Here’s a fun fact that you might not have known about me—every year, starting sometime near the beginning of the year, I re-read Lord of the Rings. I’ve been doing this since I first read the books at age 17, which I did during math class. I had to repeat the course the following year for some reason…
I’m not the only Lord of the Rings fanatic in the world. Following the release of the third movie, my daughter wouldn’t speak to me for about five years. I’d been sent to buy five tickets for the triple showing of all three movies on release night, but when I got there, there was only one ticket left. I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and at that time she didn’t have a driver’s licence and the movies went on until one in the morning, so I’d have had to go and pick her up, and, well, you get the picture. I got the ticket, and she had to wait…
So why do I read the books at least once every single year?
It’s hobbit forming, that’s why!
Seriously, Tolkien’s entire world is steeped in Christian tradition. Although Tolkien didn’t write allegory, as his good friend C.S. Lewis did, the story of our faith is woven into the fabric of Middle Earth. You cannot read the books and not receive the message of the Gospel.
This is the third in a series of sermons I’ve been doing on Lord of the Rings themes. To spare any single congregation, I preached the first at Melville and the second at Trinity, but if you want to read them all, they’re up on my website.
At the heart of the story is The One Ring—an all-powerful artefact that allows the wearer to control the hearts and minds and bodies of others, if that wearer is strong enough.
This incredibly powerful ring, by a series of rather unusual circumstances, comes to be in the possession of Frodo Baggins, a simple hobbit from the Shire, who has no idea what he’s got. He knows it’s a beautiful gold ring that makes him invisible when he puts it on. He uses it infrequently to escape unwanted visitors, like relatives who have come to beg from him.
But there are others who want this ring for themselves.
Boromir, son and heir of the Steward of Gondor, wants it so that he will have the power to command great armies and destroy Sauron, who made the ring, and thus rid Middle Earth of its greatest evil.
Saruman the White, a great wizard, wants the ring so that he can overthrow Sauron and replace him, ruling the world himself.
Denethor, Steward of Gondor, wants it to keep it safe in the vaults in the depth of the city of Minas Tirith, to keep it safe and not use it, save in the greatest need.
Gollum, who possessed this thing for over five hundred years before he lost it and Frodo’s uncle Bilbo found it, wants it back. Now that he knows what it is, he has fantasies of becoming The Gollum, Lord Smeagol. Eat fish three times a day, fresh from the sea. Make hobbitses, nasty mean hobbitses, crawl, yesss he will, Preciousss…
And all Frodo wants to do is get rid of this thing.
“I wish the ring had never come to me,” he says.
He tries. He offers it to the wizard Gandalf, his mentor and companion. He offers it to the Elf Queen Galadriel.
They both refuse, though tempted by its power that will enable them to do much good in the world. They understand what Boromir and Denethor do not—that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that in the end, they will simply become copies of Sauron, and not the loving and kind rulers that Frodo would expect them to be.
And so, together with the Half-Elven Lord Elrond, they decide to send the ring back to Mordor, there to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. And Frodo, the unlucky hobbit, together with his gardener and friend, Samwise, are the ones tasked to do the job.
It’s utter foolishness!
Wouldn’t Gandalf or Elrond or Galadriel had a better chance of doing the job?
Denethor puts it this way: “…there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done… that is madness.”
I’m sure that’s what the crowds thought on Good Friday, too. Earlier that week they had greeted Jesus, crying, “Hosanna! Save us!”
They wanted him to be their Messiah. They believed he was their Messiah. They KNEW he was their Messiah.
But he wasn’t doing things the way they thought he should be doing them. They wanted him to fight the Romans, to cast them out, and to assume the kingship.
Instead, he went to the cross.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, Paul says.
God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.
Human wisdom would have us believe that in order to be considered important, you need to do something important. You need to have money and power and possessions.
Jesus says, “The last shall be first. It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
Human wisdom says, “You have to save up for a rainy day. You need car insurance and life insurance and house insurance and a top-notch home security system.”
Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth. Do not worry about tomorrow.”
Human wisdom says, “Adults are wise. Adults are important.”
Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me. Unless you are like a child, you cannot receive the kingdom.”
Human wisdom says, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If someone kills another person, they deserve to die. If someone beats you up, get your buddies together and give it back to them. If someone has a gun, you need a bigger gun.”
Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek. Don’t judge. Don’t seek revenge.”
Conventional wisdom says, “Death is the end. Game over.”
Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Except that two thousand years after Jesus walked the earth as a human being, we can see the results of human wisdom.
Our desire for security, for more stuff and better stuff, has led us to the brink of environmental disaster.
In Jesus’ day, military powers played chicken with swords and men. Now they play chicken with nuclear weapons that can destroy entire cities or even countries with a single push of a button.
In Jesus’ day, revenge of one neighbour against another might have involved a fist fight, maybe one or two deaths. Now any teenager with a grudge can pick up an automatic weapon and take out dozens of people in a single shooting spree.
Our fear of death has driven us to find cure for many diseases, but the death rate for humans is still 100 percent, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. But many people go on hoping, spending money that might have gone to help the living on cryogenically preserving their bodies, so that in the future they might be brought back to life.
It’s our human wisdom that’s turning out to be utter foolishness, and God’s foolishness has turned out to be wisdom.
We do not conquer death, or anything else, by running away. We conquer by facing our fears, and realizing that life goes on.
We don’t defeat violence by becoming violent, we defeat violence by showing others that there is no need to be violent, and that we can all live in peace.
We do not conquer hate by hating, but by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.
We don’t find security by buying more insurance or paying off our mortgage or by having the latest and greatest iPhone. We find security in knowing that we don’t need all that stuff, and by having faith that whatever happens, God will provide.
And we don’t change the world by leaving our fate in the hands of seemingly powerful humans or elves or wizards, as Frodo tried to do in the beginning, but by doing the tasks that have been set before us by God, in the best way that we know how.
It’s difficult, in the face of a world that needs to touch and see, as Thomas did, to maintain faith that seems foolish. Sometimes, in the face of fear, it seems nearly impossible. The temptation to backslide, to be like others and put our trust in worldly things and powerful people, is overwhelming.
But in the end, it’s foolish and unnecessary.
Foolish because all mortals and all things that were made by the hands of mortals will eventually pass away.
But God will endure, and God’s wisdom is true.
Trust in the foolishness.
We are not alone.