Sermon: A Wild Hope
When the three kings from the east first laid eyes on the newborn baby Jesus, they must have been seized with a wild hope. They saw past the ordinary sight of a crying baby from a poor family and saw a kindred kingly spirit: a leader who could draw light out of darkness. They saw somebody who – maybe, just maybe – could take the very oppressiveness of their time and transform it into love and action. So they showered him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They called him messiah, which means “anointed one” because they used to anoint kings with consecrated oil. It was a time in desperate need of a messiah. And in a sense, it was a time that produced a messiah.
Palestine was occupied by Rome. Rome had taken control of every major institution, including the temple in Jerusalem and the spirit of Judaism was slowly eroding. It was a time of great economic inequality and the Romans took full advantage. They were smart when they conquered a territory – they would make deals with the wealthy. They would align their interests with those of the ruling class. They would say, “We won’t attack you, you can stay doing just what you’re doing. Our religion will be dominant but you can still have a version of yours if you want. And you can keep your wealth – even increase your wealth. In exchange, you work for us. Keep the peasants down, make sure they keep working for next to nothing, get them to pay taxes, and stop them from gaining too much power. If any of the peasants do gain power and try to reclaim their land or their rights or their freedom, we’ll crucify them.”
Jesus of Nazareth grew up in that world, breathing that poisoned air of oppression, and he was exactly the kind of peasant Rome was talking about – young, dirt poor, full of rage at seeing his community beaten down. Nazareth was a small, nondescript, dusty town that was, like so many places in those days, a place without hope. A baby from there was the last person on earth you would think could grow up to change the world. And yet Jesus did. Something about the very hopelessness of that time brought out the fire in him and generations that followed him. Something about the very poison in the air produced its own antidote.
The true magic of the Christmas story is that when things were at their worst, a poor kid from an obscure town sparked the spiritual imagination of a generation and started an uprising. It was not just a political revolt against the occupying force – in fact, the Jews didn’t defeat the Romans at that time. It was a vision of a new spiritual and social consciousness. It was a gospel of revolution on one hand and peace on the other. Jesus not only railed against the oppression of the Roman Empire but preached an alternative vision where the powerless would become powerful, the poor would become wealthy, and where the wealthy would have to give up their wealth in order to meet God. The spiritual core of the people’s faith would be renewed and the whole social order would stand on its head. And this countercultural message was so powerful that a golden thread has carried through all the way to today.
Today we also live in dark times. Our air too is poisoned with oppression and injustice; violence and war. It’s a time when the abundance of the earth is being recklessly depleted. It’s a time when, just like in the Roman Empire, powerful leaders will do anything for money and fame. But I have a wild hope this season. I have a wild hope that the very darkness of our times will draw forth the light in us just as it did in Jesus; that good people everywhere will be so energized by the challenges all around us that we too will be anointed and we too will change the world. We will be the ripple in the pond that will turn into a tidal wave. We will enact the Christmas story in real time, in real life.
This wild hope is not really so wild because this is how life works sometimes. Sometimes when things can’t get any worse, it brings out the best in us. We find powers we never knew we had, we find new wells of compassion and courage. We become the antidote to that which poisons us. I see it happening already. In this congregation and in this country, I see people coming together in love. I see people reaching out to one another with kindness and compassion, knowing that their neighbors are in pain right now. I see people eager to help however they can, throwing themselves into justice work and preparing to intervene when they encounter violence. I see people protecting the earth. And I see people caring for their own children with a new sense of purpose and meaning, as if each child is the messiah. That is all the evidence I need to know that my wild hope in this season is well founded.
And so we want to anoint you and honor you tonight with the gifts that the three kings gave to Jesus, the anointed one. On your way out into this lovely, rainy night, a few of our members and staff wearing golden stoles will offer you gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Am I telling you that instead of just having a nice Christmas, you have to go home and be the messiah now and save the world (but no pressure of course)? No. Messiah means “anointed one,” but it actually does not mean “savior.” Savior is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word. None of us will be the savior of the world because the world won’t be saved by just one person. It will be saved by all of us together, bit by bit, re-envisioning our lives, celebrating, crying, working, and loving in extraordinary and very ordinary ways. But each and every one of us is an anointed one – each of us is touched by the substance of the divine, each one of us has royal blood. May we leave here this Christmas Eve knowing that each of us is the wild hope of our time.