"The Lizard On Your Shoulder"
1 John 1:8-10
I want to start out this mornings message by reading from an imaginative story by C.S. Lewis, titled, The Great Divorce. The story is about a group of passengers who take a bus ride from hell to Heaven. Once they have had a chance to look around, the travelers are given the choice if they would like to stay in Heaven or not.
Hell is described as a dark, cloudy, stinky, drizzly, cramped city, where everyone is waiting in one line or another, but not knowing what the line is leading to. Heaven is described as an expansive countryside of rolling hills, mountains on the horizon, fresh air, and a waterfall fed brook of startling clarity.
There are a group of angelic figures that are ready to greet each of the passengers. Each of the passengers has some sort of conversation with one of the angels, and it is one of those conversations that I’d like to read for you. (One other thing I need to mention is that the passengers are described as ghosts, who only appear smoke-like compared to the sharp realities of the heavenly scene and people.)
I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. What sat on his shoulder was a...lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains and back to the bus.
“Off so soon? said a voice.
The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. He presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.
“Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came--which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”
“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit--an angel, as I now understood.
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh--ah--look out! Your burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.
“Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”
“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here--well, it’s so dang embarrassing.”
“May I kill it?”
“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”
“There is no time. May I kill it?”
“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please--really--don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”
“May I kill it?”
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”
“The gradual process is of no use at all.”
“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think it over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day. All days are present now.”
“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’ll kill me if you do.”
“It is not so.”
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
“Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.”
“This moment contains all other moments.”
“Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the darn thing without asking me--before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?”
The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.
“Be careful,” it said. “He can do what he says. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract being...And I’ll be good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams--all sweet and fresh and almost innocent.”
“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then may I?”
“Oh dang and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
At that point, a wondrous transformation takes place where the Ghost turns into a shinning figure of a real man, and the reptile turns into a great, white stallion. The new man jumps up on the horse’s back and rides joyfully off toward the mountains. The ghost, turned into someone real was one of only two people from the bus from hell who decided to stay in Heaven.
The truth is, we all have lizards on our shoulders. Does that surprise you? Look around; everyone’s got one. It is our sinfulness. It is the embodiment of everything in us that desires to stay away from God. It is the fleshing out of everything in us that represents the hurtful things we have done in our lives that have gone unconfessed, rationalized, and what we thought to be strangely excusable. The lizard is the concrete expression of all our bad choices that we try to explain away.
A newspaper story told of a man who returned to his car in a parking lot and found a note under the windshield wiper. It read,
I have just smashed into your car. The people who saw the accident are watching me. They think I’m writing down my name and address. They are wrong.”
That’s all the note said. It’s so easy, sometimes, to find ways of avoiding the responsibility for our mistakes and choices. But clever as we may be at covering up and rationalizing our misdeeds, the consequences are merely postponed, never fully evaded.
We have a number of choices before us, once we recognize there is that lizard on our shoulder--that sinfulness in our lives.
We can do like the Ghost did in the story. We can tell ourselves, others, and God that it’s really not that big of a deal. We do a lot of this because our pride doesn’t like to deal with the guilt. It will not allow us to have that low of an opinion of ourselves. In the story, the Ghost only wanted the lizard out of the way because it was “embarrassing.” It wouldn’t keep quiet. If only it would stay low key--at least pretend it was asleep.
Though it was clear the lizard was in control, the Ghost thought that once back home, in his own little world, he could make the thing behave. Isn’t that what the lizard promised? But the Angel knew the thing would never be quiet, would never give up control, unless...
Unless the Ghost confessed his sinfulness.
Unless the Ghost recognized the visibleness of his sinfulness to God.
Unless the Ghost sensed deeply the repugnance of that sinfulness in God’s sight (because the only good sin is a dead sin).
Unless the Ghost expressed his need, desire and will that the sinfulness be totally destroyed.
And the same is true for us.
What we need to remember here is Who it is that is telling us all we have lizards on our shoulders. It’s not me. It’s not those sitting around you. It is God. John, in the first chapter of his letter stated, “If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves...If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God--make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.”
The only card we can honestly play at this point is that of confession of what both God and we know to be true. We are forced to see and deal with the definite particulars of our sinfulness, because vague generalities are only furthering our evasion of the truth.
