Alma 16:16-19, LeGrand Baker, Preparing the people for the Saviour’s coming
16 … the Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land to prepare the minds of the children of men, or to prepare their hearts to receive the word which should be taught among them at the time of his coming—
17 That they might not be hardened against the word, that they might not be unbelieving, and go on to destruction, but that they might receive the word with joy, and as a branch be grafted into the true vine, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord their God.….
19 Holding forth things which must shortly come; yea, holding forth the coming of the Son of God, his sufferings and death, and also the resurrection of the dead.
There is a story behind those words here that is easy to miss if we only look back at them from our own place in history. From our perspective, it is quite simple. The people had to repent so they would be ready when the Saviour came. We can say the same thing about ourselves as we look forward to the Second Coming.
Yet there was much more to it than just that. They had to be prepared for a major change in the way they understood their theology and in their way of practicing their religious worship.
The change in the way they practiced their religion rites was this: Their sacrifices of animals, grain, and incense would all be done away. A sacrifice is a kind of pistis. It is the formal affirmation of a covenant. Until the time of the Saviour’s last sacrifice, that affirmation looked forward to the future, and the animal sacrifices were a token or an evidence that the Saviour would keep his part of the covenant. After the Saviour performed the atonement there was no more need for that anticipatory affirmation. When the Saviour came to America, he had already performed the atonement so his part of the covenant was an accomplished fact. But for the Saints, their part to make the covenant validity still had to be sealed by sacrifice. But the sacrifice acceptable was no longer a cow or a sheep but one’s Self— a broken heart and contrite spirit.
The people had always known that this change was coming, They had sung about it during their own New Year Festival temple services. The 51st Psalm asserts,
16 For thou desirest not sacrifice;
else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:
a broken and a contrite heart,
O God, thou wilt not despise (Psalms 51:16-17).
The Saviour reminded them of that psalm when he spoke to them during the three days of darkness (3 Nephi 9:20-22). What he told them wiped away much of their need for the old ceremonial religious way. Only the most important personal ordinances would remain.
Those where the changes in their religious practices. The changes in the way their theology was to be understood were no less dramatic. They literally had to develop a new understanding of who their God was. Before it had been Jehovah who had presided at the Council in Heaven and who was the covenant God of Israel. That was still true and it would never change, but now he was also Jesus, the Saviour who had been a man on the earth and who had fulfilled all the covenants that their old theology only promised he would do. His atonement could no longer be taught as future hope, for now it was a promise fulfilled
For many, those changes would be a joyous fruition of eternal covenants, but there would always be some who would seek to retain the old ideas and the old ways. The challenge that Mormon points out here is that the leaders of the church had to prepare all the people to anticipate and accept those changes. Mormon makes us aware of that challenge this early in the story so that we may watch how it was accomplished.
It is likely that it was Mormon’s concern for us that prompted him to include this challenge in his history. Those of you who are as old as I have seen many changes in the way the church operates as our culture has softened and permitted us to become a more purified Kingdom of Heaven. Those of you who are much younger will see changes that may be even more exciting. When those changes occurred, or when they will occur in the future, for us, as for the Nephites, the simple rule of “follow the prophet” is the only sure way we can keep our moorings in the shifting waves of cultural, social, and even political change.