Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Challenge of Laodicea: Sermon on Revelation 3:14-22

It's been a long journey, but the three-arches of the dazzling new gate, offering entrance to the city, tell you that you've reached your destination. Before crossing through, you look up and read the inscription. The gate was installed just last year, it says, and fully funded by one town resident by the name of Tiberius Claudius Tryphon. Crossing in, you wander the streets, marveling at how new everything looks. Finally, you stumble into a very elegantly dressed older woman, you'd guess, and have the impression you should ask her to explain where you are. She sneers at you – she seems the type to think the world of herself and little of the world, the type to think kings beneath her dignity, and you scarcely worth her time. On the other hand, she never misses the chance to boast in her prosperity, her family, and her city. So she agrees to give you a few moments of her time.

Her name – she introduces herself – is Claudia Zenonis, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Zenon Rhetor, and a fourth-cousin of Rhescuporis, king of Bosporus. For a bit of an endless while, she natters on about how her ancestor Zenon and his oldest son Polemon, over 120 years ago, stirred up the city residents to a revolt when all around, the other towns in the area were surrendering to the turncoat general Quintus Labienus. For their vigor in rallying the city to his cause, Mark Antony had given Polemon a throne and a kingdom, and even to this day, Polemon's descendants still ruled in Bosporus. Claudia said Polemon had been her great-great-great-uncle; she was descended from the proud branch – no less regal, she insisted – that had descended from Polemon's brother Zenon the Younger. As if to prove her importance, she gives you a gift: a coin with the emperor Domitian's face on the front and, on the back, an athlete ringed about with her own name as the issuer.

Claudia tells you that you've found your way to the magnificent city of Laodicea by taking one of the two major highways that intersect there. Looking around, you can see, like she says, that the town is nestled on a square plateau in the Lycus Valley. Pointing to the south, she shows you the two massive mountains dominating the horizon, Mount Cadmus and Mount Salbacus. Up from that way flow the streams flanking the town's plateau, the Asopus to the northwest and the Capros to the southeast. Turning north, she shows you on the horizon the mile-long white limestone cliffs, coated in shining calcium deposits and spilling over with scorching mineral water. Up there, she says, is the neighboring town of Hierapolis with its famed hot springs.

As Claudia walks you through the streets of the town, she points out one inscription after another, recording the donations made by wealthy local citizens in just the past few decades. The first thing you see, after all, is the massive stadium amphitheater dedicated seven years ago by Nicostratus, on the south side of the city's hill. She explains, Claudia does, that 26 years ago, an earthquake struck. Everything toppled. Just... everything. It all came crumbling down. Many neighboring towns, like Colossae ten miles to the south, were devastated, and had to receive significant disaster relief funds from Rome. But – Claudia's face beams with a pride like you've never seen – but Rome had offered Laodicea a hefty sum for disaster relief, and the Laodiceans had told Rome to keep it. The Laodiceans had insisted that they could rebuild their own city from scratch. And then they did exactly that. She explained that there was no city around where you could find wealth like theirs, and so even a handful of citizens – herself included – could each sponsor gifts of reconstruction. And as you can see (she says), Laodicea has rebuilt itself with no outside help much faster and more extravagantly than Colossae has, even with Roman relief. Claudia boasts that Laodicea needs no one's help – that the city's own resources will always be enough, that no city can be their equal, that perhaps one day Rome will come begging for their relief.

