Our family arrived at 3 a.m. in the quiet Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, Iran, in 1968 as newly appointed Southern Baptist missionaries. Since we were the first missionaries assigned to Iran from our mission agency, there were no Baptist missionaries to greet us. But, some Presbyterian missionaries welcomed us and took my wife, three children and me to their guest house in the center of the city.
By the time we settled in, it was daybreak. I was exhilarated and keyed up to capacity. Exhausted, the rest of the family fell asleep on the hard mattresses and doubly hard pillows. It was 6 a.m., and I joined early risers who were served bread with butter, jam and hot tea.
After customary greetings, my first question was, “Where do the Magi live?”
Since childhood, my Sunday School teachers taught me about the three Wise Men of Persia. I had studied the biblical characters like the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes. At divinity school, I studied comparative religions with a professor who told us he visited the Magi in Iran and studied their Zoroastrian religion.
I learned that a Magi temple was a short walk from the guest house in Tehran. Armed with only a few words of greeting in the Farsi language, I boldly set out to find the temple.
I came to the recognizable green gate and pressed the buzzer. A man appeared, dressed in a white robe, a white cap and wearing sandals. He let me in, then took me to another Magi in identical dress who spoke English. My lifelong dream of conversing with a Persian wise man began.
I told him the story about the Wise Men in the Bible – about the three Magi who traveled a long way to arrive at Bethlehem and presented to the baby Jesus the very best gifts they had: gold, frankincense and myrrh. I told him how pleased I was that they did not tell King Herod all that they knew. They really were wise and fearless. The Magi in front of me looked so calm, cool and collected as he tended to the sandalwood fire. The fire has been kept burning for eons of time.
Their deity, Ahura Mazda, wanted it to be. He told me of his prophet, Zoroaster, sometimes called Zarathustra, of the battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between Ahura Mazda and the evil one.
I felt the warmth of the fire as well as the warmth of his personality. He told me there were so few Magi and Zoroastrians left in Iran, and even in the world. He had studied the Bible and its narratives about the Magi. He said he honored Jesus as a prophet and a very wise man.
As I drank my second cup of tea dissolving a sugar cube in my mouth, as I had earlier learned to drink tea at the guest house, I looked at this Magi with his sparkling eyes and distinct Persian appearance.
After barely six hours in Iran, I had found the Magi.
He poked another piece of sandalwood into the flames, its incense refreshing the air. I felt calm, cool and collected around him. I told him the story of the Jesus I knew who grew up from that manger scene with the Magi and taught such beautiful lessons for the living of our days, the one who was crucified on the cross and was resurrected from the tomb. I told this Magi that I called Jesus Savior and Lord.
He said he had heard that story and read it in the Bible. Then he told me what I had learned in my studies of Zoroastrianism, “We teach that there is a ‘son of man’ coming in the future for whom we are to watch.” I smiled with him and said, “I believe that ‘Son of Man’ has come.”
As we walked to the green gate, I thanked him for letting a stranger in, for a warm cup of tea and for the gifts long ago of the Magi to Jesus. As I walked back to the guest house, I felt like a little boy of long ago. I really talked with a wise man! Wait until I tell Joan and the kids.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – George W. Braswell Jr. is the author of nine books, the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Missions and World Religions of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and recently retired as senior professor of world religions at Campbell University Divinity School. He is the founding director of the George W. and Joan O. Braswell World Religions and Global Cultures Center at Campbell. The Braswells served as the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Iran from 1967-1974.)