Sermon: Laodicea

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Revelation. Revelation 3, beginning in verse 14. Revelation is the last book in the Bible. Revelation 3, beginning in verse 14.

We have been listening to God’s word in the book of Revelation in order to tune our hearts to the reality of the gospel in a world so noisy, distracting, and out-of-tune. These last couple weeks, we have been listening in particular to a set of letters from Jesus through the Apostle John to seven churches in Asia Minor – modern day Turkey. This morning we will be hearing the last of these letters, this one to a church in Laodicea. We have found these letters to be fairly typical of the church in our age, just as it was then. I say ‘typical,’ not ‘normal,’ because what we have heard in these churches should never be normal in the life of the church, but it is common. Of seven churches, two are exemplary, two are miserable, and three are a bit of both. That sounds about right. Some choose love over truth, some truth over love. Some are weak, some are strong. Some are suffering under the forceful hand of the world, some aren’t putting up a fight at all. Yet for each church, Jesus has a word.

The letters to the seven churches does not end on a high note. In fact, the last church is probably the worst. Yet, there is hope for all of us in the words of Jesus to the church in Laodicea. Revelation 3, beginning in verse 14. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher,  and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

“These are the words of the Amen,

the faithful and true witness,

the origin of God’s creation:

I know your works.

You are neither cold nor hot.

I wish that you were either cold or hot.

So because you are lukewarm,

neither cold nor hot,

I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

For you say, ‘I am rich,

I have prospered,

I need nothing.’

You do not realize that you are

wretched,

pitiable,

poor,

blind,

and naked.

Therefore I counsel you to 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.

I reprove and discipline those whom I love.

Be earnest, therefore, and repent.

Look! 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.

To the one who conquers,

I will give a place with me on my throne,

just as I myself conquered

and sat down with my Father on his throne.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

About six miles from the city of Laodicea was the city of Hieropolis, known for its hot springs. Even today, hot water filled with soothing minerals gushes forth from the earth, pools in Hieropolis before cascading down the beautiful cliffs. People came to Hieropolis from miles to enjoy the hot springs. They went to sooth away their aches, find relief and comfort from their pain. The hot water of Hieropolis gave comfort to those around them.

A short distance in the another direction from Laodicea was the city of Colossae, home to a fresh stream of cold, pure water. The water of Colossae was cool, crisp, and clean – perfectly refreshing on a hot day. The cold water of Colossae brought refreshment to those around them.

In contrast to its two neighbor cities, Laodicea had no natural water source. Instead, they had to pipe water from miles away through aqueducts. By the time this hard water reached them, it was warm, bitter, and disgusting. It was drinkable, but gross. Nauseating even. The hot, medicinal water of Hieropolis was good for helping others. The cold, pure water of Colossae was good for helping others. The lukewarm water of Laodicea was only good for spitting out of your mouth. If Hieropolis was like a nice cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning and Colossae was a cool glass of lemonade on a hot July afternoon, then Laodicea was like the water you accidentally left in your rain gauge for about a week. Drinkable? Maybe. Gross? Definitely.

I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

The charge Jesus lays against Laodicea is that their water supply parallels their spiritual life. Jesus knows their works. They are not like the hot water of Hieropolis – their works are not bringing healing and comfort to those who are suffering. They are also not like the cool waters of Colossae – their works are not bringing relief and refreshment to those in need. Instead, their works are not good for anyone. Oh, they have works. They are doing things in the church in Laodicea, but no one is benefiting from them. And Jesus says that these works are just like the water running through their pipes. Disgusting and nauseating.

The works of the church in Laodicea nauseates Jesus. They are about to be spit out from his mouth. It is a pretty graphic picture and one that is painful to hear. I don’t imagine any of us would want our works nauseating Jesus.

But what is it about the church in Laodicea that sets Jesus’ stomach churning? Verse 17: For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.’ Laodicea was a church that thought it had it all. The city was a banking center. They had tons of money. In fact, the city was rich enough that, when an earthquake severely damaged the city, the emperor came to provide funds to help rebuild and the people of Laodicea refused. ‘We can take care of this ourselves.’ I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing. That would be like Parkersburg, after the tornado of 2008, telling FEMA and the Red Cross not to come because we are rich enough to pay for everything ourselves.

In the things of this world, in the pursuit of wealth and success, Laodicea thought it had it all. It was also a medical center – specializing in ophthalmology – the study of the eye. They had a famous salve that could help cure vision problems. They also had a booming textile industry known for its high-quality black wool clothing.

Laodicea sought success, security, and prosperity and, in the eyes of the world, it had found it. Yet, Jesus has a different diagnosis. For a city proud of its wealth, known for its ability to make others see, and for providing clothing – Jesus tells them that they are spiritually bankrupt, spiritually blind, and spiritually naked.

