The sermon Alma gives in Alma 32 really should be studied in the much larger context that spans through chapter 35, the last chapter of which Amulek fills in some essential gaps left by Alma. I think it’s also interesting to compare and contrast Alma’s other significant sermon to the people of Zarehemla in Alma 5. Obviously, the audience is different. In Alma 5, the people in Zarehemla were beginning to stray and Alma was desperately trying to bring them back into the fold. In Alma 32, the sermon really gets going when he encounters the poor Zoramites who have been rejected by the rest of society and approached him with a poor heart and humble mind. The people in Zarahemla needed to be humbled, the Zoramite poor were already there.
But I think Alma was different as well. The Alma in chapter 5 was early in his ministry. He’d experienced war and trauma but he had yet to witness the horrors of burning women and children in Ammonihah. The language in Alma 5 is much harsher: “how will any of you feel standing before God having your garments stained with blood” (verse 22), “every tree that does not bring forth good fruit shall be burned to the ground (verse 52) as two examples. He pleads with them to experience a mighty change of heart in Alma 5 but does not really explain the process. It’s an urgent, harsh, even shame-filled approach he takes in that chapter, he ultimately has success.
Chapter 32 by contrast is gentler, more careful, more hopeful and provides pretty clear instructions, especially with Amulek’s helpful chapter 34 there to fill in necessary gaps. The first thing that strikes me with Alma 32-34 is that it seems to be a re-play of King Benjamin’s sermon in the early chapters of Mosiah but with a more careful instruction on the conversion part.
The first step for conversion to have a heart and mind willing and receptive to receive the word of God. In this case, the people were humbled and prepared through circumstance. Verse 4 describes them “of whom were poor in heart, because of their poverty as to the things of the world.” In verse 6, Alma recognizes “that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word. In verse 13, ” for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy;”.
The Book of Mormon clearly says the essence of the word of God is faith, repentance, and a change of heart through the power of Christ’s atonement. This pattern gets replicated here. After Alma recognizes their receptive heart, he transitions right into faith.
I’m not sure Alma explains faith well in this chapter, but let’s see what sense we can make of it. In verses 17 and 18, he contrasts faith with sign seeking. Fresh off of the Korihor encounter, someone who rejected God, the afterlife and the need for and belief in Christ’s atonement. Korihor asked for a sign and was struck dumb. Having a heart open to the movements of nature or art. Willing to admit and live within the smallness of our individual lives in contrast to the vastness of all of life itself, takes an act of humility and faith or willingness to let go of certainty or easy answers. Faith is an embrace of mystery. Sign seeking is an attempt to reduce God into a comprehensible package. Our natural impulse is to shrink God and elevate ourselves in ways that are unnatural and unworkable. We will always fail in this pursuit eventually because the world is too big, too complex for our individual ability to make sense of it or even to survive its harshness. In the end, we all die and death, despite our best efforts, is the ultimate unknown. Faith is an acceptance of what’s real, what’s true.
But what of faith? Verse 21, faith is not to have a perfect knowledge, rather it’s rooted in hope and it’s based on truth. And that’s where Alma leaves it. I get hope. I have hope for a better world, better relationships with others, better ability to align my efforts to produce something in this world with value. Often faith, hope and charity come bundled in scriptural text. Perhaps I’m not sure what faith is, but I suspect hope plays a major role.
Verse 22 seems like Alma’s way to offer some hope to the poor Zoromites, promising that “God is merciful until all who believe on his name.” God’s mercy drives everything and is available to all who believe on God’s word, which is?
Something you can find everywhere, according to verse 23. God’s word comes through angels to men, women and even children from time to time that “confound the wise and the learned”. God’s word, then, is not complicated, not doctrinally dense, but also not explicitly explained.
He goes no further. His next move, rather, is to describe his famous experiment, comparing the word to a seed. If the word is the seed and if the soil is our heart and soul, we need some way to decide whether the word is good. The only way to find out is to run the experiment, plant the seed and see what grows. If it’s good, the initial feedback comes quickly according to verse 28, ” behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.”
These early experiences with the word, increases faith, but much more is required. The seed has to grow (verse 32) and as it does (verse 33-36), “your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.” More signals of a good seed worth spending time with. These early signals is an invitation to do the long, patient work faith invites us into. Verse 37 teaches us the plant must be continuously nourished, cared for so that it will take root, deep enough to withstand the trials (verse 38), the dark nights of the soul, or the bright heat of the sun scorching the tender plant unprepared for such extremes. Not because the seed was bad, but because the ground was barren and that deep roots had yet to be established.
