The following story was inspired by our minister who preached on the story of the wise men, and asked two questions. First, which star are we following? There are many to choose from in our over-stimulated lives. The second had to do with the transformation of the wise men (they went home on a new road): on what new roads are we travelling?
This story will, I hope, help you think about those questions. For one, the wise men themselves were not always sure which star they were following, and unless our encounter with Jesus makes a difference in our lives and in our world (and leads us to new paths) then that encounter means very little.
I love camels. Yeah, I know, I’m crazy. No one loves camels, or no one tells anyone they love camels. Most people put up with camels as a necessary evil, and camels certainly don’t love us; they hardly even put up with us. Most people just use and abuse their camels; but before you start feeling sorry for the beast, rest assured, the abuse is mutual.
My father had me working with camels from childhood, almost before I could walk. He was Master of the Stables for the late King Belzeor and I used to help him with his work. It was hard work but I loved it and learned to love the camels too. When I was growing up my favourites were Grouch, Rat and Sweets. Those weren’t their real names but that’s what we called them. Grouch was a real grouch, even for a camel, but he was a hard worker. Rat wasn’t as bad as she sounds but when she was tiny she was skittish about rodents; rustle in the straw near her and she’d jump. Sweets loved anything sweet—would steal dates from your pocket if you gave her half a chance; not everyone could handle that, but Dad was a master and I learned everything from him.
When King Belzeor died his son Balthazar took over. About the same time I took over from my dad as Master of the Stables. Like his father before him, Balthazar was a Magus, respected far and wide for his wisdom and learning. He studied the heavens and could read the stars. I was lucky enough just to be able to read a scroll.
A few years ago there was huge excitement in the household. The master was setting off on a journey. That wasn’t so unusual but what was strange was that he didn’t know where he was going or how long it would take. When we discussed the camels he would need I asked him about the roads he would follow.
“Roads?” he said. “Not roads; we’re going to follow a star.”
“Well this is going to be fun,” I thought. Finally the stars had gone to the master’s head. But he told me about a new star he had discovered to the west, which had appeared about four months before. Two other Magi had also recognised this new star as something unique, and they would be joining us. They believed the star represented a new-born king. They seemed to think he was a Jew but why the birth of a Jew (even a king) would cause such excitement or warrant his own star, I had no idea. My master and the other Magi seemed to think that this king would somehow be greater than his people. Well I didn’t know much about politics but as far as I knew Jews and everyone else to the west were ruled by Rome, so this new king would have quite a mission ahead of him.
Anyway, crazy as it sounds, we followed a star. Early each morning while it was still dark we would break camp and the master would point to the stars in the west. “There it is,” he’d say. “Let’s be on our way.”
At first we didn’t know which one was the new one, but it wasn’t long before we could distinguish it and we would look for it in the dark. We would follow it until a few hours after the sun came up then we would camp during the heat of the day. Late afternoon we’d break camp and be on our way until just before it got dark. Initially the star wasn’t around in the afternoons, and as the months progressed it would appear at different times of the day, but the Magi would do some calculations and use those for when the star wasn’t visible.
We had been on the road (not that we travelled much on a road) for about six months. What a journey it was. I could tell you a hundred stories—another time perhaps.
About six months after we started, the party nearly broke up. I thought the Magi were going to come to blows. They were usually so calm and peaceful we never heard their discussions. This time their arguing was intense and loud. We had crossed the Jordan River and had driven through Jericho, on our way, we thought, to Jerusalem. That’s the Jewish capital where their king, Herod, had his palace. But Balthazar had other plans.
“The star is not leading to Jerusalem but more to the south,” he said.
“Maybe,” said the others. “But the star is probably leading us to where the child was born; we want to know where he is now. Surely the Jewish King will know where the next King of the Jews is, if he’s not in Jerusalem with him.”
But my master was not convinced; he wanted to follow the star. “We’re not following an earthly king, but one that’s known to the heavens,” he said.
“True,” the others said. “But after so long in the desert, surely we owe it to our party to have a short rest in the city.” I wouldn’t want to be disloyal to my master but, I must say, that sounded like a grand idea. “And the star’s been with us all this time,” they added. “It will wait for us. A couple of days won’t hurt anyone, surely?”
Then they said we could hardly enter Herod’s territory, on our way to find his successor, without at least seeking an audience, and my master finally relented. So we travelled to Jerusalem and spent a week there while the Magi met with King Herod.
I didn’t meet the King, of course, but I heard all about the visit. It seems Herod didn’t know what his visitors from the east were talking about. If there was a new heir to the throne he certainly hadn’t been told. But, for all that, he was a gracious host, almost as eager as the Magi to know more and to join the search.
Herod’s wise men pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of this new king. They quoted their scriptures:
“Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
You are by no means least of the leading cities of Judah;
for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.”
“Clearly a gift from God,” Herod told them. “Go to Bethlehem and find the child. Then come back and tell me where he is so that I may also worship him.”
“Murder him, more like it,” was the reaction from the more cynical stable hands.
Jerusalem was great. The King’s stables were lavish but the camels were restless, so it was good to be back on the road again. We left early in the morning, well before dawn, and the star was there, just to the south-west where Bethlehem lay about eight kilometres away. Would the child still be there?
As we reached the base of the last hill before Bethlehem, and looked up to the village, the star seemed to rest on top of the hill. We stopped and stared. Could this be the end of our journey? We waited for the star to set but it didn’t move. It seemed to be sitting on the hill, waiting for us, until it faded away in the light of the rising sun.
My master and the other Magi were very excited. “The child is here,” Balthazar said.
