One of our favorite hymns begins, “I stand all amazed.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 193.) In any consideration of Christ’s life, surely there is reason to be amazed in every way. We are amazed at his premortal role as the great Jehovah, agent of his Father, creator of the earth, guardian of the entire family of man. We are amazed at his coming to earth and the circumstances surrounding his advent, following millennia of revelatory leadership to Adam and Abraham and Moses and Lehi and all the prophets of old. We are amazed by his good and humble stepfather and by the young virgin who was his earthly mother. We are amazed at the miracle of his conception. We are amazed at the poverty of his birth and the loneliness of it, which would only be a prefiguration of all the loneliness to come.
We are amazed that at only twelve years of age he was already about his Father’s business, sitting in the midst of the doctors of the law where “they were hearing him, and asking him questions.” (JST, Luke 2:46.) We are amazed at the formal initiation of his ministry, his baptism and spiritual gifts, and the calling of very ordinary men to stand with him in teaching what would be extraordinary and often very unpopular doctrines.
We are amazed that everywhere he went the forces of evil went before him and that they knew him from the beginning, even if mortals did not. At the same time that some people were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (John 6:42), the devils were calling out, “Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? [We] know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34).
We stand all amazed as these forces of evil were cast out and defeated, even as the lame were made to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the infirm to stand. Indeed we are all amazed at every movement and moment—as every generation from Adam to the end of the world must be.
But for me there is no greater amazement and no more difficult personal challenge than when, after the anguish in Gethsemane, after being mocked, beaten, and scourged, Jesus staggers under his load to the crest of Calvary and says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.)
If ever there is a moment when I indeed stand all amazed, it is here, for this is an amazement of a different kind. So much of the mystery of his power and ministry tear at my mind: the circumstances of his birth, the breadth and variety of his ministry and miracles, the self-summoned power of his resurrection—before all of these I stand amazed and say, “How did he do it?” But here with disciples who abandoned him in his hour of greatest need, here fainting under the weight of his cross and the sins of all mankind which were attached to it, here rent by piercing spikes in his palms and in his wrists and in his feet—here now the amazement tears not at my mind but at my heart, and I ask not “How did he do it?” but “Why did he do it?” It is here that I examine my life, not against the miraculousness of his, but against the mercifulness of it, and it is here I find how truly short I fall in emulation of the Master.
For me, this is a higher order of amazement. I am startled enough by his ability to heal the sick and raise the dead, but I have had something of that experience in a limited way, as virtually all of you have as well. We are lesser vessels and undoubtedly unworthy of the privilege, but we have seen the miracles of the Lord repeated in our own lives and in our own homes and with our own portion of the priesthood. But mercy? Forgiveness? Atonement? Reconciliation? Too often, that is a different matter.
How could he forgive his tormenters at that moment? With all that pain, with blood having fallen from every pore, surely he doesn’t need to be thinking of others now, does he? Surely he doesn’t need to think of others every minute all the time, and especially not with this pack of jackals who are laughing and spitting, stripping him of his clothing and his rights and his dignity? Or is this yet one more amazing evidence that he really was perfect and intends us to be also? Is it only coincidental—or absolutely intentional—that in the Sermon on the Mount, as something of a last requirement before stating perfection as our goal, he reminds us, “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44.)
I’d rather raise the dead! I’d rather restore sight and steady a palsied hand. I’d rather do anything than to love my enemies and forgive those who hurt me or my children or my children’s children, and especially those who laugh and delight in the brutality of it.
“And when [Pilate] had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.
“And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.
“And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!
“And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.
“And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.” (Matt. 27:26–31.)
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”? Who cares whether or not they know what they are doing! This is cruel and barbaric and insulting injustice to the purest and only perfect life ever lived. Here is the one person in all the world from Adam to this present hour who deserved adoration and respect and admiration and love. He deserved it because “there was no other good enough/To pay the price of sin./He only could unlock the gate/Of heav’n and let us in.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 194.) And this is what he gets for it?