Fascinated, you start to wonder how the people in Laodicea got so rich and so self-sufficient. You ask Claudia, and she's delighted to expostulate on the subject. She tells you first – again, showing you the coin she gave you – that not only does the city have a mint to produce coins, like this one honoring her, but that it's the banking center for the whole region. The banking industry keeps bullion in plenteous supply and turns a hefty profit. It stands perhaps on even terms, though, with the local textile industry. Claudia takes you to the roof of a house so you can see down over the walls to the fields, where a large flock of sheep are grazing. You're shocked to see sheep the color of ravens – dark black, a special local breed. From their wool, Laodiceans are able to weave and export almost every kind of clothing, and turn a significant profit. Claudia explains also that not far from town is a temple that serves as the base of the local medical school. Founded by Zeuxis a few generations ago, it follows the tradition of composite medicines. There are doctors aplenty in town, more than you've ever seen, and the medical professionals use regional ingredients to mix together ointments for a variety of ailments, not just of the ears, but specializing in ophthalmology with an acclaimed eye-salve using a special kind of alum from the nearby streams and some other ingredients. Thanks to this, Claudia boasts, no one in the town ever has to worry about vision problems – they have the solution right there, and certainly they can all afford it.

Feeling a tad overwhelmed with Claudia's incessant bragging, you excuse yourself. It's a fine warm day, and as you pass through the streets and do admittedly marvel at all the high-end craftsmanship, you stop in a market and ask a shopkeep for a cup of water. Sheepishly, he hands you one. Expecting refreshment, you're in for a shock – the first sip hits your tongue, and you spit it out, revolted. Not only is it warm and stale, but it tastes... off. Pythes the shopkeeper explains, somewhat apologetically, that every newcomer to town has to learn sooner or later that the city's water supply is brought via an aqueduct down the valley wall and up the plateau from a mineral spring about five or six miles distant. Looking into your cup, you can tell – it's a little on the cloudy side, could certainly use a filter. Pythes says if you let it sit for a while, it gets better but never quite reaches that cold crispness from the pure springs in Colossae – he loves business trips to Colossae, he admits, just for a chance to remember what water's supposed to taste like.

Suddenly, Pythes squints at you. “Wait, you aren't from the government, are you?” At the assurance you're not, Pythes breathes a sigh of relief. “Because I am just in no mood,” he says, “to have to serve dinner to another blasted bureaucrat from Rome.” Pythes explains that, because of the city's wealth and its status as the local seat of Roman judges, officials look at them as cash-cows, picking out the wealthiest Laodiceans and forcing them to provide 'hospitality' – food and lodging – for them and their staff and their soldiers, and they're all just sick of it when it happens. Nobody wants to have to play host to the greedy government pigs, Pythes tells you. And, if not for the designer clothes this shopkeeper's wearing, you'd feel a lot more sympathetic.

Moving on, though, your goal in coming here is to find the church that used to meet in the home of a wealthy widow named Nympha. Since her passing, you're not certain where they meet, but you know the name of the local pastor – it's Archippus, son of Philemon, originally a native of Colossae but sent here a few years after the churches in both towns had been planted by Paul's convert Epaphras. In time – a stroke of luck, or should you rather call it providence? – you stumble into Archippus and begin to talk. But you find you're about ten years early, dear time-traveler: Revelation won't be written for another decade. You'll have to settle in. But at least, judging from the affluence of the city, you'll be mighty comfortable as you do.

What you'll find, as you spend time there, is that there isn't much difference – none at all, really – between the church of Laodicea, on the one hand, and their pagan neighbors like Claudia and Pythes, on the other. Full of themselves, very self-satisfied, with a fierce independent streak. By the time that the Revelation is written and Archippus has passed from the scene, there's scarcely any difference at all. The Christians of Laodicea, just like their neighbors, boast in being affluent, accomplished, and independent. Jesus can see it, Jesus listens to them: “You say: 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing'” (Revelation 3:17a), just like some in ancient Israel used to boast, “Ah, but I am rich, I have found wealth for myself, and in all my labors, they cannot find in me iniquity or sin” (Hosea 12:8). The Laodicean Christians reason that their prosperity and their comfort shows that they're on the right track. They're comfortable. The status quo has been good to them. Their resources are plenty, they're doing fine. They can afford to vacation every other week, they can take elegant cruises, they can spend as much time as they want at the theater or the games, they haven't a care in the world. Or so they think.

