Planting Christ in Our Hearts at Christmas

gareth-harper-175342I love the holiday season. I get anxious as soon as Halloween is over to get our Christmas decorations up and to put the Christmas music on. I love the decorations, the lights, the music, and I love to slow down and just soak it in. All the kids get excited. Drostan keeps asking each day if tonight is Christmas Eve and he has been praying ever since December started, “Bless that we’ll have a good Christmas Eve.” I remember one Christmas, after we’d read The Night Before Christmas and had put the kids down. After singing a bedtime song, and just as I was about to leave, Anela, then 4 years old called me over to her bed and said she couldn’t sleep. I asked, “How come?” And she said, “Because they’re dancing in my head!” Confused, I responded, “What?” “You know, the plums! Sugarplums are dancing in my head!”

At this last Stake Conference, Elder Taylor told us that the Brethren are suggesting that we simplify all that we can and get back to the basics of the Gospel. To focus on the essential and let the non-essential, unimportant drop out of our lives. Perhaps we look at how we celebrate this Christmas season and can evaluate whether we need to simplify and get back to the essential elements of Christmas. Traditions can be uniting and memorable, but we can also get carried away in the trappings of the holiday, causing us to miss out on the Silent Nights, the Still, Still, Still moments because we’re mentally Far, Far Away on Stress’ Plains.

Elder Taylor said, “we must plant the Word in our hearts and in the hearts of those we serve.” What is the Word? In the Gospel of John, he tells us: “For in the beginning was the Word, even the Son, who is made flesh, and sent unto us by the will of the Father.” When Christ visited the Nephites after His resurrection he explained His doctrine. The doctrine of Christ is “exercising faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repenting, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.” (Brian K. Ashton, Oct. 2016). We can seek Christ and plant Him, the Word, and His doctrine into our hearts this Christmas by following the examples from that first Christmas.

The Shepherds

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“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over
their flock by night.

Elder Uchtdorf opined, “The shepherds were more than likely quite ordinary people, like many commendable souls who go about their days earning a living.”

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,… And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . .

Elder Uchtdorf continued, “[These shepherds] could represent people who, at one time, may not have been actively seeking the Christ, but their hearts changed when the heavens opened and Christ was proclaimed to them.”

To these humble shepherds, tending to their flocks, was given a sign that the Messiah has been born. The baby is somewhere in Bethlehem, lying in a manger. Returning to the scriptures:

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

These shepherds immediately decide to “go unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass.” Do they just leave their flocks behind to seek after and find Jesus? Similar to how Peter and Andrew later leave their nets to follow Him? Whatever they decide to do, they decide to do it quickly.

And they came with haste,

I wonder how many stables they had to look in with Bethlehem being packed–and with no room in the inns until they “found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” My favorite aspect, though, is that after they found him they became missionaries that Christmas and made known the saying which was told them concerning this child: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.

The Wise Men

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Elder Uchtdorf taught, “The Wise Men were academics who had been studying the advent of the Messiah, the Son of God. Through their learning, they identified the signs that pointed to His birth. When they identified them, they left their homes and traveled to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Their knowledge of the Christ did not remain solely academic. Once they saw the signs of His birth, they acted. They set out to find the Christ.”

Both the shepherds and the wise men were given different signs of Christ, both had to take action to seek Him out and find Him. Both of them did so by holding fast to the words of God (the scriptures) and the words of the angel and then taking action.

Mary

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Another example of planting the Word or Christ into our hearts is that of Mary. Interestingly enough, that first Christmas we have no record of Mary seeing the angel of the Lord or hearing the Heavenly choirs sing. Yet, I am sure that the shepherds shared with Mary and Joseph the vision and message the angel declared. And it is this simple testimony from the shepherds, that we are told, “Mary kept and pondered these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

We can plant the word in our hearts by pondering on scripture in our mind and in our heart. We can plant the word in our hearts by always remembering Christ, thinking of what He would do, remembering occasions when we’ve witnessed His hand in our own lives, and and trusting that He will yet help us through the grace of His atonement.