The word has to be good but our hearts and minds need to be open, patient and careful. The reward comes in verses 41-43, after long, hard diligent faith and patience with the word, providing constant nourishment, making sure the word gets planted deep in our hearts, we can finally after all of that pluck the fruit which is “sweet above all that is sweet, white above all that is white and pure above all that is pure.” (verse 42).
All of this is rather obscure, poetic can beautiful, but it leaves the people with still more questions, and that’s how chapter 33 begins. How can we plant this seed? “What manner should they begin to exercise their faith.” and who is this God anyway and is there more than one of them?
Alma quickly comes back to worship, the scriptures consistently describes worship as something that becomes a part of everything we do. Zenos in verse four describes a prayer wrestle while out in the wilderness, while in the field working, at home, even in his closet, or even when cast out as the Zoramites had been. And not just Zenos, but Zenock and also Moses. With Moses, we’re reminded about how difficult even simple moves can be. All the people had to do to be healed was to look, a simple act of faith that many refused to do. Alma leaves it there with a final testimony and plea to the people.
In Alma 34, Amulek reminds them that they have been taught all of this before their dissensions. Perhaps they were taught, but these ideas are difficult to understand and hearing them before we’re ready makes understanding difficult.
In verse 5 and 6, Amulek gets really specific about what the word is, “my brother has proved unto you, in many instances, that the word is in Christ unto salvation.” That’s it. The word of God is found in atonement, redemption, salvation. The pattern in the scriptures is consistent, repeated testimony, a call to remember the sacrifices and lived testimony of our past and then to hear the testimony of those struggling with is. That’s the transition Amulek makes, in verse 8, “I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.”
But he continues to explain why atonement is necessary and this is not easy to parse out cleanly. Why should Christ suffer for our sins? Why is that necessary? How is that just? Verse 11, Amulek has the same thought, “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. ” In verse 12, Amulek justifies their current law and their use of the death penalty, something incidentally I find profoundly unjust especially the way it has been used in American history.
He continues with more mystery in verse 14, “And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.” We often miss this. The law and obedience to the becomes an end in itself. Amulek reminds us that this can never be. We’ll never live up to the law and without atoning sacrifice of Christ, we’ll be condemned by the law. That Christ’s sacrifice unleashes mercy “to satisfy the demands of justice” (verse 16). And the way to unleash mercy in our individual lives is to exercise faith (verse 16-17).
And then as if their initial inquiries are always in the background of this sermon, Amulek urges them to keep earnest prayer constantly alive in their hearts (vs 16-27).
Then, in an echo of King Mosiah, Amulek teaches in verse 28, that after they commit themselves over full to Christ’s graceful mercies their hearts need to turn to others. If they don’t care for the needy, visit the sick and give of our substance to those in need, “behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.”
Next, Amulek urges them to take these steps immediately, do not procrastinate, that this life is the time to take these steps. These verses (verses 33-36) are difficult because they place deadlines and time windows on God’s mercies in ways that are difficult for me to fully accept. But I know by personal experience, the longer I let bad habits go, the more difficult they are to break. The sooner I respond to faith, mercy, and repentance, the sooner I reach out within difficult relationships, the easier things are to heal. I’m not sure I accept impossible situations, but life can become more difficult the longer we wait. I have no idea how things will be after we die, so better to take care of things now, while alive.
Amulek finishes with a final plea for patience in afflictions. Patience is the twin sister of faith. The power to endure difficulties. These are difficult even incomprehensible principles made a bit easier with these chapters.
Chapter 35 is a useful overview with the consequence of Alma and Amulek’s interventions in this city trying to separate themselves from the broader Nephite culture. Those that are converted, rejoin the Nephites and are nurtured and provided for (verse 9). The people of Ammon “did receive all the poor of the Zoramites that came over unto them; and they did nourish them, and did clothe them, and did give unto them lands for their inheritance; and they did administer unto them according to their wants.”
But the elites, the rich, those who cast out the poor from the synagogues were angry because the word of God “did destroy their craft”. They felt they held the keys to salvation. The text doesn’t say, but perhaps they used this power for enrichment. The word disrupts class distinctions, placing everyone in an equal position, utterly helpless on atonement, finding salvation in the care of each other.
The result of this disruption, ultimately and unfortunately is war.