“Journey to Mordor & Beyond: Preparing for the Journey”

Mark 6:6-9
February 14, 2024; Ash Wednesday
Matt Goodale

I grew up in Colorado, and over there we have something called “fourteeners”. Fourteeners are mountains that are 14,000 feet or taller, and in Colorado we have 54 of them—a lot of very tall mountains.

So it’s a fun recreational activity to try to hike to the top of several of these mountains, because many of them don’t actually require any technical climbing skills. But they still require a certain level of preparation because it’s a really tall mountain and a lot of hiking straight uphill.

And in high school I decided to try to summit two different fourteeners on two different occasions, but I didn’t really get the memo about what I needed to be prepared for.

The first fourteener, Mt. Huron, I was invited to summit by a couple of my church youth leaders. So me and a buddy of mine, as high school freshmen showed up to hike this mountain with some youth leaders and few college students, and we were woefully underprepared.

Neither my buddy nor I brought a coat, because we didn’t realize that even though it’s summer time, it’s actually quite cold near the top of a mountain that tall. Also, and this part I’m a little embarrassed by. I don’t know why we thought this was a smart idea, but for our water supply, we each brought a 2-liter soda bottle full of water…you know, one of those big bulky soda bottles?? Yeah, and we carried those all the way up the mountain, not in a backpack – because we didn’t bring one of those either – but in our front hoodie pocket. Our youth leaders were probably rolling their eyes at us.

And the second fourteener I climbed was Pikes Peak a couple of years later. And Pikes Peak is a 26 mile roundtrip hike. 13 up, 13 down. And me and a different buddy of mine decided on a whim the day before that we were going to climb it. So after staying up until midnight, we woke up at 3am to drive to the trailhead, hiked 4-5 hours up to the summit and realized that we only packed enough food for one way. We didn’t have enough food for the thirteen miles back down and we were completely exhausted. Luckily though, there is actually a road up to the top of Pikes Peak so we hitchhiked down and I am happy to say that I have never again been as ill-prepared for a journey. I learned my lessons.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten journey to the cross and the empty grave. And Ash Wednesday is meant to be a time of preparing ourselves for the journey ahead, of making sure that—spiritually speaking – we’ve packed everything we need to make the 40 day journey through Lent.

Lent has historically been a time in the church for slowing down. It’s a time to be intentional and thoughtful about how we are actually living our life. It’s a time that we prepare to take up our own cross and follow Jesus. We are reminded in Lent that following Jesus is not always easy. Jesus does not always take us where we want to go. But he does promise that the journey is worth taking.

In our scripture passage, Jesus sends his twelve disciples out to share the good news and teach in surrounding villages. This is their first solo assignment that he is sending them out on.

Now, just think about this for a minute. I would like to remind you that these disciples Jesus is sending out on their own are the same disciples who up to this point in the story don’t have a great track record.

These are the same disciples who to this point in the story have interrupted Jesus’ quiet prayer time because they are frantically worried that they have lost him. These are the same disciples who have been exasperated with Jesus, wondering why he would leave them to die on a boat in the middle of the sea. These are the same disciples who have questioned whether Jesus is out of his mind. These are the same disciples who on the last trip brought for their water supply nothing but 2-liter soda bottles and forgot to pack enough food for the return trip. (Oh, wait, no that was me, not the disciples.)

We forget that these disciples are still so young and so freshly called by Jesus when he sends them out for their first journey alone. And when Jesus sends them out two-by-two, he instructs them to take nothing more than a staff, a tunic, a belt and sandals. He doesn’t allow them to take bread, a knapsack, money or a second tunic.

See, when my friends and I climbed those fourteeners, we were just trying to take Jesus’ words seriously.

This would be like laying out all the things on your bed that you planned to take on a trip, and then leaving everything but your coat and toothbrush behind. It’s kind of crazy. Why would Jesus ask them to do this? It seems like Jesus is sending them out underprepared for the journey ahead.

This reminds me a bit of another story that takes place in Middle-Earth.

You probably know by now that this Lent our two churches are diving into Tolkien’s fantasy world of Lord of the Rings—a story that is all about a long journey; we’re diving into this story in order to see what wisdom it has to offer us on our own journeys through Lent and life.

We’re going to watch a short clip…in it, Frodo and Gandalf are preparing for a long journey when Sam is caught eavesdropping outside.

In The Lord of the Rings, as you saw in that clip, two hobbits, Sam and Frodo are sent on a perilous journey by the great wizard Gandalf to destroy the One Ring of power.

And these two hobbits, Sam and Frodo have lived in the Shire their whole life. The Shire is an idyllic land of peace and prosperity where really their greatest worry is whether they have enough pipe weed to smoke. Until the wizard Gandalf shows up, Sam and Frodo live in bliss and ignorance of the evil that lies outside their land.

So when Gandalf shows up and charges Frodo and Sam to be the ones to take the One Ring of Power to safety, away from the evil minions that are hunting it, they are woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead of them.

Sure, they pack everything they can think of taking, but these small hobbits aren’t prepared at all for what they’re about the face. They have no idea what they’ve just signed up for. On their journey they’ll encounter goblins and orcs and Balrogs and dead marshes and giant spiders and volcanic mountains. Nothing they could take in their backpack could prepare them for that. Which I think is the point.

Sam and Frodo could prepare and prepare as long and as much as they want, but in the end nothing they pack will be enough to get them to where they need to go.

Because ultimately, at the very end of the journey, when they’ve run out of food and water, when their clothes are worn thin and they’ve shed their knapsacks…ultimately what gets them to the end of the journey is each other and faith that the journey is worth taking.

I’d like to think Jesus had something similar in mind when he sent out the disciples on their journey. Because notice that he doesn’t actually send them out alone, he sends them out two by two. They go with a companion—a companion to keep company with, to seek counsel with, to lean on when they’re exhausted and almost out of hope. Going on a journey with companions can cover over a whole host of things you were unprepared for.

Even though I went out to climb those two fourteeners woefully unprepared, I made it, I actually summited them because of the people around me—my youth leaders who leant me a coat and who offered to carry my 2-litre soda bottle for part of the journey//my friends who encouraged me to keep going and who I encouraged back.

The reality Lent reminds us of, is that sometimes we can’t prepare as much as we would like for this journey through life. Or sometimes we think we’re prepared and then something happens and we realize we were woefully unprepared. And that’s why Jesus never sends us out alone. We do not make this journey through life alone. And Ash Wednesday reminds us of this.

On Ash Wednesday we take a pause from our busy lives to contemplate our mortality and how fragile life really is. In a few moments we will repeat the phrase, “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” As prepared as we often feel for life, something will always happen and remind us that you can never be prepared enough. Life is fragile. We are fragile.

And that’s where faith comes in. The disciples, because they left with nothing but a stick and the coat on their back had to rely so much more on their companion, and on the God who sent them. Their faith was tested and formed and grown in those moments they found themselves unprepared. They came back successful from their journey not because they did everything to prepare properly for it ahead of time, but because they relied on each other and had faith that Jesus would not send them out to fail. Though we are fragile – though life is fragile – we do not have to hold our own life in our own hands.

Faith is not a solo journey. If you try to make it through life alone you will fail. If you try to follow Jesus alone, you will fail. And so Jesus does not send us out on our journeys alone. Jesus sends us out with his Spirit and with each other. The beauty of that is this: there’s no prerequisite for following Jesus—there’s no preparations necessary. All it takes is the courage to step out in faith, trusting that Jesus and our companions along the way will be enough to help us make the journey. All it takes is faith that the journey is worth making. Amen and may it be so.