waiting for the king to come
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on December 1, 2019
The Hunger Games is a 2008 dystopian novel by the American writer Suzanne Collins. In 2012 a movie adaption was released starring Jennifer Lawrence that grossed nearly 700 million dollars worldwide. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie it can be summed up in this way: In what was once North America, the Capitol of Panem maintains its hold on its 12 districts by forcing them each to select a boy and a girl, called Tributes, to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Every citizen must watch as the youths fight to the death until only one remains.
If you only know the summary it sounds terrible, but in reality it is an incredible story, because at its core it is a story about hope. Making your way through the series what you realize is what begins as a hope to merely survive turns into hope that a better world is possible.
The people of Panem live a life of starvation, oppressive government, and economic inequalities, that leads too little in the way of hope. And the ruling Capitol wishes to keep it that way. As the Capitol reaps children from the districts as tribute for its sick and twisted spectacle of the Hunger Games, it does so to dangle the smallest thread of hope in front of those who have no choice but to go along with what is mandated. The twenty-four young people sent into an arena to fight to the death, offer hope as the lone victor lives their remaining time in the lap of luxury. All that person has to do is play the Capitol’s twisted game, slaughter the other contestants, and give the watching world a good show and he or she can grasp that better world the entire country dreams of.
This whole concept gets summed up in a conversation between President Snow, the ruler of Panem and the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane that was beautifully depicted in the film version.
President Snow asks, “Seneca why do you think we have a winner?” “What do you mean?” Seneca answers. “I mean, why do we have a winner? I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up twenty-four of them at random and execute them all at once? Be a lot faster…Hope.” “Hope?” Seneca replied in a confused tone. “Hope.” President Snow repeated. “It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”
What it is clear to President Snow is that for the ruling party a little hope is good — a lot is dangerous. A little hope can hold the status quo — a lot and you are asking for trouble. And President Snow is right.
Offer people rewards in heaven someday after they die as long as they are good submissive people now and you keep them subdued. Promise people a secure society and you are given a blank check to invade other countries, torture people and basically do whatever you want in the name of working toward it. Or in the case of the Hunger Games, encourage people with the phrase, “may the odds be ever in your favor” and some will actually train for the chance to win the Games.
The Capitol knows how to play the Games. It is a festival in the Capitol and something to be endured in the districts. It is a perfect balance of entertainment and dread that ensures nothing will ever change. One of the most disturbing images in the film actually wasn’t in the Games themselves, but rather played out in the streets. A child in the Capitol opened the gift of a toy sword from his father and then begins to immediately play-act at slaughtering his sister as if he were in the Hunger Games to the delight and joy of the family. When death is celebrated to the extent that it is truly child’s play or it is something that must be endured for the chance of survival and freedom the people are effectively contained.
The people of Israel were contained as well. In Jeremiah’s time Israel sat on a trade route between two massive empires, Egypt and Babylon. The small country was constantly in danger of being conquered, subjected, and even destroyed. And then came the day when it was no longer a danger, but instead became their reality.
For over a year the Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem. Ultimately, the city fell, and its king and elites and ruling class were exiled to Babylon. But until its fall, the citizens of Jerusalem were trapped, suffocating in a city that was rapidly running out of food and water and even more rapidly acquiring sickness and disease. The people lived a life of starvation, oppressive government and economic inequalities, that led too little in the way of hope.
Yet, into the midst of this painful reality, Jeremiah speaks of the Lord’s declaration of fulfilling the gracious promises made towards Judah and Israel. Given Israel’s present turmoil, this would have been as utterly unbelievable as it was utterly needed to be heard. Jeremiah is the good prophet, always holding out a vision for people to cling to, even when its meaning is not yet able to be grasped. Jeremiah is holding out hope for the people designed to give the people a holy perspective in the midst of the current challenge.
It is a good reminder as we begin our journey through Advent. We live in a society in which we are bombarded with violence, hate-filled rhetoric and fear mongering. Unfortunately, this is nothing new — it has been our reality for some time. Think back to the events surrounding September 11, 2001 and how America responded to the fear and panic. It was assumed the right answer was to declare war upon the murderers, rather than pursuing justice in a different way. What resulted is one of the longest continuing wars in American history. What resulted was the rise of more violence and violent groups. The result is more death, more violence, more problems, more panic and fear.
I wonder sometimes what would have happened if America had responded in a different way. What if the US responded to the murderers like the Amish responded to the man who shot 11 and killed five young girls in a one-room school house in 2006? The Amish community responded with extreme forgiveness, by immediately reaching out to the murderer’s family with gift and relationship. The Amish even formed a human wall at the man’s funeral to block out the media, before offering their condolences to the family. Or the way Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina responded to its murderer in 2017? Again, with extreme forgiveness. What if American had responded to the deadly acts perpetrated on September 11, 2001 in the spirit of forgiveness? What if we had sent clothing, food and aid instead of our military? What if…?
Now the church is not a nation. The church is the body of Christ, calling all nations to the assurance and hope in God’s promise. Jeremiah beckons the people of Israel and us in the midst of our chaos, to hold onto hope — to not let panic and fear define our journey and our response to the present circumstance, but rather have a holy perspective that we are not alone.
This is a lesson that takes several books or movies, depending on your medium preference, to come to bear in the Hunger Games. President Snow’s comments about hope set up the course of the rest of the series. Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the story, the girl on fire, becomes the spark that sets the Panem world ablaze.
Katniss’s sister notes this in the second book when she says, “Since the last games, something is different. I can see it.” Katniss asks, “What can you see?” “Hope,” the sister responds.
Katniss provided hope to the Districts through her act of ‘love’ or ‘defiance’ depending on where you live — in the capitol or the districts. Katniss provided hope to the impoverished and oppressed that the tyranny of the Capitol could be challenged even overthrown and that freedom and justice could be achieved. And that hope began a violent rebellion.
However, ultimately what Katniss discovers is that it is not the fires of rage, but the hope of love that is most needed. As another character notes, winning the games costs everything you are. The implication being that it is not worth gaining the world and losing your soul. There is no hope in that.
Which is why Jeremiah links his hope to something more. Jeremiah calls the people and us to fix our eyes on the righteous branch of the Lord who will bring about justice and righteousness in the land. Jeremiah calls the people and us to fix our eyes on the one true King. A king who will not utilize violence, but vulnerability. A king who will not use power, but weakness. A king who will not coerce, but provide hope — A king who offers a hope that cannot be contained. And Advent is the time we wait for this king to come. Amen.