This is a story told for children, or for the child-like. This was told over the 5 weeks of Advent.
I am sure that you have all heard the story of the wise men that came to see the Christ Child. We have heard that there were three of them and they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But there is another story, about another wise man, a fourth one, first told by Henry VanDyke, and then retold in similar words many times over. This is how the story goes.
There was a man named Artaban who lived in the capital city of the vast country of Persia. His house was on the city wall that surrounded the city. From his house he could look out into the night sky and watch the stars.
One night there came loud knocking on his door. He knew who it was. He had been expecting them. They were fellow stargazers who had gathered from across the ancient East, to meet with him. Artaban was a tall, dark man in his early thirties. He was dressed in a robe of white wool over a tunic of fine blue silk. He had a turban on his head and a glistening dark beard on his chin.
He brought his friends to his roof top chamber. There were nine of them. They had all seen the same thing. A new star had appeared: one they had never seen before. They sensed that something wonderful was about to happen in the world.
Throughout that evening they talked together about this new sign in the heavens. But as that evening wore on, there were disagreements about what to do about it. As the night drew to a close five of the nine people gathered there, decided to do nothing. They did not want to follow a whim towards the west. As they filed out of the house, they said to the four who remained, “I’m too old for such a chase.” Another said, “My business would suffer if I left it.” Another said, “Let us know what you find. But, I’m sorry, I can’t go with you.” Two said, “I don’t believe it means anything. It’s a wild goose chase.” And five men went out into the darkening night.
The remaining four looked at each other, and said, “What shall we do? Shall we follow the star, or not?”
Next week, let us hear what they decided to do.
Last week I began to tell you a story about the fourth wiseman. Nine had gathered, but 5 had decided not to follow the strange star.
The four remaining men looked at each other, with the question, “What then shall we do?” Artaban, the youngest of them spoke up, “Let us follow the star in its Westward journey. But, let us first return to our own towns and villages, let us gather together the supplies we will need for the journey, and let us agree to meet at the Temple of the Seven Spheres north of Baghdad, ten days from now. We cannot wait longer than 10 days, so whoever has arrived by that date, together will make the long and dangerous journey.”
The four men shook hands, embraced each other, and then slipped out into the dawn of a new day. Artaban knew already what he was going to do. The very next day he sold his house and all his belongings, until he had accumulated a large amount of glittering gold coins. But of course they were too heavy to carry over a long distance, so he went to the jewel merchants, and in exchange for the gold he purchased three precious gems.
One was a sapphire as blue as a fragment of the sky on a clear day. One was a ruby as red as a prairie sunset. The third was a pearl as white as the snow on the mountaintops. He hid these three precious gems in a secret place he had sewn into his tunic. They were to be his gifts to give to the child-king that was about to be born.
He mounted Vasda, the swiftest of his horses, and in the early morning of the third day he set out for the Temple of the Seven Spheres hundreds of miles away. He rode like the wind through that first day, then through the next, and the next. It was a long journey and he rode from early dawn until late at night, day after day, for he knew that the 10th day would soon be upon him.
On the 10th day he was only three hours away from the Temple of the Seven Spheres. It was a mere three hours until he would be with his friends. An oasis came into view. It was a chance to get a drink of water for himself and his faithful horse, before the last fast ride
As they approached the glistening pool, suddenly Vasda stopped and smelled the air. The horse became nervous, and Artaban knew something was wrong. Then he saw it. A dark shape under one of the nearby trees. Cautiously he approached, and saw that it was a man lying on the ground. The man appeared to be dead. As he turned away, he heard a moan. The man was alive!
Now Artaban was a physician as well as a stargazer. But what should he do? If he stays to look after this man, he will miss the meeting with his friends. But if he does not help this man, he will die for sure. He looked at the far horizon in the direction of the Temple of the Seven Spheres. Then he looked at the wounded man. What was he to do?
(What do you think he should do? Let’s see what he does next week.)
During the past two weeks I began telling you a story about the 4th wiseman. He is only 3 hours away from where he will meet the 3 other wisemen, when he comes across a wounded man. If he stops to help him, he may miss his rendezvous with his friends. What should he do?
