Removing the Girdle
Removing the Girdle
Parable of the Sheep and Goats
November 15, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Question: How are some of the ways you live out the Matthew 25 challenge?
Question: Now, think of a time when you intentionally didn’t. Why didn’t you?
As recorded by John, Jesus describes himself as a vine rooted in the soil of the vine grower, God. We, he says, are the branches. When we abide in him we bear good fruit. When we don’t abide in him we wither and die.
A tree fell down in my yard a couple of years ago. There wasn’t a storm or anything. Just one day spring day, shortly after it had leafed out, it toppled over, the trunk breaking about eight feet above the ground. At some point way a long time ago, someone had wrapped some wire around the trunk about six feet up. Maybe for a clothesline or a dog run. As the tree grew, the wire had cut through the bark, slowly choking the tree. Rot, disease and insects infected the trunk until it was so weak it could no longer support the branches and the leaves. It fell, filling the yard. A few hours with the chainsaw and it was fuel for the fire.
What girdles and chokes you and keeps you from experiencing the limitless real life God promises? What keeps you closed off from your neighbor, from God? What makes you hard, shriveled, resistant to the deep joy available in Christ?
As we’ve been journeying with the parable of the sheep and goats I’ve kept coming back to how the sheep reached out to the least of these without knowing they were Jesus. They also didn’t seem to know their reward for doing so would be the limitless real life promised by God. I sense, however, they’re already experiencing such expansive life. I also sense those who had shunned the least of these wouldn’t have experienced the gift of limitless real life even if they’d known Jesus’ presence. They may have helped, but they would have done it grudgingly, out of duty, obligation, a chore to be accomplished to get their allowance. They would have remained hard and shriveled, cut off from the abiding love of Christ, still fit only for the fire.
What if hell was as much a state of being as it was a place? What if hell isn’t the eternal fire awaiting the dead branch but the state of being emotionally and spiritually dead, all shrunk and balled up inside, fueled not by expansive joy but by the girdles of loneliness, anger, hatred, envy, greed, and pride? As part of the All About Heaven Bible Study we read The Great Divorce, a novel by CS Lewis. Lewis depicts Hell as earth caught in a perennial Ohio February. Cold, drizzly, dimly lit. Heaven, as depicted by Lewis, is bright, sunlit, beautiful and open to anyone, literally just a free bus ride away from the dreariness of Hell. But most people don’t go. And those who do go often turn back. For to receive the joys of heaven requires leaving behind the loneliness, anger, hatred, envy, greed and pride. We cling to our sin, just as our sin clings to us. We’re afraid to leave it behind.
One character in the book, who’s taken the bus from Hell to heaven, desperately wants to experience limitless real life in Christ, but his sin – depicted as a lizard – keeps telling him such joy is unattainable. Just as the character is about to return to Hell, an angel appears. “Do you want me to kill it?” the angel asks, motioning to the lizard. Yes, the character replies – but then the lizard intervenes and he changes the answer to “no.” The angel, lizard and character go round and round until finally the angel reaches out, grabs the lizard, twists it in two and flings it into the ground. Freed of his sin, the character begins to expand, to grow, to become the joy filled person he’s called to be.
What stands between you and the joy-filled limitless real life promised by Christ? What parts of your life do you need to completely turn over to God so they can be killed? What needs to change so you are free to be a sheep instead of a goat, to love with abandon, to serve without limit, to meet Christ in the hard places because you’re free to love across the divisions, lines and boundaries of our society?
I couldn’t completely remove the toppled tree in my yard. Its trunk still stands. From the trunk, just below where the wire wrapped its deathly girdle, a pair of new branches have emerged. Freed from having to support its sickly crown, the tree is growing again. For decades its been slowly dying, but the new growth appears green, luscious, filled with the potential of life. New growth, connected without impediment to the vine, connected without impediment to the roots, to the soil, to the vine grower.
We actually can’t out of duty or obligation, fully love our neighbor. We cannot give of ourselves enough to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick or visit the imprisoned. Thankfully we follow a God who, out of sheer grace, will remove those impediments to a joy filled limitless real life – here among our neighbors and among the saints in heaven. We all stand at the doorway to heaven. We can allow Christ to remove from us the sin we love as if it is life itself, or we can stay in the hells of our own making.