In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11: 20-21 NIV).
Jesus had much to accomplish and so little time. It was on one of those last mornings that the story of the withered fig tree is presented in Mark Chapter 11. While the encounter with the fig tree provides another example of Jesus’ command over the physical world, it seems almost petulant. Jesus was hungry and a fig tree observed in the distance looked to be ripe and ready with figs. But appearances were deceiving and the tree was barren.
My wife and I use the acrostic H-A-L-T to describe our emotions and avert an argument because one of us is not at full capacity (read “reason”). “H” stands for “hungry”—one of my triggers. Perhaps Jesus had an “H” going because He cursed the tree and proceeded on into Jerusalem where He drove out the money changers from the Temple and further cemented in the minds of the authorities that Jesus must be stopped. We are not told where He had breakfast.
But of course there is much more to this story. Peter’s incredulity over the withered fig tree the following morning invites us into deeper contemplation of this event, beginning with presenting us with the same question that has been asked of Jesus since His birth: “Who do you say I am?”
Almost every contemporary of Jesus answered that question incorrectly. Even when confessing a correct answer, as when Peter proclaimed Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” human reason just wouldn’t allow the truth of His Deity—His Oneness with God the Father—to stick. Observing the withered fig tree Peter calls Jesus “Rabbi” rather than “Lord” or even out of friendship and love just “Jesus.” Rabbi was a term of respect, but after being with Jesus for nearly three years, after all they had seen and witnessed together, after all of the miracles, after all of Jesus’ testimony of what this week in Jerusalem meant to Him and His ministry, “Rabbi” seems to me to be out of place, particularly the incredulity that seems to accompany it.
Perhaps to refocus Peter Jesus said simply, “Have faith in God.”
But Jesus never did anything that did not have real life-giving and life-changing implications, and so the story in the eleventh chapter of Mark continues. First, Jesus informs Peter that faith can move mountains, echoing other conversations where Jesus says “with God all things are possible.” Second, Jesus curiously ends His conversation with Peter with an admonishment that all prayers must include introspection about forgiveness; if you are holding anything against anyone you must stop praying and forgive them; otherwise God will not forgive you your sins.
And then Mark includes a third element: Immediately following this story, Jesus and the Disciples return to Jerusalem where the Jewish leaders demand that Jesus tell them plainly “by whose authority” He had been doing the things He was doing, such as running the money changers out of the Temple. Jesus knew further words would not matter to them—they refused to believe their own eyes and ears, so He traps them in their disbelief and refuses to answer—instead speaking a parable of what is in their hearts—murder, and what is in their minds—disbelief.
What can we learn from figs and mountains? Here are seven observations.
- Appearances can deceive, but God judges each of us by our actions and fruitfulness, not outward appearances.
- Time, for us and barren fig trees, will run out. Therefore, be alert to the times, doing good while it is still day.
- Because God is active in our world, miracles are all around us. It is important to take note of all circumstances—chance meetings and the serendipity of life, to see God and to seek Him. In seeing we can offer our adoration, awe, and honor. If we do not see, we are prone to stumble and fall. Learn to be led by the Spirit.
- Desire is stronger than we imagine. Bertrand Russell, echoing biblical truths said, “Be careful what you set your heart upon—for it will surely be yours.” From Eve in the garden, to Cain in the field, to Amnon with Tamar, to Judas in Jerusalem, our desires, firmly set, will impel us to achieve them, “come hell or high water.”
- Thus, Jesus’ speaking of casting mountains in the sea does not assert the correctness or morality of casting the mountain in the first place, nor does it limit mountain moving to godly faith alone; mountains can still end up in the sea where they do not belong—our sheer force of will can make that happen in spite of what God would have us pursue and achieve.
- Pursuit of carnal desires will hurt someone. Perhaps Jesus’ linking prayer to mountain moving was further instruction about the power of our will that first cast us out of Eden and an admonishment to not attempt to move mountains without consulting God. Standing before God with our desires is godly and may constrain us from wrong motives and choices.