Best Christmas Ever
We can plant the word in the hearts of those we serve by serving and giving. President Monson said,

“Giving, not getting, brings to full bloom the Christmas spirit. Enemies are forgiven, friends remembered, and God obeyed. The spirit of Christmas illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world’s busy life and become more interested in people than things.”

2005 is up there as one of my best Christmases ever. My wife and I performed in the church’s production of The Savior of the World at the Conference Center Theatre. That Christmas season we were poor college students, just two years married and living in Provo, Utah. My wife was pregnant with our oldest daughter Anéla. We would drive up for shows every Wednesday night and Friday night, and we had a show on Saturday afternoons. The first act is all about the birth of Christ and the second about His resurrection. For one show we were told we would be performing for the deaf and blind. Someone in the cast knew American Sign Language, and taught the whole cast how to perform the finale number, Jesus Once of Humble Birth, in sign language. I remember as we began singing and signing that final number the spirit was electric. And as we finished, without a dry eye in the cast, the audience erupted in the silent applause of the deaf (holding both hands up in the air and waving/rotating the hands back and forth).  Because the whole cast had made an effort to make that audience feel special by learning the final song in sign language, that experience became a major highlight of that Christmas.

When we give of ourselves with people, and not things, in mind – we put Christ in our hearts.

The Book of Mormon: The Word
The Word is the also the words of God. And as we’ve been challenged recently by our prophet Thomas S. Monson and by Elder Nelson, we can plant the Word into our hearts by reading from the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ every day. I quote President Monson:

“My dear associates in the work of the Lord, I implore each of us to prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon each day. As we do so, we will be in a position to hear the voice of the Spirit, to resist temptation, to overcome doubt and fear, and to receive heaven’s help in our lives.”

And as Bishop Wilde has shared with our ward, The Lord’s Promise to the Euclid Ward is that we will rejoice in reading The Book of Mormon. We will learn with joy. We will have many revelations. We will obtain a hope, and our faith will become unshaken.

Reading the Book of Mormon will help us to plant the Christ and His words into our hearts. The Lord declared to Jeremiah:

“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)

I love that imagery. This reminds me of similar imagery about planting the word in our hearts in the Book of Mormon. Alma taught:

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves–It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.(Alma 32:28)

Alma then goes on to teach, and I paraphrase, “But wait, this is just the beginning! You just know that the seed is good, but no one just plants a seed to know if it’s good, they plant it because they want the fruit!”

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.(Alma 32:41)

Tree of Life: Sacrament

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Brothers and Sisters, this reminds me of another tree we read of in the Book of Mormon. Lehi and Nephi were shown a vision of a Tree. Lehi says that on the tree is a fruit desirable to make one happy. He says that the fruit is sweet above all that he’s ever tasted and was white to exceed all whiteness. That sounds an awful lot like big white lights on the tree, and from most pictures of artist’s depictions of the Tree of Life that I’ve seen, it looks almost as if the tree were or could be a temperate, non-coniferous Christmas Tree.
And how fitting!

Lehi sees multitudes holding on to a rod of iron (the Word of God) that follows a path through mists of darkness until it reaches the tree. It is this rod that helps the people find the tree. Later, when Nephi sees this same vision, the Angel asks Nephi what he wants, and Nephi says, “to know the interpretation thereof ” He wants to know what the dream means. Thereafter, the Angel intersperses Lehi’s dream with vignette visions of the life of Christ. He first shows Nephi Christ’s birth, that first Christmas, and testifies that this is the “condescension of God” literally the “coming down” of God and the angel testifies of Christ as the Son of the Eternal Father, and then asks Nephi, “knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” And Nephi answers, “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” Where is the love of God best manifest? We read in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son . . . ” So if the Tree of Life is the Love of God, and the love of God is best manifest in the gift of His Only Begotten Son, then the tree of life is Christ. And if the Tree of Life is Christ, then what is the fruit of Christ whose fruit is desirable to make one happy?  It’s the atonement of Christ! The opportunity to repent. The greatest and most desirable of the gifts of God is eternal life and we obtain that through virtue of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Said even more simply, we obtain eternal life by keeping our baptismal covenants which we renew every Sunday when we take the sacrament.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
“Those who partake of the sacrament worthily thereby put themselves under covenant with the Lord:
1. To always remember the broken body and spilled blood of Him who was crucified for the sins of the world;
2. To take upon themselves the name of Christ and always remember him; and
3. To keep the commandments of God. . .
As his part of the contract, the Lord covenants:
1. That such worthy saints shall have his Spirit to be with them; and
2. That in due course they shall inherit eternal life.”

