A Family from Jerusalem and Their Great Secret
1 Nephi 1-2
1 Nephi 1:9 And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.
These stories begin with a family. There was a mother, Sariah, and a father named Lehi. They lived together in a city called Jerusalem with their children a long, long time ago. And the family was happy. Lehi and Sariah loved each other. They loved their sons, Laman and Lemuel and Sam and Nephi. They loved their city and the people in it. But most of all, they loved God. They trusted God. And that love and trust filled their life with light and hope and beauty.
But this is not a happy story about a happy family living a happy life in a cozy suburb of a happy city. It is quite the opposite. The family is going to suffer. Their love will be tested. The city will be destroyed. The family will lose all their money. They will live in tents. They will cross the ocean. They will fight and argue with each other. They will sin and repent. And eventually, they will try to build a new home and a better city where they can live happily and peacefully together again. And ultimately, they will fail.
From what you have heard so far, you might think this is going to be a sad story. And that is also not true. This story is a real story. And it is about a real family. They have ups and downs and successes and failures. And yet, through it all, they have hope. And because they have hope, they find joy in joyless places. And that is why this story is remarkable.
Their joy was not the result of wealth or luck or food or sleep or peace or perfection. And they carried the joy with them like suitcases. It got stuck in their hair like desert sand. It clung to their shoes like a piece of gum. And they carried it with them through their hardships, through the ocean, and through failure after failure after failure. And they were able to do all of this because Lehi overheard a secret.
The secret was no ordinary secret because it was not supposed to be a secret at all. Lehi was simply walking down the road when an old man climbed onto a roof and started shouting that the whole city was about to be destroyed.
“Oh no,” thought Lehi. But when he talked with his friends, they told him it wasn’t true. They said the man on the roof was crazy. Jerusalem was too strong and powerful and righteous to be destroyed. “God will protect us,” they said with a smile. “And God is stronger than any army.”
Lehi smiled and wiped his forehead. Whew! That was a relief. And it made a lot of sense. Still, Lehi thought he better check for himself to make sure God was on the same page. And so he prayed. Sometimes, God takes a while to respond to prayers. But this time, Lehi hadn’t even said “Amen” before God started talking to him.
And this is what God said: “Lehi, things in Jerusalem have gone all wrong. People love money and success more than they love each other. When they say I will protect Jerusalem, what they mean is I will protect their stuff — their homes, their money, their businesses. What they must not know is that I do not care about their stuff. I care about them. And I have been trying and trying and trying to protect them this whole time. But they have fallen in love with their own idea about me rather than me. And that is too bad because an army will come and I am not the soldier they imagine. Look, let me show you who I am.”
And God showed Lehi a beautiful vision of Heaven, and everyone in it. God was there, and he was sitting on his throne. And the angels in heaven were there with God, and they were singing together about the goodness of God, and God’s mercy, and God’s deep love for everyone who has ever or will ever live on earth. And then one of the angels started walking towards Lehi. The angel was leaving heaven! He was going to the earth. Twelve other angels followed. They were bright and beaming with power, each with more strength than any army. Were they going to save Jerusalem?
“Please,” Lehi called out. “Please save Jerusalem!”
But the angels did not fight, not with swords anyway. Instead, they carried a book. And when they read from the book, to Lehi’s surprise, it was all about Jerusalem. It was a list of their failures and sins and crimes. And after hearing an entire book of all the bad things Jerusalem had done, Lehi was ashamed of himself, and his people, and his city. And he looked down at his feet and thought a terrible thought: “We are not good. No one could possibly love us, least of all someone as pure and perfect as God.”
But when he looked back up into the eyes of God, there were tears, there was pain, there was sorrow, and more than anything, there was love. God and the angels had read the book, but still, they did not hate Jerusalem. Somehow, there was still love. And from that moment, Lehi began to understand the secret. God was not coming to save Jerusalem, not in the way they imagined. God was coming to save the whole world instead.
Lehi didn’t understand everything in the vision, but he knew two things: God loves his children, and Jerusalem was definitely going to fall.
So do you think that Lehi packed up his family and ran as far away from the city as fast as he possibly could before the armies showed up? BY NO MEANS!
Remember, Lehi loved Jerusalem. He wanted the people to be safe and happy. So he immediately walked into the streets and told everyone what he had learned. He told his friends and neighbors, shop owners and governors, anyone who might listen. Of course he wanted them to know that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed. But more than that, he wanted them to hear the beautiful message about a God who loved the world so much that he was going to send an angel down to save everyone from all the armies of heaven and earth.
And who do you think listened? A hundred or a thousand? Or maybe just a few, four or five people? No. Not one single person believed Lehi. And so, no matter how hard he tried, Lehi’s secret remained a secret. Lehi would have kept walking and teaching and sharing until his sandals wore out and his voice dried up, but God had a different plan.
God talked to Lehi again by coming to him in a dream. “Lehi,” God said, “You have been a wonderful teacher, and you have worked so hard to share this beautiful story, but it is time to go. I want you to gather your family and move everyone into the wilderness.”
So Lehi and Sariah packed up some food, loaded the camels, and took one last look back at their beautiful home where they had prayed and laughed and raised their four boys. Then they shut the door and walked out into the night. And Lehi and Sariah would never see that home and that city they loved again.
But they carried something with them, a secret. And they wrote the secret down and sealed it up in their hearts like a message in a bottle. And they hoped that someday the secret would drift back over the ocean and across the wilderness to their own people in their own city, and that one day the whole world would know about it.
And the secret had a name. And the name was Jesus.
Joshua is an award-winning writer and director. His recent book, Ali the Iraqi, was published by BCC press. Sarah is a literature and theology doctoral student studying the Book of Job in the twentieth century.
Artwork by Maddie Baker.