February 12, 2017
I want to welcome you this morning to our very first Family Worship Sunday. If you’re a guest today, or you just didn’t read my very long letter I sent a week ago, let me briefly explain what Family Worship Sundays are. We believe there is great benefit for families to worship Christ together. You see, right at the top of the list of ten reasons I gave for family worship is our children and youth get to join us, observe us, as people under the authority of the word of God – they get to see us submit to and worship Him. Of course, we trust they see that through the week as they live in homes of fully-devoted followers of Jesus. But again, we believe there is great value in the church gathering as one, to worship.
You see, one of the things we, and other churches have noticed on Sunday mornings, with our very targeted and specialized programming, is the church has become a gathering that often separates families. As you arrive on Sunday, everyone separates and goes to their respective places. Now, we also believe there is great value in age-appropriate programming and teaching. But, an unintended consequence has been we seldom worship together. So, on these Sundays, we want to encourage family worship.
Now, that doesn’t mean children and youth are not welcome in big church the rest of the year – quite the opposite. We’re prayerfully hopeful you will see the value of family worship, and make it part of your weekly practice. You see, we have Adult Sunday School classes called Connection Groups, as well as lots of places where you can serve on Sunday mornings. So, what would it look like for you to come to age-appropriate Sunday Schools, and also gather as a family to worship our great Christ. So, regularly, we’re going to schedule these Family Worship Sundays to encourage the practice.
We understand that will bring its own challenges. We’ll likely be a little more crowded in here. There’s likely going to be more movement, maybe even noise. We’re okay with that. It doesn’t mean we are giving our children permission to run amuck – it’s just an acknowledgment we will do family life together – and kids will be kids. But we’ll have the opportunity to grow together as a larger church family, loving and caring for each other. So I promise not get annoyed with distractions, and trust you’ll do the same. Let’s stand again, and worship, together.
Let me begin this morning by asking a simple question – what is your favorite story in the Bible about Jesus? I’ll let you think about that for a moment – your favorite story in the Bible about Jesus? I bet for some of you, you said the story of His birth – because that means Christmas. You see, our country places a lot of emphasis on Christmas – it means time out of school, and good food, and best of all, presents.
Or maybe you’re a little older, and some other story came to mind. Like all those healing stories, where Jesus healed a blind person – like a couple weeks ago, when He healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Or maybe it’s the story of driving out demons – like that time He drove out legion of demons and they went into a herd of pigs, which then ran into the sea. We called that the bay of pigs. Speaking of the sea, maybe it was the time Jesus calmed the storm when He and His disciples were in the boat (surfing). Or the time Jesus came walking to the disciples on the water and Peter went out to meet Him – that’s a cool story.
Or maybe it was the time Jesus raised someone from the dead – like that little twelve-year-old girl – Jairus’ daughter. Or the widow’s son. Or maybe it was the time He raised Lazarus from the dead – He called Him right out of the tomb where he’d been buried for four days, and Lazarus came hopping out of the tomb wrapped in grave clothes.
Maybe you’re a little older, and your favorite is the story of His death on the cross, because you know that story ends in His resurrection – and provides eternal salvation for us. Lots of great stories about Jesus, but you know what I can be fairly sure of? I don’t think anyone chose the story we have to look at today. Nobody. We selected this Sunday – a children’s dedication Sunday – to be our first Family Worship Sunday. And as I looked ahead in Mark, I thought, great – I get to cover Jesus cleansing the temple. Okay, boys and girls, let me tell you about the time Jesus made a whip.
You probably didn’t pick that story – but that’s actually next week. There’s another story in our study of the Gospel of Mark that is quite challenging. It’s the last miracle in Mark and is actually the only miracle of destruction in the gospel accounts. Usually in the nature miracles, Jesus is doing something constructive – He’s calming storms, walking on water, feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Or, He heals people, raises people from the dead, drives out demons. But this is the only story where He miraculously destroys something – actually, He kills it. How’s that for our first Family Worship Sunday. Read the text with me – it’s found in Mark 11:12ff (read 12-14, drop down to verses 19-25).
