The book of Revelation stands as one of the most cryptic and difficult letters of the New Testament. It’s visions range from communities we know existed to dragons, angels, and beasts. Predictably, there have been many different interpretations.
John opens his letter with a message – a vision – of the risen and glorified Christ addressing the angels who have been assigned to each of the the seven churches in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodocia.
These communities, importantly, are known to God. Indeed each ‘letter’ begins with Jesus’ haunting words “I know…”.
Our passage focuses on one of these seven communities – Laodocia. This thriving city was located in the fertile Lycus valley 160 km east of Ephesus. It was a centre of commerce famous for its marketplace and for producing a black wool desired across the empire. Within its walls sat a well known school of medicine that produced ointments for eye and ear complaints. The city was so rich that in AD 17 when it was destroyed in an earthquake, the inhablitants refused the assistance of Rome for the rebuild. Laodocia was a city that could – and would – stand on its own.
Indeed, perhaps the only challenge Laodocia faced was the supply of water. Less than 16 kilometers away was the cool water supply of Colosse; even closer were the hot springs of Heirapolis. Water ducted from either location arrived ‘neither hot nor cold’ – relatively useless until cooled or heated.
To this community the ‘true witness’ opened with a reference they would understand: ‘you are neither hot nor cold…I am about to spit (or vomit) you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’.
It would seem that this community witnessing to the resurrected Christ was alarmingly like the culture around it.
But there was more. This community had no idea of its compromise. They saw themselves as beyond need. But Jesus described them as ‘wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked.’
It must have been somewhat unsettling to hear. The banks of Laodocia could cash the cheques of Cicero – but God saw their poverty. Their black wool made clothing for for kings and queens, but God saw their nakedness. They produced balm to heal suffering eyes, but God saw them as blind.
Even so, this is no message of dispair. It is, rather, one of ‘counsel’ from the throne of Heaven. There is a truly refined gold that can be purchased from God; from the same source come white robes to cover shame and nakedness; even now heaven wants to issue a salve that will make them truly see. Perhaps it is well summed up: “Shop elsewhere.”
This letter is an invitation to the riches of heaven.
It is a hope-filled letter of love offering an alternative to the culture that has so subtilly engulfed them. It asks them to embrace this better deal and turn from their communal assimilation with the culture that surrounds. It, even now, offers the hope of repentance to an alternative.
And then there is that famous image of Christ knocking at the door – not the door of every individual – but the door of the church. Christ is crying out for fellowship with this church: ‘…to come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.’
At stake is nothing short of a place with Christ on the throne of heaven.
Perhaps no sermon could end more aptly than with the very words of this ancient letter: ‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’