Lent 2 -3/8/2020 – St. Paul’s
In Harold Ramis’s endlessly rewatchable movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays the most superficial of men engaged in the most inane of jobs (reporting the weather). One drab morning in a very drab and sad Pennsylvania town he awakens to the radio blaring Sonny and Cher’s whining rendition of their most pointless song I’ve Got You Babe. He then plods through his day, encountering a group of wearisome people along the way.
The next morning the radio awakes him at the same time, with the same song—Sonny and Cher all over again—and the same weather report, which he thinks a bit odd. But things become even stranger as he stumbles through exactly the same day with the same boring people as yesterday. And then the next day and the next. After the 20th repetition of the same meaningless day Murray realizes that he is in hell. In a number of vain attempts to end it all, he tries to commit suicide, leaping from a building, falling in front of a speeding truck. But after each attempt, he awakes the next day to the same song, same day, Sonny and Cher again. He becomes desperate to find some sense of meaning amid the boredom. He engages in a life of crime, doing all those things that he was reluctant to do before his days became gruesome repetition. After even the worst of crimes, he awakens the next morning to I’ve Got You Babe and begins his day all over again.
Realizing that he has no way of escaping the humdrum of the same day hellishly repeated, he launches into a program of self-improvement. He takes up piano. He memorizes poetry. He makes love like a Frenchman. He transforms himself into an interesting person and, in the process, the people around him, for whom he once had such contempt, become meaningful to him. Only then is he freed from the wheel of the eternal return.
Murray attempts to free himself from hellish repetition through heroic self-improvement. This is the story that the modern world (and Joel Osteen’s sermons) thinks it is now living—take charge of your life and transform yourself into someone worth loving and use your time to make a life worth living. You can have meaning if you choose to have meaning. Your life is what you make of it. You are the savior of your soul.Christians believe that story to be a lie. Christians believe another story other than that of Groundhog Day.
In today’s Gospel a leader comes to Jesus by night. He is said to be a teacher, someone who is in the know. Perhaps he comes to Jesus by night, this Nicodemus, because he doesn’t want anybody to see him—after all, he’s a teacher. He’s supposed to have the answers, not to have the questions. So Nicodemus gives Jesus a sort of exam. Who are you? he wants to know.
Jesus doesn’t really respond to Nicodemus’s interrogation. Rather he launches into a strange discussion of birth, telling Nicodemus that he must be born from above (which Nicodemus misunderstands as being born again) and also referring to the mysterious, uncontrollable nature of the wind. Birth and wind? What do they have to do with eternal life?
You see, I think Nicodemus, being a powerful person and an intelligent person, has come to Jesus asking, What do I—as a competent, intelligent person—need to do to get in on whatever it is that you are pushing?
What is your plan, Jesus? Are you offering us some new technique for salvation? What are your steps that you say we must follow if we are to save ourselves? Probably, because Nicodemus is both powerful and educated—he is one of those people who, having had so much success in striving, and planning, and setting goals and working for what he wants in life—Nicodemus thinks that all he has got to do is to find out Jesus’ program, get with it, master it, and then he will be saved.
And Jesus responds to Nicodemus by noting a phenomena that we don’t have anything to do with—wind and birth. Then Jesus says, God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. God sent the Son. God gave. Whatever it is that Jesus is about, it’s not some new self-help program; it’s a gift sent from God. Salvation is what God does. Somehow Nicodemus has reminded me of another very educated, important person, the Oxford professor, C. S. Lewis.
C.S. Lewis wasn’t really searching for anything special in his life. The way Lewis tells it, he was being searched for until that time when, as he put it, God closed in on me, and he exclaimed with surprise, So, it was you all along. Lewis didn’t search for God; God was searching for him.
Modernity teaches us to describe ourselves as mostly self-contrived. Our lives are the result of historical, psychological, genetic development that occurs within the self. Everything unfolds, developmentally, from some historical beginning. This is the story we have been taught to tell about ourselves.
Now if you study C.S. Lewis’s life as it developed from not much of a believer, to a believer in some vague theism, to robustly orthodox Christian, you will be disappointed. Lewis’s biography is singularly unrevealing.Lewis grew up negative about Christian faith in his grandfather’s church in Dundela where he said, We were offered dry husks of Christianity. The main point of Protestantism in Northern Ireland was to demonstrate that whatever they believed in, it was not what Roman Catholics believed. College, army, the war were all, for Lewis, negative experiences of Christian faith.
He read G. K. Chesterton and concluded that Christianity was very sensible—apart from its being Christianity. As a bright young scholar he knew that the Gospels were historical nonsense. Yet in rereading the Gospels he felt that they were so appallingly unimaginative and artless that they must be historical fact! They certainly weren’t great literature.