See? Some of you didn’t even know that story was in the Bible. This is a rather strange passage. If last Sunday was your first time in church, you’d maybe heard of the Triumphal Entry. You might of even heard of Jesus cleansing the Temple. But what in the world is this about? It’s sounds kind of odd, kind of petty, don’t you think? You do see what happens here, right? It’s kind of embarrassing – Jesus got mad at a tree. He’s hungry, it’s been a couple mile walk from Bethany to Jerusalem, He sees a fig tree, goes to get some breakfast, and there’s no fruit. He looks at the tree and says, stupid tree, and zaps it – the next morning it’s withered from the roots up. He killed it. The tree huggers in Oregon really wouldn’t like this story.
I could use this passage to condone all kinds of petty behaviors. If Jesus could get mad at an inanimate object like a fig tree for not having fruit, can’t I get mad in traffic, or throw my golf clubs if I want to – stupid clubs, or get angry during a Carolina/Duke basketball game? I mean, really, it would be like this – I’m driving along the highway, I get kind of hungry, and see a McDonald’s sign. I pull in for a Big Mac, and it’s closed. Fine, stupid McDonalds – zap – you’ll never sell another billion, it’s over for you – burn it down. What is this – He’s mad at a tree? There’s got to be more going on here.
Again, it’s kind of unsettling. This is the very first time Jesus uses His miraculous power to bring a cursing, not a blessing. This is troubling. Every other time He has stretched out His hand, He’s brought blessing and healing and life – this time, not blessing, cursing; not life, death; not healing, withering. The famous atheist Bertrand Russell in his work entitled Why I Am Not a Christian, used this story. He accused Jesus of “vindictive fury” for a tree not producing fruit out of season. It’s not the tree’s fault. The story, Russell says, tarnishes Jesus’ character. He even wrote, “I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.” Wow – that’s a problem. Even some authors more friendly to Christianity have been puzzled by the story. One writes, “It is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper, for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season.” Why not some fig newtons on the tree? I mean, just like He took five loaves and two fish and fed thousands, couldn’t He just as easily make some figs grow on the tree? We’ve a problem here, or do we? There’s got to be more here.
Last week, we began the passion week of Jesus’ life. Jesus began this final week with three symbolic actions that took place over three successive days. First, on Sunday, Palm Sunday, He rode into Jerusalem not on a stallion, not in a chariot, not with soldiers or political figures or even priests – but on a donkey – not even a donkey, the colt of a donkey – with His disciples and followers – made up of formerly blind, lame and dead people, lepers, peasants and fisherman, tax collectors and prostitutes. By His very entrance, while fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9, Jesus was demonstrating He was a different kind of king – gentle, humble – and His was a different kind of kingdom – not a kingdom of military, political or economic strength. His was not a kingdom of this world.
The next day, Monday, the second symbolic action was this cursing the fig tree – although we don’t read of the end of story till the next morning – Tuesday morning. In between, we have the cleansing of the Temple – we’ll look at that next week. So what we have here is another of Mark’s famous sandwiches – where he takes two stories and weaves them together – because they go together. That’s important. What Jesus is doing in these two stories – cursing a fig tree and cleansing the temple, are related.
I already gave you a hint – this cursing of the fig tree is a symbolic action. In fact, maybe the cleansing of the temple isn’t a cleansing at all – maybe it, too, is a cursing. Let me give you the outline before we go any further:
- We see a Problem Presented in verses 12-14.
- Then, we’ll see a Parable Implied, also in verses 19-21.
- Then, we’ll see some Principles Stated in verses 22-25. I had intended to get through these verses this morning, but realized we needed to spend more time on them, so we’ll cover them in a week or two.
Let’s begin with the problem. I didn’t know much about fig trees when I started my study this week, but there are some important things we have to know in order to understand the story – they would have been basic to Jews.
