Covenant Blessings and Responsibilities
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
February 5, 2002
This year in Sunday School our Gospel Doctrine classes are focused on the teachings of the Old Testament. In the coming weeks we will be studying about Abraham and the blessings God promised to him through the Abrahamic covenant--a covenant of both blessings and responsibilities. In the writings of the Old Testament and also the Pearl of Great Price, we learn much about Abraham. We discover that Abraham was chosen in the premortal existence to be a ruler on the earth. We also learn that as Abraham sought for the blessings of his fathers, God made a covenant with him. In Abraham chapter 2 verse 9 we read:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry [meaning the responsibility to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ] and Priesthood unto all nations.
In review, the Abrahamic covenant promised Abraham a great posterity. The ordinances of baptism, the priesthood, and celestial marriage were made available to him and his seed. His posterity was given the responsibility to share the blessings of this covenant with all the families of the earth through missionary service. These blessings were promised because the Lord knew Abraham was worthy and faithful and would teach his children the ways of the Lord (see Genesis 18:19).
The Scriptural Account of the Abrahamic Covenant
I'm sure Abraham and Sarah must have wondered many times how the promises of the Abrahamic covenant would be fulfilled and perpetuated through them. Sarah, though fair and beautiful, was barren. As the years went by and she and Abraham grew older and older, the fulfillment of the promise that they would have seed seemed less and less likely. Can we imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have rejoiced when the Lord answered Abraham's
faithful petition and made it possible for them to have a son when it was physically impossible for Sarah to conceive because of her age? We have to remember that Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 when Isaac was born. It really was a miracle wrought by God. Now, think how difficult it must have been when years later Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice this son, Isaac, through whom the Abrahamic covenant was to continue. Surely Abraham felt great relief and gratitude when, at that crucial moment, the angel of the Lord prevented the sacrifice of Isaac and provided a ram from the thicket in Isaac's place. Because of Abraham's willingness to offer his only son, he was called "the Father of the Faithful." God renewed again his promise of the Abrahamic covenant by saying:
. . . because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:16-18)
Abraham understood the importance of the covenant God made with him. He knew in order for the blessings of baptism, priesthood, and celestial marriage to be passed on, Isaac would need to marry a woman in the covenant. You remember the scriptural account of how Abraham sent his servant on a long journey to the land of his kindred to find a wife for Isaac. As he stood by the well, the servant prayed earnestly for help with this sacred task. His specific request was that the woman whom Isaac was to marry would give him a drink when he asked and then would offer to water his camels. The servant knew Rebekah was the appointed woman when she did just as he had prayed. She gave him a drink from her pitcher of water and afterwards offered to draw water for his thirsty camels. You will then recall how the servant went with Rebekah to meet her family. When Rebekah's family asked if she would leave her home and family and go with the servant to a different land and marry Isaac, she answered simply and with faith, "I will go." Rebekah's willingness to marry Isaac in the covenant paved the way for the perpetuation of blessings and responsibilities promised to Abraham and his posterity through the Abrahamic covenant.
The scriptural account continues as Isaac and Rebekah are married, but Rebekah is barren. After petitioning the Lord, Isaac's prayers are answered and Rebekah gives birth to twin sons, Esau and Jacob. It was customary in those days for the firstborn son to be heir to a birthright blessing. The Bible Dictionary gives us insight about the birthright blessing. We learn that when a father died, it was usually the firstborn son who inherited the leadership of the family or the authority to preside. The firstborn son also received a double portion of his father's possessions and was expected to care for his mother and sisters (see Bible Dictionary, Firstborn, p. 675). Since Esau was born before Jacob, he was supposed to receive the birthright blessing-- which would have been of considerable worth, for Isaac was a wealthy man. But for some reason, Esau despised the birthright. Let's refresh our memory about the account of Esau and Jacob by reading together in the scriptures starting in Genesis chapter 25 verses 27 through 34.
And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents. [Notice the footnote at the bottom of the page suggests that plain means whole, complete, perfect, and simple.]
