Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Angle of Declination

The Epiphany of Christ (January 6, 2019)
Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Some people have a better internal navigation system than others. My brother is not one of those people. There are so many stories of him getting lost! The inventions of GPS and Mapquest, back when that was a thing, saved his skin more than a few times. My father, on the other hand, always seems to find his way, especially if he is anywhere in the State of Georgia. We even tried to stump him once. It was his birthday, so we were going to take him to the Olive Garden by the mall in our hometown. So we blindfolded him with a dark strip of cloth, verified that he couldn’t see through (I was ten years old and used a unique hand gesture just to make sure), and made him lie down on the back seat of the station wagon.

He knew every single turn we took. Main thoroughfares. Residential streets. K-Mart parking lots. It was infuriating!

Fast-forward to years later when I was in sales and driving my way through the Metro Atlanta area. I followed the Garmin GPS instructions down to the word… and nearly dead-ended into a forest! Navigational skills apparently are not a genetic trait.

This treasured story from Matthew’s gospel is, in a way, a story about getting lost, finding the right way, and charting a different course. It’s also about how people find their way and how they navigate a situation, literally and figuratively.

What do we know about these travelers? Well, as with many Biblical passages linked to the Christmas story, we need to do a little excavation. We have to dig through layer upon layer of received tradition, dust off the dirt, and get a clear look at the artifact underneath.

You may have picked up that I haven’t yet said “the three wise men.” The Greek word for these travelers is “magoi” which can mean “wise persons” or “astrologers” or possibly “magicians.” Just last night, a New Testament scholar I know, Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget, posted a myth-buster of sorts. “A little biblical note,” she typed, “The word is magoi. They were not kings. There is no evidence that they were three. And, to be masculine plural, only one had to be male.” That kind of ruins the old hymn, doesn’t it?

No, I don’t think it has to. It opens up some alternative possibilities. If they weren’t necessarily kings, what might they have been? Well, the sought-after, learned types of their own day and time, people who had the tools to search the heavens, to chart the movement of the stars, and sift through the mysteries of life to help others find their way. Maybe they were people to whom others turned to find direction. Maybe there were three of them; they brought three gifts after all. Maybe there weren’t. The text isn’t clear on the number. If they were very wealthy or prominent people (who else could leave everything behind and home and travel to a foreign land?) wouldn’t they have traveled with an entourage? Maybe with these people (we don’t really know their names; that’s the stuff of legend) was a whole team that worked together to find who is was they were hoping to discover. And, as the good professor pointed out, for the noun “to be masculine plural, only one had to be male,” maybe that makes it possible that there was a woman in the group. Of course, that’s where the old joke comes in: if they had been the three wise women, they wouldn’t have gotten lost and they would have brought some useful presents to the woman and her newborn baby!

They could be simply Matthew’s literary device, an riff on that passage from the prophet Isaiah that Rachael just read: “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; Yahweh’s glory has shone upon you… Your sons will come from far away… and your daughters on caregivers’ hips… They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming Yahweh’s praises.” Sheba, being Ethiopia from the south and west. The text from Matthew says “wise people from the East,” with East being somewhere probably around Iraq or Saudi Arabia. So they are sojourning from east and west, coming north to Jerusalem, only to head south to Bethlehem, and then back home.

The point, of course, is that we don’t know much about who they were. Matthew is more interested in telling you about who they found.

But the part before they find Jesus is where I am most drawn to this Epiphany. They make it through the gates of Jerusalem and somehow gain entry into Herod’s courts (I assume being wealthy is extremely advantageous to getting a royal audience). And Herod, threatened as any despot would be by hearing news from foreigners of a successor/contestor to his throne, his marionette throne, the strings for which were pulled by Caesar in Rome, is rattled. If you keep reading, you find out the lengths to which this tyrant is willing to go to preserve his power…

After the wise ones give the reason for their visit, Herod assembles his cabinet and legal team and religious advisors and they search the scriptures for the answer. The prophet had foretold it: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah… for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” It was Bethlehem, David’s city—David the shepherd boy who became the famed king, David whose rule the people looked back upon nostalgically—where the new king would be found. Bethlehem, not Jerusalem—Jerusalem, that capital city, that seat of economic, cultural, religious, and political power.

The message at the heart of Epiphany is that God reveals God’s self. God shows up. And where does God show up? In a podunk village, among a peasant family, in the company of roughneck shepherds and smelly livestock, and not in Herod’s palace. In a manger, not on a throne.

Do you know how far Bethlehem is from Jerusalem? 9.2 kilometers. That’s about as far as here to South Tucson. The star was in the general area. “Where should we go?” you can almost hear them asking one another, “Turn right, head to Jerusalem.” They were off their destination by a whopping 5.7 miles.

If you’ve ever been lost, you know what it’s like: you are confident that you’re headed in the right direction… and then maybe not so much. Doubt creeps in. You start to become disoriented. Wrong turns and misread cues start to snowball and before you know it you’re just plain lost.

A preacher friend of mine whose father is an avid backpacker taught her about the “angle of declination.” [1] Do you know about this? It was a new concept to me. The angle of declination is the difference in degrees between True North on the map and magnetic north that the compass will point to. You see, the needle on a compass, when it points to north, is actually not pointing to the North Pole; instead it points to the center of a huge magnetic field up in Northern Canada which is generated by the churning mix of the Earth’s molten core. Here in Tucson the angle of declination is a little less than 10 ° East; which is to say that the needle of this compass, instead of pointing to the North Pole, points to an island in northern Canada 10° east of here: and so we say there is a 10 ° angle of declination for us here in Tucson.

So, if you are a hiker this is a very important thing to know because for each degree of declination that you fail to account for, and every mile you hike, you will be approximately 90 feet off course. With each step the compass needle is being slightly “pulled” just a little bit to the east so that over time and distance it adds up.

The thing about the angle of declination is that it’s easy to forget that there is this invisible force that is acting upon your compass in such a way that if you fail to adjust for it, you will unknowingly yet gradually wander off course, be led astray, and finally become lost. Search and rescue reports are apparently full of people who thought they were following their compasses correctly but later discovered they were being gradually led off course.

Life is like that. Forces beyond our control throw us off course ever so slightly, and it happens bit by bit. We set goals for ourselves. We make resolutions (Happy New Year!). We make commitments to other people or ourselves, to values systems, to career paths. We aim to be better people, or do things differently, but little things happen. We drift. Maybe we break our promises one at a time. Maybe we suffer setbacks no one could have predicted. We find ourselves just 5.7 miles askew sometimes.

What forces pull us off course? The magnetic tug of culture, what our society counts for worth and importance? Is it old habits? The approval of others? A persistent sense of despair that things are only going to get worse, so why bother?

We have to recalibrate. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it, at least on some level? Why we come to this place, this table. To recalibrate our inner “compasses.” To find some sense of guidance and direction. To be reminded of our purpose.

Epiphany brings good news to those who are lost. The star sends us in the right direction. The Light of the World is there. When our seeking is reversed and we are found in that light, in that love, we discover overwhelming joy. For the One whose birth we celebrate is, in fact, our True North.

[1] With thanks to the Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church for offering me this illustration.