“Journey to Mordor & Beyond: The Journey Begins”

Mark 8:31-38
February 18, 2024
Matt Goodale

A Note of Stories

As you know our Lenten sermon series is based on a famous and old story, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. And you may be wondering, why?

Tolkien, in a letter on fairy tales and fantasy stories, writes about how it’s sad that fairy tales are often relegated to the realm of children’s stories. And it’s sad because as adults if we think we ever outgrow fantastical stories about elves and balrogs and other made-up lands and creatures, then we miss out on the power of creative storytelling that is a gift from our Creator.

Tolkien believed that ultimately God is creative, and that we were created to also be creative. And that every time we create something a piece of art—whether it be a painting or story—that because our creativity is always an outpouring of God’s creative spirit in us, that there is always something deeply and substantially true in the art we create and the stories we tell.

In other words, just because a story didn’t actually happen—or isn’t historical—doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. This goes for many of the stories in our Bibles too—the question of whether they’re completely and historically accurate or not doesn’t really matter—because there is something that is still deeply true about them…they reveal something more about what it means to be human.

Humans have told stories to each other since the beginning of time. Stories, whether historical or fantastical, help us make sense and meaning of our own lives if we let them. And Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a story that generations of readers have returned to again and again because there is something true in it—it is ultimately a story about a journey to Mordor, not so different from Christ’s journey to Golgotha where he died on the cross. It is a story about journeying through hardship and grief and fear. A journey that wrestles with mortality and sacrifice and strength found in weakness. All themes that appear in the stories in our Bibles during Lent.

So this Lent, we can think of The Lord of the Rings as a parable of sorts. An opportunity to experience the journey to the cross through a new lens.

Whether you are a fan of LOTR or have never read/seen the movies, don’t worry, this series is designed for everyone—I don’t assume any pre-knowledge. It is a story that we will hopefully have some fun with. The power of story is that we read ourselves into the cracks of the story. That in different characters and situations we can see ourselves and hopefully gain more perspective on our own lives.

With all that in mind, let us begin our Lenten journey together in prayer.

The Journey Begins

In college I had the opportunity to intern at a church in Scotland. And on the first weekend I was out there, the mentor pastor I was staying with offered to take me and two of my friends who were interning at different churches on a hike up near Loch Lomond.

So the four of us drove up to a spot that would let us hike up a tall hill called Balmaha that promised a gorgeous view at the top. It was supposed to be about a two hour hike up and back. We started our little trek and before long storm clouds began rolling in.

And when we were about halfway to the summit, we were hit by a full Scottish storm. The wind was whipping us with gusts so powerful that we couldn’t help but stumble a bit each time we were smacked by them. The pelting rain felt like sharp little needles on any exposed skin. I quickly found out that my water proof jacket did not come as advertised.

And as we’re following switchbacks, nearing the summit, the wind is picking up even more, and coming down the trail there’s a Scottish man half running, hunched over like he’s trying to dodge the rain, and as he passes us he yells in his Scottish accent:

“Tern back now! Ye’ll never make it!”

We could barely hear him over the howling of the wind and turned to look at each other: “Did he really just say what we think he said?” We contemplated turning back, but thought, no we’re close enough.

So we pressed on, determined to make it. And as soon as we summit, the top of the hill is just this large bald spot, completely exposed to the storm. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that we couldn’t help but bend over for fear of the wind knocking us off our feet if we stood up straight. [Here’s a picture of us—as you can see, we can’t even keep our eyes open…none of us came dressed for a storm like that…in shorts and jeans]

We spent no longer than the time it took to take a picture at the top and ran back down, soaked, exhausted, and exhilarated. To this day it is still one of the most memorable hikes I’ve gone on. And I’ve thought about how I almost decided not to go—I was really jetlagged, and we almost decided to turn back halfway up the mountain. It certainly would have been easier, but I would’ve missed out on a memorable journey.

I’ve found it to be true over the course of my life, that usually the only journeys worth taking are the ones that don’t promise anything easy.

