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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
Devoted fans of McDonald’s will remember some of the menu items that have come and gone over the years.
Onion Nuggets actually appeared before Chicken McNuggets. There were Fish McBites (popular during Lent), the Hula Burger (an early vegetarian experiment), McSpaghetti (still available in the Philippines), and the short-lived Arch Deluxe (“the burger with the grown-up taste”).
Then there was the McDLT. In the mid-1980s the McDonald’s chefs conjured up a quarter-pound beef patty topped with lettuce, tomato, and cheese. What set it apart from its fast-food rivals was the packaging – a dual-compartment polystyrene clamshell. The beef was served on the left side, the veggies on the right.
Jason Alexander (before his breakout role on Seinfeld), starred in an exuberant 30-second commercial featuring at least 30 dancers. This burger-loving mob glides joyfully up and down the street proclaiming the McDLT motto: “The hot stays hot, the cool stays cool!”
That’s what made the new burger special. In theory, the meat stayed warm and the lettuce and tomato remained cool until the customer took the bold step of putting them together.
Sales were encouraging. Then came environmental concerns. Since polystyrene was the only kind of container that could sustain the appropriate temperatures, and since America was waking up to the notion that it was less than ideal to overwhelm landfills with use-once-throw-away packages that might last for hundreds of years, the McDLT disappeared from McDonald’s menu in 1991.
Nevertheless, hot and cool have remained front and center for the past twenty centuries in Revelation 3:16.
The Bible’s last book begins with seven correspondences to young congregations in the western part of what is now Turkey. Each of them is a message from Jesus. The final letter is to Laodicea, an affluent community in the Lycus River valley. Laodicea was blessed with thriving commercial banking and textile operations. What it didn’t have, however, was a reliable source of clean water.
The proposed remedy came from a pair of aqueducts. One of them was built downhill from Hierapolis, a small town perched on a rise a few miles to the north. Hierapolis was famous for its steaming mineral baths. Water pipes, like the ones pictured above, brought hot water to Laodicea.
Colossae, which was 11 miles to the south, had a generous supply of cold water generated by snow melt from nearby mountains. Laodicean engineers built water pipes to that town as well.
The community now had two excellent sources of water. And the temperatures were a major bonus. Mineral hot springs were valued for their soothing and healing properties, and ice-cold alpine water was simply refreshing.
There was just one problem. By the time the water from Hierapolis had sloshed its way down miles of pipelines, the hot was no longer hot. And the cool water coming 11 miles from Colossae was no longer cool. Laodicea became notorious for its tepid water. It was neither soothing nor refreshing. It was lukewarm.
That’s Jesus’ characterization of the Laodicean church. In verse 15 he says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” Here we need to avoid imposing contemporary Western perspectives on these words. For us, being “hot” is usually a good thing. It implies we’re fully engaged. We’re right in the middle of the action. Being “cold,” on the other hand, means being out of the picture. This wouldn’t apply to the water in Laodicea. Either hot or cold would have been welcomed. That middling temperature was nauseating.
That’s what Jesus is saying concerning the Laodiceans’ spiritual health in Revelation 3:16: “Because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This is, happily enough, the only time in Scripture where someone’s spiritual temperature makes the Son of God want to vomit.
There’s nothing in this text to make us conclude that Jesus favors extremism – that he applauds, for instance, bravado on the Far Left or Far Right. This is a spiritual checkup, not an assessment of political or social energy. The Laodiceans are apparently faltering in their discipleship. It’s half-hearted and half-baked.
Jesus continues, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (3:17).
Is there any hope?
It just so happens that one of the New Testament’s most famous invitations is only three verses down the road. Jesus says in Revelation 3:20, “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 that person, and they with me.”
In his commentary on Revelation, Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay notes that first-century Greeks typically ate three meals a day. Breakfast was a humble affair – perhaps nothing more than a dry crust of bread dipped into wine. Lunch was a picnic snack eaten on the run – a few morsels consumed at a worksite or by the side of the pavement or at a public square.
The word for the evening meal was deipnon, and it was the only sit-down eating experience of the entire day – and the only one enjoyed at home. When Jesus says, “I will come in and eat with that person,” he uses the Greek verbal form deipnein. In other words, he’s inviting himself to dinner. He’s interested in joining each of us at the place in our lives that is most personal and most intimate.
Holy Week – this stretch of days between Palm Sunday and Easter – is our annual opportunity to listen for Jesus’ knock.
And to ask ourselves some crucial questions:
Has my trust in God become lukewarm?
Has my heart for spiritual things become flat-lined?
Have I gotten used to feeling neutral about Jesus?
McDonald’s hoped their hot would stay hot and their cool would stay cool.
By God’s grace, may our hearts reach a temperature that will bring joy to God all week long.
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