As an incoming college freshman, I attended Wheaton College’s Vanguard program. It was their Outward Bound–type wilderness program; some of you may have gone on it. It was three weeks in the wilderness, and I think the basic philosophy was “Let’s figure out what will kill someone and then dial it back.” So one day I was handed the topographical map of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’m not sure I was holding it the right way, but I quickly got our group lost, pretty desperately lost.
For two or three hours, we had to just bushwhack through thick, thick brush. It was the kind where somebody was six feet in front of you, you could not see them anymore, and you would pull it back and then it would smack you in the face. But the bigger problem was that we ran out of water. The water that had started that day in our canteens was all gone and we were in a bit of trouble. So we reached a clearing that was big enough for our group to kind of collapse in, and collapse I did. I just threw my pack down, sat down on the ground, and eventually I just laid on my back and looked up at the sky.
I did not want to move. I didn’t want to move because, one, I was exhausted, I didn’t want to move because I was tired of being scratched up, and I didn’t want to move, because I was the leader, and I knew I was failing and I really did not know what to do. I don’t think our guide would have let eight freshmen die from dehydration. But I finally picked myself up somehow and move on. And it’s a good thing we did, because in not-too-far distance we found a spring and filled up the canteens, and everybody’s spirits kind of revived and we got back on track.
Well, I’ve thought about that moment when I collapsed in a state of settledness as an image of what can sometimes come upon us spiritually. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this, but spiritually you reach a point where you are just kind of exhausted and you’re done. You’re just not going to move on with the Lord; your capacity to respond—even though you know you need to—is not there. And this is one of the quieter dangers of the spiritual life. It’s one that doesn’t always get a lot of press in our day, but I think it’s one we need to attend to, and not only because I believe it’s a possible real implication of our text, but also because here living in Wheaton there are some ways in which we may be especially prone to it. I’ll explain why as we get into our text.
Response 1: Search for the King
So if you would, turn to Matthew two, the visit of the wise men. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of King Herod. So a baby is born, an everyday occurrence, really. But when this baby is born, he sets in motion two very different responses, and Matthew is telling us a tale of two responses.
Response number one, about that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem asking, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” So you have the somewhat mysterious Magi or Wise Men, and they show up in Jerusalem. When Jesus was born, it catalyzes in them this response, “We’re going to go search for him; we’re going to find him. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get to him.” And it’s hard for us maybe to fully appreciate how unlikely it was that they would do that. This was back in the days when astronomy was not some sort of pure and clinical natural science, it was heavily mixed in with astrology and divination, and so there was a rabbi around the time of Jesus who said, “Anyone who learns from a Magi is worthy of death.”
So they were very concerned about all the pagan, sort of, overlays that went along with their stargazing, and not to mention they were hardly worshipers of Yahweh. They were probably Zoroastrians from, oh by the way, the part of the world that took the Jews into exile. So they’re really outliers in every possible way, but they know this: They’re good at looking at the sky, and they notice something unusual in the heavens over the land of the Jews. Scholars speculate whether that was a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Was it a comet? Was it a supernova? But it was noticeable. And they somehow knew of that ancient Hebrew prophecy in Numbers 24 that a star would arise over Judah and a scepter from the land of the Jews. So they put it all together and figured out correctly that a king has been born to the Jewish people, and instead of just calling FTD and sending a gift, they are going, “We are going as a royal delegation.”
Now, this is a very expensive journey, risky, dangerous, takes a lot of planning. It’s a thousand miles by camel. So I was thinking, what the equivalent for us would be, maybe a thousand-mile bike ride. It would be like biking from here to Houston. I asked Alice Thiessen—some of you know Alice because she worships with us here at Savior—and she has done a lot of cross-country biking. I said, “What would it take to go on a thousand-mile bike ride?” She just sent me an email with some of the things.
She said, “Well, first of all, you’ve got to be in shape, because you’re biking a hundred miles every day.” So she said, “When I did them, I was a three-sport athlete, or I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” You’ve got to train. Then there’s hundreds of dollars in entry fees, then everything has to fit in one small bag. So you’ve got to travel really light. Then there’s this whole caravan. They had the follow-up vehicle, which became the kitchen, and then another vehicle that brought spare parts along.
