2019 01 06: The Other Wise Man

Posted on 07 Jan 2019

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In a small southern town there was a nativity scene that showed great skill attention to detail. There was, however, one small odd feature. The three wise men were all wearing firemen’s helmets. Totally unable to come up with a reason or explanation, a northerner who was driving through the town, asked the lady behind the counter at the filling station about the helmets. She exploded into a rage, “You Yankees never do read the Bible!” The man assured her that he did, but simply couldn’t recall anything about firemen in the Bible.  So she took out her Bible from behind the counter, ruffled through some pages, and finally jabbing her finger at a passage and sticking the Holy Scripture in the man’s face she said, “See, it says right here, ‘Wise men came from afar.’”

Well, certainly, the wise men could have been wearing fire helmets.  We have no more proof than that they were wearing crowns. And yet every Christmas pageant performed around the world presents the fabled magi as kings.  We have no certainty of their number. Our assumption that there were three is based on the evidence of their three gifts- of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Nor do we know with certainty when they arrived. Yet every Christmas pageant portrays the wise men arriving closely on the heels of the shepherds.  Most likely the wise men didn’t even begin their journey until the star had shone above Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth.  This may account for Herod’s reasoning in calling for the deaths of infant boys up the age of two. And then they didn’t find the child in a manger, but we read that they fell down and paid in homage in a house instead.

Now do these details make the Epiphany story in St. Matthew’s gospel any less important?  Of course not.  It doesn’t matter whether there were three wise men or ten, whether they wore fire helmets or crowns, or whether they arrived on the heels of the shepherds or month later. No, the wonder of this story is that wise men having once been led by their knowledge to Jerusalem, now led by faith followed the counsel of King Herod to Bethlehem  to “Go, and search diligently for the child” and that when they found him they were overwhelmed with joy.  That is my invitation for you as well this new year.  It is true for any wise man or woman one who is searching for Christ in their life. “Go, and search diligently for the child” and when you find him, you will be blessed.  The dilemma, however, is where should you search for him?

In the late 1880’s, a young American Presbyterian pastor Henry Van Dyke wrote a short story he originally used at his Christmas sermon, called “The Story of the Other Wise Man.”  It is a metaphor for the Christian journey through the story of a fourth wise man named Artaban, who in spite of hurdles and delays searched diligently for the Christ Child all his life.- and who at death’s final hour was truly blessed.  And so, Van Dyke begins his story.

Now Artaban was a wise man who lived in the mountains of Persia. He was a very rich man and very wise. Every star filled night on the desert Artaban studied the movements of the heavenly bodies. And then one night it appeared.  The star.  Artaban called together some of his closest friends and announced to them, “Three very wise men have seen a great star in the East. It is a beautiful star unlike anything that we have seen before. We have studied all the ancient writings and are convinced that this is the star of the Promised Messiah of the House of Israel. My friends Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar have already begun their journey. Now I too have sold all my worldly possessions and I am going to travel to bring a gift of three precious jewels to the king. I am going to give him a beautiful blue sapphire, as blue as a cloudless sky, a large red ruby, as colorful as and rose, and a beautiful white pearl, the most perfect of all gems. And now I must leave now because I am to meet the other wise men in Babylon and travel together with them.” And so Artaban said goodbye to his friends from his own home village.

On his way to Babylon, however, Artaban riding his horse, came upon a dying old man.  Artaban was perplexed, he knew that if he stayed with the man that he would not meet up with the three other wise men, and that if he left him, he would surely die alone. Artaban knew in his heart that he had to remain with the dying man.

Hour after hour he labored and comforted the man until he passed.  Then pressing on, Artaban arrived in Babylon, only to discover that his friends, the three other wise men had gone on without him.   He knew he couldn’t travel by horse across the desert, so he was forced to sell his sapphire to buy a train of camels and provision for his journey.  “I may never overtake my friends.  Only God the merciful knows whether I shall be denied the sight of the new born King because I tarried to show mercy.” The next morning, Artaban left, and rushed off to the land of Judah.

