January 3, 2016
Second Sunday after Christmas
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Thank you, Jean. Most of us have heard this famous scripture passage a time or two in our lives. The Bible doesn’t tell us that there were only three Wisemen, Kings or Magi - as our pew Bibles tell, but we most likely surmise that number because of the three specific gifts mentioned. Far fewer of us know the story by Henry Van Dyke, about the Other Wiseman. It is a much longer story than we have time for today, but the essentials of that one are as follows.
Among the mountains of Persia, there was a certain man named Artaban, whose house stood close to the outermost walls of the town in which he lived. High above the trees of his garden, he was holding council with his friends. He and his guests wore robes of pure white wool, over a tunic of silk; and a white, pointed cap, with long lapels at the sides. It was the dress of the ancient priesthood of the Magi, called the fire-worshippers. There were nine of the men, differing widely in age, but alike in the richness of their dress of many-colored silks, and in the massive golden collars around their necks, marking them as Parthian nobles, and in the winged circles of gold resting on their chests, the sign of the followers of Zoroaster.
After they worshiped, Artaban spoke. ”You have come tonight to worship not the fire, but Him of whom it is the chosen symbol, because it is the purest of all created things. It speaks to us of one who is Light and Truth. As they all spoke of many things, Artaban disclosed a startling revelation. ”It has been shown to me and to my three companions among the Magi - Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. We have searched the ancient tablets of Chaldea and computed the time that the Anointed is it appear. It falls in this year.
We have studied the sky, and in the spring of the year we saw two of the greatest planets draw near together in the sign of the Fish, which is the house of the Hebrews. We also saw a new star there, which shone for one night and then vanished.
Again the two great planets are meeting; this night is their conjunction. My three brothers are watching in Babylonia, and I am watching here. If the star shines again, they will wait ten days for me at the temple, and then we will set out together for Jerusalem, to see and worship the promised one who shall be born King of Israel. I believe the sign will come. I have made ready for the journey. I have sold my possessions, and bought these three jewels - a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl - to carry them as tribute to the King. I ask you to go with me on the pilgrimage, that we may have joy together in finding the Prince who is worthy to be served."
But his guests looked on with a veil of doubt and mistrust. They dismissed Artaban’s revelation with their own reasons and went back to their own homes. In his sorrow, Artaban went out onto the to the terrace on the roof.
He looked to the sky to discover Jupiter and Saturn about to blend into one, a steel-blue spark born out of the darkness beneath, rounding into a point of white radiance. He bowed his head. He covered his brow with his hands. "It is the sign," he said. "The King is coming, and I will go to meet him."
After days of difficult riding, his best horse almost spent, Artaban would gladly have turned into the city to find rest and refreshment for both of them. But it was still three hours' journey to the rendezvous, so he rode steadily across the stubble-fields.
The horse slowed, sensing some danger or difficulty; it was not in her heart to fly from it - only to be prepared for it, and to meet it wisely, as a good horse should do. At last she gave a quick breath of anxiety and dismay, standing stock-still, quivering in every muscle, before a dark object in the shadow of the last palm-tree.
Artaban dismounted before the form of a man lying across the road. His pallid skin, dry and yellow as parchment, bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marshlands in autumn. He was not long for the world.
As Artaban turned to leave the man to a desert death, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man's lips. The bony fingers gripped the hem of Artaban's robe and held him fast. His heart leaped to his throat, not with fear, but with a silent resentment at the intrusion of the unexpected delay. Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing Hebrew?
"God of truth and purity," he prayed, "direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which you only know.” Loosening the grasp of his hand, he carried the dying one to a little mound at the foot of the palm-tree.
He brought water from one of the small canals near by, and moistened the sufferer's brow and mouth. He mixed a draught which he carried always in his vest - because the Magi were physicians as well as astrologers. At last the man's strength returned. He sat up and looked around him, asking Artaban’s name and business. He told the man about seeking the King of the Jews, the great Prince and Deliverer of all men.
It was already long past midnight. Artaban rode in haste, but the first beam of the rising sun sent a long shadow before them. Scanning the horizon, there was no sign of the caravan of the Wise Men, far or near.
At the edge of the terrace he saw a little mound of broken bricks, and under them a piece of papyrus. It read: "We have waited past the midnight, and can delay no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert.” Artaban sat down on the ground and covered his head in despair.
"How can I cross the desert with no food and a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, buy a train of camels, and provision for the journey. I may never overtake my friends. Only God the merciful knows whether I will lose sight of the King because I tarried to show mercy."
Artaban moved steadily onward until he arrived at Bethlehem, three days after his brethren had come to that place. He drew near, weary but full of hope, bearing his ruby and his pearl to offer to the King. But the streets of the village seemed to be deserted, and from an open door he heard the sound of a woman's voice singing softly.
He entered and found a young mother hushing her baby to sleep. She told him of strangers from the far East who had appeared in the village three days before, and how they said that a star had guided them to the place where Joseph of Nazareth was lodging with his wife and her new-born child, and how they had paid reverence to the child and given him many rich gifts.