This reminds me of Gandalf’s words to Frodo at the beginning of his journey that kicks off The Lord of the Rings, when he says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

There is no journey without stepping out your door and leaving home. And any journey that takes you away from what is comfortable and familiar can be dangerous business.

As a church we remember this and practice this each Lent. Lent invites us on a spiritual journey that can be dangerous business. During Lent, we follow Jesus for forty days on his path towards the cross. It does not promise to be an easy journey…it doesn’t have all the feel good moments of Advent and the Christmas story. It begins with Ash Wednesday where we acknowledge that from dust we came and to dust we shall return…and the end of the journey takes us to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when Jesus is killed on the cross and enters the tomb.

And if you haven’t grown up in the church or if you did grow up in a church that didn’t practice Lent, you might think this a strange tradition. It sounds a bit morbid and dark. Why do we spend six weeks a year following Jesus on a painful journey to his death?

The reason we follow Jesus on his journey each year, is because we are practicing. We are practicing stepping out our door, leaving home and what is comfortable, familiar and easy. We practice this each year, because we know that inevitably and eventually, life will lead us all on a journey we don’t want to make, and so we best be prepared for it.

Perhaps you already find yourself on that journey that you never asked for, and for which you never expected to make. Maybe for you it’s a journey through grief, after losing a loved one. Or maybe it’s a journey through poor health or addiction. For some of us it’s a journey through depression or anxiety or trying to stay sane and keep things in perspective while parenting young kids. Maybe it’s a journey through a difficult relationship or a bump in the road of your marriage.

We all eventually find ourselves walking a path, taking a journey that we did not choose and that we do not want.

That’s probably why, in our biblical story today, Peter reacts so strongly to Jesus’ words. Jesus is straight up with his disciples and tells them that the path he is on will lead to his inevitable suffering and death. And that anyone who truly wishes to follow him must also take up their cross and follow on a journey that does not promise ease. Anyone who wishes to save their life, must lose it.

And so Peter—being Peter—confronts Jesus and essentially yells at him, “Turn back now! Ye’ll never make it!” except, probably not in a Scottish accent. Peter is ready to talk Jesus down. He tells Jesus what he expects traveling with the Son of God is supposed to look like. Peter expects a journey that isn’t as dangerous of business.

And it’s striking that here we get Jesus’ strongest rebuke in all of Scripture. He says, “Get behind me, Satan.” You know, the disciples have been knuckleheads and said some pretty dumb things, but never has anyone earned such a harsh rebuke. Jesus will not let anyone get the wrong idea about where following him will lead. Following Jesus is no guarantee of an easy journey.

I can’t help but see in Peter a bit of myself. On most days, if I’m honest, I expect a life that is pretty easy traveling—one of the perks of living a middle class life in a first world country. I expect that following Jesus will bring me happiness and blessings. And so when I’m not happy…When I don’t feel particularly blessed…When my life is not easy and it feels like I’ve been thrown on a journey I never expected nor asked for, I get upset. I get upset at the universe, I get upset at God, I get upset at people around me. Like Peter, sometimes it just doesn’t feel fair. It feels like this is not how I imagined life was supposed to go.

This is one of the reasons I have been so drawn to the story of The Lord of the Rings throughout my life. Because ultimately it is a story about a group of companions who are thrust into an unexpected journey.

The fate of Middle-Earth hangs in the balance as the one ring of power, the weapon of the enemy that could destroy everything good and beautiful, falls into most unlikely hands. The ring falls by a series of circumstances into the hands of a hobbit named Frodo. And he is tasked with taking the ring into the enemy’s territory, to destroy it once and for all in the fires of Mt. Doom.

Something you should know about Hobbits, is that they were not known for any extraordinary bravery or heroism. They do not own weapons and they do not particularly like to venture outside their peaceful land of the Shire. In fact, they frown upon people who travel outside their simple land.

The clip we watched earlier is one my favorite scenes in all the movies. Frodo and his gardener Sam have just agreed to take the ring to safety, and they’ve traveled but a day’s journey from the Shire, when Sam stops in his tracks to acknowledge that if he takes one more step, it is the furthest from home he’s ever been.

