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Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Laodicea

March 29, 2013
Sermon:  Seven Letters to Seven Churches:  The Letter to Laodicea
Text:  Revelation 3:14-19


We come now today to the last of the letters written to the churches of Asia Minor as a part of the book of Revelation.  We will actually conclude the series Seven Letters to Seven Churches on Easter Sunday.

I invite you to join me as I read John the Elder’s letter to Laodicea found in Revelation 3:14-19.  Hear now the Word of God.

14 To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 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. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

In the year 2004, the British Broadcasting Company commissioned a survey in England that asked over 1000 Britains if they had ever committed one of the Seven Deadly Sins:  pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.  At the top of the list was anger, committed by nearly eighty percent of those participating.  Well over fifty percent confessed that they had committed the remaining sins.  When asked which sin was Britain’s deadliest, the participants virtually ignored the list of Seven Deadly Sins.  Instead they suggested that violence and adultery were the two greatest sins in England.  When asked which of the Seven Deadly Sins they enjoyed the most, they said lust, followed closely by gluttony.

In subsequent reporting of the survey, the list of Seven Deadly Sins was treated as a joke.  Writers and actors claimed that they could see nothing wrong with any item in the list.  Comments included, “As long as you are doing what you do with pride, you will be above a certain standard,” “Anger really is not a sin; it’s just letting off a little steam,” and “Sloth is doing nothing.  How can that possibly be wrong?”  In a world where avoiding harm to others is the overriding moral rule, the Seven Deadly Sins have pretty much had their day in England, at least.  They have pretty much had their day in the United States as well.

Looking more closely at the responses to the opinion poll, it is surprising that those who placed violence at the top of the list saw no connection to anger.  Those who identified adultery as a problem saw no connection to lust.  People were merely thinking in terms of outcome.

Jesus, of course, took a completely different view in the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 5:21, 26 we read, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that if anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Jesus is not setting standards so high that they are impossible to achieve.  He equates our thoughts and our actions in importance, repeating the wisdom in the book of Proverbs:  “For as a person thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). 

The Seven Deadly Sins are derived from what John Cassion, a monk in the 4th century, identified as Eight Evil Thoughts or sometimes Eight Demons.  Cassion found these Eight Evil Thoughts among the teachings of the desert fathers and mothers who devoted themselves to an acetic lifestyle by living alone in the desert.  Cassion described these difficult thoughts as being an affliction, even to monks and nuns.  Pope Gregory the Great translated these Eight Evil Thoughts into Seven Deadly Sins.  In the process, Gregory omitted one of the Eight Thoughts, which I suppose he thought was unimportant.  The sin he omitted is acedia, which comes from both the Greek and Latin word that can be translated spiritual apathy.

Acedia may be a word that is entirely new to you.  When I mentioned it to Clare, the wordsmith in our family, it was new to her.  Acedia means spiritual apathy or loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life itself.  While the word has disappeared from use, the reality of spiritual apathy, spiritual complacency, is still very evident.  Jesus rebuked the church in Laodicea, saying they were guilty of acedia, the forgotten Deadly Sin of spiritual apathy.

Laodicea, a town where some of the ruins are still visible, is the most prosperous of all the cities mentioned in this series.  Christians actually owned many of the large and beautiful homes built throughout this city.  The town was part of the tri-city area of Asia Minor that also included Colossae and Hierapolis.  Laodicea was known throughout the Roman province of Asia as the banking center.  It had a prosperous commercial life and a flourishing clothing industry.  A particular breed of black sheep raised around the area had rich, glossy, black wool that could be woven into very fine clothing.  That wool became the center of the textile and commercial industry in Laodicea.  A 1st century medical school in Laodicea specialized in a salve used to cure bad eyesight.  The very, very prosperous Laodicea was the kind of place where you would expect to find the Mall of America.

