“Early in the morning, as they were passing by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Then Peter remembered and said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that You cursed is withered.” Jesus replied to them, “Have faith in God. I assure you: If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, all the things you pray and ask for — believe that you have received them, and you will have them. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your wrongdoing. [But if you don’t forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your wrongdoing.]” (Mark 11:20-26 HCSB)
King David, the Psalmist, wrote a song about brothers living together in harmony, “it is good and pleasant… like fine oil poured on a man’s head, running down his beard and onto his robes.” I grew up in a house full of brothers and it could be quite raucous and crazy, at times. But it is also very nice now when we gather and enjoy time with each other and our families. I understand David’s words, “it is good and pleasant… like oil running down one’s beard and onto his robes.” The church is also a family, filled with brothers and sisters. And just like other families, things can get raucous and crazy – even out of hand crazy. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues, everyone has an opinion and theirs is the right one.
Living together in harmony requires a lot of give-and-take on all sides, willingness to compromise, to understand each other, plenty of mercy and grace and a ton of forgiveness. That’s also what it takes to live together in the kingdom of God – grace, faith and forgiveness. A desire to know and pursue God but to do so while acting in faith and giving one another grace and forgiveness. That’s what we ought to be, who we are supposed to be. To be honest, some of the most unloving, merciless and unforgiving people I’ve known have been in church. We must remember, judgment is harshest for those who claim to have knowledge and understanding.
Last week, we watched as Jesus strode confidently into the Temple and cleared the Court of the Gentiles of its merchants, money changers and corruption. These conditions were not only approved by the Sanhedrin Council, but came at the insistence of the current High Priest. These are the very men who are charged with the care of the Temple and the spiritual health of the nation. There are very few things that can destroy personal righteousness like power, arrogance and pride. They claimed to only want what was best for the people, but in reality they were only interested in what benefited themselves and improved their social status and personal wealth. Sounds like some modern day preachers I know.
Some scholars believe this lesson that follows the withered fig tree is simply out of place. Why would Jesus launch into a lesson on faith and forgiveness with the disciples following the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree? They feel it is completely out of place. I think they just aren’t paying close enough attention to Jesus’ teaching and character. If you know His heart then you know that His desire in judgment is not destruction but restoration.
As I mentioned last week, the cursing of the fig tree is not really about figs but about the Temple and the condition of man’s heart. The High Priest and the Sanhedrin are accountable for the spiritual lives of the nation and they have “sold their souls” for a few gold coins and popularity. Instead of seeking to lead the people into true acts of worship and the pursuit of righteousness, they are using the Temple as a means to oppress the people and set themselves up for a life of power, position, wealth and ease. Is God going to judge them? Absolutely! But God’s work of judgment always has, at its core, the desire for their restoration and not their destruction.
As they head out towards Jerusalem the next morning (Tuesday), Peter notices that the fig tree Jesus had cursed was fully withered, from the roots up. Details – they’re there for a purpose. Not only do they lend credence to Mark’s source of these stories as being an eyewitness, most likely Simon Peter, but they also give us insight into the story’s purpose and focus. You may have thought I was making assumptions about the focus of the Temple purging and the story of the fig tree, but the fact that Mark tells us the withering occurred from the roots up is crucial to our understanding. The fig tree is withered from the roots up and that’s exactly how the Temple will wither, from the “roots” up. Peter is astonished by it and Jesus takes this opportunity to teach them. It is important for us to remember, this isn’t about a fig tree.
Jesus begins by telling them, “Have faith in God.” Faith in God isn’t just about what God can do (His power and ability) but also about what He desires to do (His will and purpose). So, have faith not only in what God CAN do but also in what God will do or WILLS to do. The Jews may have forgotten about the global purpose of His kingdom but God had not. His will and His purpose would not be thwarted and the disciples needed to learn to trust God’s will and His way.
We also need to learn to “have faith” and trust God’s will and purpose, in our lives and in our world. We often look around and think that things are lost and out of control. Listen to me, faith means that we realize that things are NEVER out of God’s control. When it feels like things are out of control, your feelings are wrong because God is still on the throne and under His control. But we must also remember that God is at work in the midst of this mess. Having faith in God means that we also are willing to trust Him in the midst of our pain. Just because the Jews didn’t recognize it and couldn’t see it doesn’t mean that God wasn’t at work in their world. In fact, He was walking among them and they were oblivious. He’s at work among us, too.