Again, he was too late.  Rumors had spread that this new king was born in a tiny village called Bethlehem, so Artaban traveled there.  The other wise men had already visited Bethlehem, and left by another way.  The new born king had left as well. Artaban arrived in Bethlehem just as the cruel soldiers of King Herod were killing the baby boys 2 years and under.  Guarding the doorway of a home where he had discovered a young mother and her baby son were hiding, Artaban confronted a soldier: “I am all alone in this place, and I am waiting to give this jewel to the prudent captain who will leave me in peace.”  Artaban handed the soldier the ruby, glistening in the hollow of his hand like a great drop of blood. “March on!” the soldier cried to his men, “There is no child here. The house is empty.” After the captain of the soldiers had gone, the young mother was sobbing as she held her baby to her chest. As her sobs quieted down, she simply said, “Thank you. You have saved my baby’s life.” Artaban nodded with his kindly eyes. Artaban blessed the child and the mother and left their house.

Artaban traveled all the way to Egypt but he could not find his new king there.  He walked back and forth throughout the whole Mediterranean world, trying to find his king, and taking care of the poor and dying. All the while, Artaban clutched his leather pouch in which was the most beautiful pearl in the world, the exquisite pearl that he wanted to give to his king.

Time passed. After thirty –three years of traveling and searching, Artaban heard rumors that this king was now in Jerusalem. He had heard stories that this king was the kindest human being who ever lived. He had heard rumors that he was the prince of peace and the king of love. Artaban thought to himself, “Finally, I will travel to Jerusalem, find my king, and place my white pearl in my king’s hand.”

As the old man Artaban slowly and feebly walked to the home of Pontius Pilate, a group of slave sellers hurriedly rushed down the street, pushing along a young girl. The girl had a leash around her neck and her wrists were tied together, so she stumbled and fell. As this mob came by Artaban, the old feeble man was pushed up against the wall, just as the slave girl fell to the ground right in front of him. She looked up at Artaban with her frantic eyes and pleaded with him, “Old man. Please save me. They are going to sell me into slavery. They have stolen me from my parents. Please, if you can, save me. You are my last hope.”

Artaban looked deeply into the eyes of the young girl. He clutched his purse with the white, precious pearl in it and softly said to the mob of slave sellers, “I will buy the girl.” The slave sellers laughed at the old man and said, “You have no money, old man. Get out of our way, you old feeble soul.” Artaban said, “It is true. I am old. I am feeble. I have no money but I have something better than money. Look at this.  See what I have in my hand.” The slave sellers eyes riveted on the while pearl. A sinister smile crept across their faces. They paused. They looked at each other. One growled, “Agreed, old man. We will take your pearl.” They snatched the pearl out of Artaban’s old withered hand. Before you knew it, they were gone. They disappeared into the busy streets.  Artaban looked at the girl, “I will take you back home.” The girl wept with exhaustion and said, “Thank you for saving my life.”

While Artaban spoke, a powerful earthquake shook the city.  He was struck by a falling roof tile. Artaban knew he was dying.  He would not see the King.  The quest was over, and he had failed.  But the ransomed slave girl, holding the old, dying man, heard a sweet voice and then saw Artaban’s lips slowly move.  “Not so, my Lord! … When did I saw thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee?  Thirty-three years have I looked for thee, but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.” But the unmistakable voice came again and the slave girl  heard it clearly: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me.”

Van Dyke then ends his story: “A long breath of relief exhaled gently from Artaban’s lips.  His journey was ended.  His treasures were accepted.  The Other Wise Man had found the King.”

We often make resolutions at this time of year, resolutions that many of us have probably already broken. But my friends, Van Dyke’s story of the other wise man, reminds us, that if you “Go, and search diligently for the Christ Child,” you will find him, and you will be blessed.  So this year begin by dedicating time to this pursuit.   Go, and search diligently. You will never experience the wonder of finding Christ, and being found by him, if you dedicate no time to this challenge.  But prepared, that you may not find Jesus in the places you expect.  Seek him in scripture, to be sure.  Seek him in the company fellow believer in prayer and in service.  Seek him in the mystery of worship.  But also seek him in the face of the poor and needy, in the face of the thirsty and hungry, in the face of those persecuted and in prison.  For whatever you do for the least of these his brothers, you do for him.  And there you will certainly find  him.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.