Here is a sermon from my archives on the journey of the Magi. It includes a shortened telling of Henry Van Dyke’s The Story of the Other Wise Man, along with allusions to Matthew 25:31-46.
Where Is He?
A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
The new light in the heavens was enough to set the wise men on a long and difficult journey. They journeyed hundreds of miles to Palestine from the east, from the area we now know as Iraq and Iran. The wise men studied the stars. They knew all the cycles of the moon, all the courses of the stars, all the constellations. They believed that this new star could only point to one thing: a new and great king had arisen somewhere. The king of kings had arrived.
We do not know how they determined that Palestine was the location. Perhaps they calculated it from the coordinates of the star. Perhaps they had heard the messianic prophecies from the many Jews whose ancestors had not returned home to Israel after the exile of 587 BC, who now still lived in what used to be Babylon. Perhaps a number of clues led the wise men to Jerusalem.
It’s clear that they were extraordinarily open to being led. Going straight to the heart of Judah, the capital city, Jerusalem, they immediately started asking directions. “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews?” It made sense to ask there. You want to find royalty? Go to the place of royalty.
I don’t know what made the wise men so eager to find Jesus. But I do know what makes our hearts long to see him, why we long for the Savior. Our prayers are full of the longing: for help and healing, for a sinful past not to destroy the future, for peace in our hearts and peace in the world, for a star to guide us through every uncertainty.
Word of the wise men and their inquiries quickly reached the palace of King Herod. Immediately he sensed a threat. But he also sensed an opportunity to stop this new king before he even got started.
Herod consulted the chief priests and Bible scholars. “What does the Bible say about where the Messiah will be born?” he asked. For the experts, that was an easy one. “In Bethlehem, of course. That’s what the prophet said: ‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are by no means the least of the cities of Judah; for from you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Herod then called the wise men in for a conference. He planned to use them to get the information he needed to stop this threat before it could develop. Herod found out from them when the star had appeared, and thus approximately how old this child was, and then he supplied them with the information they were missing. The place to find the Messiah is Bethlehem. “Go and make a careful search for the child,” Herod told them, “and when you find him, let me know so that I, too, may go and worship him.”
That’s how a piece of scripture led the wise men out of the big city, and to a little town. It took them out of the palace and into an ordinary house. It took them out of the power center of the nation and to the birthplace of shepherds, the low people on the totem pole. This scripture led the wise men away from a king who only served himself, and to a king who served everyone else.
No, the palace, the center of wealth and power was not the place to find Jesus. The place to look is in little Bethlehem, among the little ones. Read on in Matthew. Journey on through scripture in Matthew. There Christ is with the sick and the suffering, laying gentle hands on them. There he is, acting like a compassionate shepherd, making friends with sinners, seeking the wayward sheep. There he is keeping company with the outcasts. There he is, helping the weak. There he is on a cross, in the company of criminals.
Over a century ago the wise men’s search for Jesus inspired Presbyterian pastor Henry Van Dyke to compose a much-loved Christmas short story, the story of The Other Wise Man. He is the same Henry Van Dyke who wrote one of our favorite hymns, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”
In the story Van Dyke imagines that there was another wise man, named Artaban, who started his journey towards Jesus from even further in the East than those who actually made it to Bethlehem to see Jesus. The plan was for him to join the others in Babylonia, then travel on together to find the king. They would wait for him as long as they could, but if he didn’t arrive by a certain time, they would have to set out without him. Artaban had three jewels he planned to give the king.
On the way to Babylonia, Artaban came across a very sick man, and he stopped to care for him. It was enough of a delay to keep him from reaching the other wise men in time. They left without him.
Artaban continued on his quest for Christ alone. His search lasted thirty-three years. The question of his life was “Where is he? Where is the Christ?” Along the way he used the gifts he had intended for the Christ child to care for other people in need. He lived a life of mercy. After thirty-three years, Artaban made one last trip to Jerusalem in search of Jesus. When at last he drew near, almost near enough to see Jesus in person, he learned that Jesus was at that very moment dying on a cross. But even on the way to Golgotha, Artaban stopped to help someone else in need, using the last of his treasures. Then he felt he had nothing left to give his king. He was disappointed, but he didn’t see how he could have done otherwise. At that moment he heard the Lord speak to him: “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.”
Where is he, the king of kings? Where? “I am among the hungry and the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. What you do to them, you do to me.” Where is he? Follow the scripture to the little town, Bethlehem, and to the little ones of the earth. Follow the scripture into ministry. Follow the scripture. Christ is born where people are hungry and sick and in prison. It’s Christmas where people are hurting and need him so very, very much. It’s Christmas where peace is so very, very precious, so very, very needed.
You will not find Christmas in the palace. You will not find it in the bank vault or in any other worldly power. You will not find it in a store, or a bottle or a box. You will find it where Christ is born this very day to help and to heal.
The king and the bible experts failed to heed the scriptures. But the wise listened. They let it lead them to Bethlehem. They let it lead them to the little ones.