- Consequences follow mountain moving. When aligned with God’s will, the result will be for our good; but apart from His will they will lead to pain and loss. The consequences of going our own way, according to Proverbs 14:12, is death, but Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?” I know Him to be a “life-giver.” If you are suffering consequences from ill-advised mountain moving, or questioning the adequacy of your faith or perhaps even God’s goodness because your mountain remains unmoved, recall all that you know of God—His compassion, His truthfulness, His mercy, His faithfulness, and His sovereignty, then bend your mind to understand His will, and bend your will to be His will.
Jesus went to the cross while we were yet sinners—proving God’s love for us. A few days after the fig tree withered, Jesus rolled away a stone and moved the biggest mountain facing all of us—death.
“Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me” (Psalm 19:12-13a NKJV).
I don’t know if I ever liked mowing the lawn. Maybe, when I was twelve, when my father asked me to mow the lawn, maybe then it was fun—flirting with independence and responsibility behind a loud and powerful machine. But the fun didn’t last; mowing, after all, is work.
I’ve always separated mowing from trimming weeds—a poor strategy for perfectly manicured lawns, but there it is: mowing is work, but weed eating is awful work. One of my closest and dearest friends worked on a cattle farm during summers while we were in high school. He told me stories of the foreman asking him to take “the weed-hook” and go chop weeds. He hated it, I believe, above all other farm related chores. I struggled to understand his pain since my family did not attach much importance to “weed-eating” (the apple did not fall far from the tree here). But I get it now—weed-eating is awful work. So as I finished mowing yesterday, making pass after ever shrinking circular path around my yard on my John Deere mower, those pesky weeds taunted me. But apparently not enough; they are still there this morning.
Jesus told a parable once (Matthew 13:24-30) of a landowner who sowed good seed in his fields, but one night an enemy came and sowed weeds alongside the good seed. Later, his workers noticed the weeds sprouting up. The story is known as the wheat and tares (tares being a word for weeds). The workers ask the Master if they should pull the weeds, but He replied, “No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barns’ (Matthew 13:29-30 NKJV).”
It’s easy to think of the parable as an “us against them” story. We presume we are the wheat—the good seed. And that must mean others are the tares. And I think that is a fair understanding. Other parables and sayings of Jesus are comparative of people, and He implores us to choose the different path, to think differently, to judge differently. Jesus, near the end of His earthly ministry told a story that at the end of time there will be a great gathering before the throne of the King who will judge the people as goats and sheep with those He found favor with remaining in the kingdom and those who denied Him being cast out (Matthew 25:31-46). In some sense, some will be judged to be fully tares and some fully wheat.
But in a broader sense I know that I can be both wheat and tares—it is my human condition. Biologically, wheat and tares are fundamentally two different species and are not the same. But I am more than biology, and sin lurks within me, hiding as tares until sometimes it shows itself as a sprout, alarming me and possibly confusing or hurting those I love. In those times I quickly work to root it out, chagrined and chastened by my error and frailty. But sometimes I just overlook my little tares (aren’t they cute, and they are mine, after all, and we all make mistakes sometimes, don’t we?), forgetting there is a gardener responsible for me, and He will make the true decisions regarding my worth.
The truth is we are lied to and about—and perhaps the most damning and egregious lie is that there is nothing that separates or saves wheat and tares; it’s up to us—the wheat and tares, to choose and decide rightly for ourselves.
Here’s a pertinent Scripture: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12 NIV).
But here is another pertinent Scripture—full of great hope and truth: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 NIV).
I learned a long time ago that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, stop and ask what is the “there” for? In this case, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 7, has confessed that sometimes he acts like tares when all he wants to do is act and be like wheat—one with God, accepting His truth, and desiring only to please Him. But he fails, over and over and over again—and it creates misery in his life. He pleads, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:25 NKJV).
