Lent 1A Sermon (2008)

1st Sunday of Lent
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7;
Matt. 4:1-11; Rom. 5:12-19


You may have noticed through my several months of being here, that I use quite a lot in preaching the story of the fall into sin from Genesis 3. Now that it’s actually one of the assigned lessons this morning, what will I do with it? I’d like to take us a bit deeper into its profound insights about our human nature. I’ve used it to show how the Bible understands the problem with our desire that leads to rivalry and conflict. It’s not that our desire is flawed in itself. It’s that we catch our desires from others, so we end up reaching for the same objects and end up in rivalry. Genesis 3 shows us that the woman didn’t on her own decide all of a sudden that the forbidden fruit was desirable. The serpent, that craftiest creature in the garden, suggested the desire to her, and she to her husband, and they both bit, so to speak. That move of catching desire from each other brought them into rivalry with God — they thought they knew what God knows — and it wrecked all their relationships, bringing them into rivalry with each other so that the longer-term upshot was one of their sons killing the other.

Now, I said that our desire isn’t bad in itself. That’s because it depends upon whose desire we are catching. If we are catching God’s desire, a loving desire for the whole creation, then we’re O.K. When we are catching our lesser desires from each other, that’s when the trouble begins. And our reading from Genesis 3 is paired today with its remedy: Jesus coming into this world and fighting off temptation to desire according to another. Jesus is able to stay on course until the end and desire according to God’s desire for the whole world. Jesus came to his Father’s will. And so as we become followers of his, we can, with the help of his Holy Spirit, begin to catch God’s loving desire for the whole creation.

What I’d like to do this morning in going deeper into the insights of this amazing story of sin is to notice an aspect of our desire that gets a little more complicated. The telling of this story notices how sight plays a big role in our desiring. The woman sees that the fruit is desirable. The serpent tells them that their eyes will be opened, and at story’s end their eyes are opened; they notice that they are naked. What I want to introduce this morning is that we catch each others desires because we actually learn to see things through each other’s eyes, so to speak. When the serpent tempts the woman, she goes from seeing the fruit through God’s eyes, namely, as a simple matter of a limit on their desiring, to seeing things from the serpent’s viewpoint. The serpent is the envious one who sees the fruit in terms of rivalry with God, of being able to know what God knows. The woman comes to see things through the serpents eyes, and she then passes it onto to her husband.

Because of the shape of our desire, I’d like for us to notice how much we see the world through other people’s eyes. There is an element of innocence in this story. The man and woman aren’t even aware of what can go wrong as long as they are seeing the world through their Creator’s eyes, as long as they are abiding by their Creator’s desire. But as soon as they bite on the serpent’s jealous desire, their eyes are opened. They lose their innocence. Isn’t that what being aware of their nakedness is about?

When we talk about children losing their innocence, what do we mean? Isn’t a big part of it what we call becoming self-conscious? We lose our innocence as we become self-aware. But I’d like for us to also notice that we might have mis-named this phenomenon. We aren’t actually so self-conscious as we are other-conscious. Think about it. You and I become self-conscious as we become aware that the eyes of others are on us. As we grow older we get accustomed to having other people see us in certain ways. We become conscious of how others see us: that our nose is too big, or our hair too frizzy, or our movements awkward. Or positive things, too. We might become aware that others find us handsome, attractive. Do you see how this self-awareness is really all about coming to see ourselves through other people’s eyes? And desire itself is similarly a matter of learning to see other things, objects of desire, through other people’s eyes.

Once again, this wouldn’t be a problem if we could see ourselves through God’s eyes — that is to say, through the eyes of unconditional love. But we learn throughout our lives to see ourselves through other people’s eyes, many of whom don’t love us at all, and none of whom can love us as unconditionally as Jesus did when he went to the cross for us. This seeing ourselves through other people’s eyes is deadly to our spirits. As soon as the man and woman in the garden saw things through the jealous eyes of the serpent, they began to die a little more each day in a downward spiral of seeing through the eyes of others. When we see things through the eyes of the One who lovingly gave us life in the first place, we are able to truly live. We are able to have eternal life, in fact. This is the turnaround that Jesus came to offer us. To help us to see ourselves, and the world, through the eyes of God’s love.

To help us understand this, I’d like to share one other story this morning, one of my favorites, one that I watch at this time of year. It is the movie Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell as the two stars. Ever see it?

Well, let me tell you a little about it, and, even if you’ve always found it funny, see if you don’t also find it more than a little profound. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-centered, not-very-likable local TV weather man in Pittsburgh; and Andie MacDowell plays Rita, his kind and considerate producer, who doesn’t care much for her weather man’s self-centeredness. Phil, because he cares about Rita, comes to see himself through her eyes, as someone who will always disappoint in the end, reverting to his selfishness.

