Happy Groundhog Day! Did you know that Groundhog Day actually has its roots in an ancient Christian tradition? As early as the 4th century, Christians celebrated Jesus’ presentation in the temple on February 2, forty days after Christmas. It was also a day when many Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed in a service called Candle Mass, or Candlemas. Later on, people came to believe that a sunny Candlemas meant another forty days of cold and snow.
February 2nd also was an important date in many pagan religions, because it falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. As Christians spread throughout Europe, local pagan festivals were transformed into Christian ones. Celebrations of the beginning of spring became Candlemas celebrations. In dreary Germany, Christians who still looked to Candlemas for a weather prediction needed a way to determine if Candlemas was sunny or not, and they decided that the day could be called “sunny” if a small animal could see its shadow. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 17- and 1800’s, they chose the native groundhog as their Candlemas weather-forecaster. Hence, “Groundhog Day.”
But, in 1993, Bill Murray made a movie about a TV weatherman caught in an endlessly repeating time loop. The movie was called “Groundhog Day,” and it gave the phrase “Groundhog Day” an entirely new meaning. Now, we use it to refer to something that repeats itself over and over and over again.
As I read the lectionary passages for today, it struck me that they are all completely inappropriate for a Bill Murray-kind of Groundhog Day. Each one upends preconceived notions and commonly-held assumptions that human beings seem to repeat generation after generation. They all describe a very un-Groundhog Day world.
We can start with the Psalm that Sandy led us in for our Call to Worship and its question, “Who may live in your tent, O Lord?” The ancient Jewish people had lots of laws and traditions about ritual purity that spelled out who was eligible to enter the sanctuary to worship. When they heard that question, they were probably sure they knew the answer. It would not be a woman who had recently given birth, not someone who’d eaten non-kosher meat, not people with various disfiguring conditions, not someone who’d any kind of contact with a dead body or certain kinds of roadkill.
If you fell into any of those categories or one of many others, you were excluded until you’d performed the proper purifying rituals. That’s why Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple forty days after Jesus’ birth: that was when Mary’s legally-mandated forty days of after-childbirth purification were completed. So, who might live in the Lord’s tent? It makes sense that it would be the people who follow all the rules for worshiping in the sanctuary.
But, these rules were all about physical conditions. They had nothing to do with your morality or lack of it. They had nothing to do with the state of your heart. So, imagine how surprised the ancient listeners must have been by this psalm. Who might abide in the Lord’s tent? Not those who had met all the ritual qualifications. It was those whose hearts were right, and whose actions reflected the state of their heart. Those who do right by others. Those who don’t slander others or taunt their neighbors. Those whose financial dealings are just—who don’t charge interest when they lend, and who don’t extract bribes from the vulnerable. Those who stand by the oaths they’ve taken, even when that comes with a personal cost. They are the ones will dwell on God’s holy hill.
You can imagine the Jewish people wondering, “When did God begin focusing on someone’s inward state rather than on who was good at following the rules? Where are the objective standards that were so simple to understand? When did God change things up?”
God has always looked on the heart, but we human beings tend to forget that. We, no less than the ancient Jews, like cut-and-dried, black-and-white criteria that make it easy to tell who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who’s not, who’s faithful and who’s not. This is part of the problem we’re facing in our nation and denomination today. We like rules that enable us to judge someone based on things that are easily observable.
More than that, we like objective criteria to measure our own faithfulness by. But God looks on the heart—something we are notoriously bad at and don’t even much like doing, if we’re honest. God looks at the actions which spring from a clean heart rather than the outward appearance of cleanness.
Then there’s the passage from Micah. Micah came from a village near Jerusalem around 700 B.C.—a time of political uncertainty and great disparity between rich and poor. Jerusalem’s population was growing rapidly because Samarian refugees were flooding in to escape the ravages of the war with Assyria. The nation’s leaders were attempting to hold off foreign powers by building weapons and walls, and the cost placed a disproportionate burden on ordinary people. Micah speaks with great compassion for the poor and dispossessed, and he condemns those with political, financial, and religious power who exploit them, especially
Micah speaks of a God who is angry over heartless disregard for the vulnerable. He speaks of a God who is angry at those who style themselves as God’s people but actually subscribe to a self-serving, short-sighted lifestyle. God says through Micah, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher for this people!” Micah describes a situation so frustrating to God that it can only be resolved in court. Micah narrates a courtroom drama, where God impanels a jury of the mountains and the hills, who have witnessed Judah’s actions.
