Monday, April 6, 2009

Trees and Mountains

If you have faith and do no doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done.

                        Matthew 21.21

Back for More

Palm Sunday starts spectacularly but ends in the same-old, same-old. Jesus dismounts the donkey for the temple, where He immediately clears out the profiteers exploiting the faithful and heals the sick. The authorities don’t like it one bit, particularly since enthusiasm for Christ has taken Jerusalem by storm. When they hear children shout “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they’ve had enough. They confront Jesus, asking, “Do you hear what these kids are saying?” To their ears, it’s blasphemy, this proclaiming Jesus the Messiah, and they want it stopped. Jesus isn’t fazed by the unprecedented adulation. He answers by quoting Psalm 8.2: “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.” Still, it’s been a long day. Wherever He goes, the city buzzes with His praises and rumbles with disapproval. Weary in body and spirit, Jesus retreats to Bethany. After a restful night among friends, we might reconsider returning to a city where political opposition outweighs public favor and move on. Not Jesus. He goes back for more.

We can’t be intimidated into running or hiding from disapproval. Who God created and called us to be can’t be denied. While we never defend ourselves, like Jesus, we stand in obedience on God’s Word. Yet, like He, we’re judicious in how we engage those against us. We gain nothing from arguments. We win by repaying hatred with love. This demands presence of mind and energy. We follow Jesus’s example and temporarily disengage from hostile environments to find comfort with accepting, caring friends. What we never do is completely withdraw. Vanishing shirks our duty to achieve God’s purpose. We’re sent to our opponents as witnesses of His love. So, after we rest, we go back. We’ll likely find the same mindsets, fears, and prejudices waiting to greet us. That’s not our concern. Our job is being present to reflect God’s presence. We must go back.

Faith Exemplified

Jesus starts for Jerusalem before breakfast. He’s hungry and spots a fig tree. When He reaches it, it’s barren—no fruit, just leaves. His reaction is impeccably human, no different than us opening cupboards to find condiments and fixings, but no ready food to fill our hunger. (Maybe that doesn’t happen at your place; around here, it’s inexcusably common.) Jesus curses the tree: “May you never bear fruit again!” It shrivels up. “Wow!” the disciples exclaim. “How did that happen?” Perhaps a cannier framing of their response is, “Why’d you do that?” Killing the tree feels extreme and incongruous with Christ’s character. But He tells them if they have faith and resist doubt, they’ll not only destroy unfruitful aspects of their lives. They’ll also speak to insurmountable obstacles. “You can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.” What first looks like weakness personified is actually faith exemplified.

Nutrition and Progress

Walking with Christ depends on two factors: nutrition and progress. If we consistently turn to sources offering no nourishment for our spiritual hunger, we flag and lose all drive to follow to Him. Fig trees line the roadside, many that appear promising from a distance. On closer inspection, they’re lush with leaves and lacking fruit. It makes no sense to park in their shade, hoping they’ll blossom. The longer we wait, the less progress we make. By faith, we curse barren trees, removing them from our lives. This applies to people and situations. In Matthew 7.20, Jesus tells us to inspect the lives around us carefully: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” An individual who produces bad habits and attitudes—or nothing at all—provides us no sustenance. We look for healthier trees.

Nutrition keeps us going, but it doesn’t address steep mountains that thwart our progress. On our own, we’ve no choice but rely on natural logic and experience to climb these peaks. If we go this route, at best we slow ourselves down. At worst, the air thins out, the weather turns ugly, and we get stuck. Jesus says there’s a better way. Instead of gathering wits, we summon faith to speak mountains out of our way. They still exist, tall and intact as ever. But if we believe without doubt they can be moved, they’ll be buried at sea—not merely jogged aside for us to go forward smoothly and quickly, but totally erased from the landscape, out of sight and unable to overshadow our path.

How fascinating that trees and mountains are top of mind for Jesus as He returns to Jerusalem for more ridicule and abuse. Nutrition and progress assume great significance in days ahead. He recasts Passover’s memorial of deliverance from Egypt into a remembrance of His sacrificial death, feeding His disciples bread and wine to represent His flesh and blood. The meal also ends with a withering, as Jesus commands Judas to finish what he’s started—actions resulting in the traitor’s suicide. And mountains loom ahead, two of them: the Mount of Olives, where Jesus wrestles with God’s will and is taken captive, and Calvary, where He hangs in undeserved shame. Faith to conquer trees and mountains has never been so crucial for Christ. Yet conquer them He does. By faith, we can too.

Not every fig tree that looks healthy at a distance is fruitful, nor is any mountain that looks insurmountable ever unmovable.

(Tomorrow: Taking Care of Business)

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