He had no choice. He knelt down by the man and gave him water, administered some of the medicines from his own supply, and tended his wounds. Hour after hour he tended his patient as he lingered between life and death. As dawn approached the man finally was out of danger. But he would need further help, so Artaban took him to the nearby village, reached into his bag and gave the innkeeper whatever money he had left, for his care. But now it was well past the time he was to meet up with his friends.
He rode on swift Vasda at break-neck speed. Perhaps his friends had waited for him. Finally, there is the temple of the seven spheres. But the place is empty. No one is there. Perhaps they also are late, he guessed. But no. He spots a note attached to the door. It said, “We can wait no longer, it is well past midnight. We go to find the king. Follow us across the desert if you are able.”
Artaban sat down. It was impossible. His horse was exhausted. He would have to hire a camel to cross the desert. But he had no money left. What could he do?
With sadness, he reached into his tunic, into the secret pocket, and he took out the sapphire, the sapphire that was as blue as a fragment of the sky. He had hoped to give it as a gift to the child born to be king, but now he has to exchange it for gold, and then to exchange the gold for food, a camel, and the necessary funds for the journey across the wide wilderness.
The transactions took him longer than he had expected, and now he wondered if he would ever catch up with his friends. But try he must. So he began the journey that would take him across the burning desert, fighting against the constant wind, zig-zagging from oasis to oasis, often finding water only in the nick of time. The days were hot and bright from the intensity of the sun. At night the darkness brought the cold and the loneliness.
At each oasis he enquired about his three friends, and always the word was, “Oh, yes, they passed by several days ago.”
After several weeks he arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem in Judea. “Now” he said, “I shall see the King, and I shall offer him the pearl of purity and the ruby of royalty.”
(Next week we will see what happened to him in Bethlehem. Any guesses about what happened to him there?)
For the past 3 weeks we have been learning about the fourth wiseman who has finally arrived in the little town of Bethlehem.
He looked for someone from whom he could get directions, but he could find no one in the streets. The streets were deserted. All the doors were shut and the windows shuttered. There was no sign of life in the town. Then as he listened, he heard the sound of soft singing. It was the sound of a mother trying to sooth her baby. He knocked gently on the door. The door opened just a crack to show the terrified face of a young woman. He explained what he was seeking, and she let him into the house, closing the door quickly behind him.
She held a beautiful baby in her arms. He had smooth skin and deep brown eyes. His heart leapt within him. Perhaps this was the child! But, no. She explained that three strangers, dressed somewhat like him, had come. They had come to see a baby born at the other end of town three days ago, and then they had gone away very suddenly. There were rumours that the soldiers of King Herod were angry, so everyone was hiding indoors.
Artaban started to leave, thanking the young mother for her help, when suddenly there was a loud crash, and into the room burst one of King’s soldiers. His eye caught sight of the baby in the mother’s arms. At the same time screams came from the other houses in the village. “Help! help! They’re trying to take my baby.”
Artaban must do something. But what? He stood there frozen in time. The Roman soldier had drawn his sword. There was menace in his eyes! The mother cowered in the distant corner holding the baby in her arms. There was terror in her eyes!
The next moment Artaban found himself positioned between the soldier of King Herod and the woman and her child. Artaban is a man of peace. But his voice sounds like the voice of a warrior. “Stop!” The soldier hesitates as he hears the military command. Artaban speaks quickly, “I will make it worth your while to pass this home by. Do the child no harm, and I will give you this.” Artaban reached into his robe, and pulled out the ruby, the ruby that was as red as a rose in bloom. The soldier looked at the wondrous gem, he looked at the terrified woman, then snatching the jewel, stepped back through the doorway. “No one here men! Let’s move out,” and the soldiers disappeared down the street.
The woman hugged her baby, as though she would never let it go, tears of relief flooded her face. Artaban was glad and sad. He had saved the baby, but now he only had one gift to give the child born to be king. And he did not know where to find him, and worse yet, he did not know whether the child he sought had survived the holocaust!
What shall he do? Let’s find out next week.
The fourth wiseman has just given away his beautiful blue sapphire and that glorious red ruby, and still hasn’t found the baby Jesus. Let’s see what happens next.
