Wednesday, October 1, 2014

God Loves You: Are You on Fire for God, or Just Lukewarm?

I used to teach a graduate course called “Preaching Biblical Genre.” We offered this course fairly regularly at LCU, but we changed the book each time. Sometimes we focused on Luke; other times we might look at Hebrews. One time, we focused the class on the book of Revelation. We spent this entire semester, reading and rereading the book of Revelation. We were trying to determine what this book has to say to 21st century Christians. What I have learned is this. John’s Revelation has plenty to say to us. This book is filled with hope for those who are suffering. There is probably not a more encouraging book for Christians in the entire Bible and we should take great peace in knowing that God always wins! If you are on God’s side, you will win also!

But that is not the only message in Revelation…

Right there at the beginning of the book, John addresses many of the congregations that existed in Asia Minor. The reason he wrote this Apocalypse was because those congregations were experiencing the beginnings of Christian persecution. He was afraid that some of them would leave the church. But it seems that leaving the church was not the only problem among those congregations in Asia Minor. Listen to what John wrote to the church in Laodicea…
And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Revelation 3:14–22, NRSV)
Sometimes time and distance separates us to such an extent from this book that we miss things. I imagine that not many of us have ever been to Laodicea. Not many of us have sat in the pews of that 1st century congregation. Not many of us have ever listened to a sermon delivered by Epaphras, that early Christian missionary who most likely established that congregation there. But if we had visited Laodicea, there are some things in this book that might make more sense to us. For example, did you know that this city experienced a great earthquake in the year AD 60? This was only perhaps 30 years before John wrote this book. This major event was certainly still fresh on the minds of the adults living in Laodicea. One of the most amazing things about that earthquake, however, was what happened in its aftermath. The Roman government set out to rebuild that city, but the citizens of Laodicea stopped them. They said, “We don’t need your money!” You see, 1st century Laodicea was a very affluent city. They had gobs of money! They said to Rome, “We don’t need your money; we can rebuild our city all by ourselves!” Apparently, those Laodiceans were a very independent lot of people.

Have you ever met anyone like that? “No, I don’t need your help! I can manage just fine on my own, thank you!” In our culture, we tend to honor people with that attitude. We have a noble name for it: “Self sufficiency”—has a nice ring, doesn’t it? We recall those early American settlers who made it on their own…built their own houses, dug their own wells, and grew their own food. They didn’t need help. They were pioneers! There may very well be some good things about self-sufficiency, but I can see how that same attitude might lead to some dangerous behavior. I can imagine a scenario where someone, even a Christian, may convince himself or herself, that he or she can make it alone, without God. I can see how those self-sufficient Laodiceans might have convinced themselves of that. There were many Christians in Laodicea who believed everything was just fine. “We have all the money we need, we have a big church, we have great ministries, people look to us as the example to follow, look at what we’ve accomplished.” If you didn’t know any better, you might think John was writing about another church, wouldn’t you?

How can a church become so blind to its reality? How can a church that is so convinced of its greatness be so wrong?  How can a church think it is on fire for God, when it is really just lukewarm? Well, maybe they simply didn’t know what lukewarm looked like. I referenced Crazy Love by Francis Chan last week. I’ll do it again this morning, because he gives his readers a running definition of lukewarm. I’ll be honest: his words are not fun to read. They do not warm the soul, but they do have a potentially powerful effect. I believe they have the power to shock a lukewarm Christian back to life. I believe they may even force a great church to remember its first love. Read and reflect. Do any of these statements apply to you?
  • Lukewarm people attend church fairly regularly. It is what is expected of them, what they believe “good Christians” do, so they go.
  • Lukewarm people give money to charity and to the church…as long as it doesn’t impinge on their standard of living. If they have a little extra and it is easy and safe to give, they do so. After all, God loves a cheerful giver, right?
  • Lukewarm people tend to choose what is popular over what is right when they are in conflict. They desire to fit in both at church and outside of church; they care more about what people think of their actions (like church attendance and giving) than what God thinks of their hearts and lives.
  • Lukewarm people are moved by stories about people who do radical things for Christ, yet they do not act. They assume such action is for extreme Christians, not average ones. Lukewarm people call radical what Jesus expected of all His followers.
  • Lukewarm people rarely share their faith with their neighbors, coworkers, or friends. They do not want to be rejected, nor do they want to make people uncomfortable by talking about private issues like religion.
  • Lukewarm people gauge their morality or goodness by comparing themselves to the secular world. They feel satisfied that while they aren’t as hard-core for Jesus as so-and-so, they are nowhere as horrible as the guy down the street.
  • Lukewarm people say they love Jesus, and He is, indeed, a part of their lives. But only a part. They give Him a section of their time, their money, and their thoughts, but He isn’t allowed to control their lives.
  • Lukewarm people will serve God and others, but there are limits to how far they will go or how much time, money, and energy they are willing to give.
  • Lukewarm people are thankful for their luxuries and comforts, and rarely consider trying to give as much as possible to the poor. They are quick to point out, “Jesus never said money is the root of all evil, only that love of money is.” Untold numbers of lukewarm people feel called to minister to the rich; very few feel called to minister to the poor.
  • Lukewarm people ask, “How far can I go before it’s considered a sin?” instead of “How can I keep myself pure as a temple of the Holy Spirit?”
  • Lukewarm people ask, “How much do I have to give?” instead of “How much can I give?”
  • Lukewarm people feel secure because they attend church, made a profession of faith at age twelve, were baptized, come from a Christian family, vote Republican, or live in America. 
  • Lukewarm people do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they never have to. They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens—they have their savings account. They don’t need God to help them—they have their retirement in place. They don’t genuinely seek out what life God would have them live—they have life figured and mapped out. They don’t depend on God on a daily basis—their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health. 
  • The truth is, the life of a lukewarm person wouldn’t look much different if they suddenly stopped believing in God.
Some of you are wondering, “Why are we talking about this? I don’t want this guilt! I don’t want to be discouraged!” Brothers and sisters, my goal with these words is not to discourage you, but instead to call all of us to look in the mirror. Paul tells us in II Corinthians 13:5…
“…to examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.”
In the words of John, a lukewarm Christian makes God sick. Church, my prayer is that our actions would do just the opposite. My prayer is that our actions would cause God to rejoice! My prayer is that our actions give God honor!

Our tendency, in our American culture, is to treat this discussion at the level of the individual. But, church, the message here in Revelation 3 is directed toward a church. And, as a church, we may need to repent of our lukewarmness every bit as much as the individual.

Hunt Light of the World

William Holman Hunt painted this very famous image in 1853. It is entitled “The Light of the World.” It was painted as a reminder that no one who is receptive to the invitation of Christ will be denied fellowship with Him. Join me in this communal prayer, first prayed by Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century:
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new Earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.

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