My friend, Jesus Christ has paid our tares debt. And He chose to do that because He loved you and trusted God the Father—and He did that “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). Jesus gave us His love by yielding His life to a mob and dying on a cross for us—weeds more often than we are ever wheat. The Father gave us His love by raising Christ from the dead—no longer allowing tares to be our life story and destiny.
Hear the good news!
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV).
Because my wife and I have four young children, our parental obligations constrain our freedom as a married couple. Since we remember that we used to like each other, we work (and it is work) to find time to be alone. Sometimes while planning a “date night” (forget spontaneity), my wife will kid me and ask what are we going to talk about, as if we have said everything already, or that we will only end up talking about the kids, or that the mundane and sometimes monotonous stuff of life won’t be interesting for long. But we persevere and make it a priority to find time to be alone with each other, knowing we will be better for the effort.
Maybe you don’t feel that way about God, but perhaps God feels that way about you. He wants to speak to you, to have your undivided attention and to share with you His great and wonderful plans for your life. Or perhaps He wants to comfort you, protect you, and help you make wise choices—to truly lead you into “green pastures,” but you act as if there is nothing to say, or that you don’t have the time.
But just as I would be poorer for not spending time alone with my wife, to continue to grow in my knowledge of her in order to love her better, I would be poorer in my eternal soul if I did not try and know my God better.
How do we love what we do not know? And when speaking of God, how do we truly worship Him if we do not know Him? One answer is, imperfectly.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, He took great pains to bring her into awareness of Him. In the give and take of conversation, He told her that she worshiped what she didn’t know (John 4:22). Perhaps taken aback, she pointed ahead to prophesies of a coming Messiah who was going to “explain everything to us” (John 4:25b NIV). She “knew” something, but what she knew was incomplete. In response, Jesus declared “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26 NIV). She ran immediately to town to tell others. Her life was changed forever, and many in the town also.
Another time Jesus asked a man born blind who had His sight restored if “he believed in the Son of Man?” The man had just been tossed out of the Sanhedrin and told he had been a sinner from birth, but he was bold and asked Jesus, “Who is he, sir? Tell me that I may believe in him” (John 9:36 NIV). Jesus answered his question, saying “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you” (John 9:37 NIV).
In the movie “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie freezes up just as he gets the opportunity to speak with Santa; overcome with the gravity of the moment he can say nothing, leaving Santa to make a suggestion far from what he really desires. Maybe we are terrified about spending time alone with God. Or perhaps, as my wife can be about “date night,” we are afraid that we would have nothing to say to God.
A conversation with God is never idle or unproductive.
Returning to the story of the woman at the well, the Disciples return from an errand and are surprised to find Jesus speaking with a woman, although they do not ask Jesus about the conversation. The gospels give other instances where the Disciples fail to ask Jesus for clarification or explanation.
The dawning realization of “who” Jesus really was took a long time for the Disciples to discover, eventually culminating in Peter’s great confession (Matthew 16:16), where Jesus tells Simon (Peter) that “this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 NIV). God the Father had to tell Peter, just as Jesus told the woman at the well and would later tell the man born blind. Even though the Disciples had witnessed many amazing things, even miracles, they were often confused as to “what kind of man is this?” (Matthew 8:27).
In the book of James we are told we do not have because we do not ask.
Ever hear the adage that there is no such thing as a dumb question?
Three things come to mind: First, have a conversation with God often—daily, many times a day—but spend time with Him, getting to know Him. Second, read the Bible—it is God’s voice speaking to us today, revealing Him in all of His glory—and wrestle (because you will wrestle) with the revelation of God it contains. And third, ask God what He wants you to know about your life and circumstances, whatever they may be. Ask for wisdom to understand how life, as it appears to you, really is in the eyes of its Creator.
You never know what you will discover if you just ask.
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1: 10-11 NIV).
