Search for the King

While keeping the camels, Gaspar longs to be like the two wise men who study the stars. Can he ever be regarded as anyone other than a simple servant?
Wisdom. Gaspar kept reaching for it, but he could never quite grasp it. Perhaps it was something that could not be learned. No, he refused to believe that. One day he would be like Melchior and Balthasar, able to read the meaning of the stars.
As a keeper of camels, he earned no respect. But when he stood with the wise men on the rooftop at night, he had significance. They regarded him as a simple servant. Yet satisfying their needs made him a significant servant and a self-appointed disciple.
After mounting the last stone step to the roof, Gaspar stopped to catch his breath.
By the dim lamplight, Melchoir bent over the low table and made a dot on the parchment, then connected it with a straight line to another dot. In the midst of his charting, he sometimes came to amazing conclusions.
Balthasar lay flat on his mat, gazing upward.
Gaspar sat next to the chart. “What do you see? Will there be famine or an abundant harvest?”
“One only looks and sees.” Melchior’s tone was harsh, as if Gaspar had asked a dumb question. “Never ask, or your desire will answer with either what you want or what you fear. Then you’re only telling the stars what you want them to say.”
Gaspar looked at one bright, twinkling star. Although it moved faster than the smaller, steady stars, its track could only be seen by charting its progress. “What is that oddly shaped star to the right?”
“Oh, that’s—” Balthasar turned to see the chart, then looked back at the sky. “Amazing. I’ve not seen a star like this since I was a child.”
“What does it say?”
“A new star means a birth,” Balthasar said. “Somewhere, a king has been born, but where?”
“In that constellation?” Melchior stroked his beard. “It points to the land of Judah.”
Gaspar could hardly contain his excitement. “I must tell Shalev about this. For centuries the Jews have anticipated the coming of a savior king.”
The news blew through the Jewish community like a sandstorm. God had raised a scepter in Zion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, for which there must be gifts taken. Who would go? The discoverers of the star, of course, Melchior and Balthasar.
Two days before they were to leave, Gaspar was feeding the camels, brooding over not being invited.
Melchoir walked up. “We need a young servant to carry the gifts before the king. Do you know anyone who would be willing to join us in the long journey?”
Gaspar gulped and stammered, unable to speak, so he nodded.
Melchoir’s smile turned to laughter. “Go to the tailor Arman. He will prepare your elegant dress.”
The Jewish tailor was old enough to be Gaspar’s grandfather, yet his motions and demeanor revealed a sharp mind and steady hand. He took no measurements other than to visually note Gaspar’s height and build.
The next morning, Gaspar tried on the blue tunic and tan robe with burgundy trim. Perfect.
“Wait,” the tailor said as Gaspar was about to leave. At the far end of the room, he opened a wooden chest and brought what appeared to be a bowl heavily wrapped in soft cloth and fastened with a seal. “My grandfather gave me this when I was a child.” He caressed the fabric like someone saying goodbye to a dear friend. “It once belonged to King David, or so I have been told.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?” Gaspar said.
Arman smiled as if he thought Gaspar was wise. “You will know,” he said, “when the time comes.”
After packing his garment and bowl with his other belongings, Gaspar joined Melchior and Balthasar.
For months, they braved hot days and cold nights across the desert. When high winds stirred the sands and darkened the sky, they huddled in their tents and covered their faces. The king’s star brightened and left a growing trail behind it. Then it disappeared.
In Jerusalem, Melchior approached one of the leading priests in the Temple. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” he said. “We have seen the star signaling his birth and have come to honor him.”
None of the priests or teachers had seen such a star. They showed no concern for signs in the heavens and knew nothing about any newborn king.
For three days they searched, asking many questions among the merchants at the market and people on the streets. Their questions stirred great interest—or maybe a sense of alarm. Not one person would acknowledge even the possible existence of a king other than Herod.
“You should ask the king,” they said.
Gaspar was left to tend the camels while Melchior and Balthasar went to the king’s palace. The shadows had grown long by the time they returned.
“What happened?” Gaspar said.
Melchior looked disappointed. “We must go back tomorrow.”
“The king called a meeting of the leading priests and commanded them to tell where the Anointed One was born. Anyone who values his life would never withhold information from the king. They obviously did not know.”
