Better Than a Groundhog
The last two Sundays, the messages were about what we who are Christians should do to continue to grow in our faith during what is sometimes called ordinary times. Times between major holidays.
To refresh our memories, those things include rejoicing and being patient, praying and thinking good thoughts, continuing in our Christian faith and being stable and steadfast in our Christian faith, toiling and striving for those things.
We need to do all those things all the time, including during ordinary times, such as where we are now between Christmas and Easter.
But you know what? We are not totally without holidays right now.
A couple weeks ago was Martin Luther King Day.
Looking ahead, in two weeks, it will be the Sunday before Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a big holiday.
Next Sunday is an even bigger holiday. Super Bowl Sunday. Are you a Patriots fan? Or a Falcons fan? Or maybe you don’t care one way or the other. Maybe the Super Bowl ads are more important to you than the game.
In two weeks, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day. Next week, Super Bowl Sunday. Today is the Sunday before another holiday. Groundhog Day, which will be next Thursday.
Groundhog Day, as we know, is February 2 each year. The star of the day is Punxsutawney Phil, a resident of Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania.
A bit of information about Phil in a moment. Before that, some Groundhog Day humor.
What would you get if you crossed Groundhog Day with a puppy?
Ground Dog Day.
What would you get if you crossed Groundhog Day with a Christmas drink?
Ground Nog Day.
What do you call a groundhog who eats too much?
Why was the groundhog depressed about his den?
He was having a bad lair day.
What happens if a ground log sees its shadow?
We will have six more weeks of splinters.
Those jokes remind me of the kind of humor I used to tell at the end of my ninth grade Social Studies classes. I was often the only one laughing. Wonder why that was.
Anyway since the first observance of Groundhog Day in Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania, was in 1887, today’s Punxsutawney Phil is not the original one. But each February 2 he appears.
According to legend, if Phil the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, he will be frightened by it and will return to his burrow, indicating there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, spring is on the way early.
Punxsutawney Phil is the official groundhog of the holiday. There are others that try to get some of the spotlight, including Nebraska’s own Unadilla Bill, down the road in Unadilla, Nebraska. It is a stuffed version of the real deal.
The legend is that a groundhog can tell the future. In his case, whether winter will linger or spring will come early. It is a fun little tradition to try to figure out what the future holds.
Guess what. We do not need to rely on a groundhog to help us with the future. We have someone else available to us. Someone better than a groundhog. Someone who may not tell us specific details of what the future holds, but who will be with us each day of every season through the future in all the aspects of our lives.
That someone is God, in the form of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, which leads us to two Bible passages, one in the Old Testament, the other in the New Testament. Today, as the passages are considered, let’s be determined to rely on God to get us through the future, no matter the weather. No matter whatever else we encounter.
The first passage for this message is a very familiar one. It is Psalm 23. This passage is often quoted and often preached on during funerals, and at other times. As we look at it in this message, let’s think specifically about what it says about Jesus taking care of our future. Everything in our future, thereby making Him better than Punxsutawney Phil.
Psalm 23. “The LORD [God, and for we who are Christians, Jesus] is my shepherd.”
Think of the importance of the word “shepherd.” Think what a shepherd did at the time of the Psalmist David. What David was thinking about in making the comparison concerning the LORD.
Some of the things are mentioned later in Psalm 23, but think what a shepherd did.
For instance, a shepherd was responsible for keeping the sheep under his care safe. To help with that, a shepherd knew how to identify his sheep. I think shepherds sometimes named their sheep and called them by name.
Sheep are susceptible to bugs. I read a book once. I think it was called something like A Shepherd’s Look at the 23rd Psalm. The author had an entire chapter on how many bugs bother sheep. Bugs that get into the noses and ears and eyes and on the skin of sheep.
The chapter told how a shepherd will apply certain kinds of ointments on his sheep each morning to try to protect them. He will examine his sheep each evening to extricate any bugs that got beyond the ointments.
