Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tolkien's Gospel: Redmeption (Recap Week 3)

J.R.R.Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in order to create a mythology that would transmit timeless virtues to a culture that he feared was losing its soul as it hurdled toward modernity. Tolkien a life long friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis, also used his devout Christian faith as a source of the virtues he wanted to share with through his stories. These facts make the stories wonderful sources to illustrate the nature of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.While in contrast to Lewis' Narnia, no one figure represents Christ, each virtuous character in Tolkien's works represents Christ in some way despite their faults and weaknesses. 

Aragorn is character that readers of the Bible should find eerily familiar.  The setting of the novel Lord of the Rings is a place called Middle Earth.   This place was once one kingdom; it was then divided into a northern half and a southern half.   The northern half quickly falls apart while the southern survives.   Then a promised king comes out of the wilds of the collapsed northern kingdom.  If you feel you have heard this story before you have, maybe even in Sunday School.  Tolkien based this part of the narrative on the Bible.  Israel once united, divides into a northern kingdom and a southern one.   The messiah though born in the south would emerge out of the long defunct northern kingdom from an obscure place called Nazareth. So the character we witnessed this week's scene is clearly based on some of the people we meet in the Bible.  

(1 Samuel 16:12) He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one."(NRSV)

In many ways Aragorn reminds us of David.   The one who leads and is confident of victory because the ultimate cause is just.   David has a heart for God, Aragorn has a heart for doing good.  Like David, he begins to assume his calling of kingship long before the official coronation. The scene we watched this past Sunday portrays this as he receives a sword from his future father in law Elrond.  He is made aware of the urgent need and his role in the fulfillment of a providential plan of rescue for a besieged people. Just like a biblical judge or king, Aragorn goes forth to fight for the good even if it means going through the shadow of death. 


(1 Peter 3:18-19) For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  (NRSV)

Aragorn like David in the Bible is fallible and in need of healing and redemption.   Aragorn
often feels weighed down by the burden of his forbears.   His ancestor Elendil is the one who failed to destroy the Ring of Power that now threatened to destroy the world.   He would fail to protect his friends at times and felt great guilt.   He has a need of redemption for himself in order to be whole again.  Aragorn assumes the kingship by taking the Dimholt road- which runs through the place of the dammed and unfaithful.  He needs to take this dark road in order to help those who because of their sin have failed to be faithful.   I am convinced that this part of the narrative was inspired by the verse above and the line in the creed  "And he descended into hell."   The Elf-lord Elrond tells Aragorn the only way he can have enough people to fight the battle against evil is to summon the unfaithful to his banner.   In other words those fallen away from a right life are needed to help, so they must be redeemed.   Unless the unfaithful are redeemed there is no victory.  Otherwise, there are not enough righteous to make a real difference.   The character of Aragorn teaches us about the necessity of forgiveness in our leaders.

(John 18:36) Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (NRSV)

In many ways Aragorn looks the part of the messiah we all would like to see someday.   The handsome warrior rides in on his white horse, shows his martial arts moves,  kicks out the bad guys and all is right with the world. Yet the most effective weapon in his arsenal would be no weapon at all, it would be a promise, a promise to the unfaithful that they could be redeemed.   He gives his word and the unfaithful come to his side.    We often want a leader to be tough and mighty,  but true Christian leadership takes compassion and forgiveness.   Leadership without forgiveness is false leadership.    Jesus himself led by healing and forgiving.  As even the most casual of Christians knows, Jesus was the unexpected Messiah.   He brought no sword, no army, but walked alone to accomplish an act of redemption for the world.  The true King is to bring healing and wholeness to our world and that can only be accomplished through redemption.   We know this in our bones,  one of the reasons we admire Lincoln so much as a leader is his ability to use the gift of redemption to help lead the country through the Civil War.

In the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn will show not just the possibilities of human leadership but also its limitations.   In the end of the narrative he can not defeat evil on his own even with his large armies,  he will need the efforts of the entire community of the faithful along with a good dose of divine intervention.  We learn that real Christian leadership will always acknowledge its limitations and dependance upon God as much or more that our own efforts.   In the book and the films Aragorn leads by showing the way toward redemption, and it is impossible to redeem oneself it always takes another to help you along.

