there ought not to be. I pray that the Spirit of the Lord can convey in my remarks even the smallest amount of hope and healing that is available through Jesus Christ and His power — power to heal you, and your family, no matter how shattered or battered it may currently be.
Shall we begin?
Some how, trains have become associated with Christmas time. We have little model trains, there are old-time Christmas train rides. We tell stories about trains, watch movies with Christmas trains in them. Sometimes, Santa is depicted as getting around on a train. Union Station, that historic train terminal in Kansas City has a model train exhibit that has become a Christmas-time tradition for many.
Brother and Sisters, today I invite you to board an imaginary train with me as we travel a few miles together, at Christmas Time, to talk of the Christ. There will be four stops along our imaginary train ride. Are you ready? All aboard the Christmas Time Express!
And where does our first stop take us? Why, back to the beginning of course.
Stop Number One: We are the Children of Our Heavenly Parents
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God.”1 Furthermore, he added, “I want you all to know Him, and to be familiar with Him.”2 We must have “a correct idea of his … perfections, and attributes” and an admiration for “the excellency of [His] character.”3
In 1909, the First Presidency stated “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.”
We will discuss at a latter stop, a few key events from the very beginning, but let us first consider the nature of the Character of God, of whom we are children.
Christ taught us to pray to our Heavenly Father. This is the beginning of all power.
My Heavenly Father is being of light, all truth, and all knowledge. I can trust in God. I believe in a God who wants me to be with Him, because He is my Father, and I am His son. I believe in heavenly parents, who hold dominion over the earth, the heavens, the stars and all that is known or that can be known about the universe.
The more that I understand my Heavenly Parents, the more I understand myself.
Our Heavenly Parents have so perfectly organized our mortal existence in such a way as to pay attention to the smallest details, imperfections and weakness that are mine and mine alone. This divine orchestration takes into consideration no only the quirks about how my body is built, but I also have mental infirmities, social anomalies, and even spiritual handicaps, most of which are not visible to those around me. This makes up me, who I am, unique in all the world, and perhaps in all the universe. I am handcrafted by heavenly parents to be exactly who I am.
I also have personal strengths, gifts selected to give me joy and confidence in my abilities to become something far more than I am capable of imagining. This collection of weaknesses and strengths are perfectly calibrated to provide my being with the building blocks necessary for me to eventually become like Them.
We contain within us the seeds of eternal Glory.
God lives, and we are the most immediate evidence of His Reality! Paul taught in Athens of old, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being… For …we are the offspring of God.” (see Acts 17)
So here we are at the end of stop One. And what have we learned? God is our Father, and we are His Children. We still have much ground to cover so let’s move on.
Stop Number Two: Repentance
Stop two brings us to consider the one of the most central teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our prophet, President Nelson recently asked the question: “How important is Repentance?”
Then he answered, “Repentance is required of every accountable person who desires eternal glory. There are no exceptions… Repenting is the key to progress.”
There is not a more important decision that we can make today, and everyday, than to repent and change from who we are right now, into whom God knows we can become.
We don’t have any idea of who we are to become, unless we’ve done the hard work of asking God in all humility to be shown what we do actually lack yet. The Lord has said:
I bgive unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my cgrace is sufficient for all men that dhumble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make eweak things become strong unto them.Ether 12:27
Repentance is a gift. It is the ability to change from doing things the way that we see is best, which unfortunately is severely limited. Unaided, human perception is hardly better than animal instinct.
Indeed, in addition to being multi-faceted beings with unique strengths and weaknesses, we are also the only creatures on earth that can make mistakes and also learn from our mistakes. We have the ability to analyze outcomes and change behavior to realized a different outcome. We are capable of deliberately delay impulses of fear, appetite, instinct, or even passion, and we are able to make sacrifices: to postpone instant gratification in favor of a delayed or improved result later on. So when we turn to God, our vision becomes greatly enhanced and we see things differently about ourselves.
A Quick Example: Imagine being gifted a sports car, but then imagine not being given the keys. No, you have been gifted your dream sport car, but it is only to be used as lawn ornament in your front yard. Sure, it might be fun to look at for a while. But what good would it be, unless you could actually experience its power?
Each of us has been given a sports car in the form of a mortal body. And repentance is the key to experiencing the power of a “sports car” life! Otherwise, we may be considered little more than lawn ornaments on God’s front yard: Pretty to look at, but not going anywhere!
Very few of us are afraid of hard work. Let us not be afraid of the internal, personal, quiet, hard work required for us to consistently drawing closer to God! So at Christmas time and at every time of the year, one of the best gifts that we can give back to God, is our finest and most heart-felt energies and efforts to repent.
I hope we never grow weary of talking about repentance, but its time to board the train again as we move along to stop number three.
