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Worship Message - A Fig Tree

A Fig Tree
Lent 2015 Message #2

We are here, as we are every Sunday, to worship our Lord. Especially this season of Lent, we are here to worship Him because of all He went through during the last week of His earthly ministry. A week that ended with His death of a cross.

Because that is our purpose, I suppose you expect a message with some spiritual ties to it. Guess what. That will eventually be the purpose. However, before that, a bit of a horticultural lesson, which I think is appropriate because of a central character in what today’s Bible passage will be. The character? A fig tree.

Here is the horticultural lesson.

Fig trees were - maybe they still are - but at the time of Jesus, fig trees were the favorite of all trees in Palestine. In fact, they were highly regarded as one of the most pleasant parts of the Promised Land which God gave to His people early in the Old Testament.

For instance, in Deuteronomy the Promised Land was described as a place of wheat, barley, vines, and fig trees. In Numbers, it is reported that when spies went into the Promised Land to investigate the area, two of the things with which they returned were pomegranates and figs. Those two things were evidence of the fertility of the land. I Kings, Micah, Zechariah. In each of those Old Testament books, a picture of peace and prosperity is found. The picture is of a time when every man will sit under his own vine and his own fig tree. Fig trees can be three feet thick in the trunk. They can grow from 15 to 20 feet tall. They have thick branches that can extend out 25 to 30 feet, thereby providing wonderful shade.
    
In a negative way, in a Psalm, in Jeremiah, and in Hosea, the picture of the wrath of God is the picture of a day when He would smite and destroy the fig tree.

But fig trees, throughout the Old Testament, were a symbol of fertility, peace, and prosperity. That is how important fig trees were at the time of Jesus.

Here is some information about how fig trees bear fruit. They are unique because they produce two crops a year.

The first comes from the old wood. Early in the year, little green knobs appear at the ends of the branches. They will one day be figs, but the knobs cannot be eaten. However, bit by bit leaves and flowers open out, which is completed by June. The process is repeated with new wood. The second crop comes in September. That fruit can be eaten.

The significance of that? The passage for today happened in what we call April. Remember what was said? The first crop, including full leaf, is ready by June. The point is that one of the central figures in today’s passage was a fig tree in full leaf. That was an unusual sight in April. Which, as we will see, has some spiritual significance to it.
    
The passage is in chapter 21 of the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. And with that, let me remind us we are talking throughout this year’s season of Lent of many of the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

We began last Sunday with a look at the triumphant entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, which began the last week of His earthly ministry.

Remember Jesus rode on a young donkey, thereby fulfilling Old Testament prophecy about what the Savior would ride when He would enter Jerusalem. Riding on a young donkey is one proof Jesus is the Savior.
    
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, great crowds of people lined the road. Most of them were excited as they asked Him to save them, as they proclaimed Him as the Savior and proclaimed He and His Kingdom were higher than anyone and anything else.
    
Then, after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the Temple and cleansed it of people and businesses that were interfering with prayer and worship, that happening before He healed people, which happened before children gathered to praise Him.

Then Jesus left Jerusalem. He went out the gate through which He had entered the city. He walked down into the valley He had, just a few hours earlier, been in. He climbed back up the Mount of Olives, from which His journey to Jerusalem had started. It was on the Mount of Olives Jesus spent the night.

Which brings one more thing to mind before we get to today’s Bible passage. Isn’t it interesting that no one in Jerusalem gave Jesus a place to stay? I mean, He was asked by a lot of people to save them. Most did acknowledge Him as Savior. A great one with a wonderful kingdom.

Would it not seem natural that at least someone might invite Him to spend the night? But no. Apparently no one invited Him to lodge with them. He left Jerusalem after His triumphant entry. He returned to the Mount of Olives.

Even there He apparently was granted no lodging. The next morning, He was apparently offered no breakfast. That is clear in the first verse of today’s Bible passage. Matthew 18:21. Early in the morning, as Jesus was on His way back to the city, He was hungry.

Two things about that.  

