Sermon Notes: The Other Wise Man

Delivered by Carol Strickland at Abbeville Presbyterian Church, 2nd Sunday after Christmas, Celebration of Epiphany, January 4, 2015

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Introduction to Scripture

The story of the wise men from Matthew. Listen for God’s word. Matthew 2:1–12.


Today I wish to give you the story of “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke. If you were here on the Sunday closest to Epiphany five years ago, you heard it then. It’s one of my favorites. Like all good fiction stories, it’s not true in a literal sense, but true in a deeper sense. It was written over a hundred years ago by Henry van Dyke. Van Dyke was a Presbyterian minister, writer, English Professor, and diplomat (appointed by his friend Woodrow Wilson as ambassador to Luxembourg and the Netherlands). He penned the lyrics to the beloved hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” I have taken the liberty to abridge the story.

In the days when Augustus Caesar was master of many kings and Herod reigned in Jerusalem, there lived in the city of Ecbatana, among the mountains of Persia, a certain man named Artaban, the Mede. He was a dark man of about 40 years, with brilliant eyes set near together under his broad brow and firm lines graven around his fine, thin lips; the brow of a dreamer and the mouth of a soldier, a man of sensitive feeling but inflexible will–one of those who, in whatever age they may live, are born for inward conflict and a life of quest. He was dressed in a robe with a winged circle on the breast and a white cap, the garb of the ancient priesthood of the Magi.

It was a night in late September. Artaban stepped out and gazed up into the heavens for the sign. You see Artaban and his three companions among the Magi–Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar–in their search for Light and Truth had been shown a sign. They had scoured the ancient tables of Chaldea. They had computed the year the ancient prophecies concerning a new king in Israel would come to pass. They had studied the sky, and in the spring of the year had seen two of the greatest stars draw near together in the sign of the Fish, which is the house of the Hebrews. They also saw a new star there, which shone for one night and then vanished.

This night was the conjunction of the two great planets again. Artaban’s three friends were watching at the ancient Temple of the Seven Spheres at Borsippa in Babylonia, and he was watching here. If the star shone again, their agreement was that the three would wait ten days for Artaban at the temple, and then set out together for Jerusalem, to see and worship the promised one who would be born King of Israel.

So sure was Artaban that the sign would come, he had already made ready for the journey. He had sold his house and all his possessions and bought three jewels–a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl–to present as a tribute to the new King.

Overhead Saturn and Jupiter rolled together like drops of lambent flame about to blend into one. Then, behold, an azure spark was born out of the darkness beneath, rounding itself to a point of white radiance. He bowed his head and covered his brow with his hands. “It is the sign,” he said. “The king is coming, and I shall go to meet him.”

Artaban must, indeed ride wisely and well if he would keep the appointed hour with the other Magi; for the route was a hundred and fifty parasangs, and fifteen was the utmost that he could travel in a day. Over many a cold and desolate pass, crawling painfully across the windswept shoulders of the hills, down many a black mountain gorge, he pressed onward until he arrived, at nightfall of the tenth day, beneath the shattered walls of the populous Babylon.

He knew it was three hours’ journey yet to the Temple of the Seven Spheres, and he must reach the place by midnight if he would find his comrades waiting. However, near a grove of date palms, his horse slowed down and stopped, quivering in every muscle, before a dark object in the shadow of the last tree.

Artaban dismounted. The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road. His humble dress and haggard face showed that he was probably one of the poor Hebrew exiles who still dwelt in great numbers in the vicinity. His pallid skin, dry and yellow as parchment, bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marshlands in autumn. As Artaban turned away, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man’s lips. The brown, bony fingers closed convulsively on the hem of the Magian’s robe and held him fast.

Artaban’s heart leaped to his throat, not with fear but with dumb resentment at the importunity of this blind delay. How could he stay here in the darkness and minister to a dying stranger? What claim had this unknown fragment of human life upon his compassion or service? If he lingered but for an hour, he could hardly reach Borsippa at the appointed time. His companions would think he had given up the journey. They would go without him. He would lose his quest.

But if he went on now, the man would surely die.

“God of truth and purity,” he prayed, “direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which only thou knowest.”

Then he turned back to the sick man. Loosening the grasp of his hand, he carried him to a little mound at the foot of the palm tree. He brought water from a nearby canal and mingled a draught of one of those simple but potent remedies which he carried always in his girdle–for the Magi were physicians as well as astrologers–and poured it slowly between the colorless lips. Hour after hour he labored. At last the man regained some strength, sat up, and inquired about his healer. Artaban described his mission. The man blessed Artaban and said the only thing he could give in return was this: I can tell you where the Messiah must be sought. For our prophets 3 have said that he should be born not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem of Judah.

It was already long past midnight when Artaban left the Jew. When he arrived at the Temple of the Seven Spheres there was no trace of his friends. At the edge of the terrace he found a bit of parchment held down with a stone which read, “We have waited 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,” he said, “with no food and with a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, 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 sight of the king because I tarried to show mercy.”

High upon the back of his camel, rocking steadily onward like a ship over the waves, Artaban crossed the weary undulations of the inhospitable desert. Then he passed the gardens and orchards of Damascus, the snowy ridge of Hermon, the valley of the Jordan, moving steadily through the highlands of Judah until he arrived at Bethlehem. It was the third day after the three wise men had come to that place and had found Mary and Joseph, with the young child, Jesus, and had lain their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh at his feet.

