Letters to the 7 Churches 5 - Laodicea
It's interesting how we can go from the two letters we saw last week where one church thought they were alive and were actually dead and another thought they were as good as dead but actually had plenty of life in them, to the final letter of the seven where the church is neither one thing nor the other. And if you thought Sardis had problems, Laodicea takes the cake.
Just to fill you in on their context, Laodicea was 15km west of Colossae and 10km south of Hierapolis. It was situated in a fertile valley. It was just as pagan a city as any of the others. In fact it was the centre of Emperor worship for the region. It had a strong Jewish community that may well have integrated into the Greek culture to a large extent. For example, there are examples of coins made here in the 3rd century that show illustrations that mix together the Jewish and pagan versions of the flood story.
It was a wealthy city, hence the quote in v17: 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' But its one limitation was its water supply. The water was high in salts and full of lime sediment. In fact it had no local water supply so they had to pipe in water from the mountains in the south. The water came via a stone pipeline which made the city vulnerable to attack. So the suggestion is that this meant they were very good negotiators: very good at appeasement and compromise. But we'll come back to the water issue in a moment.
Jesus presents himself as the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God's creation. The Amen implies he is the one in whom all is complete and assured. As the faithful and true witness he's the one who in every way reflects the truth of God's character to the world. What he says and does reflects the reality of God entering into human affairs.
He's the origin or ruler, or firstborn of God's creation. Remember I said that Laodicea was just near Colossae. Well you may remember that the letter to the Colossians ends with an instruction to make sure the letter was read in Laodicea as well. So they would have remembered Paul's great hymn to Christ from Col 1:15-18: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything."
So that title, the firstborn of God's creation may be meant to remind them of Jesus' glory and the need to give him the first place in everything.
But let's think about the content of the message. Notice that here there's no commendation. In the last letter there was no rebuke, but here it's the other way around. He knows their works and there's nothing to recommend them.
As I said before the water supply in Laodicea had to be piped in. If you'd gone a little way north toward Hierapolis you could have bathed in the hot springs as people still do today. In fact those white cliffs would have been visible from Laodicea. If you'd gone south you'd have come to the mountain springs with their cool refreshing water. If you'd gone east to Colossae you would have found cold pure water to refresh you. But in Laodicea they were dependent on a pipeline that ran above ground for several kms by which time it had warmed up to an unsatisfying, lukewarm state.
So what Jesus is saying to the church is something like this. 'I want to be refreshed and revitalised when I drink but you're like the water you're always complaining about. When I drink that sort of water I feel like chucking.'
So what was the problem? Look at v17: "17For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.'" In other cities we saw how the Church was in danger of absorbing the culture of their city by compromise over the issue of idol worship. Here they've done the same thing but the issue is more to do with their self-sufficiency. Laodicea was the sort of city that was archly independent. It was a wealthy banking centre as well as being a centre for fine wool production. They grew a fine glossy black wool that was woven into fine wool tunics known throughout the empire.
There's one report of a time when an earthquake destroyed a number of cities including Laodicea, but when the Emperor offered them disaster relief funds to rebuild the city they refused, because they were quite capable of looking after themselves, thank you very much!
So it seems that the Church had simply absorbed that sort of local self-reliant attitude. They were fine just as they were.
But Jesus says that in fact they're "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." They may think they're rich, but their worldly riches aren't enough. Spiritually they're poverty stricken. They think they're well dressed, in their fine wool tunics, but in truth they need to cover up their spiritual nakedness.
They need to come to him to buy true wealth. So how do you buy true wealth when you're poor and wretched? You buy from the one who gives for no cost, who has covered the cost for you already. This is meant to remind them of the prophecy of Isaiah 55. Listen to what God promised in that prophecy of the last days: (Isa 55:1-5 NRSV) "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live."
They're encouraged to come to Jesus to be clothed in white robes. This is clearly a contrast to the black wool robes they were so famous for, but white robes in Revelation are more significant than that. White robes are those that have been washed clean in the blood of the lamb, which is a mixed metaphor if ever you've heard one! White robes are what the great multitude gathered before the throne of God are dressed in. They signify the righteousness that comes from faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that's persevered to the end. They signify a righteousness that no amount of self-reliance can generate. Only by casting our total dependence on Christ can we be dressed in these white robes.
Then he gives a hint of what their real problem is. He offers them salve for their eyes. The real problem was that they were spiritually blind. They hadn't noticed how much they'd absorbed the culture they'd grown up in. Again, Laodicea was famous for its medical school and for a powder that was exported as a treatment for eyes. But they needed a spiritual ointment to restore their sight so they could see where they were lacking. You might like to think about whether we have a blind spot when it comes to recognising how much we've absorbed our culture.
It may be that we get the greatest insight into their failure in the well known offer of v20: "20Listen! 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." Far from being a harsh letter, you see, this is actually a love letter, offering a restoring of the relationship that they've let slip.