Then He tells them, “I assure you: If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.” It is important to understand that these words are being spoken as the group leaves Bethany and makes their way across the Kidron valley and into Jerusalem. While scholars disagree as to which mountain Jesus references, I think it is quite clear that He is referencing the Temple Mount. He had just pronounced judgment upon the Temple, demonstrated it with the cursing of the fig tree and Peter expresses astonishment regarding the tree’s withered condition. As they continue to walk, Jesus gestures towards the Temple, which is clearly in view as they make their way to the city, and makes this statement.
Have faith, recognize God’s will, God’s purpose and God’s plan and then act in faith-filled obedience in response to it. Do it even when it includes things that are hard and seem counterintuitive.
Then Jesus links our faith to our praying, “all the things you pray and ask for – believe that you have received them, and you will have them.” So, our prayers are subject to God’s will and purpose and then we can pray with confident assurance in God’s answer. If you are unsure of God’s will and purpose, James tells us to ask for wisdom (James 1:5-6). You’ll notice, I said our prayers must be subject to God’s will and purpose. That ties back to faith, which is complete trust in God and His will. If you trust God then you will seek His desires, not yours. Remember, the kingdom of God is all about seeking the rule and reign of God in the hearts and lives of men. His will being done in our lives here on earth just as His will is being done in heaven.
“Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, Your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:9-13 HCSB)
So, while faith and prayer obviously go together, Jesus pulls forgiveness into the mix. But why forgiveness? Isn’t forgiveness foreign to judgment? Judgment and justice merge with mercy and forgiveness at the cross of Christ. Jesus’ act of judgment and cursing of the fig tree/Temple are not acts of destruction but acts of reconciliation. God is seeking to reconcile His people with His will while opening the gates of salvation to the people of ALL nations.
Faith, in this instance, is trusting that God will judge the hearts and actions of rebellious leaders and destroy the Temple. But Godly faith never calls for retribution but always seeks judgment, justice, reconciliation and forgiveness. God’s desire is not to judge man as an act of destruction, but as an act of reconciliation (see 2 Peter 3:8-9). The Judgment of God is always intended to lead us towards reconciliation with God and His will. He doesn’t seek to destroy us, but to restore us. To restore us to Himself and to His will.
Finally, Jesus leaves them with an understanding of forgiveness that is often overlooked. Forgiveness should be offered to wrongdoers because it is just as needed by those who have been wronged. In other words, we are all sinners in need of forgiveness. None of us are innocent bystanders in this world of sin. You give mercy because you’ve received mercy. You offer grace because you need grace. You forgive others because you yourself need forgiving.
Above, I cited Jesus’ model prayer from Matthew 6. In it, Jesus tells us that we should pray that God would forgive our debts (sin or failures) in the same way we forgive our debtors (those who’ve wronged us). In other words, “God treat me the same way I treat others.” We need to hear those words and heed them. Why? Because we tend to desire retribution not reconciliation. We want judgment and destruction, not restoration. Jesus knows our tendencies and He calls us to be people of forgiveness, to seek restoration not retribution.
I want to end by calling us to be a people of faith, a people of prayer and a people of forgiveness. Faith that believes God but also trusts God. To be people who trust His heart, His will and His ways. Not only must we be people who believe God can, but we must also be people who know and believe in what God desires and pursues. Then we must commit ourselves to seeking His will through prayer. Prayer is not just telling God what we want or need but also acknowledging what He wants and desires in us. Our prayers must voice our willingness to yield ourselves to God’s will and God’s ways. And finally, we must be willing to forgive the shortcomings of others even as we seek forgiveness for our own.
We can and should seek God’s judgment on sin, but we must never forget that God’s judgment on sin, the cross of Jesus Christ, is also the source of God’s mercy, forgiveness and our restoration. Judgment and justice merge with mercy and forgiveness at the cross of Christ. Father, forgive us in the same way we forgive others.
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