Purpose: Holding on to Our Passion
Dave Davila, age 24, took a job in Chicago and had to leave his close-knit family in East Moline, Illinois. But family gatherings just weren’t the same without Dave. So his mother took a digital photo of him and had it blown up to his actual height – 5 foot 8 inches – and mounted on heavy cardboard from a neighbor’s new stove box.
So there’s Dave, standing casually, hands in pockets, a blue button-down shirt hanging untucked over his khaki shorts. They all call him Flat Dave. Now, at first, Flat Dave just showed up and stood quietly by at family gatherings. Then word spread throughout the community, and he became something of a celebrity in East Moline. “Complete strangers want to pose with him,” said his brother Dan. “I think Flat Dave’s actually better looking.”
Sometimes things get somewhat awkward for the real Dave – the one the family now calls Thick Dave. “I’m in Chicago talking to my mom on the phone, and she says, ‘Hold on, I’ve got to load you into the van.’ It’s a little weird.”[i]
So they had thick Dave, who had moved to Chicago for a job, who came home to visit from time to time I’m sure. But if he couldn’t make it home for a family celebration or a holiday, no worries. They had Flat Dave to stand in for him. The only problem with this is that Thick Dave is real. Flat Dave is just a lifeless cardboard cutout. He looks like Dave in a way, but he isn’t Dave. On the other hand, you probably don’t have to fight Flat Dave for the last piece of birthday cake, so maybe there’s some benefit to Flat Dave – the appearance of his presence without the inconvenience of the real thing.
That’s the situation the church in the ancient city of Laodicea found itself in. They had the appearance of life in Christ, but they were lacking the real thing. They had unassuming and non-demanding “Flat Christ,” but not the costly discipleship of following the real thing, following “Thick Christ.” Today, we’re actually finishing our fall sermon series from Christ’s seven letters to seven churches recorded in chapters 2 & 3 of the book of Revelation. The series is called “Becoming a Healthy Church,” and we took a break for Advent with one letter left, so we’ll finish it up today. Remember, we aren’t going through this series because we’re an unhealthy church. In fact, I think we’re a quite healthy church.
But the health of a body, whether it be a physical body or the body of Christ, the Church, has to be maintained, because our default mode is to wear out and wear down and become unhealthy, and it really doesn’t take that much time for that to happen. The health of your body and the health of a church both require intentionality, living on purpose, in order to stay healthy.
So from the church in Ephesus we learned to hold on to our love for one another. From the church in Smyrna we learned how to face difficulty and challenges posed by our culture. From the church in Pergamum we learned to keep ourselves anchored to Truth. From the church in Thyatira we talked about obeying Christ, even when his ask it tough. From the church in Sardis we learned to maintain our vitality in Christ. And from the church in Philadelphia, we learned to endure, to hang in there when life gets tough. So let’s look at the last of these 7 letters, the letter from Christ to the church at Laodicea. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14-22.
Each of these seven letters begins with Christ’s revelation of himself in a special way for that particular church, and each revelation is a part of the encounter that John, who is writing these letters, had with Christ that’s recorded in Revelation 1. And to the church at Laodicea, Christ reveals himself as the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. Now, “faithful and true witness” isn’t hard to understand. It speaks to the reliability of Christ in revealing to us the true character of God as a God of both righteousness and also love and grace and forgiveness. It’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Truth.” I am ultimate reality. I am the perfect representation of the nature and character of God. I am God with you.
And “the beginning of God’s creation” doesn’t mean first being created. It means the source of God’s creation. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul says, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
And again in Colossians 1:16 he says, “For by him (and he’s speaking of Christ here) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.”
And then in Hebrews 2:10, the writer says, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
The Bible is absolutely, unequivocally clear that the cosmos was created by, through, and for Christ. He is the source of life and all that is and the faithful and true witness to who God is and what God is like.
But what does it mean that Christ is “the Amen”? I mean, “Amen” is the word we say at the end of prayers, right? But it has a meaning. It comes from a Hebrew word with a very similar sound, and means “so be it.” So when we pray, and then say, “Amen,” we’re saying, “so be it,” or “may it be so, God.” Now God is still sovereign and sometimes his answer is “No,” but the word “Amen” is actually a final appeal for God to act in some way. So for Christ to be “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation” is for Christ to embody and guarantee all of God’s promises to us. Christ, and Christ alone, is ultimately the only one worthy of our faith and trust and hope.