To eat with someone was an act of intimacy in the culture of the first century. And it seems this is one area that they've forgotten about. But Jesus wants to restore the relationship. And he isn't going to wait around any longer for an invitation. He's knocking on the door waiting for them to open the door and invite him in. Now in that culture, not only is eating with someone an act of intimacy, when someone knocks on the door there's an imperative to show hospitality. So this carries both an offer of intimacy but also a hint of demand. Jesus is insisting that they pay attention to him, that they give up their self reliance and turn back to the relationship that they should have with him.
And in turn he promises that if they'll repent and turn back to him, he'll invite them to join him on his throne.
This is a letter that contains a strong rebuke, but the tone of the rebuke is that of a loving Lord whose only desire is to restore the relationship that's been damaged and to bring us back to share his glory with him forever.
So let's think about how this letter speaks to us as a 21st century church. Clearly there are huge cultural differences between them and us, but let's think about the cultural issues that are most relevant to us here.
They lived in a culture that was proud, self-sufficient, prosperous, not needing or wanting any outside help. They had everything they needed in a material sense. How would you say that compares to our culture? Does it sound familiar? Aren't we raised from childhood to be self reliant? The mantra in most schools today is "you can do whatever you put your mind to. You can be anything you want." The government is working hard at making all of us financially independent by the time we retire.
Even as a church we seem to be able to do whatever we need to, even if it means raising a bit more money each year. Some churches go even further and suggest that wealth and prosperity are the natural outcome of being faithful to God and if you're not wealthy then you mustn't be being faithful.
But most of that has nothing to do with what God's revealed to us in his word. Yes, he does promise to bless us if we're faithful, but often that blessing is of the sort promised here, a reward to those who conquer through persevering to the end; a reward of glory in God's heavenly kingdom. And in any case you don't need to think for very long about our current situation with a parish merger happening to realise just how much we're dependent on God for everything coming together.
Proverbs speaks a fair bit about wealth and it says two main things about it. First it says that wealth will be the result of us remaining faithful to God. God will reward those who trust him. That's the bit the prosperity teachers like. But then it goes on to warn that wealth is the greatest stumbling block to remaining faithful to God. Wealth is the thing that's most likely to trip us up if we're not careful about how we handle it.
John Wesley once remarked that he couldn't see how any revival could last long since true religion produces hard work and thrift which produces wealth but wealth in turn produces "love of the world in all its branches." So we in the West need to be very careful that the wealth that we have in so many areas doesn't trip us up, doesn't make us so self reliant that we forget our total dependence on Jesus Christ and on the grace of God.
Relationship with God
But the other issue here is that of our relationship with God. The trap for Christians experiencing success is that they start to coast in terms of their relationship with God. Because life is easy and they fell less dependent on God they don't have the same motivation to keep praying; to keep focussed on that relationship with God that's so vital for those who are struggling with living as a Christian.
So let me ask the question, how much do you rely on God in your daily life? I think this is one of the hardest questions for us to deal with. We're so self-reliant aren't we? Most of us at least. Most of us are fairly competent at what we do. Partly that's because we only do things we're competent at. But that very competence means we don't feel the need to ask for help; from anyone, even from God. Of course then the danger is that God has to give us a wake up call like he gives to this church here. Only with us it's likely to be when we make a total mess of something and realise we're not totally independent after all.
As in the other letters, this letter is addressed as much to us as it was to the church in Laodicea. Jesus still stands at the door knocking, waiting for us to open it and invite him in. This is an offer he makes to everyone here today, whether you're already a Christian or still wondering whether to take the plunge and place your trust in him. If you think about it it's an incredible offer isn't it? Jesus, the risen Son of God is offering to come and partake of our hospitality. Not the other way around. Jesus inviting us to a wedding banquet as in the parable he told, where he had to send out to the streets and lanes to fill the tables, is great enough, but here he's inviting himself to our house the way he did with Zacchaeus. He's choosing us to have the honour of being his hosts.
So how do we respond to this invitation? Well, if you're not already one of his followers the response needs to be to ask him to come in and give you the righteousness that comes only by faith in him and then to take control of your life so your relationship with him can grow.
If you're one of his followers already then it might entail a renewed resolve to spend time with him in prayer and Bible reading on a regular basis. Or it might mean making sure you become a more regular attender at the Sunday services where God's people meet together to encourage one another in their relationship with him. It might also mean recognising that wherever we are or whatever we're doing, Jesus is there with us. In fact it might mean inviting him to join us in whatever we're doing, to consciously welcome him into our presence at every moment of the day so we build a consciousness of his presence and our dependence on him for everything we have and need.
Whatever we do, the recurrent message of these letters is that we need to resist the pressures of our culture to conform unthinkingly to the status quo and to compromise on the major principles of our faith. We need to recover the radical edge of Jesus' teaching, that turns the values of the world upside down. We need to recover that edge even if it means facing opposition from the world around us. We need to recognise that the one who stands knocking at the door of our life waiting to be welcomed in is the one who is the creator and sustainer of the universe and the true and faithful witness to God's goodness and love.