Chalking the Door
Like a headache that wouldn’t go away; the light in the sky had been tugging at his brain. It shouldn’t be there – it wasn’t there before; and there was no reason for it to be there now. Yet, there it was. Like a half drawn shade in a neighbor’s window, it was teasing him – tempting him. He wouldn’t speak aloud the question which sat in his soul. Can this light, can this star mean that a king is born, a king like the world has never seen?
In those days, he tried to occupy his mind with other things, to pretend that the star wasn’t there. But deep down he knew; he knew that he’d soon prepare to journey towards that star; to try and decipher its meaning. He knew it as he knew himself. He was a star follower; he could not do otherwise. As long as he could remember it had been so. He had always been a searcher, a seeker; looking for something more, something beyond himself; some meaning, some purpose, some …truth.
His parents never understood. His relatives never understood. Most of the people he knew never understood. The marketplace was world enough for them. Gold and the pursuit of wealth was all they sought to understand, all the wisdom they needed. But, he wanted more, needed more than that. They never understood, so he lived his life alone in a crowded room.
Alone that is, until he met the teacher – the Magus. His parents had sent him there for an education. The Magus consented to interview him as a favor to the father. But, he never intended to accept him for he had enough of silly student pranks. Then the Magus saw in the boy that hunger, that insatiable hunger to know more, understand more. The teacher saw himself in the eyes of the boy; saw the thirst that had once consumed himself.
So, each day they met to study the ancient mysteries. Each night they studied the night sky looking for some kind of message from the God who had placed the stars in the heavens; and who, some said, promised to send a new prince to bring greater understanding of things divine.
The years passed. The young man grew in knowledge and understanding of the stars, and of the Zoaster. Still, he was not at peace. Each night his eyes strained the night sky searching.
Then the light appeared; that unexplainable light. The student went to the teacher to ask what he should do; though in his heart he already knew. And as they spoke and gazed at that night sky the eyes of the teacher began to sparkle, began to shine in a way they had not shone in years.
Go, he said, and find the meaning of that light. Find the new king.
And the young man sold his most treasured possessions, that he might bring to the new born King a gift worthy of great value.
He bid farewell to his friends, to his parents. He ignored the looks of ridicule from some who thought this to be a foolish journey after stars. He pulled away from the fearful tears that poured out his mother’s eyes. He had to go. He had to find out.
Each day he rode onward, following that light. On his way, he met other star followers. The journey was not so lonely now; for he had found others who shared his thirst; this need to know and understand.
The light brought them to the country of Judea; and the light was brighter now than it had been before. The capitol city seemed the most likely place to find a new born king, so they went to Jerusalem, to the court of the ruler Herod the Great. There they met an old man whose eyes reigned in suspicions born from too many intrigues of politic and power. He offered them little help, but the Hebrew Magi, their wise men knew of an ancient story, a prophecy which said that a great ruler shall be born in a small country town called Bethlehem; and this town was only a few miles to the south.
The end of their journey was tantalizingly close. The young man worried. What would he find? What if there was no king there? What if there was? He was used to being a seeker; what would he do now? The final miles were a torment.
There was nothing special about the town. It was like a hundred they’d passed through. But, the light seemed to shine on this unlikely place so there was no question this was their journey’s end.
A question here, and question there led them to the family who like the town appeared at first ordinary and unassuming. It was not that they emitted a special divine glow; it was just that they seemed to radiate a kind of peace which he did not understand; yet which overwhelmed him as well.
The star follower had reached his journey’s end. He knelt, he offered his gift, and he disappeared into the fog of history. There was nothing else to do at the moment; but he knew he would here more of this child in future years.
And so, in twelve verses the Bible simply tells the story of star followers who searched over great distances to find this new born King; who sacrificed much in the journey to find him; and gave themselves wholly in worship at their journey=s end.
Of these Magi, we know precious little. The Bible gives only these twelve verses. Traditions expand the story. Some said there were twelve which was a number of completeness, (as in the twelve Apostles, or twelve tribes of Israel); but others said there were three representing the three gifts mentioned of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t give the number, but most of our Nativity scenes contain these three. Some traditions even identified their names as Caspar, Melchior, and Baltazaar; and their ages at twenty, forty, and sixty. These are only traditions; guesses made to expand the story.
What we do know about these Magi is that they probably originated as a tribe within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia, in what is present day Iraq, but was then ancient Babylon. They would have been heavily influenced by a sixth century Persian religious leader named Zoroaster who believed in a single God, not the polytheistic view held by most in that time. He also believed that there was a cosmic struggle between good and evil.
They may have also been aware of Jewish Theology because of the Judaic exile of the time. Under King Nebuchadnezzar, also in the sixth century B.C. the bulk of the Judean population had been conquered and driven across the Arabian Desert and into Babylon to serve as slaves. However, some of them, because of their abilities, came to hold positions of power and influence. In fact, the prophet Daniel became a Aruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.@ (Daniel 2:48) The seeds of expectation for a coming Messiah may well have been planted in Magi lore by Daniel and other Jews who remained even after the exile ended.