Is there no justice? Shouldn’t he cry out, “Be gone with you!” as he did to those other devils? Shouldn’t he condemn them all and call down the legions of angels that were always waiting at his very command?
Every generation in every dispensation of the world has had its own multitudes crowding around that cross, laughing and jeering, breaking commandments and abusing covenants. It isn’t just a relative handful in the meridian of time who are guilty. It is most of the people, most of the places, most of the time, including all of us who should have known better.
What is there that makes him do it, and what lesson is there in it for us? I believe it has something to do with our service in the temple.
Following their experience in the Garden of Eden, and their eventual expulsion from it, “Adam began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, as I the Lord had commanded him. And Eve also, his wife, did labor with him. …
“And Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord, and they heard the voice of the Lord from the way toward the Garden of Eden, speaking unto them, and they saw him not; for they were shut out from his presence.
“And he gave unto them commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord.
“And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.
“And then the angel spake, saying: This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth.
“Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.” (Moses 5:1, 4–8.)
Call upon God for what? What is the nature of this first instruction to the human family? Why are they to call upon God? Is this a social visit? Is it a friendly neighborhood chat? No, this is a call for help from the lone and dreary world. This is a call from the brink of despair. “Thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.” This is a call from the personal prison of a sinful heart. It is a call for the forgiveness of sins.
And so the God and Father of us all established with those first parents in the first generation of time certain principles and ordinances fashioned to convey how such forgiveness of sins would come. Along with all else of meaning and substance in our lives, it would come through the sacrifice and example of his Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth.
To serve as a constant reminder of the humiliation and suffering the Son would pay to ransom us, to serve as a constant reminder that he would open not his mouth and be brought as a lamb to the slaughter (see Mosiah 14:7), to serve as a constant reminder of the meekness and mercy and gentleness—yes, the forgiveness—that was to mark every Christian life: for all these reasons and more, those firstborn lambs, clean and unblemished, perfect in every way, were offered on those stone altars year after year and generation after generation, pointing us toward the great Lamb of God, his Only Begotten Son, his Firstborn, perfect and without blemish.
In offering the symbolic but much more modest sacrifice of our own dispensation—that which reflects our broken heart and contrite spirit (see D&C 59:8), we promise to “always remember him and keep his commandments; … that [we] may always have his Spirit to be with [us].” (D&C 20:77.) The symbols of his sacrifice, in Adam’s day or our own, were to help us remember to live peacefully and obediently and mercifully. We were, as a result of these ordinances, to demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ in our long-suffering and human kindness one for another, as he demonstrated it for us on that cross.
But over the centuries it seems never to have worked that way—at least not often enough. Cain quickly managed to get it wrong. As the Prophet Joseph Smith noted: “God … prepared a sacrifice in the gift of His own son who should be sent in due time, to prepare a way, or open a door through which man might enter into the Lord’s presence, whence he had been cast out for disobedience. … By faith in this atonement or plan of redemption, Abel offered to God a sacrifice that was accepted, which was the firstlings of the flock. Cain offered of the fruit of the ground, and was not accepted because he … could not exercise faith contrary to the plan of heaven. It must be shedding the blood of the Only Begotten to atone for man; for this was the plan of redemption; and without the shedding of blood was no remission; and as the sacrifice was instituted for a type, by which man was to discern the great Sacrifice which God had prepared; to offer a sacrifice contrary to that, no faith could be exercised, because redemption was not purchased in that way, nor the power of the atonement instituted after that order. … Certainly, the shedding of the blood of a beast could be beneficial to no man, except it was done in imitation, or as a type, or explanation of what was to be offered through the gift of God Himself; and this performance done with an eye looking forward in faith on the power of that great Sacrifice for a remission of sins.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 58.)
And so others of us in every age and season, a little Cain-like, would come home fresh from morning oblations to scream at a spouse, devastate a child, kick the dog, or merely to lie a little, cheat a little, and dig a pit for the neighbor. The attention span we’ve shown in relation to our saving ordinances over the dispensations would by comparison make preschoolers look like college graduates. Too often we have forgotten “why” even before the blood was dry on the altar or the trays were returned to the table or the robes of the holy priesthood were folded and put away for yet another session.
