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The Hobbit, Advent and longing

This post originally appeared as a guest column in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of The Christian Leader.

This month, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth returns to the big screen with The Hobbit. The story takes place some 50 years before The Lord of the Rings, and it is here that we first encounter the Shire and Rivendale, dwarves and elves, Gandalf and Gollum and that infamous One Ring. It is here where we first encounter a world and story that echoes so much of our own.

Tolkien’s stories are rich and mythic, something that, says C.S. Lewis in his essay on the saga, “takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” Good and evil, peril, anguish, joy—“By dipping them in myth,” says Lewis, “we see them more clearly.”

Indeed it is one of those stories that sticks with you, a story “full of darkness and danger,” as Samwise Gamgee puts it, but in the end a “new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer.” It is a saga filled with a deep sense of longing for that new day—an “anguish,” says Lewis, “of those who were happy before a certain darkness came up and will be happy if they live to see it gone.”

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we visit Middle Earth again at Christmas—for both are full of this longing.

In the midst of nativity scenes and Christmas trees, we can forget the world Jesus was born into. God’s people were in the midst of one of the darkest times of their history. They’d spent centuries “trying to live out God’s design for Israel,” as Scot McKnight says in The King Jesus Gospel, “to govern this world redemptively on God’s behalf.” They failed.
Like the people of Middle Earth under the threat of Mordor, the Israelites lived under Rome’s iron fist and longed for release and a restoration to the people God promised they would be. They yearned for a King who would set the world right. We feel this in Mark’s Messiah-heralding words from Isaiah (1:1-3), Mary’s Magnificat rent with longing (Luke 1:46-55) and John’s harkening back to the very in-the-beginning of a creation created good (1:1). They longed for a new day.

Jesus is the fulfillment of that longing—and through him God’s restoration explodes into a much vaster reality than dreamed by the Israelites: God’s people remade and empowered by the Holy Spirit, says McKnight, to be “servants of God’s love, peace, justice and holiness. This was … the right way to govern the world on God’s behalf: by loving others with everything we’ve got.”

Recalling the Israelite’s story is important because, as McKnight puts it, it is “the framing story for how to understand the gospel.” Recalling only Christmas is like reading only one of Tolkien’s novels; we would know only part of the story. “To grasp the gospel,” says McKnight, “we have to grasp what God is doing in this world”—from creation to Jesus to the shining city on a hill.

Unlike Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, our story is not yet over. Our world-righted ending is yet to come—a glorious day in that city ruled by our King. We’ve tasted this new day, says Paul, but “these sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance” (Romans 8:22-25). Yet we are only “enlarged in the waiting,” a people once happy before a certain darkness and happy again because we know we will live to see it gone.