When the risen Christ introduces himself to this church, he does so in an unusual way.  He identifies himself as the “Amen,” a Greek word we use to close our prayers and to express agreement with a meaningful statement.  Jesus frequently uses amen, especially in John’s Gospel with statements that go, “Truly, truly, I say unto you” or with “Verily, verily, I say unto you” as worded in the King James Version. Jesus draws attention to statements that are extremely important when he precedes it with that double Amen.  In this case Jesus is telling the church in Laodicea, “You need to listen and pay attention.  I have something important to say to you.”  His use of amen is similar to the navy’s announcement, “Now hear this.  Now hear this.”

Second, Jesus introduces himself as the “faithful and true witness.”  He not only tells the truth, but he also tells the whole truth.  He hides nothing.  He speaks plainly and clearly.

Third, Christ states that he is “the ruler of God’s creation.”  Again John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things were made by him; and not one thing was made in creation without him” (John 1:1,3).  The doctrine of the pre-existing Christ states that Christ was present, even at creation.

At the end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul instructed, “See that this letter is read also in the church at Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16).  The church at Laodicea had heard the reading of the book of Colossians and was familiar with Paul’s declaration that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the beginning of all creation.  They are also familiar with the expression that Jesus is “the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18), meaning that he is the first of the resurrection, the new creation.

The living Christ says to the church at Laodicea, I 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.”  Laodicea had many advantages with its banking, commercial trade, clothing industry, and medical institution.  Archeologists, however, discovered the great problem at Laodicea:  a very poor water supply.  We are not familiar with the problem of a lack of water in this area with the closeness of the reservoirs at Lake Bowen and Lake Blalock.  We turn on the tap, and good water flows right to us in our homes and businesses.  The closest water supply to Laodicea was available through springs at a distance of six miles.  An aqueduct brought the water from those springs to Laodicea.  The water was not tasty.  It was tepid, lukewarm.

Do you remember drinking the water available years ago at the beach?  No one drank that water for refreshment.  It was full of sulfur.  Jesus compares the church in Laodicea to that water at the beach, telling them, “You are neither hot nor cold.  You are lukewarm, and I am going to spew you out of my mouth.”  The Greek word for spit, vomit, is not so delicate.  Jesus tells the church, “I am going to vomit the church because it nauseates me.”

This church in Laodicea had two problems.  First, they were uncommitted, being neither hot nor cold, and suffered from what some have called the sickness of non-commitment.  Second, they thought too highly of themselves.

Following an earthquake in Laodicea, the Roman government offered to help rebuild the city.  The townsfolk rejected that offer, boasting, “We have enough money.  We can rebuild it ourselves.”  Laodicea did have a lot of wealth, and they prided themselves on being self-sufficient.

A church with spiritual apathy or a lack of concern, enthusiasm or energy may be comfortable to attend.  You can certainly go and go and go and go and be very comfortable, enjoying the music and the fellowship.  What does Jesus think of a church like that?  It makes our Lord sick, nauseated.  That type of church is repulsive, displeasing, distasteful, like beach water full of sulfur.

Jesus addresses the wealth of the church at Laodicea.  “You say, ‘I am rich.  I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’  Don’t you realize how wretched and pitiful and poor and blind and naked you are?”  What a sad condition that the church at Laodicea was smug, self-righteous, about its self-sufficiency.  It had plenty of money, probably beautiful buildings, and maybe the respect of the community.  They thought they were doing well.

Jesus, however, is not pleased when he looks at the church and gives them advice:

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

He is basically saying, “You have not hurt enough.  You have not experienced enough suffering, which would bring you out of your spiritual apathy.”  He wants them to have a life of purity.  He then addresses them at the point of their strength: “I want you to put salve in your eyes.”  They are spiritually blind.

Acedia – the state of spiritual listlessness, nonchalance, emptiness – is a universal Christian experience.  It affects so many Christians, stunting their growth and damaging many churches.

