Last Sunday, I preached on the first part of this passage from the book of Mark, and I emphasized how Jesus looked deep into the core of the fig tree and deep into the heart of the Temple system and found them to be rotten. The fig tree should have been producing paggim, the Hebrew term for small figs that sprout even before the leaves. It wasn’t. Therefore, it was a bad tree. Jesus cursed it because it was taking up valuable soil in the arid Middle-East.
Likewise, when Jesus entered into the Temple, He overturned tables and prevented the buying and selling because the chief priests and the scribes had allowed their greed and desire for the safety, security, and freedom that money could by override the purpose of the temple. The chief priests and the scribes had turned the Courtyard of the Gentiles into a marketplace preventing the vast majority of the world’s people from being able to worship and pay their respects to the God of Israel. As I quoted N.T. Wright last week, so I do again, “The Temple had been intended to symbolize God’s dwelling with Israel for the sake of the world; the way Jesus’ contemporaries had organized things, it had come to symbolize not God’s welcome to the nations but God’s exclusion of them.”
The next day, Jesus and His disciples pass by the fig tree that Jesus cursed the day before. Peter takes note because the fig tree is withered from the root up. Peter points this out to Jesus, and the symbolism is clear: when you are rotten at the core, you will wither and die.
And, of course, no one really likes to think that they are rotten at the core. We’d all like to believe we are good and gracious in our hearts. But that is generally not the case. Sure, we may be kind to others. We may do a lot of good. We may try to be moral and upright and worship regularly and give to charity, and the like. We may look very good on the outside, but what really counts is our heart’s motivation for doing the things we are doing. It is our hearts that God is really interested. It is our hearts that Jesus wishes to turn into temples of the Living God. The fig tree looked good on the outside, but it wasn’t good after all. The temple looked good on the outside, but it wasn’t good at all. For the most part, we could say the same thing about our hearts.
Last week, I talked about the Powerball and how millions of people spent billions of dollars in search of the safety and security and freedom that money supposedly would buy, but money is just one of the things that we believe will give us such things. In the exact same vein, I would like to now turn to politics. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be pushing any candidate or ideology, but I want to show how politics and Powerball are related. If you listen to the debates and the candidates’ speeches, there is a common thread that runs through them all: this is how I promise to keep you safe; this is how I promise to keep money in your pocket and get you jobs; this is how I promise to make this country a better place for you to live so that you don’t have to worry about the future. Each candidate has a plan which basically seeks to secure these things in exchange for your vote, and while trying to appeal to your self-interest in this manner, each candidate also appeals to fear in trying to show how the other candidate will not keep you as safe, as secure, as wealthy, etc., etc. Politicians appeal to the exact same things the Powerball appeals to.
And there are other things. Whether it is the appeal of sexuality, the empowerment of possessions, the acquisition of knowledge, or what have you, the objects of desire are safety, security, and freedom. We all crave these things at a very deep level. And we put our trust in myriads of things thinking they will give us all these things. Money demands our trust. Politicians demand our trust. Education demands our trust. Science demands our trust. The economy demands our trust. Sex demands our trust. Each promises fulfillment. Each woos us continuously. And if we pursue them as our deepest heart’s desire, we will end up dead.
Let’s turn to these final verses to see how this works. For after Peter points out the withered fig tree to Jesus, a very interesting set of teachings come forth from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus doesn’t make any straightforward appeal to the disciples to change their ways. He doesn’t tell them, “You’d better not be like the fig tree or the people in the temple.” Such commentary would make the disciples tremble in fear. Instead, Jesus begins talking about prayer. It seems out of place, but it is not. Here’s why:
Jesus first says, “‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”
Now, let me first be clear about what it means when Jesus says, “Have faith in God.” Jesus is not saying simply, “Believe in God.” Faith indeed has a component of belief–thinking with your head that God exists, but faith is much, much deeper than that. Faith is trusting in God with your entire being. Here’s the difference I am trying to illustrate. Let’s go back to politics for just a moment. Think about the candidate you are NOT voting for. Got that candidate in your head? First question: do you believe that candidate exists? Second question: do you trust him or her? Do you see the difference? Faith in God is not simply assenting that God exists. Faith in God means you cast your vote in with God. You trust that He will provide exactly as He says He will provide and do as He says He will do. It has a tremendous impact on your entire life.
This is why Jesus follows up with the statement, “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” Think about this for just a moment. If you trust in yourself to cast a mountain into the sea, what will happen? First, off that mountain isn’t going very far, is it? But, let’s get even more technical, because is it possible for you to begin shoveling one pile of dirt at a time and taking it to the sea? Is it possible for you to remove one rock at a time and put it into the sea? Of course it is. How long would it take you? Of course, it would depend upon the size of the mountain, but in all reality, you would probably die before you finished. So, why not pay someone to move the mountain? Imagine doing that. Again, how much would it cost you? How many years would you have to be enslaved to the dollar to have that mountain moved for you? You would probably die before you could save or earn enough. If you are trusting in yourself to have that mountain moved, you will not get it very far. But if you trust in God, things are different.
