“Journey to Mordor and Beyond: The Temptation of the Ring”

Mark 8:31-35
March 3, 2024
Matt Goodale

One of the greatest challenges Meghan and I have faced so far as parents is Iona’s picky eating. And it’s gotten so bad that we are seeing an eating specialist and dietician because there are only about 5 foods that Iona will eat.

Wonderfully though, with the help of these specialists, Iona’s eating has been getting better, she is finally starting to try new foods and mealtimes aren’t a struggle that ends in tears for one or all of us.

And one of the key things we’ve learned from the dietician is that kids generally won’t try new foods if they feel pressure of any kind. And this means that as parents we have to give up some of our control over mealtimes, which is really hard. We can determine when we eat and what we serve, but Iona gets to decide if and how much she eats.

So when we serve her a plate with a safe food and a new food, if she only eats the safe food and doesn’t touch the new food, that’s ok; if she decides to eat nothing, that’s ok. She’s allowed to do that. And over time as she gets more comfortable around the new food the hope is that she’ll try it when she’s ready to; and we’ve already been seeing results.

This change of philosophy has been difficult for us, because you want to make sure your kid is eating enough so that they’re healthy, because you care about them. And so it’s hard not to try to get Iona to eat a piece of fruit or anything other than peanut butter toast, because you know her body needs it. It’s hard to let go of our control over mealtime and allow her to choose how much and whether she eats.

I’ve heard it said that “parenting is a continual journey of learning to let go.” Because as your child grows up the less and less control you have over them. This is a hard-learned lesson and one that I think applies to more than just parenting.

Life, I would suggest, is a continual journey of learning to let go. And it is a journey that Jesus guides us on as we follow him towards the cross.

In our story today, Jesus tells his disciples that following him will mean a hard journey, a journey of letting go, maybe even of their very life. Jesus tells them in no uncertain terms that he is heading to the cross and will suffer and die.

And Peter, always Peter – we love Peter—will have none of this. You know, he’s been on board with Jesus’ mission since day one; he’s one of his most fervent followers. Peter has put up with some of Jesus’ unusual tendencies like talking in parables and going off on his own or falling asleep on boats in the middle of a storm. But Peter will not put up with any of this nonsense that Jesus seems to be offering here.

Peter pulls Jesus aside and tries to correct him…bless his soul. We don’t know what Peter said to Jesus, but we can imagine it was something along the lines of:

“Hey Jesus, you know that whole thing about you needing to suffer and die. Yeah…you’re gonna have to cool it on that. I mean, you’re the Messiah. You’re not supposed to let Rome do that to you…you know that right? You’re supposed to defeat Rome. This isn’t the time to roll over…this is the time to press our advantage. You have crowds of people following you, let’s use that! We all know that you came to start a rebellion and overturn the evil Roman Empire, so let’s do it! Please, no more of this nonsense about needing to suffer and die. Nobody will take you seriously anymore.”

As we talked about two weeks ago, this earns Peter the harshest rebuke that Jesus utters in scripture. “Get behind me, Satan” is what Jesus tells him. Ouch.

And it’s easy when we read stories like this to sit in our comfortable church pew and wag the finger at Peter…”Come on Peter, you should know better than to try to correct Jesus.”

But that wouldn’t be fair to Peter. Because Peter has good reason to think the way he does. Because if Jesus really is God in the flesh, like Peter believes him to be, then God isn’t supposed to die. It’s unheard of.

And Peter knows from experience that if you want something to change, you have to enforce your will upon it. Peter and the rest of his people are a conquered people because Rome enforces its will upon them. It dominates them. It squeezes them for harsh taxes and imposes strict laws.

So it stands to reason that Peter, from experience of looking at the world around him and how thing works, would assume that if Jesus really wanted to impose a change—even for the better, if Jesus wanted to bring justice and relieve the pressure of Rome’s will, that it would happen through Jesus enforcing his own will upon them. Because that’s how real change in the world happens. Through domination, through control.

Peter, I think, has a lot in common with our friend, Boromir, from the clip we saw earlier. Boromir is a man of action. He’s the captain of Gondor, the greatest kingdom of free men that is left in Middle-Earth. If anyone hates the enemy, Sauron, it is Boromir. Boromir and his people have lived on the enemy’s doorstep for his whole life. They’ve seen the evil and destruction he is capable of. And Boromir’s people are in trouble…they’re at risk of being utterly destroyed.

That’s why he came to the council of Elrond that we saw last week. That’s why he joined the Fellowship of the Ring, because he needs the enemy to be defeated so that his people can be free from the terror imposed on them by Sauron’s domination.

The Fellowship is on a mission to destroy the ring, to give it up once and for all so that it can be unmade, but Boromir thinks this is a fool’s errand. Instead of letting go of the ring and destroying it, he thinks they should use the Ring of Power against the enemy.

The ring of power in this series, is perhaps Tolkien’s greatest symbol. The ring represents power for whoever wears it; the ability to fulfill all your desires; it offers you the chance to be master of your own fate and control your own destiny…the ability to hold your whole life in your own hands. It offers you control.