"But the travelers disappeared again as suddenly as they had come. The man of Nazareth took the child and his mother, and fled away that same night secretly. It was whispered that they were going to Egypt. Ever since, there has been a spell on the village; something evil hangs over it. They say that the Roman soldiers are coming from Jerusalem to force a new tax from us, and the men have driven the flocks and herds far back among the hills, and hidden themselves to escape it."
The young mother laid the baby in its cradle, and rose to set food before her guest, but suddenly there came the noise of wild confusion: shrieking and wailing of women's voices, a cacophony of brazen trumpets, the clashing of swords, and a desperate cry: "The soldiers! the soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children."
The young mother's face grew white with terror. She clasped her child to her and crouched motionless in the darkest corner of the room, covering him with the folds of her robe, lest he should wake and cry. But Artaban went quickly and stood in the doorway of the house. His shoulders filled the portal from side to side, and the peak of his white cap all but touched the lintel.
The soldiers came hurrying down the street with bloody hands and dripping swords. At the sight of the stranger in his imposing dress, they hesitated. The captain of the band approached the threshold to push him aside, but Artaban did not stir. His face was as calm as though he were watching the stars, and with his eyes he held the soldier silently for an instant, then said in a low voice: "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.” He showed the ruby, glistening in the hollow of his hand like a great drop of blood.
The captain was amazed, his eyes expanded with desire, and the lines of greed wrinkled around his lips. He stretched out his hand and took the ruby. "March on!" he cried to his men, "there is no child here. The house is empty."
Artaban re-entered the cottage and prayed: "God of truth, forgive my sin! I have said the thing that is not, to save the life of a child. And two of my gifts are gone. I have spent for man that which was meant for God. Will I ever be worthy to see the face of the King?”
Artaban followed the new little household, to Egypt, seeking everywhere for traces of the Messiah. Because he had been told that he would not find Jesus in a palace, Artaban looked from place to place, passing through countries where famine lay heavy on the land, and the poor were crying for bread. In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and comforted the captive; and his years passed more swiftly than the weaver's shuttle that flashes back and forth through the loom.
It seemed almost as if he had forgotten his quest. Thirty three years Artaban pilgrimed and sought after the Light. Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the King, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem. It seemed as if he must make one more effort, and something whispered in his heart that, at last, he might succeed
It was the season of the Passover. The city was thronged with strangers. But on this day a singular agitation was visible in the multitude. The sky was veiled with an ominous gloom. Artaban joined a group of people from his own country, Parthian Jews who had come up to keep the Passover, and inquired of them the cause of the commotion, and where they were going.
"We are going to the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls, where there is to be an execution. Have you not heard what has happened? Two famous robbers are to be crucified, and with them another, called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people, so that they love him greatly. But the priests and elders have said that he must die, because he gave himself out to be the Son of God.
Could it be the one who had been born in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago, at whose birth the star had appeared in heaven, and of whose coming the prophets had spoken? So the old man followed the multitude with slow and painful steps toward the gate of the city.
Just beyond the entrance of the guardhouse, a troop of Macedonian soldiers came down the street, dragging a young girl with torn dress and disheveled hair. As Artaban paused to look at her with compassion, she broke suddenly from the hands of her tormentors, and threw herself at his feet, clasping him around the knees. She had seen his white cap and the winged circle on his breast.
"Have pity on me and save me! I also am a daughter of the religion which is taught by the Magi. My father was a merchant of Parthia, but he is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death!” Artaban trembled.
Was it his great opportunity, or his last temptation? One thing only was clear in the darkness of his mind. One thing only was sure to his divided heart - to rescue this helpless girl would be a true deed of love. And is not love the light of the soul? He took the pearl from his vest. Never had it seemed so luminous, so radiant, so full of tender, living lustre. He laid it in the hand of the slave.
While he spoke, the darkness of the sky deepened, and shuddering tremors ran through the earth heaving convulsively like the breast of one who struggles with mighty grief. The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loosened and crashed into the street. Dust clouds filled the air. The soldiers fled in terror, reeling like drunken men. But Artaban and the girl whom he had ransomed crouched helpless beneath the wall of the Praetorium.
What had he to fear? What had he to hope? He had parted with the last hope of finding him. The quest was over, and it seemed he had failed. But, even in that thought, there was peace; not resignation, not submission, but something more profound. He knew he had done the best that he could from day to day.
One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his gray head resting on the young girl's shoulder, and the blood trickling from the wound. As she bent over him, fearing that he was dead, the old man's lips began to move, and she heard him say in the Parthian tongue: “My Lord! I was never able to feed you, give you drink, took you in or clothed you. Three and thirty years have I looked for you; but I have never seen your face, nor ministered to you, my King."
He ceased, and a sweet voice came - very faint and far away. "Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my people, thou have done it to me."
A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.
Let us pray. Great God, we thank you for giving us the foreknowledge of the Messiah, that we can know your love in ways beyond words - from his presence in this world. We thank you, too for for the stories that shape our lives. We are grateful for the great many that come from this fable and our scripture passage. But those lessons would be nothing if not for the memories and vignettes of the story that will come back to us in the coming week. So thank you for memory and recollection. And most of, gracious God, thank you for your son, who has changed everything for eternity. And all your people say, Amen.