Sermon for February 3rd, 2013

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Jeremiah 29:11-14

11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

John 1:1-8

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1 Peter 2:9-11

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. 12Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

The Hobbit

Three Minute Film Summary

[film clip #1] In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. That's how J.R.R. Tolkien begins his classic novel, upon which the film is based. For those who are not familiar with Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle Earth, a Hobbit is about half the size of a normal person, and has large, hairy feet. Hobbits are clean, tidy, cautious creatures, who enjoy the comforts of home, and live quiet rustic lives in small corner of Middle Earth known as "The Shire." The central hobbit in this story is Bilbo Baggins, a respectable fellow who leads a very ordinary life until the Wizard Gandalf arrives at his house one day, asking Bilbo if he would like to go on an adventure. Bilbo, of course, says no. "Adventures," he says, "are nasty, uncomfortable things" that "make you late for dinner."

Eventually, however, Bilbo is swept into a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Bilbo finds himself joining Gandalf and a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, Giant wolves, Trolls and Sorcerers. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets a wretched, pitiful, but deadly creature that will change his life forever ... Gollum. Separated from the dwarves, alone with Gollum on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum's "precious" ring--a simple, magical, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.

After defeating Gollum in a riddle contest, Bilbo escapes and rejoins his party, who are then ambushed by goblins and forced into a tall tree dangling over the edge of a cliff. Just as they can no longer hang on, they are rescued by giant eagles and flown to the safety of a large rock, where far off in the distance they catch their first glimpse of their final destination, the Lonely Mountain and their ancestral home of Erebor.

The Magic of J.R.R. Tolkien

Let me begin with a confession: The book "The Hobbit," which predates the movie by about 75 years (it was first published in 1937), is probably the only book which I have read more times, and am more familiar with, than even the Bible itself. That's because my father read the Hobbit to me when I was four or five years old. Then when my sister was born, he read it to her (and I listened in), and also to my two younger brothers each in their turn. I read it on my own a few times in high school and college, then again shortly after my father passed away. I read it to my oldest son, Grady when he was three, and after a few months when we finally got to the very end (330 pages), he said "read it again, Daddy." So we did. I'm now in the middle of reading to Abby (while Grady listens in), and someday will read it to Jonah, too. Needless to say, the book is very deeply and personally embedded in my life, and the life of my family. But truthfully, I'm probably only one of hundreds of thousands who could say the same--and now with the popularity of the films, perhaps just one of millions.

So what is it about this story? Like any blockbuster movie, some point to the high octane chase scenes, the amazing special effects, or the swashbuckling battles and swordplay. But most of that is absent from the book--there are swords and battles, of course, but not nearly as many, and everything unfolds at a much slower pace. I would point to the deeper themes and messages present in The Hobbit--ones which the film actually does a pretty good job of presenting--themes and messages that you might be surprised to know are thoroughly biblical in their inspiration and origins. The book's author, J.R.R. Tolkien, had a deep and abiding Christian faith which informed every aspect of his life. Many Christians are more familiar with Tolkien's good friend, C.S. Lewis, who wrote several works of Christian apologetics, as well as the Christian allegorical children series, The Chronicles of Narnia. What many don't know, however, is that C.S. Lewis was an atheist when he met Tolkien, and it was Tolkien who led him to Christ. Together, Tolkien and Lewis believed that they could use mythic-style storytelling to communicate the deepest truths of Christianity to secular readers. In the process, they created the whole genre known as fantasy literature.

The gospel message and Christian themes permeate The Hobbit--and it would probably take me several hours to even scratch the surface of a few of them. Today I'll focus briefly on two minor (but significant) ones, and one larger theme that is central to both The Hobbit and the Bible.

Light in the Darkness

In the first few verses of the Gospel of John, we hear that the "light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it." Light shining in the darkness appears in several other places in the gospel: Jesus says "I am the light of the world" and also "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil."

This concept of light shining into the darkness and overcoming evil occurs throughout the Hobbit: When Bilbo and the dwarves are captured by evil trolls early in the film, it is in the darkest hours just before the dawn, and the wizard Gandalf cleaves in half a large rock, allowing the first rays of sunlight to illuminate the trolls...and turn them into stone. Bilbo is given an enchanted sword and told that it will shine with light when it is in the presence of enemies. When the company is trapped by goblins deep in the dark mountain caverns, it is with a blinding light that Gandalf the wizard stuns their enemies, allowing them to escape. Incidentally, in Tolkien's universe, Wizards are the equivalent of angels. In a letter to a friend, Tolkien once described Gandalf as "an angel incarnate."

