An Unexpected Journey this Christmas

Far over the misty mountains cold.
To dungeons deep and caverns old.
We must ere break of day.
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

Is that a line from

A. Nativity 2?
B. James Bond?
C. Life of Pi?

The correct answer is
D. The Hobbit.

J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy takes place in “Middle-earth.” Middle Earth is not some never-never land. It is simply an adaptation of the Old English Middle–erthe from Middan-geard which is the name inhabited lands “between the seas.” Which means, in some profound sense Tolkien’s intended his fantasy world to be a mirror, or reflection of our own. So what has a fairy story about elves and dwarves got to do with Christmas? Lets try and find an answer through three riddles.

1. Is Life About Luck or Providence?

The word luck appears twenty-five times in The Hobbit, luckily is used eleven times, and the word lucky nine times. We find these luck-related words used by Tolkien so frequently that sooner or later you begin to wonder if there is something more than luck at work.  Gandalf tells the dwarves that if they think he made a mistake in choosing Bilbo, they can stop at thirteen and have all the “bad luck” they like, thus framing the whole quest under the question of luck. In chapter five we are told Bilbo is saved by “pure luck” when he needs more time to figure out Gollum’s riddle but can only stammer “Time! Time!” which is actually the answer.

The whole Hobbit’s plot turns on a series of coincidental events which seem particularly fortuitous. None more so Bilbo finds the ring which Gollum has lost. Separated from the Dwarves during their escape from the goblins, Bilbo crawls blindly along in the tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. Suddenly his hand touches a tiny ring of cold metal.  Given the huge, cavernous spaces of the goblin kingdom, the miles of maze-like passageways, the tiny fraction of the tunnels that Bilbo traverses, the pitch darkness, Bilbo’s finding of the ring may seem like too much of a coincidence, simply too much luck.

Tolkien shares our incredulity, “A magic ring…! He had heard of such things, … but it was hard to believe that he had found one, by accident.” And if in any doubt, on the final page, Gandalf makes the point hinted at all along. “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventure and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” Bilbo agrees with Gandalf gratefully “Thank goodness!” We are meant to learn what Bilbo has learnt, that his adventures were all managed by the invisible hand of Someone who cares about Bilbo and about the Middle-earth.

The Bible calls this Providence, and we see plenty of that in the Christmas story too. Wise men guided by a star from Baghdad to Bethlehem. An angel telling Joseph not to divorce Mary because she is pregnant. And then after Jesus is born, the warning in a dream to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. No, not luck.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-29)

The story of the Hobbit is not about luck but providence.

2. Is Life About Treasure Hunting or Wealth Accumulation?

At the root of much, if not all, of the evil in Middle-earth, infecting men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, goblins and of Smaug the dragon is the excessive desire for gold.

In the unexpected party in the opening scene, Thorin declares that the dwarves have never forgotten the treasure they lost, and intend to get back every piece that Smaug has stolen. The dwarf explains how dragons “guard their plunder as long as they live” and “never enjoy a brass ring of it.” Promised one-fourteenth share of the treasure, Bilbo falls under its spell during the meal amid the darkening shadows and musical score as the motley crew of dwarves slowly chant their ambition:

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold

The dwarves sing of their resolve to obtain the jeweled swords, silver necklaces, crowns, goblets, and golden harps, which Smaug now guards. “As the dwarves sang, the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick.”

As they sing, Bilbo feels the dwarves’ materialism—their love of “beautiful things made by hands”—awaken in him too. This is not a good thing, but a selfish greed described as “fierce” and “jealous.” Smaug, of course, is the epitome of greed—and each of the characters tempted by treasure risks becoming a smaller version of the dragon. After learning that Bilbo has taken just one cup from the vast hoard, the dragon goes into a frenzy. Smaug’s fire belches forth, the hall is filled with smoke, and the mountain shakes. Tolkein comments that Smaug’s fury over the cup is the kind of rage that is only seen “when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”

So is Gandalf’s purpose and Bilbo’s unlikely recruitment merely about reclaiming dwarfish treasure? No. Gandalf’s ultimate concern isn’t about capturing vast hoards of golden riches, but about reclaiming the whole land which Smaug has devastated. Tolkien writes “There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and black stumps to speak of ones long vanished.” The defeat of Smaug has a greater purpose, the restoration of life in Middle-earth. And here we see a glimpse of our own world, plundered and marred, wracked by extreme wealth, desperate poverty, and the ill effects of global warming. As Gandalf says, “All that is gold does not glitter.” Thorin’s parting words to Bilbo are telling, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

And a merrier Christmas too? If the greedy desire to lay up treasure on Middle-earth is one of Tolkien’s central issues in The Hobbit, greed is also a central theme running throughout the Bible. “Love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6.10).

