Sunday, September 25, 2022

Fruit or Fire? You Decide: The Unproductive Fig Tree

Here we go!

A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ (Luke 13:6-9)

It's always noteworthy to see what preceded Jesus' teaching. You can imagine the people listening to Jesus and someone eagerly brings up this horrible event for Jesus' interpretation:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:1-5)

The Book of Job was as familiar to this crowd as it is to us. The righteous man visited with sufferings unimaginable, draws us immediately in with the question: Why do we suffer? All of Job's friends have explanations and Job is constantly bombarded with the idea that he must have done something to warrant his current situation. So, tucked into telling of the Galileans' tragedy to Jesus is, what sin did these people commit to warrant such treatment?

Stop for a moment. Think about what is really being asked. What did those Galileans do so we can avoid doing the same things and avoid having that kind of judgment rained down on us? In other words, like Job's friends, who kept hunting for something that he must have done, these listeners of Jesus are on the same hunt. Going even deeper still, at the core of the question, is pride. We won't have that kind of judgment on us because we are good! We haven't done anything so obviously wrong that we'll get into trouble.

Like Job's friends, who were terrified that they would be the next Job, these people are distancing themselves from suffering with their prideful assertion that things like that don't happen to people like us--that is, good people--only to bad people.

Jesus had no tolerance for separating ourselves from those who suffer. Satan was involved in Job's suffering. We live in a fallen world, and we live under the rule of the Prince of this World, who loves to torment and cause pain and suffering among the just and the unjust.  Why, then?  Because the just grow afraid that they are not good enough and have committed some unpardonable sin, and the unjust sink deeper into despair, thinking they are beyond the reach of God. Ultimately, both the unjust and the just move further away from each other, not willing to share the burden of walking on a planet defiled by sin's consequence.

We want to be considered just, because our sins are not as bad as that other guy's. We compare ourselves to each other, and we walk out on the good side of things. Or, we are so steeped in sin and shame that we walk out hanging our heads.

But here's the key: the standard of goodness is not each is God Himself. Paul speaks of all of us when he says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans. 3:23).

Whoa. So, those of you standing on the "We Are the Just--We Won't Suffer 'Cause We're Good" side of the field need to come on down.

Those of you who are standing on the "We Are the Unjust--We Deserve Everything We Get" side of the field need to come on down.

Let's meet in the middle. And what is the middle part of the Humanity Field called? "We All Have Eternity Staring at Us and We All Stand Condemned." Coach Jesus is calling us and warning us that the world is filled with evil--there are towers and Pilates everywhere and they can strike us at any time.

How do we play this field, then, Coach? With humility. Those who sin and those who suffer are on the same field. We are a team. We are all in this together. We all have in common our sin, our failings and our need for a Savior. Don't stand on the sidelines when a team member gets decked and say, "Well, that was their fault. I wouldn't have made that play that way." NO!!! Rush into the field and help out! Why? At the end of the game, all of us will face the Eternity Playoff.

The "good" and "bad" players will stand on the same yard line, and face the Big Judgment.  We will all stand before the most fair Coach in the Universe.  He will judge fairly, but He will judge:  "But unless you repent, you too will all perish."  

OK, let's cut to the parable.  See Jesus' point?  We all are given adequate time to repent.  Even an unfruitful fig tree is given time to produce.  But why has it not been productive?  Look at the man's solution: It needs fertilizing.  Obviously the soil it is in is not providing enough nourishment, even though it is old enough to have produced fruit.  The man is the fig tree's advocate, but the owner of the vineyard wants it gone.

The owner wants "justice"--it doesn't produce, so it deserves to be cut down! 

The worker in the vineyard wants "mercy":  give the tree another chance, and with the right application of nutrients and enough time, it will produce!

Contrast that with the earlier question about the death of the Galileans.  Was their calamity actually a punishment for their sins?   A divine act of justice? 

But the fear woven into this discussion was one of wanting mercy.  If God allows such justice to fall, isn't there any mercy available?  Don't we really, if we are honest enough, all deserve God's justice?  But we want mercy!  We want a second chance!  We want another year to be tended and fertilize and then we will produce!

