Sermon July 7

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

July 7, 2013

“The Good For Nothing Church”

Revelation 3:14-22

There is an old fable that has been handed down through the years concerning three junior devils who were coming to earth to complete their apprenticeship. Their first task was to meet with the senior devil. With their supervisor, these junior devils tried to explain all the plots and schemes they had come up with to tempt and ruin the lives of human beings. The first devil announced proudly, “I will tell them there is no God.” Unimpressed, the senior devil shook his head. “That will never succeed,” he said. “Our adversary is too great. In their hearts they know there is a God.” Then the second devil spoke up: “I will tell the people there is no hell.” The senior devil thought about that for a moment, but he replied, “No, you will deceive no one with that. Most people will believe that there will be a judgment for sin.” There was a thoughtful pause and all of them turned to look at the third devil. With a devious grin on his face, he said, “I will tell the people there is no hurry.” “Ah,” proclaimed the senior devil. “Go, and you will ruin them by the thousands.”

I’ve wondered about that answer – “There is no hurry.” What does it mean? I think that beyond the obvious meaning of time – as in why bother yourself with religious questions, there’ll always be time for that later – there is also the issue of priority and urgency. It has to do with what we consider to be most important. These are the issues addressed in the seventh letter of Revelation. The letter to Laodicea says now is the time to make a decision, to commit your life to Jesus Christ. Now is the time to respond to Christ’s invitation.

There is a particular interpretation of the book of Revelation called dispensationalism and it is an interpretation I do not commend to you. This view imposes its own understanding of prophecy, its own scheme of interpretation, onto the book of Revelation. In the dispensational view, each of the seven letters in Revelation represents a historical stage in the history of the church. Therefore Ephesus, the first letter, would have been addressed to the time in which John lived. And then progressively down through the centuries until you come to the last letter – Laodicea, which represents the church of today, or the church in the last times. G.K. Chesterton remarked that, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”

However, even though I reject the dispensationalist view of Revelation, I can see how the seventh letter is so particularly suited to our age. Our society does not seem to be in a hurry to address spiritual issues. We like to imagine ourselves as the masters of our own fates, as the captains of our own destines. Psalm 14 says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” I realize that the vast majority of Americans would say that they believe in God, but many people in our society engage in a kind of practical atheism. They act as if there is no God.

We let other things, things we consider more important, take the place of God. Making a living becomes more important than finding meaning in life. The author James Thurber said of Harold Ross what may be true of many of us: “He lived his life at the corner of work and worry.” In many ways, Christians today would feel quite at home in the church of Laodicea.

The letter to Laodicea begins: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation.” “Amen” is a Hebrew word meaning true. It has less to do with true as in contrast to false, as it does true in terms of reliable, trustworthy. The word of Christ is that which is trustworthy, that which can be relied upon. And Christ is the origin of God’s creation. That doesn’t mean Christ is the first thing God created, but the source of creation himself. The same idea appears in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which says that “in Christ all things were created, in heaven and on earth.”

The church at Laodicea would have been familiar with Paul’s letter to the Colossians. At the end of that letter Paul writes: “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.” From Rome, Paul had written to the church of Laodicea, but unfortunately that letter has been lost.

In verses 15 and 16 we find the complaint against Laodicea. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” The church at Laodicea was one of only two of the seven churches about which nothing good was said.

The problem at Laodicea was complacency. There was no urgency to the gospel message. There was no complaint about false teaching or immorality as with some of the other churches. They had not rejected the Christian faith. They were not hostile to the gospel. However there was nothing to indicate any warm embrace of the Christian faith. They were neither hot nor cold. There was no zeal, and there was no hostility. They were just plain indifferent. William Barclay points out that an author can write a good biography if he loves his subject or if he hates him, but not if he is coldly indifferent. He says: “Of all things indifference is the hardest to combat.”

Laodicea, which had no water source of its own, developed a stone aqueduct system to bring water from the hot springs of Heirapolis six miles away. By the time the water reached Laodicea it was tepid and distasteful. Heirapolis was noted for its hot springs which were lauded for their medicinal benefits. Likewise, nearby Colossae was recognized for the refreshment of its cold, pure water. However, like their water, the church at Laodicea was neither cold nor hot and therefore good for nothing. There was a nauseating lukewarmness to their faith. And so Christ says, “I will spit you out of my mouth.”

In verse 17 we see the reason for the indifference of the Laodiceans. “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” There is no urgency; there is no hurry. They need nothing. They see themselves as being entirely self-sufficient.

When everything’s going your way, you can afford to be indifferent to God. However, Christ reveals to the Laodiceans that everything is not as it seems. Their actual condition was that they were wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. He says – “Buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

Laodicea was the wealthiest city in the region of Phrygia. They were proud of their prosperity. When an earthquake destroyed the city in 60 AD they declined any assistance from Rome and rebuilt the city themselves. They boasted: “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” But that which truly enriches a person cannot be purchased with money. The blessings of God are only for those who recognize their spiritual poverty. The kingdom of God is for those who know they need it. Isaiah records God’s invitation: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”

The city of Laodicea was also a center of trade. It was well-known for the manufacture of a beautiful black woolen cloth used to make clothing and carpets. But Christ says – buy from me “white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen.” It sounds like the children’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The Laodiceans are spiritually naked and do not realize it.

Also Laodicea was the site of a flourishing medical school that was famous in the ancient world for the production of an eye-salve called Phrygian powder. The irony continues as Christ tells them – buy from me “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.” The smug Laodiceans needed the healing touch of Christ to restore their sight. In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Christ implores them to recognize their blindness or there will be no hope for them to see.

Speaking very directly to the needs of that church, the pride of the Laodiceans is deflated. The spiritual poverty of the Laodiceans is exposed. And yet, even though this letter comes across as perhaps the sternest of the seven, it is also the tenderest. Verse 20 is a famous Bible verse – “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
This verse is often used as an invitation to become a Christian and it is appropriate for that purpose. Yet, in its original context, it is addressing those already in the church. Repentance is a lifelong process for us. Christ still stands at the doors of our hearts and seeks to come in. And when we invite him in, he shares a meal with us. A shared meal in the ancient Jewish world had far more meaning than it does today. It was a symbol of acceptance and intimacy. Jesus was criticized for not merely associating with sinners, but for eating with them.

There’s a famous painting by Holman Hunt hanging in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, entitled “The Light of the World.” It is based on this verse in Revelation and it portrays Jesus standing at a door gently rapping. The hinges of the door are rusty from lack of use. Weeds and ivy have grown up in front of it. It’s night and Jesus stands there with a lantern in his hand and you get the feeling that he’s been there for some time. And you can’t help but wonder – why don’t they open the door?

What that painting and this verse highlight so powerfully is that God is seeking for you. That is what is so unique about the Christian message – that it is God who is seeking you and me. He comes to us, gently knocking on the doors of our hearts. George Buttrick said: “The beckonings of God are just that – beckonings, not bludgeonings, not batteries of irrefutable evidence, not the tyranny of unanswerable logic. Always there is freedom for our choosing and response.”

The message to the Laodiceans is that in spite of their apathy, Christ keeps coming to them. He stands at the door and knocks. Christ invites them to share a meal with him. The good news for you and me today is that Jesus Christ is still inviting sinners to share a meal with him. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

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