(John 18:37) Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." (NRSV)

The Christian  leader embraces the truth and does not try to change it, hide it or spin it.   This starts with a self awareness for his or her own need of redemption.   Whether you lead in your home, workplace, church or voluntary organization, fogiveness, reconciliation, and redemption will be the most useful and most loving of skills you can use.    Jesus came to reveal the shortcomings of human leadership and at the same time affirm the love God has for those same human beings. We are blessed to have a leader, messiah and king like Jesus. 

Keep the Faith, 
Pastor Knecht   

Tolkien's Gospel: Mortality (Recap week 2)

J.R.R.Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in order to create a mythologythat would transmit timeless virtues to a culture that he feared was losing itssoul as it hurdled toward modernity. Tolkien a life long friend and colleagueof C.S. Lewis, also used his devout Christian faith as a source of the virtueshe wanted to share with through his stories. These facts make the storieswonderful sources to illustrate the nature of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.While contrast to Lewis' Narnia, no one figure represents Christ, each virtuouscharacter in Tolkien's works represents Christ in some way despite their faultsand weaknesses.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:3 NRSV

In this week's scene we see Arwen declare her love for Aragorn.   She does more than that, she agrees to become a mortal so she can live and die with the one she loves.   Arwen is an elf.  In Tolkien's Middle Earth she is an immortal.  However, if she wants to bind herself to a mortal, she must embrace death for herself.   On the real earth, this is exactly the same pattern of activity that God has done for us in Jesus.   Jesus is willing to bridge the chasm between God and humans to the point that he is willing to die for them.   Jesus puts his life on the line to love.   It is one's willingness to die that proves love.   In The Lord of the Rings, Arwen proves her love by being willing to die.   While this love seems great, God's love is greater.

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  Romans 5:10 NRSV

Jesus' love resulting from his compassion for humanity is boundless.   This is the very essence of Grace! He did not give his life for those who would be able to love him back in equal measure, he gave it for those who would be unable to repay him.   Jesus commits to go to his death so that people will live.  It seems strange at first, but the truth is that Jesus must embrace death so that the world may share in the resurrection.  In our contemporary world we do so much to keep death out of our minds.  We rarely speak of it, we ignore its coming.   Many unhealthy religious thoughts have sprung up in our culture that deny the reality of death in this world.  Mormonism with its doctrine of the uncreated eternal soul, Budhism with reincarnation,  and positivist thinkers who believe that technology can overcome death are just a few examples.  

Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Mark 13:2  NRSV

On October 29th and 30th of this year we were reminded that nothing lasts forever as hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in our area.   Mark 13 not only tells us about  the downfall of ancient Roman Jerusalem, Jesus teaches the disciples in the text about the mortality of our world.  Even what seems immortal and permanent in this life will one day pass away.   One finds in The Lord of the Rings a narrative with lots of references to ruins of civilizations passed.   Great monuments to powerful and heroic rulers lie broken and scattered and overgrown by forests and fields.  It is a reminder to us that nothing is permenent. This is one of the major points apocalyptic Biblical writing.  Our world like us, was born, grew to maturity, and will one day die.  Just as we hope for a new birth in the resurrection to come, our entire created world hopes to be one day reborn anew (See Romans 8, and Revelation 21). 

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— Genesis 3:22NRSV

One of the important themes of Tolkien's writing is the grace that exists in mortality; death is called the gift of men.  This idea though not popular with those who preach a watered down version of the Gospel, is found in the Bible and in classic Christian thought.   The premise is simple, in a sinful world humans can not handle immortality,  the constant sorrow will eat away, isolate, and destroy the true essence of the person.  Eternal life without forgiveness is not heaven; it is hell.  Tolkien's elves demonstrate this, they are almost always written in sorrowful and tragic terms.   In their undying state, they have just witnessed too much evil.  Even more profound, their lack of ability to die makes them unable to commit to fighting for their world.   It is Arwen, when she commits her life to a mortal and embraces death, who shows what it means to really be alive.  Death makes us take stock of the gift of life. 

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24NRSV

To deny our eventual death would show a lack of faith.   The mistake that we make when avoid dealing with death is that we accept death as the final word.   The life, cross and resurrection of Jesus prove to us that death does not have the victory  because Christ is risen from the dead.   He shows us the way from death to life.   Now we must all die to rise again,  and while we can naturally fear the process, we should have no doubts about its outcome. Christians have always seen this as hope for today as well as the hour of our eventual death.   Luther spoke of our need to die to sin and rise to new life daily through repentance and by remembering our baptism into Jesus.  Paul reminds us to "Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)" (Colossians 3:5).   If we have the courage to ask ourselves what are we willing to die for?  We might just find the answer of who are we willing to live for?

