Groundhog day is one of those made up holidays. I think people made it up because they wanted something to celebrate in the throes of winter. It is definitely a New England kind of holiday, though. If the groundhog sees his shadow, coming out of his den, we will have six more weeks of winter. Growing up in Minnesota, I could never figure out what the excitement was. Of course, on February 2 you could be certain that there was at least six more weeks of winter ahead - at least in Minnesota! In Punxsutawney there may have been some question. In Minneapolis, there was none.
The day did inspire a very interesting movie, however. Not everything about the movie is good, but it set forth the question of what a man would do if he had the same day, in this case Groundhog Day, to live over and over and over again. In the movie, the main character starts out confused, then takes advantage of the repeating day to serve his appetites, then he despairs and tries to end it all - but the day won't let him out. Finally, he uses the repeating day to learn about others and find out how to help them, and to improve himself. The repeating day ends when he has figured out how to focus on others and not on himself. While it is overly optimistic about human nature, it is an interesting idea, and the movie examines it with a certain amount of humor.
Now, what does Groundhog Day have to do with a pastor's newsletter article?
Well, first, it is a holiday celebrated in February. Secondly it puts me in mind of several things dealing with the Gospel. For example, Groundhog Day is a reminder that even though winter is upon us, it is coming to an end. The groundhog sees his shadow and returns to his den, but the message is that there is a short period to come, and then the difficulties of winter will be over.
The Gospel is the same sort of message for us. There is no mythical beast emerging from its winter hiding, but the Gospel tells us quite clearly that the winter of this world of sin has a definite time-table and that it is coming to an end. We have some more of it to endure, but it is about to end and the spring of the resurrection of all flesh and the summer of eternal life is soon upon us. We cannot peg the date - just as the six weeks of the groundhog seemed short and unlikely to me as a youth in Minnesota - but that springtime is coming, and it is closer than we might imagine.
The world has been going on for thousands of years since the announcement that we are in the last days was first made. Many have given up the expectation of the soon-to-come end of the world, and have gotten busy living in this world according to the ways of this world as though the end were not really coming. For thousands of years, the end has come for one generation after another. It did not come with Jesus in the sky and everyone rising from their graves - not yet! But it has come! And that day of resurrection is coming too. We are closer than ever before. The world around us will use the seeming delay to suggest that the final day is just a fiction, and try to seduce us into forgetting about it altogether, but the Gospel continues to be preached as our weekly Groundhog Day to remind us that the delay isn't what it seems.
The Apostle Peter even tells us that God is not slow, as some count slowness, but is patient with us, unwilling that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance. That ultimately won't happen. Some people simply refuse to be helped. Others want to have it their own way and receive only what they have deserved. They don't understand what it is that they have deserved, and they refuse to believe that God is going to do things His way and not theirs. But God's desire is that everyone have time to hear, and time to consider the evidence of the Word of the reality about them, and repent and be saved. Nevertheless, the time will come when God chooses to end the waiting, and the resurrection will be upon us like spring, and life will rise out of death - and, sadly, many of those who also rise will rise only to further, deeper, and greater death. But the Gospel stands as the reminder that the end of winter is coming.
Groundhog Day, the movie, depicts a man with what seems to be an almost infinite number of do-overs. He does what he desires, and the next morning, he starts all over again. He can go to jail, commit crimes, eat outrageously unhealthy, and even die over and over again, and at the same time each morning, he awakens untouched, back at the beginning of Groundhog day, only with the memories and the experience behind him to learn from. The Gospel is something like that, too.
You do not get to die over and over again, and if you commit a crime and go to jail, you will wake up there the next morning, if you wake up. The Gospel is not contrary to reality in that fashion. It does, however, provide us with a significant number of "do-overs". We call that provision of the Gospel, "forgiveness". In the forgiveness of sins, we have God standing us up, so to speak, brushing us off, and telling us to try again, only this time without the sin. Just as in the movie, we also start over with the memories intact, and, hopefully, something learned from the experience.
If you lie, cheat, and steal, you can be forgiven. Jesus died to purchase that forgiveness with the coin of His blood and death instead of your own. You need to repent, of course. Bill Murray did not need to be sorry for his behavior in the movie - but then the movie was a work of fiction, intended to amuse and entertain. The Gospel is not fiction, nor is it intended for entertainment. It is intended for salvation. It is meant to rescue you from your own sins and their just consequences under the justice of God.
Each day, you earn something you don't want to receive in payment - for the wages of sin is death [eternal death, not just the body-in-the-box kind of thing]. The death of the body is fearsome enough, and has kept man running scared for a long time, but eternal death and misery is even more troubling to contemplate. Contemplating it and trying not to contemplate it has fueled millennia of terror, and hatred of God, and violence aimed at silencing the voice of the truth. Modern man may deny the creation with evolution, hoping to deny the coming judgment and what it means for those that do not believe, but nothing has silenced it yet. Witness the tremendous energy of the denials and the persecution of Christians, and the hatred for true religion that is almost universal in this life, even in our times.
