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The lesson of the withered tree

The lesson of the withered tree

Missing figs and a moved mountain.

For a change, let me start with the Scripture I have in my head and then process it through what I see in Chicago this morning.

In Matthew 21, Jesus does an odd thing. He pronounces that a specific fig tree will never produce fruit again. Mark, in his account, gives us the sequence of events: Jesus speaks to the fig tree on the way in to cleanse the temple; the next morning, as they return to the city from Bethany, the disciples see the tree withered.

Though on the surface, this looks like a temperamental use of his power, Jesus is acting out a kind of a parable. He is tying into the Old Testament use of an unproductive vine or fig tree (Micah 7:1) as a metaphor for a spiritually barren Israel.

Combined with his actions in the temple, he is stating that something new is arriving. A radical change is in the wind.

When the disciples see the withered tree the next day, they express their amazement for the speed of the change. Jesus then replies:

 “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.” (vs. 21)

I believe Jesus and his followers are talking about the power to produce change. The sea in Scripture often represents the realm of nothingness. And though “this mountain” is thought to be the Mount of Olives that they were walking over, it is possible that, with a wave of his hand, Jesus could be referencing the temple mount, across the narrow Kidron Valley.

In that case, he is not simply stating that with faith “you can do impossible things,” he is identifying spiritual transformation as the impossible thing. The mountain of hard-hearted people can be dissolved forever and replaced with a Spirit-born, spiritually responsive people of God.

Listen, change is hard. Any change. Every one of the sessions I scribe circles around it. Human nature does not welcome it. Speaker Roy J. Blitzer, has quipped, “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.”  My Uber driver yesterday painted a depressing picture of the corruption he sees all around him. When I asked him what he could do about it, he had no answer.

And as I walk around Chicago this morning, gazing up at the impressive buildings like modern-day mountains, I think about the daunting transformations I want to see. They run the gamut from societal spiritual awakening to my own more consistent devotion to God.

It’s easy, knowing human nature, to see them as pipe dreams.

But the lesson of the fig tree is that with God, impossible change happens. And sometimes with surprising speed. Things that looked rigid and immovable one day can be turned the next.

The question is: do we truly believe this?

Our Lord God, you are not only the Creator, but you are also the Re-Creator. Move the mountain of my heart. Dissolve the resistance of my unbelieving friends. Bring revival to our hard-hearted world.

Reader: what is the “mountain” you long to see replaced?

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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