My wife Elizabeth never forgets a face, a talent that at times can be disconcerting, and only occasionally embarrassing. We can be at the Superdome, with 70,000 or so other folks mingling around us, and she will say, “I know him (or her). That’s (insert any name of anyone).” I used to want to argue with her because the context of her memory is not often someone like a cousin or high school classmate—no, that would be too easy. Rather, the memory often goes like this, “I remember him or her; we were standing in line together at Target about ten years ago.” As I am standing there processing such statements she walks right up and asks, “Don’t I know you?” Often the “stranger” (by any other name and to anybody else) is as taken aback as me, but I promise 95% of the time she is right—she knows them.
While my wife has an uncanny ability to remember faces and places, I think we all have experienced moments where we bump into some other person and can’t shake the feeling that we know them. Or perhaps the effect goes the opposite direction—someone (like Elizabeth) approaches you and says, “Don’t I know you?”
This occurred to me as I read the story in Luke 10 in which Martha invites Jesus and the Disciples into her home. Where Martha sees Jesus as a friend, a guest in her home, her sister Mary sees Jesus as a person of singular interest. Mary really knows Him, Martha does not. As the story progresses, Martha is left alone to prepare food for Jesus and the Disciples, but Mary is busy listening to Jesus—literally sitting at His feet. Martha becomes perturbed at being left alone to prepare the food, and her perturbation leads to this confrontation with Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40 NIV).
Martha has missed something vitally important to her soul, and Jesus tells her that she is “worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41b-42 NIV).
How often do we miss seeing the real Jesus? Or fail to see Him at all? Take a moment and reflect on the Christian idea that Jesus in His fullness is God—omnipresent, omnipotent, and in a way we may never understand, at once one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—one God in three persons. Jesus is so “full” that the Bible says, “In Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17b NIV).
Have you ever been in the kitchen at Thanksgiving helping to prepare the feast and catch the sound of conversation in another room? You can hear the laughter, perhaps the sound of the football game, or other merriment. You are busy, but you know that elsewhere in the house people are being people, enjoying each other’s company. I’m not speaking about a Martha overworked and un-appreciated moment; my point is you know everyone in the house just like Martha knew Jesus. But she didn’t really know Him, did she? Martha was unable to see what Jesus told her was the most important thing—to be with Him.
Back to the idea of omnipresence and omniscience: Jesus is always with His people, whether we have an active impression of His presence or not. But if we fail to have an active impression of Him, then don’t we, like Martha, place Him in another room in our “house” (our lives)? We are too busy with other things to sit at His feet and learn something—even to be healed.
But it can be worse. Sometimes we, like Martha, seek Him out, hoping to have Him answer our request or need, but we are really asking apart from His will. We are left to wrestle with why His answer was “No.”
The Bible reveals other stories where people have either mistaken ideas of God or fail to see Him at all. Consider Luke 21 where Jesus observes the rich people making gifts at the Temple treasury. Clearly they know where they are (God’s house) and they are making offerings to God, but the only person commended by Jesus that day was a poor widow who put in a pittance yet in comparison to the others gave all that she had (Luke 21 :1-4). In some respects the others might just as well have tossed their money into a creek. Or how about Luke 18:9-14 involving prayers offered by a “righteous Pharisee” and a tax collector where Jesus rebukes the self-righteous and commends a penitent sinner? The Pharisee had his God in the wrong room—the tax collector was near to his God, desperately wanting to sit at His feet. Our omnipresent, omniscient God is always in our room, but we can miss Him—desperately miss Him.
In John we read about Thomas who refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. You know that story. Thomas wasn’t in the room when Jesus appeared the first time, and he could not believe the testimony of the other Disciples. Jesus was in the room when Thomas said he would not believe—Thomas just didn’t know it then. But Jesus loved Thomas and in an act of great mercy appeared to him, offering to him His hands and feet and side so that Thomas was able to exclaim, “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28 NASB). Are we not susceptible like Thomas to missing Jesus when He is all around us, even in us?
Where ever you are right now, stop and think about where Jesus is—right now. Isn’t he right here? Isn’t Jesus always right alongside us? And isn’t this so even if we fail to see and hear?
