Ready-to-Go Advent Sermon: “The Young King” by Oscar Wilde

November 20th, 2021

Some of the best sermons are stories. Jesus certainly thought so. The story that follows was originally written by Oscar Wilde. Called “The Young King,” it’s about Jesus becoming flesh, dwelling among us, and upsetting our expectations about the Messiah. It’s been adapted to be read aloud as a sermon in a worship service. It pairs nicely with the Revised Common Lectionary scripture for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:39–55 (see also Philippians 2:5–11). The hymns “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” work well alongside this story.

The King-to-be flung himself back on the soft cushions of his embroidered couch. He could not stop thinking of what he was to wear at his coronation: the robe of tissued gold, the ruby-studded crown, and the scepter with its rows and rings of pearls. 

Months ago, he was a mere shepherd in a remote part of the kingdom. It was only when the old king was on his deathbed that the royal council learned that this shepherd was in fact heir to the throne. The boy’s mother—who was also the old king’s daughter—had died shortly after childbirth, and no one knew who the boy’s father was. Rather than bring embarrassment to the throne, the boy was quietly given to a poor couple who had no children of their own. But before the old king died, he had this sixteen-year-old shepherd brought before him, and he acknowledged him as his one true heir.

Perhaps because the young King knew all too well what it meant to wear a shepherd’s robe, he could not wait to wear his robe of gold and crown of rubies while holding his royal scepter of pearls. Each had been designed by the most famous artists of the time. He had given orders that the artists were to work night and day to make them. The whole world was to be searched for jewels that would be worthy of their work. 

He imagined himself standing at the high altar of the cathedral in the royal dress of a king. A smile lingered on his boyish lips, and it lit up his dark woodland eyes.

He touched a bell, and his attendants entered and disrobed him with much ceremony, pouring rose-water over his hands, and strewing flowers on his pillow. A few moments after they had left the room, he fell asleep.

As he slept, he had a dream, and this was his dream. He thought that he was standing in a long, low attic, filled with the whir and clatter of many looms. A few rays of daylight peered in through the grated windows, and it showed him the gaunt figures of the weavers bending over their looms. Pale, sickly-looking children worked alongside adults. Their faces were pinched with famine, and their thin hands shook and trembled. Some gaunt women sat at a table sewing. A horrible odor filled the place. The air was foul and heavy, and the walls dripped with damp.

The young King went over to one of the weavers. He stood by him and watched him.

The weaver looked at him angrily, and said, “Why are you watching me? Are you a spy set on us by our master?”

“Who is your master?” asked the young King.

“Our master!” cried the weaver, bitterly. “He is a man like myself. The only difference is this: he wears fine clothes while I go in rags, and while I am weak from hunger his stomach aches from eating too much.”

The young king answered, “The land is free, and you are no one’s slave.”

The weaver replied, “We must work to live, and they give us so few wages that we die. We work for them all day long while they heap up gold. Our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil. We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We grow the corn, and our own plates remain empty. We have chains, though no eye can see them. We are slaves, though some call us free.” 

He turned away scowling and returned to work. The young King saw that the fabric was threaded with a thread of gold.

A great terror seized upon the young King, and he said to the weaver, “What robe is this that you are weaving?”

“It is the robe for the coronation of the young King,” he answered. “What is that to you?”

The young King gave a loud cry and woke. 

He was in his own chamber, and through the window he saw the great honey-colored moon hanging in the dusky air.

He fell asleep again and had another dream, and this was his second dream.

He thought that he was lying on the deck of a huge galley that was being rowed by a hundred slaves. Each slave was chained to his neighbor. The hot sun beat brightly upon them, and the sailors ran up and down the gangway and lashed them with leather whips. They stretched out their lean arms and pulled the heavy oars through the water. The salt spray flew from the blades.

At last they reached a little bay. They began to measure the depths of the waters. 

As soon as they had cast anchor and hauled down the sail, the sailors went into the hold and brought up a long rope-ladder with heavy weights at the bottom. The master of the galley threw it over the side, attaching the top to the ship. Then the sailors seized the youngest of the slaves. They knocked his shackles off. They filled his nostrils and his ears with wax. They tied a big stone round his waist. He crept wearily down the ladder and disappeared into the sea. A few bubbles rose where he sank.

After some time the diver rose up out of the water, and clung panting to the ladder with a pearl in his right hand. The sailors seized it from him and thrust him back.

Again and again he came up, and each time that he did so he brought with him a beautiful pearl. The master of the galley weighed them and put them into a little bag of green leather.

Then the diver came up for the last time, and the pearl that he brought with him was more beautiful than all the pearls of the world, for it was shaped like the full moon, and whiter than the morning star. But his face was strangely pale, and as he fell upon the deck blood gushed from his ears and nostrils. He quivered for a little, and then he was still. The sailors shrugged their shoulders, and they threw the body overboard.

The master of the galley laughed, and, reaching out, he took the pearl, and when he saw it, he pressed it to his forehead and bowed. “It shall be,” he said, “for the scepter of the young King.” He made a sign to the sailors to draw up the anchor.

When the young King heard this, he gave a great cry, and woke.

Through the window he saw the long grey fingers of the dawn clutching at the fading stars.

He fell asleep again, and had another dream, and this was his third and final dream.

At the outskirts of a deep jungle, he saw an immense multitude of men working in the bed of a dried-up river. They swarmed up the rock like ants. They dug deep pits in the ground and went down into them. Some of them split open the rocks with great axes. Others grabbled in the sand. They tore up the cactus by its roots and trampled on the scarlet blossoms. They hurried about, calling to each other, and no one was idle.

As the young King watched, sickness struck down the workers. Chills, fever, and plague brought death until at last no one was alive.