First, Jesus was on His way back to Jerusalem, where He would spend quite a bit of time teaching. A few of His lessons will be highlighted next Sunday, but His plan to teach is significant because He knew what was going to happen in just a few days. He knew that most of the people who had on Sunday praised Him would, in a short time, demand He be crucified. But He still loved those people. He loved them enough to continue to teach them. To try to turn them into spiritual, God-fearing, God-loving people. He still wanted to offer them salvation, so He was on His way back to Jerusalem to teach.

And this. Jesus was hungry, which is evidence of His humanity. And yes, Jesus was divine. He was and is God. But He had come to earth in human form, which means He experienced what we experience. Including hunger .

That will be especially significant on Good Friday because there are some, even now, who say Jesus did not really suffer on the cross - that He did not really die - because He is God. What those people say is not true. Jesus is divine. He was also human. He did experience everything we experience. Including pain. Including death. Including, in today’s passage, hunger.

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on His way back to Jerusalem, He was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, He went up to it, but found nothing on it except leaves.

Remember that was unusual. Fig trees did not have leaves in April. All they were supposed to have at that time were the green buds. There were not supposed to be leaves until June.

By the way, it was acceptable for anyone to eat from trees along roads. It would certainly have been OK for Jesus to pluck some figs if there had been some. But there were no figs. All there were on that fig tree were leaves.

Jesus’ reaction? Anger. He said to the fig tree, “May you never bear fruit again.”

Immediately the tree withered.

This was of course not the first time Jesus had demonstrated His authority over nature.

I am thinking, for instance, of His first recorded miracle. Jesus was at a wedding feast. The hosts of the event ran out of wine. That problem was shared with Jesus.

Remember what Jesus did? He had some containers filled with water. Through a miracle, He changed the water into wine. It was better wine than had been served earlier. The wedding feast, and the reputation of the hosts of the event, were saved.

I am also thinking of the time Jesus and His disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee and a violent storm arose. A storm so severe the boat was about to capsize.

The disciples were afraid, which is understandable. Interestingly, Jesus was asleep, but the disciples woke Him. They begged Him to save them, which He did by standing, raising His arms toward the storm, and telling the wind and the waves to be quiet, which they became.

And what about the healings Jesus performed over every kind of illness there was? Fevers and being lame. Being blind and deaf. Being demon-possessed. Even raising some people from the dead.

Here was another example of Jesus’ authority and power over nature. And once again it was quick. Immediately the tree withered.

I need to mention that this incident is recorded in the Gospel of Mark a bit differently. in Mark it is recorded Jesus spoke to the fig tree one evening and the tree was found withered the next morning.

But that is still very quick. Jesus spoke the words. Very soon, the tree withered. Which showed it was a result of Jesus’ power. There was nothing natural that killed the tree, such as a strong wind or a worm or some other kind of horticultural pest. Very soon, the whole tree was as dead as a dry stick.

When the disciples saw what happened, they were amazed. They asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”

What is the significance of what happened? For this, I am enlisting the help of some Bible commentators, who teach that what happened was not so much about Jesus’ disappointment in not having figs for breakfast as it was about teaching the disciples and everyone else a very important lesson.

Remember. The tree, having leaves, promised to have fruit. In other words, it looked good on the outside. But the leaves were only show. There was no substance to the tree. That is what caused Jesus to condemn the tree.

However, it was not just the tree that was condemned. Jesus’ miracle was actually a statement against the Jewish nation - the Jewish people - who had an outward appearance of godly grandeur, but had no spiritual fruit.

Here is how that is explained by some Bible commentators.

Jesus had planted the Jewish people and nation. They had good-looking leaves. They called Abraham their father. They observed all the festivals God had established early in the Old Testament. They said many of the right things.

But they were not doing any of that with love. And now they were rejecting Jesus, the very one who had created them. They were rejecting God’s greatest gift of all. All of which means they had no fruit. Nothing spiritually pleasing.

What Jesus did with the fig tree was a teaching of what would happen to the Jewish people and nation who had a good appearance but no fruit. They, too, were condemned.

