The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHEN THE LORD GETS DISGUSTED WITH HIS CHURCH

Delivered 12/8/96
Text: Rev. 3:14-22
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"When the Lord gets disgusted with his church." You know very well that the Lord DOES get disgusted with us sometimes, and our focus this morning is on one of those times - this one 1900 years ago in the city of Laodicea in Asia Minor.

Frankly, of all the words in the New Testament that the Lord directs to his church, NONE would appear to apply to you and me - the American church - quite so much as this letter we just read. In sermons and lessons throughout the centuries, Laodicea has been called the "lukewarm" church, and preachers have used these words to pound their congregations over the head for their complacency. In many ways, that is legitimate because the situation faced by those folks back then is much as we have found in many places through the years and find in our own sanctuaries today. But I confess, I have felt a little sorry for folks who had to sit through those sermons because there was not much "good news" in them, if any at all. Truth be told, there IS good news here despite the fact that, of all the churches the Lord addressed in these letters in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, this was the only one that apparently utterly disgusted him.

"I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth." The English translation pretties up what Christ actually said. "Spit you out of my mouth" would be more literally translated "vomit." Here was a church that made the Savior so disgusted that he wanted to throw up. You cannot get much more disgusted than that.

What could have caused Jesus to come down so harshly on these folks? Perhaps there is a clue in their community.(1) Laodicea was in an important geographical location: it was right on the road from Ephesus to Syria which was the most important route in Asia. Originally it had been a fortress town, but that eventually proved problematic since it had no handy water supply. The city's water had to come via an underground aqueduct from a source six miles away, a disastrous situation should there have ever been a siege. But with the coming of Roman power and the stability that followed, Laodicea was given the opportunity to become distinguished, and the town made the most of it.

It became a great banking and financial center, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Like some of the other communities of Asia Minor, it was severely damaged by occasional earthquakes. But Laodicea had accumulated such wealth that it needed no outside assistance to recover. It was a center of clothing manufacture; inexpensive outer garments were mass-produced which were then shipped all over the world. The city was renowned for its woolen trade - a certain strain of sheep was raised in the region that produced a soft, dark wool which was highly regarded. A famous medical center was located there which became particularly noted for its eye salve and ear ointments. In short, life was good. The citizens of Laodicea had it all, and that feeling was as obvious in the church as anywhere else.

The Christians there were not in the kind of danger that some of their neighbor congregations experienced. There was a large and influential Jewish population in town, but they apparently were willing to live and let live. There were centers for emperor worship there, but no one was too zealous about making demands. There do not seem to have been any doctrinal disputes within the church - perhaps they did not take their religion seriously enough to get upset over it. Who knows? At any rate, these Christians had a relatively easy time of it.

To be honest, their situation sounds like ours. There was safety, commerce, wealth, science, religious freedom...and a church that can be described as, at best, lukewarm.

Now some would say that is not such a bad thing...being lukewarm. Most American Christians tend to be a rather conservative lot so that might sound appealing. At least spiritual lukewarmness does not embarrass folks with the HEAT of grabbing strangers by the collar on the street corner and asking whether or not they are saved. At least it is not TOTALLY COLD in its lack of concern about spiritual things. It is a middle ground, and most American church folk like things in the middle. But the Lord apparently does not. After all, what did he say? It makes him want to throw up.

One thing should be made clear here. When the Laodiceans were told that the Savior wished they were either hot or cold, he was NOT saying that the choices were either be entirely spiritual or do not be spiritual at all. He would never do that. If anything, he was saying that there is more than one way to be faithful, but for goodness sake, GET ON WITH IT!

Think of it like this. Do you enjoy a good hot cup of coffee? I do. But it is nothing to shout about after it has been sitting in a cup on my desk for two hours. Do you enjoy an occasional ice cold soft drink? I do. But after it has been open on the kitchen counter overnight, it is no thrill. Both hot and cold have something good to offer. But lukewarm just does not make it...GAG!

"You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.'" That sounds like us. We live in a wealthy land and we like it. There is something in our national psyche that enjoys riches. We take pride in what we have accumulated, with the fact that some of our acquaintances might be wealthy, that we are able to belong to the best clubs. Of course, many of us do NOT have much and are NOT able to do everything we want. But still we like to think about it. So we fantasize and watch "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

That thinking even carries over into the church. People take pride in belonging to the most prestigious congregation - the one with the most magnificent building and most extensive program, the one where "the best people" go. Of course, that is ALSO not always the case. The church might be an inner-city storefront, or a little rickety building in the countryside. But even there, the dreams still tend toward, "One day, if we can just get the right preacher in here, we will have a Crystal Cathedral."

Why do we think that way? The answer is not difficult. We are a society that loves THINGS (and especially at the holidays), just like the folks in Laodicea. And for many, THINGS are their gods. They spend time and talent and treasure, they sacrifice, to get THINGS. All else gets crowded out. And the more they have, the more they want. That is why Jesus said, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."(2)

People bring the same kind of thinking into their churches. Because THINGS are so important in every other area of life, they become important under the steeple too. And in pursuit of the trappings of the bigger and better, everything else gets crowded out...sometimes even God. But the Lord's response to all that accumulated wealth, (wealth that church boards like to hang on to, by the way) and the attendant compromise with the values of the world, is "you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." In a word, disgusting.