Verse 17: For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing.’ But you do not realized that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

The city and culture of Laodicea had sought joy, meaning, and fulfillment in wealth and success, and the church had followed right along with them. For all the money they had in the bank, it left them spiritually bankrupt. They were wretched, pitiable, and poor. They were not rich in the things that truly mattered. They might have status, prestige, and riches in the this world, but each of us comes as a beggar before the cross. We are all spiritually poor. Jesus himself said, Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Riches and success in this world does not change our standing before God, we all come as the poor and needy, we all come sinners in need of grace. We all stand equal at the foot of the cross. But the church in Laodicea had lost this. They sought validation and significance through their success and it left them unable to see themselves as they truly were. And so, for all their riches, they were spiritually bankrupt.

They were also spiritually blind. They could not see their situation. No matter how many eye ointments they made in Laodicea, they could not see what Jesus saw.

And they were spiritually naked. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, sin causes shame and leads to all the ways we seek to hide it – all the fig leaves we string together hoping no one will see. But we cannot cover it up, we cannot cover over, cannot atone for our sins. No matter how many black wool garments they made, they could not cover over their sin.

We all long for peace and wholeness and goodness in our life. We often seek it in the way our culture has taught us to – in success, in wealth, in prestige. For all our striving, we never get what we are truly looking for. Our bank accounts may be full, but our hearts can be empty. Our hands may be productive, but also feeble and useless. We do more and make more, but it is never enough.

And the by-product of all this striving, all this searching, is what I think truly made the church in Laodicea ineffective and nauseating to Jesus. They were spiritually selfish. Notice what they are saying about themselves – I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing. The cold water refreshes and sustains others. The hot water comforts and helps others. But the riches, prosperity, and sufficiency of Laodicea only served themselves. They were not good for anything because their focus was only on themselves, not others. What they had been given served themselves.

The Reformer Martin Luther remarked that after the fall, the sinful person is homo incurvatus in se – a man curved in upon himself. The life of the church in Laodicea had been curved in upon itself. All the blessings, all the goodness of God, all the riches came in and were turned inward. Not directed toward God and their neighbor, but toward themselves. I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing. I, I, I. Me, me, me. In turning toward themselves, the church had become useless for what God was calling them to be.

Our hearts still look in the same places. We may not consider ourselves rich, but our hearts long for the peace, power, and security we are told money offers, so we pour out our lives seeking money, making money, and keeping money. But it never enough, is it? When Norman Rockefeller was asked how much money was enough, he replied, “Just a little more.” When we place our hope and trust in financial security and success, it is never enough to quiet our souls.

Our hearts still look in the same places. We long for success and validation. We want people to like us, to consider us valuable and successful, to be our friends and tell us we matter. But that fragile praise so easily enslaves us. We look to other people, to our things, to our accomplishments to give us a sense of identity and value. Yet, all those things fade or disappoint, so we double down for more and more.

We know that this is the way of the world, but as the church – as the people of God – we so easily fall into this as well. We set our hearts and our hopes on the things of this world and it turns us in on ourselves. It turns us inward – away from God and away from our neighbors. We become homo incurvatus in se – people turned in upon ourselves. I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing, we say – or hope to say.

We need to hear the words of Jesus just as much as the people in Laodicea long ago. Therefore I counsel you to 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.

Buy from me. What we have been looking for in others, in our things, or in our accomplishments can only be found in Jesus. Buy from me. Come to Jesus. If you want to be truly rich – come to Jesus – and receive gold refined by fire – faith tempered by suffering – which is more valuable than any gold or silver. If you want to be clothed – if you want to no longer be naked, but have your shame covered, your guilt washed away, and your life renewed – come to Jesus – and be clothed in the pure, white robes of the righteousness of Christ. If you truly want to see, to see the world as you were meant to see it, to see God, others, and yourself as you were meant to see – come to Jesus – who can make us see.

What our hearts have been truly longing for – forgiveness, wholeness, life, hope, and peace – can only be found in Jesus. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me – buy from me.

I think John Calvin put it best:

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him.’ If we see any other gifts to the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth…if we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.”

Therefore I counsel you to buy from me. The hearts of the Laodiceans, like our own, had looked for life and peace in so many other things, but what we truly need is found in Jesus Christ.

The call to cling to Christ – to find in him all that we need for life and hope and salvation – requires letting go of those idols we cling to now. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. In turning to Christ, we must turn away from the idols of success, wealth, and self-sufficiency. We must turn away from them, turn away from this inward focus on ourselves, toward the living God.

This is a painful turn. It is a kind of dying – a giving up of our life, losing your life for the sake of the kingdom, taking up your cross. Jesus calls it reproof and discipline. He names it repentance. Jesus warns the church and speaks the truth to them – painful as it may be – because he loves them. He loves us and promises something so much better than what those idols promise.

Look! 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. Ultimately, Jesus promises the greatest gift – communion with himself.

That is the promise held before the church in Laodicea and before us. Jesus promises communion with him. The love of God experienced in fellowship with Christ will turn our hearts from focused on ourselves to God and in response toward our neighbor. Only then, captivated and transformed by the love of God in Christ Jesus, will our lives be hot and comforting to the suffering and cold and refreshing to those in need.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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