The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. So, he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this.
Early in the morning, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look how the fig tree you cursed has dried up.”
Jesus responded to them, “Have faith in God!I assure you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea’—and doesn’t waver but believes that what is said will really happen—it will happen. Therefore, I say to you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you will receive it, and it will be so for you. (Common English Bible)
A pastor once had a kitten stuck up in a tree, and it would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and drove until the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten. As he moved just a little too far, the rope broke. The tree snapped upright, and the kitten instantly sailed through the air and out of sight.
He felt just terrible and walked all over the neighborhood asking people if they had seen a little kitten. Nobody had and finally he prayed, “Lord, I commit this kitten to your keeping,” and then went about his business.
A few days later, he was at the grocery store and met one of his parishioners. In her shopping cart he was amazed to see cat food. The pastor knew the parishioner did not like cats, so he asked her why she was buying cat food.
She replied, “For years I have been refusing to buy my little girl a cat even though she has been begging for one. Finally, I told her that if God gives you a cat, I’ll let you keep it. I watched my child go out into the yard, get on her knees and ask God for a cat. Then, a kitten suddenly came flying out of the blue sky with its paws spread out and landed right in front of her. Of course, I had to let her keep the kitten because it came from God!”
God wants us to pray! Yet, prayer does not happen apart from faith because to pray is to believe God is good and answers prayer. Prayerlessness is a sign of faithlessness. A person of little faith prays only a little. A person full of faith is always praying.
For Jesus, simply exhorting the disciples to pray was insufficient; they needed a deep change of heart.
God calls us to transformation. Deep and lasting change must take place below the surface of our lives. Real change comes from the inside-out. It is the root of a person’s life, the heart, that must change – and not just the outward behavior.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus got up early and was on his way 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 appeared leafy and well, yet had no figs.
Jesus chose to use this tree as a teachable moment for his disciples. He cursed the tree and immediately the whole tree withered. So, why did Jesus curse the tree? Because it looked good on the outside but was really already dead on the inside.
The tree had everything a tree needed: branches, leaves, and a trunk. Everything, that is, except fruit. The tree was to serve as an illustration for the disciples of believing prayer. The tree looked fine, and had the promise of fruit, but none was to be found. 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. Yet, something wasn’t right.
“I will take away their harvest,
declares the Lord.
There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
will be taken from them.” (Jeremiah 8:13, NIV)
God pronounced a curse on Judah because, although conditions seemed fine on the outside, the people were trusting in their own abilities. But God was looking for fruit, not nice leaves. The Lord wants believing prayer, born of a faith that is confident in the goodness of God.
God is looking for faith in us, as well. A faith not in paychecks, bank accounts, or the market economy, and not religiously in lots of outward forms of success, but a faith in God alone.
Jesus didn’t use the withering tree as an illustration of judgment but of believing prayer. 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.
Nobody probably goes around talking to mountains. Yet, all of us go around talking to ourselves about mountain-like problems. The power that levels mountains is prayer and words that speak confidence and boldness. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
Doubt typically stands in the way of prayer – not doubt in yourself, because you don’t answer your own prayers. Doubt as an obstacles to faith is the questioning of God’s inherent goodness. We are not to have faith in faith itself, but in the actual person of God. (James 1:5-8)
Everyone has made a difficult prayer request, mustering-up all the faith they can, and then are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. The unstable person vacillates when this happens, doubting whether God is really good or not. However, the person of faith believes God answers prayer, and if the prayer is not answered, we trust God knows the score and will answer according to gracious timing and good purposes.
Maybe you have even talked to yourself as a Job-like friend saying that you didn’t have enough faith and that is why your prayer was not answered. Yet, Christian faith isn’t a matter of being optimistic or of sending $19.95 to some hack preacher who promises to give you the secret of answered prayer, along with a free gold cross.
We simply don’t know what God’s will is in every situation. 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 someone’s deliverance. And we can be bold about trusting in God’s promises.
We have every right, based in our union with Jesus Christ as redeemed persons, to ask God confidently and boldly for the removal of mountains. We possess authority in Christ to do so. Therefore, we do not need to offer tepid, milquetoast, mumbling prayers with sighs and hunched shoulders.
Who knows? Maybe a kitten will show up.
Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.