Then you have to have your water bottle at all times. You have to keep up your salts, because otherwise you get dehydrated and run into real problems. And she said, “It’s a single file line with no conversation for a hundred miles a day. So you’ve got to be committed if you’re going to do this.” These guys though, they’re like, “We are all in. We are not going to stop until we figure out what is under that star. There’s a king there, and we’re going to find him.” Alright, so that is response number one, that very unlikely outsider search for Jesus.
And we still see that today, don’t we? I don’t know if you noticed as I did, listening to the Christmas songs on the radio, that apparently there was an email that got sent out to all the radio stations saying, “Oh, from now on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ will be a Christmas song and should be in the rotation.” Even though it has nothing to do with Christmas; it has to do with the power of love to be cold and break us. But Cohen is such an interesting figure. He was brilliant, a brilliant songwriter, and he was a secular Jew. He used to regularly protest, “I’m not a very religious person.” But listen to what he said in one interview. He said, “There are many things about Christianity that attract me. The figure of Jesus is extremely attractive. It’s difficult not to fall in love with that person.” And I think that’s what was going on here. There is something there, there is some truth, there is something that’s drawing us—we have to be there. Now, that’s response number one.
Response 2: Disturbed but Unmoving
Response number two is the mirror opposite. Instead of the outsiders being very interested, you have another story altogether. If you would look at verse three, “King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard that there was a new King born, as was everyone in Jerusalem.” They are not delighted. They are deeply disturbed. And notice, it’s not just Herod; it’s everybody in Jerusalem.
Now, with Herod we can understand why he was deeply disturbed. He called himself the king of the Jews, but he was a half-Jew, so that was galling, and then he was the brutal tyrant of the Jews. He was like the Kim Jong-un of his day. Seriously. He killed his mother-in-law, one of his wives, and two or three of his sons. Anybody got close to power, and his paranoia kicked in and he would kill them. So the thought that there might actually be the real deal king, Herod knows, “I have a very shaky claim to power that I must offend against all comers, and I never got a star in the sky when I came into power.” He is freaked out, and very angry and distressed and murderous.
But why was everybody else in town just as deeply disturbed? That was a question that made me pause when I was studying this. We have to assume, don’t we, that they were ordinary people, just like us. I think they were probably highly devoted Jews; that’s one reason they were living in Jerusalem. Probably many of them worked for the temple. It was the largest employer for sure. And we know that they were religiously knowledgeable because—check this out—when Herod asks, verse four, “Where is this King of the Jews supposed to be born?” He’s not really up on his Scriptures, but the people in Jerusalem, they are the religious elites, right? They are the scholars, PhDs; they’ve done their homework. So they explain to him in verse five that it’s in Bethlehem, because verse six—and they quote Micah—there’s an ancient prophecy that Bethlehem will be the place where the Judean ruler will come from.
So these people are knowledgeable, probably devoted in a lot of ways. But what’s interesting is what they do with the information they have. Verse seven, Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. So right now, the outsiders and the insiders have exactly the same information. They know where the child was born—Bethlehem—and they know when because they know when the star first appeared. So they all have the same information, and how do they respond? Well, Herod says— and if in any way he is speaking for the people of Jerusalem—what he says in verse eight is, “Oh, please go search for the child and when you find him come back and tell me because I want to go worship him too. I can’t wait.” But verse nine, here’s what really happens. After this interview, the wise men went their way. Nobody else.
So again, I just have to stop. Now, why is it the outsiders who barely know anything about Jewish religion will come a thousand miles in pursuit of this new king, and the people whose king it is, whose theology is impeccable, who know the ancient prophecies, won’t go five miles to Bethlehem. The one group will go a thousand miles, these people won’t go five. You can walk it. And so Matthew doesn’t tell us, right, but we can get reasonable conjectures from the story in Josephus. He says that most priests and scribes were loyal to Herod. Just as most Lutheran pastors in the Third Reich were loyal to the Fuhrer.
There are some, I think, very likely reasons they were scared. If Herod finds out that I went and checked out this alternate king, I’m a dead man. Some of them had sold out: I’m on Herod’s payroll. And they’re rationalizing and telling themselves, “At least I have some influence on the tyrant. If I get off the payroll, I have none, and besides, how will I find another job?” Some of them maybe are sort of culturally sophisticated living in the cultural capital where it’s like, “Yeah, I know the answer about the Messiah, but I’m not so gullible as to really believe that stuff anymore. I grew up with it, but that’s for the people out in the hinterlands and I’m a little more knowledgeable and elite right now.”
