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June 17th, 2012

It’s not that Jesus can’t come in; he won’t come in unless you let him in. 

Revelation 3:14-22

June 14, 2012

Self-reliance

When I read Revelation 3:14-22, two connections come to mind from the world of arts and literature.  The first is a 1991 Bill Murray film, “What About Bob?” that I don’t think I inspired, but who knows.  It’s a favorite movie in our family.  In fact, our daughters came home for Father’s Day and we watched it last night.

Bob Wiley (Murray) is a psychiatric patient who pursues Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) on vacation, shattering the patient-doctor boundaries.  When Bob corners Dr. Marvin at the grocery store near Lake Winnipesaukee, the psychiatrist insists Bob get back on the bus and go home.  Bob responds,

Can’t we just have a little talk?  Come on, I’ve come so far.  I’m baby stepping.  I’m doing the work.  I’m baby stepping.  I’m not a slacker.  Check it out. Lookit, I’m in really bad shape.   Gimme, gimme, gimme, I need, I need, I need, I need, gimme, gimme, please, please.

Since this is the second sermon in a row with a goofy movie quote from the early 90s to introduce my sermon, I will now offer a contrast to raise my level of sophistication.  We need a contrast to Bob Wiley, because as Americans we are terrified of being him.  We hate dependency.  Our formal starting point as a nation as the Declaration of Independence.  That includes freedom, autonomy, and rights.  The American dream is to own your own plot of land with your own house for you and your family.  We sometimes forget how strange that sounds to much of the world.

On the other end of the spectrum from the pathetically desperate Bob Wiley, but no less self-absorbed, is the 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”  Emerson championed transcendentalism, a philosophy that scorned submission to group thinking, such as political parties and organized religion.  Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of man as an individual.  Only independent thinkers, Emerson said, can create community.  So community was still the goal, but the way to get there was to be self-reliant, especially in your thinking.

The core of Emerson’s argument in “Self-Reliance” is that God (and he does believe in God) has placed within humans the ability to think for themselves.  Therefore we should not rely on anyone – not even David, Jeremiah, or Paul – to help us understand God.  We should rely on ourselves to know God.  He says, “I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency.”

Emerson is candid about the result.  What I must do is all that concerns me,” he wrote, “not what the people think.”  In his day, the essay was very controversial.  In retrospect, Ralph Waldo Emerson shaped how Americans think today. 

We might not say it as boldly as Emerson did, but we Americans yearn to be free of any Bob-Wiley-like need.  We laugh at Bob Wiley, but it is a nervous laugh.  We want political independence, financial independence, and even emotional independence.  Our ideal world is not to need anybody else’s approval for how we think, what we do and how we live. 

It’s very American to want independence – so American, in fact, that we think God’s big dream for us is independence also.  It isn’t.  Self-reliance is a grave spiritual danger, as Jesus warned the church of Laodicea. 

Dangers

As you probably know, most of the book of Revelation is difficult to understand, at least at first.  Its symbols can be hard to decode.  However, the first three chapters are not as obscure.  In the first chapter John introduces himself.  He has been exiled to the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey) for his faith.  There he sees and hears Jesus in a vision.  Jesus gives John messages to take to seven churches on an ancient postal route in western Asia Minor.

The last of these seven letters is addressed to the church at Laodicea (lay-ah-di-SEE-uh or lay-oh-DEE-kee-uh).  Churches often take on the characteristics of their communities.  A neat and proper neighborhood will create a church in their own image.  A church in a depressed town sings the blues on Sunday morning.  If there is an authoritarian secular government in power, the church will be heavy-handed in its leadership.  Americans turn our churches into democracies.

The church at Laodicea was a self-reliant church because their city had it made.    Laodicea lay in the Lycus valley at a strategic crossroads.  Its only liability was its lack of a fresh water source.  Piping in water from six miles away makes a town vulnerable if it comes under siege, and so until the Romans established peace in their world (Pax Romana), Laodicea did not reach its potential.  Even then, the water came from a hot mineral springs in Hierapolis on the other side of the Lycus.  By the time the aqueduct flowed six miles to Laodicea, the water was tepid and smelly.   

