At this time of year, one of the favourite trick questions beloved by clergy tends to come to the fore.
It is, of course, “How many wise men visited Jesus?” or perhaps even “How many Kings?”
You all know better than to fall into the trap by shouting out “THREE” - though you'd be surprised at quite how many do...You all know that the idea of three visitors is based on the three types of gift mentioned by Matthew, around which a whole host of assumptions and stories has accrued through the years.
But today we remember those travellers, whatever their number, the wise men from the East whose journey to Bethlehem showed the way for all beyond Israel to seek the Christ born there.
We remember them because their journey is our journey, their search our own...whatever we may carry with us.
So now I'd like to tell you a story, one that was part of my childhood and that of my children too...the mythical tale of The Other Wise Man. You know, of course, that what we call myth is often a vehicle for deep truth, wrapped in a story that has no pretension to reality.
I think that is the case here...so, are you sitting comfortably?
There were four wise men, who were astronomers, scanning the skies, reading the signs of their times and comparing notes on their findings. They were expecting a new star to arise in the East signifying the birth of a great new ruler – and one day, the stars proclaimed that this King had been born.
Their plan was to set off when the star appeared, meet up and travel together bearing gifts for the newborn King. Artaban came from Persia, and carried with him the treasures of the orient – three priceless jewels, sapphire, ruby and pearl.
When the star appeared, he set off for the agreed meeting place, but on the way he came across a sick man by the roadside and could not pass by without offering help. After a delay, he reached the meeting point only to find the others had gone on without him.
So he sold the sapphire to buy a team of fast camels to cross the desert, hoping to catch up.
By the time he reached Bethlehem, he found the town in uproar.
Mary, Joseph and the child had fled to Egypt, the other Wise Men had presented their gifts and gone home, and Herod had ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys. Artaban was appalled as he saw violence on every street corner, and came face to face with a group of soldiers about to tear a small boy from his mother’s arms and kill him. He tried to stop them, and eventually prevailed as mother and child were released, in exchange for the ruby.
So the fourth Wise Man travelled on to Egypt, searching high and low to find Jesus. He wandered for many years through different lands, always looking for the promised King, but he could not find him. Eventually he came to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover.
The city was crowded and the atmosphere tense.
Executions were taking place and he heard that one of those who had been sentenced to death was a man said to have had a strangely marvellous birth in Bethlehem, who had received gifts from three wise men. He was known to many as the Messiah, the Anointed one, the King.
Artaban hurried to the hill outside the city where this man was about to die on a cross.
But on the way, he ran into a group of men dragging a young girl away to sell her into slavery.
She begged him for help and he responded by giving her the pearl to pay for her freedom.
He was sad because this was the last of his treasures which he had kept for the King.
At that moment, there was an earthquake, knocking Artaban off his feet. He heard a voice speaking to him, the voice of the King saying, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me.’
The old man replied, ‘Lord, I have searched for you for thirty three years, but I have never seen you or cared for you.’
The voice of the Lord came again, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.’
And so his journey, and his life work ended.
His treasures were accepted.
The Other Wise Man had found the King.’
So where is the truth in this much loved myth?
Do you really need to ask?
The Christ whom we seek shows his face to us in so many different ways...
We glimpse him in each other as we gather to worship, encounter him as we listen to his word, receive him in the breaking of bread.......but he's there to be found in all places of pain and need in our world.
We meet him in the flood victims of Pakistan, the homeless on the streets of Stroud, the recovering acoholic who likes to sit in St Matthew's if he is having a bad day.
We might meet him yet nearer to home, if there is someone who needs something from us – a family member, a colleague at work, a neighbour we recognise at church..
Christ may well come in the guise of a stranger, or, harder still, as someone so familiar to us that we think we know them inside out...and, you know, we all have a gift to offer.
Not jewels – he doesn't really need them...but gifts of love, of time, of service, which can be every bit as costly to the giver.
Today as we celebrate Epiphany we reflect on Christ revealed to the nations, the Word made flesh living among us as full of grace and truth now as at creation.
We are called, at this season and beyond, to seek
revelation, that life changing experience of Christ alive in our world, so that like the three Wise Men we may be ‘overwhelmed with joy’ and offer our lives as a gift to the new King.