Well, the story goes like this, on the evening of February 1, they travel to nearby Punxsutawney, Pa., for a date with that famed weather-prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog. As Bill Murray’s character Phil gets up at 6 am on February 2 to be there for Groundhog’s Day, he has no idea that a strange adventure is about to begin for him. He goes through the motions, finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney because of a blizzard, and stays another unexpected night. When the alarm clock goes off the next morning at 6am, it’s not the next day, February 3. No, it’s February 2, Groundhog Day, again; and he discovers that all the events of the day happen just as the day before, with the only variable being him. In fact, he finds himself trapped in a loop to seemingly live this one day over and over again. He is the only person who remembers that he is living the day again. At one point he is so despairing that he kills himself numerous times — only to find that he still wakes up again at 6am on Groundhog’s Day.

Now, the profundity enters, in my opinion, through his relationship with Rita, Andie MacDowell’s character. Phil likes and admires her, but has never had the personality to pull off making any headway in a relationship with her, because he has always seen himself as selfish through the eyes of others.

Phil figures out, though, that since he alone remembers every detail as they repeat this one day over and over, he can slowly find out exactly what to say to Rita to have a successful conversation with her. We see repeated conversations between the two of them in which he finds out her likes and dislikes from day to next repeat of the day and puts them to use in the conversation on the next repeat. He finds out, for example, that she likes to toast to world peace, so the next time around in that same repeated day he toasts for world peace. Essentially, he is learning to see things through her eyes in an attempt to have her look at him in a new way. Well, that doesn’t work. She has learned to see Phil through his eyes, with his view of self from others that he is selfish. So even at the end of the repeated day when the conversation has gone fabulously, because he’s had so much practice, he’s still the same person to her. He sees himself through her eyes of expected disappointment. There is a funny sequence of scenes at the end of many repeated days where it concludes with her slapping him to halt his advances.

Things finally change when he gives up his attempts to win her over. Instead, he convinces Rita one day that he is reliving the same day over-and-over-again. He can do that because he knows so much about what happens on this day — predicting, for example, when a waiter in the restaurant is about to drop a tray of dishes. She stays with him all day to verify — kind of like a science experiment. At day’s end, she falls asleep, and Phil whispers to her, “What I wanted to say was: I think you’re the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anyone who is nicer to people than you are…. I don’t deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.”

Finally, Phil kind of relaxes into a forgiving acceptance of himself. So what does he do, without really realizing what he’s doing? He begins to imitate Rita, the kind and considerate person that he knows her to be. He begins to see others and the world through her caring eyes, and so he begins to truly change. He gives up talking to her and instead spends most of this precious day learning to be a good person. He spends time educating himself in the library; he learns to play the piano. And he has the opportunity to be a bit godlike in learning the details of that day’s events so precisely. He knows when an old man is going to die of old age, so he is nice to him in his last hours and buys him meals. He knows when a young boy is going to fall out of a tree, and when the mayor is going to choke on his meat in a restaurant, and so he is there to save them. He spends a near lifetime of days in that one day, learning to be as kind and as considerate a person as Rita.

And so, finally, after hundreds, maybe thousands of living this same Groundhog Day, he finds himself in the evening at the town Groundhog Day celebration at which he is a hero to half the town. And what changes for Rita is that she sees this new Phil through the eyes of all those he has helped throughout the day, someone well-liked because he has relaxed into being a likeable, kind person, and she and Phil finally have something to talk about. It’s not so much what they talk about as how they are now talking. They are now talking more as equals, not in rivalry, but in the commonality of two people whose lives are geared to others. They talk on into the night, falling asleep talking, and they wake up together — on February 3! Phil is genuinely a new person, who has simply imitated the kind and considerate woman he loves.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, how have you and I learned to see ourselves through the eyes of others? What are the good things we’ve learned to see about ourselves? But, also, what are the bad things we’ve learned to see? Do we feel trapped? We don’t need to. Because the forgiveness we celebrate and open ourselves to during this season, as we journey to the cross, is the forgiveness of learning to see ourselves through the eyes of Christ, through the eyes of unconditional love. In the baptismal promise of grace, we are able to repeat our Baptism Day (not Groundhog Day!) each day as a day wiped clean of how others see us so that we might learn, paradoxically, to stop seeing ourselves through the eyes of others and to instead keep our eyes trained on the one who loved us so much that he went to the cross for us. As his disciples, his followers, his imitators, we are truly freed to not only learn but to become the kind and compassionate person that he is. And as fellow disciples together, we learn to see each other through his eyes, so that this place, this meal we have together, is a healing place, a healing food and drink. And then we learn to take the eyes of unconditional love out into this world that so sorely is in need of a brand new day, hurting lives in need of the healing power of being seen through God’s eyes of love. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 10, 2008

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