Of the Songs of Angels and Our Part in their Story

MilkyWayStones
There are many beautiful carols sung, performed on instruments, whistled, and even hummed to celebrate Christmas. They are among the more significant and important ways of remembering and worshiping the Savior as we commemorate His birth—the most important is to do His works, as He showed us.

A beautiful American carol—not heard nearly enough today—is “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” words by Edmund Hamilton Sears, music by Richard Storrs Willis. Part of this carol’s power, much like “Joy to the World,” is that it unites the certain news of the Savior’s birth with the prophecies of Christ’s return. Just as surely as Christ’s birth happened in complete fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and prayer, so may we trust that the prophecies of the Savior’s return will be fulfilled in every particular.

The night before His birth, the Savior declared to the prophet Nephi, “on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Nephi 1:13) That declaration applied to all of the prophecies, those of His birth, His ministry, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return in the latter days.

That is the message of the carol by Sears and Willis:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

The carol begins with reflections on the ancient story, proclaimed by unimpeachable messengers from heaven, of the birth of the Prince of Peace, tidings sent from His Father, the King. The carol does not stop there. It moves forward to remind us what that song of old means for us today. In short, the story did not end on that midnight clear; the story continues. We are in the story.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The angels’ work has not ended, their song continues, the messengers of heaven yet minister to us in modern times to our weary world. As today’s leaders say more and lead less, and the “babel” of voices increases, the need for the message of the angels grows. The angels still have much work to do. They are needed now ever as much as they were two thousand years ago. What is their message? That the days proclaimed by prophets throughout the ages are arriving. Ours, too, is a momentous age. We are part of the story spoken and begun anciently, still extending toward a conclusion yet ahead.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

As we worship each Christmas time, and throughout the year, let the message of this song, and the words of the prophets—ancient and modern—remind us that the time is hastening on as foretold. As we live and move through the weary world, we need not be weary. We can listen to the messages from heaven and rejoice. We can own the Prince of Peace our King and send back the song that the angels in our day are still singing.

Of Wars and Rumors of Wars

The Lord Jesus Christ declared the hearing of wars and rumors of wars to be significant among the signs of the latter days preceding His personal return to the earth in glory, to rule and reign. This from Matthew, in the New Testament:

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars . . . For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. (Matthew 24:6, 7)

This from Mark:

And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled . . . For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles . . . (Mark 13:7, 8)

And this from the Lord through a modern prophet:

And in that day shall be heard of wars and rumors of wars, and the whole earth shall be in commotion . . . (Doctrine and Covenants 45:26)

As well as I can recall, I have always thought—from my young childhood—that I was living in the latter days, shortly before the return of the Savior to the earth. I cannot remember a time when I did not suspect that to be true. Perhaps many in many ages have had similar thoughts.

My study of the scriptures, ancient and modern, and the words of the prophets, dead and living, matched against what I have witnessed in my life have confirmed my belief that the day of the return of Jesus Christ, to live and dwell among men as the resurrected Lord, is near. I do not predict precisely how near. It may not happen in my lifetime. The Lord said that the Father has not confided the precise day even to the angels of heaven (Matthew 24:36). But if I do not live to see that day, I do not expect that the Savior’s return will occur long after I die, in which case I hope to come with Him together with many who lived and died faithful to the testimony of Christ.

Until recently I had considered these prophecies of wars and disasters to be a sign of something new. Yet wars of men and convulsions of the earth are found throughout the annals of history. Perhaps the prophecies refer to an increase in frequency and intensity. Maybe that is so. Looking back on the recent twentieth century it is hard to find a year without war raging one place or another, and I cannot identify another century in which so many tens of millions were destroyed at the hands of their brothers and sisters. The Middle Ages and on into the Renaissance, if not many other ages, were also racked with constant conflict and mayhem. Their numerous wars seemed interminable, including a Thirty Years War and even a Hundred Years War.

I have come to suspect that in reading these prophecies I misdirected my focus. For something to be a sign, it must be new or different. What was the Lord saying here that would be different, different enough so that we might notice? Perhaps it was not the wars and physical upheavals themselves, as those have been with us since man and woman left Eden. What is very much new and different about today is our ability to hear of the wars, rumors of wars, and the natural disasters. The evils of men and the destruction of nature may be increasing in frequency—and the case for intensity of human mayhem is not tough to make—but what really is new is our ability to hear of them.