That leads us to another point having to do with admitting our sinfulness before God. Don’t we feel some sorrow, once we have recognized the creature we have allowed on our shoulders, giving ear to it, and letting it have sway over our lives? Don’t we feel a sense of revulsion that this thing is part of our lives? Isn’t there grief that we have offended God by allowing something so repugnant as a determiner of our choices?
This is one of the truths behind the beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It’s not just a sense of mourning because you’re sad about some loss in your life. It’s also about mourning over our sinfulness. It’s about crying over that dark side of us that has not been confessed and yielded to God, so that it might be (using Lewis’ imagery) killed and crushed.
The mother of a little girl was preparing to attend a very special social event she had been looking forward to with pleasure for a long time. The new dress she had bought for the occasion was carefully laid out on her bed. But her little daughter didn’t want her parents to go out that night, and made a huge fuss about it.
When the mother was out of the bedroom, the little girl thought she had found a way to keep her mother home. She took a pair of sewing shears and she slashed the new party dress. Ruined it completely! When the mother came back into the room she just couldn’t believe her eyes. She was almost stupefied by what she saw. Instead of exploding and becoming out-of-control angry, she just fell across the bed crying bitterly, completely oblivious to her daughter’s presence in the room.
When the little girl saw her mother’s reaction, she realized the seriousness of what she had done. She started to tug at her mother’s skirt, crying out, “Mommy, mommy,” But her mother continued to ignore her, acting as though her daughter wasn’t even there. The little girl, more and more desperate, cried out louder, “Mommy, please!” At last the mother responded, “What!? What is it you could want?” The little girl answered, “Mommy, please take me back.”
The little girl had seen through to the heart of what she had done. She realized she had done something very hurtful to her mother. The sorrow of the mother brought the impact home in a heavy way that was almost too much for the girl to bear. She sensed, with great shock, the pain her awful choice had caused. The little girl sensed that the main problem at the moment was not the cut up dress, but the broken relationship between herself and her mother. So she cried out, “Mommy, please take me back,” just like the man in Lewis’ story finally cried out, “God help me; God help me.”
Only by being crushed, can our sinfulness be transformed. Only by feeling the great shock and sorrow of what we have done, can we find the strength to face God and the Angels and freely allow them to expunge the darkness from our lives. Our remorse takes away our fear of God--a fear that our sinfulness has won by whispering its lies in our ears. Our remorse takes away our fear of God, so that we realize, with a finality that grasps and gasps for life that only by God’s hand will we find freedom and transformation.
That is what it means to find comfort from our mourning--because part of comfort comes from knowing we are utterly forgiven. Not just excused, but forgiven. Excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” Forgiveness says, “I see that you could help it, you did mean it, and you really were to blame; BUT, I accept your confession, I accept you, I embrace you with grace and everything is forgotten. Completely.”
When, out of our sorrow for our hurtful ways, we confess our sinfulness, and turn to God, and by so doing catch a glimpse of God’s forgiveness, a new motivation begins to take hold in our lives. When we discover that God’s main desire is to forgive and give, that God is the loving father in the parable of the prodigal son who runs to meet us, hugging us and kissing us, only because we were willing to face honestly the mess we had made of our lives; when we discover all this about God, a parallel yearning grows in our souls--a yearning for living in God’s light, and a hatred for the darkness we were in.
Those two determinations--the yearning for a new start with God, and, the hatred of our sinfulness--must both grow together. One will not grow with out the other. It is in that yearning, once we have confessed that we have a lizard on our shoulder, once we have felt the crushing yet forgiving hand of God upon that lizard, we also suddenly realize we are being transformed. Even our sinfulness is being transformed by God. A God who transformed the most sinful action of human history--the Crucifixion--into the most glorious Resurrection, can certainly take what we have done, as lizardly as it may be, and refashion it into something glorious. If only we will let him.
There is a legend about the Day of the Lord, the last days of the world that the Bible talks about. In Paradise on this Last Day everyone is celebrating, dancing, singing and shouting with great jubilation. Everyone, that is, except Jesus. Jesus is standing very quietly in the shadows of one of the gates of Paradise. One of the angels asks him what he’s doing in the midst of all the celebrating. With quiet soberness, Jesus replies, “I am waiting here for Judas.”
Will he, and will we, come to Christ and say, “I have this lizard on my shoulder. Both you and I know that it’s there. Both you and I know how it got there. Will you destroy it?