Five decades ago as a young missionary in France, Elder Neil L. Andersen could not have imagined that one day he would serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“As an ordained Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I testify to you that through sacred experiences, special moments, precious and powerful feelings, I have a sureness and a completeness to my knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, that He lives, that He is resurrected. He is exactly who we proclaim Him to be.”
Christmas 1970 saw Elder Andersen concluding six weeks of studying French at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. By New Year’s Eve, he was serving in a small branch in Perigueux, France.
And for the 2020 Christmas season, Elder Andersen shared with missionaries worldwide three lessons from the birth and life of Christ.
“First, there is great happiness in trusting God and being trusted by God,” he said. “Number two: Just because something comes from God, like your call to be a missionary, does not mean it will be without difficulty. And finally, Jesus was born as the divine Son of God, but He still had to grow from ‘from grace to grace.’”
The Apostle and his wife, Sister Kathy Andersen, spoke during a Christmas Day devotional released Wednesday, Dec. 23, for streaming on the online missionary portal.
Elder Marcus B. Nash, a General Authority Seventy and Executive Director of the Missionary Department, conducted the devotional, with its early availability accommodating global time zones, international datelines and holiday schedules.
On behalf of President Russell M. Nelson, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Andersen — a member of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council — expressed love and appreciation to the missionaries for their service and sacrifice.
“People will ask you decades from now, ‘When did you serve your mission?’” he said. “And you will say, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be a time never forgotten. It has taken courage for you to serve your mission during this notable time.”
Following a video of their grandchildren sharing the Christmas story, Elder Andersen invited Sister Andersen to speak, expressing his thanks and love for her and calling her “a true disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Sister Andersen recalled the first Christmas present from her husband — an engagement ring he had beautifully wrapped himself. “I cherish each and every blessed Christmas I have spent with him,” she said. “Now, 46 years later, we share our Christmas with our children, their children and their children.”
Message to a missionary grandson
For her remarks, she recited the Christmas letter she sent to their missionary grandson, Elder Michael Ebert, serving in the African nation of Botswana. “Although every detail may not apply to you,” she told the missionaries, “I think you will find many similarities between your experience and that of our grandson.”
Because of a recent move from a temporary reassignment in Texas to Botswana, his presents from family may not arrive, Sister Andersen said, noting Elder Andersen’s packages arrived a month after his first Christmas as a missionary.
“So on Christmas morning, with nothing to open himself, he and his companion made doughnuts, put them in little packages and delivered them to people they were teaching,” she said. “Papi has never forgotten that Christmas because of how he felt bearing testimony of the Savior and in giving to others.”
Elder Ebert’s Christmas in Serowe, Botswana, will be spent offering a gift greater than any wrapped package under a tree, Sister Andersen told her grandson.
“This Christmas you will bear testimony that the little baby, the Christ child, the Savior born on that first Christmas, will return again in majesty and glory as the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the children and the men and the women in Serowe will see Him in the clouds of glory with all His holy angels at the exact time that those in the great cities of London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong will see Him. The people in Serowe are as important to God as any people on the earth. And He has sent you, Michael, there to them at this important time.”
She likened his missionary service to the times when he would hold the star as family members reenacted the Nativity scene. “You will hold the star because you have been set apart to be a missionary for the Babe of Bethlehem and the King of Kings. And others will be led to Him and will find Him because of you.
Sister Andersen added: “We pray that you will play your part nobly. Hold the star of Bethlehem high and let the star shine brightly this Christmas — for the Son of God lives.”
Three lessons from Christ’s birth
Acknowledging many lessons available from the Savior’s birth and early years, Elder Andersen highlighted three he said missionaries could apply to their service.
1. There is great happiness in trusting God and being trusted of God.
Each missionary is trusted by Heavenly Father and His Son to share the truth, to speak Their names with conviction, to confirm in the believer’s mind that Jesus Christ is really the Son of God, and to help the honest inquirer sincerely ponder and pray about the truthfulness of the Savior and the restoration of His gospel, Elder Andersen said.
He asked the missionaries to think of the trust that God had in Mary to bring His Only Begotten Son into the world through her and for her to be His mother throughout His earthly mission, and in Joseph to take to wife Mary, who was with child.
“Mary was to give birth to the Son of God. Joseph was to be His earthly caregiver, to watch over Him and provide for Him. Mary and Joseph trusted God, and God trusted Mary and Joseph.”
The Apostle then asked the missionaries to think of the baby Jesus — “no one was trusted more, and no one trusted God more.” He listed Christ’s premortal role in Heavenly Father’s plan, His giving the glory to the Father, His being the Only Begotten of the Father, and His creating the earth under the Father’s direction.
“He was to go to earth in the most humble of circumstances and save the world from death and from sin. Think of how He always trusted His Father. In that last week of His earthly life, as He prepared for His sacred Atonement and crucifixion,” said Elder Andersen, adding “He trusted His Father, and He was trusted by His Father.”
2. Just because something comes from God does not mean it will be without difficulty.
Elder Andersen spoke of the hardships endured by Mary and Joseph leading up to Christ’s birth and beyond, including long travel and the lack of comfortable accommodations.
He reminded his listeners their missions are divine, they are accompanied by the Holy Ghost, and many times the work clearly brings joy. “And yet, as you know, just because your mission comes from the Lord, it does not mean it will be without difficulty. Even with the miracles of heaven, the Lord allows these experiences to take place within the uncertainty of mortality.”
3. Jesus was born as the divine Son of God, but He still had to grow up.
Showing images depicting a young Jesus being visited by the three kings and several years later teaching at age 12 in the temple at Jerusalem, Elder Andersen said, “At that young age, He was listening. He was growing. He had many years ahead of Him before His sacred mission would begin.”
Missionaries themselves are still growing. “While you have received a witness of the truth of the things you are teaching, you do not know everything. And while you have felt the power of spiritual understanding, you are still growing spiritually.”
Born as the divine Son of God, Jesus still had to grow ‘from grace to grace’ to become the Savior of the world, Elder Andersen said. “Each of us, while we have divine qualities to believe and to do what is right, to desire goodness, and to be who we want to be, we still need to grow into that disciple of Jesus Christ we want to become.”
Concluding, Elder Andersen left the missionaries with an Apostolic blessing “that you might see beyond just the here and now, that you might see your life, the decades that follow your mission, and even your eternal life, that you might grow in your love of Jesus Christ, that the witness that you have of Him might be ever more sure and certain in your heart. I bless you that even in these difficult moments of COVID-19, you might feel of His approval and know that as you trust in Him, you have His trust.
“I testify that He lives and that He is the Savior of the world.”