Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Alligator Story

Last month while teaching the youth Sunday School class at my church, I used an illustration.  I adapted this story from variations I heard from Children's Bible Hour and Ray Comfort.  As far as I know this is not a true story, but I found it very helpful in showing the different ways that religions "solve" the core problem of mankind.

A preliminary caution.  One has to be careful in using analogies or parables to illustrate truth.  You can stretch analogies to teach error also.  For example, Jesus is called "the Lamb of God".  This is a wonderful illustration to teach how Jesus is our substitute, taking the penalty we deserve for our sins.  But you can't "stretch" this analogy and use it to teach, for example, that Jesus only wore woolen clothes.  Just because something fits an analogy doesn't mean it is true.  

That warning aside, here's the story!  (A better writer could really do a good job with this.)
A grandfather took his 10 year old grandson on a special fishing trip one June.  They went for a week to the Florida Everglades.  The grandpa had rented a cabin next to a beautiful lake.  They had the entire area to themselves.  And the fishing was great!

But the grandpa gave his grandson one rule: "Never go near the lake without me.  There are alligators around here.  On land you can outrun them, but in the water they are nearly invincible." 

For the first few days the grandson respected this rule.  But when four days had gone by and he had seen no alligators whatsoever, he began wondering if his grandpa might be a little paranoid.

The afternoon of the fifth day the grandpa took his customary nap.  Grandson had already run out of diversions in the cabin.  Then a great idea hit him: he could go catch a few fish and clean them all by himself, and surprise Grandpa with ready-to-cook food for their dinner!  He grabbed his pole and bait, carefully squeezed through the door (making sure not to let it bang behind him), and trotted down to the dock.

He had learned enough from grandpa in four days to know how to untie the canoe and paddle it to the center of the lake.  Sure enough, he was a good fisherman.  Within 10 minutes there were two beauties flopping in the bottom of the canoe, and he was casting his line to try for a third when--


He suddenly found himself upside down in the water and gasped and thrashed his way to the surface.  The canoe had overturned.  That scared him for two reasons.  The first was because he didn't know how to swim.  The second was because he suddenly guessed why the canoe had flipped: there was a pair of large green eyes staring at him from ten feet away.  The gator must have flipped the canoe over with his powerful tail!  Fortunately the paddle was nearby.  He grabbed it and began screaming and sloshing and trying to fend off the gator all at once.  It was a futile effort.  Despite the minimal help of the buoyancy of the paddle, he couldn't seem to figure out how to keep his head above water.  The gator was dodging his blows and closing in.

Suddenly he heard a distant bang from the shore.  Grandpa had burst through the cabin door and was now running down the dock toward the water.  There was a mighty splash as he dove in and began swimming toward his disobedient offspring.  The alligator heard the splash too, and it momentarily distracted him from attacking the grandson.

In what seemed like record time, grandpa reached him, grabbed the oar, and gave the alligator a few nasty bangs on the head.  The gator momentarily retreated.  Grandpa grabbed the collar of grandson's shirt.  "Drop your pole!" Grandpa yelled.  Grandson looked down and was surprised to see his fishing rod still firmly gripped in his left hand.  What a fool he'd been to ever pick that thing up!  He flung it from him and grandpa began swimming them both back to shore.  But the alligator hadn't given up yet.  It was a terrible fight for grandpa: swinging the paddle in one hand, holding the grandson's shirt with the other, and swimming with his legs.  All grandson could do was trust his grandpa and cry.

After what seemed an eternity but was actually only a minute or two, grandpa reached the dock.  But the dock was too high and grandson was too weak to pull himself up.  So the grandfather had to let go of oar and use both arms to pull his wailing grandchild from the water and flop him on the dock.  It took just a couple seconds.  But that in momentary gap when the oar was not in his hand and the grandfather was looking the other direction, the alligator saw his chance.  He grabbed grandpa's leg and bit down.  Hard.  He started pulling grandpa back out into deeper water, away from the dock and the oar.  Grandson, watching from the dock, was hysterical.

