“Don’t Be Tepid”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, May 21, 2023
Reading: Revelation 3:14-22
Since we’re doing this series on surprising parts of the Bible, I thought I’d take a little foray into the book of the Revelation, which is a book that a lot of Christians don’t read at all. In fact, many avoid it like the plague. It seems hard to understand, and not as obviously comforting or encouraging as say the Psalms or Philippians. We preachers rarely want to touch it with a ten-foot pole because it feels like it’s going to take a lot of complicated explanations to preach it, so we’ve tended to leave it for Hollywood movies and overly dramatic televangelists to interpret.
Because of this, the book of the Revelation tends to scare people on first reading. There are visions of seals and scrolls and horses and angels – which are fine – but then there are dragons, and beasts coming out of the sea and up from the ground, and disasters and plagues. Like I said – great stuff for Hollywood! The first time I tried to read it I was about 14 years old and it gave me nightmares!
In particular, we preachers tend to skip over this little part at the beginning (chapters 2 and 3) where some airtime is given to criticizing the faith of the churches, culminating with this letter to the Laodiceans, where Christ declares: “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Yikes! That doesn’t sound like the Jesus meek and mild, friend of little children, that we hear about! That’s really in the Bible?! It is, and I know I feel convicted whenever I read it. It’s hard to live a fully committed Christian life: we have so many responsibilities. And so many cultural distractions. And so many good excuses for not making faith/church/Jesus the top priority in our lives.
So, let’s dive in: The book of Revelation was written to be sent out to some of the early churches so that it could be read out loud for everyone in the community to hear. It appears at the end of the New Testament right after the epistles – letters – from apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. It’s a bit like a letter itself, but different from the others. The Apostle John – the last surviving apostle, who was exiled to the Isle of Patmos – received this extraordinary vision from Christ, which is described here in vivid detail. John received this vision, wrote it out, and then sent it out to the early Christians who were suffering intense persecution at that time. Hard as it may be for us to imagine on first reading, this vision was meant to encourage them.
Those who attended the Bible Study on the book of Revelation a year or so ago may remember, though, that all the different scenes in the vision outlined in Revelation seem to express the same truth in different ways, and that truth is this: bad things are going to happen to Christians; it’s going to feel like the end of the world; but don’t worry…in the end, God wins. Bad things are going to happen…in the end, God wins. Over and over and over for twenty-two chapters. Don’t be discouraged. It will all end well – in the end, God wins – so you might want to make sure you’re on His side!
In chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, then, we find seven mini-letters that were part of John’s vision, each one directed specifically to one of the seven churches who would receive the whole thing, all with a very common structure. It’s stated that the words are from Jesus; there’s a commendation, then a criticism, and they all end with a promise of victory for those who stand firm in the faith. This letter to the church in Laodicea was the last of the seven, and I can imagine them reading the first six, feeling smug, thinking, “Yeah, you Ephesians have lost the love you used to have; Smyrna, c’mon, you have some bad teachers there!” But Jesus saves the harshest charge for last, and the Laodiceans get a wakeup call:
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Ouch!
The letters are specific to each community and contain decidedly local colour, and this one is no different. Laodicea was at the junction of some particularly important trade routes, so it was a wealthy city. It was the banking centre of the region. What they didn’t have, though, was good water. To the north of the city there were hot streams, to the south there were glacial streams, and aqueducts were built to channel all that water into Laodicea, but by the time it reached their city it was neither hot nor cold, just lukewarm. It didn’t have the healing properties of the hot water, nor the refreshing properties of the cold.
Here, this distastefulness that they would know well is used as a metaphor for those who claim to be Christians, but who keep one foot firmly planted in the world. Their loyalties are divided. They hold fast to their material wealth and as a result are spiritually poor. It’s a strong charge: tepid faith is worse than no faith at all. They either believe that life is in Christ, or they believe that life is in material wealth. God wants either honest disbelievers or committed believers, but not lukewarm followers.