Or is it—and this is where my thoughts took me this week—that they were somehow settled, that there is a particular malady that can come on those who are religious insiders of settledness. And it’s interesting, for those who are devoted and knowledgeable, there can be this kind of dull familiarity that comes to us around our experience with God. One guy calls it altar burn. It’s like freezer burn, but it’s altar burn. And that’s understandable, right?
Responding to the Revelation
But Jesus is the revelation that requires a response. Jesus is the revelation that requires a response. When he’s born in the world, he pushes people one way or the other. You love him or you hate him. You come near him or you avoid him. You go on a search and quest for him until you find him, or you stay put and you don’t move a muscle. There is just that way that he requires a response. And the response he wants is not our awareness, not our knowledge, not even our respect. What he wants is our search, and our sacrifice and our worship.
So verse eleven tells us what he desires. The wise men entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most likely at this point, Jesus is a toddler. He’s the kind of kid that you would not have to buy an airplane ticket for and he is sitting on his mother’s lap, most likely, and if you’ve seen The King and I, you know that in Eastern cultures it’s not unusual that to show honor to the king you have to get your head below that of the king. There is a very funny scene in The King and I about that.
So I picture these people getting down to the point, maybe prostrate, where their heads are below that of a toddler. So you have adults bowing themselves down below a toddler. You have wealthy people bowing their heads down below a peasant. You have the scholars who have devoted their lives to the ancient lore and learning, bowing themselves below that of an infant’s knowledge. That’s really stunning. And then they give lavishly. They take all the best treasures of their lives, of their labor, of their land, and they just lay it at his feet.
Well, I want us to keep that picture in mind because Matthew is not only telling a tale of two responses, he is telling a tale of two results. Jesus is available to all. He is revealed to everyone. He is there vulnerable, lying in Bethlehem for the entire world to know, see, and come to. But most of Jerusalem sleeps through that. And it’s only a small group that actually ends up seeing Jesus. There’s only one group that finds him, and it’s the group that is willing to search and sacrifice and worship.
Applying the Revelation
So what do we do with this? I found this text really challenging this week, so I want to offer two possible applications. The first one is for those of you here who feel a bit more connection to the Magi than the people of Jerusalem. Maybe you feel a bit of a religious outsider for one reason or another. Maybe you feel, “My wife gets those dramatic moments in prayer; I don’t.” But for whatever reason that you may feel a bit on the margins, the good news of this text is that you can be way outside the faith and God will give you enough revelation that you can find your way to him. The magi are into stars so God gives them a star to get them to the right country. Then they run into people who know the Bible and that gets them to the right town.
So I don’t know what God might be using to reveal himself to you and draw yourself closer to him. Maybe it’s circumstances. Maybe it’s something in your business. Maybe it’s a relationship, a health crisis. Something that you do understand that has gotten your attention and is calling out to you to seek after God. God will give you the revelation you need. Don’t worry about the revelation you don’t have; follow what you’ve got. The second application is for those of us, though, who are religious insiders, and I would place myself very much in that camp. This is potentially good news. Jesus is seen by those who search for him. But the reason it’s only potentially good news is that apparently in his day it was possible to have knowledge about Jesus and still miss him, and it was possible to be one town over and still miss him.
So I’ve been thinking about “Well, what is it that might cause you or me to be prone to settledness?” This is a malady that has actually been taught on throughout Christianity by our best Christian teachers. They call it acedia, if you’ve heard that term. It’s a spiritual sloth. It’s an apathy that comes over you around the things of God. It’s a lethargy that can infect your spirit. And it’s interesting because it does not hit the half committed. This is a disease for the deeply devoted person, that monk who has devoted his life or her life to prayer and wants to be fully in for God.
Evagrius, who was one of the earlier writers on this disease says, “The demon of acedia makes it seem like the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” So you try to pray and you’re just like, “Oh, when is this going to be done?” Or whatever it is. Serve, or do whatever God has given you to do. And we don’t have energy for spiritual things when we are being afflicted by acedia. John Cassian wrote, “One’s mind is in irrational confusion like the earth befogged in a mist. One is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother or the solace of sleep.” So the bottom line is that when I am in acedia, I can easily find reasons why I should not have to search that far for God, I should not really have to sacrifice for him, and I can settle for settledness.
