“You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” [Gandalf, summing up Bilbo’s story for him, on final page of The Hobbit] For this year’s Christmas meditation, we are looking at the story of Jesus through the lens of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale, The Hobbit. I invite you to consider last week’s devotional as the prelude to what I say this week.
For a story to be called a story there has to be movement, change, development. What is not allowed is stasis, inertia. The very idea of story speaks to our call to become something more than we are at first: to accomplish something, to find something, or simply to realize something. In the useful analogy of Tolkien’s friend CS Lewis, we are all eggs at present, but an egg cannot simply go on being an egg forever. We must all hatch or go bad.
Last week I talked about the call to adventure, a defining theme in The Hobbit. While Bilbo is not entirely happy about the loss of comfort he experiences, the effect on him is plainly good, as Gandalf remarks at the end of the story: “you are not the hobbit you were”. Adventure reminds us that in order to become what we are not, we must leave where we are. Safety is often at odds with significance.
And now the question arises: what are the dangers here? What if things don’t work out? What if the adventurer falls flat on his face? What if the losses are too great? Perhaps the power of story is how real, and felt, this question is for us. Let me comment, then, on the theme of providence which is a necessary complement to adventure.
One of the common criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that so much of the narrative advances on what appears to be luck, lucky timing, or sheer coincidence. For instance, we are told that BIlbo is “saved by pure luck” when he asks for more time to answer Gollum’s riddle, shouting out “Time! Time!”, which is in fact the answer. Further examples of Bilbo’s luckiness abound throughout the story, and some find this a cheap technique. But Tolkien was fully aware of what he was doing. It is, as Tolkien writes, “luck of an unusual kind” that follows the story of Bilbo. What appears to be mere happenstance is, on the deepest level, the hand of another actor in the story, the unseen hand of providence.
The whole question of how BIlbo comes to find the magic ring is a case in point. Bilbo finds himself in the dark tunnel, completely blind, not sure of his direction, crawling on all fours, “till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, though he did not know it.” In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf suggests to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo that when Bilbo found the ring there was more going on than mere coincidence: “I can put it no plainer than that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought” (italics original). In the view of Tolkien, encouragement comes from meaning, and meaning from the reality of providence, the unseen guiding hand. This is not to take away the power of personal choice, not at all; but it does suggest that we do not act alone. And what is most encouraging is that this hand of guidance seeks our best, our good.
In The Hobbit, had Bilbo and the dwarves stuck to the elf-road as they had originally planned on traveling, they would have never completed their journey. The landscape had changed through earthquakes and floods making that way ultimately useless. But through a seemingly disastrous imprisonment a set of circumstances was set up that led in another direction: “Bilbo had come in the end by the only road that was any good”.
Devin Brown calls this an example of the “strange help” that we are familiar with in the life of faith (The Christian World of The Hobbit, 2012). Strange help, he says, is “the kind that does not seem like help until long afterwards” (p. 70). In other words, it is only further along the journey that we are enabled to see how we have actually experienced grace. While we were crying about our abandonment, our loss, our pain, the divine hand was still present, still bringing our story along.
This is the point I would like to turn our gaze back to the story of Jesus, back to the story of Christmas. Are you aware of the divine providence at play in the story of his birth? How he was born at the perfect time in history (Gal. 4:4), how despite the evil machinations of Herod this little helpless child was protected (Matt. 2:13ff), and how he grew up in obscurity in Nazareth until the time for his ministry was set to begin (Matt. 2:22f)?
Casting our eyes further along his story, we see how providence rules in the moment of his cross, that this one “born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2) is not abandoned to the chaos of circumstance. In detail after detail, the cross of Jesus is set within the bounds of God’s calling for his life. Nothing happens except God purposes and allows it, and while we watch his story in amazement and wonder, realizing that what he does he does for us, we realize too that this is the shape of our confidence in the great adventure. Jesus trusted God. And so can we.
So how has The Hobbit assisted us in our life of following Jesus? For me, it inspires again the call to really live, to adventure, to move and become, even if my path takes me out of the comfortable (which I admit I love). But I am reminded too of the unseen hand of providence at work, faithfully leading me to “the only road that is any good”. So perhaps you will join me as we worship with the gathered community of Jesus this Christmas: lets steal a moment to consider the ways God has led us this past year. And lets decide again to live boldly into this new year, following his call, trusting he will write a great story in our lives.
Some call it luck. But we know better.
Idea: we think this series, and the release of The Hobbit movie this Christmas, creates an opportunity for us as a Christian faith community. We are calling it Movie with a Purpose and it goes like this: go see the movie with friends and then talk about it with these two devotionals in mind. See if you can find connections between the story of Christmas and this helpful tale.
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