But Jesus is going to have news for the church of Laodicea: Their problem is in “not realizing that you are wretched and pitiable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17b)! What a litany of horrible things to be and not know! Everything in their church may be ornately gilded, but it's hollow. Where it counts, they're paupers. They think they all have 20/20 vision, but they're stumbling in the dark through the corridors of their own hearts and lives. They think they're luxuriously garbed in their bespoke suits and dresses, but they're parading naked through the streets like a fabled emperor in his imaginary new clothes. And they're complacent, a tragic farce on their desperate condition – wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked.

It's astonishing – by the time Revelation is written, this church can't be much more than forty years old. Most of its members are first- or second-generation Christians. By all rights, they should be able to remember the big difference between the church and the world. A few decades later, a true lively Christian would tell the world:

Christians aren't different from other people in nationality, speech, or customs. They don't live in states of their own or use a special language or adopt a peculiar way of life. … They follow local custom in the matter of dress, food, and way of life. But, the character of the culture they reveal is marvelous and, it must be admitted, unusual. Each lives in his native land as though not really at home there. They share all duties like citizens and suffer all hardships like strangers. Every foreign land is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland a foreign land. … They lack all things, yet in all things they abound. … What the soul is to the body, that's what Christians are to the world (Epistle to Diognetus §§5-6).

But the church of Laodicea is soulless. Anyone with the remotest experience of living Christianity can step into that church and plainly see that they're playacting in the spiritual nude, stumbling in blindness, bragging about busted second-hand goods when it comes to spiritual things. And the Laodiceans are oblivious, the gulf between their self-image and their reality is wider than the Lycus Valley. So what good is a church like that? To take one sip of that church is to know the temperature's all wrong and that something is off. And Jesus can taste it, too. There are a lot of things water can be useful for. It can be cold and refreshing and pure, like the spring water you want to bottle from Colossae, a real delight to drink, especially on a hot day. Water can also be hot and soothing to dip in, like the famed mineral baths in the hot springs of Hierapolis, which down to this day function as a spa atop their 'cotton castle' with their surreal unearthly 95-degree ponds – and those mineral-rich hot springs are said to be good for your health. But water that's lukewarm and chock-full of impurities – well, it's positively nauseating. I've been to places where water flows brown-gold straight from the faucets. Some water is technically drinkable but so unpleasant that it's scarcely good for anything but making you sick, even inducing you to vomit. And to Jesus, that's what the church of Laodicea is: “I know your works: You are neither cold nor hot. If only you were either cold or hot! So because you're lukewarm – neither hot” (like Hierapolis) “nor cold” (like Colossae) – “I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

The Laodicean church has become repulsive. They leave a bad taste in Jesus' mouth and make him feel sick to his stomach. They're not good for anything now – not for refreshing and relieving, not for healing and soothing. They're the sort of church you'd only chug on a dare. Laodicea has become a closed system in which the church has settled to the room temperature of the city. They have settled into thermodynamic equilibrium with the way of the world around them. Usefulness is difference. But here, there's no difference. And the result, as Jesus sips it, is positively disgusting. Can a church become disgusting? It absolutely can. And in Laodicea, it has.

It would be nice to say that we share nothing in common with them. But plenty of spiritual taste-testers before me have seen that typical modern American Christianity has a Laodicean flavor to it. We, like they, are usually quite well-satisfied with the status quo. We enjoy what we've built for ourselves. Maybe we even call it a blessing. But whatever it is, it's ours – we know that – and we're proud. Among American Evangelicals, 42% of us have an income higher than $50,000 per year. A smaller segment, but still significant – almost one in five of us – bring in six figures, during our working days. And surely there are some of us here with assets that would surely be the material envy of neighbors in almost any other country. Americans, by any global standard, are what social scientists call 'WEIRD' – that's an acronym: We're Western, educated, individualistic, rich, and democratic. And the middle three distinguishing features there are shared with Laodiceans, aren't they?