Saul, king in Israel, demonstrated the problem. In explicit contradiction to the Lord’s instructions, he brought back from the Amalekites “the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord [his] God.”
Samuel, in utter anguish cried:
“Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” (1 Sam. 15:15, 22–23.)
Why is rebellion (or stubbornness or disobedience in our ordinances) like witchcraft? Because rebellion makes a statement about our loyalty and our understanding of what God is really like and what he really wants. Saul, who understood the method but not the meaning of his sacrifice, and the Latter-day Saint who faithfully goes to sacrament meeting but is no more merciful or patient or forgiving as a result, are much the same as the witch and the idolator. They go through the motions of the ordinances without loyalty to or understanding of the reasons for which these ordinances were established—obedience, gentleness, and loving kindness in the search for forgiveness of their sins.
Ordinances pursued in error and altered in meaning mark an apostate priesthood and an idolatrous nation. As the Prophet Joseph just taught us, we can rest assured that God was not interested in the death of innocent little animals—unless the meaning of those altars truly alters the nature of our lives.
At one particularly low point in Israelite history, the Lord cried out to his children:
“I hate, I despise your feast days. …
“Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.
“Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.
“But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:21–24.)
And so it was so much of the time until we come to this final parable:
“There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:
“And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.
“And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.
“Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.
“But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son.
“But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.
“And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.” (Matt. 21:33–39.)
That is the moment at which we find ourselves on the summit of Golgotha. It is not a pleasant story. Through patience that seems inordinately generous, the Father and the Son have waited and watched and worked in this vineyard for mercy to run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. But they have not run. Not only have the prophets and faithful few been killed, but now so is to be the son of the Lord of the vineyard. A terrible, incalculable price is to be paid, and it wounds the human heart to tell it.
In the midst of the swearing and the spit, the thorns and the threats, the ridicule and the rending of his garments; added to the crushing weight of his own body straining for support on the very nails that have been driven into his hands and into his feet; with friends in retreat and foes as far as the eye could see, the worst possible scene in this divine drama unfolds.
Perhaps the briefest glimpse is given of the terrible emotions and forces at work here when we read lines intentionally preserved for us in the original Aramaic: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46.)
There is one thing and one thing alone this Only Begotten Son has been sure of: the love and companionship and unwavering support of his father. Consider these lines taken almost at random from the Gospel of John. They are suggestive of a theme that runs throughout that book.
“The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: … The Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth.” (John 5:19–20.)
“I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38.)
“I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not. But I know him.” (John 7:28–29.)
“The Father that sent me beareth witness of me. … If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.” (John 8:18–19.)
“I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30.)
“He gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.” (John 12:49.)
“Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32.)
And then this assertion, perhaps the most painful of all: “I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. … He that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” (John 8:16, 29.)
That one constant thread of doctrine and belief, the one certainty he had in spite of what might happen among mortal friend and foe: “[My] Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things which please him.”
And now, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
May I share this from Elder Melvin J. Ballard, written many years ago:
“I ask you, what father and mother could stand by and listen to the cry of their children in distress … and not render assistance? I have heard of mothers throwing themselves into raging streams when they could not swim a stroke to save their drowning children, [I have heard of fathers] rushing into burning buildings to rescue those whom they loved.
“We cannot stand by and listen to those cries without its touching our hearts. … He had the power to save, and He loved His Son, and He could have saved Him. He might have rescued Him from the insult of the crowds. He might have rescued Him when the crown of thorns was placed upon His head. He might have rescued Him when the Son, hanging between two thieves, was mocked with, ‘Save thyself, and come down from the cross. He saved others; himself he cannot save.’ He listened to all this. He saw that Son condemned; He saw Him drag the cross through the streets of Jerusalem and faint under its load. He saw the Son finally upon Calvary; he saw His body stretched out upon the wooden cross; he saw the cruel nails driven through hands and feet, and the blows that broke the skin, tore the flesh, and let out the life’s blood of His [Only Begotten] Son. …
“[He] looked on [all that] with great grief and agony over His Beloved [Child], until there seems to have come a moment when even our Saviour cried out in despair: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.