Brit Hume, for example, ignited a tinderbox of revulsion and scorn by suggesting that Tiger Woods could find forgiveness and redemption in the Christian faith. The very concept of suggesting someone turn to Christ for forgiveness and a fresh start sent reporters and bloggers into spasms of denunciation. "How would he like it if someone were to suggest that a Christian convert to Judaism or Islam?!" Well, the fact is that many people make precisely those sorts of overtures all of the time. No one complains when that happens. It is only when someone dares to bring Christ and the Gospel into the public eye, and suggest that there is salvation and renewal available there, that we hear the caterwauling of the self-appointed arbiters of political correctness for our culture.
This single instance is a gentle reminder of the visceral hatred for God and Christ and things Christian in our world. Jesus warned us that it would be so, John 15:18-21, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me."
The Gospel of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ offers the sinner the do-over. It does not make that person outwardly better, nor does it insulate any Christian from the ability to do something unwise and sinful at a later date. It comes wrapped in a message that tells us that we cannot actually avoid doing sin because our nature is sinful - infected with sin. Even as believers in Christ with years of faith under our belts, so to speak, we need to daily face the truth that we are sinners and that sin comes to us as naturally as breathing. Most of us don't want to continue in sin, but most of us have no ability to stop it, either. The best we can do is try.
Not that trying not to sin counts for much. We can become better people toward those around us, and sometimes manage not to do those things which hurt others and bring shame on the whole group of those called "Christians". The problem is, in spite of our best efforts at personal decency and putting away sin, some of us fail in the attempt in public and dramatic ways. They bring shame on the Christian faith in the eyes of a world eager to find a flaw to rally their distaste for our religion around, but they are merely large and public examples of the truth that we all sin. The world around us makes a great noise about that because they don't even pretend to be without sin. They are somewhat proud of their corruption and fallibility. For the Christian, however, the truth of this tendency to sin is simply a reminder of our on-going and profound need for the Savior.
I think the world hates that truth, too. They hate it because they don't want our Savior, and they have nothing of the sort for themselves, and, cry out as they might, they cannot drown out the echo of the knowledge within themselves that they are sinners (in the religious sense), and that there will come, for them too, a day of reckoning. All those funeral parlors and cemeteries stand in mute witness to those truths. Every preaching of Christ carries with it both the Law and the Gospel, and the reminder of the true God whose presence caused Adam and Eve to hide in fear and shame so long ago. If Christ doesn't just go away, they cannot silence the voice of the knowledge of sin and death and hell.
Even when they have been able to silence the Gospel for a season in this place or that, it did not help. Without God, life becomes meaningless rutting around in the filth with no point or purpose, ultimately a race to the grave, and haunted by that singular reality, and the sense that there must be something more beyond - and a simultaneous fear of what that might mean. So life becomes dismal and grey, or a wild chase filled with the frantic attempt to make it make sense without meaning. It becomes what Shakespeare opined, ". . . a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
But we have the Gospel do-over. We have the comfort of forgiveness, and a promise of new life, eternal life. We have the purpose for our lives which God has assigned to them. We don't always know what it is, but we know by faith that He has a purpose for us, and that our lives, though short and difficult at times, have meaning and value. The value of our lives is reflected in the cross of Jesus Christ. God valued us that much. He counted us worthy of redeeming at that cost, and then calling us by name in Baptism, and claiming us as His own, even adopting us into His family. He feeds us with His heavenly meal in the Sacrament of the Altar, and sends us out, cleansed and refreshed and renewed to do the things He has set before us to do to His glory and the welfare of our neighbors.
We have a hope, other than simply growing old and ceasing to exist one day, as the world expects. We have a purpose: sharing the good news of forgiveness and life purchased and won for us with Christ's holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. We have a community to support us and for us to encourage and participate in. We have a victory that we don't have to win because it is won for us already, and proclaimed in the resurrection of Jesus from His tomb on Easter. We are winners entering the field, and have nothing to lose by sharing that victory with others.
And, just like the movie, Groundhog Day, we have the privilege of learning from our mistakes and sins, and having another go at life with the aim of doing it better, not repeating the same mistakes, and not being finally held accountable for our weakness and cupidity. We are forgiven, set free into the world again, and our only instruction is, as it was for the woman caught in adultery so long ago, "Go, and sin no more."
Groundhog Day, a made-up, somewhat silly holiday for February. Still, when we look at everything through our faith, even a silly day like that can put us in mind of the Gospel. The end of winter is coming - and not just the winter of 2009-2010! Come Lord Jesus! Come quickly!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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