And we're satisfied with that. We indulge in that. We American Christians do what we want with that. Oh, sure – we can be generous at times. But seldom self-sacrificial. Take a typical member of an American Evangelical church, and a typical unchurched neighbor, and how different are they really? Don't both vacation in the same places? Don't both drive the same kinds of cars, live in houses of the same square footage, go to the same sorts of movies? Don't both have the same cultural biases toward valuing independence and bristling at the thought of authority and hierarchy? Our churches often are merely outposts of the suburban American middle-class and its typical values. We don't think like apostles and prophets; we think like American patriots. We're disciples of Uncle Sam, just like our neighbors. We've become no different, except maybe a little nicer, on a good day – but then again, maybe not even that. Sometimes we scarcely keep up the form of godliness, never mind its power.

And so our churches are fine! – So we tell ourselves. They're associations in which we, as good old-fashioned American consumers, are free to come and go as we please, depending on the perceived costs and benefits. We are, after all, economic people. Our churches are fine hobbies, social organizations to build up our social capital and kill a few hours on a Sunday morning, so long as it doesn't interfere with the really important parts of our Sunday routines like lunch or errands or the big game. And if we sit out a few Sundays to do chores or to sleep in, well, don't we have the right to our choices (we ask)? Who dares offend by telling us we're of a piece with the world outside our doors? Who dares point out we're fully domesticated pets, not the army of the Lamb?

Because, see, in all our self-sufficiency, we think we don't need other churches, we don't need a conference, we don't need to do anything uncomfortable, we don't need to bend our routines, we don't need to change the status quo. And in all our weekly rhythms, we may pray, we may do devotions, we may go through all of that, but the picture we see is Christ, not in the church's midst, but excluded with the door slammed shut in his face. Have we effectively excommunicated Jesus? Has our independent streak, has our prosperity and pride, have our tepid pieties rendered us a 'Christless Christianity'? Is our temperature anything other than all-American? Because, if not, then I'll tell you this: assimilation to the class values of our culture has made us as lukewarm as Laodicea. How does Jesus feel after taking a sip of our church, a sip of your family, a sip of your spirit? Does he spit?

This may be a message more tragic than any other. When a closed system reaches thermodynamic equilibrium, that's it. Story over. Unless the system's isolation ends. When Israel got that way, God suddenly said, “I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely” (Hosea 14:4). And suddenly, there was hope. And when the church in Laodicea got that way, Jesus suddenly explained that all his rebuking and challenging was meant to give hope instead of hopelessness – it was a sign that he still loves even a useless church: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). The cure for what ails them is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! And after all he's said, after his diagnosis of their case, Jesus is stunningly generous and exceptionally gentle. As faithless as the Laodicean church is, he doesn't give up. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). Jesus is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation” (Revelation 3:14) – a new creation is dawning, and he is the dawn! He is the first installment of 'all things new.' He is the God of Truth, and as the prophet said, “He who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of Truth..., because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from their eyes. For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create...” (Isaiah 65:16-18). Jesus, the Amen, bears true witness that repentance is possible and newfound zeal is available even for a church that's reached thermodynamic equilibrium with the world. All we have to do is open the gate so we, with our society, are an isolated system no more.

The cure is commerce with Jesus. He invited the Laodicean Christians – who were effectively no different from unbelievers – to leave their own shops and come to his. Because he has things for sale that they really need, if only they'll take note of it. The Laodiceans took such pride in their banking industry, but Jesus tells them what they need is “to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich” (Revelation 3:18a). In place of their gilded rot, he offers them a pathway into a deeper “faith more precious than gold... tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7).

The Laodiceans took such pride in their textile industry based on their raven-black sheep, and yet Jesus calls out their naked shame: “I counsel you to buy from me … white garments, so that you may clothe yourselves and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen” (Revelation 3:18b). God's old covenant with Israel, he says, was when “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness” (Ezekiel 16:8), while God warned a persecuting world that “your nakedness shall be uncovered and your disgrace shall be seen” (Isaiah 47:3). The Laodicean church has stepped outside the covenant: Although they should have been clothed with Christ's identity in their baptism (Galatians 3:27), they've stripped him off; though they should have been “clothed with power from on high” by the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49), they've undressed. But once when Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a man, the man came back to “his right mind” and was then found “clothed” and seated at the feet of Jesus (Mark 5:15). And so there's hope for the Laodicean church: they can get dressed in the righteousness of Christ, to let each say, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me” (Job 29:14).