And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob.
And Jacob sod pottage [pottage is thick soup]: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:
And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: . . .And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.
And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: And what profit shall this birthright do to me?
And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
We know from the scriptural account that Esau's path of poor choices continued as he brought sorrow and grief to his parents by marrying outside the covenant. Thus, Isaac gave Jacob the birthright blessing and God renewed with Jacob the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant because of his faithfulness.
What important principles do we learn from this account? We learn that Abraham was chosen before he was born to be a leader on this earth, to hold the priesthood, and to bless his faithful posterity through the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. We are reminded that the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant are perpetuated by marrying in the covenant. And we determine that blessings of considerable worth can be despised. Everything can be sold for nothing.
I have asked myself many times: "How did Esau come to despise the birthright--to look down on it and consider it to be of little worth?" The fact that Jacob understood the value of the birthright suggests that both sons were likely taught by their parents the importance of the birthright. Esau must have known the honor and responsibility associated with this blessing. Why then was he willing to forfeit his birthright for today's pottage--which would be a bagel and a can of soup? Think about it--everything to which Esau was entitled he sold for something as insignificant as a piece of bread and a can of soup. Why? Were the promised blessings associated with the birthright too far away? Did he forget in that moment who he was as the firstborn son? Did he really intend to give up the birthright, or was it just a casual maneuver to satisfy his hunger? Was he thinking, "I can give it away now and get it back later?" What series of events, circumstances, and prior choices would have brought Esau to this tragic moment? From our own experience I believe we can conclude that a grave outcome such as Esau selling his birthright is not usually the result of a sudden impulse, but rather the consequence of small, incremental decisions made day by day.
Likening the Scriptures to Us
Let's take time now to liken the account of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to us. We've all been blessed to come to the earth at a time when the fullness of gospel blessings and covenants has been restored. We are not here by chance. Of the billions of people on the earth today, you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have been given the opportunity for birthright blessings as the "seed of Abraham." You might be wondering: "How do I know that I am the seed of Abraham?" Most of us have received a patriarchal blessing in which our lineage is declared. In fact, that is one of the primary reasons we receive a patriarchal blessing. We each discover at the hands of an ordained patriarch that we were born through a chosen lineage--a royal lineage as children of Abraham, the "Father of the Faithful." By literal descent or adoption, we are the descendants of the prophet Abraham and entitled to the blessings promised to his seed. For purposes of illustration, who was Ephraim's father? Joseph. Who was Joseph's father? Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Who was Jacob's father? Isaac. Who was Isaac's father? Abraham. Every Church member in this room can trace his or her lineage back through one of the twelve sons of Israel to father Abraham. Imagine--as sons and daughters of Abraham we are heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. We've been offered the blessings of baptism, ordination to the priesthood, and marriage in the temple. We've also been given a sacred responsibility to bless the families of the earth through missionary service and gospel ordinances.
Now we understand our relationship with Abraham and this covenant, what are we going to do with our spiritual birthright? What can we learn from the experience of Esau? Could his despising attitude represent our sometimes casual or halfhearted devotion to covenants we have made? Could his faintness and hunger symbolize our hunger for acceptance, popularity, or a false sense of security and belonging? Could the piece of bread and the can of soup represent the appeal of worldly temptations we face every day? Will we sell our birthright blessings associated with the Abrahamic covenant to satisfy telestial appetites, or will we be as Jacob and understand that future promised blessings are worth living for?
As I share some real life examples from my experiences with students on this campus, I'd like you to ponder these questions: What is my biggest temptation? Could the daily decisions I am making eventually cause me to sell my birthright for a bagel and a can of soup? Are there ways I could change my attitude and behavior to better demonstrate my understanding of and appreciation for the blessings and responsibilities I have been given?
Now for the experiences. Several years ago a young man who lived in an apartment with all returned missionaries came to me with a problem. He said, "Sister Bednar, I'm trying to prepare for a mission. But my roommates are attending R-rated movies, not living the standards here at the college, and are giving me such a hard time because I don't want to do the things they are doing. What should I do?"