Jesus tells us “you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6.24). We are told to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6.33), because our hearts will be where our treasure is (Matthew 6.21). Life is not about luck but God’s providential purposes. A

nd God’s providential purposes are not about seeking worldly wealth but rather a treasure of a different kind.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

So what is the purpose of life? It has to do with Providence not luck. It has to do with gaining treasure in heaven not storing up wealth on earth.

3. Is Life About Comfort or Calling?

The Hobbit opens with a rather quaint scene, a hobbit-hole which “means comfort”; Bilbo Baggins is its occupant and he is rather well-off precisely because “[He] never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.” But it isn’t long before this picturesque setting is disturbed, almost rudely, by a mysterious figure named Gandalf who has a reputation for “adventures.” It isn’t long before the invitation comes: “I am looking,” says Gandalf, “for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” Bilbo of course, is not looking for an adventure. He replies, “We are plain and quite folk and have no use of adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!”  Although Bilbo and the quiet residents of Hobbiton have no use for adventures, Gandalf does. It soon becomes clear that this adventure has a purpose far, far, beyond merely getting back their treasure back.

When Gandalf tells the disbelieving hobbit that he is going to send him on an adventure, the wizard promises, “Very good for you—and profitable too.” But exactly how? How will it be good for Bilbo and in what way will it be profitable? As it turns out, the adventure is not that profitable to Bilbo. Instead of a one-fourteenth portion of Smaug’s hoard, in the end Bilbo brings home only two small chests. When Gandalf tells Thorin and the dwarves that Bilbo is the “chosen and selected” burglar, it is hard not to share the dwarves’ doubts and disbelief. Bilbo looks  “more like a grocer than a burglar,” His most defining characteristic at this point seems to be his excessive need for the comforts and safety found in his snug hobbit-hole—his warm fireplace and kettle, his cakes and fine waistcoats, and his pocket handkerchiefs. So why is Bilbo chosen?

The answer, as we discover, is two-fold. Through this adventure he will become the hobbit he was intended to be. We could say that the adventure will be the making of him. And at the same time, Bilbo has been chosen, not just because the adventure will do him good, but because he has something good to do for Middle-earth. The two purposes go hand in hand. Through helping to save those around him, Bilbo will himself be saved. Saved from a life of predictability, safety, and comfort.

When the dwarves doubt that Bilbo Baggins has anything to offer in their quest, Gandalf insists “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that out to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a burglar, a burglar he is, or will be when the time comes.” And with time and testing, Bilbo does indeed grow into his appointed destiny, gradually becoming the stout-hearted burglar Gandalf claimed him to be. Bilbo the shivering coward at last becomes Bilbo the spider slayer, Bilbo the dragon mocker, and finally Bilbo the Renowned, bearer of the Ring. You see, Bilbo’s realization of his destiny wonderfully captures the progress within our own Christian destiny.

What was it that Gandalf scratched on Bilbo’s door? “Expert Treasure-hunter.” In like manner, God has carved out our destiny before the dawn of time, “To be conformed Into the image of His Son.” (Romans 8:29). No we may not be the “brightest and the best,” and like the dwarves others may be quick to point that out. But, if the Father has chosen us, then in the image of Christ we shall be, “or when the time comes.”

God is in the destiny-completing business and regardless of our weaknesses we can be confident and immovable that “the One who began a good work in you will thoroughly complete it in the day of King Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

The meeting of Bilbo and Gandalf in this opening scene brings a confrontation between two worlds: the comfortable and predictable life of Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, and the dangerous and unsettling world of adventures that tend to break out whenever Gandalf is around. And that is the infuriating impact of the Christmas story too. Because Jesus is looking for someone to share in an adventure tonight. You see, Jesus bids you leave your cozy hobbit-hole behind, and come follow Him and his band of ragtag followers.
To see in your past, not coincidence and luck but God’s loving, providential hand, guiding you, leading you this very place and this very night to hear His invitation.

And what an adventure he promises, not one of material comfort, wealth and security but an adventure that will disturb your tidy, well ordered world, fill it with uninvited guests, a dwarfish rabble that may empty your cupboards too of cakes and beer, raspberry jam and apple tart, mince-pies, and much more besides!

But in its place he will give you untold treasure in heaven! This Christmas, I invite you to hear his knock at your door, and when you hear his knock, fling open wide the doors of your hobbit hole and let the King of Glory in. May God bless you and those you love this Christmas.

Sources: Besides of course J.R.R. Tolkien, I want to thank Lawrence Garcia, Senior Pastor at Academia Church, as well as David Mathis and Devin Brown for most of the inspiration, content and creative ideas used in this sermon.