So why is that important to the church at Laodicea? Look at Vv. 15-16. So we have this whole hot, cold, and lukewarm water image, and it’s often been understood as hot is passion for Christ, cold is rejection of Christ, and lukewarm is where they are, just kind of in the middle, with Christ basically saying either live passionately for me or not at all, but don’t straddle the fence. The problem with that interpretation is that cold is much more often considered a positive when thinking about water, or any other drink, with the exception of coffee and tea sometimes. So what’s going on here? What is Christ saying?
This imagery would have been incredibly easy for the Laodicean Christians to understand, because it plays off their own water supply. Laodicea was located on the intersection of two very important trade routes, one running east-west and the other running north-south, and was located very near two other cities – Colossea, whose church St. Paul wrote to in the New Testament letter of Colossians, and Hierapolis. Laodicea was just 10 miles from Colossae, and even closer to Hierapolis, just 6 miles away. Paul tells us in Colossians that he sent letters to both the Colossian church (our New Testament book of Colossians) and one to Laodicea, and he encouraged the church in each city to read the letter addressed to them and then exchange letters with the other church. As far as we know, St. Paul’s letter to Laodicea doesn’t survive.
And Laodicea was the most important city of the three. In fact, it was the wealthiest, most important city in the region. Local farmers had developed a breed of sheep that produced a soft, glossy black wool that was very highly sought after, and the city became widely known for a special kind of tunic that was manufactured there called the trimita.
Her location on two very important trade routes contributed to her wealth and prosperity, but she was quite wealthy in her own right, experiencing tons of agricultural and commercial growth and prosperity. Because of this prosperity, Laodicea became known as a banking center as well. They were sort of the Swiss bankers of the ancient world. And a very well-known medical school was located there. The medical school developed because there were some incredible hot springs located just outside the city going toward Hierapolis. And using those hot waters and mineral deposits in the soil for which the area was known, Laodicean physicians developed and eye salve that was used throughout the Roman Empire.
If Laodicea’s location had a downfall, it was that there wasn’t a good source of water for the city itself. Toward Colossae cold water was in abundance. And toward Hierapolis, the hot springs had made the area a medical force in the empire. But there was no source in Laodicea herself. Water was sort of piped in, through tunnels made of stone. But the region was known for mineral deposits in the stone. So the water that was piped in from a distance away, probably from near Colossae, was no longer cold by the time it arrived in Laodicea, and it had been mixing in minerals along the way and was full of sediment, so Laodicea’s water didn’t taste all that good, and it was tepid, lukewarm, and you kind of had sand in your teeth when you were done drinking. Christ isn’t making a “hot-good, cold-bad” comparison here at all. He’s making a comparison for two useful kinds of water, and one that is good for nothing. The cold water toward Colossae was useful for drinking and cooking. The hot springs toward Hierapolis had many medical and therapeutic uses. But the bad-tasting, lukewarm water piped into Laodicea wasn’t good for either. It wasn’t good for anything. The people drank it because they didn’t have a choice.
One day this past summer I was working out in the yard on a really hot day, and I went to get a drink of water from a hose laying on the ground. Unfortunately, the hose had been laying in the sun. So I opened up the hose expecting cold, fresh water and got hot water that tasted like rubber hose instead. What do you think I did with that water? I spit it out, right? And waited for cold water to run through the hose. That’s the image that Christ is using here, and the Laodicean’s knew exactly what he meant. They were good for nothing. But why? Look at V. 17.
If Laodicea had a motto, this was it. “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” The Laodiceans were known for their self-sufficiency. To the point where, when their city and several others were severely damaged by an earthquake in A.D. 60, Laodicea was the ONLY city in the entire territory to TURN DOWN Roman financial assistance for rebuilding. They TURNED DOWN federal assistance dollars and rebuilt themselves. “We don’t need your help. We don’t need anything. We can take care of ourselves.” They found their confidence and their sufficiency in themselves, and that attitude permeated the church at Laodicea church too.
They looked good. Their city was beautiful and famous. They were wealthy and prosperous. And they could take care of themselves. But look at Christ’s assessment of their situation. Look at the last part of V. 17. They thought they were rich and prosperous and needed nothing, when in fact they were wretched, pitiable, and poor. The Christians in the city that exported a healing eye salve to the entire empire were in fact blind. The Christians in a city known for developing luxurious fibers and magnificent textiles were in fact naked. Those who thought they were so wealthy were in fact poor. Do you see the irony here?