First, in Israel, fig trees were somewhat plentiful, and they were seen as a symbol of God’s blessing. Back in Deuteronomy 8, as Moses is describing the land they are about to enter, he describes it as “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” This is a good land because it has fig trees – that doesn’t do much for us, but it was important to the Israelites. Earlier, when the spies searched the land in Numbers 13, they brought back a bunch of produce from the land as proof that it was a blessed land – a land flowing with milk and honey. They carried back three fruits: grapes, pomegranates, and figs.
In Zechariah 3, there is a prophecy that when Messiah comes and sets up His kingdom, everyone would invite his neighbor to come and sit under his vine and his fig tree. The fig tree was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Conversely, a barren fig tree, or the destruction of a fig tree was seen as a symbol of God’s judgment. That’s critically important. Psalm 105 is recounting God’s judgment against Egypt through the plagues (water to blood, the frogs, the locusts, the darkness, death of the firstborn), and says this, “He struck down their vines also and their fig trees, and shattered the trees of their territory.” That was a big deal – the Jews hearing that would have said, “you’re kidding, not the fig trees, too?”
In Jeremiah 8, in speaking of the judgment to soon come upon Judah, we read, “’I will surely snatch them away,’ declares the Lord; ‘There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither.’” You get the point – the presence of fruit-bearing fig trees was a sign of God’s blessing and presence; it’s absence was a sign of His cursing and judgment. They understood that. So Jesus cursing a fig tree with no fruit – they would have understood that, too.
The second thing we need to understand comes through a little horticulture lesson. The fig tree in Israel would typically grow to be about 20 feet high. In the winter, they would grow little knobs – which would eventually become the fruit. Then came the leaves, usually in March or April, and then the mature fruit would follow – usually around June. Mark notes, this wasn’t the time for ripe figs, but it should have had those little knobs, which were in fact edible. The tree was in full leaf, It was an advertisement – find fruit here. So Jesus went to the tree, looking for unripe, yet edible fruit, found none. It was false advertising. Like the golden arches being on, come get breakfast…no breakfast here.
It was morning, Jesus was making the two-mile trip from Bethany, probably from the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, to Jerusalem. We don’t know if He skipped breakfast or if the Pop Tart didn’t stick with Him – at this point, He was hungry. So, He goes over to this lone fig tree by the side of the road – this tree that was advertising breakfast, and He found it empty. He found nothing – no fruit. It had all the signs of life – all the signs of nourishment, all the signs of health – it looked good, it looked inviting. But for Jesus, it was of no value – it was worthless – it didn’t deliver what it promised. So He rightly cursed it. You see, the truth is, you cut down barren trees. If they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, throw them away.
This story happened on Monday morning, at least the first half of it. As Jesus and the disciples made their way to Jerusalem, Jesus sees the tree, finds it empty, and curses it. They then go to Jerusalem where Jesus cleanses the Temple. It’s now Tuesday morning, they’re on their way back to Jerusalem, and Peter sees the tree and says, hey, Jesus – look at the tree you cursed – it’s withered from the root up.
The point is this – here in Mark, the story of cursing of the fig tree surrounds the cleansing of the Temple. Why? Because they are interrelated. They go together – one speaks to the other.
Which brings us to our second point – there is an Implied Parable here. This is an acted parable. Jesus uses this barren fig tree to teach an object lesson. Are you starting to get the lesson? Very simply, the fig tree represents those who claim to be the people of God, the leaves the religious activity that advertise they are the people of God, and the fruit proves they are the people of God. The fruit is the evidence of true spiritual life in them.
Remember, these two stories are connected. Jesus curses the fig tree, then shows up at the Temple and performs a symbolic act – this is My Father’s house, and you’ve made it into a den of robbers. You are stealing people’s money, and worse than that, you’re stealing their souls. The Temple is supposed to be a place where people meet God – and you’ve made it part of your system that in actuality keeps people from God.