Jesus stood before the crowd with a reminder that God is patient, forgiving and willing to grant us mercy.  But...He is not endlessly patient, forgiving and willing to grant us mercy.  We are not to take advantage of Him.  Now is the time to seek His forgiveness and mercy.  Allow His word to fertilize you and His Son to forgive you.

Fruit or fire:  The choice is yours and today is a good day to make that decision.

If you have already chosen, stay in community with others, and don't shrink back when calamity hits.  Don't obsess over the why's and the wherefores--weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  In other words, life in the Body isn't easy, but it's all we've got.









Saturday, September 10, 2022

Fig Newtons, Anyone? The Parable of Fig Tree

"Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Luke 21:29-33)

The parable of the fig tree shows up in an immense teaching on the end of the age.  In chapter 21 of Luke, the disciples comment how beautiful the temple in Jerusalem is: "Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 'As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.'" (Luke 21:5-6)

Stop for a moment.  Can you imagine the disciples' reaction?  Here they are gazing on a monumental structure--the Second Temple, built by Herod, in all of its beauty.  Gazing up in awe at the mighty Temple of God, the disciples, like all of the Jews, believe in the centrality of His House to their lives.  The Jews believed that although He was not limited to any earthly structure, His House on Earth was this temple.  Jesus' comments must have stopped the disciples dead in their tracks.

How could something so permanent and indwelt by the very Creator Himself someday come a-tumblin' down? Did the disciples do a quick mental run-down of all the Hebrew Scriptures where a mighty structure came down? 

Jericho's walls--yes.  That was a pagan city.  Check. 

Sodom and Gomorrah--yes.  That was a place of sin. Check. 

But Jerusalem?  The City of David?  What?

What's interesting is that before Jesus launches into His discussion, the disciples and Him witnessed a widow putting her offering into the Temple box: "As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 'Truly I tell you,' he said, 'this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'" (Luke 21:1-4)

Jesus is setting up a contrast here. A widow, with so very little, gives a fortune in Heaven's eyes. She puts her all into that box.  She serves a mighty God, Who provides for her day by day, and loves her so deeply, that she cannot help but to give Him all she has.  She puts in all of her faith: She knows that whatever she has, is ultimately God's, and she gives it back to Him, knowing that God's "manna" and "quail" will never cease. She puts in all of herself: She herself is an offering, and knows that God loves someone who holds nothing back for Him. She has no fear, just gratitude and love for her God.

In the larger scheme of things, her coins will not even fund a minute of Temple activities. In Heaven's scheme, however, her gift will move the Kingdom of God one step further because it shows real faith in action. Her faith is a pleasing sacrifice to God.

So, Jesus, with the widow wandering away, and the disciples being wowed by the Temple, (probably forgetting this little moment of what true worship is) Jesus makes His profoundly disturbing statement about the Temple's future.

He lists in Luke 21 all of the signs that will herald this astonishing event of the Temple's destruction. Jesus tells in no uncertain terms about what will happen in 70 AD. He is alluding to that future date of when the Romans will put down a rebellion of the Jews in the harshest terms possible: mass murder of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple, stone by stone.

He then warns them, that like the fig tree and other trees, whose leaves herald the arrival of summer, they must read the signs to be prepared for what is to come. Jesus doesn't leave His disciples ignorant of the future.

God promised after the fall of man that He would never stop the seasons--that the earth would continue: "As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." (Gen. 8:22) He promises this through His covenant with Noah and with all of us. The signs of the seasons will allow mankind to plant, water and harvest all in the right sequence, insuring survival. If we are diligent and watch, we will act accordingly.

The same holds for the signs as to this coming catastrophe. The disciples are being told what "leaves" to look for, and how each successive "sprouting" draws the day of destruction even closer. How should the disciples respond? After using the parable of the fig tree, He says that "this generation" will not pass away until all has come about.

He then focuses on what is truly permanent: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Luke 21:33)

The Temple...Roman rule...The Jewish homeland...The sacrificial system...The dispersion of the Jews to faraway lands...The near future will rain down like a deluge, like a second Flood, to sweep away the world of the disciples and their generation. Wow.

Jesus sees the fear and utter consternation in their faces. He goes on to say: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

"Be always on the watch." 

Look for the little buds on the branches under gray winter skies. 