The church has been fortunate in having leaders through the ages like Paul, Bishop John (who penned these letters), Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin who would brook no compromise. Because their Lord hated lukewarmness they hated it as well. And with good reason. You see, someone who is just half and half in their commitment is the hardest to reach with Christ's claim on their lives. Someone who is half and half puts forth little or no effort. Someone who is half and half has no real enthusiasm. And what that boils down to is that people who claim to be Christians but are only half and half in their dedication do not properly represent the Lord. Lately the TV talk shows have interviewed both Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, both of whom have just published books about their PTL days - they both admit they did not represent their Lord very well. But, as bad as that situation was in terms of being a hindrance to the spread of the gospel, I am convinced that lukewarm Christians are worse.

One of the things that impresses me about the way the Savior deals with people is that he does it on their own ground and in terms they can understand. To religious folk, he talked religion; to rich people, he talked about the insecurity of money; to the poor he talked about true riches. To these church members in Laodicea, he talked about things in which the community took special pride: finance, the clothing trade, medicine. But each is taken in turn and shown its true value.

"Buy from me gold refined by fire that you may be rich" - not just the gold traded in those big Laodicean banks, but the precious material that years before he had called "treasure in heaven"...the things money cannot buy - genuine friendship, true happiness, comfort in sorrow.

"White robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen" - not the city's dark wool tunics of the everyday but the bright clothing worn for a victory celebration, the celebration that believers will enjoy when one day we are ushered into the presence of the living God.

"And salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see" - not the ground-up powder made in Laodicea's medical schools. Instead, something from the hand of the Master that opens us up to all that we have been, all that we are, and all that we can be.

Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hand the wonderful key
That shall unlock and set me free.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my eyes, illumine me,
Spirit divine.(3)

It is true that this letter to Laodicea is exceedingly harsh. Of all the notes written to the churches of Asia Minor, this is the only one that has no word of praise for anything or anyone. The Lord was utterly disgusted, so disgusted that he wanted to... Well, it is close to dinner time.

But the letter concludes with a very special word: "I reprove and discipline those whom I love." It is an affirmation that, bad as things might be, Jesus still loves them and they still belong to him...and if that is not good news, nothing is. It is a theme that runs throughout scripture - the Lord is not looking to punish but to correct. If he were wanting simply to punish, there would have been no letter to Laodicea. After all, God's final punishment is to leave someone alone.

There is a call for repentance - a change of direction, a change in spiritual "temperature" so they will be no longer lukewarm and disgusting, and finally a beautiful invitation: "Listen! 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."

The picture that comes to mind is of that marvelous Holman Hunt portrait of Christ knocking at the door, a crown of thorns on his head, a lantern in hand, and head cocked as if listening for a welcoming response. As has so often been noted, there is no exterior handle on the door - the latch is on the inside, and the door can be opened only from within. Christianity is unique in its picture of a God who seeks us rather than the other way around.

But not only does he seek, he offers an intimate relationship. "I will come in...and eat with you." To the people of Laodicea 1900 years ago, and to Middle Easterners even today, dining together is considered the most intimate and affectionate thing people can do, even more intimate than sex. If you recall, the apostle Peter was chastised by Jerusalem Christians, not for preaching to gentiles, but for eating with them.(4) But the Lord of all says, even to the most unworthy, even to the most disgusting, here is a chance for close and personal fellowship.

There are times, of course, when we might feel that he must have lost our address. No knock has been heard. The thought occurs that perhaps we really are too disgusting for him to bother with. Not at all. The knock is there even though, in our self-absorption, we might not have noticed it.

He has knocked in the midst of our hurts. When life becomes almost unbearable because of the loss of someone special, the faithlessness of those we had counted on as friends, the pain of seeing your child go wrong, the collapse of a career, he is there...if we would only notice. A broken heart is an open heart. All he awaits is the invitation to come in.

He has knocked in the midst of our sense of inadequacy. Like the church at Laodicea, our temptation is to say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." But down deep, we know that is a lie. Only a fool would ever claim to be totally self-sufficient. The process of coming to realize that we were are not Superman or Wonder Woman is called growing up. And the process continues when it occurs to us that there is more to life than we can understand or control on our own, that there are some things that are beyond our capabilities. It is in those moments of quiet reflection that the knock comes and, along with it, the promise of divine answers to some of life's darkest dilemmas.

He has knocked in the midst of our dreams for ourselves. A fisherman named Simon experienced that. His Lord one day had said that he would be a "Rock" - Peter. Oh, there were times when the apostle probably felt more like a rat than a rock, but Jesus' words stayed with him, and in time, he became the mightiest leader of the early church. With the knock comes the unspoken affirmation that somehow the door of your heart and my heart is really worth knocking on, disgusting though we sometimes are. And that can give us the confidence to be as hot (as invigorating) or as cold (as refreshing) in our witness for him as we can possibly be.

There is no question that the situation in that congregation in Laodicea was a lousy one, one that was enough to make the Lord want to gag, one that was in desperate need of change. We admit that there are parallels to our own experience and that we can use some of the bashing that is handed out in this letter. But the climax of the message is that, in spite of ourselves, the Lord Jesus Christ still knocks...because he loves us and wants us with him...and that is good news indeed.

"Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches," and through the churches, to you and me.

Amen!


1. Much of the historical information comes from William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. 1, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), pp. 137-149

2. Matt. 19:24

3. Clara H. Scott

4. Acts 11:3

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