Balthasar laughed as if he had enjoyed the king’s displeasure. “The priests and teachers of the Law may be searching the scrolls all night. Herod didn’t have to tell them what would happen if they didn’t have an answer by sunrise.”
In front of their tent outside the city, Gaspar watched the first stars appear. All these days, they had searched in vain for information that would lead them to the new king.
Slumped back on their mats, Melchior and Balthasar refused Gaspar’s offer of a raisin cake. They weren’t hungry. They didn’t have to say why.
It appeared they might have travelled this distance for nothing. For Gaspar, a failed mission meant he had spent a long time away from home. But for wise men, being wrong was devastating. It meant a loss of respect.
“Don’t worry,” Gaspar said. “We know the king has been born. We have seen his star. The scholars will find the information we seek.”
He then spent a sleepless night wondering if he was right.

Herod’s Perfect Scheme

After hearing news of a Jewish king’s birth, Herod wants to squelch the rumors and kill the threat. If he can’t intimidate the leading priests and teachers of the Law, and if no one will cooperate in finding the child, will he lose his control over the people?
Herod’s scream echoed in the courtyard as he pounded his fists against the marble column. Where was his captain of spies? He turned at the sound of footsteps. “Sosa! I summoned you an hour ago. Why the delay?”
Sosa bowed. “I come bearing news, O king, but first I needed to be certain. Rumors are stirring of a newborn ruler of the Jews.”
“Do you think your men are my only spies? I have others who tell me what people are unwilling to say.” Herod leaned against the stone wall surrounding the bronze fountain. “You have discovered the source of rebellion?”
“I have. Two men in strange dress, foreigners from the east. But so far, my men have been unable to locate them. They may be somewhere outside the city walls.”
If you had come when I called for you, I could have introduced you to them. Their questions are stirring concern, but they are not the source of the rebellion. They are searching for the new king—the same as you should be.”
“My men have found no evidence of this king,” Sosa said. “Nowhere within the city.”
“Then he must be outside the city walls.” Herod slammed his right fist into his left hand. “These men did not come from that far away without Jewish support. Somewhere, people are wanting to overthrow my rule.”
“What more can we do?”
“Wait—but not for long. Matthias knows he’ll not be high priest for another day if he doesn’t tell me what I need to know. Someone knows, and it is his job to find out.”
After a restless night, Herod entered his court to greet Matthias. A rabbi was with him, holding a scroll. Both appeared to be too calm to be bearers of bad news.”
“You have found the new king?” Herod said. “Here in the city?”
“No, but he must be nearby. We have found a prophecy.” Matthias nodded to the rabbi.
“An obscure writing this is,” the rabbi said, “which is why we did not immediately know of it.” He opened the scroll and began to read: “But you, Bethlehem, are only a small village among the people of Judah. Yet out of you will come one who will rule Israel, whose origin is from ancient times.
Herod stopped pacing. “Where in Bethlehem?”
“Every scribe and teacher and priest searched all night before we found these words,” Matthias said. “Surely the king did not expect us to find the child as well.”
“No, not find him. Have you heard anything from the people? A rumor, perhaps. Anything that might tell us more about where he is.”
“Nothing other than what I heard here yesterday—from the two men who study the night skies.” Matthias hesitated, as if he knew something he hadn’t told. “Those men created no small disturbance around the market and even in the Temple, but your people would never acknowledge anyone but you as their king.”
As Matthias and the rabbi were leaving, Herod’s gatekeeper announced the arrival of Melchoir and Balthasar.
Standing tall and erect, Herod put on a commanding expression as one who is always in complete control.
“We have returned at your bidding, O king.” Melchior had a look of both fear and hope. “You have learned where the new king resides?”
Herod nodded, doing his best to appear excited. “God be praised that you discovered the star and came from so far. Our prophets have foretold this day—when God would send a mighty ruler to follow me when I am gone. We must go to honor the soon-coming king.” He motioned to his servant. “Make ready my chariot.”
“As you wish.” Melchoir bowed. “Our caravan will join your procession.”
“Wait!” Herod yelled to his servant, already entering the hall, and motioned for him to return.