How would you respond? I thought how some of you are so mature, even beyond your years; yet others use your youth as an excuse for indiscretion and wayward behavior.
Here's another experience. Recently a young man who was serving as an elder's quorum president in his campus ward asked my husband, "President, we're having attendance problems in priesthood meeting on Sundays. What can we do to boost the attendance?"
What advice would you give this priesthood holder?
I'll tell you how President Spencer W. Kimball would respond. This quote from a prophet about breaking the oath and covenant of the priesthood should be good food for thought: "One breaks the priesthood covenants by transgressing commandments--but also by leaving undone his duties. Accordingly, to break this covenant one needs only to do nothing" (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 497).
Do we think we can be casual in our priesthood duties and not lose our birthright?
At the beginning of each new school year, my husband and I meet with apartment managers and dorm assistants to discuss the importance of teaching and reminding students about the expectations involved in their signing of the Honor and Dress Code. I asked one student apartment manager what was his greatest challenge. He responded that the lack of regard for the Honor and Dress Code by many returned missionaries in his complex was his biggest problem. I said, "RMs are giving you hassles?" I was saddened when he responded, "Sister Bednar, the title RM means nothing to some returned missionaries."
Let me share a sobering quote by President Harold B. Lee:
I fear there are many among us who because of their faithfulness in the spirit world were "called" to do a great work here, but like reckless spendthrifts they are exercising their free agency in riotous living and are losing their birthright and the blessings that were theirs had they proved faithful to their calling. Hence as the Lord has said, "there are many called, but few are chosen," and then he gives us two reasons as to why His chosen and ordained fail of their blessings: First, because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and second, they aspire so much to the honors of men that they do not learn that "the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness" (D&C 121:34-36). (Teachings of Harold B. Lee, p. 26)
Now I realize that most of you do not behave this way. Sadly, those who do are probably not inclined to attend devotional and will not hear this message. But young men and women, the designation of "returned missionary" should mean something. There are 3,626 of you on our campus this semester. I've had young men who are preparing to go on missions tell me how many of you have helped them be so excited about preparing for their missions. The righteous examples you've set, the gospel discussions you've taught, and tender experiences you have shared about your missions have been invaluable to these premissionaries. Please wear the title of "returned missionary" with honor. Your two years of missionary work are only the beginning of a lifetime of service in which you will proclaim the gospel and minister to the families of the earth. Remember who you are as the "seed of Abraham" and what you were called and chosen to do. Don't sell yourselves short after you come home. Rise up, oh men of God! Bless our campus by your worthy examples and faithful priesthood service.
Are you still thinking what your temptations might be; what day-by-day decisions would cause you to sell your birthright? Let me share a few more experiences with you.
One night last fall my husband and I attended an outdoor campus function for new students. As we got in our car to leave the campus, a young couple walked by on the sidewalk in front of us. The young man had his arm around the young woman's waist. Not long after passing by us the young man's hand gradually slipped down from the young woman's waist to her "tush." I turned to my husband and said, "Did you see what I just saw?" I thought to myself, "If that young woman allows that young man to put his hand where she did when they are in public, were does she let him put his hands when they are in private?"
Can we see how thoughtless decisions in everyday matters such as dating can lead us gradually down a path where we would be willing to sell our birthright? Surely, as men and women on this campus, we can help lift and build and support each other in our efforts to remain faithful and true to our covenant responsibilities.
A few weeks ago my husband and I attended the CES fireside satellite broadcast featuring
Elder Richard G. Scott. I was strengthened by the courage of a young woman who came alone to hear an apostle of the Lord give counsel and share his testimony with the college-age young adults of the Church. But I was equally disappointed when I asked where her roommates were, and she said they were home sleeping. I could hear in my mind the voice of Esau saying, " I am at the point to die from lack of sleep; and what shall this fireside profit me?"