Luck, Fate, and Providence

The words Luck, Lucky, and Luckily appear over 45 times in the pages of the novel. In the film, it seems like the word "fate" is preferred. In any case, many of the events in the story rely on some pretty amazing coincidences in order to work: For example, the letters on the dwarves' map can only be read by the light of a moon the same shape and size as when it was first written. And the first time they attempt to do this, out of all the nights in a year, it happens to be the right one. In winding tunnels that stretch for miles underneath an entire mountain...Bilbo Baggins manages to find (in pitch black darkness) a tiny ring that changes the fate of the world. At the precise moment when the heroes can no longer hold onto the trees, they are swept up and rescued by giant eagles. For any other author, this would just be evidence of the fictional nature of the story. But for Tolkien, this is actually the way life really works: It's not luck. It's Providence--the unseen hand of God directing all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. This isn't in the film version, but Tolkien tips his hand at the very end of the novel when Gandalf says to Bilbo: "You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?" Incidentally, God in Tolkien's fiction is called Eru Illuvatar--The One, the Father of All.

This World is Not our Home

The story of The Hobbit is both a physical journey and a spiritual one. Like most journeys, it begins at home. For Bilbo, it's the rustic garden-paradise of the Shire and his hobbit hole. For the dwarves, it's their majestic ancestral city of Erebor. For Christians, it's the Garden of Eden. This is how Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in NYC) puts it:

"Home, according to Scripture, is a place where life flourishes fully--spiritually, physically, and socially. It is a place where physical life and health are sustained and where our most intimate love relationships are nurtured. It is a place of rest, of shalom. The story of the human race, however, is one of exile and longing for homecoming. Death and disease have distorted and defaced God's good physical creation. Society is a Babel filled with selfishness, self exaltation, and pride. Exploitation and violence mar and ruin human community. The world as it now exists is not our true home. We were made for a place without death or parting from love, without decay and without disease and aging. We are, therefore, exiles and aliens here."

Adam and Eve, cast out of the Garden...Moses and Israelites wandering 40 years in the wilderness...Daniel and the Hebrew children exiled in Babylon for 70 years... And we are told in the film that "the dwarves of Erebor wandered in the wilderness, a once mighty people brought low." Their fall--like all tragic falls from grace--is self-induced. The king of the dwarves succumbed to the love of gold, which brought pride, which brought enemies, more gold, and ultimately, the dragon and the fall.

The plight of the dwarves in the Hobbit should sound familiar because it is our plight; they are us. We are prideful people, we have all fallen short of God's expectations, we have all made a mess of what we've been given. We are all exiles and aliens wandering through this world, which is not our true home. We are all on a journey to a promised land, to an eternal Kingdom and a restored relationship with our creator.

In this sense, however, Bilbo is unique. He's the only one in the company who is not a forced exile. He did not fall from grace, and at the beginning of the film we find him living quite happily in his Garden of Eden. Bilbo chooses of his own accord to become an exile, to leave his home and journey alongside the dwarves...well...technically you might even say he was "sent" on the journey by Gandalf, who, as an angel-figure represents the voice of God. Is it beginning to make sense? Listen to this exchange between Bilbo and the dwarves, as he explains why he came on the journey: [film clip]

This film is actually the first in a planned series of three films telling the story of The Hobbit, so it only represents about a third of the novel. In this first installment, it is generally Gandalf who rescues the dwarves when they are in trouble. Increasingly, however, in the novel and the films yet to come, it will be Bilbo who rescues them and who eventually does help them to reclaim their home. This should sound familiar. In the Old Testament, it is God the Father who repeatedly comes to the rescue of the Israelites, while in the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, who voluntarily becomes an exile and an alien in order to walk with us on our journeys, to rescue us from danger and death, and ultimately to restore God's Kingdom so that we might be reconciled to Him.

The story of the Hobbit is the story of our own exile, redemption, and homecoming, and all three of today's scripture passages speak this message. But there is another familiar passage that speaks of these things, too, one I will close with today. May these words be the soundtrack to your own unexpected journeys, and may all your adventures lead you home to him.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.