A new prayer of mine is to remember that Jesus is always with me; to remember that He is present with me as God. He sees all of my silly antics, my less than wholesome moments, and the rare times when I choose actions that please Him.
King David said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Psalm 139:6 NIV). Yes, it is. But if I can remember the omnipresence of Jesus, perhaps I will find Him when I would otherwise not think to look for Him. Intentionally, every day, I want to listen for the still and quiet voice of Jesus working for my good in a troubled world. O God, let me always and everywhere see your face!
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”(Romans 8:35a ESV).
I discovered a yellow jacket infestation the way many persons discover yellow jackets and it hurt. I was surprised to discover I retain the ability to run very fast, even at the age of sixty-one.
Twice now, in the early morning, nursing a slightly swollen hand, I have snuck up on their suspected hiding place armed with a garden hose laced with insecticide and emptied my spite where I thought it would do the most good, and waited. But each afternoon they remain as before, busy being, well, bees, of a sort.
Yellow jackets are tenacious.
The church seems beset by human yellow jackets; anti-Christian groups that are particularly vicious in their actions. Lawsuits have become commonplace, brought against Christians for prayer in public places, or for openly expressing heartfelt praise for God’s mercy as manifested in historic events or in our personal lives, or for practicing our beliefs by abstaining from and sometimes speaking against practices the world would say is fine and reasonable. I heard Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of Liberty Institute, an organization that defends religious freedom in America, say he believes religious freedom in America is under assault and we are at a tipping point.
Perhaps the anti-Christian groups believe Christians are the yellow jackets that must be eradicated. Yet Scripture says non-believers will exhibit, among other behaviors, “discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (Galatians 5:20b-21a NIV). In contrast, Christians guided by the Holy Spirit will exhibit “love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22b-23a NIV).
If the shoe fits (or the yellow jacket), wear it.
But it is not just yellow jackets we are contending with, is it? Gallup says three in four Americans say they are Christians (Gallup Daily tracking December 2014). The same survey reports more than half attend worship services at least monthly and 41% report they attend worship weekly. Yet abortions continue, gossip continues, immorality (as defined by Scripture, not by man) continues, pride continues, and the foolishness of humans to build their own gods continues unabated since the beginning of time. With a supposed three in four majority, how do we succumb to the philosophy of the world? The sheer numbers of persons identifying with Christ reveals we are our own worst enemies; all of the stuff we don’t admire in others cannot be confined to just one in four of us.
At church last week, two of our pastors spoke of the importance of being a follower of Christ and not just a fan of Christ. Followers imitate. Followers act. Fans enjoy, are mentally titillated for a while, may even enjoy a moment’s respite in the mundane and often difficult stuff of life, but fans do not last and do not gain peace or abundance of joy. Fans don’t change; but followers become someone else.
Do you want to be changed?
To the three out of four of us who claim to be Christians, renew your discovery of the God who loved you so much He died for you. Renew your discovery of relationship with a God who not only wants to be known by you but who will lead you in the work of discovery. Yes, it is work—you must seek Him, read His Scriptures, wrestle with difficult passages, finding the time to spend with Him though you don’t control any of time, and persevere when everything else you do wants and demands your time.
As for the one in four of us, become a witness to them because that is our mission. In the book of Isaiah it reads:
“A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8 NIV).
Be confident in this: Truth is absolute and can be known because it has been revealed.
There are imposters in the world that will turn the truth into a lie if they can do so. Jesus said we will know them by their fruits. The Apostle John warned us, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3a NIV).
A friend of mine once said, “It is a poor carpenter who blames his tools.” Whose plumb line are you using to discover the truth? God has placed the question squarely in front of each of us. Recall the admonishment of Joshua to the Israelites: “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15a ESV).
Be alert for yellow jackets who seek to sting us when someone dares to speak a word of truth as given to us by God. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. God wants to know where you stand. And so do His enemies.