What causes this spiritual apathy?  Material prosperity, material affluence, may create a sense of security.  In the case of Laodicea, they responded to the offer of support, “We really do not need anything.  We are going to be just fine.”  This sense of safekeeping sags into a bog of spiritual apathy, a comfortable, uninspired sort of complacency.  Sometimes enduring a series of prolonged difficulties can cause a person to become worn down over time.  The spiritual walk becomes slow and tired, and a moving away from spiritual nourishment and enrichment becomes apparent.  Sometimes one’s lifestyle is so frantic, so hurried, so frenzied, so intense, that the spiritual life gets elbowed out of the way.  Even those of us in ministry can get so caught up in activity that we neglect the condition of our own souls.

I have been around for a while, and a number of pastors who are tired and experiencing burnout have come to talk with me.  I usually ask, “Tell me about your relationship with the Lord.”  It is absolutely amazing, but the hectic pace of trying to pastor a church pushes out spiritual disciplines, which are so important.  Even ministers can fall into a kind of spiritual indifference.

You can know whether this lethargy is the condition in your life by answering the questions to a four-fold diagnostic test.

Question 1:  Am I becoming more Christ-like?  When we are born again into the kingdom of God, we begin a long process of growing, a pilgrimage that lasts a lifetime.  Many Christians just stop the journey and fail to grow.  Sometimes we might say that nobody helps them grow.  A person cannot grow into maturity in Christ without continually practicing the things of Christ and cultivating what is called the mind of Christ.  Ups and downs occur all along the way, but the general trajectory of a Christian life is that we are becoming more and more like Christ, not less and less like Christ.

Question 2:  Am I stopping intentionally to listen to what God has to say, to hear what God has to tell me through His Word?  I am not asking if you pray just before meals or offer a perfunctory five-minute prayer.  God talks to us through the Bible.  Prayer and Bible study are so closely connected because we want to speak to God, but God also wants to speak to us.  An enormous part of prayer is stopping and paying attention to what God has to say.

If we are going to shake off spiritual apathy, we cannot wait until some holy flash of lightning zaps us.  That might happen.  It has happened occasionally.  If we are going to break out of spiritual apathy, we must be intentional and understand what must be done.  Taking the time to stop and listen to God is not a passive activity.  It is an activity of seeking and meditating on His Word.  We must allow Him to speak to us through His Word.  After that, we will be able to speak to Him.

Last night when I got home, I was so tired.  I went outside and sat in our yard for about two and a half hours.  The first part of that time, I just listened to the birds, which are a blessing.  I got a bit distracted when I noticed the many weeds growing in my flowerbeds.  I read some Scripture, then started praying, relying on my cell phone as a prayer list.  I did not get through the entire list, but I did make eight to ten calls, letting people know I was praying for them.

Question 3:  Am I ministering to others?  Over the almost forty-seven years I have been in ministry, the computer and the cell phone have really changed ministry.  I communicate often by e-mail.  I am learning that so many of you also communicate over Facebook.  I tried Facebook for a while, and I might need to go back to it even though some things about it annoy me.  I really do not want to know what you ate for breakfast or if you are having a bad hair day.  I do, however, want to know your joys and sorrows.  I want to know how to pray for you.

Question 4:  Am I following the Great Commission?  Jesus went to the top of mountain and instructed his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).  Was he talking just to those eleven, or is he also talking to all of his disciples?  Is he speaking just to ordained clergy, or is he speaking to every Christian?  Jesus instructs, “Make disciples.”

Patrick was such a man who followed Jesus’ imperative to make disciples.  Patrick was born in Scotland near the end of the 4th century to parents who were very wealthy.  He heard the gospel and accepted Christ as a boy.  At the age of sixteen, Irish raiders came to the family estate and took Patrick as a prisoner.  During the following six years he was held in Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd outdoors, almost always alone.  He prayed for hours while working, and his faith grew.  He longed for the things of God and became a very devout Christian.

He said that one day he heard the voice of God directing him, “Patrick, it is time for you to leave Ireland.”  He walked 200 miles to the Irish coast and caught a boat to England.  When he reached England, he had a second revelation.  An angel in a dream said, “Patrick, I want you to go into ministry.  I want you to go back to Ireland as a missionary.”  Patrick prepared for the ministry fifteen years.  Immediately after he was ordained to the priesthood, he requested that he be sent to Ireland.

