Overcome - Revelation 3:14

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 20th April 2003.

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Overcome SJN.20.4.03

Revelation 3:14ff Laodicea

It must have been some event which transformed that frightened ,despairing group of fishermen and tax collectors into the greatest religious reformation movement the world had ever known. And of course it was- the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is the way Dorothy L Sayers describes the reaction of the disciples to the Risen Jesus : ‘ If Christ could take evil and suffering and do that sort of thing with them, then of course it was all worthwhile.... As for the disciples own part in the drama, nothing could now alter the fact that they had been stupid, cowardly, faithless, and in many ways singularly unhelpful; but they did not allow any morbid and egotistical remorse to inhibit their joyful activities in the future. Now, indeed, they could go out there and ‘do something’ about the problem of sin and suffering. They had seen the strong hands of God twist the crown of thorns into a crown of glory, and in hands as strong as that they knew themselves safe,’

But what does the risen Christ have to say to a church which has in fact ceased to be effective in ‘doing something ‘about sin and suffering, which has forgotten about these joyful activities with which the first disciples were only too familiar? What happens to those who would rather place their security in things other than the safe hands of God? Well, we are about to find out as we turn to the last of the seven letters in the Book of Revelation- the letter to the church in Laodicia.

First of all we have a hidden problem and a divine reaction: v15-17. Look at vv15 and 16 ‘These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. 15I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth. ‘Now, notice that this is a church which is active, it isn’t slouching or freewheeling, it is involved in ‘deeds’, which the risen and ascended Jesus knows about. The problem is he is not particularly impressed with them. In fact they nauseate him, because, as he puts it, these Christians are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. Now what is Jesus saying? Is he actually saying that he would prefer people who were spiritually cold and opposed to him, so that some reaction is better than no reaction at all? And that what he is really looking for are those who are at the other end of the spiritual thermometer-hot, on fire for Christ? But that this intepid, spiritual blah zone in the middle is the sort of nonchalant attitude which holds back the church from making any progress and that is why he is opposed to them? Is that it? That is the way many commentators have taken this. But when you think about it, it doesn’t quite add up, because that means that God would prize full scale, cold hearted rebellion to him, than even a modicum of Christian love, which, if we are honest, is where most of us find ourselves most of the time.

No, the key to our understanding lies in the reality behind the imagery Jesus is using which is in fact the plumbing system of this ancient city. You see, in the Lycus valley where Laodicia was situated, there were two other NT towns, Colossae and Hierapolis. Now Colossae enjoyed water which was fresh and cold and therefore useful. It was marvellous drinking water. Hierapolis, on the other hand had water which was hot and medicinal, having hot springs in which people bathed for their health. It’s water was also useful. Laodicea, however, had to draw its water from miles away by stone pipes and this water was foul. It left thick carbonate deposits in the pipes and Laodicean water had become proverbial for its obnoxious taste. Now can you see what Jesus is getting at? In effect, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus is saying to this church: ‘ I wish that you were like the water of Colossae- cold and useful. Or like the water of Hierapolis- hot and useful, but you are neither. You have become like the water you drink- indigestible and so useless. Do you know how your stomach retches when you sip that disgusting mix piped into your town? Well, that is how I feel when I look at what you do. You make me want to throw up.’ That is the unsanitised version of v16.

Now what was it about these Christians that could provoke such a violent reaction from the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ? Had they denied the faith? Not particularly. Had they sold out to sexual licence? Not really. We see those things mentioned in some of the other letters, but not here. So what was it? We are told in v17 ‘You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’ The church had simply begun to mirror the city of which it was a part. Instead of countering the surrounding culture and so transforming it, it had surrendered to the surrounding culture and so had been captured by it.

Now Laodicea was a wealthy town. As you were travelling East towards, say India, you would exchange your money there as you moved out of the Roman Empire’s primary constraints. Not surprisingly it had become a major banking centre, like Zurich is today. It was also an important centre for manufacturing clothes, specialising in a black cloth, a cord material similar to the stuff from which our jeans are made, taken from the wool of sheep raised in the area. What is more, Laodicea was an ophthalmic centre, renown for an eye salve which drew the puss from eyes which tended to get infected by dust storms and the like. So Laodiceans were people well catered for, wanting for nothing. They had good incomes, good clothes and good health. In a word they were self-sufficient. And the sad fact was that the Christians had become like this too. All the signs of a society turned in on itself- dependent upon nobody, owing nobody-were showing themselves in the Laodicean church. And drawing upon this imagery Jesus says, ‘You think you are so rich, in fact you are wretched, pitiable and poor. You are so well dressed, turning out to church in your proud Laodicean Amanni designed outfits, but you are shamefully naked before me. You think you can see, being so far sighted, well, to tell you the truth you are blind and can’t see a thing.’

And that is the tragedy- they couldn’t see a thing. They would have engaged in their worship services singing the praises of Jesus, having their holy communion while not realising that all the time that the one who was the object of their worship was absent , he was outside that church door knocking- v20. The church had become so identified with the world, that the one whom the world rejected, Jesus, was a stranger to them. They may have had the formality of the religion but none of the reality. Because what Jesus came to challenge and change -worldliness- the church had simply embraced. That was the problem.

This was a culture taken with wealth, prestige and health, and it sounds only too familiar doesn’t it? And it is the danger of allowing these concerns to shape how a church functions which Jesus has in his sights. And you can be quite sure that if they were of concern to him then they will be of concern to him now, for we are living in the age of Laodicea-sensuously self sufficient.

A few years ago, Neil Postman wrote a book called , ‘Amusing ourselves to death’- an interesting reflection on contemporary Western society. What he did was to compare two contrasting versions of the future: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This is what he writes: ‘ Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.... What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies. In 1984 Orwell added , people would be controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they were controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love would ruin us.’

