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By Brian Keepers
There’s a memorable scene in the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s dystopian novel The Hunger Games that, while it isn’t in the book, is absolutely brilliant. The Hunger Games is part of a trilogy that paints a bleak, post-apocalyptic future in which North America (now a nation called Panem) is divided into twelve districts and under the tyranny of a dictator named President Snow.
Snow uses fear to keep the districts in line, and one way he does this is by putting on an annual Hunger Games—a barbaric contest where two tributes, a male and a female, are selected by lottery to represent their district. It is a fight to the death, and only one tribute can stand victorious in the end.
Here’s the scene in the film: President Snow is sitting with his head Games-maker—the one charged with designing the Hunger Games each year—and he says to the Games-maker, “Do you know why the games must have a winner?”
The answer: hope.
If there is a winner, then it gives the tributes a sliver of hope that the odds may be in their favor and they may win the contest and escape their life of servitude. “Hope,” Snow explains, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” But for that very reason, hope is as perilous to a tyrant as it is useful. “A little hope is effective,” Snow says. “A lot of hope is dangerous.”*
I thought about this scene yesterday in worship when, in my congregation, we heard the story of the Annunciation and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:26-56). When the angel Gabriel delivers the startling news that Mary will be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah, she is filled with hope (after being frightened and puzzled). And as this hope grows in her womb, she can’t contain it. It rises up from within and bursts out in a song:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the
lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.”
Mary sings of a hope that is dangerous because it testifies to a God who reverses the order of things and turns the world upside down: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Mary sings of a hopeful future in the past tense, so confident in God’s promises that she sings as if they have already happened! Remarkable.
A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.
Martin Luther King, drawing upon the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, was keen to make a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, he noted, was about human progress—it places confidence in human ability to make the world a better place. But hope is built on God’s promises and places its confidence in another reality, the Reign of God, and God’s ability to bring about God’s preferred future.
Most simply, hope is faith applied to the future. It is the bold and courageous act to trust that the future is in God’s hands and these are good hands. Hope does not guarantee that things will turn out the way we want; instead, it insists that no matter what happens, God’s word and promises will prevail.
I’ve been thinking about hope a lot lately, especially in this season of Advent and as we are still experiencing the aftermath of a contentious national election (and will for some time). It seems to me that hope just might be the most important thing we, as Christians, have to offer the world. St. Paul tells us to grieve in the face of a world that is not the way it’s supposed to be, but to grieve with hope (1 Thess. 4:13). “The task of the Church,” Lesslie Newbigin insisted, “is to keep constantly alight in men’s [and women’s] hearts the flame of hope and faith in the possibility of a different kind of world.”
Yes, President Snow is right: the only thing more powerful than fear is hope. And God has not given us a spirit of fear. In this child born in Bethlehem, we have been given a spirit of hope. Not just a little hope but lots of it. So much hope, in fact, that there’s enough for the whole world.
And to all who would strive to stay on top, push others down and keep the world as it is…this much hope is indeed a dangerous thing.
*Taken from David Lose’s book Preaching at the Crossroads (Fortress Press, 2013) p. 64.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.