Sunday, January 10th, 2016 – First Sunday of Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Hymns: “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Look, Ye Saints!”, “Holy, Holy”, “We Three Kings”, “I Love to Tell the Story”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “These Thousand Hills”, “Joy to the World”
The Three Kings
It was an unusually cold spring that year in Ulaanbaatar. The snows had stayed late, which was itself a mixed blessing. The hordes of the Xiongnu dynasty had not been sent off to battle the Qin dynasty until well after the spring equinox – not that they were having much success, now that the Great Wall had been built.
Melchior did not mind. Seeing young men go off to die over a pointless border dispute was distasteful to him, as an academic and a scientist. But he had learned long before to keep his head down and his mouth shut – too many of his colleagues had met their end by speaking out against the emperor.
As it was, Melchior had little time for the geopolitics of Mongolia and the whims of the emperor. He was a scholar of ancient religious texts. His favorite was the Bhagavad Gita, but as of late, he had begun studying the prophetic texts of the Hebrew people. Brought overland by merchants from the west, they intrigued him with their specificity regarding the ends of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Even more intriguing, though, were the prophecies of a chosen one, a Messiah. One of the earliest prophecies came from a book in the Hebrew Torah. Said book was a dull read, mostly full of a census of the people and redundant laws, but there was one prophecy given by a man named Balaam that intrigued Melchior.
He found Balaam himself amusing – after all, his donkey had cursed him up one side and down the other at one point – but the prophecy was most interesting. It spoke of a star that would rise in the sky when the Hebrew Messiah was born. Melchior assumed that, were this to come to pass, the star would appear in the west and stay there.
A star like the one that had appeared a few nights before. It burned brightly and was visible from sunset until sunrise. At first, he had taken it to be a shooting star – something falling from the heavens to earth and burning up as it descended. But when it stayed in one place, and continued to blaze throughout the night, Melchior had wondered – might this be the star?
If so, then it indicated the birth of the King of the Jews. And so, after several days of preparation, Melchior was ready to set off for the far off land of Israel. His students had tried to dissuade him, telling him the journey would take a year or more, that he would risk the winter, that he shouldn’t take this sort of trip at his age, but he would have none of it.
Melchior collected all the gold he could lay his hands on – not much, but certainly a worthy offering for one who had been prophesied to be a king. And realistically, Melchior wasn’t sure he even believed this prophecy, but what would it hurt to find out? After all, as a scholar, he had an obligation to search out all possibilities – and this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Thus it was that, late in the springtime but before the solstice, Melchior set out on his quest. Riding his yak, he headed northwest, into the wilds of the Siberian steppe. Through warm days and cold nights, his journey carried him across the vastness of Asia, the star burning brightly in the western sky each night.
As he climbed over mountains and traversed the valleys, Melchior would stop in each town he came to, seeking out those like him – the scholars who had read the Hebrew prophecies, had seen the star appear in the western sky, and were curious to see what it truly meant. But no one he encountered was familiar.
The further he traveled from Mongolia, the harder it was for Melchior to communicate. The fluid, almost musical language of his people gave way to a guttural, harsh language. The appearance of the people changed, with skin, hair, and eyes growing lighter. Finally, as the leaves began to change, Melchior reached a village with a sign that declared its name in both his language and the language of this part of Asia: Moskha.
Given that the days were growing shorter and the nights colder, Melchior decided that it might be wise for him to stop in this village for the winter. He had picked up enough of the language of these people to rent a room for the season. It cost him his yak, but Melchior reasoned that he could figure out further transportation come the spring.
At night, Melchior would go out to look upon the star, now to his southwest. It was still there, burning brightly every night. He wondered what city the star hung over, where his quest would take him.
One night, he noticed a young man looking up at the star and taking notes. Pale skin, reddened cheeks, yellow – almost white – hair and blue eyes marked him as a native. Melchior approached him and attempted to ask if he was studying the star, but his grasp of the local language was insufficient, and so the young man just looked at him, puzzled.
Then, Melchior had a thought. If indeed the young man was studying the star because of the prophecies, then he would know the language of the ancient texts. And so, in ancient Hebrew, Melchior asked him, “Do you believe that to be the star of the Hebrew Messiah?”
To his amazement and delight, the young man replied, “Indeed! I was given the ancient texts by a trader who passed through here some years ago. He spoke of having brought them from Jerusalem.”
