The recent church camping and river trip impressed upon me the fact that I should not assume that you as a congregation have read books that I am sure you have read – or seen movies that I am sure that you have seen. Indeed, even though all of you should have read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a precursor to his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, I am not going to assume that most of you have done so. Yet, the very title of this homily, “A Leap in the Dark,” comes straight from a pivotal moment in Bilbo Baggins’s story. Little Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, has been on an adventure with some dwarves to see if they can confront a dastardly dragon and reclaim their fortune. But along the way Bilbo becomes lost, separated from his friends in a dark cave. In fact, when we look in on him, he is in a tight spot. In front of him crouches a murderous lizard-like creature named Gollum, who happens to be searching for the very thing that Bilbo has happened to find, a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. Bilbo has slipped that ring on his finger.
In that moment Bilbo confronts a moral crisis. He is desperate to escape the cave, and the miserable Gollum blocks his way. Bilbo deliberates: should I kill him? Certainly the treacherous Gollum would kill Bilbo if he had a chance. But, thought Bilbo, no; this would not be a fair fight. In fact he looks upon Gollum with a mixture of horror and sympathy that morphs into true compassion. So instead of killing Gollum, Bilbo summons his courage and runs forward toward his enemy and takes a leap, a leap in the dark. He leaps clear over Gollum and runs down the tunnel toward freedom.
I read The Hobbit to my children, and I fully expect they will read it to theirs. You ought to read it to your children and grandchildren, too, I suggest, for this leap in the dark is just one exciting moment in a story filled with tumultuous events. But, as a student of Tolkien, and aware of his profound Christian heritage, I know that this leap in the dark conveyed a profound theological, allegorical truth. In a decisive instant Bilbo considered and rejected the path of violence. The path of injustice tempted him, but he renounced it in favor of mercy. So he gathered his strength to take a leap in the dark over danger and scuttle forth bravely into the darkness ahead. He is very aware that he doesn’t know exactly where he is going, but he is fueled by the inner instinct that this path will lead to freedom, and ultimately, home.
The story of Bilbo’s leap in the dark illumines another story, that ponderous moment when Jesus tells his disciples that he must go nigh to Jerusalem during the Passover season so he can tend to his dead friend, Lazarus. Jesus has recently escaped several murderous plots against him by the Jerusalem religious authorities, and the disciples know that Jesus’ traveling near Jerusalem will result in his imminent death. The disciples wonder if they should follow Jesus on this journey that will likely end not only in his arrest, but in theirs, too. They know that the pathway to safety leads away from Jerusalem, not toward it. But their loyalty to Jesus means that they cannot bear the thought of letting him take that path to Jerusalem alone. So, ironically, the disciple who will come to be known as “The Doubter” voices the resolve they all need to summon: “Let us follow him that at least we may die with him.” Like Bilbo, the disciples have no exact idea of where the path ahead leads. It may be the path to arrest; it may be the path to death; it may be the path toward redemption. In truth, it is ultimately the path to all three. But they are willing to take a leap in the dark.
I am sure that Jesus was aware of Thomas’ declaration. He must have chuckled inwardly. For Jesus was also aware that neither Thomas nor the other disciples could fully appreciate what they were doing or saying. They thought they were willing to go die with him, but they were not ready. They thought they were willing to bear their cross, but they were not yet sufficiently spiritually mature. They thought they were capable of a higher level of spiritual commitment than they could yet attain. In short, Jesus’ friends were not yet ready to bear the full cost of discipleship.
But here is the important point: though the disciples did not understand their words and actions, their willingness to take that leap in the dark took them closer to understanding what true discipleship means and closer to attaining their true spiritual destiny. Their leap in the dark positioned them to grow in their faith and moved them closer to that day when they would become the pillars of the Christian movement, when they would become the primary proclaimers of God’s Good News. They would, in their own time, die with Christ. And so, though their leap in the dark took them down a road whose exact destination they could not discern, they instinctively knew that this road would lead them in the direction of their spiritual destiny.
When we hear our Lord invite us to this table and say to us, “Take and eat, this is my body broken for you; drink this cup symbolic of my shed blood,” none of us really know what that summons entails. Like the disciples, none of us commands a comprehensive grasp of the cost of discipleship. Like the disciples, we are not fully sure what it means to answer Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross and follow. But, like the disciples, when we answer Jesus’ summons to partake of his table, we are being asked to take a leap in the dark. When a couple stands at the marriage altar and vows that they will love each other forever, that they will cherish each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health until death parts them, they think they know what those words mean, but they do not. Only time will impress upon them the meaning of those heroic promises to each other. Only time will define for them what those words really mean. What they are really doing at that altar is taking a leap in the dark.
So, too, when Christ invites us to take up our cross and follow him, when Christ beckons us to eat bread symbolic of his broken body and drink from a cup symbolic of his shed blood, we think we know what those words mean, but in fact, we must allow time to define exactly for each one of us what the nature of our challenge will be. Answering Christ’s summons to come to his table is always a leap in the dark. Yet, we can know what Bilbo knew instinctively, that answering that summons to bear our cross for Christ is the only path forward that leads to our true home. Bearing our cross of Christ is the only path that leads to fulfilment and contentment of soul.
I don’t know what cross you might bear for Christ this morning. Everyone’s cross is different. Answering Christ’s summons to follow him takes a different form for each one of us. And answering that call is truly a leap in the dark, a leap of faith. But over the course of a lifetime God discloses to each one of us the nature and purpose of our particular pilgrimage. So we follow in Christ’s footsteps, knowing that to follow him is to die with him. But that death to self also constitutes our doorway into eternal life. So we are willing to take that leap in the dark, and partake of our Lord’s table in hope, love and faith.