Look for the little buds slowly starting to unfurl as the days grow warmer. 

Look for the tender green leaves. 

Look. Watch. Pray. Don't run from the signs, but embrace them, knowing that God will stand by you. Even if you have very little in this world--don't forget the widow--you have God and His provision. Live by putting her kind of faith into action.

The parable also addresses where we put our faith. Do we put our faith in our grand monuments, churches and cathedrals? Beautiful, yes, but what was more beautiful to Jesus? The Temple in all its glory, or the widow giving everything she had? What furthered the Kingdom of God? The Temple or the widow?

We love our man-made structures, for they testify to man's greatness. But the Kingdom of God is based on His love for us. We are in covenant with Him: He is our Shepherd and we are the sheep of His hand. Everything around us may fall, but His love and His word stands forever.

Today, all that remains of that magnificent Temple is The Wailing Wall.  People gather there to pray, to stand in His Presence, for a deep loss brings out a deep need for connection. 

We are now the temple of God. The veil tore on Good Friday. We can now enter in to God's Holiest of Holies by the blood of Christ. But, God also left the Temple to enter into us: "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?" (1 Cor. 3:16). So, what is permanent in man's eyes is fleeting in the larger picture of the Kingdom. We are His temple, His dwelling place.

We look to the signs of the times and understand the direction things are going, but we stand on His promise that He will never leave nor forsake us. 

This temple, this dwelling place of God, is you and all who stand forgiven in the Kingdom of God. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

No Thrift Stores in God’s Kingdom: Old Coats and Old Wineskins

Let's begin!

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matt. 9:16-17)

I love reading about the circumstances that went before Jesus teaches His parables. The context in which He teaches is illuminating to the parables themselves.

How often do we tell someone a story after they've shared some information with us, or recently experienced something dramatic or amazing? Stories tie us together. If I tell you that I received a speeding ticket on the way home from church (!), you might tell me that you let fly a swear word right when a fellow church member rounded the corner at the supermarket. It connects our humanity and makes us realize that we all have things we go through--for better or for worse.

So, let's look at what preceded Jesus' teaching on old coats and on old wineskins in Matthew 9:16-17.

Starting in Chapter 9, we see Jesus returning by boat "to his own town." The friends of a paralytic man bring him to Jesus. Jesus forgives the man's sins, when He sees such faith in action.  It' snot just his physical condition that needs Jesus' touch--it is the man's soul  Why?  How many times was he angry at God for his condition? How many times did he envy people who passed by him? How many nights did he cry alone, just wanting for one moment to leap up and run outside? Sin and sadness, anger and regret, swirl in this man's soul like a tornado, and Jesus sees the many layers of dust in the man's spirit.

Of course, the religious leaders are outraged that a mere man would take God's office and forgive the man's sins. Jesus rebukes them, and stands on His authority "to forgive sins." He isn't blaspheming, as they think in their dark envy of Jesus.  Why? Because He is the One of whom the ancients foretold.

The man arises, healed in body and soul, and goes home, much to the amazement of the crowds.

Jesus goes on and sees a tax collector. He calls him to follow Him, and Matthew leaves his post and follows Jesus. Jesus comes to dinner at Matthew's house and of course, Matt's choice of guests are the very ones that the Pharisees despise.

They question Jesus' disciples about the wisdom of their rabbi eating with such folks. Jesus then pointedly comments that the sick need a doctor. He quotes a verse from Hosea about how God "'desires mercy, not sacrifice,"" and tells the leaders that they need to learn what that means.

On the tail end of this, here comes John's disciples, observing with some consternation that they and the Pharisees fast, but Jesus' disciples do not. Interesting to see John's disciples making common cause with the Pharisees, who despised John. These men were probably hovering about in the crowd, listening to the Pharisees excoriate Jesus and didn't want to tick them or Jesus off. So, they ask a question as if they and the Pharisees are on the right path with their fasting, and that Jesus is either misleading or undermining the law with his practices, or lack thereof.

He sets the tone by equating himself to a bridegroom, and how in this celebratory atmosphere, fasting would be inappropriate. The time will come, he tells them, when his departure will cause fasting. But not now.