“In that hour I think I can see our dear Father behind the veil looking upon these dying struggles, … His great heart almost breaking for the love that He had for His Son. Oh, in that moment when He might have saved His Son, I thank Him and praise Him that He did not fail us. … I rejoice that He did not interfere, and that His love for us made it possible for Him to endure to look upon the sufferings of His [Only Begotten] and give Him finally to us, our Saviour and our Redeemer. Without Him, without His sacrifice, we would have remained, and we would never have come glorified into His presence. … This is what it cost, in part, for our Father in heaven to give the gift of His Son unto men.
“He, … our God, is a jealous God—jealous lest we should [ever] ignore and forget and slight His greatest gift unto us”—the life of his Firstborn Son. (Melvin J. Ballard, Crusader for Righteousness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, pp. 136–38.)
So how do we make sure that we never “ignore or slight or forget” his greatest of all gifts unto us?
We do so by showing our desire for a remission of our sins and our eternal gratitude for that most courageous of all prayers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.) We do so by joining in the work of forgiving sins, which is so clearly demonstrated hour after hour, day after day, in temple work, from the baptismal font on the back of those twelve oxen deep inside the House of the Lord clear to the veil of the temple, the celestial room, and the Holy of Holies beyond it.
“‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ,’ [Paul commands us]. (Gal. 6:2) … The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot [and circumstance], … but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which [we] now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share [in] the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 2d ed., New York: Macmillan, 1959, p. 100.)
Surely the reason Christ said “Father, forgive them” was because even in the weakened and terribly trying hour he faced, he knew that this was the message he had come through all eternity to deliver. All of the meaning and all of the majesty of all those dispensations—indeed the entire plan of salvation—would have been lost had he forgotten that not in spite of injustice and brutality and unkindness and disobedience but precisely because of them had he come to extend forgiveness to the family of man. Anyone can be pleasant and patient and forgiving on a good day. A Christian has to be pleasant and patient and forgiving on all days. It is the quintessential moment of his ministry, and as perfect in its example as it was difficult to endure.
Is there someone in your life who perhaps needs forgiveness? Is there someone in your home, someone in your family, someone in your neighborhood who has done an unjust or an unkind or an unchristian thing? All of us are guilty of such transgressions, so there surely must be someone who yet needs your forgiveness.
And please don’t ask if that’s fair—that the injured should have to bear the burden of forgiveness for the offender. Don’t ask if “justice” doesn’t demand that it be the other way around. No, whatever you do, don’t ask for justice. You and I know that what we plead for is mercy—and that is what we must be willing to give.
Can we see the tragic and ultimate irony of not granting to others what we need so badly ourselves? Perhaps the highest and holiest and purest act of cleansing—inasmuch as we speak from first to last in the temple of cleansing and purification—would be to say in the face of unkindness and injustice that you do yet more truly “love your enemies and bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.” That is the demanding pathway of perfection.
A marvelous Scottish minister once wrote:
“No man who will not forgive his neighbor, can believe that God is willing, yea wanting, to forgive him. … If God said, ‘I forgive you’ to a man who hated his brother, and if (as impossible) that voice of forgiveness should reach the man, what would it mean to him? How would the man interpret it? Would it not mean to him, ‘You may go on hating. I do not mind it. You have had great provocation and are justified in your hate’?
“No doubt God takes what wrong there is, and what provocation there is, into the account: but the more provocation, the more excuse that can be urged for the hate, the more reason … that the hater should [forgive, and] be delivered from the hell of his [anger].” (George MacDonald, An Anthology, ed. C. S. Lewis, New York: Macmillan, 1947, pp. 6–7.)
