Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not 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. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (NIV)
God wants us to pray! Prayer happens from a place of faith because to pray, one must believe that God is good and answers prayer. Conversely, prayerlessness is faithlessness. A person of little faith prays only a little. A person full of faith cannot stop praying.
God’s world revolves more around promise than command – which means that Jesus merely exhorting the disciples to pray would fall flat; they needed a deep change of heart. God calls us all to transformation. Lasting change takes place at the roots of our lives. When there is a drought, pouring lots of water on our backyard trees at the first sign of withering leaves is too late. The tree may look fine on the outside, but on the inside, it is dying from lack of water. Real change comes from the inside-out. It is the root of a person’s life, below the surface where others do not see, that needs change, and not merely the outward behavior. Prayer must be directed to the root, to the heart of the issue.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus was up early and going to Jerusalem. He was hungry and wanted some breakfast, so he approached a fig tree. Figs were known back in Christ’s day as the poor man’s food. Fig trees were everywhere. Approaching a certain fig tree, Jesus found one that looked fine, but no figs. He chose to use the tree as a teachable moment for his disciples. Christ cursed the tree and immediately the entire tree withered. So, why did Jesus curse the tree?
Jesus cursed the fig tree because it looked good on the outside, but it was already dead on the inside. The tree had everything a tree needed: branches, leaves, and a trunk – except fruit. The tree served as an illustration for the disciples of believing prayer. The tree looked fine, and had the promise of fruit, yet, none was found. The point of the tree illustration is this: Jesus is looking for faith in his followers.
In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, the nation of Judah had enjoyed a long stretch of prosperity and good circumstances. By all outward appearances they were doing fine. Temple attendance was at its peak and everyone was offering their sacrifices. But something was wrong….
I will put an end to them,
declares the Lord;
there are no grapes on the vine,
no figs on the tree,
only withered leaves.
They have squandered what I have given them! (Jeremiah 8:13, CEB)
Although fine on the outside, the people of Judah trusted in themselves, their ability to produce a harvest, and their outward show of how many cattle and sheep they brought to the temple. But what God was looking for was fruit, not nice leaves. He was watching for offerings of believing prayer, born of a faith that is confident in the goodness of God. And the Lord is still looking for people’s faith in God alone – rather than in religiously outward forms of success.
Jesus wants his followers to understand and believe that our words and prayers can have the immediate effect of changing the world. We can even speak to a mountain and it will have to move if we tell it to. We probably do not go around talking to mountains, but all of us go around talking to ourselves about mountain-like problems. The power that levels mountains is prayer that speaks confidence and boldness. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
Doubt sometimes stands in the way of prayer – not doubt in ourselves because we do not answer our own prayers. The Apostle James said:
“If any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He is generous to everyone and will give you wisdom without criticizing you. But when you ask God, you must believe and not doubt. Anyone who doubts is like a wave in the sea, blown up and down by the wind. Such doubters are thinking two different things at the same time, and they cannot decide about anything they do. They should not think they will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:5-8, NCV)
Both James and his brother Jesus refer to an unshakable faith in the goodness of God. This is faith in the person of God, and not faith in faith itself. If we are honest, every one of us who has made a difficult prayer request, mustering-up all the faith we can, and then being disappointed when it did not happen, has been hurt. The unstable person vacillates when this happens, doubting whether God is good (playing the he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not game). The person of faith believes God answers prayers according to his will, and that if the prayer is not answered, God knows what he is doing and will answer it in his own good timing and purposes.
Maybe you have even indulged your inner-critic, a Job-like friend, telling you that you have a failure of faith, or not enough faith, and that is why your prayer was not answered. Yet, positive thinking is not the same as Christian faith. It is neither a matter of being optimistic, nor of sending $19.95 to some hack preacher who promises to give you the secret of answered prayer, along with a free gold cross.
God’s will for our lives is sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, a mystery. However, we do know what God’s will is for a lot of things. For example, God is not willing that any should perish but all be brought to eternal life. So, we can pray with confidence for a person’s deliverance from sin. We can be bold about trusting in God’s promises – he will do what he says he will do. Boldness is only as good as the truth it is based upon.
We have every right, based in our union with Jesus Christ and our redemption in him, to ask God confidently and boldly for the removal of mountains. We have the authority in Christ to do so. Therefore, we do not need to offer tepid, milquetoast, mumbling prayers with sighs and hunched shoulders (i.e. “Well, God, if it is your will, could you help me?”).
It is time for men to step out and give God some healthy hairy-chested prayers. And, this is not the time for women to be worried about what the men do, or not do. Everyone is to be bold in prayer.
“God desires of us nothing more ardently than that we ask many and great things of him, and he is displeased if we do not confidently ask and entreat.” –Martin Luther
Jesus wants faithful and fruitful prayer. He still scans the horizon of our spiritual lives looking for believing prayer. Christ desires from those who follow him bold prayers which curse and wither fruitless and feckless places. When my children were small there was an adult store in our neighborhood. It disturbed my spirit. Each time I passed it I confidently prayed that the pornography and exploitation of women would dry up and cease in Jesus’ name, and that those who worked in that establishment would find more gainful and ethical employment. And that is exactly what happened.
Aggressive prayer against the enemy of our souls is needed, prayer that claims the authority which has been given us in Christ, prayer that is based in solid biblical truth and robust theology. So, let us pray in faith and confidence….
Heavenly Father, we praise you for the grace we possess through the Lord Jesus Christ. We rejoice in Christ’s teaching and the victory you have provided for us to live above sin and failure. We come before you in confession and to plead your mercy over our sins, the sins of other believers, and the sins of our world. We confess the sin of prayerlessness, faithlessness, apathy, complacency, and indifference to those who are lost. We also acknowledge before you the wickedness of our world through the evil machinations of injustice, oppression, and exploitation of others.
We praise your holy name, O God, that there is plenty of grace through the person and work of the Lord Jesus. We plead the blood of the cross and the power of the resurrection against the sins and rebellion of people against you. We pray and wait for you, Holy Spirit, to bring us all to new life in Jesus Christ.
We recognize that Satan and the kingdom of darkness have plotted and laid strategies against new spiritual life, keeping your people from believing prayer. So, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we claim our place as children of God. We smash and pull down all the strongholds which Satan has erected against humanity – and pray that the power of Christ’s resurrection would hinder and frustrate the plans formed against us.
We pull down demonic strongholds of prayerlessness and carelessness with the Word of God. We claim back for the Lord Jesus Christ the ground Satan is claiming as a means of hindering faith, hope, and love; and, we affirm that Satan’s plans were fully defeated through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We pull down all of Satan’s plans to divert fresh faith when it comes. Blessed Holy Spirit, may you send a renewal to the hearts and souls of all people. May it bring a wondrous season of peace and joy.
We, your people, accept the role of standing in the gap for others in prayer. You yourself, God, said that we, in Christ, are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds. So, we bring all the work of the Lord Jesus Christ to focus directly against the powers of darkness that blind people and keep them in bondage. We pray the victory of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and glorification directly against all of Satan’s power in their lives. We now bind all powers of darkness set to destroying them, and we unbind those demonic bonds and blinders from them in the mighty name of Jesus.
By faith we claim humanity for fruitful lives of spiritual abundance, social justice, and sanctified relationships in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who defeated all powers and principalities of this world. Amen.