Nothing in the entire history of the world can compare with the very recent ability of mankind, anywhere and everywhere, to hear of what is happening anywhere at any time on the planet. That is especially true of “rumors.” Internet communications, and the many evolving formats of social media, make the spreading of rumor—always known to travel on wings—electrifyingly quick and amazingly ubiquitous. Every day we do hear of wars and rumors of wars and the whole world in commotion. It is hard to avoid.

As the dashed expectations held by many at the time of the Savior’s mortal ministry blinded them to the reality of the fulfillment of prophecy, holding too tightly to one’s opinion of how prophecy might be fulfilled is a risky business. The Lord expects us, however, to think about it, else why would He make the prophecies and repeat them? I offer these thoughts for pondering, even while we observe the mighty work of God unfold in our own lifetime, as He told the prophets it would.

What have you heard today?

Of Naked Ladies and the House of Israel

Some call them Naked Ladies. Others invoke the adjectives Resurrection, Surprise, or Magic. A more formal name seems to be Amaryllis Belladonna. They are lily-like flowers (but distantly related to lilies), with large, trumpet-like blossoms. They certainly look like lilies to me, no offense intended to the botanists.

I first noticed these mystery flowers when they appeared one summer in my backyard. I do not know how they got there. This summer there are several of them, each summer a few more. They are beautiful. But even more, I find them a wonder. Unless you were careful to notice their abundant but brief and non-flowering leaves at the beginning of the growing season, you would have little expectation that in the hottest and driest time of the summer you were to be blessed by an eruption of beauty in your yard.

These flowers bloom on tall stalks that break through the dry ground without any leaves or other trace of the plant at all. It took me a season or two to connect their abundant leafy growth in early spring with the blossoms of later summer. From that spring verdure the plants gather and store in their bulbs the strength that lies dormant for many weeks after the leaves have all died away.

The tall, slender stems of late July and August, with their lovely pink blossoms but no foliage of any kind, I must suppose give the flowers their name, Naked Ladies. The variety of other names testify that these flowering bulbs suggest many things to many people. If you did not know that they were there, hiding in the ground, you would have a surprise when the stalks rocket up in a matter of days to bloom in abundance. From a plant that seemed to have died off with the spring, the resurrection of blossoms arises at a time when the most intense heat of the summer dries out many other flora. From barren ground, with no apparent preparation or support, the blossoms appear like magic.

I can embrace all of these images and their accompanying names, to which I would add another—at least another metaphor if not another name. They remind me of the house of Israel.

Long ago Israel thrived in the land called Canaan. Twelve Tribes, descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, named Israel by the Lord Jehovah, put down deep roots and flourished between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and into surrounding territories. As the people stayed faithful to God, kept His commandments and ordinances, Israel grew and prospered.

As with the plant I have in mind, Israel’s time of flourishing was relatively brief. Before the end of the eighth century, B.C., Ten of the Twelve Tribes had fallen away from the faith of God into the paganism of their neighbors. Their lands were conquered and the people carried away captive and out of the further knowledge of history. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin alone remained, the Jews of today. In time they, too, were driven from their homeland and scattered all over the world.

For thousands of years the house of Israel has remained in captivity and Diaspora. All but the Jews have remained unnoticed, and the Jews have been subjected to waves of persecution that has risen and ebbed but not wholly ceased.

Yet Israel has lived, strength acquired long ago awaiting the season of sprouting and blossoming, as foretold by numerous prophets, ancient and modern. Through Moses, the Lord declared to Israel,

That then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all nations, whither the Lord thy God has scattered thee. (Deuteronomy 30:3)

Through the prophet Ezekiel,

For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord God, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things. I will accept you with your sweet savour, when I bring you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen. (Ezekiel 20:40, 41)

When Jesus Christ visited His believers in America, shortly following His resurrection, teaching them about the house of Israel He promised, “I will gather them in from the four quarters of the earth; and then will I fulfill the covenant which the Father made unto all the people of the house of Israel.” (3 Nephi 16)

In our day, modern prophets of Jesus Christ have declared the approaching fulfillment of the covenant:

We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes . . . (Articles of Faith 10)

Those surprise flowers each year remind me of the Lord’s promises to the house of Israel, as today we are witnessing those slender stalks arise unexpectedly from barren lands, just beginning to bloom. It is wondrous and beautiful. A work of God.

