Thursday, January 31, 2008


2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19[1]

J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of English Literature—in my humble opinion, at least. There is much in The Lord of the Rings that gives it an enduring quality. The characters, the struggle between good and evil, the simply fascinating nature of the world Tolkien created. Gandalf the wizard is one of my favorite characters. He serves as a kind of God figure in the book, because he has the ability to influence the affairs of men, and because he is unshakably committed to seeing to it that the cause of men prevails against the cause of evil.

In one particular interchange, Frodo tells Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” To which Gandalf replies, “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. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”

There’s a part of what Gandalf says here that implies that the events in the story of the Ring are being directed by a power higher than all the kings of men, higher than Sauron the deceiver, higher even than Gandalf himself.[2] But the main point is the fact that we don’t get to choose the circumstances of our lives; we only get to choose what we do with the circumstances of our lives.

We can view the hardships, challenges, and struggles that come our way as unwelcome intruders, or as guests bearing gifts. If they are intruders, then we must strive to avoid them at all costs, we must do everything we can to keep them out of our lives. But avoiding trouble only means that we let fear rule our lives. [3] On the other hand, if hardships are guests who bear gifts, then we can welcome them, because they offer us an opportunity to grow, to become strong in an area where we may have been weak, and to expand our horizons.

If you look at your life from that perspective, it’s not just possible to see that the struggles you’ve faced have been in fact opportunities to grow and develop into the person you are today—it’s unavoidable to look at them that way.

Jesus told his disciples that if they followed him the future would hold some hardships, some challenges, some struggles. But Jesus was not promoting some kind of end-times mania—the kind of craziness that induced the people in Thessalonica to decide it was time to just “wait around” for the rewards they were expecting.[4] No, Jesus said hardships will come, but that is not the “end.” In fact, he said not to be “led astray” by those who go around proclaiming “the end is near”![5] Instead, Jesus said that all the hardships and catastrophes and dangers “will give you an opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13). Instead of viewing them as the “end of the world,” Jesus taught his disciples to view their struggles as an opportunity for them to bear witness to God’s redeeming work.[6]

We find a similar perspective in the book of Acts. In the early part of the story of the church, we read about a leader named Stephen. When he confronted some of the Jewish leaders with their hypocrisy, they lynched him, and launched an attack on the church. Because of this, many of the early church leaders were forced to leave Jerusalem. And the book of Acts tells us “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4)! Would they ever have left Jerusalem without the persecutions they faced? I doubt they would. In retrospect, their hardships became an opportunity to promote God’s kingdom among people who would not have had an opportunity to hear the gospel otherwise.

As a congregation we face some challenges—I’m not telling you anything new. This congregation has been facing challenges for years. And I’m sure we will go on facing challenges. All churches do. The question we have to answer is how we are going to respond. Are we going to lament them, complain about them, and fear them as unwanted intruders who threaten us? Or will we welcome new challenges as guests that present us with an opportunity to grow in ways we never have before, to promote God’s kingdom in ways we never could before, and to reach people who might not otherwise have the chance to encounter the gospel?

The promise of scripture is that, if we can take that approach to our struggles, then we have the chance not only to experience God’s work of making everything new in our own lives, but also to share that experience with those around us.[7]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/18/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in "The Lord of the Rings".

[3] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 29-30, 56-57, 64-65, 72-73, 86, 102-4. Cf. esp. his comment, “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety. That makes him malicious toward others. So long as he prays to the idols, he is not able as a free man to affirm his life and at the same time the life of other men” (p. 102).

[4] See Jürgen Moltmann, “The Return of Christ,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 105-112. See especially pp. 106-7 where he contrasts those whose faith only hopes for themselves but has no love for others with those who have love for others but no faith in what God is doing to redeem them.

[5] Fred R. Anderson, “Soul Crafting,” accessed at view=transcripts&tid=677 .

[6] Moltmann, Gospel of Liberation, 88-89, says, “we should not forget that the reconciliation of the world is created through the bodily death and resurrection of Christ” and follows it with comment that the more seriously we take the “bodily death and suffering” of Jesus, the more thoroughly we will view the freedom of new life through his resurrection transforming our world.

[7] Moltmann, Gospel of Liberation, 30, 32, 40-41, 66, 68-69, 87-89, 92, 102-4, 110-12. He says it this way: “Mere hope without love would be illusion. Mere love without hope would be resignation. True faith is alive in both” (107).

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