Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sermon: Mark 11: 12-26 The Unfruitful Fig Tree

I wonder if you remember the old TV advert for Jacobs Fig Rolls. The question was asked - ‘how do they get the figs in a fig roll?’ This morning in our reading, there aren’t any figs on offer, though; but the passage is almost like a fig roll turned inside out. Did you notice that as ... was reading? Verses 12-14 are about the fig tree, as are 20-25, but there’s this bit in the middle about the temple.

You might have wondered about that as we heard it - why do we jump from the fig tree story to the temple and then back to the fig tree again? Well, firstly, it’s the way these things happened - this is the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and having entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (as we saw last week), he went out of the city, then verse 12 is Monday, and verse 20 is Tuesday. But Mark also tells it in this way to point to the bit in the middle - like a sandwich, the important bit is in the middle - so the fig tree incident helps us to understand the clearing of the temple.

Today we’re going to look at the passage using three headings - the unfruitful tree; the unfruitful temple; and the fruitful new temple. So first up, the unfruitful tree.

Jesus is on the way into Jerusalem from Bethany. We’re told he’s hungry, but he sees a fig tree in the distance. The leaves are on the tree, and so he goes over expecting to find a few figs. Mark tells us (end of 13) that it wasn’t the season for figs, and Jesus doesn’t find any. So he curses the tree: ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’

Is Jesus being unreasonable here? If it wasn’t the season for figs, then why would he expect to find any? It seems that with the leaves, there should have been a few early figs on the tree, and this is what Jesus was looking for. But he’s disappointed. He found nothing but leaves. The tree gave the outward promise of fruit, but wasn’t producing any fruit, so its punishment was to remain eternally fruitless. Remember that, as we turn to the unfruitful temple.

The temple was the centre of Jerusalem life; it was where you went to offer sacrifices, to pray. But what Jesus finds as he enters the temple is far from ideal. Look at verse 15. He finds money-changers, people selling pigeons, people selling animals for the sacrifice. It’s more like a market than a meeting house; and Jesus is not happy. He begins to clear the temple, driving out the people who were buying and selling; overturning the tables of the money changers (can you imagine the scramble for the coins as they jingled and rolled across the floor?!). What’s the problem?

Remember the lesson of the unfruitful fig tree? The outward promise of fruit, but not delivering? We see it here in the temple as well. You see, the temple was like a series of rooms / halls leading from outside to the Most Holy Place. Working from the outside, you first came into the Court of the Gentiles, where anyone could visit; then the Court of the Women (for all Jewish people); then the Court of the Israelites (where only the Jewish men could go); then the Court of the Priests (where only the priests could go); and finally, at the centre, the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies) where the high priest went on one day of the year.

The traders and the money changers had set up their stalls in the first part - the Court of the Gentiles. It seems that in the temple, you could only use special temple currency, so you had to change it (just like you have to change currency when you go on holiday abroad) - with the money changers making some tidy profit from the pilgrims. Similarly, you could buy your animal to sacrifice in the temple, which would save you bringing one from home (potentially a long distance), but again, you were be overcharged. It was a captive market, just like everything is more expensive in the airport or the cinema!

Do you see the problem already? Let’s look at what Jesus says while he teaches: ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ (17). The temple is meant to be the place of prayer, not just for the Jews, but for all the nations, for Gentiles too. But if any Gentiles were to come to the temple to pray, they would be jostled and disrupted by the buyers and sellers. Outwardly the temple (and therefore the Jewish nation) gave the promise of fruit - it looks like a place of prayer; but actually, it’s a den of robbers; everyone out for themselves; everyone to make money. You could say they were more interested in profits than in prophets. (Groan!)

The chief priests and scribes display their heart condition in the way they respond to Jesus here. You see, they weren’t cross when people were profiting from the temple, exploiting people and turning it into a market; but now that Jesus has cleared the temple, they’re raging: ‘they heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him’.

Temple religion promised so much, and yet was unfruitful, like the fig tree. Looking on from outside it was the place of prayer; more than that, lots of people were coming along; there was a bit of life about it. But actually when Jesus comes along to inspect it, the temple (and the supposed people of God) were unfruitful. It’s very challenging for us. You see, we have fairly good numbers coming along on Sundays; lots of activities happening, we say all the right things, we believe our Bibles. But are we producing any fruit?

We might talk like a good church, but are we? We might look like a good church, but are we? Are we producing the fruit that Jesus delights in, in depending on Jesus; trusting in him; growing more like him; reaching out to see others coming into relationship with him; Or are we just as barren, lifeless. Are we leafy, or fruitful?

Or to make it more personal - are you as an individual being fruitful or unfruitful? Are you seeing the fruit of the Spirit in your life more and more, or are you all leaves, making a good show but without any fruit?

Jesus declared his curse on the fig tree, condemning it to being fruitless forever - and in verse 20, the next morning as Jesus and the disciples go into Jerusalem again, Peter notices that the fig tree has withered already. Jesus also judged the temple and the religious people (because they rejected him), and just a few years later, the temple was destroyed. Yet Jesus is our temple, the place where we meet with God; he is the house of prayer for all the nations, where people from every nation are coming to be reconciled with God through the sacrifice of the cross.

So if we want to be fruitful; if we are to be part of this fruitful temple; how do we do it? How do we prevent ending up like the unfruitful temple? Jesus addresses this in the closing verses of our passage. Peter has expressed amazement that what Jesus said has come true, the fig tree has withered so quickly. But Jesus summarises it as: ‘Have faith in God.’ The way to be fruitful and pleasing to God is to have faith; to believe that God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can think or imagine.

Have faith in God - and pray to him. The temple was meant to be the place of prayer, but prayer had been squeezed out; don’t be like that, but keep praying. And believe when you pray - have faith filled prayers, not just about small things, but also about the big things, the things that might seem impossible. All things are possible with God. Jesus uses the illustration of the mountain - a seemingly immovable, solid things can be moved through prayer. What are the ‘mountains’ in your life, the things that seem impossible? Keep on praying with faith-filled prayer.

Similarly, when you pray, also forgive - have faith and forgive. You see, we can’t really benefit from God’s forgiveness if we refuse to forgive ourselves. We haven’t really understood God’s forgiveness if we can’t forgive others. I know that it can be hard - I know some of the situations you find yourself in which are painful, with terrible things being done to you which were wrong.

Yet these are the plain words of Jesus: ‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses.’

While we started with figs, I want to end with vines. You see, having faith and forgiving come from being connected to Jesus; being fruitful is a result of relationship with Jesus. We see that illustrated perhaps best of all in Jesus’ words in John 15: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing... If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. But this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.’ (John 15:5, 7-8)

Let’s pray that we bear much fruit for the glory of Jesus, that we’re not cut off and unfruitful.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 12th September 2010.

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