All of these mini-letters, and this one in particular, hold up a mirror to our own church, and to our own personal commitment to our Christian faith. As we read it, we can ask, “does any of this resonate for me in my own life, or in my church?” I get this same sense of wonder when I read biographies of some of the truly committed Christians in history, and some who are living still today. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sacrificed his life for the sake of justice – would any of us be willing to do the same? I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who gave up all personal comforts to tend to the sickest and most outcast people in society? Surely none of us are called to do that, are we?
Still living today, Brother Yun is an exiled Chinese Christian whose book, The Heavenly Man tells the harrowing story of his imprisonment, malnourishment, and life-threatening beatings in China for the sake of the Gospel, and all the miracles that happened to keep him alive. As I read this story, to tell you the truth I felt like a fraud – like a very lukewarm Christian. I couldn’t help but wonder if I could have endured what he did. To be honest, I can’t imagine that I could. This morning I just slightly burned my hand and I lost my cool, so torture? I don’t think so! As North Americans most of us have never known true persecution for our faith and can barely endure minor inconveniences, let alone imprisonment for our faith. That level of commitment is almost unimaginable for most of us.
In some ways, that lack of real testing is a blessing. I pray that my faith is never put to that kind of test! On the other hand, as we see in this scripture, lukewarm faith in our lives has consequences, and some would argue that the consequences are even more dire than torture and imprisonment: we become ineffectual in our society and distasteful in the mouth of God.
It’s a tricky concept that’s presented in this passage, the idea that God punishes or rejects us for our lack of faith. It’s been used in the past to tell people who don’t recover from illnesses, for example, that it’s because of their lack of faith, which is both heartless and resoundingly untrue. God doesn’t make us sick or bring any other travesty into our lives in order to punish us.
But we can’t really escape the fact that setting Jesus on the backburner in our lives will carry consequences, and the main consequence is that we don’t have Jesus in our lives! When we go through illnesses or travesties, we want to have Jesus in our lives. It’s well illustrated in the Hunt painting that inspired this window that we look at every Sunday morning, and the painting, of course, was inspired by this passage from the book of Revelation. In the painting, Jesus stands at the door, knocking, and the garden around the door is overgrown and unkempt. Our spiritual life becomes unkempt when we don’t consciously tend to it, and it becomes harder and harder to recognize that Jesus is standing there, knocking. That is the consequence of tepid, lukewarm commitment to our faith.
True riches, true blessing is found in a close, intimate, committed relationship with our Lord. “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich…and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” The wealth that the world offers, the salves that the world offers are a sorry facsimile of the true wealth and fullness of life that comes with a committed life of faith, and God loves us so much that he will never stop trying to turn our hearts back to him. God will never stop calling us back to him, calling us back to life.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 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.” Jesus wants us to turn away from the false riches of the world and turn our hearts back to him…he’s standing at the door, knocking, waiting for us to open the door.
If you’re sick or grieving, Jesus is knocking – he wants to comfort you. If you’re confused, Jesus is knocking – he wants to guide you. If you’re angry or afraid, Jesus is knocking – he wants to give you his peace. If you’re thinking of giving up, Jesus is knocking – he wants to give you his hope. If you feel rejected or unlovable, Jesus is knocking – he wants to pour out his love on you. If you’re beating yourself up about your past, Jesus is knocking – he wants to forgive you. Jesus wants you; he wants to be with you; he wants to give you true abundant life. He's waiting for you to turn away from the false promises of the world and open the door to let him come in.
Don’t be intimidated by the book of Revelation. The whole book is meant to be read with the love of Jesus in mind. The Jesus who was victorious over death and who has promised to return in glory is the same Jesus who gave his life, submitting himself to death on the cross. Jesus writes these things because he wants his people close to Him, wants his people to walk with Him, to abide in Him.
So, where we see in these letters a reflection of ourselves falling short, it’s never a call for us to beat ourselves up or to be afraid, but to consider if Jesus is calling us into a deeper, more committed relationship with Him and a richer, healthier life. True riches and true life are not material, but spiritual and are found when we open the door and let Jesus in. Amen.