The young King wept, and said: “Who were these workers? What were they searching for?”

A voice behind him answered, “For rubies for a king’s crown.”

And the young King turned around, and he saw a man holding a mirror of silver. He grew pale, and asked: “For what king?”

The man answered: “Look in this mirror, and you will see him.”

He looked in the mirror, and, seeing his own face, he gave a great cry and woke. 

The bright sunlight was streaming into the room, and from the trees of the garden the birds were singing. The high officers came in and bowed before him. The attendants brought him the robe of tissued gold. They set the crown and scepter before him.

The young King looked at them, and they were beautiful—more beautiful than any that he had ever seen. But he remembered his dreams, and he said to his officials: “Take these things away, for I will not wear them.”

The nobles were amazed, and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was joking.

But he spoke sternly to them again, and said: “Take these things away, and hide them from me. Though it is the day of my coronation, I will not wear them. For on the loom of Sorrow, and by the white hands of Pain, has this my robe been woven. There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl.” He told them his three dreams.

When the nobles heard them, they looked at each other and whispered, saying: “Surely he is mad. For what is a dream but a dream, and a vision but a vision? They are not real things that one should pay attention to them. What do we have to do with the lives of those who work for us? Should people not eat bread till they have seen the farmer’s hired hand?”

The young King commanded them all leave him, except one attendant whom he kept as his companion. When he had bathed himself in clear water, he opened a great painted chest, and from it he took the leather robe and rough sheepskin cloak that he had worn as a shepherd. He put these on, and in his hand he took his crude shepherd’s staff.

The little attendant opened his big blue eyes in wonder, and said smiling to him, “My lord, I see your robe and your scepter, but where is your crown?”

The young King plucked a spray of wild briar that was climbing over the balcony, and bent it, and made a circle of it, and set it on his head.

“This shall be my crown,” he answered.

Dressed like that, he left his chamber for the Great Hall, where the nobles were waiting for him.

The nobles made merry. Some of them cried out to him, “My lord, the people wait for their king, and you show them a beggar.” Others grew angry and said, “He brings shame upon our state, and is unworthy to be our master.” 

But he did not answer them. He went down the bright staircase, and out through the gates of bronze, and mounted upon his horse, and rode towards the cathedral, the little attendant running beside him.

The people laughed and said, “It is the King’s fool who is riding by,” and they made fun of him.

He pulled the horse’s reins and said, “No.  I am the King.” He told them his three dreams.

A man came out of the crowd and spoke bitterly to him. He said, “Sir, do you not know that out of the luxury of the rich comes the life of the poor? Your vices give us bread. To work for a hard master is bitter, but to have no master to work for is more bitter still.  Do you think that the ravens will feed us? What cure do you have for these things? Go back to your Palace and put on your purple and fine linen. What do you have to do with us, and what we suffer?”

“Are not the rich and the poor brothers?” asked the young King.

“Yes,” answered the man, “and the name of the rich brother is Cain.”

The young King’s eyes filled with tears, and he rode on through the murmurs of the people. The little attendant grew afraid and left him.

When he reached the great doors of the cathedral, the soldiers thrust their spears out and said, “What do you want? None enters by this door but the King.”

His face flushed with anger, and he said to them, “I am the King.” He waved their spears aside and entered.

When the old Bishop saw him coming in his shepherd’s dress, he rose up in wonder from his throne, and went to meet him, and said to him, “My son, is this a king’s apparel? With what crown shall I crown you? What scepter shall I place in your hand? Surely this should be a day of joy, and not a day of humiliation.”

The young King replied, “Should Joy wear what Grief has fashioned?” He told him his three dreams.

When the Bishop had heard them, he said, “My son, I am an old man, and in the winter of my days, and I know that many evil things are done in the wide world. Robbers, kidnappers, lions, boars, pirates, lepers, and beggars—can you change all these things? Will you take the leper into your bed, and set the beggar at your table? Shall the lion follow your orders, and the wild boar obey you? Ride back to the Palace, make your face glad, and put on the robe of a king! With the crown of gold I will crown you, and the scepter of pearl I will place in your hand. As for your dreams, think no more of them. The world’s sorrow is too heavy for one heart to suffer.”

The young King replied, “Do you say that in this house?” He walked past the Bishop, climbed up the steps of the altar, and stood before the cross.

Then he knelt before the cross, and the great candles burned brightly. He bowed his head in prayer.

Suddenly, a wild commotion came from the street outside. In entered the nobles with drawn swords and shields of polished steel. They cried, “Where is this dreamer of dreams? Where is this King, who is dressed like a beggar—this boy who brings shame upon our state? Surely we will kill him, for he is unworthy to rule over us.”

And the young King bowed his head again and prayed. When he had finished his prayer, he rose up. Turning around he looked at them sadly.

Then through the painted windows, sunlight came streaming upon him. The sunbeams wove round him a tissued robe that was more beautiful than the robe that had been made for that day. The dead staff blossomed. It bore lilies that were whiter than pearls. The dry thorn blossomed. It bore roses that were redder than rubies. 

He stood there in a king’s raiment, and the Glory of God filled the place. In the stately attire of a king he stood before them. The organ pealed out its music, and the trumpeters blew upon their trumpets, and the singing boys sang.

The people fell upon their knees in awe. The nobles put their swords away and bowed down. The Bishop’s face grew pale, and his hands trembled. “Someone greater than I has crowned you,” he cried, and he knelt before him.

The young King came down from the high altar, and passed home through the midst of the people. But no one dared look upon his face, for it was like the face of an angel.

"The Young King" was first published in 1891 as part of the anthology A House of Pomegranates.

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