Oh, but it looks good – it has leaves – it has all the signs of life and nourishment and health. It looks great on the outside. Look at all the gold and glitter and activity and sacrifices. Look at all the people – hundreds of thousands of people – who come from hundreds of miles all around to participate in the activities here. And your system looks good, too. Look at all the hoops you’ve erected for people to jump through – if they just follow your prescribed rules and regulations, they’ll make it. Everything looks great from the outside. Lots of leaves promising life and rest. Great system, quite the marketing campaign. Only one problem – there is no life of God there.
Isaiah 29 says it this way, “this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,” This was leaves without fruit, a case of profession without practice, this was meaningless. In other words, you can’t call yourself the people of God, and not do what God does. For our purposes, you can’t call yourself a Christian and not act like one.
That was an acted parable, cursing hypocrisy. Those who profess to be God’s people but live unfruitful lives are warned. Jesus said, in this object lesson – to the religious system, to the Temple, to the nation of Israel, to any people, to any church which looks good but produces no real fruit of spiritual life – He said, judgment is coming. He’ll talk about it directly in a couple chapters – there’s coming a day when not one stone will be left standing on another. And judgment, by the way, did come – in 40 years, in 70 A.D., the Roman general Titus overran Jerusalem and carried off its inhabitants. The tree withered, from the root up – it died – judgment came. Please notice, the tree was dead. It wasn’t sick and needed healing – it was dead because there was no real spiritual life. God doesn’t like show – He doesn’t like us to look pretty – green, with leaves advertising life, but offering no fruit. That is hypocrisy.
What does that mean for us? God is never impressed with show – with the external façade of looking good. If you as a person or we as a church – either way – if we flash signs of life, if we look good, but there is no life of God, no reality – if there is no fruit, then judgment will come.
James said it this way – faith without works, corresponding works, is dead – it is of no value. You can’t call yourself a Christian on Sunday, and not act like one on Monday. Jesus said it this way in John 15 – I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
We need to understand this. If we look good – sign on the outside – new building, church here, meet God here – and we’re just engaged in religious activity – business, activity that looks good, lots of people showing up, churchy things – like there’s life here – like you can enjoy the fruit of real Christianity, the real life of God, but there is no life, judgment will come. Jesus warned a church in the book of Revelation about this very problem. To the church at Ephesus He said this:
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:
2 ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false;
3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.
4 ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
5 ‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place — unless you repent.
Do you see it? This was a church full of deeds and toil and perseverance – they looked good. They didn’t like evil men – their doctrine was good and pure – they believed it right, they did it right. But, I have this against you – you have left your first love. There are lots of green leaves, but there is no fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. You’re so busy with your activities and doing it right, you’ve forgotten all about Me. And notice, if you don’t repent, judgment is coming – I will come and remove your lampstand – your light will be extinguished – you will cease to exist.
Spiritual activity without corresponding fruit – without the reality of a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ; without the reality of a changed life; without the reality of life-producing fruit where people can come and actually meet God, meet with God – is cursed. That’s the point. I believe there are churches across this county, across this country that continue to meet – it’s a social club, it’s a fellowship group of people who do some good things – suppers or even housing for the homeless, clean up the rivers and the streams, fight against injustice, send people around the world to do good – but all along, they forget Jesus and the gospel. Lots of leaves, no real, lasting fruit. No life.
Which brings us to our conclusion. I have a scary prayer I’d like to pray for our church. God, if we ever become a church with just leaves – going through the motions, advertising life, looking good, but there is no real life of God here – no fruit – will you make us wither. You see, Jesus just made the tree become what it really was anyway – it was already fruitless, worthless – He just made it evident to everyone. God, cause us to come to life, or remove our lampstand – cause us to wither. Because you see, if there is no life here, we end up doing more damage than good.
Will you pray that prayer – not only for this church, but yourself. God, make me real – make me a fruit-producing Christian, where the reality of the life of God is seen – in the fruit of the Spirit, in a genuine walk of faith and power, in reproducing myself in other people – make me real. If not, make me wither. It’s a scary prayer. But God doesn’t like show – He doesn’t like pretense. So let’s be real.