Wearing a humble look, Herod turned to Melchior. “I am sorry. In my eagerness to see the heir to my throne, I have failed to honor those who have brought the good news. Exactly when did you say the star appeared?”
“There have been six appearances of the new moon,” Balthar said.
“You go to Bethlehem,” Herod said. “Diligently search for the child. When you find him, come tell me where he is so I may also worship him.”
As soon as the two men had left the palace, Herod called for Sosa.
“You have a mission for me?” Sosa said.
“Yes, in Bethlehem. If you fail me, it will be your last.”
“If you know where the child is, why do you not send your soldiers to arrest the family?”
“I am no fool,” Herod said. “People might see the guards coming and hide the child where he could never be found.”
“Then we will publicly torture or kill the men one by one until someone confesses.”
“Even that might not work. Failure is no option here. Do you understand?” Herod smiled, eager to reveal his brilliant plan. “The foreigners are going to find the king and report to me. The people will never suspect that I have sent them.”
“How can you trust foreigners to be loyal to you?”
“I don’t. You must follow them like a shadow but do not allow yourself to be seen. You will lie in wait on the road to Bethlehem until you see them coming on their camels. When they have found the child and you know their location, bring word to me.”
“What if they are unable to find the child?”
“Did you think I had not planned for that possibility? I asked when the star appeared so I would know how old the boy was.”
“How old?”
“Six months, they said. But they may have intentionally misled me. It might have been longer. The child might be a year old, or even more. It will be a sad day in Bethlehem if the boy is not found, because there will not be a male child alive there—not any boy who is two years old or less.
That night in bed, Herod rolled to one side, then the other. At first he dreamed of good news from Sosa in the morning. Upon rising, he reassured himself. All possibilities had been covered. The threat would soon be dead.
Squelching the rumors would be easy. Herod called for his writers to prepare parchments announcing the discovery and death of one who some thought would be the new king of the Jews.

Star of Bethlehem

After days of searching, Gaspar waits to hear what the wise men have learned from Herod, if anything. Would they find the child, or would they have to return home, defeated?
Gaspar stood in front of the tent, pacing nervously. He gazed at the eastern horizon. How soon would they be going home? Today, perhaps. Unless someone knew where to find the new king, there was no choice but to go back in disgrace.
He looked toward the eastern gate. Travelers flowed in both directions. A cart laden with pottery had lost a wheel, forcing the road to take an undesirable turn on the uphill slope.
How long did it take to get an answer? Either the priests knew or they didn’t—a simple yes or no. Gaspar’s mind wandered to the most likely possibility: Melchoir and Balthasar had been arrested. If he went to find them, he too could be shackled and die in prison. Or be executed.
So he lay back on his mat and waited. He listened to the bleating of sheep and the clatter of carts on the road. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the darkness.
Will you sleep the day as well as the night? Balthasar’s voice, calling to him from the dungeon. No, the voice was real.
“Balthasar!” Gaspar jumped up and hugged him, clinging to him. “Where have you been for so long?”
“Right here for much of the day. After leaving the palace, we bought food at the market and thought it best to prepare a hearty meal.”
The smell of lamb roasting on an open fire made his mouth water. What was this, a feast?
Melchoir looked up from turning the meat. His smile said they had gifts to deliver before going home.
“You have found the new king?” Gaspar said.
“Not yet,” Melchoir said, “but we know where to go. Bethlehem—not far from here. Come and eat. Then we must dress for the occasion.”
“Yes,” Balthasar said, “A servant cannot be shabbily clothed when presenting frankincense and myrrh to a king.”
In his concern for finding the child, Gaspar had almost forgotten his responsibility. He was to present the two urns containing the expensive fragrances.
Gaspar sat and ate, but not comfortably. He felt no need for celebration. They needed to go. When they found the king, then they could celebrate.
The sun had fallen low by the time they reached the road to Bethlehem. Travelers coming and going would soon be finding places to bed for the night.
Gaspar glanced back toward Jerusalem, high above them. A bald man with a goatee trailed behind them, a towering hunk of muscle. The man looked away, as if he did not want to be caught staring.
He had to admit, their caravan was a strange sight, the three of them, dressed more like priests than travelers. Except priests didn’t ride camels.
The first stars were appearing when they entered the town. Gaspar nodded at the night watchman as they passed, following Melchoir’s example.
