As you noticed, our Bible reading for today was very short. Only five verses. But of course God can say a lot in just a few words. As we continue our sermon series “Road Trip!” we have another incident that happened while Jesus and the disciples were walking down the road. Even though this a short reading, there’s a lot in there to make us think.
It starts out with Jesus walking along and getting hungry. He sees a fig tree and goes over to get some figs to eat, but there are no figs on the tree. So Jesus curses it. He says to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again!” And the tree immediately withers.
We’re told that the disciples the asked, “How did the tree wither so quickly?” Frankly, that’s not the question I would’ve asked. It’s not a bad question, especially if we don’t really quite realize who Jesus is. But if we accept that Jesus is the divine Son of God, then we know how the tree withered so quickly. It withered quickly because Jesus told it to. Jesus had divine power. He could do stuff like that. It’s pretty much that simple.
But the more interesting question, as it often is, is “Why?” Why would Jesus do that? Why would Jesus curse this poor, innocent fig tree, which had done nothing to hurt him other than that Jesus wanted figs and it did not have any? What’s the point of that?
Well, we’ll come back to that. Next, we’re told Jesus’ answer to the disciples question of how the tree withered so quickly. He says, “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. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
That’s one of those verses we struggle with. I do, anyway. We don’t think it can possibly be taken literally. I mean, most of us don’t really believe that anyone, just through prayer, could physically make a mountain fall into the sea, no matter how much faith we have. After all, have you ever known anyone who could do that? Have you ever heard of anyone who could do it? Jesus could have, because again, he’s the divine Son of God, but who else? I mean, even if we grant that it would take an awful lot of faith to do something like this, there has to be somebody, once in a while, who has that kind of faith, right? So if even they cannot make this happen, it must not be meant to be taken literally.
But on the other hand, if we don’t take it literally, how do we take it and still do justice to the actual words we’re told Jesus said? If we put any qualifications on Jesus’ statement, if we put any limitations on it, we’re adding words that Jesus did not say. Jesus did not put qualifications or limitations on his statement. So, if we don’t take what Jesus said literally, but yet we don’t want to add our own words to what Jesus said, what do we do with this?
And now you see why we’re only dealing with five verses today. There’s more than enough in those five verses for a sermon, or even several sermons.
So let’s look at it all. Why are these five verses in the Bible? What are we supposed to learn from them?
Well, let’s think about the fig tree first. What’s the purpose of a fig tree? Well, it’s to produce figs, right? An apple tree produces apples, a peach tree produces peaches, a fig tree produces figs. It’s not there to be a shade tree, and it’s not there to look pretty. A fig tree has one job and one job only: to produce figs. That’s the sole purpose that a fig tree has in life.
Therefore, a fig tree that does not produce figs is not doing it’s job. A fig tree that does not produce figs has no purpose. A fig tree that does not produce figs has no reason to exist any more. So, Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers. But really, in a sense, the tree had withered before Jesus got there, because it no longer served the purpose for which God had created it.
So what does that have to do with what Jesus says next? How does it relate to what Jesus said about how if our faith is strong enough, we’ll get whatever we ask for in prayer?
Well, this is not the only time Jesus used trees to make a point. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, in Chapter Twelve, Jesus says this: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit...how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in them.”
So, if we read that along with what we’ve said about the fig tree and apply it to what Jesus said about prayer, what do we have? Well, I’m not sure. As I said, this is a verse I struggle with. But try this.
A tree is recognized by its fruit. Or, in the case of the fig tree in today’s reading, by its lack of fruit. Jesus recognized that the fig tree was a bad tree because it did not produce any figs.
Similarly, of course, we, as humans, are recognized by what we produce. Or, again, what we don’t produce. If we are good, we will produce good fruit. We’ll do things that are pleasing to God. If we’re not good, we’ll produce bad fruit. We’ll do things that are not pleasing to God.
Okay, so far, so good. But how does it relate to prayer? Well, here’s how I think it relates to prayer. What does it mean, exactly to be “good”? What does it mean to be a “good tree” that produces “good fruit”? If that’s our goal, to be a good tree that produces good fruit, how do we do it?
I think the way we do it is by getting as close to God as we possibly can. There are a lot of ways we can do that. We can spend time in prayer. We can spend time reading the Bible. We can read or listen to devotional materials. We can devote ourselves to helping people. We can listen to Christian music, whether you like traditional hymns, gospel music, contemporary Christian music, or whatever. We can spend time in nature, contemplating the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. There are lots of other ways we can do it, too.
But however we do it, we need to do it. And it’s not enough to just do these things once, or even once in a while. At least it’s not enough for me. I need to do them consistently. I need to do them frequently. If I don’t, I’ll start to slide away from God. If I want to get as close to God as I can, I have to work at it. And I suspect that’s true for some others here, too.
And if we get close to God, and we stay close to God, we’ll find our faith increase. It’ll get stronger. We’ll be in tune with God. Maybe not one hundred percent of the time, because we remain flawed, sinful people. But a lot of the time. We’ll be able to say the things God wants us to say. We’ll be able to do the things God wants us to do. We’ll be able to live the way God wants us to live.
And we’ll be able to pray the way God wants us to pray. We probably won’t pray for God to throw a mountain into the sea, because what would be the point of that? But we might pray for God to help us serve others better. We might pray for God to help us love others better. We might pray for God to give us strength and keep us encouraged and keep us enthusiastic. We might even pray for God to help us raise the money for an addition to this church. We might pray for God to help us overcome our weakness, overcome our doubts, overcome our fears, and give us the courage to be the people God wants us to be.
And when we do that, I absolutely believe God will answer that kind of prayer. Because when we’re close to God, when we’re in tune with God, we won’t be praying selfishly. We won’t be praying pointlessly. We’ll be praying for things that honor God and please God. And God will hear, and God will respond.
A fig tree that does not produce figs is not doing what it was put on earth to do. When we act selfishly, when we fall away from God, we’re not doing what we were put on earth to do, either. But the difference is that you and I have the ability to correct that. You and I can change our ways. You and I can do the things we need to do to get close to God, to get in tune with God, and to start producing good fruit again.
So let’s do that. This week, think about what you need to do to get closer to God. Then, do it. Let’s all figure out what we need to do and do it. And then, we’ll find that we will receive what we ask for in prayer.