December 2014

Don’t Print the Legend

One of my favorite films is “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a 1962 American Western film starring James Stewart and John Wayne. The story is about Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles- by the way this is where we got our oldest daughter’s name) who arrived in the frontier town of Shinbone by train to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As they make their way to pay their respects to the deceased, a reporter and his editor approach asking Stoddard to explain why a United States Senator would make the journey from Washington just to attend the funeral of a local rancher. 

Stoddard's story flashes back 25 years to his arrival in Shinbone as a young, idealistic attorney. His stagecoach is robbed by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). When Stoddard takes Valance to task for robbing old ladies of their heirlooms, he is brutally beaten. In town, a restaurant owner, his wife, and his employee, Hallie, tend to Stoddard’s injuries. When the Town Marshal has neither the courage nor the gun fighting skills to challenge Valance; Doniphon (who loves Hallie and plans to ask her to marry him) is the only man willing to stand up to Valance. Stoddard opens a law practice in town, earning the town's respect by refusing to knuckle under to Valance, and by starting a school to teach reading and writing to illiterate townspeople.

Shinbone's residents meet and elect Stoddard and the publisher of the local paper as their two delegates for a statehood convention at the territorial capital. After Valance and his gang assault the publisher and trash his newspaper office, Stoddard goes into the street to face Valance. Valance toys with Stoddard, but Stoddard fires and to everyone's shock, Valance falls dead. At the statehood convention, Stoddard is nominated as the territory's delegate to Washington, but his "unstatesmanlike" conduct is challenged by a rival candidate. Stoddard decides that his opponent is right; he cannot be entrusted with public service after killing a man in a gunfight. Seeing Stoddard's reluctance, Doniphon takes him aside and confides that he, Doniphon, actually killed Valance from an alley across the street, firing at the same time as Stoddard. Re-inspired, Stoddard returns to the convention, accepts the nomination, and is elected to the Washington delegation.

The flashback ends, and Stoddard fills in the intervening years: He married Hallie, and then, on the strength of his reputation as "the man who shot Liberty Valance", became the first Governor of the newly minted state. He then served as Ambassador to Great Britain before his election to the U.S. Senate. The local reporter and editor now know the truth about Valance's death; but after some reflection he throws his notes into the fire and says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." 

We too hold onto legends. In 1857 Rev. John Hopkins Jr. popularized the wise men that brought their gifts to Jesus when he composed the well-known carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. Few Biblical stories are as well known yet so clouded by myth and legends as that of the magi. Let’s look at several legends concerning the magi:

First, legend tells us that there were three wise men. Bible says nothing about the number of visitors. There is no convincing reason to think that only three Magi came. The fact that there were three gifts does not mean that only three men offered the gifts. There may well have been more than three, maybe a dozen, who came from "the east," and were representatives of one or more great nations. 

Second, legend tells us that the three wise men were named Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar, from three different nations (Babylonia, Persia, and India). One early writer called them three kings. However, all this is tradition with no basis in Scripture. 

Third, legend and most modern day nativity scenes have the wise men coming around the birth of Christ. However, we do not know the actual time of arrival, but we do know that it was not the night of Christ’s birth. Scripture indicates that the magi arrived sometime later.  Matthew used the word for “child” (Matthew 2:11), not “infant,” and the magi came to Christ's house (2:11), not the manger.  And the fact that Herod commands all children under the age of two to be killed seems to indicate that Jesus was around that age. Finally, Mary sacrifice in Luke 2:24 of turtledoves would be inappropriate if they received expensive gifts at Jesus birth. 

Fourth, legend tells us that the magi were merely astronomers and astrologers. This is so, but these men were more than just that. They were as priests or sages; students of science, but also trained in religion, philosophy and medicine. Some were associated with various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our word “magic” and “magician” are derived. But the Persian word “magio” means expert in the stars. They eventually became a sort of priestly class, and were attached to the royal courts of Babylonia and Persia, and even those of more distant lands such as Arabia and India, as consultants and advisers to the nobles of those lands. However, the magi, especially those in Babylon and Persia, could have been influenced by Daniel, as well as Mordecai and Esther, and familiar with the Old Testament. 

But we should not let the legends of the magi overshadow the truth. The magi came to worship Christ. They presented gifts (Matt 2:11) to Him as one who is King. Gold has always been considered as the most precious metal and universal symbol of value and wealth. It is also a symbol of nobility and royalty. It might represent a gift for His deity. Frankincense was costly, beautiful smelling incense that was used only for special occasions. It could represent the fragrance of His humanity. And myrrh was a perfume, not quite expensive as frankincense. It was mixed with other spices in the preparation of bodies for burial. Myrrh may represent the gift for Christ sacrifice and death. God used the magi to present to the world Christ’s deity, humanity, and death. Likewise, this season, may we worship God through truth rather than legends.
                                                                                                                            -Pastor Mike Kotrla