Elder James E. Faust taught,
“If we partake of the sacrament regularly and are faithful to these covenants, the law will be in our inward parts and written in our hearts.”

Christ himself taught the metaphor of the sacrament as a method by which we take upon His name but also internalize Him and plant Him in our hearts, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”(John 6:56)

Seen in this way, Lehi’s dream is a view of multitudes of people clinging to the word of God, the scriptures, (which leads up to the tree–to Christ–and helps the multitudes to find Him, just as the sign from the Angel, or the Star for the Wise Men, helped those from the first Christmas find Christ. The multitudes then partake of the fruit of the tree: Christ – His atonement – which we do in remembrance of when we partake of the sacrament. So could Lehi’s vision really be all about people clinging to the scriptures to find Him, reading them every day, in order to survive the mists of darkness and temptations simply to get to sacrament meeting and partake every week?

So we’re back to Alma comparing the words of Christ to a seed that we’ve planted in our hearts, and we’ve nourished it by reading daily from the Book of Mormon and the scriptures and by partaking of the fruit of Christ by repenting and taking the sacrament.

Alma says: “And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.”

Into Our Inward Parts
Too often I can find myself living in my head, being too analytical, or simply understanding things intellectually. Stephen W. Owen, the Young Men General President, taught recently: “It is not enough just to know with our minds; we must understand in our hearts. Doctrine can’t just influence our thoughts; we have to let it change our very
nature.”

Let me illustrate this with a story from the Church News shared by Elder James E. Faust:

“A group of religion instructors [were] taking a summer course on the life of the Savior and focusing particularly on the parables.

“When the final exam time came, . . . the students arrived at the classroom to find a note that the exam would be given in another building across campus. Moreover, the note said, it must be finished within the two-hour time period that was starting almost at that moment.

“The students hurried across campus. On the way they passed a little girl crying over a flat tire on her new bike. An old man hobbled painfully toward the library with a cane in one hand, spilling books from a stack he was trying to manage with the other. On a bench by the union building sat a shabbily dressed, bearded man [in obvious distress].

“Rushing into the other classroom, the students were met by the professor, who announced they had all flunked the final exam.

“The only true test of whether they understood the Savior’s life and teaching, he said, was how they treated people in need.

“Their weeks of study at the feet of a capable professor had taught them a great deal of what Christ had said and done. In their haste to finish the technicalities of the course, however, they failed to recognize the application represented by the three scenes that had been deliberately staged. They learned the letter but not the spirit. Their neglect of the little girl and the two men showed that the profound message of the course had not entered into their inward parts.”

Daily scripture study of the Book of Mormon, regular Family Home Evening, Just Serving!, Lighting the World, Giving rather than Getting, repenting, taking the sacrament,
magnifying our callings, thinking of Christ and what He would do, and then taking corresponding action, will plant the Christ into our hearts and we will experience greater joy and happiness–whether at Christmas or any time or circumstance–of the year.

As we do so, the Spirit will always be with us and we will experience the Lord’s whispering, guiding influence in our lives, described by Isaiah in this beautiful way: “Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it’” (Isaiah 30:21).

And so it is my hope this Christmas, that as visions of sugarplums dance in the heads of our children, that we seek Christ as the Shepherds and the Wise Men did, that we make room for Him in the inn’s of our hearts, that we ponder the words of Christ as Mary did, and that we take action to plant the word of Christ in our hearts to change our very natures and that we give our children the example and opportunity to do likewise. As we do so, I believe we just may have the best Christmas ever. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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