Sunday, January 05, 2014

By another road

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 5, 2014

From The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

           The day after Christmas my family and I went to see the second installment of the epic tale, The Hobbit.  Funny thing was, I couldn’t remember having seen the first one.  I asked, was I there?  Oh yes I was.  It was when I heard the mixed reviews of the second movie that I remembered the first, because it, too, had been thought difficult to follow.  And I knew what I was in for with this one:  it’s the middle of three parts, which means it was going to be dark, full of struggle, perhaps a sense of powerlessness or at least having to wait for resolution at the most fearsome part of the story.

            But what was most enlightening about the movie was the string of previews before it.  Most of them were grim, violent; some were dystopian:  a fictional but bleak, disturbing glimpse of our future.  Indeed, it seems the dystopian genre of both film and literature is gaining widespread popularity, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent trilogies.   But The Hobbit is far from dystopian.  While both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy tell the saga of the conflict between good and evil in Middle Earth, they are also stories about courage, living with heart and soul, having a sense of adventure, and most of all, the power of friendship and love.  Much like the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

            Some of us can remember having to read George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when we were in high school.  These books were warnings, intended to disturb us enough to change our present society to prevent the story from coming true.  But to a certain extent we live in the world of 1984.  Big Brother is everywhere, with video surveillance cameras, government wire tapping, the content of our emails no longer private.  Most disturbing of all, we’ve mostly grown accustomed to it. 

            We could say that we are living with elements of a dystopian society dressed up in the clothes of decent civilization.  Fear mongering sometimes has the larger megaphone than the quiet voice of inspiration and imagination.  Environmental disasters are increasing, our climate changing with severe consequences.  Totalitarian governments continue to use violence against their own people.  There are times that the speed at which technology is developed outpaces our ethical capacity to do no harm.  And we now know that it is possible to sustain a war for more than a decade yet still giving the appearance of little to no effect on our daily lives. 

So it begs the question: do these popular dystopian stories and films mirror our fears about the future or do they feed them?

            Certainly in the time that Isaiah 60 was written, at the end of the Babylonian exile, and also first century Palestine when Herod was king:  both of these were dystopian times.  Jews returning home from exile were in conflict with those who had remained and now owned land.  Herod, an Idumean Jew and puppet king for the Roman Empire, was blinded by paranoia, terrified he would lose his cushy corner of power.

            But because this is God still speaking, we hear “Arise, shine!  Your light has come”.  Or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “Get out of bed, Jerusalem!  Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.  God’s bright glory has risen for you.  The whole earth is wrapped in darkness, all people sunk in deep darkness, but God rises on you, his sunrise glory breaks over you.”  In Matthew we hear of magi following a star so bright that it leads them from their homeland, across nations, to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem.  And we are reminded that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

            Yet even though light travels at 186,000 miles per second, the dark was always there first.  Darkness is part of the creation as much as the light, and good and evil can occur in both.  We can be courageous or fearful in both the light and the dark.  The question remains before us:  will fear rule in our hearts or love?  Is there a tyrant king within us or a vulnerable child whose kingdom is not of this world?

            We know that we live in difficult times; that the weather will become increasingly unpredictable and harsh.  We know that we cannot sustain our present economy indefinitely.  We know that we must use renewable energy sources and detox from our addiction to oil and gas.  And these are just a few of the problems before we the people of the United States, let alone our sisters and brothers on this planet.  We have the most monumental tasks ahead of us as a human species.  It doesn’t seem foolish to look even for a star to guide us at this point.  Anything to point the way to healing and authentic living would be welcome.

            And yet, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  Arise, shine!  Our light has come.  Where we place our focus has the power to determine our reality.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, whose birthday was January 3, wrote these words as part of his story of The Fellowship of the Ring.  Things are not as they appear in Middle-Earth, and we are reminded that what looks bleak has within it a hidden strength.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

            The way ahead will not be easy.  Indeed, sacrifice will be asked of us.  But we have been summoned to journey by another road.  Have we not been warned in our dreams of peace and justice not to return to Herod and all that entails?  But we must remember:  our faith is not one of fear of any dystopian story but faith in a story of courage, of living with heart and soul, having a sense of adventure, and most important of all, the power of friendship and love.

We’ll walk in the light,
beautiful light,
come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.
Shine all around us by day and by night;
Jesus the light of the world.


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