Even so, with Rome guaranteeing its security, Laodicea flourished.  It developed a textile industry because its sheep were famous for glossy, soft, black wool.  Laodicean-manufactured garments were shipped all over the known world.  This manufacturing capital turned the city into a banking and financial center.  The city was so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated it in A.D. 61 its leaders refused assistance from the Roman Senate.  “No, thanks.  We’ve got this one covered.”  The city developed a medical center, manufacturing and exporting ointment for ears and eyes.

If you’ve got banking, textiles, and medicine in your town, you’re good, right?  The city of Laodicea thought itself self-reliant; so did the church.

Jesus tells John, “Write this to the messenger of the church at Laodicea: ‘I am the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the rule of God’s creation’” (14).  Someone asked me this week, “What does ‘Amen’ mean?”  It means, “Truth.”  At the end of a prayer, “Amen” means, “May this be true.”  Jesus is the truth, and he is in charge of all creation.

“I know your deeds,” he continues in verse 15, “that you are neither cold nor hot.”  Ouch.  That hit them where it hurt.  How they wished they could enjoy the hot springs of Hierapolis or refreshingly cold water from up the road at Colosse.  “You are lukewarm,” Jesus says, just like your water, “and I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (16).  There comes a time when even the humble Jesus reproves and corrects. 

What is it about them that makes him want to vomit? “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and I do not need a thing.  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (17-18).  The first danger of needing nothing is that you don’t know what you’re missing.  Laodiceans were so conceited about what they had that when travelers came down the Lycus Valley the locals would say, “Come on in, man!  Check it out!  See Wells Fargo over there?  Let me take you on a tour of Macy’s.  Are your eyes bothering you?  Our Graystone Eye Clinic is one of the finest.”

The visitor is impressed.  But he’s thirsty after a hot day’s travel.  “Have you got some water?” 

“Sure, have a drink.” 

“Phhhht.  Where did you get this?  The Dead Sea? That’s horrible.”

Living in Laodicea was like living in Franklin, Virginia, near the paper mill. Visitors to Franklin think the smell is nauseating.  If you live there, you get used to it.  Pretty soon foul is normal.  So it was in Laodicea.  They didn’t know what they were missing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson notwithstanding, nobody is self-reliant.  How could one human being figure out God independently?   That’s just arrogance.  We all want to think, “I’m good,” even the woman who can’t put her shot glass down or the man who can’t avert his eyes from the smut on his computer screen.  When you progress beyond counting your blessings to counting your assets, you are in grave spiritual danger.  You may be as far from God as the rich young ruler. 

“Poor, blind, and naked” is exactly what they didn’t think they were, with their money, medicine, and fine clothes. The second danger of needing nothing is you can’t see your blind spots.  Jesus says in verse 18, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” 

Having my daughters home for Father’s Day reminds me of my own blind spots when they were at home.  I wrote about one in the devotional in yesterday’s newspaper – a somewhat literal “blind spot” when they would get up from the table and not realize backing up their chair was leaving the blinds in the kitchen a mess.  It really irked me until I got up from the table and looked at the uneven blinds behind my own chair.

I remember another time when their teenage clutter was getting to me.  I pontificated something about how I wasn’t going to tolerate them leaving their glasses and dishes around.  Anyone who did so was going to have to do the dishes after dinner.  Cara said, “Would that also include the spoon you leave on the counter every morning after stirring your tea?”  Busted.

I suppose no one can see all their blind spots.  But a major step forward for a humble mind is admitting that you have some.  Having been at the Southern Conference of the UCC this past weekend, hanging around a lot of people who don’t think like I do, there were lots of times I wanted someone to ask me, “What do you see in me that I don’t see?”  Then I realized how rarely I ask that question of anyone else.  Humility pleads with God and others, “Help me see what I’m blind to.”

The third danger of needing nothing is that you don’t open the door to Jesus.  His presence is threatening, you know.  In our self-reliance we still have a voice inside telling us everything’s not OK with him.  Verse 19 says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest, and repent.”  The word “earnest” is interesting in Greek.  It’s literally “zealous,” and it usually has a negative meaning: to envy. 

Someone told me this week that in his world contentment is a negative idea.  He never wants to be satisfied with where he is professionally.  When it comes to having money or things, contentment is the goal.  When it comes to being more like Christ, I should never be content.  I should pursue, strive, be earnest.  Jesus doesn’t intend to leave me the way he found me.  He will rebuke and discipline.