The next day he made enquiries in the town about the couple and their baby that Herod was seeking, only to hear that they had fled towards Egypt, several days earlier. There was nothing to do but follow their trail. Day after day he stopped at every village to ask if they had travelled that way, but the trail ended at the borders of Egypt. Egypt was so big. There were so many towns and villages. He did not know the names of the baby or his parents.
All he can do is wait, and listen for some word that will tell him of the presence of this wonderful child. But the weeks and the months went by without a clear word. Then the years went by, as he listened to every conversation that might tell him of the whereabouts of a remarkable child growing up into a kingly young man.
His hair turns from black to grey. His body has begun to feel the weight of the years. But all this time he has held on to the pearl. It was the one gift he had left. It was a pearl of great beauty and great price. He would never give it to anyone except to the one born to be king. Because he will not sell the pearl he must work for a living. In his travels his work took him west of Egypt, to the city of Cyrene in Lybia. While there he listened to the Jewish rabbis tell of a coming messiah. And during those years he became a member of the local synagogue. He received instruction about the God of Israel.
The day came when he put aside the name Artaban, which meant “great magician”, and chose another name, Simon, which means, “the man who listens”. And for more than 30 years he listens for any word that tells him of a man who will become king of the nations. Throughout those long years he read the words of the prophets, and listens and waits. And then it happens. In Palestine there has arisen a man called Jesus from Nazareth. He is a wonderful teacher, a healer of the sick, and a man whom people call “the Son of David.”
Simon rushes home, retrieves the pearl from its hiding place, and makes plans to return to far-off Palestine. Perhaps this Jesus is the baby, now grown and ready to become the King of the world.
In a matter of days, he arrives in Jerusalem, only to hear a terrible thing. Jesus, the man he has come to see, has been arrested. He is on trial for his life.
Simon knows what he must do. He will take his pearl, that pearl of great price. He will offer it to Pilate, and buy Jesus his freedom. He hurries off to the Governor’s palace.
But, as he moves in that direction, a small tussling crowd suddenly knocks him to his knees. A soldier is dragging a young girl down the street and they had collided, as they both rounded the same corner. The young girl is crying for help. Simon the former magician asks what the trouble is, and the soldier explains that she is to be taken away to be sold as a slave. Her family has been unable to pay its debts, so the girl must be sold to help raise the money required.
Simon looks at the face of the terrified girl, and the old dilemma faces him. What can he do? How can he help? As the soldier continues to pull the girl on down the street, Simon shouts for him to stop! “Will this pay the bill?” he asks, anguish suffusing his face. He has reached into that pocket and brought out the pearl that he had been saving all these years. The soldier eyes that gem with greedy eyes and says, “sure!” and taking the pearl, he lets the girl return to the family home.
But Simon stands there, devastated. His gifts for the King are all gone. He has nothing left with which to pay tribute.
But as he stands there with head bowed, he is caught up in another swirling crowd. A mob is taking a man out to be crucified. He sees the victim lugging a heavy cross up the steep hill. Simon asks someone who is jammed up against him, “Who is that?” only to hear the dreaded words, “It is Jesus from Nazareth, the one some call the King of the Jews.” Simon lunges through the crowd crying out in protest. As he gets to the center of that milling crowd, he sees Jesus fall under the weight of the beam that he was being made to carry. Simon lets out a cry of concern.
His cry catches the attention of a nearby soldier. Before he knows what is happening, Simon is grabbed by the soldier, with the command, “If you care that much, then you can help him carry his cross.” Simon places his shoulder under the heavy beam, and lifts it off the fallen body of Jesus.
As he lifts the weight, Simon catches Jesus looking him straight in the eye, and in those moments, when their eyes meet, Simon knows that he found the one he has been looking for.
With tears streaming down his face he says, “Oh, my Lord, I am so sorry I am so late. I’m so sorry that I have no gift to help you.” It was then that Jesus reached out and touched Simon on the arm. “You have come just in time, Simon, and that is gift enough. You have given yourself. That is all the gift I have ever wanted.”
Children you and I do not have gifts like gold, or frankincense or myrrh, nor do we have sapphires, rubies or pearls. So what could we give him during these days of Christmas? Any guesses?