But grandpa wasn't.  He handled himself remarkably coolly for such a predicament.  Grandson was amazed to see the alligator let go of grandpa and start swimming away, rather clumsily at that!  (Afterward grandpa told him that it he had stuck his thumbs into the alligator's eyes and popped them out.)  Grandpa reached the dock and heaved himself up.  Grandson jumped for joy--until he saw grandpa's leg.  It looked like a mass of bloody spaghetti.  With that, grandson fainted.  The next thing he knew, grandpa and some men in blue shirts were looking down at him and pouring water in his face and there was an ambulance parked at the cabin and grandpa's leg was bandaged up.  Of course they both rode to the hospital and grandpa's leg was cleaned up and bandaged properly and that ended their fishing trip for that year.

But they made it a custom to go back to the same lake again every year to fish together for a week.  They had wonderful times together and caught a lot of fish.  But the grandson never went fishing by himself again.  Any time he was tempted to disobey, all he had to do was look at the scars on his grandpa's leg.
Now, what is the meaning of this allegory?  Those of you who have been saved by Jesus have probably already figured it out.  We are the disobedient grandson.  Jesus is the grandpa.  He took the punishment we deserve for our disobedience.  But Jesus didn't just get his leg bitten, he suffered a tortuous and shameful death on the cross. 

We can see just how wonderful this rescue is by considering how false religions would "tweak" this story.

If I were telling this story from an Islamic point of view, the grandpa would stay on the shore and shout "Swim to me!" to the grandson.  (Actually there are many religions like this, not just Islam!)

In Buddhism, the grandpa would say, "It is your karma to get eaten by the alligator.  Don't make this mistake again in your next life!"

In the philosophy of Christian Science (which is neither Christian nor science), the grandpa would call to the grandson, "Don't worry!  The alligator and the lake and the canoe only exist in your mind.  You can change reality by changing your thoughts!"

In Catholicism, the grandpa would jump in the water, swim out to the grandson, give him a magic pill which would suddenly make him know how to swim, and swim alongside him to the shore.  (They call this pill 'grace'.  But grace is really in being rescued, not in receiving the ability to rescue oneself!)

In Seventh-Day Adventism (and other cults that teach the 'moral influence' theory of the cross), the grandpa would swim out to the grandson, give him swimming lessons, and swim alongside him to the shore.

In non-Lordship theology (which is unfortunately taught explicitly in some evangelical churches, and implicitly in many more), the grandpa would tell the grandson, "You don't need to let go of your fishing pole now, you can decide to let go of it after we reach shore if you want to."

Time would fail me to describe all of the other variations that human minds have invented to distort the truth of the glorious way in which Jesus rescues.  But you will notice two common elements.  They all tend to minimize the seriousness of the grandson's predicament by making the alligator smaller or the grandson more capable.  And they all tend to minimize the greatness of the grandfather by giving the grandson some part in rescuing himself.

But there is a seemingly plausible reason for this one.  The argument goes like this: "If the grandson gets rescued without having to do anything, he will not value rescue.  If it doesn't cost him something to escape the alligator, he'll just go back to the lake the next time his grandfather turns turns his back."  This seems very logical but it is actually a deadly lie.  The truth is exactly the opposite.  If the grandson somehow could outswim or outfight the alligator, it is then that he would not value his escape.  If he knew that the next time he went to the lake by himself he could escape the gator again on his own, he would be quite likely to take the risk.  (Reminiscent of Samson, who did not fear the Philistines because he knew he could outfight them.  He played that game once too many times!)

But if the grandfather rescues the grandson without any help from the grandson, won't the grandson just run back to the lake the next time he gets bored?  What will motivate him to stay away from the water if he doesn't play some part in the struggle to save his life?  Here we encounter what is perhaps the most beautiful truth of the gospel that this story illustrates.  What motivates the grandson to avoid the water is mainly the sight of his grandfather's leg and the memory of the blood that was spilled to rescue him from death. 

Friends, what motivates us to want rescue from Jesus is fear of the consequences of our disobedience, fear of hell.  But what empowers us to obey Jesus after He saves us, even more than fear of punishment, is the cross.  When our heart sees the scarred hands of Jesus, we too cry with Thomas, "My Lord and my God!"  (John 20:28)  When we find the pressure of the world tempting us to sin, the answer is not to "try harder" to do right.  Rather, we exclaim with Paul, "But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."  (Galatians 6:14)

Or as Isaac Watts said it:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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