The self-made, self-sufficient, self-confident culture of Laodicea, a culture that said, “We don’t need help from anyone” had permeated the church there too. What’s the problem with that? In they church, the embodied the old saying, “When you’ve done all you can, pray.” In other words, do YOUR best first, and then ask God for help. In their eyes, they didn’t NEED anyone, including Christ. Oh, they looked good. They studied and knew the Scriptures, they observed the Lord’s Day and Communion. They worshipped together. But they had absolutely no sense of really depending on God for anything. They were calling themselves followers of Christ, but they were depending only upon themselves. That’s why, in V. 18, Christ says to them, “I counsel you to buy from ME …” And in the Greek, the “me” there is very emphatic. It’s emphasized. “Stop depending on yourselves and turn to me.”
Do we really NEED God anymore? We can apply that question to our own lives for sure, but I want to apply it in the way Christ applied it in this letter – to the church. Do we NEED God anymore. Now don’t give me the Sunday school answer here. We all know that the right answer is, “yes,” right? Yep. But are we functioning as a church in such a way that we NEED God, or we’ll fail? A few decades ago, business and organizational leadership principles started being applied in the church, and that was a GOOD thing. Knowing how to lead people is important. But somewhere along the line, pastors became pseudo-Ceos and worship leaders became pseudo-rock stars and we had marketing strategies and budgeting strategies and policies and controls for every eventuality, and we slowly replaced a dependence on God for our life and our vitality and our sense of mission with human structures and strategies. And because of that, we, for the most part, stopped taking risks and doing things that are costly. We depend a whole lot on ourselves and very little, really, on God. We have absolutely no sense of “If God doesn’t come through for us in a miraculous way here, there’s no way we can pull this off.” Now, look at what Christ calls then to do. Look at Vv. 18-22.
He tells them to repent, to look to him, and to let him open their eyes. I love it. This letter is just full of irony and sarcasm. He wasn’t going to literally put salve on their eyes. That’s totally a sarcastic jab at their self-sufficiency. “Look to me,” Christ says. “Get your purpose, your mission, your goals and objectives from me.” They’ll be bigger than anything your human strategies and methods will allow, I promise you, because I want you to depend on me, not yourselves.
Repent of your self-sufficiency. Turn away from it. Leave it behind. Leave it in the past. Develop a lifestyle, as individuals and as a church, of dependence on me for effective mission and ministry.
And let me open your eyes to what I can do through you, because it’s way more than you can accomplish yourselves.
Several years ago, I considered planting a church. I thought maybe that was something God was calling me to do. So I went online and looked at the web sites of several of America’s leading church-planting groups. These are people who know what they’re doing, who have helped people plant many churches. And as I read the requirements and recommendations for personality type (they recommend extraverts) and financial status (they say you should be 100% completely debt free as a family before you try to start a church because finances can be sketchy for a while), I realized that with a mortgage and student debt and my personality, it wasn’t going to happen, so I let the idea go and moved on to other things.
A few years later God happened. After the first service of Christ Church on the first Sunday of October, 2013, I looked at Becky and said, “I think we just started a church.” I’m pretty sure we accidentally started a church, because God. And then we merged with Peninsula Bible Church and met a whole bunch of wonderful people. And I look, strategically, at the three words that define us, other than Christ, and they’re “worship, word, and witness,” right? And before the merger we were doing pretty well with worship and Word, but witness was tough. We had a few people doing some things here and there, but for the most part we were worshipping and wording well, but witnessing wasn’t happening so much. Then God happened again and he put us with a bunch of people who were knocking witness out of the park with a food pantry and community meal and a heart for community outreach. It was a match made in heaven, and I want you to know that Becky and I love you all so very much.
The strategists would have said, “No way. You aren’t a good candidate for church planting. Pastoring? Fine. Church planting? No. But God happened and here we are. Do we need God anymore? Are we living, as a church, in dependence on God, or are we relying only on ourselves? If we are, we have to look to him for our purpose, mission, and ministry. We have to repent of our self-sufficiency. And we have to let him open our eyes to what he wants to do, can do, and will do through us if we put ourselves, as a church, in his hands. Let us pray.
[i] Rex W. Huppke, “Meet Flat Dave. He’s a Real Stand-Up Guy,” Chicago Tribune (July 2, 2006)