The Other Wise Man now drew near, weary but full of hope, bearing his ruby and his pearl to offer the king. The streets of the village seemed to be deserted, and Artaban wondered whether the men had all gone up to their hill-pastures to bring down their sheep. From the open door of a low stone cottage he heard the sound of a woman’s voice singing softly. He entered and found a young mother hushing her baby to rest. She told him of strangers from the Far East who had appeared three days ago, and how they had said a star had guided them to the place where Joseph of Nazareth was lodging with his wife and her new-born child. “But they disappeared as suddenly as they had come,” she said. “The man of Nazareth took the babe and his mother and fled away that same night secretly, and it was whispered that they were going far away to Egypt. Ever since there has been a spell over the village; something evil hangs over it. They say that the Roman soldiers are coming from Jerusalem to force a new tax from us, and the men have driven the flocks far back among the hills, and hidden themselves to escape it.”

Suddenly there came a noise of a wild confusion and uproar in the streets of the village, a shrieking and wailing of women’s voices, a clangor of swords, and a desperate cry: “The soldiers! The soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children.”

The young mother’s face grew white with terror. She clasped her child to her bosom, and crouched motionless in the darkest corner of the room. Artaban went quickly and stood in the doorway of the house. The soldiers came hurrying down the street with bloody hands and dripping swords. The captain of the band approached the threshold to thrust him aside. But Artaban did not stir. He said in a low voice, “I am all alone in this place, 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’s eyes expanded with desire. He stretched out his hand and took the ruby. “March on!” he cried to his men.

Artaban re-entered the cottage and prayed, “God of truth, forgive my sin! I have said the thing that is not, to save the life of a child. And two of my gifts are gone. I have spent for humans that which was meant for God. Shall I ever be worthy to see the face of the king?”

Artaban then traveled on to populous Egypt, seeking everywhere for traces of the 4 household that had come down from Bethlehem, traces so faint and dim that they vanished before him continually, as footprints on the hard river-sand glisten for a moment and then disappear.

In Alexandria, in an obscure house Artaban took counsel with a Hebrew rabbi. The venerable man, bending over the rolls of parchment on which the prophecies of Israel were written, read aloud the pathetic words which foretold the sufferings of the promised Messiah–the despised and rejected one, the man of sorrows and the acquaintance of grief. “Remember, my son,” he said, “the king you are seeking is not to be found in a palace, nor among the rich and powerful. The light for which the world is waiting is a new light, the glory that shall arise out of patient and triumphant suffering. And the kingdom which is to be established forever is a new kingdom, the royalty of perfect and unconquerable love. I do not know how this will come to pass. But this I know. Those who seek him will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.”

So the Other Wise Man traveled from place to place, searching among the people of the dispersion. 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. He visited the afflicted in the gloom of subterranean prisons and the crowded wretchedness of slave-markets and galley ships. In all this world of anguish, he found none to worship but many to help. He fed the hungry and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and comforted the captive; and his years went by more swiftly than the weaver’s shuttle.

Three-and-thirty years of the life of Artaban passed away, and he was still a pilgrim, and a seeker after light. His hair, once darker than the cliffs of Zagros was now white as the wintry snow that covered them. Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the king, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem. It was the season of the Passover. The city was thronged with strangers.

On this day there was a singular agitation visible in the multitude. Artaban joined company with a group of people from his own country, Parthian Jews who had come up to keep the Passover, and inquired of them the cause of the tumult, and where they were going.

“We are going,” they answered, “to the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls, where there is to be an execution. Have you not heard what has happened? Two famous robbers are to be crucified and with them another, called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people, so that they love him greatly. But the priests and elders have said that he must die, because he gave himself out to be the Son of God. And Pilate has sent him to the cross because he said that he was the ‘king of the Jews.’”

How strangely these familiar words fell upon the tired heart of Artaban! They had led him for a lifetime over land and sea. And now they came to him darkly and mysteriously like a message of despair. The king had arisen, but he had been denied and cast out. Could it be the same who had been born in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago, at whose birth the star had appeared in heaven, and of whose coming the prophets had spoken?

He said within himself, “The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men, and it may be that I shall find the king, at last, in the hands of his enemies, and shall come in time to offer my pearl for his ransom before he dies.”

So the old man followed the multitude. Just then a troop of Macedonian soldiers came 5 1. Abridged from Henry van Dyke, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1895 down the street, dragging a young girl with torn dress and disheveled hair. As the Magian paused to look at her with compassion she broke suddenly from the hands of her tormentors and threw herself at his feet, clasping him around the knees. She had seen his white cap and the winged circle on his breast.

“Have pity on me,” she cried, “and save me, for the sake of the God of Purity! I also am a daughter of the true religion which is taught by the Magi. My father was a merchant of Parthia, but he is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death.”

Artaban trembled. It was the old conflict in his soul, which had come to him in the palmgrove of Babylon and in the cottage at Bethlehem–the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love. Twice the gift which he had consecrated to the worship of religion had been drawn from his hand to the service of humanity. Was it his great opportunity, or his last temptation? He could not tell.

One thing only was sure to his divided heart—to rescue this helpless girl would be a true deed of love. And is not love the light of the soul? He took the luminous pearl from his bosom. He laid it in the hand of the slave. “This is thy ransom, daughter! It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the king.”

While he spoke the darkness of the sky thickened, and shuddering tremors ran through the earth. The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loosened and crashed to the street. He and the girl crouched beneath the wall of the Praetorium. What had he to fear? What had he to live for? The quest was over, and it had failed. But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace.

One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his white head resting on the young girl’s shoulder. As she bent over him, fearing 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 and saw no one.

Then the old man’s lips began to move, and she heard him say: “Not so my Lord, For when did I see thee hungry and feed thee? Or thirsty and give thee drink? When did I see thee a stranger, and take thee in? Or naked, and clothe thee? When did I see thee sick or in prison, and come to thee? Three-and-thirty years I have looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my king.”

He ceased, and the sweet voice came again. And again the girl heard it, very faintly and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words. “Truly, I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.”

A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban. One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the king.

Abridged from Henry van Dyke, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1895