Did you know that as one of 475,493 Latter-day Saint young adults in the United States ages 18-24, you have the privilege of being here at BYU-Idaho? If we ran the numbers worldwide, they would be even more impressive. You've been blessed to be here at this time, at this special place, as guests of the faithful tithe payers of the Church, to learn and grow and develop. During the time you are here at BYU-Idaho, you will have occasion to attend CES firesides, Tuesday devotionals, and other functions where you are able to literally sit at the feet of living apostles, prophets, and inspired Church leaders and drink of "living water." These will be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Please take advantage of them. Know the value of your birthright.
We have so much to learn and so little time to prepare for our responsibilities as children of the covenant. President Benson told a group of young people:
God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the second coming of the Lord. Some individuals will fall away; but the kingdom of God will remain intact to welcome the return of its head--even Jesus Christ. While our generation will be comparable in wickedness to the days of Noah, when the Lord cleansed the earth by flood, there is a major difference this time. It is that God has saved for the final inning some of His strongest children, who will help bear off the kingdom triumphantly. . . . Make no mistake about it--you are a marked generation. There has never been more expected of the faithful in such a short period of time than there is of us. (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson , pp. 104-5)
Speaking of expectations, let me share an experience I had several years ago when I attended a missionary zone conference. First of all, I'd never been to a zone conference, so this was a new experience for me. After reciting section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants, many missionaries stood to bear their testimonies. I must admit that I was both thrilled and a bit disappointed by what I heard. Lack of premission preparation by some missionaries was evidenced by three occurring themes in the testimonies. This is what I heard: "I am gaining such a strong testimony of the Book of Mormon. I'm reading it now for the first time." Can you see the reason for my concern? These were young men and women who for the most part had been blessed with the privilege of attending seminary, Sunday School, and priesthood classes. Some of them may have been former Ricks College students. I don't know. But whatever their background, why were any of them reading the Book of Mormon for the first time in the mission field? Surely the Lord expects more of us.
Other missionaries said, "I am so glad to get out of the MTC. There were so many rules and restrictions in there--it felt like a prison." I was astounded. I had to chuckle as I wondered if these young missionaries were acquainted yet with the missionary handbook. I know there are rules in the missionary handbook. There are lots of rules. There are even rules here at BYU-Idaho which, by the way, are endorsed by the Board of Trustees comprised of apostles and prophets. God has given us many commandments. If we love Him, we obey Him--cheerfully. I am reminded of a statement by President Ezra Taft Benson which says:
I would hope that you young men and women would have the spiritual maturity . . . to see that our Heavenly Father gave His commandments to bless your life. They are given so you will know how to achieve joy. God is mindful of you. His work and glory is to bring about your immortality and eternal life (see Moses 1:39). He has given you commandments to discipline you. He has also given you your agency so that you could be proved "to see if [you] will do all things whatsoever [He] shall command" (Abraham 3:25). His kingdom is well organized, and your leaders are dedicated to help you. May you know that you have our love, our concern, and our constant prayers. (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, , p. 559)
I can't remember a time in recent years when I have attended the temple that a prayer for the youth of the Church was not uttered. The necessity for you to recognize your covenant relationship with God and to keep the commandments is so important that help from heaven is requested in every temple session, every day, in every temple throughout the world. I hope you can feel the power and strength of these prayers as you strive to live faithfully to qualify for the blessings and promises of the Abrahamic covenant.
Now, for the final theme I heard in that zone conference: "I love my companion" (with no mention of loving the Savior). Loving and getting along with a missionary companion is a prerequisite for having the Spirit to teach. But we don't go to the mission field only to declare our love for our companions; we go to declare our witness of Christ--a witness of our Savior's redeeming love, His divinity, and His power. That witness was noticeably lacking in the testimonies that day.