Which happened. A few years later Jerusalem was destroyed. Throughout the rest of history until our time the Jewish people have been persecuted. Now in Jerusalem, where the Temple stood, there is a mosque, and persecution was so prevalent during World War II. Even now there are so many Middle Eastern nations that have as one of their main goals the annihilation of the nation of Israel.

Horrible things were predicted for the Jewish people. Such things have happened.

However, may I expand that today to a warning for me? For us? That  I - that we - not be nothing but show in our Christian lives. And yes, it is vitally important to talk the talk. But we must walk the walk as well.

What are some examples? You can certainly come up with others, but here are a few .

How about reading the Bible? We know the Bible is the word of God. I am guessing just about all of us have multiple Bibles in our possessions. Even if not, almost any mobile device has hundreds of translations and paraphrases available at a click of a key. We know the Bible is important. We have copies. I am asking myself. Do I read the Bible as much as I should so I can learn and know God’s word?

How about praying? It is so thoroughly amazing that I can talk to God any time I want. President Obama? No. Governor Ricketts? No. I am a bit more likely to be able to talk to our state Attorney General. Doug Peterson is a neighbor. But God? I can talk to Him anytime about anything. Do I pray as much as I should?

I say I am a Christian. That is the leaf part of my faith. Do I have the fruit that proves I am a Christian? Proof that is listed in Galatians 5 as the fruit of the Spirit.

Love, joy, peace. It  can be difficult to show those things with our tumultuous world today, but do I show love? Do I strive for joy? Do I seek peace? I need to do all those things, which are to be the fruit I want Jesus to find in me.
    
Forbearance, kindness, goodness. Am I patient? Am I kind to others? Do I promote goodness?
    
Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Is my faith strong? Do I share my faith with gentleness? Am I able to control myself? I hope so.

I need to always work on those things - on all the fruit of the Spirit, and on prayer, and on Bible reading - so that when Jesus sees me, there is more than just the leaves of what I call myself. He needs to see fruit. That is what I want Him to see.

And not just to please Him. I need to be fruitful for my own good.

I know that to be true because according to today’s passage, profession without practice is condemned. And guess what. As the passage continues, being fruitful will not only have me avoid being condemned to withering. Being fruitful will give me - give you - give anyone who is fruitful - a wonderful spiritual advantage.

Listen. The disciples marveled at the miracle performed by Jesus - the sudden, complete withering of the fig tree He spoke to. He then said to them, “You think that was something. Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”

As commentators point out, the disciples did not ever do that. Jesus Himself never moved a mountain from where it was into a sea. In fact, that was not Jesus’ point. Instead, His message was that if the disciples believed - if I believe - if you believe - nothing will be impossible.

As Jesus worded it elsewhere, the followers of Jesus, using His power, would be doing even greater things than Jesus did. That is difficult to comprehend, but as Jesus added as a close to today’s passage, “You will receive whatever you ask for in prayer if you believe.”

*       *       *       *       *

On the first day of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He entered Jerusalem, hailed as a Savior.

After His entry, He was not invited to stay in the city, so He left the city and went back to the Mount of Olives.

Early the next morning, He returned to Jerusalem, where He was going to continue to teach people about love and salvation. On the way, He came across a fig tree that looked good on the outside but had no fruit. Likening that to the Jewish people and the Jewish nation, He condemned the tree.

I do not think the Jews got the gist of that miracle. What it meant against them.

May we be different. May we understand. May we continue to proclaim our faith in word. May we also strive for the spiritual fruit that will please Him and give us a wonderful spiritual power. Including the fruit of reading God’s word, of praying to God, and the fruit of love, joy, and peace, forbearance, kindness, and goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we be fruitful this season of Lent and beyond.

Our closing song is Thou Art Worthy, which will also be our benediction.

Thou art worthy, Thou are worthy,
Thou are worthy, O Lord.
To receive glory, glory and honor,
Glory and honor and power;

For Thou hast created,
Hast all things created,
Thou hast created all things,
And for Thy pleasure they are created:
Thou art worthy, O Lord!

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