Merry Christmas! This is the story I told in place of a sermon on Christmas Day morning.
There are many tales told of the wise men who came to visit Jesus. The Bible tells us very little, not even how many there were. We just assume there were three because there were three gifts, but many legends talk about a fourth wise man, or sometimes woman, who tags along somehow, and this is one such story. It originally comes from France – but this version is my own.
There were four friends who lived in the East. They were all astrologers, who looked to the stars for messages. You may know of three of them, called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but there was a fourth too, and his name was Ziba.
Ziba, to be frank, was a bit of a dreamer. He just couldn’t make decisions about anything. There were just too many possibilities to consider. But that meant that at least Ziba kept his eyes and his mind open. And maybe that’s why it was Ziba who first saw the star. A new star, shining in the night sky; a bright star that surely meant something, but what?
Ziba called to his friends to come and see, and all of them agreed that this must mean that something important had happened. “It is said,” said Caspar, “that when a star appears a great leader must have been born somewhere.” The others agreed, but who, and where…? They asked all the wise people they could find, of every nation and faith, and finally they discovered that a nation far to the West of them, called Israel, was longing for a new king, a king sent by God, who would lead them in God’s name and establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace in the world.
“That sounds like a very fine hope, and surely, “they said, “this star must be the announcement that he has been born. We must go and visit him!”
“But of course, “said Melchior “ we must take gifts. Kings deserve gifts”
“Fine gifts,” said Balthasar. “What shall we take?” They agreed to go away and think about it, and, in the morning, when they set off they would each reveal what they were taking.
The morning came, and the camels were prepared for the long journey. When everything else was loaded, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar came out carrying their gifts, wrapped in silk.
“I am taking the baby some gold – Gold for a king who comes from the splendour of heaven, gold to remind us that in him are all the riches of God’s love.”
“And I am taking frankincense,” said Melchior “like the frankincense which is burned in the Temple, whose sweet smoke goes up to heaven as a symbol of our prayers, to remind us that this king shows us the face of God and brings us close to him.”
“And I am taking myrrh”, said Balthasar, “the ointment which we use for healing, because this king will come to heal the broken hearted.”
All four agreed that these were fine gifts.
“So, Ziba, what are you taking,” asked the others. “I don’t know,” said Ziba, miserably, “I can’t decide. I want it to be really special, but I can’t think of anything special enough – still, perhaps I will find something on our travels. By the time we get there, I’m sure I’ll have something to give.”
The other three rolled their eyes – typical Ziba – still, what could you do about him? He’d just have to come as he was!
So the wise men set off, heading westwards, in the direction of the star. It was a long journey, across the desert, stopping at towns and villages along the way. And everywhere they stopped, Ziba hunted for a gift for the newborn king. He looked in the bazaars. He looked in the libraries – perhaps a really special book would do, a precious book, full of wisdom. But there was nothing that was quite special enough. The days passed and the weeks passed, and still Ziba had nothing to give the child when – if – they found him.
When they got to Israel and to the court of King Herod – where else would a king be born? – Ziba even looked around there. Perhaps the King could suggest something? But somehow he didn’t trust Herod, and he was quite glad when Herod sent them on to Bethlehem. That was where King David had been born, so perhaps it was worth a try.
And when they got there – look – the star appeared. It was shining down on… that couldn’t be right!...an ordinary little house, and not even on the house, but on the animal shelter at the back. A king? Born here?
The wise men stopped and looked at each other. No one wanted to say it, but could this possibly be right? They got down off their camels and wondered what to do next. At that moment, a man came out of the stable. “Can I help?” he asked.
“I know this sounds daft, but we are looking for a baby sent by God, born to be a king, following that star, and this is where it seems to be shining…”
“Well,” said the man, “ I don’t know about messages in the stars and all that, but our baby is certainly a king to us, and a gift from God – come on in and see for yourself.”
Suddenly the wise men knew, somehow, that this was the place and this was the child. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar reached into their saddlebags for those gifts they had packed so carefully, but Ziba, of course, had nothing to give.
Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar set off towards the stable. “Aren’t you coming, Ziba?” they said. But Ziba just looked miserable. “I have nothing to give the child. I can’t come in there with you,” he said. “ I will stay here and look after the camels – you go on in.”