Behind the inn, Gaspar tethered the camels while Melchoir went to pay for their lodging. Balthasar kept staring down the street, as if wondering where a palace could be hidden in such an insignificant town.
“How will we find the king?” Gaspar said. “Will we have to knock on every door?”
“I’m ready if that’s what we need to do. We have come too far to take a different road now.”
“There is no need.” Melchoir’s smile rivaled the brightness of the sun. “News seldom escapes the ear of an innkeeper, and I was not disappointed. Strange as it may seem, the innkeeper’s wife delivered the baby in this very stable because they had no room in the inn.”
“Where is the family now?” Balthasar said.
Melchoir pointed down the street. “Twelve houses that way, on the left.”
Gaspar unpacked the two urns of fragrance and walked toward the street. “Wait!” he said. “I forgot the bowl.” After breaking the seal and removing the thick wrapping, he gasped at what he saw. This was not a bowl. It was a beautifully crafted crown of gold. He rested the crown upon his head, a perfect fit.
He looked at Melchoir and Balthasar, feeling like he was one of them. “See, I’m a prince now, not a servant.” He smiled proudly. “Now I’m ready to see the king.”
At Melchoir’s knock, a man opened the door, his expression asking why such odd-looking strangers would come so late in the day.
“Shalom,” Melchoir said. “We bring gifts from afar if you will allow us to come in.
There was the child, on the far side of the room, sitting on his mother’s lap. The sight stole Gaspar’s breath for a moment. He left the men to approach the king, carrying the two urns, one in each arm. With each step he sensed more of God’s majesty, so humbling he was on the verge of crying, so intense he wondered if he might faint.
Gaspar rested the urns on the floor. “I bring you these gifts from many Jews in a distant land, because they could not be here themselves to honor their king.” Never before had he felt so good being a lowly servant. He bowed until his head touched the floor.
He started to back away, but he could not—for the crown weighed heavily upon his head. The gold was not meant for him, but for a king. He placed the crown between the urns. “I believe this crown was once worn by the greatest king in Israel, and now it is given to one who is even greater.”
That night, after all that had happened, Gaspar felt no need to be wise. Being a servant brought greater rewards. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Gaspar awakened in a sweat, his heart pounding. With trembling hands, he shook Melchoir. “Wake up.”
Melchoir glanced toward the window as he turned. “Why? It is barely light outside.”
“There is danger here. I had a dream. Not once, but three times. A bald man with a goatee appeared out of the shadows, leading soldiers, their swords drawn.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Go back to sleep,” Balthasar said. “You probably just sensed the storm coming.”
“No, you don’t understand. The man in my dreams is the same one who followed us yesterday.”
“We told Herod we would report to him,” Balthasar said. “We should keep our word.”
Melchoir looked hesitant. “Pleasing Herod was not our mission. Maybe we should listen to Gaspar. How often does one have the same dream three times?”
Before the sun had time to rise above the horizon, they were on their camels, believing they had chosen wisely to avoid Jerusalem.

The Great Escape

After hearing the wise men’s story, Joseph questions whether his family is safe in Bethlehem. But where would they go?
Joseph listened to Melchoir and Balthasar tell their story while Gaspar went to see the baby. First, the star had appeared. That led to generous giving by the Jews in their land and a mission to bring gifts to the new king. After asking so many in Jerusalem, the men believed their search would end in failure.
“Herod did not know either,” Melchoir said, “but he demanded the priests bring an answer by morning.”
“You never want to make this king angry.” Balthasar stepped back and held his hands forward, as if to protect himself from an attacker, acting fearful yet smiling. “You might not live to see another day.”
“Apparently,” Melchoir said, “an ancient prophet foretold your son’s birth in Bethlehem. Herod wanted to honor the child. Indeed, he had already called for his chariot when he decided to give us the privilege of coming to you first.”
Gaspar walked up, nodding, his eyes filled with tears. “We were a strange sight to those on the way. Travelers couldn’t understand why three richly dressed men were riding the dusty road on camels.”
After parting embraces, Joseph stood at the door and waved. “May God give you safe journey.”
“Look!” Sounding excited, Gaspar pointed above the house. “There’s the star.”
