ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019
The Fourth Wise Man
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2: 1–12
For over a month, we’ve been hearing sermons about light in the midst of darkness, beginning with the four candles of the Advent wreath: Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love. Last week, Sabrina spoke of the darkness of the Bonnechere Caves and various sources of light. She spoke of Jesus being the Light of the World, being His own power source, and Jesus’ ability to move us from darkness to light. Today is Epiphany (which comes from the New Testament Greek word meaning “manifestation”). On this day, we celebrate the manifestation of God the Son, as a human being, a baby named Jesus … God with skin. In Western Christianity, the focus of Epiphany is mainly on the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, a revelation of God to the Gentiles, showing us that the Good News of the Gospel is not just for Jews but for everyone, particularly all those who acknowledge Jesus as God’s Promised Messiah … moving us from darkness to light.
Today’s Gospel Story tells us that, after Jesus was born, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” These Magi, very wise men, came from the Middle East, from present-day Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Often they are called the “Three Kings,” but the Bible neither tells us the number nor that they were kings. The number three is only a guess because they brought three gifts. Despite these unknowns, they were definitely well-educated. They were scholar-priests, experts in astrology and astronomy. They would have been highly respected, both in their own countries and those surrounding them. According to legend, their names were: Melchior, the King of Arabia; Gaspar, the King of Sheba; and Balthazar, the King of Egypt.
Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that there are times when biblical principles are revealed in curious places, such as literature, culture, tradition and art. We are surprised by their presence in unusual forms, yet they challenge our perceptions, our preconceived ideas, of what it means to live out our faith. Because all Truth is God’s Truth, it can be found in many places. One such example is in the form of a legend about a ‘Fourth Wise Man’, whose name was Artaban. There are numerous versions of this story, so I smushed a few together and came up with my own
Artaban was a Persian King whose study of the planets and the stars led him to predict the birth of the King of kings. He was a man of great wealth and great faith. With his learned companions, he had searched the scriptures as to the time that the Savior should be born. They knew a new star would appear and it was agreed, between them, that Artaban would watch from Persia while the others would observe the sky from Babylon. It is said that he sold everything he possessed and purchased a large sapphire, a flawless ruby, and a shiny pearl, which he intended to present to this King of kings. On the night he believed the sign was to be given, Artaban went out on his roof to watch the night sky. He told himself, “If the star appears, the others will wait for me ten days, then we will all set out, together, for Jerusalem.” Sure enough, the star appeared at the appointed time and Artaban began his journey.
After many days of difficult travel and frustrating delays, he came across an old Jewish man lying on the road, suffering from a deadly fever, begging for help. Artaban hesitated, then dismounted. If he stopped to minister to a dying stranger, he could miss his three friends; but if he left now, the man would surely die. What a choice! Would he forfeit the reward of his years of study and faith to do a single deed of human mercy? He stayed with the sick man, caring for him and nursing him back to health. Artaban gave him all that was left of his bread and wine, along with his store of healing herbs and instructions for the man’s care. ‘I have nothing to give you in return,’ said the grateful man, ‘only this – our prophets foretold that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem. May the Lord bring you in safety to that place, because you had pity upon the sick!’
Though Artaban rode as fast as he could, it was after dawn when he arrived at the designated meeting place. His friends weren’t there! Finally his eyes caught a piece of parchment nailed to an olive tree. It said, “We have waited till past midnight, and can delay no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert.” Artaban sat down in despair. “How can I cross the desert with no food and an exhausted horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire and buy camels and food for the journey. I may never catch up to my friends!”
Several days later, when Artaban arrived in Bethlehem, the streets were deserted. As he wandered through the town, the door of one small hovel was open, and Artaban could hear a mother singing a lullaby to her child. He entered and introduced himself. The woman told him the Magi had appeared in Bethlehem, found Mary and Joseph and presented their gifts to the baby. Then they vanished. Joseph had taken his wife and babe that same night and had secretly fled. There was a rumour they were going far away, into Egypt.
Suddenly, women were screaming outside and someone shouted, “Herod’s soldiers are killing baby boys!” The terrified young mother eye’s held those of Artaban. Soldiers were running down the street. One approached the door of the hovel, trying to push Artaban aside, but he stood firm. He stretched out his hand, revealing the giant ruby, and the soldier grabbed it. “No children here,” he told the other soldiers. With tear-filled eyes, the mother said, “You’ve saved the life of my little one. May the Lord bless you and keep you and give you peace.”
Artaban, still seeking the King, went on into Egypt searching everywhere for the little family that had fled Bethlehem. He passed through countries ravaged by famine and poverty. He lived in plague-stricken cities, visited the oppressed and those in prison. He searched the busy slave-markets. Though he found no one to worship, he found many to serve: he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and comforted the captive. Thirty-three years had now passed since Artaban began his search. He knew his life’s end was near, but he was still desperate with hope that he would find the King. Old and weary, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem.
It was the season of the Passover and the city was crowded with strangers. Artaban asked where they were going. One answered, “We are going to the execution on Golgotha outside the city walls. Two robbers are going to be crucified, and with them another called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people. He claims to be the Son of God and the priests and elders have said that he must die.” How strangely these familiar words fell upon the tired heart of Artaban. They had once been words of hope. Now they came to him like a message of despair. The King had been denied and rejected. Maybe he was already dying. Could he be the same one for whom the star had appeared thirty-three long years ago?
Artaban’s heart beat loudly within his chest and thought, “Maybe I will still find the King and ransom him from death by giving my treasure to his enemies.” But as Artaban started toward Golgotha, he saw a troop of soldiers coming down the street, dragging a sobbing young woman. As he paused, she threw herself at his feet, her arms clasped around his knees. ‘Have pity on me; save me! My father is in debt and I am to be sold as a slave to pay the debt!’ Artaban trembled as he again felt the conflict arising in his soul. It was the same he had experienced in the on the road in Babylon and in the hovel in Bethlehem. Would he fail again?
He knew immediately what he must do. He took the pearl from his coat pocket and exchanged it for the girl’s freedom. According to the legend, no sooner had Artaban paid off the debt and secured the girl’s release, than things went from bad to worse. Suddenly the skies went unnaturally dark, and a violent earthquake shook the city. A heavy tile, shaken from a roof, fell and struck him. He lay breathless and pale. What had he to hope for? He had given away the last of his tribute to the King. The quest was over and he had failed. The rescued girl leaned over his dying body and heard him say: “For 33 years I have looked for You, but I’ve never seen Your face nor ministered to You, my King.” A distant voice responded: “Truly I say to you, in as much as you have done these things for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done all these things for me!”’ As he took one long, last breath, joy appeared on Artaban’s face. His journey was ended. The King had, indeed, received the gifts Artaban had brought for Him!
She was a neighbour, the friend of my landlord’s daughter, the daughter of a single mom who was trying her best. She would often come to visit. When this child heard it was my birthday, she went home and returned with a gift: a few pennies and some beads, at the bottom of a white sock, all treasures. Like Artaban, she willingly gave all she had.
Have we seen Jesus’ natal star? Do we follow it, trusting it will lead us to Him? What gifts do we bring to the King of kings? Shiny, sweet-smelling, expensive treasures? Or gifts of time and talent, getting our hands dirty, serving those whom society has rejected?