So the three went in to the stable, and poor Ziba was left outside. “Well, while I am here I might as well do something useful. I expect these camels could do with a drink. I’ll fetch some water from the well for them.”
There was a well in the stable yard, and a bucket beside it. Ziba went across to the well in the stable yard and picked up the bucket beside it. He looked down into the well. It was very deep, and the water at the bottom was still as glass. And on the surface of the water Ziba saw the star, which had led them all this way, reflected in it. It was bright as day, and beautiful. “What a wonderful star” he thought, “What beautiful light it has. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And suddenly Ziba had an idea. “What better present to give to the child than the very starlight that brought us here? If the star shines in the well, surely it will shine in the water I bring up in my bucket,” thought Ziba. “Yes, that’s what I’ll do – draw up the starlight in my bucket , and take it to the child in the stable.”
So, Ziba lowered the bucket down the well. When it hit the water the starlight shattered into a million pieces, but soon the water became still again and there was the star, shining in the bucket, just as it had before. Ziba carefully pulled the bucket up, and still the star shone there. Then he took the bucket by the handle and eagerly walked to the stable. He opened the door and stepped into the darkness of the stable. There were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, kneeling in the straw in front of the baby and his mother, with their gifts laid on the floor in front of him.
They looked around to see who had come in, and Caspar came over to him. “Shh! The baby’s sleeping. What have you got there? “ he hissed. “ A bucket? We don’t need water in here...” “No,” said Ziba “ I’ve brought a present for the child.” “Huh! What?” “I’ve brought him the starlight. It was there in the well, and now I’ve got it in my bucket!”
“Oh Ziba,” said Caspar with a sigh. “Don’t you realise that it was just a reflection of the star above you. Now you are inside the stable, you won’t be able to see it. Look!”
And Ziba looked, and sure enough, all he could see reflected in the bucket was the wooden roof of the stable, and his own miserable face staring back at him. As he looked at his reflection, a big, fat tear rolled down his cheek and splashed into the water. “What a fool I am – not a wise man at all. And I still have nothing to give to the child.”
Ziba heard someone moving behind him, but he didn’t want to look around. He felt so stupid. He gazed down into the bucket again. If only he had been able to bring in that starlight – it was so beautiful.
“What’s the matter?” said a gentle voice behind him, and reflected in the water he saw the child’s mother bending over the bucket to look in it, and the reflection of the child in her arms too. And then a strange thing happened. The water in the bucket began to glow – brighter and brighter. The light was coming from the child’s face, and it filled the bucket, and it filled the stable, and it filled Ziba’s heart too. It was even brighter than the star, and more beautiful too. And suddenly Ziba realised that it didn’t matter that he had nothing to bring for this child. It was enough that he had brought himself, just as he was, dithering and confused. God loved him and welcomed him anyway.
And the wise men, all four of them, slept that night in the stable with the Holy Family and then the following morning began their long journey home again. At the end of their first day’s travel they stopped in a village for the night.
The villagers were intrigued to know where these vistors had come from. So the four of them told them about their long search for the child, led by the star, and how they had found him in a stable and given him their gifts. “What gifts?” asked the villagers. “What did you give him?” “Gold and frankincense and myrrh”, they said – “and then there was Ziba’s gift….!” And Ziba told the story of how he had thought he could capture the starlight in his bucket, and how daft he’d been – it was just a reflection – but how the light of the child had filled the bucket and filled the stable, and filled his heart. “It was just an ordinary bucket, like this one,” said Ziba, picking up a bucket that was standing nearby. And he looked down into it,
And a strange thing happened. The bucket was filled with light, but this time it was his own face that was shining - lit up by this story he was telling, lit up by the love of God. And even stranger, when the villagers told the story later, to their friends and neighbours they found that the same thing happened all over again. Their faces lit up too.
And so it has been ever since. As the story has been told, so the lives of those who have heard it and told it in their turn have been lit up, with the light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, however dark it is, cannot put it out. And maybe your face, and mine, might glow a little brighter this morning, as we hear and share the story of the child who is the Light of the World.