Jesus was hungry. It’s Holy Week, Monday morning, the day after Palm Sunday – that glorious entry into Jerusalem – and Jesus as he is leaving Bethany is hungry; he could use some breakfast. It’s a minor a detail but think about what it tells us about our Savior: He really was just like us. He knew what it was like to suffer, even the everyday pains, like hunger. Which is why some of Jesus’ final steps brought him to a fig tree.
And there something interesting happens. Jesus, he was hoping that tree would have some fruit, but it didn’t; it was barren. Now, I don’t know what you personally know about fig trees, but fig trees can grow to be 10-15ft tall. They usually produced figs twice a year and, usually, the figs themselves were formed and edible, before the leaves of the tree were in full bloom. This explains why when Jesus saw this fig tree “in leaf,” he walked over to look for fruit buried under the leaves. That would be the norm. But there wasn’t any fruit.
Upon seeing this Jesus, the guy who fed thousand with just a few loaves and some fish, the guy who turned water into wine, didn’t do the same here. He didn’t miraculously cause figs to grow to stave off his hunger, no, instead he said this, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Those words surprise me…maybe they surprise you.
I mean, why didn’t Jesus use his 20/20 divine vision to know ahead of time that there weren’t any figs on that tree? And why, when Jesus found nothing but leaves, did he curse that tree. I mean this is what Jesus did. He cursed it! And notice what Mark says next, that Jesus’ disciples were listening, “his disciples heard him say this.”
Today, let’s join those disciples and let’s listen. And not just to me, because who am I? I mean, really…but are you listening to Jesus? Because what happened to the fig tree in and of itself wasn’t so important. Trees die all the time for a variety of reasons, but this tree simply had a sentence from Jesus spoken to it, and it withered. It died. With his curse, Jesus switched off the life in that tree! If this event teaches us nothing else, it proves the what the writer to the Hebrews wrote that “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
That is one of the reasons our Savior’s final steps led to a fig tree. You see, even though Mark clearly tells us that Jesus was “hungry” when he walked over to that tree, it wasn’t because of his growling stomach that the tree was cursed. Remember, this is the same Savior who fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Losing out on an early morning snack wasn’t exactly an existential crisis for Christ, nor was he prone to divine temper tantrums. No! Listen! That tree was cursed to smack us in the face with the reality of what happens when all the leaves are there – you look good, you play the part of God’s child, you say the right things – but push aside all that, push aside the leaves, and there really is no fruit, because ultimately there is no faith.
Ah, just jump ahead to the last six verses of our lesson. Here we see how Jesus brings his lesson to us into focus. It’s the next morning, Tuesday now of Holy Week, and we read, that “…as they went along – that’s Jesus and the disciples – they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” That fig tree was dead, root to stem to leaves. The disciples were shocked. And, Jesus, doesn’t waste the moment. He has their attention. Now, they’re not just listening, they’re also seeing, and so he says the one thing they need to hear: “Have faith in God,”
This is the point of this cursed fig tree. It’s a call to faith and really a call to repentance, and there is an urgency here. One is reminded of the preaching of John the Baptist when he said: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. This is the culmination of his ministry. His death is coming and if his disciples have their faith in anything or anyone else, their very souls, their eternity is at risk.
So, Jesus keeps it simple, “Have faith in God.” Look at this fig tree and what your God can do, does it shock you? Well, just listen to what you can and will do when you put your faith in me – it’s even more shocking! Verse 22(?) “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes (insert “has faith”) that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
This is what faith in God looks like, but let’s be honest, it sounds impossible. A faith that moves mountains, asks without doubt or hesitation? A faith that always believes and always receive? How is this possible? Ah, now we’re starting to understand faith. It’s not possible. “Have faith in God?” We can’t do that. “I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” So, what does God do? Like with the fig tree he does the seemingly impossible for you. He brings you to faith. And he does this through means that are often offensive to us, through the Word, and through water and with bread and wine.
It all seems so impossible, or at least highly unlikely, but nothing is impossible with God. And as we stand there with Jesus in the shadow of that cursed fig tree now withered and dead, we see it’s true. And as we linger there and hear him calling us from death to life – “Have faith in God!” – by the Spirit’s power, you know it’s true.
And so, you see, Jesus’ curse of that fig tree might shock and surprise us, but that’s the point. In that tree we see the power of God, and how with just a few words he can bring wrath and punishment and a curse. And as shocking as that is, I hope you see today how far more shocking it is that Jesus doesn’t speak those words of condemnation to you and to me; we’re not that tree, withering and dying.
No, we are standing there with the disciples, listening to our Savior, marveling as he does the impossible. With just a few words, he creates and grows and nurtures your faith. With just a few words, he calls you to himself., “Have faith in me…trust in me.” With just a few words, water becomes life saving and bread and wine turn to body and blood. With just a few words, we are saved. We believe, and we bear fruit. And that fruit of faith leads us to do the impossible all in accordance with God’s will – we could even move mountains if that was his will. But, it’s not. Instead, the faith he gives us allows us to do things far greater. We forgive. We speak with God. We strengthen and encourage one another on that path to heaven. These are the seemingly impossible things that faith in God now allows us to do. Don’t then ever let go of that faith. Use it. Pray. Forgive. Love. This is God’s desire and will for us all.
What a lesson from these final steps of Jesus that led him to a fruitless – now cursed and withered – tree. Yet, these weren’t Jesus’ last steps, no, his final steps would take him to yet one more tree. A tree that long ago stopped bearing fruit, only to bear bodies. As Jesus’ final steps stop at that tree, at the cross, make sure you’re still listening, because there Jesus won’t speak words of cursing, rather he himself will be cursed, so that it could be finished, so that you could be loved, and so that your final steps on this earth will become your first steps with Christ into eternity. This is the impossible that we briefly glimpse here in this moment as a fig tree lay withered. Don’t miss it. Take it in. “Have faith in God.” Amen.