Sheep can get kind of top heavy. If they fall down and somehow roll over onto their backs, they cannot, on their own, roll back over and get back up. That is why a shepherd would keep an eye on his sheep. He would do what he could to help his sheep back up.
Do we see how the LORD is better than a groundhog? The LORD will not necessarily tell us what the weather is going to be like, but He will know and protect and help us, His sheep. We are His sheep if we accept Jesus as Savior. And He will know, protect, and help, not only in this ordinary time of late winter and early spring. He will do that in the summer and in the fall as well.
“The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want.” What a statement of faith that is. Why shall I not want? It is because “He maketh me lie down in green pastures.”
That means a shepherd makes sure his sheep have adequate nourishment, which is what God - Jesus - does for us, especially for His people, who are the sheep of His pasture, those of us who are Christians. Whether it stays winter for the next six weeks or spring comes early, we can rely on God for the food we need. That is because He - the LORD - Jesus - is our shepherd.
In addition, “The LORD leadeth me beside still waters.”
Notice the word “leadeth.” The LORD does not just, like a groundhog might, predict where we should go. He does not just tell us where we should go. He leads us.
Where? Beside still waters, which, for sheep, is a very critical thing. Rushing water threatens to fill the wooly coats of sheep. If that happens, they can be pulled under the water or be swept away.
When I use Psalm 23 during a funeral service, I usually mention the feeling of being swept away by the emotions surrounding the death of a loved one. There are of course problems others times as well. At any time it might feel as if we are being swept away, drowning in sorrow or other problems, but being swept away and drowning do not have to happen. We can survive if we will rely on the good shepherd - on the LORD - on Jesus - who promises to lead His sheep beside still waters.
The Psalm continues. “He [Jesus] restoreth my soul. He leadeth me.” There is that word again. He does not just predict or tell. “He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” He will lead us in doing what is right for Him and for others and for ourselves. He will do that if we will let Him. As we let Him, His name will be honored. What a wonderful promise that He will help us help Him.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
That sounds ominous, does it not? It refers to issues a whole lot more critical than whether the next six weeks will be winter-like or spring-like. Even in the truly critical situations, “I will fear no evil.”
We will not need to fear, “for Thou, LORD, art with me.” With me to the extent that “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
Did we catch what folklore says is the reason Punxsutawney Phil returns underground if it is sunny? The lore is that on such days, he is frightened by his own shadow.
A number of years ago, I went jogging one night. It was kind of eerie doing that, and I kept looking around to make sure no bad person was about to jump out of a bush or whatever to attack me.
At a corner, I ran under a street light. When I was past it, suddenly there was something dark ahead of me. I jumped, before I realized it was my shadow.
I guess I am no better than Punxsutawney Phil, but Jesus is not afraid of His or any other shadow. The promise in Psalm 23 is that no matter what difficulties we go through, He is with us. With those of us who accept Him as Savior and thereby let Him help us. The promise is that He is with us, with both a rod and a staff at His disposal.
The rod is the bottom part of what we know as a shepherd’s crook. It can be used as a club to beat off any predators, including, for us, the predators of problems and fears.
The staff is the top, curved part of the crook. It can be used to lift sheep out of danger. Sometimes shepherds use the staff to persuade a sheep to stay on the proper path. Sometimes a staff is simply placed on a shoulder of a sheep so the sheep will know the shepherd is near, which is comforting for the sheep.
What wonderful things Jesus, the good shepherd, offers to do for His people, the sheep of His spiritual pasture. And it goes on.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” I can thrive even if everyone is against me.
“Thou anointest my head with oil.” That is a promise of being soothed and refreshed, even in the midst of problems.
“My cup runneth over.” That is how numerous God’s blessings are for His people.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” which means the LORD’s leadership is not just for February 2 each year. It is available for as long as we live.
