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December 24, 2012
The Gospel: Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Sermon: "The Fourth Wiseman"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
[When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ]
The Fourth Wiseman
You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, The Fourth One, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it? He did not arrive with his friends in the presence of the young child Jesus. Have you heard of the great desire of this fourth pilgrim, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial; of his many wanderings and the probations of his soul; of the long way of his seeking, and the strange way of his finding, the One whom he sought? I have heard fragments of it in the Hall of dreams, in the palace of the Heart of Man.
Artaban was the Fourth Wiseman. One night he was asked about the strange star that had been seen in the sky. Artaban answered: “It has been shown to me and to my three companions among the Magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. My three brothers are watching at the ancient Temple of the Seven Spheres, at Borsippa, 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 house and my possessions, and bought these three jewels: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl, to carry as tribute to the new King.
The star came again. So Artaban set off across the dessert to join his friends and travel to Jerusalem. On the way Artaban found an old Jew lying abandoned by the trail side. At first he thought the man was dead, and Artaban was simply going to pass by him as he was in a hurry. He knew that his friends would be leaving at midnight, and time was now growing very short. But the old Jew stirred. Artaban, moved by the man’s suffering, stopped to help. Giving the man his ration of food and water, the man slowly revived. He apologized for having nothing to repay Artaban’s kindness, but in learning of Artaban’s quest the man told him that the new King would not be found in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem.
Artaban remounted and rode hard to join his friends. This news was critical for the success of finding the new King. When he arrived at the Temple of the Seven Spheres, however, he was too late. The other Three Wisemen had already gone on without him. He found a note: “We have waited past midnight and can wait no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the great dessert.”
Artaban sat down upon the ground and covered his head in despair. “How can I cross the desert,” he asked, “with no food and with a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire I was to give to the King, and buy a train of camels, and provision for the journey. I may never overtake my friends. Only God the merciful knows whether I shall not lose the sight of the King because I tarried to show mercy.”
Artaban returned home, sold his sapphire for provisions for the journey ahead, then set out. After many months he arrived in Bethlehem. Asking a woman with her young son for directions, she told him that she knew of the family he was seeking. She told him that just a few days earlier his friends had arrived, telling of a star that had led them to where Joseph and Mary and their child now lived. But the strangers had mysteriously left in the night, and so had the young family.
Just as she spoke, there was an uproar in the village. Screams could be heard all around. Cries of fear and horror were filling the very air. The soldiers of Herod had come. They were killing all the male children so that this new King of Israel could not take his place. Now they were coming down the street, searching door to door, where he and the woman with her son stood outside her house. Dashing inside, the woman and son hid as Artaban stood in the door to greet the soldiers. He welcomed the captain saying, “I am alone in this house, 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 at the splendor of the gem. The pupils of his eyes expanded with desire, and the hard 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 still.”
The child was saved. But he had missed the new King. And again, Artaban had spent one of the gifts he’d saved for that King by helping a person in need. He wondered if he’d ever be worthy to see the face of the King.
Learning that the family had journeyed to Egypt, Artaban left Bethlehem and travelled on searching among the people of the dispersion, with whom the little family from Bethlehem might, perhaps, have found a refuge. He passed through countries where famine lay heavy upon the land, and the poor were crying for bread. He made his dwelling in plague-stricken cities where the sick were languishing in the bitter companionship of helpless misery. He visited the oppressed and the afflicted in the gloom of subterranean prisons, and the crowded wretchedness of slave-markets, and the weary toil of galley ships. In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, as he continued to search for word of the King, 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 sped by swiftly.
Finally, after thrity-three years, his search brought him to Jerusalem. All he had left was his pearl, but still he hoped this one last gift could be given to the King. There he found a great crowd rushing out of the city. When Artaban asked why he was told, “We’re going to an execution. A man called Jesus of Nazareth who has done good works and is well loved is being killed for claiming to be the Son of God. Pilate has sent him to a cross because he said that he is the King of the Jews.”
Artaban knew immediately: here was the King he’d been seeking. So he too joined the crowd going up to the hill outside the city. Perhaps the authorities would accept his pearl for the King’s life. Yet, once more, he was intercepted in his quest. He heard a young girl scream. There to the side was a girl being dragged away by the soldiers. Her father had died, and she was to be sold into slavery to pay her father’s debts. To Artaban she pleaded for help. Artaban gazed up the hill as the crowd trailed away, then looked at his pearl, his last treasure for his King. Sighing, he gave it to the soldiers to buy the girl’s freedom.
Suddenly, as he handed over the pearl, a great earthquake struck. The ground began to roll and pitch beneath him. Buildings were crumbling around as the very earth began to tear apart. Now great winds began to howl, piercing the air and seeming to rend the very stones; the sky above darkened blacker than a thousand midnights.
What had he to fear? Artaban thought to himself. What had he to live for? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute for the King. He had parted with the last hope of finding Him. The quest was over, and it had failed. But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace. It was not resignation. It was not submission. It was something more profound and searching. He knew that all was well, because he had done the best that he could, from day to day. He had been true to the light that had been given to him. He had looked for more. And if he had not found it, if a failure was all that came out of his life, doubtless that was the best that was possible. He had not seen the revelation of “life everlasting, incorruptible and immortal.” But he knew that even if he could live his earthly life over again, it could not be otherwise than it had been.
An aftershock quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the now old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his gray head resting on the young girl’s lap, and the blood trickling from the wound. As she bent over him, fearing that he was dead, there came a voice through the twilight, very small and still, like music sounding from a distance, in which the notes are clear but the words are lost. The girl turned to see if someone had spoken from the window above them, but she saw no one.
Then the old man’s lips began to move, as if in answer, and she heard him say, “Not so, my Lord: For when saw I thee an hungered, and fed thee: Or thirsty , and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three and thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”
He ceased to speak, and the sweet voice came again. And again the maid heard it, very faintly and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words: “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou has done it unto me.”
A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy mountain peak. One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures had not been lost. In giving them away they had found their destination more surely than they could have in any other way. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.