Keep the Faith, 
Pastor Knecht 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tolkien's Gospel: Compassion (Recap week 1)

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in order to create a mythology that would transmit timeless virtues to a culture that he feared was losing its soul as it hurdled toward modernity. Tolkien, a life long friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis, also used his devout Christian faith as a source of the virtues he wanted to share with through his stories.   These facts make the stories wonderful sources to illustrate the nature of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.  While contrast to Lewis’ Narnia, no one figure represents Christ, each virtuous character in Tolkien’s works represents Christ in some way despite their faults and weaknesses.  

 "I have to believe I can come come back"
Our attempts at Christian compassion are rooted in the understanding that we are all in a common humanity.  Each of us is created in God's image, and each of us is in someway broken because of disunion with God, others, and self.  Christians more easily enter into a compassionate way of life when they make connections of events from their own lives with the lives of others. In the scene we viewed this week we find Frodo demonstrating compassion toward the creature Gollum.  Frodo has realized that it was Gollum's carrying of the Ring that led to his change from ordinary being to monster.  He sees the danger that he too may become like this, a scared and broken shell of a person.   He hopes for Gollum's healing because he can see his own hope in it.   This is a deep Christian idea.  We care about the healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation of others because we can see hope for ourselves in the redemption of others.  We can love others more easily when we see, feel and understand what they are going through.

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

The true source of our compassion is the compassion of Jesus Christ.  The word compassion is itself a perfect expression of the Gospel.  It is a word derived from Latin that means "to suffer with".  It is a perfect expression of what God did through the sending of his Son Jesus.   It explains both the incarnation (Christmas) and the Cross (Good Friday and Easter). God proves his compassion for us by demonstrating that God knows what it means to be human, because God has lived as a human.   The moment Jesus cries out the words "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", we see that Jesus is not only God's Son, but one of us.  God has compassion for us, because God has lived with us and knows what we are going through, all of it, our burdens, joys, successes, failures,victories, and most poignantly our wounds. 

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! Mark 12:38-39

Compassion is also a knife that cuts through our thoughts, actions, and behaviors.  The presence of compassion in our lives confirms the presence of God.   The Pharisees are not criticized by Jesus because of their piety, they are criticized for their hypocrisy and their lack of compassion.  The simple truth is no compassion, no relationship with the living God. Compassion is the default mode of true Christianity.   It is how we can discern the spirits of our lives and see whether or not our spirits walk with God's Spirit.   Compassion is also more than mere sympathy.  It must contain concrete acts of love and sacrifice for it to be genuine.  Compassion is love concretely expressed.   Frodo demonstrates compassion for Gollum by learning his real name, trying to share his food,  and even extending his trust at times.   In the wake of the recent storm we have seen compassion at work in almost every neighborhood in our area.  

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:43-44

In Tolkien’s mythological world of Middle Earth compassion plays a primary part in driving the virtues actions of its heroes.  This is most plainly seen in the actions of the main characters of the drama, the hobbits.   Hobbits represent the little people.   Ordinary folks who go to work, make respectable homes, and enjoy life’s simpler pleasures.   Tolkien modeled them on the regular people he met in his day to day existence.   One of the main themes of the Lord of the Rings is that little people fueled by compassion can accomplish great deeds.   Where the great and powerful will fail because of tragic flaws, the little ones will succeed because they are fueled by compassion.   Compassion is a powerful thing.   In the above quote from Mark 12 we see how compassion fuels a simple “little” widow to put it all on the line for God.  Jesus sees and admires the woman because he knows compassion and he knows what it means to be from an ordinary little place.   In many ways Jesus was a “little guy”,  he grew up in a small town backwater, practiced a trade where he worked with his hands.  Compassion became the fuel that drew him to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God, heal the sick, and take the long walk up the hill to Calvary to do the greatest deed of all, the cross and resurrection.   So as Christians we should never fear to take a risk to be compassionate,  for compassion is the fuel of our ministry.   It is the reason ordinary people are capable of great deeds.  

Keep the Faith,
Pastor Knecht