Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Other Wise Man

Advent Season at The Hill Baptist Church includes many special services. This Sunday evening we will have our annual “Night of Christmas Stories.” At that service various church members read classic and contemporary stories of the season. Some of the stories are original compositions by members of our church family; the story The Advent Calendar that I posted on the blog several days ago is a story that I wrote for a past year’s service. This year a family in our church will present a story that they wrote.

But most of the stories that we share were written by other folks. Some of them are acknowledged classics.

Unfortunately, most great Christmas stories are too long to use. That is the case with one of my favorites, The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. What follows is a summary of that story.

Artaban was to join the other three wise men on their trek to Israel to see the new king whose birth the strange star signified. He had sold his house and all his possessions in order to acquire his gift for the child, a gift comprised of three jewels: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl. The agreement he had with his friends was that when the star they had seen appeared again, he would meet them where they were and they would journey together to Israel. He was ten days’ journey from his three friends and they made it clear that they would wait no longer than ten days.

Sure enough, the star appeared and Artaban set out. On the tenth day of his journey, when he was just a few hours from the rendezvous point, he came across an injured man. What should he do? His conscience told him to help the man, but his schedule told him to press on. His conscience won out and he stopped to aid the injured man. As it happened, the man was a Hebrew who told Artaban that the great king of the Jews was to be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.

Artaban left and reached the place of meeting, but his friends had already left. Artaban had to sell the sapphire to acquire provisions for his own journey to Bethlehem.

When he arrived at Bethlehem he found no sign of the family he was seeking. He did chance upon a house where a young mother was caring for her small son. She told him that a family such as he sought had been in Bethlehem and that they had attracted much attention. But immediately after being visited by three men much like Artaban the family had left. She heard that they had gone to Egypt.

Disappointed, Artaban prepared to leave, but was stopped by the sound of screaming and crying from the streets of Bethlehem. “They’re killing the children,” came the cries. Artaban stood in the doorway of the house at it was approached by a soldier wielding a blood-stained sword. Artaban reached into the folds of his robe and took out the ruby. He said that the ruby was for a soldier who understood that there was no one else in the house. The soldier took the ruby and went away.

Artaban then traveled to Egypt in search of the newborn king. There he met a rabbi who told him that the king of the Jews would not be found in the halls of power but with the poor, the needy, and the afflicted. Artaban journeyed all over Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, looking everywhere among the unfortunate and destitute for the king. He never found him. For thirty-three years he looked, and everywhere he went he helped the poor and sick and needy in every way he could.

An old man now, Artaban traveled one more time to Jerusalem. It was Passover. Hordes of people were moving together in the same direction. Someone told him that a person who some called the King of the Jews was about to be executed. Just then, a young woman who was being sold to satisfy her father’s debts broke free from some soldiers who were holding her and threw herself at his feet. Artaban used his last jewel, the pearl, to ransom her. Suddenly a tremendous earthquake struck and a piece of tile fell from a building, striking Artaban in the head. The ransomed girl held the head of the seriously wounded wise man. She heard something that sounded musical but almost like a voice. Artaban spoke.

“Not so, my Lord: For when saw I thee an hungered and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.”

Then she heard the voice again, only this time the words came through: “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.” And Artaban died, having found the King.

I love that story because of the truth it tells: it is in serving others that we find the King.

The book is still in print and is worth acquiring and reading.

There is also a very good television movie from 1985 entitled The Fourth Wise Man that is based on van Dyke’s story. It stars Martin Sheen and is available on DVD.

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