October 20, 2019
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.'”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
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!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
So, given the text we will be looking at this morning, I came up with two alternate titles for my sermon. Jesus Gets Hangry, and Temple Tantrum.
This is a weird passage, right?
Jesus sees a fig tree on the road. A fig tree with leaves. He’s hungry, so he goes to grab a fig, and then sees that the tree doesn’t have any. He’s mad. Hangry. He curses the tree and goes along on his way.
Then, Jesus and the disciples come to the Temple. He gets angry again, or maybe he has low blood sugar at this point, so he drives out all of the merchants on the outskirts of the temple. He has a temple tantrum.
There is a whole lot to unpack in these verses, so before we dive in let’s pray together.
Lord, thank you for this morning. Thank you for your word and the way it speaks to our lives in 2019. May we be people with open ears and open hearts to receive whatever you may have for us this morning. Amen.
Tale of two trees:
Which one would you decorate your home with?
So, this first tree is beautiful- shiny leaves, shiny fruit. Why is it shiny? It’s fake.
This second tree isn’t that great to look at. It’s kind of scrawny and bare, but it will produce the most delicious fruit.
Fig planting and growth:
Farmer Nathan- Figs are finicky. They need several things to grow.
1.Lots of water when they are young.
2.Cutting off diseased limbs and constant vigilance over the health of the tree
3.Pruning the interior canopy to let light and air get into the middle of the tree.
Healthy fig trees can grow up to 20 feet tall.
If these steps aren’t followed, you get a huge tree with lots of leaves but no fruit. Or you get spoiled fruit.
So why on earth would Jesus curse this poor fig tree? It’s out there on the road, doing its best, and all of a sudden Jesus calls down the power of God and it shrivels. And not just for the season, for ever. This is extreme.
Then, Jesus heads to the temple and things get even weirder.
The temple was the place where people in Jerusalem went to offer sacrifices to God in exchange for forgiveness of their sins. This practice had been in place for generations, way back to the Exodus when the Israelites set up a temple to take with them as they left Egypt. The idea was that people would bring money or animal sacrifices as they came to worship at the temple, and then the priest would accept them and they would be granted entrance. However, for folks who lived too far away, there was basically a marketplace set up just outside the temple where they could buy an animal right there. The problem was that the system was absolutely corrupt. Over time a temple currency developed, so there was only one type of money acceptable. Inflation was terrible and it left people at the total mercy of the merchants. Animal prices were sky high, and even if people brought enough money they were cheated out of it by the corruption. So, can you see why Jesus got so angry? It was beautiful, at the center of the city, and supposedly THE place where God was to be found.
It was made by Herod the great out of massive stones and precious jewels.
The temple was constructed as a series of rings that got smaller the closer you got to the center. At the outermost place was where women and Gentiles (non-Jews) could worship. Jewish men could get closer in, and in the very center was the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could go in, and then only once a year.
Around all of that was the marketplace where our text occurs. There were big boxes set up around the temple, and people dropped their money into them. Depending on how big your coin was depended on the amount of noise people heard as you dropped it in. So, all in all, the temple had become a place of business. Merchants were getting rich off of exploitation, and people were left with nothing just because they came to get as close to God as they were allowed.
The temple was producing bad fruit. The fruit of greed, corruption, and hierarchy was spoiled fruit, and Jesus saw it. He saw that this place that was supposed to represent a God who was present with His people, was instead a place where the worst instincts of our humanity were on full display.
Jesus’s curse of the fig tree and clearing of the temple are the only two destructive acts we have recorded in Jesus’s life.
This means something significant. If Jesus destroyed something, we need to pay attention because that means that whatever he was destroying had the power to cause great harm if left unchecked.
One of the questions we are asking these days with our work around mission is:
“Whose lives will be different because of the work of this community if we are successful?”
This type of question raises all sorts of other questions, doesn’t it? When we do the work of mission in our community and in the world, how do we know if we are helping or hurting? How do we measure the difference our work is making? How do we know we are producing good fruit and not just a bunch of leaves?
It’s easy to set up beautiful and flashy programs in the name of God. Just like the temple, we can begin with good intentions and end up with a mess. Systems and structures we build to help people get closer to God and to each other can easily be spoiled by the rotten fruit of our own ambition or drive to look really good on the outside.
How can we take an honest look at our work and make sure we are a church overflowing with good fruit to nourish those inside and outside our building?
We need to begin with water. Just like my fig tree, we need lots of water to help us grow. We need to soak ourselves in the love of God and embrace that we are created in the image of the Divine. Doing mission work can leave us thirsty, can’t it? We can give and give, expend so much energy, but if we aren’t soaked in who we are and how God sees us, we can become exhausted and shrivel up.
Secondly, we need to be on the lookout for diseased limbs. The disease of narcissism, of working for the acclimation of others or to make this church look like we’ve got it all together. The disease of apathy- of believing that nothing we do can really change anything. The disease of martyrdom- of believing that we are only worthy when we are working. That we don’t deserve to rest every once in awhile, or that God will only love us if we’re good enough. We need to be honest and vulnerable with ourselves and each other, enough to have eyes to see when these diseases are threatening to shrivel our tree. This takes a level of awareness that lots of churches don’t have. I know in this community, though, the love we have for one another and the passion we have to see the world change can help us.
Lastly, we need to be sure that there is enough light getting to our center. The work we are doing is hard. It’s depressing. Looking at a world on fire and how relatively small our water barrels are can be defeating. We are bombarded every day with more and more evidence that this life is hard, scary, and lonely. We need light in our center. We need kindness, we need joy, and we need humor as we go about this work together. Life is hard, no doubt. But it’s also good. And we’re only here for a little while, so we can let out some breath and laugh a little. We need it just as much as we need water.
So, as we think about what it takes to reflect the kin-dom of God here in our place and beyond these doors, let’s remember that no matter how beautiful something is on the outside, what matters is if it’s bearing good fruit. Let’s be brave enough to examine the fruit we are producing, and let’s not be afraid to prune what needs pruning. Let’s remember to water each other when we’re thirsty, and let’s not forget to laugh while we do it.
God, thank you for this weird passage. May we be people who bear good fruit.