So, given what Jesus has just done: Forgiven sins and healed a broken body; called a scorned member of society to be his disciple; dined with more scorned members, and allowed for joy in his disciples and not ritual, he now starts to teach in parables: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Hmmm...interesting. Jesus is exploring trying to use both old and new, and what will happen to each.

"Unshrunk cloth" is an interesting one--it hasn't been washed, beaten on a rock and left in the sun to dry. There's nothing wrong with such cloth, as long as the surrounding fibers are the same. If the whole cloth is "unshrunk," then it will go through the wash in a unified way, each fiber stretching together to face the wear and tear.

Now you have a garment that has hole in it--this implies it has been worn a lot, faced many washing days and needs to be repaired in order to be worn again. Fair enough! But, unshrunk cloth is not the solution, not because it is not good cloth, but because of its incompatibility with the fabric to which it's going to be attached.

So, we have a problem: a worn-out garment in need of repair and a patch of fabric that once sewn on, will make the hole even bigger as it shrinks. The new will "tear away" from the old. Maybe, at first, there seems to be a compatibility between the two: the new patch hides the hole nicely. But on wash day--that day when fibers are stretched and pounded in order to be cleaned--then the incompatibility will become painfully obvious and damaging to both the old and the new. The garment now has a bigger hole.  The new cloth cannot cover it.  It is ruined by the stretching of its fibers.

Now Jesus could have stopped there. But let us stop for a moment. The fabric for the Tabernacle in the Old Testament was woven to very specific instructions, as to color and what materials are to be used. The priests' garments were woven very specifically as well. God gave His law in an orderly way, by using Moses as His intermediary, and the Tabernacle was a place where Moses met God and received instructions. The Old Testament is the Old Covenant and Jesus is inaugurating the New Covenant. But that's our view, looking back.

All his listeners had was The Covenant--the Law and the Prophets. Every day of his ministry, Jesus is enacting a new way of thinking and acting before God. The Pharisees with their not-so-gentle reminders of the Law and the Prophets, represent what will later been seen as the Old Covenant, but only in the light of what Jesus does on the cross. That's in the future, however.

A new fabric is being woven in the work of this man from Nazareth. The "unshrunk cloth" is Jesus dealing with sinners, forgiving and healing them, and calling the lowly into the Kingdom of his Father. This is a Kingdom of the Law written on the hearts of those who love God and will act righteously out of love, not out of obligation or ritual.

The old garment is in need of repair--the following of rules and regulations, and hearts acting out of obligation has led to the coldness and snobbery of the Pharisees. They have a hole in their hearts, exemplified by their contempt of the masses, and their arrogance in thinking they alone know God.

The two are incompatible. The day is coming when the old garment will be cast aside for a new raiment, washed in the blood of the Lamb and shining white. It will endure the rough treatment of the world, and all its threads will face trial, united and strong.

Now, Jesus talks of wine and wineskins. New wine is valuable. The old wineskins are just that--they have served well. The vigorous pouring of new wine into such skins will be a loss for both: the new wine will spill on the ground and the old skins will be torn. Both are ruined.

The old garment had its place in covering the sin of the people. The old wineskins had their place in holding the truth about God. However, a new wine is coming.

The new wine is the New Covenant. Someday soon, Jesus will take the cup at Passover and tell His disciples that this wine represents His blood that will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. He will be THE Passover lamb, whose blood will take away the sins of the world.

So, this new wine will be poured into new wineskins: Jesus' New Covenant will produce a new kind of follower of God, one who is committed and driven by love for those around him and for God. A person whose heart will be filled with the Holy Spirit and who will serve God well because the old nature "has been crucified with Christ" and we walk as new creations, where the old is passed away and we are empowered from within to live the life He requires. 

The Old Covenant is being filled/fulfilled with the wine of the New Covenant.

The "new wineskins" and the "new wine" are both "preserved"--they can be used again and again to serve at the table. With Jesus' blood, we stand in a new relationship to God: fully forgiven and free to serve Him. No religiosity, no ritual, no righteousness by works: He pours His newness into us, and we are free to serve Him and our fellow man.

The words of Isaiah ring out here: 
    See, I am doing a new thing!
        Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
    I am making a way in the wilderness
       and streams in the wasteland. (Is. 43:19)

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