Then, as if out of nowhere, in 1931 Lewis wrote Arthur Greeves, . . . I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ. He received communion at the church in Heddington for the first time since his boyhood in 1931.Where did this come from? In the most famous passage of Surprised by Joy (p. 228) he writes:Picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him Whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared came upon me . . . I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England . . . a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men . . .; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
Surprised by Joy describes a mostly intellectual journey. One is left wondering how Lewis got from the vague Hegelian Absolute Spirit to the Jew from Nazareth who is God Incarnate. From whence came this new self? Lewis is clear that his belief was not his intellectual achievement, not that which ends a good argument; it was pure gift, grace, the result of the surprise, So, it was you all along.
I think this is why Lewis deliberately made Surprised by Joy non-autobiographical. From the first, this disappointed some critics. (His doctor and friend, Dr. Humphrey Havard said the book should have been called Suppressed by Jack.) From out of nowhere comes this dramatic turnaround toward faith. Yet we search in vain for something in the earlier life of Lewis that leads to this, and we find nothing in his biography that accounts for his conversion.
It is as if Lewis wants to make clear that his self in Christ was not the result of earlier influences, not the end of some earnest intellectual search (and not the result of attending a conference on having a more meaningful self); it was divine gift. It came from outside the self, reforming the self, transforming the self in ways the self did not previously intend.
Lewis’s great moment of spiritual insight came as he rode sidecar to Whipsnade Zoo on a sunny morning in September of 1931. This has always struck me as the most ridiculous of situations for a religious conversion—stodgy C.S. Lewis, bobbing along in a motorcycle sidecar on his way to a second-rate zoo. At least St. Paul was on a road going somewhere to do important business. Yet of that moment Lewis wrote, When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. That’s it? This is rather uneventful spiritual stuff, even for the English.
In modernity my salvation becomes an exclusively human construct, something we fabricate through our astute decisions and adventurous choices. I choose, therefore I am. Lewis illustrates a very different conception of salvation, the orthodox Christian one: salvation is the surprising gift of a creative God who gives birth, who sends wind.
Of course, we are modern women and men who have had years of education designed to insulate ourselves from even considering the possibility that something’s afoot other than that of our own devising. We do not expect for anything of value to be sent to us from anywhere other than from within ourselves. Most of the voices that address us are self-derived.
So the story of C.S. Lewis—who wasn’t worrying about his ultimate fate or his salvation, who wasn’t searching for anything, whom God surprised by joy—is a jolt to our idea of what’s going on in the world. What if the life I’m living is not my own? What if I am not only the sum of my choices and decisions, but also the result of the steady, unrelenting approach of Him Whom I so earnestly desired not to meet? Lewis’s conversion thus reminds me of this morning’s scripture—the story of Nicodemus’s nocturnal visit to Jesus.
And that night Jesus told Nicodemus that the one with whom you speak, the one who invokes mysteries like birth and wind, this one is sent from God to save. Your ultimate status with God is not your spiritual achievement; it’s God’s gracious gift. If you’re in doubt about that, take heart. As Jesus says, the wind blows where it will. The God who gave you your first birth shall, from on high, as gift, birth you again and again until you are that creature whom God intends you to be.
Take note, when the wind begins to blow, or when you feel a new self emerging from the old, in those surprising moments, when we’re proceeding down our accustomed ruts, just busy looking after ourselves, and there is, as if out of nowhere, light, a voice, a summons, and we know we have been cornered, and we mutter with C. S. Lewis in astonishment, So, it was you all along.
This is salvation not only of you, but the whole world in Jesus Christ.
Let us pray:
who for our salvation became flesh and dwelt among us,
help us to see that you created the world,
not for your condemnation for our sin,
but rather for your salvation of us from our sin,
Son of God,
give us the grace to see you as the one who for our sakes
went to the cross
in complete love for us that we might have eternal life,
blow through our stale hearts
and enliven us by your enlivening power
so that we may enthusiastically worship you,
faithfully serve you,
nd eternally live with you.
you gave us our voices, no two the same.
As you did with Abraham and Sarah,
you take and touch our lives
and they can become extraordinary.
And in your Church you have gathered us,
in your community of common folk and complainers,
prophets and puzzled people,
you have called us and made a place for us.
So let what we say and do here,
what we ponder and decide here,
be real for us and honest to you,
as you prepare us for the life of the world
in which you are praised.
Let us give generously of our time, talent, treasure
to further the work of God in our community.
God’s love calls us into community to bless us.
God’s love sends us out into the wider community to be a blessing!
Let us go forth from here in peace,
Bringing the blessing of
God our Creator,
Jesus Christ, our Wounded Healer,
and Uncontainable Holy Spirit.