God demands to know what God has done to deserve such a rebellious people. “Oh, I know!” God says sarcastically. “What I did was to bring you out of Egypt, redeem you from slavery, give you prophets and leaders, and protect you from your enemies.”
Then we hear from Judah, the defendant. Judah asks what will appease God. Judah wants to settle. It’s sure it can buy its way out of trouble with God just as it’s tried to buy its way out of its other problems. Surely an extravagant show will do the trick—not just one calf for a burnt offering, but multiple calves. Not just one ram but thousands of rams; not a jar of oil, not even a river of oil: thousands of rivers of oil. Or how about this final offer: Judah’s firstborn. “The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul,” the defendant says.
But God won’t be bought off. God is not interested in empty showmanship or extravagant, meaningless displays. God’s desire is for a people who love God and love their neighbors. What the Lord requires is people who “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.”
It’s easy enough to say that justice is a good thing. But God expects us to do justice and undo injustice. We are to take every measure we can to prevent the powerful from misusing their power and walking all over the powerless. We’re also to love kindness. That word in Hebrew means so much more than just being nice to people. We are to embrace the faithful love that God shows us and to extend that same kind of faithful, grace-filled love to others. And finally, we’re to walk humbly with our God. That “humble” walking is not so much walking in humility as it is living carefully, intentionally trying to align our steps with God’s will and putting God first in all things.
We move on to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. How often have we heard the Beatitudes? How often have we quoted them? But have we really thought about what Jesus is saying here?
These aren’t simply words of comfort to assure the poor, the persecuted, the meek, the grieving, and all the rest that, even though their lives are miserable now, they can look forward to a time when all will be well. These words aren’t simply a promise of future reward for toughing it out in the present. It’s not “pie in the sky when you die,” as one commentator puts it. The Beatitudes describe the values of the kingdom of heaven—not at some date in the far-off future but now, because the kingdom of God came near in Jesus and is here, now.
These words are a call to action for all of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus. They are a call to live in such a way that these promised blessings are made real in our world. We are to be the merciful, the pure in heart, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Beatitudes describe a kingdom ruled by values unlike the world’s values. Jesus tells us what our lives are to be like as we live as citizens of that kingdom, which is so unlike the world around us.
And if Jesus’ description of an upside-down world isn’t enough for you, we have the final reading for today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Hear these words of Paul’s: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God… God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” If this doesn’t sound un-Groundhog Day-like, I don[t know what would.
God lays waste to all the old assumptions about what makes sense, what is to be admired and looked up to, what and who is worthwhile. The cross was an emblem of suffering and shame, as our hymn puts it, and yet Jesus’ death on that cross is what defeated the power of sin and led to the defeat of death itself. Those who followed Jesus, by and large, weren’t powerful, weren’t rich, weren’t respected for their learning. And yet, God chose them—God chooses us—to be the bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. This certainly is not business as usual. This is no “same old, same old” Groundhog Day story. This is news that has the power to change everything.
The phrase “this changes everything” came to my mind as I read our passages for today. I was pretty sure I’d heard it used somewhere before, so I did an internet search of it. It turns out that more than one company has run ads for a product they claim “changes everything.” In 2010, when the iPhone 4 came out, Apple declared “this changes everything!” Five years later, Ford announced its newly-designed F-150 pick-up truck, claiming that “this changes everything!” This year at the Archery Trade Association’s show, a company called Ten Point Crossbows introduced a new safe de-cocking system, assuring their customers and the world that “this changes everything!”
But you know what? That stuff changes nothing. No matter how many products and features and bells and whistles human beings come up with, the world will stay pretty much the same as it was before, just like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day kept repeating itself over and over and over again.
What does change everything is not a something but a someone. God unmasks our reliance on easy rule-following and challenges us to focus on the state of our hearts. God rips the covers off a world that assumes that money and power can buy the way into God’s presence and shows us that what God desires instead is lives characterized by justice and mercy and intentionally walking in God’s ways. Jesus took our image of God’s kingdom as a place far away in time and space, and he showed us the values of a kingdom that is here and now, and that we have both the privilege and responsibility of living according to those values. Paul tells us how God came to the world as an ordinary man from Galilee, that a death as shameful as one on a cross could defeat the power of sin, and that God chooses people as ordinary as us to be the messengers of that good news. And that, my friends, changes everything.
Happy Un-Groundhog Day. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young