We made it all the way to the seventh and final letter in the book of Revelation. Thanks for sticking in through this series! Today we look at the letter to the church in Laodicea. To understand this letter, or any of the letters for that matter, you need to know some things about the setting for this church. The geography, the commerce, the history, the politics, the economic makeup of a city greatly impacts its churches and there is no better example of this truth than Laodicea.
Laodicea was founded by Antiochus II and named for his wife, Laodice. He later divorced her and married a woman name Berenice, with whom he had a son named after him. Not long after that he left Berenice and went back to live with Laodice and Laodice poisoned him and then her supporters murdered Berenice and Antiochus III. Maybe the English playwright, William Congreve, knew that story when he penned the words, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” That is the politic legacy of this city.
Laodicea was located on the crossroads of three major roads leading to trade in the East. Therefore it was a very wealthy city. It was known for three things:
1. It was a banking and financial center. In fact, Laodicea was such a wealthy city that when they had an earthquake in 60 AD they refused Rome’s offer to help them rebuild and financed the whole restoration on their own.
2. Textile manufacturing was a major industry. They produced a black woolen cloth used to make clothing and carpets. They mass-produced cheap outer garments…like the Wal-Mart of Asia Minor.
3. A medical center and a medical school were located in Laodicea. They were known for their special eye powder.
Laodicea had lavish public areas, theaters, stadium, beautiful shopping malls and, I’m sure, excellent schools. Be assured, being a real estate agent in Laodicea was as easy as being a weather forecaster in Southern California. But with all these things going for it, the city did have a serious problem…a lack of good drinking water.
They didn’t have their own source of water so it was piped in from the city of Hierapolis, six miles away. Remains of the city of Laodicea show an intricate aqueduct system used to pipe in this water. Hierapolis was known for its hot springs. Don’t you love sitting in the warm, invigorating waters of a natural hot springs? But would you want that to be the source of your drinking water?
Neither did the Laodiceans. Think about drinking that sulfur smelling water from a hot spring. By the time the water got to them it was lukewarm and filled with lime deposits. The ruins of the aqueduct system in Laodicea are absolutely caked with calcification. The water that was piped into Laodicea made its citizens want to vomit. Here they were, situated in the land of opportunity, wealthy beyond imagination and saddled with the worst drinking water around. Too bad water isn’t something you can do without.
I love the Book of Revelation for its rich imagery and allegory. John of Patmos harvested this imagery right from the lives of these churches and he didn’t have to go very far when working on the letter to Laodicea. It was easy pickings when looking for metaphors to describe their faith.
Emily Dickinson began one of her poems with: Tell all the truth but tell it slant– The letter to the church at Laodicea tells them the truth by coming at them sideways…and right between their eyes. This letter takes their least favorite attribute of their lives and puts it on the lips of Jesus as a way to describe them. “You are lukewarm and you make me want to vomit.” Most of us read here that the Church of Laodicea was neither hot nor cold. It is an accurate image. They think they can worship God and the empire at the same time. But every citizen in Laodicea would also understand the corroding nature of their water. Jesus is saying to them, “You are corroding the very gospel message that I laid down my life for and it makes me want to puke.”
Imagine if we got that letter from Jesus. We could, you know. We live in the land of opportunity with excellent schools, good medical care, and enough money to take care of ourselves and we are pretty content with the way things are…well, except for those worrisome things like climate change and whether there will be enough water to keep our lawns green.
We were raised to be self-sufficient and fiercely independent. We have been taught to take care of ourselves and not be a burden to others. We work on securing our future, building a nice nest egg, accumulating stuff to make our lives easier. We boast about our cities. We worry about others trying to get in and ruin our way of life. We live in the land of opportunity and we are pretty comfortable with things just the way they are.
Oh well, I’ll get back to us later. Let me return to the letter. It says, “You say that you are rich and prosperous and need for nothing but really you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” Most of these seven letters have at least a small bit of praise for each church but not this one. Jesus says that they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. I’m sure when this letter arrived and was read out loud at their worship service everyone looked at each other and thought, “Was this letter meant for another church? We aren’t poor. We aren’t naked. We aren’t blind.”
But this letter was meant for them and Jesus was aiming for the jugular. He says to this church full of wealthy people, “If you want to be rich then you need to come to me for the gold that is refined by fire. If you want to be clothed you have to come to me to cover your shame. If you want to truly see than I am the only one with salve to anoint your eyes. Before you get all worked up about being talked to like this, know that I only reprove those I love.”
That line never worked on me as I child….”I’m going to ground you because I love you.” It didn’t work on my children, either. I remember when my son Brett said to us, “None of my friends’ parents make these terrible rules for their children that you make for me.” Without a beat, Bryan said, “I’m sorry that none of your friends’ parents love them as much as we love you.” That line didn’t work on Brett. Well, I didn’t think so at the time but I have heard him mention it several times as an adult.
Jesus says, “In fact, I love you so much that I am standing outside the door knocking, waiting for you to open the door and change your ways.” The thing I love about the Book of Revelation is that underneath all the imagery of vomit and swords and thrones and Satan and dragons, there is a deep theme of openness and steadfast love. The gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed…this city that comes down out of heaven so that God can dwell right among her people. Jesus stands on the other side of the door knocking and knocking and knocking…. offering connection and mercy and love.
Jesus says to the poor, wretched, pitiable Laodiceans, “If you open this door I will come in and eat with you.” What we don’t see because we don’t read ancient Greek is that the word for eat here refers to the main meal of the day. This isn’t the meal we eat at our desks while continuing to work or the meal we eat at the kitchen island before we rush out the door or the meal we pick up in a drive thru and eat in our cars while we are hurrying on with busy lives. This is the slow meal of connection with friends and relatives. This is the meal we sit down at the table to eat with the people we love who ask us about our day. This is the meal of communion and connection. It has a Eucharistic image to it. Jesus is offering relationship and love to the very people who make him sick to his stomach.
So okay, back to us. As we have looked over the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor we have brought it back over and over again to the state of the church today. We have asked each time: “What does this letter have to say to us at the La Verne Church of the Brethren?” I believe that of all seven letters this one pertains to us most relevantly.
We live in California that boasts a $3 trillion gross state product. We are the fifth largest economy in the world, behind the country of Germany and ahead of the country of India. Sure, we also have some issues with our water. We complain that we don’t have enough money or things or whatever but we live in the lap of luxury. We are pretty content with the way things are and we don’t want our rights, our stuff, our privileges taken away from us. We are satisfied with church and our faith, as long as no one gets in our personal business or asks too much of us. My husband gave me a framed picture for my office that says, “Of course I want to save the world but I was hoping to do it from the comfort of my regular life.”
But it’s not possible to change the way things are without changing ourselves. It isn’t possible to save the world by doing it from the comfort of our regular lives. It isn’t possible to love God and love neighbor if we are most worried about ourselves and our stuff.
The one who laid down his life for his friends says, “I want you to do what I did. I want you to follow my example. I want you to conquer the way I conquered not the way the world does it. There is power in my powerlessness. I want you to stop corroding the gospel for my grace is sufficient and my love is wider and richer than what the world has to offer.”
Jesus is standing at the door knocking and knocking and knocking. He wants to eat with us. He wants us to remember that the gospel message isn’t about our comfort but calls for love in action. It calls for equal sharing. It calls for justice living. It calls for us becoming like Christ. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to us. Amen.