March 4, 2007
2nd Sunday of Lent
"Monday: The Way Of The Cross: Figs & Fig Trees"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
An eight year old boy came running home from school one day all excited because he'd won a stuffed animal won at the class Valentine's party.
"Congratulations. How did you do that?" Mom asked.
"Well," he explained, "the teacher put all our names together in a box, and then picked one out. I feel kinda bad though. I cheated." he said.
You cheated?" Mom said. "How did you cheat?"
With a guilty look on his face he said, "I prayed!" (1)
I like that little boy's faith. According to the passage we're going to look at today, "Faith should be telling a mountain to move and being shocked if it doesn't."
Let's look at the passage. Matthew 21:18-22 (NRSV)
 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry.
 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once.
 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?"
 Jesus answered them, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done.
 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
I think this is kind of a bizarre little passage. One of the greatest lessons about prayer is associated with one of the weirdest acts of Jesus' whole ministry. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, has a snack attack, stops at a fig tree. The tree doesn't bear any fruit and so Jesus curses it, it shrivels and it dies. Right then. The disciples are blown away. And then Jesus begins to teach about prayer.
Those to don't seem to go together, do they? So, what are we to make out of this event that took place on that first Holy Monday of Holy Week? I know we started on Saturday and if we're following chronologically through the last week of Jesus' ministry we should be looking at Palm Sunday. Well, we'll skip to Monday so we can celebrate Palm Sunday on Palm Sunday.
Let's look at the figs and fig trees first. The Old Testament prophets used figs and fig trees to symbolize both God's blessing and God's judgment. Figs were so plentiful in Israel and they grew so many places that wild fig trees grew alongside the roads all over the place. Not only that, but if someone had an orchard, according to the law, travelers were allowed to pick figs from any trees that lined the road. They were sort of the Road Food of the day.
The prophets used the fig to picture blessing, especially the blessings of the Kingdom of God. According to Micah 4:4, sitting in the shade of a fig tree is a sign of prosperity and peace. "Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken."
But the fig tree was also used as a sign of God's judgment. In Jeremiah 8:13 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; and what I have given them will pass away."
Like everything in life, figs can be either a blessing or a burden. Why should figs be any different. Jesus went tot hat tree fully expecting to find figs and when they weren't there he cursed the tree for not doing it's job. It's job was to create figs. Basically it suffered the same fate of anyone who has a job they aren't doing. It got canned.
Yet out of that weird little experience there is a great lesson to be learned. This passage isn't about figs. It isn't even about blessings and curses. While it can be seen as an object lesson and parable for Israel with the Pharisees and Sadduccees being the fig trees that didn't produce. Thus, the blessing and message of God was going to be taken away and given to the Gentiles. This passage is really about something quite different.
A. This passage is really about Figs and Faith. Jesus wasn't mad at the tree for not having figs. And being the Son of God, he could have made the tree blossom, bloom and produce fruit. But that would have been using God's gifts for His personal gain, and Jesus never did that.
So, what's it about? I think it's about the power of prayer, prayer filled with belief. The fact that the tree withered right in front of their eyes, even after seeing all the other miracles, totally flabbergasted. Basically they asked: "How did you do that?"
Jesus response was, "if you have faith and do not doubt . . ." And that's the hard part. Not doubting. There's a difference between faith and belief. Belief is KNOWING. Faith is TRUSTING. And they go together like peanut butter and jelly or biscuits and gravy. You can have one or the other and it still be good, but they're ten times better together.
B. There's a great scene about Faith and Belief and Doubt in George Lucas' 2nd Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, which is actually Episode 5 in the series.
After the Empire destroys their base, the rebels flee. Luke Skywalker is on the planet Dagobah, learning the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda. During one of the training sessions on how to become a Jedi Knight, Luke's X-wing fighter sinks into a pond.
Luke gets up to see that his ship is now almost completely submerged. He says, "Oh, no. We'll never get it out now."
Yoda questions Luke, "So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?"
Luke looks at the ship, and then at Yoda, and says, "Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different."
Yoda says that the difference is only in Luke's mind, that Luke needs an attitude adjustment.
Luke tells Yoda that he will try, but Yoda snaps back, "No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."
Luke closes his eyes and concentrates on the sunken X-wing fighter. He stretches out his hand, as if to lift it by force, and suddenly the ship begins to move. Though Yoda commanded Luke to do it, even he seems startled that his young apprentice got the ship to move. But just as his hopes rise, Luke tires, the ship sinks further, and Luke walks away, defeated. Out of breath, he tells Yoda, "I can't. It's too big."
But Yoda sees in Luke's failure an opportunity to teach. Yoda says that size is unimportant, "Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? And well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is." Yoda describes the pervasiveness of the Force and then turns to Luke, "Luminous beings are we." Yoda reaches over to pinch Luke's shoulder, "not this crude matter." Yoda tells Luke to feel the Force around him and to sense it between all things, including "between the land and the ship."
Luke is discouraged by his failure and says, "You want the impossible."
Yoda decides to show Luke that what he asked is not impossible. He closes his eyes, reaches out toward the ship, and suddenly it begins to rise. Yoda guides the ship until it is standing on solid ground. Luke is incredulous, "I don't believe it."
Yoda turns to his young apprentice and says, "That is why you fail."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those preachers who espouses the idea: "If you believe it, You'll receive it." That's associated more with the whole Prosperity Theology thing that's going around these days. But Jesus does say that when we pray, we should have faith and we should believe when we pray.
C. I say that because I think God still wants to move mountains on our behalf simply because God can! And we ask.
There was a Missionary working in Asia who led a family to Christ. They happened to live on the other side of a mountain from where the church was located. The family wanted to attend church, but the distance around the mountain was just too long to make it practical. And they sure couldn't climb over the mountain.
Knowing about this verse, the family asked God to move their mountain. They prayed every day to be able to attend that church. It just so happened that a railroad company, laying tracks across the country, faced the same challenge. When they came to the mountain they decided it was too far to go around and their best option was to dig a tunnel. The tunnel was dug, the tracks were laid and the train began to run. But not for very long. Shortly after the tunnel was completed, the railway turned out to be a commercial failure and it was abandoned.
But that family's prayers were answered because every Sunday they could walk through their mountain to church. God DID move that mountain. Not all of it, but enough of it to make a difference.
What mountain in your life is too high to climb over and too big to go around? What mountain in your life needs to be moved? Jesus said all it takes is Faith and Belief.
Our challenge is to Trust God and Believe that God not only CAN move that mountain but because you ask, and because you trust, God WILL move that mountain.
That's the lesson Jesus wanted the Disciples to learn. When Jesus came to that fig tree he was just looking for something to tide him over. He wasn't wanting a three course meal. Just a little snack. Kind of like going into the kitchen and grabbing a couple cookies. You know, something like Fig Newtons. Those are pretty good; by themselves and with peanut butter on them. And it doesn't take but a couple to quench the bit of afternoon or mid morning hunger. But it's always a disappointment when the cookie jar is empty.
We're going to celebrate Holy Communion in a few moments. And we won't receive much bread or much of the wine. But it will be just enough to quench the hunger of our soul and to feed our spirit.
And then after you receive the Sacrament, you'll see a pan or bowl filled with Fig Newtons. I want you to grab a Fig Newton and I want you to eat it. But when you eat it, I want you to name that mountain in your life that you would like God to move. And I want you to remember that Faith and Belief together CAN and WILL move mountains.
1. Davy Troxel, New Albany, Ind. Christian Reader, "Kids of the Kingdom." Adapted
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