Patrick saw as his task the conversion of the Irish people.  Familiar with the native language and culture, Patrick chose to incorporate some of the Irish traditions into the lessons of Christianity, into the gospel message, instead of attempting to eradicate all Irish beliefs.  For example, he helped the Irish people celebrate Easter with bonfires, something they had always used.  He incorporated the light of the bonfires with the light of the world.  He superimposed over the cross of Christ the symbol of the sun, creating what we now know as the Celtic cross.  He knew that the Irish people had revered the sun.  This would turn their attention to the cross of Christ.

It would be too much to say that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland, but he continued preaching the gospel for forty years.  Many, many people accepted Christ, and many churches were established because of Patrick.  He died in the year 460 on March 17.

What does it mean to make disciples?  It means leading people to accept Christ Jesus as their Savior.  It does not require grabbing someone by the neck, squeezing the jugular vein, and pinning the person to the ground.  You can make a disciple in the context of your relationships.  The Christian home is one of the greatest avenues for evangelism that we have.  More people are won to Christ there than anywhere else.  Making disciples means that we encourage people to continue to grow in Christ, not leaving them as newborns on the doorstep.  We nurture them so that they can mature in their faith and come to the point that they begin making disciples.

The Great Commission teaches that every follower of Jesus – not just ordained clergy – has this responsibility.  When is the last time you made a disciple?  Considering that question will help you decide whether or not you are afflicted with acedia, spiritual apathy.

If you start at the lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia, and follow the coast down through North Carolina, you will find important lighthouses at Currituck, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear.  Many ships have wrecked along that path, especially at Diamond Shoals, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

People along the coast understood that they needed something more than lighthouses to save the lives of those shipwrecked.  They interspersed lifesaving stations, rough buildings with a tower, between those lighthouses.  There they stored the huge boats needed to transport the crew and aboard ships in distress to safety.  People became properly trained in the arduous rescue techniques.  I read one account of a team from Breeds Hill that rowed so vigorously in the surf in order to save lives, that the captain of the crew could not write his report for three days because his hands were so blistered.

I believe the only lifesaving station left now, called Chicamacomico, is located at a place called Rodanthe.  It is interesting to note that the first eight Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to individuals who saved lives along the coast of the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

Others who were not interested in going through the training to save lives said, “Our friends are here, and we enjoy being together.  We would like to come for the fellowship, maybe even have a pot-luck supper every now and then. This would be a good way for our children to get to know each other.”

On a day when the group had scheduled a pot-luck supper, a storm at sea and a shipwreck required the trained crew to row out into the ocean to the site and bring the sailors back.  When people arrived a little later for the pot-luck supper, the lifesaving station was filled with dirty, nasty, wet sailors.  Some members became upset because their pot-luck supper had been ruined by the presence of those men.

Members fixed up the station by laying carpet, putting in paneling, and installing a new wide-screen television.  When another shipwreck occurred and the lifesavers brought in group of wet sailors, people complained, “We cannot believe you brought those guys in here on our new carpet!”  To solve the problem, they built a barracks out back so that the sailors would not have to come into the lifesaving station anymore.

The number of lifesavers dwindled as many in the group became older and fewer and fewer went through the training.  Finally one day when a wreck occurred at sea, everyone on board the ship drowned.  No crew had been trained to save those in peril.

Some people said, “You know, let’s just change the name to Beach Club.”

A few old-timers protested, “That is not what we started!”  They moved down the beach and started a new lifesaving station.

If we do not save lives, we are not the church.  We are like Laodicea.  We might look like we are doing well, but this is not pleasing to the Lord.  The commission that we need to take seriously, if we are going to say that we are the church of Jesus Christ, is making disciples.  Of course, that begins when you accept Christ as your Savior.  If you have never done, could I extend that invitation to you?  Do not remain uncommitted.

 Kirk H. Neely
© March 2013

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