Stop Number Three: Christ the Son
In a time before we were born, we lived with our Heavenly Parents. A plan was present to for us to become like them, which when we heard it, we shouted for joy. In that joyous occasion, we learned that the plan would enable us to become free agents, capable of making choice. In making choices, we would fall away from God. One came forward as a Mediator, making it possible for us to return. In this council, He was known as Jehovah. Jehovah was chosen to become our Savior, even Jesus the Christ.
What is Christmas without Christ?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This is the reason why we celebrate Christmas.
Jesus Christ was the only perfect being to come to earth: He lovingly taught all manner of imperfect people: sinners, beggars, tax collectors, military captains, fathers, mothers, children, and the list goes one. He taught us to love God, and to love our neighbor.
Then to make the matter personal, Jesus suffered unimaginable pain in Gethsemene, taking upon him our all that was lacking in our own characters, and making up the difference. This three part event that included the suffering, the death, and the Resurrection of our Lord we call the Atonement. The Atonement is the supreme expression of the love of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
What good is a gift not received? Remember our sports car analogy? Repentance may be the key that we have to use, but Jesus Christ is the gas in our engine. Without the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, there simply is no power in our lives to make change and progress.
Stop Number Four: The Family, Your Family
We’ve now made three stops along our imaginary Christmas-time train ride. We’ve considered our position as Children of God, we’ve learned better how to live a more meanigful life through repentance, and we’ve considered only briefly the Reason for the season: Jesus Christ the Son of God. But there is one more important stop to make today before our time together comes to a close.
Many years ago, I was extremely privileged to serve as a full-time missionary in the beautiful country of Costa Rica. At the very end of my missionary service, I found myself in an exit interview sitting across the desk from my mission president, Jose L. Gonzalez of Columbia. He asked me: “What are your thoughts about marriage?” If I am being honest, I had very few thoughts about marriage up to that point in my life. It was not on my radar, nor in my immediately post-mission plans. The interview happened just two weeks before Thanksgiving, and so my response back to my mission president, and this was true, was “My mother says I have to wait until after Thanksgiving to get married.” He whipped right back at me, “Elder Leavitt, your mother doesn’t make that decision, now does she!” Suddenly marriage was on my radar.
Three days later, still a week and half before Thanksgiving, a young lady swept me off my feet, and though I waited until Valentine’s Day to propose marriage, I spent many hours in the temple praying about marriage and family. One such visit to the Mesa Arizona temple, I saw in my mind’s eye me wrestling with four small boys.
When I came home from my mission, I had my goals and dream and ambitions. But the Lord was very clear to me in illustrating the point, my family should not wait before I realize my then-youthful dreams and ambitions.
Why did family take such a priority in the Lord’s plans for me?
We started off this journey today by talking about our origin from a heaven family and home. It is now my purpose to show you how through your human family, God has created a design for you to return home. How could such a thing be when our homes and we ourselves are anything but perfect, totally incapable of saving ourselves?
There is a work that we do in this church both inside holy temples and in our homes that is not of this world. It the work of creating family connections and family bonds. You can start that work today by looking at your family story different, with all its flaws and painful imperfections. You and I as imperfect human beings are connected, because of our family, to other imperfect human beings. We can understand that God has given us this mortality to build our immortality. You and all those beautifully imperfect people that you call your family are the very substance of your salvation through Christ Jesus. In fact, when we talk about families, we don’t call it salvation: we call it exaltation. Because God’s purpose is to elevate, or exalt the human family, your human family. When I think about this: that Christ came to save my imperfect family, I want to sing even louder: Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, Let Earth Receive her king! (In otherwords: what are we waiting for? God has given us everything we need to be saved. We just need to act! )
So what are we to do with all this joyful knowledge? What can we change about our approach to Christmas and family right now? Consider the work of Family History. We must take an interest in the stories of our parents, grandparents and so on. Perhaps we are to take an interest in the stories of our children, if there be any children. And let’s not forget Aunts and Uncles, cousins, our siblings, neices and nephews, and so. We are to listen to and learn from one another. But there is more.
As we learn from our families, and heal and grow closer together, we can go to the temples of our God and receive binding covenants and ordinances where in the power of Jesus Christ seals us to each other, in a bond that no-one can break except for us as individuals. And not even an unfaithful parent, spouse or wayward child can severe our covenants with God. If we choose to be faithful, God will honor those covenants to the utmost degree. This is not just wishful thinking, we have biblical promises that God will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. Therefore, let every heart prepare Him room. Room for what? For the healing and forgiveness that can and will come to our families through Jesus Christ.
At Journey’s End…
Well, unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of our ride today. I have just one small parting gift for each of you today: It is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work.
You and I can know our standing before God today through personal prayer and repentance. (Bishops and Branch Presidents can help to clarify that standing when help is needed.) Jesus Christ is our great example of a happy life. He paid the price for us to also live an abundant life. Families can be healed and made whole through the power of Jesus Christ and His ordinances found in the Holy Temple. This is all true. Merry Christmas! In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.