I recall just a few years ago seeing a drama enacted at the Salt Lake Airport. On this particular day, I got off an airplane and walked into the terminal. It was immediately obvious that a missionary was coming home because the airport was astir with conspicuous-looking missionary friends and missionary relatives.
I tried to pick out the immediate family members. There was a father who did not look particularly comfortable in an awkward-fitting and slightly out-of-fashion suit. He seemed to be a man of the soil, with a suntan and large, work-scarred hands. His white shirt was a little frayed and was probably never worn except on Sunday.
There was a mother who was quite thin, looking as if she had worked very hard in her life. She had in her hand a handkerchief—and I think it must have been a linen handkerchief once but now it looked like tissue. It was nearly shredded from the anticipation only the mother of a returning missionary could know.
There was a beautiful girl who—well, you know about girls and returning missionaries. She appeared to be on the verge of cardiac arrest. I thought that if the young man didn’t come soon, she would not make it without some oxygen.
Two or three younger brothers and sisters were running around, largely oblivious to the scene that was unfolding.
I walked past them all and started for the front of the terminal. Then I thought to myself, “This is one of the special human dramas in our lives. Stick around and enjoy it.” So I stopped. I slipped into the back of the crowd to wait and watch. The passengers were starting to come off the plane.
I found myself starting to bet (Church-approved betting, of course) as to who would make the break first. I thought probably the girlfriend would want to most of all, but undoubtedly she was struggling with discretion. Two years is a long time, you know, and maybe one shouldn’t appear too assertive. Then a look at that handkerchief convinced me that the mother was probably the one. She obviously needed to hold something, so the child she had carried and nurtured and gone down into the valley of the shadow of death to deliver would be just what the doctor ordered. Or perhaps it would be the boisterous little brother—if he happened to look up long enough to know the plane was in.
As I sat there weighing these options, I saw the missionary start to come down the stairs. I knew he was the one by the squeal of the crowd. He looked like Captain Moroni, clean and handsome and straight and tall. Undoubtedly he had known the sacrifice this mission had meant to his father and mother, and it had made him exactly the missionary he appeared to be. He had his hair trimmed for the trip home, his suit was worn but clean, his slightly tattered raincoat was still protecting him from the chill his mother had so often warned him about.
He came to the bottom of the steps and started out across the apron toward our building and then, sure enough, somebody couldn’t take it any longer. It wasn’t the mother, and it wasn’t the girlfriend, and it wasn’t the rowdy little brother. That big, slightly awkward, quiet and bronzed giant of a man put an elbow into the ribcage of a flight attendant and ran, just simply ran, out onto that apron and swept his son into his arms.
The oxygen summoned for the girlfriend could have now been better directed toward the missionary. He was probably 6′2″ or so, but this big bear of a father grabbed him, took him clear off his feet, and held him for a long, long time. He just held him and said nothing. The boy dropped his briefcase, put both arms around his dad, and they just held each other very tightly. It seemed like all eternity stood still, and for a precious moment the Salt Lake City Airport was the center of the entire universe. It was as if all the world had gone silent out of respect for such a sacred moment.
And then I thought of God the Eternal Father watching his boy go out to serve, to sacrifice when he didn’t have to do it, paying his own way, so to speak, costing everything he had saved all his life to give. At that precious moment, it was not too difficult to imagine that father speaking with some emotion to those who could hear, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And it was also possible to imagine that triumphant returning son, saying, “It is finished. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Now, I don’t know what kind of seven-league boots a father uses to rush through the space of eternity. But even in my limited imagination I can see that reunion in the heavens. And I pray for one like it for you and for me. I pray for reconciliation and for forgiveness, for mercy, and for the Christian growth and Christian character we must develop if we are to enjoy such a moment fully.
I stand all amazed that even for a man like me, full of egotism and transgression and intolerance and impatience, there is a chance. But if I’ve heard the “good news” correctly there is a chance—for me and for you and for everyone who is willing to keep hoping and to keep trying and to allow others the same privilege.
I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine. …
I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!
Such mercy, such love, and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet. …
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
(Hymns, 1985, no. 193.)
In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.