Well, here are four states that I want to just offer as I reflected on this as a pastor about what are some states that you or I might be in in which we would find ourselves more prone to acedia. So I may read these and you may be in none of these—hallelujah. Or you may find that one speaks to you. The first is the settledness that can come to the knowledgeable. Notice that the religious scholars who had all the information they needed did not move.
Christianity Today did a cover story this year—it was the most-read cover story—on Bethel Church, a church out in Redding, California, a Pentecostal church that is well-known, and many of you may have read about it or heard about it. Well, there are two ways you can read about a church like that, which has some unusual practices, to be sure. You can either go “Tut-tut, what an over-realized eschatology and how immature.” Right? If you have religious knowledge. Or you can ask yourself, “Why is it those young people are so sold out to Jesus and I used to be and I’m not as much anymore?” See, because as you get knowledge you know, don’t you, that zeal without knowledge is a bad thing. But you know what? The cure for that is not knowledge without zeal. Okay, let’s move on.
Number two, the settledness of the dedicated. This is because I think when you’ve given your whole life to God, you moved into Jerusalem, you took on the care of the temple or whatever. You go, “Man, I already work for a not-for-profit. I give a lot.” This text is not calling us to be more active. But what can happen in your exhausted devotion is that you can lose your responsiveness to Jesus. And so you might want to take your exhaustion and, however feebly you are able, just offer that to the Lord, and say, “Jesus, I’m going to bring you what I have. I get exhausted. I’ve been devoted in serving you and that’s what I’ve got right now. I’m a burnt ember, but that’s what I’m going to give back to you.” And that’s where you start to break out of acedia, because you’ve begun to seek and worship.
The third type of settledness I would identify is the settledness of the established. And this is where the text actually first really began to challenge me. I have found midlife spirituality harder than I thought it was going to be. Because the more I get roots, the more I get routines, the more I have resources, the harder it is to stay spontaneously responsive to the move of Jesus Christ in my life. Because I have more at stake, right?
A few years back, the Lord tapped me in a moment in prayer. It was super clear that he wanted me to give a big number—to me a big number—out of our savings account. I remember, I literally was like, “Whoa, is that really you, Lord? I’m sure that cannot be you because I don’t want it to be you.” Because now at midlife I realize how easy it is to deplete savings and how hard it is to build them up. And that meant a lot more to me now than it ever did as a young person, where I still felt, “I’ve got plenty of time to redo this,” you know. And I realize there’s not as much eraser left on the pencil. So when you’ve got a job in Herod’s court, it’s kind of hard—you might lose it.
Fourth, the settledness of the spiritually wounded. I got to know some of you at our Get to Know You Desserts, and a number of you, I know, have come from a high-intensity church with a high-vision leader, high level of activity and programs, and a sort of tight definition to the doctrine that left you. So the way we protect ourselves, of course, is we’re going to pull back. So then the next time we hear sort of a call, “Hey, let’s go move for the Lord and with the Lord,” we’re kind of like, “Yeah, I did that.” And so you do need protection and healing, right? So that’s very real. But there is a temptation within that healing journey, which is that you can protect yourself through kind of an acedia rather than through naming what was done to you as sin, forgiving it, and transforming it with the Lord’s grace. Don’t let their sin against you lead you into a spiritual state that could end up just as detrimental.
Well, the word for us tonight, friends, I think, is let’s not settle for settledness. This is the word throughout the entire Scriptures. The Old Testament prophets like Hosea said, “Let us press on to know the Lord.” No matter where you are or how well you know him, there is more to Jesus Christ than you have ever experienced. Let us press on to know the Lord. Paul said, “That’s the way I live my life, forgetting what is behind I strain toward what is ahead, I press on.” We ought to have that same spirit in our hearts that says, “I am going to press on because I will see Jesus. In his presence I will sacrifice and be with him.”
This whole church was actually birthed out of that kind of spirit. Bill has often said he was sixty one years old (when he planted the church). Church planting is a young person’s game. That is crazy, people. That’s as crazy as Abram and Sarai leaning on their canes having a baby. But something in Bill and Linda’s hearts said, “We are not going to settle for settledness. We are not going to settle for the same routines. We are going to know the Lord. And if Jesus is saying, ‘I want you to plant this church,’ then I’m going to plant it.” And so now we are all the beneficiaries of that spirit that said, “I live in Jerusalem, but I’m going to pick myself up and I’m going to go five miles down the road. I am going to see Jesus Christ.” Let us press on to know the Lord. Amen.
Kevin A. Miller is the senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.