But there is a catch here. Jesus is very clear: if you do not doubt in your heart. In other words, if you trust God with your entire heart, this can and will be done for you. Let me ask you this question, do you trust God with your whole heart? Be honest and truthful. You know, I had several college professors and seminary professors who railed against pastors who told people that they needed to trust God and have total belief in God and they would be healed. They said that when people were not healed, their trust in God would be damaged; therefore, we should never preach and tell people they needed to believe without doubt. Well, I’m going to disagree with my professors. I’m going to tell you that if you truly believed–again, in the sense of trusting–in God with your whole heart, whatever you asked would be given to you. But before you go out and ask God to move a mountain or let you win the next Powerball, I’m going to confront you and ask you this–what reasons do you have for wanting to move that mountain or win that Powerball? What are the motivations of your heart? Are those motivations in line with trusting God?
Let me push this a little deeper with Jesus’ next comment because it is intimately related. However, I’m going to offer up a little different translation that what you have from the New Revised Standard Version. The original Greek would probably be better translated this way, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Again, I want you to think about this from the aspect of trusting God rather than trusting in money or politicians or what have you. For instance, if you believed that you already won the Powerball, would you go out and buy a ticket? I’m waiting for the answer on that one. :-) If you believed that your political candidate already won, would you go around smearing the other one? Of course, both of those questions are a bit superficial, so let’s dig down to the root causes that I outlined earlier: if you already believed that you had obtained safety, security, and freedom, how would that change your prayer? How would that change your life? If the Jewish authorities were trusting in God for their safety, security, and freedom to worship, would they have ever opened a marketplace in the courtyard of the Gentiles? You know the answer. If you were trusting in God for your livelihood, would you need to tell a mountain to move? Would you need to buy a Powerball ticket? Would you worry about which politician won the election? Of course, you wouldn’t. You would trust fully and completely in God, and you would know that He provides you with safety. He provides you with security. He provides you with freedom. You have already received riches beyond your wildest dreams!
Ah, but you and I sure don’t act that way, do we? You and I sure don’t live that kind of life, do we? We still worry and fret. We still try to obtain money and worldly goods. We buy guns to ensure our safety. We get worked up about elections. We complain about who gets richer and who gets poorer. We are never satisfied.
Jesus concludes with a statement that seems even more unrelated than the previous two: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have something against someone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.” Why, all of a sudden, do we go from praying and believing we already have received to the thought of forgiveness? Why does Jesus even insert this here? What is this all about?
Now, we actually come to the crux of this teaching. We come to the crux of the lesson of the fig tree. We come to the crux of Jesus’ actions in the temple. Forgiveness is at the heart of why Jesus came to earth.
We are never satisfied because we do not trust God with our whole heart. We become greedy because we do not trust God with our whole heart. We become anxious about the future because we do not trust God with our whole heart. And nothing we do will make us trust God more. Let me say that again: nothing we do will make us trust God more.
Let me illustrate this with a story about my kids. For the longest time, my kid would not jump into a swimming pool on their own. They had to jump to me. Each kid was the same. They were afraid to go under the water. They were afraid they wouldn’t pop up. I would stand in the water and tell them, “Jump.” And they wouldn’t jump. They would look at the distance between the edge of the pool and me. They would calculate whether or not they thought it was safe. And if they figured it wasn’t, there was no amount of cajoling I could do. There was no amount of reassurance I could give. There was no amount of exhortation I could offer. The kids wouldn’t jump until I moved toward them. Until I broke down the distance between the two of us, the kid was going to stand at the edge of the pool wanting to come in, but too scared to actually commit. I had to close the gap. I had to show them I would catch them. I had to help them know I would not drop them and they were safe leaping into my arms. It actually cost me very little other than a bit of energy to do this, but imagine the gap between God and man. Imagine the distance between the creator of the universe and His creation. Imagine then that as we who are created look around the world and see the violence and hatred and animosity we have toward one another. Imagine how we see an uncertain future. Imagine how we see the fragility of life. Imagine we see how quickly what we have can be taken. And imagine God saying, “Just trust me.” Do you know how difficult that really and truly is? Do you know how it simply goes against nearly everything our hearts and minds actually tell us? We would rather buy Powerball tickets. We would rather put our trust in politicians. We would rather work to buy our happiness and joy. It seems less fearful. It’s easier to trust in ourselves and the things that we can see.
And so, our heavenly Father must look at us and say, “Why don’t they trust me? Why don’t they see what I have given them? Why do they not believe I will care for them? Why are their hearts so far away?” Our actions break our Father’s heart, so rather than compel us and punish us for not putting our trust in Him, He forgives us and then moves toward us. He bridges the gap to earn our trust, to capture our hearts, not with a crown but with a cross.
For it is on that cross that true forgiveness is given. It is on that cross where true trust is earned. For Jesus, the God made flesh, laid down His life for you and me when we did not trust Him. Jesus offered Himself as the true sacrificial lamb to take away our self-centeredness; our desire to trust in ourselves rather than in God. He stretched out His arms and said, “Look at the lengths I will go for you to love you, to catch you, to bring you unto myself. I will die for you, and those aren’t just words. I really am dying for you.”
If someone goes to those kinds of lengths for you, what does that do to your heart? If someone lays down His life for you with no questions asked, would you trust them? Would you believe they will offer what they say they will offer? Would your heart be captured by that kind of love?
When it is, your heart is indeed changed. You still know that you are in this world. You still know this world needs a lot of work. You still know that you need money to live; that you need safety and security; that you want freedom, but you know also where it is truly found. It’s found in Jesus. Amen.