“I am Melchior,” he told the young man. “I come from Mongolia, and I am traveling to Israel to seek whether this star indeed represents the Hebrew Messiah.”
“Gaspar,” the young man replied. “I intend to set out in the spring, seeking the same. May I join you?”
“I would be honored,” Melchior said.
And so, when winter had passed and Moskha had thawed, Melchior and Gaspar set out, taking horses from Gaspar’s father’s stable. Gaspar brought along frankincense to present to the Messiah – a gift he believed worthy of one of such divine provenance.
The old man and the young man traveled together, down through the barbarian lands and into the Roman Empire. When they reached the Mediterranean Sea, the two had to board a boat – an experience neither had ever had before. It was a journey of a full day to reach Libya, and they did not disembark until nightfall.
As they sought lodging for the night, they saw a man, darker than any man either had ever seen before, studying the star. Approaching him, Melchior asked him in Hebrew if he sought the Messiah. “I do!” the man replied enthusiastically. “I am Balthasar. I saw the star, and I believe it is the star of the Messiah of the Hebrews.” He smiled, and then leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret with Melchior and Gaspar. “My people believe that he is Ibn Allah – the Son of God.”
Melchior nodded. “I have seen him called this, and Emmanuel – God with us.”
“He is meant to be the King of the Jews,” Gaspar added.
Balthasar smiled wider. “Then in the morning, let us go and seek this King of the Jews!”
And so, the next day, the three set off, following the star. It grew brighter and closer with each night, until one day, they reached Jerusalem. Upon arriving, they requested an audience with King Herod, the ruler of Israel.
When they entered his courts, Melchior spoke to him: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
A fleeting look of terror crossed King Herod’s face, but he quickly composed himself. “I am unfamiliar with that of which you speak,” he told them. “I will consult with my priests and scribes, and we will speak of this further.”
Several days passed, and then the three men were summoned to Herod’s presence. “I have been told that he is to be born in Bethlehem,” he informed them. “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out for Bethlehem, and when they arrived there, the star stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar were overwhelmed with joy.
Upon entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, they offered him their gifts – Melchior’s gold, Gaspar’s frankincense, and Balthasar’s myrrh – a gift that he had felt compelled to bring for reasons that he did not entirely understand.
They planned to return to Jerusalem the next morning, to inform King Herod, but that night, Melchior had a dream. An angel appeared to him and said, “I am Gabriel. I speak for the Lord God. You must not tell King Herod of the child’s presence here, for he means to do him harm.”
And so the three men departed Bethlehem by a different road, going their separate ways to return to their home countries.
Most of what you have just heard, I made up this last week. Going solely by the Biblical account, we don’t know what the names of the wise men were. We don’t know what countries they came from. Indeed, we don’t even know how many there were – the Bible simply says that wise men came from the East.
And yet, that story probably seemed very familiar to many of you. It is part of our Christmas tradition, the story of the three wise men coming to worship Jesus on the day of the Epiphany. And no matter its basis in Scripture or in fact, it is an important story. For you see, when the shepherds came to visit Jesus, they were of his own people – they were Jewish shepherds, from Israel, who were told of his birth by the heavenly host. But when the wise men came before him, they were outsiders – people not of Israel, but drawn to the Son of God nonetheless.
In essence, the wise men are a stand in for us in the Christmas story. We too are the outsiders, the Gentiles, the people not of Israel. But just as the wise men before us, we are drawn to Jesus. Though he was sent to be the King of the Jews and the redeemer of Israel, he became so much more than that – he became the source of hope and salvation for all the world.
As Christians, we hold the stories of our faith in high esteem and great importance. The stories of the life of Jesus are how we were introduced to him in Sunday School. They are what formed the very foundations of our faith. Indeed, so important are they to us that we have even written hymns about them – I love to tell the story. Tell me the old, old stories.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with all the world begins with the wise men, and it continues to breadths and depths that, even two thousand years later, have just barely begun to explore. And with this story, so we begin to tell the story of Jesus for another year.
Indeed, we love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory and his love. We love to tell the story, because we know it’s true. It satisfies the longings of our hearts like nothing else, for it is the theme of our glory as the people of Christ.
Just as Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar before us – no matter whether they were real or legendary – let us tell the story of Christ, as a witness to all the world.