You can see the trepidation and uncertainty in his face. This journey has been thrust on him and Frodo. They didn’t ask for it. And if they wanted to, they could have said, “No thank you, we’ll stay at home here in the Shire where life is comfortable and easy, thank you very much.”

And this moment is another inflection point where they could have just turned around and decided the journey they were about to make was too much for two hobbits. Because after all they weren’t known for their bravery or heroism or doing anything out of the ordinary like leaving home on dangerous business.

But for some reason, they decided to carry on. Sam decided to take one step further from home than he’s ever taken before and then another step and another after that until eventually his feet take him to the shadowland of Mt. Doom.

Sam and Frodo at this point have no idea that on this journey they will encounter Balrogs and goblins and orcs and all manner of foul creatures. They don’t know that they will suffer grief at the loss of a friend and pain and fear unimaginable.

A little while after this scene, they find themselves trapped inside a dark mine together with their companions and Frodo will share with Gandalf, their wise leader:

“I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

We know what that’s like. We know what it’s like to wish something in our life never happened and never changed the course of it forever. We know what it’s like to wish that the journey we find ourselves on never began in the first place, that we could have just stayed at home in the Shire, where life was predictable and easy.

So Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” And Gandalf responds, “So do I. And so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

We do not always get to choose what our life looks like, or which journey we will take. Sometimes life deals us a hand that we did not ask for and that we do not want. We did not choose it, and nevertheless, we get to decide what we will do with it.

When I was a chaplain at a psych hospital, I remember there was a patient who I’ll call Sam. And Sam had been locked up in this place for several years and had been there long enough that everyone, staff and patients, knew who he was.

And this psych hospital was truly a horrible place to end up, and yet, Sam chose to be this incredible beacon of light and hope and advocacy for other patients.

I remember asking him one day, because he came to all of our weekly chapel services: “How do you stay uplifted after being here so long?

He responded: “Because a lot of people need that from me. I didn’t choose to be here, but I might as well do some good while I am here.”

We do not always get to choose our journey. Sometimes it is thrust upon us. but we do get to decide what we will do with the time on the journey that is given to us.

When I was a kid and I memorized this passage of Jesus telling his disciples that it isn’t going to be an easy time following him and to take up your cross…I was taught that Jesus was talking about how hard it would be to evangelize in a world that didn’t want to hear it—and that that was my cross to bear.

But I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus is talking about.

I think Jesus is talking about all of these difficult choices that we will inevitably face on our journeys through life and faith. Choices that will make it easy to give up the journey and turn back.

Jesus is talking about how difficult it is to choose to live with hope in a world full of cynicism.

And how difficult it is to find meaning in the midst of our suffering.

And how difficult it is to choose a life defined by something good when we have every reason to choose something easier.

He’s talking about how hard it is to believe in change in a world full of systems that are hellbent on maintaining the status quo.

And how hard it is to face our own mortality and still decide to make the most of our days.

Jesus is talking about how hard it is to hold onto hope of new life when death seems like a definitive end to the journey.

And Jesus, it turns out, does not meet us where life is easy. He meets us on the road to the cross, on the road to Mordor, and he holds us at the very place we have run out of strength to keep going.

Towards the end of the story, when Sam and Frodo will have neared the end of their journey…They’re on the barren plains of Gorgoroth at the foot of Mt. Doom, a land covered in ash and darkness. They’ve run out of food and water. And Sam, out of hope and afraid this is the end of their journey, looks up at the heavens. And Tolkien writes,

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark rock high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Our hope is not so far from Sam’s. Our hope—the hope that Jesus gave us on the cross—is that the Shadow that darkens our hearts, our homes and our world, that whispers we will not survive the journey and that we should just turn back now….Jesus shows us that this Shadow is but a small and passing thing, that there is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.

We do not always get to choose our journey. But we do not travel alone nor without hope. Amen and may it be so.