May I suggest to those of you who are preparing for missionary service, temple marriage, future families, or life in general that much is required in your preparation. We have so little time to learn and so much to accomplish. Read and study the Book of Mormon. Live the commandments now. Seek for a greater understanding of the Atonement, and gain a strong testimony of the Savior. Know who you are so you can teach others who they are. Remember our duty is to bless the families of the earth, including our own. It's what we have covenanted to do as the "seed of Abraham." Let's be like Jacob, not like Esau.
The Crowning Blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant
In conclusion, I would like to talk about the crowning blessings made available in the Abrahamic covenant through the ordinance of celestial marriage. When I was a little girl I remember watching a television series entitled, The Millionaire. Mr. Tipton, a multimillionaire tycoon, was urged by his doctor to find a means of relaxation. The doctor's orders were filled in an unusual way. Mr. Tipton would identify an individual whom he thought could be benefited by receiving a million dollars. He then would send his executive secretary, Mr. Anthony, to deliver the money to the home of the chosen recipient. Each week Mr. Anthony, a good-looking man dressed in a business suit and hat, would knock on the door of an unsuspecting individual and mysteriously present him or her with a tax-free cashier's check for one million dollars.
A million dollars back then was an enormous amount of money. You make the comparison. In the late 1950s a loaf of bread cost 14 cents and the average yearly salary of a U.S. worker was about $3,000. The check would be worth considerably more today.
I don't remember anyone ever declining the offer of the million dollars even though there were conditions attached. The recipient promised never to reveal the source of the money or the amount of the money. I sometimes imagined what it would be like if Mr. Anthony knocked on my door. What would I do with a million dollars?
Well, Mr. Anthony has never knocked on my door, but I have something worth far more than a million dollars. Like you, I've had the opportunity to make and keep sacred covenants. I have been the recipient of the blessings of Abraham--baptism, priesthood, and celestial marriage. These are of greatest worth to me. It's humbling to think that our Heavenly Father would allow us to receive the ordinance of celestial marriage where the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are renewed. By entering into and abiding by the covenant of celestial marriage, we are promised, as was Abraham, a continuation of the lives--seed or posterity as innumerable as the sands of the sea (see D&C 132:19, 30). We have the opportunity to be an heir of eternal life which the scriptures describe as "the greatest of all the gifts of God." We shall inherit "thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths (see D&C 132:19). Scripture tells us that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).
I have no doubt if Mr. Anthony knocked on our door, we would be willing to do whatever was asked in order to accept the million dollars. Yet, when our Father in Heaven offers to us all that He has to give, are we just as anxious to abide by the conditions He sets forth? He says: ". . . except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory. For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me" (D&C 132:21-22).
We can't know Him if we despise the birthright, if we participate in worldly activities that drive away the Spirit, or if we are not serious about keeping our covenants. Can we understand now why the adversary is working so hard to entice us to give up that which is of greatest worth?
It's been my desire today for the Holy Ghost to inspire each of us to live for the promised blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. I hope that a remembrance of promises made to the fathers has been planted in your heart today. To be the "seed of Abraham" is both a blessing and a responsibility. And we don't have time to waste in figuring out who we are. Where much is given, much is required. We were not sent to the earth in the most illustrious of all ages to sell our birthright for a bagel and a can of soup. We were sent to know and understand the nature of the birthright covenant and use that understanding to bless the families of the earth, even our own future families. Surely, this is what we were born to do.
President Spencer W. Kimball said:
We made vows, solemn vows, in the heavens before we came to this mortal life. . . . We have made covenants. We made them before we accepted our position here on the earth. . . . We committed ourselves to our Heavenly Father, that if he would send us to the earth and give us bodies and give to us the priceless opportunities that earth life afforded, we would keep our lives clean and would marry in the holy temple and would rear a family and teach them righteousness. This was a solemn oath, a solemn promise. (Devotional talk, University of Utah Institute of Religion, 10 January 1975)
Oh, youth of the noble birthright, may this covenant be perpetuated from your generation to the next because of the righteous decisions you make daily. Be patient in your progress. May you feel the loving arms of our Savior around you as He enables and strengthens you in keeping your promises, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.