I love the way stories begin. As characters are introduced and the plot begins to take shape, there is this delightful sense that something wonderful is about to unfold. One of my favorite story beginnings is from The Hobbit.
In the first movie, there is this fantastic scene between Gandalf and Bilbo. The dwarves have laid out the plans for their quest for claiming gold and conquering a dragon, and Bilbo has been invited into this grand adventure. However, he shrinks back at the magnitude of the risk involved. Gandalf is trying to convince him to abandon his rather meaningless life, sign the dwarves’ contract, and join the quest. He tells the story of one of Bilbo’s ancestors who, although a hobbit, was also a great warrior. The scene concludes with the following dialogue:
Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.
Biblo: Can you promise that I will come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.
Bilbo: That’s what I thought. Sorry, Gandalf, I can’t sign this. You’ve got the wrong Hobbit.
You can feel the tension so strongly here between who Bilbo is and who he could become. In the book, it is especially clear that part of Bilbo longs for something more, and yet there is a part of him that thinks the cost is too great. So he must decide: take the risk and gain the possibility of something far better than he has ever experienced, or play it safe and accept that this is as good as it gets.
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Bilbo is not the only one to have faced such a decision. There was once a crippled man who lay by the pool of Bethesda hoping for a miracle. For thirty-eight years he has been waiting. Many of us, like him, have convinced ourselves that there is only one way our story can unfold. While this sick man placed his hope in the waters of Bethesda, it is important to note that he was incapable of making it to the water on his own and he had no one to help him. In other words, his chances of moving forward in his story were zero.
It is easy to get stuck in our story. We surround ourselves with people, circumstances, and thoughts that offer no way forward, but instead only feed into a negative loop of sickness and stuckness. We need some external source to step in and offer us a better way.
This is when Jesus shows up and asks the crippled man a puzzling question: “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6).
This question has always fascinated me. It seems a little insensitive at best, and completely ridiculous at worst. It sounds akin to going to a hospital and asking a patient if they want to get better. The answer seems obvious. But, of course, Jesus always asks the best questions, not because He doesn’t know the answers, but because He is inviting us into discovery.
This question is deeper than it looks at first. “Do you want to get well?” The sad truth is not everyone does. Sometimes it is safer to stay sick because to hope for healing—to seek that kind of change—is to take a great risk. You risk looking like a fool, risk getting your hopes dashed. You take a risk that the offer of a better life will not come true, leaving you more crushed than if you’d simply settled for less.
Many of us do settle for less, but Jesus is always inviting us into more. Jesus enters the scene and changes the story. He changes the whole paradigm and offers a completely different way of living. Jesus opens the way for the sick man to enter into new life: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (John 5:8).
The crippled man takes the risk and chooses to trust in Jesus. He gets up and walks into a challenging, complicated, yet beautiful story with Jesus. He chooses to stop waiting around for chance and fate and instead accepts the gift of freedom and choice.
And somewhere far away in Middle Earth, Bilbo also finally chooses the better story – partly in order to prove himself, and partly because Gandalf gives him a little nudge in the right direction. In Corey Olsen’s book, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, he notes significantly that “Gandalf is not just a storyteller; he is a storymaker” (p. 19).
Jesus is calling each of us into a better story, too. I think our questions are usually very similar to Bilbo’s: Can you promise I won’t get hurt? Can you promise it will be easy and comfortable? Can you promise it will be as I expect, with no surprises or detours? The answer is a definitive no. But you can know this for sure: you will never be the same. And you will be living a story worth telling. And whatever happens, you will be walking in the path of Jesus, the greatest storymaker ever.