Joseph beckoned for Mary, with Jesus cradled in her arms, to come and see.
For a while, they all admired the star for its brilliance and unique appearance. Then they exchanged hugs and gave farewells again.
An hour later, Joseph couldn’t sleep. The men’s words kept churning in his mind. Today had been a miracle. Tomorrow would be different—just another day for him to wonder whether he could earn enough to provide for his family.
Mary turned on her bed, smiling. “We are not poor as before. The sweet-smelling fragrances and the crown—are they not enough to make us rich?”
“Would you part with the crown?” Joseph rolled on his bed to stare at the ceiling. “I think not. Therefore, the gold will buy no food for the table. You are right about the urns. We can sell them as long as the fragrances remain strong.”
Suddenly sleepy, Joseph closed his eyes.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Dark clouds were building on the horizon as he drifted into the scene more deeply. Then came the sound of marching feet, soldiers breaking into houses, blood flowing like a river through the street, mothers wailing in despair.
A sense of great danger made him tremble. He needed to take his family and run. But to where? To anywhere that was safe.
Out of the darkness, a bright light appeared. “Get up!” An angel’s voice, thundering from the clouds. “Herod will search for the child to kill him. Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother, and stay there until I tell you to return.
Joseph shook Mary’s shoulder. “Get up. We must go.”
“In the middle of the night?” Mary turned to face Joseph. “Go where?”
“I heard the voice of an angel, warning us to leave. If we stay, Herod will come to kill Jesus.”
“Where will we go?”
Joseph stood to light a lamp, already inspecting all that had to be packed. “South to Hebron, then west to the coast and down to Egypt—beyond Herod’s reach.”
“This will not be as easy as coming from Nazareth.” Mary rolled up the bed and tied it with a cord. “We have a third traveler now—and more to carry.”
“We can only take what our donkey can handle. I will carry Jesus.”
Mary smiled. “Do you know how hard it is to hold a squirming baby who wants to crawl? We will each take a turn.”
So much was lashed to the back of the donkey, it appeared to be carrying a small house. They really needed a second donkey. Travel would be slow, perhaps making it impossible to stay ahead of soldiers pursuing them. They needed to leave now.
Although the sun had started to rise, the town was strangely asleep. Even the dogs that should be barking weren’t interested in their departure. The watchman didn’t seem to notice them.
Joseph glanced back toward Jerusalem. Dark clouds were moving in from the northwest. They might be soaked with rain, but that was okay if they could escape Herod’s sword. He would not feel safe until they were traveling near the coast, south of Gaza. At their pace, that day might be a week away.
“Do you see the camels?” Mary pointed to where the road rose between the hills. “Are those our friends from last night?”
“I believe so.” Joseph watched the men disappear from view. Why would they take the southern route around the salt sea and not go through Jericho? They must also have anticipated danger from the north, an observation he didn’t want to share with Mary. He turned so she could see his smile. “If we could catch them, maybe we could borrow one of their camels.”
At the market in Hebron, Joseph looked for another donkey to lighten their load. It seemed, when one was desperate, the prices always went up. The man insisted on fifty denarii, the kind of public thievery unknown anywhere. Twice, Joseph walked away, until finally the man agreed to exchange the donkey and ten denarii for all the frankincense.
Mary was exhausted, but Joseph couldn’t afford for them to stay in the inn. It wasn’t the lack of money. He feared for their safety—that they might be noticed in a public place. Instead, he found a secluded spot beneath the stars.
In Gaza four days later, Joseph left Mary with the donkeys while he went to the market. While paying for bread, he overheard a merchant in what appeared to be an excited discussion with a traveler.
“Not just in Bethlehem,” the traveler said. “Soldiers searched the houses on all the hillsides nearby. Every boy baby is dead.”
The burly merchant, with dark, hardened features, had tears in his eyes. “Does anybody know why?”
The traveler shook his head. “Something about Herod wanting to silence the rumors about a new king being born. That’s all I have heard.”
Joseph ran to find Mary. “We must go now,” he said.
They moved quickly beyond the city, then through Rafa, Arish, and Farama, each day thankful to be closer to Egypt.
How long would they have to live so far away from their homeland? Until the angel said it was safe to return.
But who could say when that would be?

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