A Sermon from My Past

I recently came across a talk delivered in church by a missionary in 1994 who was about to depart for Pusan, Korea via the MTC. It was interesting (and a little mortifying) to read the words of my past self. Here is what I said:

I am a Mormon. My ancestors joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its early days. Some were driven out of Missouri and Nauvoo by mobs, militias, and extermination orders. Others left everything they had ever known in Scandinavia to gather to the new Zion in America. They pulled handcarts over thousands of miles of prairie to one of the most desolate corners of the globe, and they made it bloom. They battled crickets, crop failures, and federal persecutions for their faith. My roots in the Church go deep. I am a Mormon in my blood, bones, beliefs, and sinews.

But that isn’t why I am going to Korea for two years.

Nor am I going because I think the gospel is socially useful or morally edifying (although I fervently believe that it is both of those things). But Mormons don’t have a monopoly on morality, and there are certainly more decent people among the world’s five billion non-Mormons, than among the eight an a half million Latter-day Saints.

I am going on a mission because I believe the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is true.

We live in a time which is very uncomfortable with ideas like truth. It seems an act of horrible arrogance to claim knowledge of transcendent and universal things. In the eyes of the world such claims smack of narrowness and bigotry. If they don’t actually constitute concentration camps, they are the first step toward them. The proper attitude, we are told, is a special kind of “openness” where we are to accept everything without accessing or judging it. But this isn’t the healthy openness which allows us to gather truth from everywhere into one great whole. Rather, it starts with the assertion that such a gathering is impossible, and that questions of truth and error, good and bad, should be suspended so that we can all get along.

But I do not embrace the Gospel of Christ because I think that it will help us all get along better. I embrace it because I believe it to be true. Christ himself realized the ease with which we can substitute temporary peace for truth when he said:

Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: for henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father against the son, and the son against the father: the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. (Luke 12:51-53)

This isn’t to say that the message of Jesus Christ will tear the world apart. Far from it. Only by coming to the Prince of Peace can we hope to end strifes and sufferings. The lasting peace of God however is very different from the temporary truce of the world. It is based on truth, on embracing things as they really are, to use Neal Maxwell’s phrase. Lasing peace can only come from grappling with and answering the most important questions of human existence – Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? I don’t believe it can come from fleeing before those questions.

The central issue then is how does one gain knowledge of the truth? Where does testimony come from? The answer it seems to me is God. Only He can effectively testify of His truth.

No human being, least of all me, can prove the truth of the Gospel. No one can present a list of arguments or facts which will definitively law to rest the truth claims of Mormonism. In 1 Corinthians Paul tells us that believe “should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5) Even Peter, who walked with the living Christ, gained his knowledge from God. When the Savior asked him, “Whom say ye that I am?” Peter replied, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto the, but my father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:15-17)

Faith, says Hebrews, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Any query of God requires a leap into the unknown. Christ may have appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, but his conversion is an exception, not a rule. Most of us pray to an unseen God. The act of prayer itself needs at the very least a willingness to believe in God, a seed of faith. And answered prayer requires more faith than a simple provisional assumption of God’s existence. Moroni says of him who “prayeth unto God, except he do it with real intent it profit him nothing” (Moro. 7:9).

In Phillipians, Paul consules that we should “work out our salavation with fear and trembling” (Phillip. 2:12). God cannot speak to those who come to him arrogantly demanding proof. When Christ was brought before Herod for trial, Herod asked Christ to perform miracles to prove his divinity. “Then,” says Luke, “he [Herod] questioned him with many words; but he answered him nothing” (Luke 13:3). Christ realizes that to answer the Herods and proof demanders is a fruitless endeavor. C.S. Lewis once remarked that the demand for proof, far from being a request for knowledge, is usually thrown down as a challenge, and that the demander has no intention of being persuaded. This cannot be our attitude toward God if He is to testify to us. Only be coming to Him with a sincere heart and an honest desire to learn His truth can God speak. We must have faith, a willingness to trust in the answer given, and humility, a willingess to suspend ourselves, to doubt our own doubts and certainties and open up to the enticings of the Spirit.

In Jesus the Christ, James E. Talmage writes:

The man who would know Christ must come to Him, to see and hear, to feel and know. Missionaries may carry the good tidings, the message of the gospel, but the response must be an individual one. Are you in doubt as to what that message means today? Then come and see for yourself. Would you know where Christ is found? Come and see. (Note 4, Ch. 11, pg 151)

Re-reading this thirteen years later, my nineteen-year-old self seems both familar and different. I still agree with most of what he said, although today I would probably leave out the bit about concentration camps; too strident. Reading this, I wonder whether or not this elder will make a good missionary. Is he too abstract? Too in love with his own thoughts and language? Too pretentious? Too confontational to be loving? Now, alas, I know the answers to all of these questions. Still, even though I know the elder’s weaknesses, I feel like I am better for having heard the sermon once more.

9 comments for “A Sermon from My Past

  1. April 19, 2007 at 3:50 am

    Boy, I wish that my farewell talk was as poignant and well thought out. I am sure it was full of tripe and self-importance. While, I had a testimony then it wasn’t as well thought out as yours is here.

  2. jimbob
    April 19, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Interestingly, I also have my farewell talk. It went, in its entirety: “Me go on mission now. You write me please.”

    Many a tear was shed over that Gettysburg Address.

  3. joe m
    April 19, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    i think i wrote 4 verses down for my farewell. then i asked my family to speak. as i planned, they didn’t even leave me time for my 4 verses. a plan perfectly executed…

    i know it’s been a long time, but did you know an Elder McGuire? spent a lot of time in a deaf area…

  4. Adam Greenwood
    April 19, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Not a bad little sermon. Better than my customary revival preaching.

  5. Craig V.
    April 19, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    For some reason your post reminds me a bit of General Lorens, in Babette’s Feast, having a dialog with his younger self. In the story, it’s is the younger self that questions the older. Do you find your younger self asking you any questions through this address?

  6. Richard O.
    April 19, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    Nate I remember well your talk. I also remember that there were people in the audience that you were specifically addressing. Thanks for the trip to the past. Your talk has stood the test of time pretty well.

  7. April 19, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    The girl in the audience thought, “SHEESH this guy needs to lighten up.”

  8. Tim Baker
    April 21, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    They send the quality guys to Pusan – that\’s all I can say. haha (Pusan \’97-\’99)

  9. Rosalynde Welch
    April 22, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Nate, thanks for posting this; I enjoyed reading it very much, and I enjoyed your reflections on it. I have my farewell talk saved somewhere on my computer, I think, but I dare not dig it up, I think I would die of humiliation.

    Heather, I’ll have to ask John what he was thinking in the audience at my farewell.

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