It’s not surprising, then, that we leave him knocking at the door.  Verse 20 is the best known verse in this passage – maybe in all the book of Revelation.  I learned it in the King James Version:  “Behold I stand at the door and knock.  If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come into him and sup with him and he with me.”

This verse has been depicted by many artists, including a stained glass window stored in our basement that was originally in our downtown church.  It was given in memory of Peter Rowe, Joe Rowe’s grandfather, and will be restored to the new Rowe Welcome Center later this summer.

Every painting of this verse I have seen, including the Rowe window, has a common characteristic.  There is no door knob on the outside.  It’s not that Jesus can’t come in; he won’t come in unless you let him in. 

This verse has often been used evangelistically as an appeal to unbelievers to let Christ in.  That’s certainly one way to read it, but it’s written to the church at Laodicea.  It’s written to a lukewarm, good-for-nothing church that is so self-reliant it won’t open the door.  There are times for me on a lazy Sunday afternoon if the door bell rings I just don’t want to get up.  I’m good; I don’t need Girl Scout cookies or a politician’s handshake or the miracle cleaning product that will get rust stains off my concrete. 

Maybe the image of self-reliant Laodicea is not a Dad sitting on his recliner for Father’s Day watching the race (that must be Pastor Bill, since I don’t watch the race and don’t have a recliner).  Maybe it’s the hustle and bustle of activity where everyone is so preoccupied inside they never even hear the knock.  Sometimes our self-reliance is about filling our days trying to check off the task list that never ends.

Jesus stands outside the door and gently knocks.  He’s wanting some “you and me” time (that’s what eating together represents).  We are too busy for the intimacy he craves because he knows we need him more than whatever else is occupying us.

Jesus says in 21-22 that the one who overcomes will join him and the Father to rule in the kingdom.  Once again, it seems to be an image that this particular church would have latched on to.  Just listen, Jesus says.  Open your ears and listen.  He doesn’t force himself, but he does knock and he does speak.  Listen.

Three C’s

When it comes to things we have a hard time getting it right. It’s not just things – it’s relationships, it’s pleasures, it’s opportunities.

On the one extreme there’s covetousness.  It’s the insatiable craving of Bob Wiley:  I need, I need, I need.  I need time, I need attention, I need money, I need fun, I need sex, I need drugs in my bloodstream, I need a bigger this or a newer that.  I need affirmation.  I need status.  I need recognition.  Gimme, gimme, gimme.  Covetousness can happen in any situation or income level, but it always wants more.

On the other extreme is conceit.  It’s self-reliance.  I’m good.  I have all I need, I have all I want, and if I don’t, I have what it takes to get it.  Conceit resists rebuke or correction.  Conceit is selfish and stingy.  I’m a self-made who has figured life out but I’m not going to give or share because you need to be self-reliant as well. 

Between covetousness and conceit is the beautiful word contentment.  Contentment is what A. W. Tozer called a century ago “the blessedness of possessing nothing.”[1] Tozer said, “There is within the human heart a tough fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess.”  I found Tozer’s book yesterday on my shelf.  It was originally Linda’s, and she first read it while we were courting.

Linda’s own relationship with her Dad was tough, and she was finding her heart drawn to a man she might want to spend her life with.  Yet she sometimes feared God might take him away.  She underlined this paragraph in Tozer’s chapter on “possessing nothing”:

We are often hindered from giving up our treasures to the Lord out of fear for their safety; this is especially true when those treasures are loved relatives and friends.  But we need have no such fears.  Our Lord came not to destroy but to save.  Everything is safe which we commit to Him, and nothing is really safe which is not so committed.

Linda wrote in the margin, “Bob is yours, Lord – safe in your possession.”

Covetousness is craving what we don’t have.  Conceit is self-reliance because of what we do have.  Contentment is just not concerned whether we have it or don’t have it.  Either way is fine.  Why?  Because we hold it with an open hand – a home, a dollar, a dream, a spouse, a friend, a parent, even a child.  They don’t belong to me anyway.  I enjoy them, but I don’t possess them.  That perspective only comes when we open the door and let Christ in.  Amen.


[1] The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer, 1948.

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