I make an annual pilgrimage through The Lord of the Rings each holiday season, and just completed it yesterday. I have been doing this each year since I first discovered the books at the age of 17, and I turned 63 this year, making a total of about 46. I almost always am most tearful in the last two books (there are 6 books in the series) as the hopeless quest is completed, and the King comes into his own. This last time, I found myself comparing what Tolkien did with the hobbits and what the Lord is doing with us, an apt illustration of the magnificence of God exhibited towards a people of little account. Let me try to share that vision with you.
Frodo has struggled through five books to carry the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, fighting and losing his battles as the Ring seeks to exert its mastery on him. In the final climactic scene, he loses to temptation, standing before the Crack of Doom, and decides to put the Ring on, rather than cast it into the hot depths. As he proclaims his intention, he is struck from evil Gollum who has pursued the return of his Ring throughout the same books. Gollum wrestles with the invisible Frodo until he finds his hand, then his fingers, and finally the Ring. With a violent gnash of his teeth on seemingly invisible air he bites Frodo’s ring finger off. Taken in such a frenzy of ecstasy he dances on the edge of the Crack of Doom, and slips and falls, thus completing the task of Frodo and Sam.
Already the thinking Christian must be getting all sorts of images of themselves trying and failing to do good deeds, only to watch the Spirit of God come in at the last minute and use some hopeless thing (Gollum?) to bring about his purposes. I think of the times that I fail to do that which I am called, and the wonderful grace of God that is able to take in spite of me.
Frodo the Nine-fingered and Sam are taken back to the King, and even the least vestige of enemy clothing that they wore to accomplish their quest is saved. In their ragged and tattered clothes, they are taken before the whole of the kingdom by the King himself, and set in most high honor. In a solemn declaration before the kingdom, the King proclaims to all, “Praise them with great praise!” and when they are done, then he repeats his command yet again, and yet again the kingdom rejoices in their accomplishments.
How like that is for us! Tattered in our clothes of righteousness, we falter and fail at nearly every turn, yet in the end of all things, God has purposed to “praise us with great praise”. Skeptical? Try these verses of Revelation out, near the end of all things: “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints” (19:7,8). Note that she has made herself ready, and that she is clothed in righteousness. NIV says: “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.”
These are acts that Christians, you and I, are doing, right now. They are, of course, to be done in the power of the Spirit, and not by our power at all, but yet very much with our wills being surrendered to the grace of God. Like Samwise and Frodo, we struggle our way through life’s quest, and too often like Frodo, we find our finger being bitten off to accomplish our heart’s desire. But we are not all the way there yet, for there is more to be had in the reflection.
Has not God declared in these verses that he is honoring that which was done in his name? Is he not lifting up the church for all the kingdom to behold the Bride, and her righteous deeds? Though it is not literal, is he not taking the Bride of Christ, and lifting her up to be praised with great praise? I was talking to Bob Kramer this morning about it, and I saw his doubts fleeting across his face, just as I did when I started contemplation of it. Think about it and surely you will see that I am right. We have all been to weddings—I have been to many, and have never noticed where the wedding guests are focused on the groom. Rather all eyes are upon the beautiful bride, and her exquisite dress, and her happy rejoicing face. The music starts, and every eye turns with respect and wonder at the bride coming down the aisle. All of the kingdom of God, in that moment, will be looking not at the groom, but at the bride, and every piece of clothing that God has wrought in the righteous acts of the saints for that occasion. Like Bob suggested this morning, I might think I am in trouble if I am supposed be dressed in my righteous acts. I would probably end up with a very short dress, woefully incomplete. But we, together as a church, have completed that which we cannot do by ourselves. Together, and with the Spirit of God, he has wrought wonderful works in the likes of small insignificant beings like Frodo and Sam. In union we are complete, and that is the way God sees his church, the way that he will show us off to the kingdom.
I confess that I have always thought of it more through the Bride’s view. But is that not just as it should be? In any wedding that I remember the Bride always has her eyes on the groom, and I do not think it will be any different for me upon that day. The Bride will gaze in rapture upon the face of her lover, the Groom. But it is different for the wedding guests, for they will be interested very much in seeing the wonderful Bride. The marriage supper of the Lamb I always supposed to be one of the most intense rapture I suppose I should ever feel. But how surprised we will be on that day when we find the God of the universe in effect taking the church, holding her before all, and saying, “Praise them with great praise!”