When Jesus says, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning” in Luke 12:35, I get two images from Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
The first is of Minas Tirith— a stone fortress towering against the enemy realm of Mordor. I see Pippin the hobbit bumping between soldiers who are rushing to find their weapons. I see them peering over the turrets on enemy camps and whispering:
“Faramir must be there… He can govern man and beast. He will make it yet.”[i]
But “Keep your lamps burning” takes me to the story’s end, where Sam Gamgee turns from the sunlit West into the darkening East. He’d stood on eternity’s shore but couldn’t sail with Frodo to the Grey Havens, so he plods the path back to Bywater. His bones creak inside him as he ascends the Hill, where Rosie has cooked a meal and lit the lamps and is expecting the weary traveler. The Shire will never be the home it was, but for now, it is home.
To me, Tolkien’s scenes paint the juxtaposition of living in a fading world with our eyes on an unfading Home. Overlap the pictures, and Rosie’s lamps burn in the window of a fortress about to be sieged.
That’s the now-not-yet-ness of Jesus’ Kingdom.
Again and again, Matthew’s gospel whispers, The Kingdom is coming. It echoes the eternal rule and reign Daniel foresaw in his violent dream:
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever (Dan. 2:44).
But King Jesus arrived on the scene in a bin of cloth and straw, and even as he “preached the gospel of the kingdom” and moved toward his kingdom-heralding death, he had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). Like John the Baptist, Jesus preached hope into the wilderness, but meanwhile, he suffered the hunger pains and temptations of the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13).
We could never climb into God’s Kingdom ourselves, so Jesus brought it down to us. He left the now of God’s presence to walk with us in our not yet. And his people didn’t get it. The Lion of Judah looked more like a Lamb, and when he talked about the kingdom of heaven, it was with children on his lap (Mark 10:14).
Jesus left the now of God’s presence to walk with us in our not yet.
Listen, my beloved brothers, has God not chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
Jesus was broadening the borders that had only encompassed Israel.
“I tell you, many will come from east and west to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11-12).
Matthew’s gospel whispers: The Kingdom is coming, but it’s not what you thought.
In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote:
“We walk every day on the razor edge between… two incredible possibilities. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged.”
The King of the Jews broke onto the scene, but Israel was asleep on the razor edge. When he knocked, she rolled over and moaned “Blasphemy,” and so she was left “absolutely outside.”
Thanks be to Jesus, you and I— wandering Gentiles— have been called in (Matt. 12:21).
But even now, we’re only on the shore like Sam, and there’s war and darkness on this side of the High Sea. That’s why Jesus commands us to “Stay dressed for action.” Maybe we’re simple hobbits, but we’ve seen past the Shire and into Mordor. If anything, 2020 has put callouses on our hands from wielding our little swords.
When Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he warned them:
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues… But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:16, 22).
We wait for Jesus’ return, yes, but we also strategize, fight, bleed, grit our teeth, and press on. And it’s “patient endurance” Jesus rewards.
“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
We don’t just wait for the Day of the Lord, but we hasten it. Because according to his promise, we are anticipating a new heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells— and in which we will dwell truly and endlessly (see 2 Pt. 3:12-13).
Jesus may have been a disappointment to most of Israel, but to those who recognized him, he was like distant, glowing houselights to a weary wanderer.
John the Baptist was a wanderer. While Jesus’ new disciples called him “Rabbi,” John pointed and cried, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)! Andrew and his friends saw a Teacher roaming the wilderness, but John saw clear to the edge of the wilderness, where a King would free his people with his own blood, making them a kingdom and priests to God forever (John 1:38, Rev. 1:5-6).
John endured the not-yet with a vision of the now. He reminds me that the “things that are to take place after this” transform “the things that are” (Rev. 1:19). We turn pages differently when we’ve read the end of the Story.
We turn pages differently when we’ve read the end of the Story.
Here again is that in-betweenness Tolkien paints so well. We both toil and wait. We stay dressed for action and keep our lamps burning. We’re trembling in our armor, but we’re also peering into the night and whispering, “Faramir must be there. He will make it yet.”
That’s because the King isn’t coming to congratulate soldiers but to sweep a Bride into his arms.
“I slept, but my heart was awake.
A sound! My beloved is knocking.
…My beloved put his hand to the latch
and my heart was thrilled within me.
(Song of Solomon 5:2, 4)
This is where we belong— but not because we’ve earned our way into Jesus’ affections. It’s only because he is a kind and merciful Groom who made himself the Doorway, so we could be at Home.
We belong to a kingdom that’s coming, but we also belong to a kingdom that’s here. Our brick homes and neighborhoods and church bodies are dim reflections of ultimate Belonging. They’re gifts and foretastes.
Because you see, nowness and not-yet-ness overlap and intermingle. We live with a sword in one hand and a lamp in the other. We fight with our eyes to the horizon, waiting for a swift sunrise to pierce this present darkness.
And until Morning dawns, we let the lanternlight of Jesus’ Kingdom spill from our windows— so that at long last, all weary travelers might come Home.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” – John 14:2-3
[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. (Ballantine Books: New York, 1955), 88