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How Many Wise Men?

    Can you name the reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh?

    Dasher                        Dancer                        Prancer
    Vixen                          Comet                         Cupid
    Donner                       Blitzen                        Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

    Then there is the is the tenth reindeer – Olive – All of the other reindeer smile

    Can you name the wise men – the Magi – the Kings – the astronomers from the East?

    Melchior         a Persian scholar
    Gaspar            an Indian scholar
    Balthazar        an Arabian scholar

    These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500.

    Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details.

    Also the three gifts are said to have spiritual meanings:

    • gold symbolizing virtue,
    • frankincense symbolizing prayer, and
    • myrrh symbolizing suffering.


    These three gifts lead us to our tradition of claiming that there were three kings, but the kings are not named or counted in  scriptures – so that has begged the question, “Just how many wise men were there?”

    Story of the Other Wise Man 

    Henry van Dyke wrote a short novel that was published in 1895 titles: “The Story of the Other Wise Man”. The story is an addition and expansion of the account of the Biblical Magi as we heard in our Gospel reading from Matthew this morning.

    Van Dyke’s story tells about a “fourth” wise man, a priest of the Magi named Artaban from Persia.  Like the other Magi, he sees signs in the heavens proclaiming that a King had been born among the Jews.

    Like them, he sets out to see the newborn ruler, carrying treasures to give as gifts to the child – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price”.

    However, he stops along the way to help a dying man, which makes him late to meet with the caravan of the other three wise men. Since he missed the caravan, and he can’t cross the desert with only a horse, he is forced to sell one of his treasures in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip.

    He then commences his journey but arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child, whose parents have fled to Egypt. Artaban saves the life of a child at the price of another of his treasures. He then travels to Egypt and to many other countries, searching for Jesus for many years and performing acts of charity along the way.

    After thirty-three years, this forth wise man is still a pilgrim, a seeker after light, and he is still searching for the this new king.  Artaban arrives in Jerusalem at the time Jesus is about to crucified. As he is there Artaban spends his last treasure, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery.

     “This is thy ransom, daughter!
    It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King.”

    But then during an earthquake, Artaban is struck by a falling roof tile and he is about to die having seemly failed in his quest. Yet he knew that all was well because he had done the best he could. He hears a voice,

    “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”

    (Pastor Steve’s tongue in cheek comment: Why does Artaban hear this in the 17th century English of the King James Bible?  Van Dyke had this covered: The book says the girl heard Artaban ‘say in the Parthian tongue’.)smile

    Artaban then dies in a calm radiance of wonder and joy with the knowledge that in the end his treasures were accepted, and that he had indeed found his King.

    —————– (see reference 1 below)

    Artaban never directly finds the King he was wants to honor.  But in his actions and especially in light of that text from Matthew 25 – that wonderful statement – as you feed, visit, cloth, water and take in the least and the poorest – then you do that to Jesus, Artaban can say that he did give those gift to Jesus the new king.

    Note that that scripture reads “you have done it to me” not FOR me – but rather TO me.

    That is embodiment – that what our faith is – that incarnate God made flesh kind of God  – that is what our Jesus is!

    In one of my Christmas sermons I talked about the upside down nature or our saviour arriving as a baby – a baby in need of clothing and feeding and all those primitive needs that a baby has – yet here are Jesus words saying – as you feed the least of people – you feed me.

    For me that is a big part of the idea of incarnational theology – that God in flesh thing.

    Ministering to those in need is in fact ministering to Jesus himself.  Imagine that – in feeding the poor we are in fact feeding Jesus – think of that little babe whose birth we are celebrating – it is easy to imagine that little babe needing food, clothing and hydration.

    Is that what Martin Luther meant when he said we are to become little Christs?  Not quite – we are not to become small helpless little babies, but rather we are called to act towards our neighbour as Christ (the adult) would act – little imitations of Christ.

    In the story of the forth wise man – we can see ourselves closer to Artaban’s experience as he followed, chased, and sought to have a physical experience and see Jesus face to face.  We too are following and seeking and not seeing Jesus face to face – but we too have the same yearnings to honor this new born King.

    Maybe the Magi’s original gifts would serve us well and guide us to bring gifts the King.

    They brought gold symbolizing virtue.

    What virtuous gifts can we offer to honour the baby Jesus?

    Taking stock of your moral virtues – which can you offer to Jesus?  Is it patience, is it kindness, is it generosity or forgiveness or maybe tolerance?  Since we are in still a New Year’s mode – maybe there is a resolution we could make to improve one of those virtues.  I heard on the CBC this week that only 8% of people are able to complete the year keeping a New Year’s resolution.  Another approach they suggest might be more successful is to give up some behaviour – so rather than seeking more patience, maybe we could seek to be less critical: either way … it is an increase in our virtue that we could offer the new born king.

    The eastern astronomers brought a second gift: frankincense symbolizing prayer and things spiritual.

    What spiritual disciplines might enhance our relationship to God?

    Recently Bishop Susan Johnston has named seven spiritual disciplines for us to consider – pray ; read; study; serve ; give ; worship; tell.  Is there a gift in offer one of those to the Lord of hosts?  In looking at that list of seven and looking back at my first 8 months here at Trinity – I’d say reading and praying are lacking in my spiritual life  – so I will offer this Epiphany Resolution to increase my time and energy in reading spiritual book and spending more focused time in prayer.  What about you? Is there one or more of the seven disciplines that you might consider improving as your offering to Jesus: pray ; read; study; serve ; give ; worship; tell?

    The oriental kings’ final gift was myrrh symbolizing suffering.

    This gift of course fore shadows Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.  Sacrifice is part of our faith system – without the cross, Easter morning loses significance, and without Easter then Christmas becomes meaningless too.

    So in reflecting on the gift of myrrh – the gift of sacrifice, what part of ourselves can we offer in a sacrificial way?  Our calling as Christians is to live for others and not just for ourselves.  What are the things we can sacrifice to live that live?  Pride, comfort, our need to be right, or maybe our cynicism?

    The Magi bring their gifts to adore the new king – but this is a new king whose palace is a stable – a feeding trough for a crib – the new king is among the least.

    As we heard the story of a forth wise man – Artaban’s treasured gifts were accepted as he looked after the hungry, the thirsty, the naked ,the sick and the imprisoned?  As that forth wise man offered his treasures to the needy, he had indeed found his King.

    So is there a fifth wise person in you?  Can you offer yourself, your time and your possessions as an offering to the new born King?

    As Isaiah called to the Hebrew people in exile, who were looking at returning to their spiritual and physical home of Jerusalem, Isaiah calls “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. “

    This celebration of Epiphany is a good time for each of us to arise and shine and bring our gifts of virtue, spiritual discipline and sacrifice as we respond to the gift of God made flesh – the God who calls you to shine.


    References & Credits:

    1. Biblical Magi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    2. The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke
    3. The Other Wise Man – Wikipedia;
    4. The Gifts of the Magi – Sermon
      J. Stuart Taylor III ; St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church ; Jan. 2, 2005 ;