One Easter morning, the preacher gathered the children of the church in the front of the sanctuary for the weekly children's sermon. He began with a thematically appropriate question.
"Children, today is Easter Sunday. What do we celebrate on Easter?"
One girl spoke up quickly: "We remember our mothers and how much we love them."
"No, that's not quite right," the pastor replied. "You're thinking of Mother's Day."
Then, an eager boy took a shot: "Easter is a time when we say 'thank you' to God for all the good things in our lives."
"We can always say 'thank you' to God," the pastor said, beginning to worry about the dullness of the children in his church. "But, you're thinking of Thanksgiving, not Easter. Children, what is the meaning of Easter?"
After a few seconds of awkward silence, another girl in a fancy Easter dress gave it a try. "Easter," she said tentatively, "is the day when we remember that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Then he was buried in the tomb. On Easter morning, God rolled the stone away and Jesus came out of the tomb."
"Excellent," cried the relieved pastor.
"And then," the girl continued, "Jesus looked and saw his shadow, so he went back into the tomb and there were six more weeks of winter!"
Okay, okay, I know that's an old joke, a classic preacher's story that has been told and retold in dozens of different ways. I'm not suggesting that you use this retread in your preaching, though I did once and it received a surprisingly enthusiastic response. But I just couldn't resist telling my only Groundhog Day joke because this column will first appear on February 2 . . . Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day: The Movie
I've had a special affection for Groundhog Day ever since I saw the movie with this name. In fact, my family and I have a tradition of watching Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, each year on February 2. It is my all-time favorite comedy flick. I love it, not only because of the classic, understated humor of Phil Connors the weatherman (played by Bill Murray), and not only because of the appearance of the peerless Ned Ryerson (Steven Tobolowsky), but also because Groundhog Day tells an inspiring story of human transformation. Phil Connors, who begins the film as an obnoxious television personality, ends up as a kindhearted human being.
What changes Phil Connors? The fact that he is stuck on Groundhog Day. Sent to cover the emergence of the world-famous groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Phil becomes strangely trapped on February 2, forced to live the exact same day over and over and over again. Through such repetition, Phil changes from a self-absorbed hedonist to a self-giving servant of others.
Becoming a Groundhog Day Preacher
So what does all this Groundhog Day stuff have to do with preaching? I want to share some things I learned as a Groundhog Day Preacher. I don't mean that I was ever trapped on a single day or that I preached the exact same sermon Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. But, in a sense, what I did as a preacher each weekend at Irvine Presbyterian Church was quite similar to what I did every other weekend. I would stand up in the same place at just about the same time each week and read the scripture. Then I would pray. Then I would preach. Each sermon began with some sort of introduction that engaged the listeners and established the theme of the sermon. Then I spent the next eighteen minutes on biblical exposition and contemporary application. This left me just enough time to add a concluding summary and word of exhortation, ending with a closing prayer. That's more or less what I did at Irvine Pres more than 1800 times (sixteen years with multiple services).
From my very first Sunday at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I sought to improve my preaching. I believed that God had entrusted me with a high calling, opportunity, and responsibility. Through my preaching, I believed, God wanted to bring people into saving knowledge of him. He wanted to help believers in Jesus grow as disciples and ministers. He wanted to shape Irvine Presbyterian Church to become a healthy, Spirit-filled, missional community. Of course, my preaching wasn't the only way God would do these things. But in that particular church, preaching was one of the most effective tools for kingdom work and God had entrusted that tool to me. I wanted to use it faithfully and effectively.
What did I do as a Groundhog Day Preacher? I used the repetition of weekly preaching as a homiletics classroom. Every week, I would listen to a recording of my sermon, trying to put myself in the position of a listener. I noted how often I said "uh" or "you know." I heard how what had seemed to me to be a passionate appeal sounded rather flat. I realized how I squelched my stories because I was afraid of being too showy. I paid attention to exegetical comments that were more suited to a seminary lectern than a pulpit. As I listened, I'd make notes to myself for future preaching. Then, I'd incorporate what I learned in my preaching prep or delivery.