Of Old Time Religion and What’s Good Enough for Me

Is there a revival or camp meeting song more popular than “Old Time Religion”? Maybe, but few, and few serve so well to stir up so quickly good feelings about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Try getting the song out of your head after singing or even listening to it for a while—not an easy task. It is bouncing around in my head even as I write.

Like a good campfire song, it lends itself easily to new verses improvised on the spot by each singer in turn. Because of that, I do not know that there is an official set of lyrics.

All of the variations you might hear or sing begin with—

Now give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
It’s good enough for me.

That lead verse sets the pattern. After it come verses like the following:

Makes me love everybody.
Makes me love everybody.
Makes me love everybody.
It’s good enough for me.

I particularly like that thought, because the religion of Jesus Christ is designed to change us so that we do love everybody. The greatest gift of God is charity, the pure love of Christ. If a religion is unable to bring about that change in people, then it is not the religion taught by the Savior.

Here is another verse that I like:

It was good for the Hebrew children.
It was good for the Hebrew children.
It was good for the Hebrew children.
It’s good enough for me.

Some modern religions seem to have forgotten the Hebrew children. You cannot have the true “old time religion” without including them. As Moses and the other Old Testament prophets taught, the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was the religion of Jesus Christ. It was Christ—referred to as the Messiah and as Jehovah in the Hebrew scriptures—who as the God of the Old Testament gave the Hebrews their religion, the religion of direct revelation from God that brought them out of Egypt, and it was good enough to bring them prosperity whenever they followed it.

Of course, the old time religion of God is even older than the Hebrew children, since it was the religion taught by God to Adam and his descendants, observed by Noah and his family on the Ark. There were other old time religions, but they were not good for anybody, with no power to save in heaven or on earth.

And when the Hebrew children forsook the old time religion and instead embraced the pagan religions of their neighbors, the Lord could not protect them. Many rediscovered God’s old time religion once they were in exile in Babylon. That lies behind another stirring verse:

It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It’s good enough for me.

It was good for all of God’s prophets and taught by them. That included the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles and prophets of the church Jesus established during His mortal ministry. This verse captures that spirit:

It was good for Paul and Silas.
It was good for Paul and Silas.
It was good for Paul and Silas.
It’s good enough for me.

That old time religion, of Apostles and prophets who spoke directly with God, and through whom the Father continued to speak regularly to His children, had power to save. As the song continues,

It will take us all to heaven.
It will take us all to heaven.
It will take us all to heaven.
It’s good enough for me.

I am very grateful that God’s old time religion of prophets and Apostles of Jesus Christ is on the earth once again, just as it was anciently. I will add my own verse:

It will help us follow Jesus.
It will help us follow Jesus.
It will help us follow Jesus.
And that’s good enough for me.

Of Predictions and Prophecies

Two dangers to which members of our society—and perhaps members of many another society—have been prone is the eagerness to know the future, and dismay and disillusionment when the reality of the future does not play out as expected. That makes predictors of the future in high demand and always at risk.

Experience also teaches us that most predictors of the future do not know what they are talking about and are highly susceptible to failure. That probably explains why the oracles of history and modernity are sphinx-like in their pronouncements, offering up vague prognostications whose insightful value can only be appreciated after the ensuing events occur and are appropriately explained—or explained away.

In modern times our most prolific prognosticators are sports-wizards who tell you before the season begins and as it evolves who will be the champions and who the losers. Not far behind are the political experts who make a living pronouncing who will win in the next elections, hoping greatly that their predictions will take the energy out of the doomed candidates and make the prophecy self-fulfilling. Also high on the list in recent decades are the economic gurus who predict with assurance and precision everything from jobless numbers to economic growth to interest rates.

Some of these last are actually becoming reliable after a sort in terms of how consistently wrong they are. An oft-cited economist from Standard and Poors comes to mind, who you can now generally count on getting his jobless predictions backwards. I am reminded of Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr., who generously remarked that, “Economists use decimals in their forecasts to show that they have a sense of humor.” (Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr., The DeVoe Report, February 7, 1996) Economists love to produce charts with erratic lines displaying the recorded past and smooth lines presenting their forecasts. These are helpful in that you can be sure that the future will look nothing like the lines of predicted future performance. It would be wise to keep in mind the observation of Alex Pollock concerning the recent recession, “Among the many losses imposed by the bubble is a well-deserved loss of credibility on the part of central bankers and economists.” (Alex Pollock, “2007 Bust: How Could They Not Have Known?”, Real Clear Markets, September 21, 2011)

All of this is not to say that it is impossible to predict the future. There are certain trends that can be predicted within tolerable levels of probability, such as that flooding the money supply will usually produce inflation, that you get less of what you tax (be that income, jobs, investment, or healthcare, for example), or that the Yankees will before long win another World Series.

