One of the reasons I teach a class in Louisville is for the opportunity to study a particular subject in great detail. It’s also to encourage students to take seriously some of what I wish I had taken seriously as a students, such as the importance of writing.
One of the assignments I give my class is to write a paper each term. They don’t always like it. This term I have been encouraging them to give me a paragraph each week. I don’t require it; I simply suggest it. To add an extra level of encouragement I tell them if they complete it a week early I’ll give them half a grade point as extra credit. The reason why I do this is to make their lives easier. I tell them if they will give me one paragraph a week their paper will be completely finished by the due date and they will have so much less stress during finals week.
You would think this would encourage them to write that paragraph each week, but guess what? Most of them don’t do it. They will wait until the last week of the term, a day or two before the paper is due, before they begin work and will become very frustrated because it’s hard to write that paper when you are studying for exams and writing other papers.
And do you know why they put off writing the paper? It’s not because they are lazy – it’s because they don’t know what to say. I tell them writing their paper requires the same thing required of me when I write a sermon – until you can sum up what you want to say in one sentence, you don’t know what you’re trying to say.
From now through Easter we will walk through a new series of messages titled Walking In the Way of Jesus. Here, in one sentence, is what I will say through the entire series – we are called to walk in the way of Jesus. Pretty simple, isn’t it? It’s so simple you may be saying to yourself, okay, got it. Now we can dispense with the sermon for the next seven weeks. Except that I’d like to explain that sentence in a bit more detail.
The messages all come from the Gospel of Matthew, from the last week of the life of Jesus. I gave you the titles last week and here they are again – today is Life Over Death, followed by Service Over Power, Mercy Over Judgment, Love Over Law, and Deeds Over Words. These are the themes that really come to the forefront in the final days of the life of Jesus. In that final week Jesus is driving home those themes to his followers, and trying to get those themes through the closed, hard hearts of his opponents. He is down to the final week of his life, and he knows it. Knowing you have only a few days, what are you going to do? You are going to drive home your core ideals, as often as you can. So the themes we see in these final days of Jesus reflect the heart of who he is, they reflect the absolute essence of his mission, they are the most important lessons he has to teach.
So let’s read the Scripture passage for this morning.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.
19 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.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 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.
There’s a lot in that passage we could talk about, but the part I want to focus on is Jesus and this fig tree. That’s an odd story, isn’t it? Why would Jesus speak so harshly to a fig tree? It seems unfair, doesn’t it?
What’s important about this story is that everything Jesus does means something. The gospels don’t record things just by happenstance – there is meaning not only to every world of Jesus, but also to his every action. Every act of Jesus is meant to teach us something, and I believe the significance of this story is that Jesus is telling us to choose life over death. The fig tree looked like a fig tree. It had leaves and branches like you would find on a fig tree. It had a trunk like a fig tree. It has roots like a fig tree. In fact, it had everything you would expect to find on a fig tree except for one thing – figs. It was completely lacking in the fruit it was created to bear. In terms of its purpose, it was dead. It might have the appearance of life, but without bearing fruit, it had no real life.
The words of Jesus weren’t directed at the fig tree, but were, in fact, leveled at much of the religion of his day, which was not producing the fruit it was intended to produce. Much of the religion in the day of Jesus, especially that which was presented by the religious establishment, was devoid of any life. It had become cold, stale, legalistic, and lacking mercy and love. It was not, simply put, producing any fruit. It was dead.
One of the most important actions of Jesus, in demonstrating a healthy faith, was in taking faith out of religious settings such as the synagogue and the Temple and into the daily lives of people. Jesus was certainly a strong supporter of both the synagogue and the Temple and he regularly participated in worship, but he demonstrated that a vital and living faith was one that could not, and should not, be confined to a building.
I think that, unfortunately, there are a lot of scared churches these days. They’re scared because they are worried about their survival. And one of the reasons why they are fighting for their very survival is because they have adopted a bunker mentality, where they are afraid of the world out there, so the church building becomes a safe place – a bunker – where they can hide out from the world rather than engage it. And the irony is that by confining themselves to their buildings they will only hasten their decline.
I am grateful to have a place to worship. I am grateful we have a building to center us as a people. But we must also be aware that our faith cannot – and certainly should not – be confined to a building. A church building is not the end goal, but the beginning. It is a place where we gather to worship and from which we are sent to do the work of the church. Some of the work of the church takes place in a building, but much of the work of the church takes place after we exit the building. As we encounter our friends, neighbors, and coworkers we are called to live the kind of life demonstrated by Jesus – a life of love, grace, and generosity.
We are called to be the church and I believe in the church with all my heart. I believe one of the reasons why God calls us to be a part of the church is because we can do so much more together than we can individually. This is worship, when we gather together in this place, and as important as that is, the real measure of being the church is what happens when we are out there, outside of this building. That’s where most of the ministry of Jesus took place – outside of a religious building. What we do here is very important, please don’t hear me as saying anything otherwise, but we really become the church when we are living like Jesus out there.
As we go through these messages I want us to think about what it means to walk in the way of Jesus, and by the time we arrive at Easter I hope that we all look at our lives in a deeper way and ask what we can do to walk more in the ways of Jesus. In what ways are we choosing life over death? Are we choosing a living, vital faith?
In another church where I served a family took in an infant that was very, very fragile. At the time, their three daughters were teenagers and life was very busy. In the midst of their busyness came this little boy, who was born to a mother addicted to drugs, so he was addicted as well. It was a terrible withdrawal he was forced to endure. The drugs caused a number of very difficult medical issues. His respiratory system was severely damaged and he was in constant need of oxygen. His internal systems were so damaged that he couldn’t eat. Several times a day a large syringe-looking device as attached to a tube in his stomach and he received his nourishment through the tube. The doctors said he would almost certainly never survive his physical challenges. This family took him in, cared for him, and loved him. It was an incredible commitment of time and energy.
His mom worked a bit in the church office, and one day had him in a carrier beside her desk. He was only a few months old at the time and it was very obvious just to look at him that he was very fragile medically. That particular day someone from Frankfort came by to inspect a piece of equipment. When he was in the office he watching this young boy, but didn’t say anything. A year later he was back at the church for the annual inspection and stopped by my office to talk. It seemed obvious that he really wanted to talk about more than just the weather, and finally asked do you mind if I ask you a question? I said sure. He said when I was here last year there was a little boy in the office. I looked at him and it seemed obvious to me that he was not going to make it. The emotion was obvious in his voice as he said I’ve thought about that little boy a lot in the last year. Did he die?
I was very happy to tell him that no, not only did he not die, he was doing very well. He was, against all odds, thriving. He was thriving, in part certainly, because of good medical care. But I was convinced then, and I remain convinced, that the real reason he was thriving was because of the love he received every day. Because this family took him in, cared for him, and loved him, he beat death. Life triumphed over death because of the triumph o flove.
That family chose life over death for that fragile, little boy. We are called by Jesus to choose life over death. A living, real, vital faith that permeates every fiber of our being and guides us in every moment of life over stale, dead, counterfeit faith.