Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It Looked So Good!

Have you ever had a hunger for a crisp, juicy, red apple? Especially on a hot day, and the apple has been iced down. You see condensation beading up on the apple and you can just taste the semi-tart coldness in your mouth! Then you finally get your hands on that apple and bite into it only to find you have a mouth full of rotten mush! And it looked so good, too!

A similar thing happened to God.
"I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard: my loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest of vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit."
God was looking for a good crop from Israel. He had planted and fertilized and patiently waited all of these years. The fruit was bad. And it looked so good, too!

The same thing happens to Jesus in Mark 11:12ff.
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it.

What’s going on here? It looked so good, too! Immediately following the event, Jesus enters into the temple.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written:
" 'My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

When evening came, they went out of the city.
The next day, the return to Jerusalem and notice the fig tree.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"

"Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
What a strange incident. I'm not going to explain everything right now. But I want you to notice something. What "mountain" is Jesus talking about? He did not say "if you say to any mountain" or "if you say to a mountain." He says, "if you say to this mountain." He had a particular mountain in mind. Seems to be a couple of options: Mount Zion itself--the principal mountain on which Jerusalem was built or Mount Moriah on which sits the Temple itself.

When he returns to the temple, the priests corner him—who gave you the authority to do this? Just who do you think you are? Are you some kind of king or something? Jesus then gives his reply:
"I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30John's baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!"

They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men'...." (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So they answered Jesus, "We don't know."
Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
This is doubly difficult—because John’s baptism of Jesus is seen as an anointing—a kingly anointing. If they say John's baptism was of heaven then they have to admit Jesus is Messiah and thereby has the authority to clear the Temple.*

Jesus isn’t finished, though. He presses even harder with a story that most scholars agree was the final straw (the story of the wicked tenants). The similarity to Isaiah 5 is no coincidence! Unlike most of Jesus’ parables, this one seems to be allegorical—and unlike most of his parables, the application is obvious! The tenants will be destroyed, judgement will come. The priests are hopping mad!

So what is the point? From the Messianic entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple to this parable there has only been one point: Judgment is coming! Israel was supposed to be a light for the Gentiles, but she failed miserably. Jewish Messianic visions of the day saw the Messiah as coming in and cleansing Jerusalem and the Temple from Gentile control. However, Jesus comes in and clears the Temple because the Gentiles were ignored and condemned! All of this is because Israel had refused to bear fruit; and it looked so good, too!

And while Israel is guilty and will be punished, it was her leaders who received the greater condemnation. Why? They looked so good! They looked fruitful, they had all of the trappings of a fruit-bearing fig tree, a choice grape vine, but they were rotten to the core. The fruit was bad.

Of all people, it was the leaders who should have recognized the words of the prophets and the coming Messiah. Instead of listening to God’s messengers, they rejected and killed them. Yet Israel seemed so faithful! They were so religious and orthodox! They performed the right rituals, sang the right songs, organized the right programs and even went to the right building! But even the right building was judged—Jesus’ action in the temple wasn’t a cleansing it from commercial enterprise. Jesus’ action was not even cleansing. It was a metaphor of judgment—God had passed judgment—the Temple would be destroyed.** You go to the right building—even it is destined for destruction!

And so we are faced with the question: have we produced fruit? Is our fruit good? Or do we just look good? There are people inside and outside of God’s kingdom whose sole understanding of what it means to be a Christ-follower is you. There are people who will trust us and accept our view of Christianity. These people will follow our example and live out Christianity as they see it lived out by us. Will we have led them to bear good fruit? Or will we be like the leaders of Israel: looking good, but really being fruitless—and worse still, leading others to live the same fruitless lives.

Israel was condemned because it assumed its mission was to stand in judgment of the nations rather than to serve the nations. What about us? We are in desperate need of people who will truly follow the call of Jesus—who will accept his authority and live out his mission to be a light to the nations: to serve, to love, to demonstrate God’s amazing grace to everyone around us. He calls us to reject a self-centered life style that is fruitless and rotten. He calls us to become luscious fruit—attractive to a hurting world—but not just attractive: nutritious and healthy.

So may you demonstrate fruitfulness. May you demonstrate faithfulness. May your neighbors look at your life and be attracted to God because of you.

*Note: The Temple was built by the direction of King David and Solomon. Later Zerubabel rebuilds it (Zerubabel is a descendant of the Davidic line). Finally, to cement his claim on the Jewish throne, Herod has the Temple renovated. The King, as God's anointed, has authority to make decrees regarding the Temple.

**Jesus temporarily stops the sacrifices from being offered by stopping the selling of animals for sacrifices. This symoblizes the ending of the sacrificial system brought about by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

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