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Music used for this service:
More Voices 18 “Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary”
Words and music: John W. Thompson and Randy Scruggs.
Voices United 256 “O God beyond All Praising”
Words: Michael Perry © 1982 Hope Publishing Company.
Music: Gustav Theodor Holst.
Voices United 660 “How Firm a Foundation”
Words:”K” in John Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns. Public domain.
Music: Welsh folk melody, arranged by John Roberts (Henllan) in Caniadau y Cyssegr 1839. Public domain.
Voices United 960 “The Lord’s Prayer”
Adapted from a chant by R. Langdon. Public domain.
Voices United 625 “I Feel the Winds of God”
Words:Jessie Adams 1907 © 1933 National Adult School Organisation, MASU Centre, Gaywood Croft, Cregoe St., Birmingham B15 2ED, England.
Music: English and Irish traditional melody. Arrangement: Ralph Vaughan Williams 1906. Used by permission of Oxford University Press.
“Go Now in Peace, Never Be Afraid”
Words: Don Besig and Nancy Price, 1988. Music: Don Besig 1988. Words and Music – ©1988 Shawnee Press.
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, License # A-734863. All rights reserved.
God of love, God of challenge,
we find comfort in your presence,
in singing your songs no matter how strange our world feels,
in reciting words of hope and mercy.
Breathe on us this Spirit of Peace,
but also give us a Spirit of restlessness,
yearning for change in our lives and our surroundings,
until justice rolls down like a river,
and all are one in your kingdom.
We pray in the name of Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and forever. Amen.
There are more stories about Jesus than the ones that we have in the Bible. Early on, the first theologians of the church debated about what stories should be included and what shouldn’t be, based on whether they were authentic or not. So we arrived at the four gospels we have, because the earliest Christians thought that they were the only ones that told the true story of Jesus.
But there’s some interesting stuff in the others. Namely, there’s something called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of stories about Jesus as a young child. It has some healing miracles, including raising a friend who fell of a roof from the dead and curing his brother James of a deadly snake bite, and some weirder stuff, like the time he made clay pigeons and then brought them to life and they flew away. It also shows him being an unruly child, lashing out at his teachers, and at one point straight up killing another child who was bullying him:
“The son of Annas the scholar, standing there with Jesus, took a willow branch and drained the water Jesus had collected. Jesus, however, saw what had happened and became angry, saying to him, ‘Damn you, you irreverent fool! What harm did the ponds of water do to you? From this moment you, too, will dry up like a tree, and you’ll never produce leaves or root or bear fruit.’ In an instant the boy had completely withered away.”
For obvious reasons, this did not make it into the New Testament. The church fathers did not feel that it was “authentic.” My personal theory is that, because pagans had stories about “sons of God” as well, but the stories of this Jesus person was nothing like the stories of Heracles, someone decided to write some myths that were more palatable to Greek ideas about “the son of God.”
But we do have this story of Jesus and the fig tree, and it, to me, shows Jesus in the same light. Petty and vindictive, only this time he’s a grown adult and, while it thankfully involves no dead children, somehow makes it worse. Apparently, the church fathers thought that this story was authentic and actually happened. That’s why this is to me the most challenging story of Jesus: not because it is morally upsetting or says something I don’t like, but because it’s just weird. I understand why Jesus is frustrated, as can any of us who have shouted and ranted at inanimate objects like computers or cars.
Remember that Jesus was poor. At times, he was showered with food, invited to fancy dinners, but at other times he and his disciples would be so hungry they would resort to eating raw wheat they picked from the edges of the fields, and would only have a couple of loaves of bread to feed thousands. So imagine Jesus, very hungry, maybe having gone all day without food, and he sees a fig tree. And maybe he knows it’s not the season for figs, or maybe he forgets, he just hopes that maybe there’s something to eat, and there’s nothing. So, frustration.
Okay, so maybe Jesus isn’t as petty as the story first appears to show. Maybe with some empathy, we can understand Jesus’ anger at the tree. Still, that’s not why this story is challenging; it’s challenging to me because I could never understand why it was in here. What is it trying to teach me, even the gospel writer seems to be struggling with this by having Jesus say something about “with faith, you can do anything,” as an explanation. Okay, so why not just tell the fig tree to bloom and grow fruit, then? Where is God’s grace in this? Where is the good news?
I never understood this story, and it was never anything more to me than a punchline to be able to say, “No, actually, the Bible says that God hates figs,” until I decided to do this sermon series where we look at the challenging parts of the Gospels, and realized it’s place in the story.
Mark, which we read, has the two parts of the story surrounding the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. Matthew has it occurring right after. They are the same story, they show the same thing, one in a symbolic way and one in a literal way, in a way very typical of Jewish storytelling.
Jesus’ anger at the fig tree is not because God hates fig trees that don’t fruit out of season; it’s because, symbolically mind you, the fig tree isn’t being what it is supposed to be. It isn’t bearing fruit, a metaphor the Bible uses again and again for faithfulness to God’s commandments. The temple isn’t being what it is supposed to be, either: “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” The anger of Jesus is not anger at an unthinking plant, but at the people for permitting economic exploitation, even in the very heart of their religion.
The fig tree had good reason for not bearing fruit. The temple had good reason for having moneychangers, because you couldn’t use the Roman money which called the emperor the Son of God when you made an offering at the temple, not by the law of the Torah. Still, the result was that those who had little to give had even less when they paid the moneychanger’s fee. The result was that those who needed to eat had nothing.
We are not being what we are supposed to be. We were made to love one another, to bear the image of God, to bear the fruits of love. Instead, we find ourselves in a world where we hoard what we have and do not share, hate one another based on skin colour and culture, and even churches, houses of prayer dedicated to the unconditional love of God, seem to be more about bigotry and exclusion than they are about grace and mercy.
This is a passage of judgement, judgement upon humanity for our faithlessness, and thus it is challenging, but it is God calling us to be who She created us to be. With faith, we can do anything, we can love in a loveless world, we can share with those in need even when it seems like we have nothing, we can be fig trees that bear fruit even if it isn’t the season. That is the message Jesus gives us through this strange, wonderful story. Amen.