Now tell me: who do you think has turned out to be right? Huxley isn’t it? Allowing for one or two cultural adjustments he could be describing Laodicea- the never had it so good town. But what does this look like when it enters the church?

Well, the church is one where subjective experience takes preference over objective truth, where feeling is pursued at the expense of thinking and what works over and against what God wills. Personal pleasure is sought at the expense of costly sacrifice. Reading is abandoned for emoting. Being consumed with trivia crowds out concern for eternity. In short you have a Christianised version of ‘Brave New World.’ We might well call it ‘Brave new Church’ Let me give you an example of how this is worked out in practice. The Christian writer Charles Colson tells of an evangelical church that decided it needed to grow in membership. The first thing the minister did was to commission a market survey. It found that many people were turned off by the term ‘Baptist’. So, the church changed its name. The survey showed that people wanted accessibility, so the church put up a new building off the main highway. It had beamed ceilings, stone fire places and no religious symbols at all. The minister decided to stop using religious language. ‘If we use words like redemption or conversion’ he reasoned, ‘they think we are talking about bonds.’ He stopped preaching about judgement and sin, and sure enough the church grew. One member said, ‘The church totally accepts people as they are without any do’s and don'ts'. But what you were left with is in fact a disembowelled Christianity. The authority of God had been replaced by the demands of the market place. Converts give way to consumers. Psychological well-being swallows up truth as the controlling value. Now of course it is vital to build bridges and ensure that barriers between the unchurched and the church are reduced to a bear minimum. Jargon should be avoided or where necessary explained-we know that. But if at the end of the day all one has done is to make non-Christians into non-Christians who think they are Christians with no significant change in belief or life, then the church has become useless and the spirit of Laodicea has captured us. You are simply left with consumer Christianity which is Laodicean Christianity which is no Christianity at all.

But what Jesus offers is infinitely more worthwhile, hence a gracious offer and a divine motive- vv 18-19. Did you notice what Jesus says in v18 ‘I counsel you’, that is ‘advise you’. These people would have been used to seeking advice; financial advice from the merchants, fashion advice from the fabric industry and medical advice from the doctors, and they would have lapped it up. Now Jesus gives them some spiritual advice. Why not buy the gold he offers refined in the fire? That is the way Peter describes faith in his first letter. Instead of relying on the stock market and so self- rely on Jesus who does not blow hot and cold depending upon the circumstances. Here is someone you can really trust in and never be short changed. That is gold worth having, Why not buy the white clothes he offers, lives of holiness and righteousness which will not leave you feeling naked, exposed to the searching judgement of God as did Adam and Eve in the garden. Here is the great physician who can really open your eyes to spiritual realities which no amount of home made ointment can give. Why settle for second best all the time which may appear comfortable, but it is the comfort of a coffin- it is devoid of spiritual vitality because it has been sapped by material greed.

And why does Jesus offer these things and speaks so harshly? Because he loves us- v19 ‘Those whom I love I rebuke.’ If you feel that you are presently experiencing something of the chilly wind of God’s chastening process such that maybe things are proving difficult for you at the moment, then take heart, it means he has not abandoned you. Far from being indifferent to you he actually loves you and wants to draw you closer to himself. He wants to wean you off whatever it is you are depending upon- your abilities, your money, your gifts, your past success, and he wants to you to depend upon him so that he can delight in showing the unlimited resources of his grace and you in turn can delight in receiving them. That is why the Laodicean church was wretched and pitiable- it thought it had everything but had nothing because it did not have the one thing that made a church a church- a living, moment by moment relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And that is the tragedy which lies behind vv 20-22 where we see a personal invitation and a divine promise: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne

A few years ago there was an article in an American newspaper of a christening party being given in a wealthy Boston suburb. The parents opened their palatial home to friends and relatives who had come to celebrate this wonderful event. As the party was progressing and people were having a great time, eating and drinking enjoying each others company, someone innocently said, ‘Oh, by the way where’s the baby?’ Then the heart of the young mother missed a beat and she instantly left the room and rushed into the master bedroom where she had left the baby sleeping in the middle of the massive bed. The baby was dead, smothered by the coats of the guests.

That is a sad picture of what was happening in Laodicea and is happening in the lives of some Christians and churches today. We are meant to be meeting with Christ, but he becomes smothered by self-indulgence and complacency. He stands outside of the door and he knocks.

And that is where our hope lies. All is not lost you see. The invitation is made to anyone who hear his voice. If we open the door of our lives, individually and corporately, he will come in. That is the invitation. And with it comes a wonderful promise. First of all, Jesus will come in and eat with us, that is offer the greatest level of intimacy as symbolised by a fellowship meal. This is real communion he is talking about, a spiritual fellowship of the heart. It is a relationship which goes beyond the bounds of formal ritual. It speaks of companionship, a sharing of interests and of life itself. The one who was strung up on a cross, whose body was wrapped and laid in a cold grave, who burst the bonds of death is the one who says, ‘I will come into your life, your home, your relationships, by my Spirit.’ I promise. Not only that but if you overcome this deadening effect of worldliness, even Christian worldliness, which is so attractive and yet so poisonous, I will allow you to sit with me in glory on my throne. What is a lucrative career or fantastic reputation compared with that? - for Joan, Nathan, Melvin sharing the throne of Christ?! That is what the text says. Yes, Jesus had to overcome the lure of worldliness too- ‘Just bow down and acknowledge me’ Satan said to him ‘and you can have all the kingdoms of the world. Forget suffering, forget the cross, forget the rejection- just tread the path of power, fame and fortune - and it will all be yours. Jesus overcame that-do you not think that he will help you overcome it too if you ask him?

So hear the offer of the Lord of the universe: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door ,I will come in and eat with him and he with me.’ Let is pray.

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