Bilbo. The simple, play-it-safe, no-adventures-for-me-thank-you-very-much hobbit. When J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic story opens, there are few obvious heroic qualities about our protagonist. Then Gandalf, the Wizard, steps onto the scene. In a way, he saves Bilbo from himself.
Despite Bilbo’s insistence otherwise, Gandalf pronounces Bilbo a burglar. The burglar, in fact, who will become the 14th member of the dwarves’ questing party and help them reclaim their gold from the dragon Smaug.
Thus begins Bilbo’s transformation.
You see, when someone calls us by a new name…it is quite possible we become a new person.
Gandalf Gives Bilbo a New Name
Upon Gandalf’s assertion, the dwarves cling to skepticism. This “burglar” doesn’t look all that burglarish. However, when the dwarves—and when Bilbo himself—question Bilbo’s suitability, Gandalf declares, “I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself” (Tolkien).
This story feels familiar.
God Gives Humans a New Name
In Genesis 17: 15, God says, “As for Sarai…you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her.” Interestingly, “Sarah” means “princess” or “royalty,” but up to this point in the story, Sarah has only royally screwed up. She has done little to earn that name.
Similarly, Bilbo has done nothing to merit Gandalf’s estimation of him.
Gandalf, however, sees Bilbo with eyes of imagination…with possibility. God sees Sarah and knows that through her line, a Royal Heir will indeed be born.
Romans 4:17, recounting the story of Abraham and Sarah, says, “God…gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
The same God who spoke the world into existence speaks identities over us. Scripture is replete with name-changing stories. Jacob, Israel. Hephzibah, Beulah (see Isaiah 62:4). Simon, Peter. Saul, Paul.
The Lord must care about names.
We Have New Names
Eventually, so does Bilbo. When at last he comes face to face with the great dragon Smaug (whose tactics of doubt-planting are also curiously familiar) and is asked his name, he answers: “I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly.” His list doesn’t end there though. He goes on: “I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider” (Tolkien). Twelve chapters—and a good many adventures—later, Bilbo at last believes Gandalf’s words. He is quite a different hobbit than the risk-averse one we meet at the story’s beginning.
Tolkien’s story, at its heart, is a story of identity. It is a story about a hobbit undergoing a great change. He never would have gotten that change, though, unless someone (in this case Gandalf) spoke a new name over him.
In a reality not quite so far from Middle Earth as we might think, we too, if we are in Christ, have been given a new name. Once named Enemy, now we are called Friend. Once Unloved, now Beloved. Once Sinner, now Redeemed. Once Harlot, now Bride.
We Can Be Name-Changers
Who are the people in our lives who need a name-changer? With whom do we brush shoulders who wear the names Forgotten, Too Much, or Problem Kid? What if we spoke names of Life and Destiny over them? What if we called them Remembered, Cherished, Leader? Oh, that we would have eyes to see people as the Lord sees them…as Gandalf saw Bilbo…with imagination…with possibility.
Because we too were in need of a name change. And by God’s grace, we’ve got it.
Photo by Tyler Lastovich