Aside from acting upon reasonable probabilities based upon experience, good data, and rational analysis, it is safe to say that man cannot reliably predict the future. We can learn from history, because although history never repeats itself it can teach us lessons. In the world of human action there is nothing new that is wholly new. All of this, however, is in the realm of managing risks and probabilities, something that we all have to do every day just in order to act. Nevertheless, while we expect certain things to happen, none of us on our own can know what will happen.

God can and does know. He sees it all, and He is never surprised. God’s omniscience is not limited by time or place. Moreover, our loving and generous Father shares or withholds from us knowledge of the future, depending upon our need. God has shared with me enough glimpses of the future to help me prepare and be prepared for when the events arrived. Yet many is the difficult experience of life that I am glad to have had and learned and grown from, looking at the experience in the past, that I am not sure that I could have mustered the courage to face had I known with any clarity that it was coming. God withholds from most of us knowledge of our manner of death, all the while equipping us with the knowledge that we need in order to live well.

There is much that God does want us to know about the future, our individual future as well as mankind’s future, to aid us in our daily living, to give purpose and direction to daily activities that might otherwise seem pointless or even hopeless, or to elicit from us extra efforts and undiscovered talents. From the beginning of time our Father has sent to us prophets, fellow humans like ourselves, to whom He has revealed prophecies important to His children. The prophet Isaiah brought comfort to Ahaz, the king of Judah, when his land was invaded. He prophesied that the invasion would fail and to encourage him offered the sign of the coming of the Messiah and His miraculous virgin birth (see Isaiah 7:14-16).

Amos was another such prophet, who declared, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7) That is why Jesus Christ has sent us new apostles and prophets in our day, to inspire, counsel, comfort, uplift, and in many ways aid us by divine guidance in the difficult times in which people always live, we no less than God’s children in the past.

We need, however, to keep in mind the point that while God’s prophecies are reliable and never fail our loving Father is careful to tell us what we need while withholding what were better that we not yet know. That can leave room for misinterpreting God’s prophecies and assigning to them meanings and dressing them up with interpretations not included by God in the vision. When the prophecy is fulfilled in ways that vary from our own predictions and expectations it is not the prophecy of God that has failed but rather our own unwarranted assumptions.

Throughout ancient scriptures there were many prophecies of Christ’s mortal ministry as well as of His triumphal second coming. Many have confused the two, and such confusion led more than some to reject the Messiah when He walked among them in the land of Judea and Galilee. Jesus Christ fulfilled all that was prophesied for thousands of years about His mortal ministry, including His sacrifice and death. Yet many—but not all—eyes and ears were closed to Jesus because He did not fulfill mistaken expectations and traditions. A similar pattern is playing out today as the hour approaches for the Savior’s return.

Inasmuch as God sees all, there is much that He sees and knows that He could not possibly explain to men bounded by the extent of their own experiences. How would God explain to an ancient people some of the most common of daily happenings in our technological world? And certainly we are as far removed from the realities of heavenly experience as the ancients were from our daily 21st century experience. That is to say that God’s prophecies can be fulfilled in ways far beyond human expectation or even imaginings prior to their fulfillment.

When I was a missionary in 1979, I knew of the prophecy that the gospel of Jesus Christ would be preached to all nations, and I firmly believed it. Yet I did not have the slightest clue as to how missionaries would ever be allowed beyond the Iron Curtain. Little did I know that in less than a decade those barriers would come down peacefully and that the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist. Knowing of the prophecy allowed many to prepare. That preparation did not require knowledge of how God would work upon the nations to bring about His purposes.

I thank God for His ancient and modern prophets, and for the prophecies He has shared and continues to reveal, great and small, glorious and helpful. As the prophecies unfold, my plan is to adjust my expectations to the unfolding reality of God’s work and take comfort in knowing that all will be fulfilled as God continues to reveal to those who will listen everything that they will need to know.

(First published April 7, 2013)