Then - get this promise for His people - for the sheep of His pasture - for those of us who are Christians - after this life on earth, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD [I will dwell in Heaven] forever.”
It can be fun to observe Groundhog Day each year. It is entertaining to think about what the weather will be like for the six weeks after February 2. But may it be only fun and entertaining. The one we are to rely on for everything is someone better than a groundhog. That one is the LORD - God - who has come to us in two forms - Jesus, the good shepherd who offers us all the blessings listed in Psalm 23, and the Holy Spirit, who is described in today’s second passage, which is in John 16.
We will begin with the first few verses of John 16, in which Jesus, talking to His disciples, forewarns them of problems they were going to face because of their faith in Jesus.
Jesus knew He was soon to be arrested and put on trial and tortured and crucified. Though He knew that on the third day after that, He would rise from the dead, He also knew that a few weeks after that He would return to Heaven, which would leave His disciples without His physical presence. Jesus was, in this part of the Gospel of John, doing what He could to prepare His disciples for all that was coming.
Including, for His disciples, some very troubling things.
Such as them being kicked out of the synagogues, which would mean not only not having those places to worship in. Being excommunicated would also cause others to shun them socially and economically.
Such as threats of death. Threats that eventually were carried out for all but Judas, who killed himself, and John, who died of old age after suffering much mistreatment over the years. All that, simply for being followers of Jesus. That still happens today in many parts of our world.
Such as sorrow, which they were already feeling because of His dire predictions of the future.
Jesus shared the bad news, as it is stated in verse 1, to keep the disciples from “falling away.” But then He shared some very wonderful news. News about someone coming to help them, that someone being the third part of our triune God. God created them - and us. Jesus came to save them - and us. The third part is the Holy Spirit, who, according to this passage, would come - and still is here today - to do some amazing things.
One of those things - one of the Holy Spirit’s purposes - would be and is to “convince the world concerning sin,” but also the opposite of sin, which is “righteousness.” Those who would and will rely on the Holy Spirit’s help could and can rise above sin and be right with other people and with God.
The Holy Spirit would and does remind people of “judgment.” The judgment of punishment for those who sin and the judgment of blessings for those who are righteous through the saving grace of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit would and still does have as a purpose guiding “into all the truth.” He is the one who gives us the discipline to read and study the Bible. The one who helps make the Bible understandable. The one who offers us the strength to obey what we understand - what we know from the Bible about how God wants us, His people, to live.
* * * * *
One more time, it will be fun to find out whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Thursday. It will be entertaining to speculate how accurate Phil’s weather forecast will turn out to be.
But may we remember that God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is so much better than a groundhog because He does not just predict the weather. He leads His people through whatever happens in every aspect of life, including the storms of life. He guides and convicts and teaches and strengthens.
What a privilege to know and be helped by God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Please make sure, even today, that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior, which is the only way to benefit from all that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit offer, now and always.
The closing song for today is one that is a beautiful summary of the points in today’s message. It speaks of God, who created us, of Jesus, who, as our good shepherd, watches over us, and of the Holy Spirit, who prospers us in our Christian journey.
The hymn also presents, in the final verse, the challenge that we who are the sheep of His pasture will adore Him and praise Him.
The hymn is Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Join me in glad adoration!
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yes, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how all thy longings have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love doth befriend thee.
Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen sound from His people again;
Gladly forever adore Him.
Two things about groundhogs.
They whistle when they are alarmed, which I think is not just an expression of fear, but also a warning for other groundhogs. Do you suppose we can do the same? Knowing the danger of relying on anything or anyone other than God, and warning each other about that danger?
And I read that germs leave groundhogs alone, so they are resistant to the plagues that periodically wipe out large numbers of other wild animals. One reason for that is their cleanliness. Shall we stay spiritually clean, which will protect us from any spiritual plagues that come our way?
Let’s rely on someone better than a groundhog. Even Punxsutawney Phil. Let’s rely on God. Amen.