And the Laodiceans took such pride in their medical school and in their eye-salve industry, and yet Jesus tells this church that they're blinder than bats. If there's one thing they've been lacking, it's perceptiveness – they're no different from the Pharisees whom Jesus had called “blind guides,” and the Laodicean church is no less likely to “fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). A supposed Christian lacking in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, affection, or love “is so nearsighted,” the Bible tells us, “that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Peter 1:9). But Jesus came to preach “recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18)! And so their blindness can be cured, not through their supposed medical expertise, but by his: “I counsel you to buy from me … salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Revelation 3:18c). Jesus wants to make them perceptive, to give them a vision.

If they accept, if they go and 'buy' these things from Jesus – being willing to trade in the status quo and trust that Jesus is no swindler – then they'll be more like the Jesus John saw with “eyes like a flame of fire” and “hairs... like white wool” and with “a golden sash around his chest” (Revelation 1:13-14). Everything Jesus offers is meant to help the Laodicean Christians to “be conformed to the image” of Jesus himself. That's the spiritual blessing. But in order to get that, the Laodiceans have to realize that the status quo stinks. They must repent of their complacency and their independent streak, lose their equilibrium, and learn the beauties of dependence. The Laodiceans can only truly prosper when they trust that self-sufficiency is no match for Christ-sufficiency.

It's only through Christ-sufficiency, which inspires us to more zeal than the status quo can handle, that we can truly overcome. But if we do, Christ has a great offer in store for us. The Laodiceans were proud – especially Claudia Zenonis and her family – of how their distant uncle Polemon, for his defense of the city and his support of Mark Antony, was given the gift of a throne – Polemon was made king ultimately of Cilicia, Pontus, Colchis, and Bosporus. But Jesus is far more generous than Mark Antony ever was. He offers us a throne far outstripping Polemon's dreams and Laodicean pretensions. Jesus says: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). A seat on the throne of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

What do we have to do to overcome? It all starts with this: Open the door. Christ stands outside – just open up. Roman bureaucrats may barge in and force the proud Laodiceans to lavish hospitality on them, but Christ is so unlike a Roman bureaucrat. He does not batter down the door. He knocks at the gate. He knocks on the door. He has every right to just unlock it and enter – every key is in his hand. But he doesn't do that. He wants our hospitality to be freely given. And any one of us can open our door, even if nobody else in your pew will open theirs. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus tells us. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

The Laodiceans evicted Jesus from his own church. And yet he's so loving and so faithful that if even one of them is willing to open their door and invite him in, he'll accept that invitation. He'll sit down at your table with you. He'll give thanks for your home-cookin'. He'll relish a place to stay in your life. He'll enter, not by force, but by the wooing of his love. He's looking for a friendship with you, a real fellowship with you. He has a lot of goods to bring – his gold, his white clothes, his eye medicine, all the things your pitiful poor self has been needing. And he's straightforward about it, he's above-board. You open the door, and in he'll come. He won't dawdle outside. He won't hold off and reconsider whether he wants to associate with the likes of you. He won't bring out the battering ram and the torches and pitchforks. He'll come in and eat with you, if your hospitality will receive him back into your life when once he's been shut out. And not only that, but you'll eat with him. Jesus will enter your life and become the host there. Your table will be his, and he'll bring out the delicacies, he'll furnish the festivities, he'll donate all the grace. Just – oh, please, just let him in. It will change the status quo. It will be anything but the daily routine you've known. But Christ-sufficiency is the only way to live. He comes to the table. Receive him in now, and next week, come back to see his table spread. Amen.

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