(This is an edited version of a sermon preached in St Mary’s Dedham in Essex)
If we are ever inclined to take a consumerist attitude to church, the book of Revelation poses a direct challenge to ‘I come to church because it suits me’ with the emphasis on the ‘me’.
Revelation records the risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ appearing to the Apostle John, who was imprisoned on the island penal colony of Patmos just off what is now Turkey and via an angel dictating a message, a revelation, a disclosure to seven churches in seven cities in the 1st century Roman province of Asia, now part of Turkey.
Within this revelation there are seven messages to these seven churches, so each church is hearing not only what the Lord Jesus has to say to them but to the six other churches as well.
Three of these letters to the seven churches contain a mixture of praise and rebuke, those to Ephesus, Pergamum and Thyatira; two of them, those to Smyrna and Philadelphia, are pure praise; and two of them, to Sardis and Laodicea, are pure rebuke. This morning in our passage from Revelation chapter 3v14-22, we hear Jesus’s message to the church at Laodicea.
This church was culturally compromised. It was spiritually lukewarm.
You’re getting two guest speakers this morning because I’m going to quote from an Anglican minister in Hull called Melvin Tinker, who has written brilliantly on Jesus’s verdict on the church at Laodicea in his brilliant new book A lost God in a lost world.
“ ‘Lukewarm Christianity’ is not what I once thought it was. The risen and ascended Christ’s warning to the self-satisfied church in Laodicea in Revelation 3 seemed clear enough; their deeds were ‘neither hot nor cold’, instead they were ‘lukewarm’. Jesus said that he preferred them to be ‘one or the other’. Therefore, to me Jesus was saying that a frigid, cold Christian congregation was better than one which was just tepid…
“But upon understanding a little more of the background to this passage, I discovered that the issue was not spiritual zeal as such, but spiritual usefulness. The reality behind the imagery Jesus was drawing upon was the plumbing system of this ancient city. In the Lycus valley where Laodicea was situated, there were two other New Testament towns, Colossae and Hieropolis. Colossae enjoyed water which was fresh and cold and therefore useful. Hieropolis, on the other hand, had water which was hot and medicinal…Its water was also useful. Laodicea, however, had to draw its water four miles away by stones pipes which left thick, carbonate deposits in the plumbing system, making the water disgusting to drink” (p17-18).
So, spiritually speaking, cold is good, hot is good, but lukewarm makes Jesus sick because it is useless. This church was so compromised with the non-Christian culture around it that it was useless to the Lord Jesus.
We as local churches need to think carefully and prayerfully about our spiritual effectiveness for the Lord Jesus and where we are not being effective we need to change.
Let me put a question to us if I may: If there was a clear choice between getting more young people into your church and keeping a fairly formal service, which would you choose? Some may say, ‘Well, that’s not the choice as we see it. We can do both.’ But if it were the choice – and remember hypothetical questions are designed to make us think – which would you choose?
Growing younger or staying formal?
The reality is that churches that don’t grow younger are not going to be much use to the Lord Jesus into the future, are they?
The great thing about being a church as distinct from an individual is that a church can grow younger whereas an individual can’t. An individual is only going one way. Now in my 50s, I’m going the same way as my hair line went when I was in my 30s. But when a local church intentionally reaches out with the gospel to young people and more of them get converted to our Lord Jesus Christ and become part of his church, a local church can do what an individual can’t – it can grow younger.
Do we want to as local churches?
If we aren’t being useful to the Lord Jesus, he has a message for us, the same message as he gave to the church at Laodicea: ‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me’ (Revelation 3v19-20).
To churches that are willing to listen to him and to change where they need to – to repent – the Lord Jesus promises to come among them and be on the most intimate, relational and loving terms with them – treating them like beloved members of his family, eating with them as the head of the family.
It is a wonderful promise of loving intimacy and relationship with the Lord Jesus for churches that are willing to listen to him and to change.