Magi were noted for their knowledge and wisdom and understanding of astronomy and astrology which were closely linked at the time. The focus of the Magi was on exploring, learning and understanding the world in which they lived. Knowledge and wisdom were for them intertwined. It is from their name we derive our English words magic and magician. Though magic is not what they were about.
What we learn from these particular Magi is that they were seekers who would not quit. They endured much to find this King. Certainly there were rigors of travel in such a time; especially considering that they did not really know where they were going. There would have been those who thought their journey foolish and a waste of time.
Probably the most remarkable thing about this story is that these men stopped to ask for directions in Jerusalem; the first recorded instance of men ever asking for directions. That is probably when people began to refer to them as Awise@. Day after day they plodded along keeping their eyes always on the light.
Sometimes people give up on God because they have offered some fleeting prayer for some desire of the heart; and when no answer seemed forthcoming – give up. God does not exist or does not care they believe. In today=s fast food society where patience and persistence are relics of earlier generations. People are not willing to wait for marriage, for promotion, or for God. They lose sight of the light, so faith for them seems a fantasy. As a result they never really find what they are looking for; what will give them real peace; because they settle instead for cheap substitutes or quick fixes. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Blessed are they that wait for the Lord.” (30:18)
Those whom we count wise today refused to settle for less. The light was always before them; and they were willing to follow it wherever it would lead. Their thirst for God was that strong; their desire for wisdom that great. And no sacrifice was too great.
For they offered more than the gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” They gave this new born King the journey that brought them there, the time and the effort. They gave him worship as well. They believed wisdom would be found in these things.
Henry Van Dyke, who was one of the great religious novelists of the last century, wrote a classic in religious literature called The Other Wise Man. It is a fictional account laden with scripture, of a fourth wise man whom he called Artaban, who also set out for Bethlehem.
He had seen the star, had guessed at its meaning, so he sold all that he had to buy three priceless gifts: a gold crown, a ruby, and a pearl of great price. Then he set out on his journey to meet the other three.
Along the way he met a man beaten along the side of the road, almost dead. Artaban stopped and helped and gave his gold that the man might be treated. The delay caused him to miss seeing the new born King, for Joseph and Mary had already departed for Egypt.
While he grieved, Herod’s soldiers came to kill the children of Bethlehem. In the house Artaban was staying in there was a mother and child; so when the Captain of the soldiers came for that child also; Artaban gave up his second gift so that this unknown child might be saved.
For thirty three years, Artaban roamed looking for this king, with only his last gift remaining, the pearl of Great price.
As it happened he came to Jerusalem during the Passover; when he encountered a man bearing a cross through the streets, and people shouting, “Behold the King of the Jews.” It was a man called Jesus, the son of Mary. Artaban had at last found his king.
So, he ran to catch him, clutching his pearl of great price hoping to buy his freedom; when he bumped into another mother and child who were being sold into slavery. Artaban stopped, gave up his last gift; for he could not bear to see them lost.
In his own eyes he was a failure. He had not been able to present any of his gifts to this long awaited King. Then he heard a voice, “When did I see thee hungry and not feed thee, naked and not clothe thee. If you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”(Matthew 25:40) Artaban had indeed given his gifts to this king; and so do you each time you give freely of yourself to those in need.
Each of us, I think, are born with a bit of the star follower in us. Each of us sometimes yearn for greater understanding, thirst for increased wisdom, hunger for God. We look at the night sky and wonder. Somewhere along the line we settle for substitutes: knowledge in place of wisdom, work instead of worship, things that tickle our fancy rather the matters of the spirit which bring us peace.
The “bread of life” of which Jesus speaks is not fast food. (John 6:35) It is not wrapped in cellophane and something we can quickly pick up on a Sunday morning. Rather it is something we must continue to strive to hold and take within ourselves. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do His commandments.” (Psalm 110:10)
So, as you look forward to this new year, let you goal be one of greater wisdom and greater understanding of the things that really matter. Don’t just settle for knowledge; but seek wisdom that you might use that knowledge well. Don’t bury yourself only in work; but seek those moments when worship revives you wonder. Don’t be distracted by things which tickle your fancy; but focus on the matters of the spirit that really bring peace.
All of these begin and end as we come to know more deeply the nature of that new born King. That will make for a great new year.
God of light and love: We have each of looked into the night sky and wondered, hungered for greater understanding, increased wisdom. We confess we have often given up too soon, and settled for too little.
Help us to keep our eyes fixed upon the light. Grant us patience and persistence that we might keep on the journey and stay the course. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of this days, Lest we miss thy Kingdom’s goal. Amen