And it is an object that is so powerfully seductive, that every single character in the series is tempted to take it and use it. Most of them who are tempted to take it would use it for good; Gandalf—the beloved wise wizard—is tempted by it and he rejects it saying that he would use it to defend the weak and vulnerable, but that is not the nature of power and control. Because if power tends to corrupt then absolute power corrupts absolutely. The control that the ring offers him would ultimately lead to his ruin and the ruin of those around him.

We see this at play in the scene with Boromir and Frodo. Boromir is tempted to take the ring, not to do evil with it, but to protect his people. He is scared of losing his people, he’s scared of losing control of his own fate, and so he is seduced into trying to seize control of it again.

And this is the nature of things isn’t it? When we are scared of losing something, we do not always act ourselves. When we feel that control over our own life is slipping through our fingers, we do not often act or think in ways that are helpful. We are tempted to do what is easy instead of what is right.

And on our journeys through life and faith, we will all eventually and inevitably come across these watershed moments. Moments when something happens that will threaten to take away your sense of control over your own life.

These moments come in all shapes and forms. These moments can hit us suddenly and unexpectantly like when a loved one dies and grief threatens to overwhelm us. Or when we receive a scary health diagnosis or go through a divorce or lose a job.

And sometimes these moments slowly creep up on us like a rising tide. For some of us it’s a slow descent into addiction that never started off that way but here is where you find yourself…out of control. For some of us, it’s the natural process of growing older and feeling the loss of control that you have over how well your body works or what you look like or what your future will be. For some of us, it’s the difficult process of raising a kid and realizing that we have much less control over them than we thought. For some of us it’s the creeping despair of watching and reading the news, fearing that there is no solution to the problems that ail our societies.

Whatever that moment is for you, and most of us will face many of these moments over the course of our lifetime when you feel like you have no control, you will always be faced with a choice. To try to seize back control again. Or to let go of your expectations that life is something that can be carefully and perfectly managed.

There’s a joke among us pastor-types that it’s easier to conduct a funeral than it is a wedding—and you’d think it would be the opposite, but it’s not. Because at a funeral it’s a somber occasion. There are no real expectations, other than for someone to stand up and say something about death.

But at a wedding, there are too many expectations. And if one thing goes wrong, even as superfluous as the flower arrangements, then it can threaten to ruin the whole day.

Which is quite silly when you think about it. But if we’re honest most of us have similar expectations for our own lives. We expect a life that is generally pretty easy and goes our way. We expect a life that does not lead to the cross. We expect a life, like Peter and Boromir, that does not eventually lead to death and letting go of control.

And that is the irony at play in Jesus’ words to Peter. That those who try to save their life, will end up losing it. But those who lose or willingly give up their life will save it.

What Jesus seems to be saying, to my ears at least, is that life cannot be clung to with a clenched fist; it must be held with an open hand. Life cannot be controlled; it can only be received.

Thomas Merton, an American Monk, once said, “The tighter you squeeze, the less you have.”

We know the truth of this from experience…that the more we try to control our relationships, our loves, our kids, the more we push them away. The more we try to manage our happiness, the less happy we feel. The more we try to control our looks, the shape of our body, our self-image, the more negatively we often tend to view ourselves. The more we try to control our dreams, our theology, the politics of our family and neighbors, our health, our very lives, the more our grip becomes so constricting that we suffocate the very essence of what we are trying to hold onto.

And then we wake up one day and realize that the whole time we have been trying to control our life we have forgotten to live it.

This is called the “paradox of control”: There is this great irony that seems to be woven into the fabric of the universe. That the harder you try to cling to something the harder it is to hold onto. Or rather, the tighter we cling to something we love, the more it can ruin us.

And I think this is what Jesus is trying to tell us and his disciples. “Life is a continual journey of learning to let go.”

And this can sound kind of sad…like if this is the journey Jesus invites us on, then it’s not heading anywhere worth going. But that would be mistaken. Because it is in learning to let go that we truly find life.

Jesus’ journey ultimately does not end at the cross. It ends at the empty grave. It ends with Easter morning, new life. Hope born again. Hope born, not from control or force like Peter expects it to be, but from letting go.

The ring is the temptation to power…power to control your own destiny. But the secret in this story is that hope, life and healing for the whole land of Middle-Earth is found, not in the possessing of the ring, but in the giving up of the ring. It must be let go of; it must be sacrificed, and then salvation comes.

It might make you wonder, Is there something in your life that you need to let go of?

We do not live in an ideal world; to live with the eyes of Jesus is to face at every turn the hurting and broken stories of our world. But Jesus’ story and his journey to the cross gives us hope, even in a world and even in the midst of our lives that feel out of control. It gives us hope that God walks with us in the very places where we are hurting, grieving and longing. It gives us hope that we have been given a different kind of power to change the world and our lives with. It isn’t the power of rings or kings, but the power of a God who was born a vulnerable baby, lived a mostly anonymous life and in the end willingly gave up his life – it is the power of love, forgiveness, solidarity, and letting go.

Letting go of control does not mean giving up on life and what you care about. It means choosing a different way. It means acknowledging that the path to life and life abundantly isn’t by holding your life with a clenched fist, but rather with an open hand. It means receiving each day, each moment, each relationship as a gift.

And it’s trusting that the cross is not the end of the journey. It’s not the end of the story. Because Lent may lead us to the cross, but it hearkens to the hope born on Easter morning, a hope that we can only find after letting go. Amen and may it be so.