I’ll never know how he did it (I’m not sure even he knows) but my master proceeded to lead the way through the village to a small cottage. What a stir we caused. I’m told that Bethlehem is where the famous King David was born but you wouldn’t know it. The villagers don’t seem to have seen anyone royal or famous for the last thousand years. They stopped and stared and followed along behind.
But when we arrived at the cottage there was something about it, and about the couple who welcomed us, that made us catch our breath. I can’t explain it but I’ve seen a lot of rich and powerful people, and people who like to think they are rich and powerful—aggression and contempt is what they do best. But not this couple; they weren’t overawed by our pomp or frightened by our numbers. There was a quiet confidence; a conviction that they were in the right place, doing the right thing. But there was humility about them too, suggesting that they might not be too sure just what the “right thing” was.
And then there was the baby.
He was just a baby; just like any other baby. But then, somehow, he was so different. Perhaps it was his parents; perhaps it was the sight of these three powerful sages kneeling down in front of him, offering gifts. Whatever it was, we all felt it—even the camels were still.
We wanted to know more, to do more. I know it sounds strange (the whole thing was crazy from the start) but I wanted to follow this baby, this child, this…King.
I could see that Balthazar also felt it. Tears had poured down his cheeks as he offered his gifts. As he gave the child’s mother a gift of myrrh I heard him say to her, “I brought this gift for your son’s anointing, but myrrh is also a sign of suffering, and I fear the swords that will put him on his throne will pierce your heart.”
I had no idea what my master meant (perhaps he didn’t either) but it was clear that the encounter with this family, this child, had transformed him. “We are not going back to Jerusalem,” he told us that evening. “We’re going to find a different path; a new road.” And I felt sure that he was talking about something more than just the route we would take home.
I still don’t understand it all, but I knew at that moment that it was time to leave the star behind and follow this child, whatever it might mean.
Balthazar summed it up for me as we gathered around him. “I don’t understand all that has happened,” he said. “I sense that we have been in the presence of greatness, but a greatness unlike anything I have come across before. I can’t speak for you,” he went on, “But I want to learn more about this child and tell people about him. Where we met him, no one needs to know that, but how he has affected us, and what it means to you and to me, that’s something to think deeply about and to share with the world. I doubt that anyone will remember a bunch of Magi coming to this place,” he said. “But, if we follow our hearts and share what we have experienced, the world will be talking about this child long after we are all gone.”
Last week was Epiphany Sunday. It’s the day we celebrate the coming of the wise men to Jesus, a symbol of his being presented to the world, the gentile world, our world. This story is not meant in any way to improve on the Bible story, let alone replace it. We have become so familiar with the Bible stories that we often fail to hear them anymore. I hope that this (and other stories I write) will help us hear the story of the wise men differently and receive new challenges.
- A Pregnancy, a donkey and a whole bunch of questions (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- Small Camel (catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com)
- The Magi (bongodogblog.wordpress.com)
A pregnancy, a donkey, and an update
The Internet is a place full of shadows. People come and go; they visit this blog as I visit others. One or two leave a comment, which is a most welcome and tangible sign of their visit. But most leave no more than an echo; something the system picks up to say that someone was here, visiting this page. Who they were and how long they stayed; whether they were challenged, horrified or simply indifferent, the echo doesn’t say; they are simply shadows.
I wrote the story, “A pregnancy, a donkey, and a whole bunch of questions” for an Advent service on 28 November 2010, and I posted it here two days later. There wasn’t much interest that year, and only 210 visitors looked at the story in the whole of 2011. This year, 2012, must be the year of the donkey, or the journey, or whatever, because 245 people viewed the story in November alone, and another 280 in December so far.
No doubt many of those who came, left with nothing more than a quick glance. Others perhaps stayed to read the story. What I’m interested in is whether someone out there has tried to use the story themselves somewhere else.
I used it again last Sunday at another church here in Pietermaritzburg. The response was very good, with the general comment being, “It finished too soon. I want to hear what comes next.”
It’s not often a preacher gets asked for more! Which is why I believe that we should tell more stories. There are risks in telling stories, which we don’t always want to take. With a sermon we lay the foundation, prepare the listeners, and then we draw them to the main point. The message (we hope) is clear, and it can be summarised in a few words.
A story is its own message. There is usually (as in the great stories of the Bible) an overall message of God’s grace, of God’s involvement in the world, of our struggle with God’s call, etc., but how people connect with the story is out of our hands.
In this story of Mary and Joseph’s journey, it is not the dialogue or their assumptions that matter. The key is simply recognising that the conversation took place; that Mary and Joseph were real people like us, who would have asked the same questions we ask, with the same fears. Yet they found a way to engage with God, and to trust him for the impossible future to which he was calling them.
When we begin to understand the people of the Bible in this way, as their experience and their encounter with God becomes more real to us (and more like ours), we can more readily engage with their story, and their story becomes our story. We can no longer ignore the challenge that their lives present; we can no longer say “well, it was all very well for them….” It wasn’t all very well at all. Yet as they listened and responded to God’s challenge, they began to reflect God’s glory, and their light still shines for us today.
Their story is no longer a fairy tale of otherworldly people, whose feet don’t quite touch the ground, and whose eyes are constantly raised heavenward. They are people like us. God took his chance with them, as he does with us. He loved them in their misunderstanding and lack of faith, as he loves us. He reached out to them when they were farthest away from him, as he does to us. They had the same questions we have, and God answered them as he seeks to answer us.
What has been your experience of story? Do they help or hinder your journey?
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