We’re going to be in Mark 11 today.
(11.7-25) When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
(v12) 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.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts 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, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
(v20) 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. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.
“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 them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
We’ve been following Jesus around this summer— we’ve been watching him and listening to him in the gospel of Mark— but this is some of the strangest behavior we’ve seen yet.
I mean, early on it was all action-hero Jesus—
Jesus trashing evil and spreading life wherever he went.
And that was awesome.
We love miracles.
We love stories of people being healed.
We love someone putting the forces of darkness of this world in its place.
But about halfway through Mark’s story (in chapter 8) Jesus decided to stop winning.
Jesus started saying that he was going to go to Jerusalem to be killed by the church and the state.
It’s a strange journey this following Jesus—
trying to take Jesus seriously.
We start following Jesus initially because we heard him announcing the kingdom of God— that in him and through him the life of heaven was coming to earth.
That what everyone is expecting as Jesus is arriving in Jerusalem (v9-11),
as we’re entering into the final stretch of Mark and the week of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The crowds are expecting the kingdom to arrive—they’re shouting:
“Hosanna! Here comes the kingdom of king David!” (v10)
Hosanna is a praise to God that literally means “save us.”
It’s a word that expresses thankfulness and excitement and praise while also simultaneously also begging for rescue and freedom and healing.
Everyone is shouting it—
“Hosanna, praise be to God, save us from the Romans, Hosanna.”
This is the cry of every heart who begins to take Jesus seriously.
“You’re here to make things as God wants them to be? Hosanna! Praise be to God—now do something.
“Fix this. Heal this. Take care of this.
Save me. Save my loved ones. Save us.
And can you please do it now?”
Somewhere within me, I always expect that Jesus is going to just rip into the world and force things to change— declaring martial law and forcing the life of heaven onto the world or something.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to operate by force.
Jesus is arriving in Jerusalem in a rather modest fashion. He’s riding a young colt that no one has ever ridden and being hailed by a group of people as the king they’ve been waiting for.
But if you ask Jesus, he’d remind you that he’s arriving in Jerusalem to die.
And dying has become an incredible probability with the stunt that Jesus pulls in today’s passage.
Jesus enters Jerusalem (v11)
and goes into the temple courts
and looks around at everything.
The Temple is the center of the nation,
the center of politics, the center of worship, the center of the economy.
It’s the place where the Jewish people believed that heaven and earth actually intersected and overlapped. Where the infinite kissed space-time.
The Temple was literally the center of the world in the minds and lives of devout first-century Jews.
For centuries, the Jewish people had longed for the day, dreamt of the day, hoped for the day when their messiah of Yahweh—the anointed one of Yahweh— would cleanse the Temple of everything foreign and filthy and establish the reign of God over the world.
Jesus comes riding into town and goes straight to the place that everyone was hoping he would go.
And then he goes back to the nearby village of Bethany because it was getting late.
If Belleview were the Temple, Jesus walked back to Sheridan.
It’s about a mile and a half.
So the tension is building—the anticipation is mounting— what is it going to look like when Jesus comes to the Temple?
Is this the world’s last night?
Is the age to come finally going to dawn tomorrow morning when Jesus arrives in the Temple?
They leave Bethany the next morning (v12) and head back to Jerusalem.
And Jesus is hungry.
Evidently Bethany didn’t have a Denny’s.
So (v13) he sees a fig tree along the road, and Jesus approaches it to see if it has any fruit—if it has any figs.
Nothing but leaves.
And so Jesus leans in and maybe whispers to the tree—
(v14) “may no one ever eat fruit from you again,”
and his disciples heard him say it.
John probably leaned over to James and said,
“What? Was he expecting—figs? It’s the beginning of April. We’ve got a couple more months to go.”
Mark makes sure that we as a reader know that it wasn’t the season for figs.
Jesus is up to something.
Mark will bring us back to the fig tree in a few minutes, but for the moment he just leaves us hanging about it.
This is Mark making a story-sandwich again.
The pieces of bread are the story of fig tree and the meat in the middle is what Jesus does is in the Temple.
This is the meat of the story that we’re coming to.
Jesus arrives back in Jerusalem.
Here is comes—the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
Cleanse that Temple, Jesus! Make sure it’s holy and pure. Get rid of any filth of any foreign influence.
But Jesus goes into the temple and starts driving out all the wrong people— the people who make the Temple run.
He turns over the tables of the money changers— the people who would exchange local currency for Tyrian coins so that people could pay the Temple Tax.
He flips the benches of those who are selling doves so that the poor can offer the sacrifices prescribed by the Levitical law.
He doesn’t allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts.
But that merchandise is all related to the Temple. By the first century, Jewish people lived all over the Roman world and would sometimes pilgrimage hundreds of miles to be at the Temple and make sacrifices to God in the Temple.
You needed people selling the appropriate spotless animals, because it was highly unlikely that one of your own animals would still be spotless after hundreds of miles of travel.
But Jesus is overturning benches and flipping tables— drachmas and shekels and doves are flying— and causing such a commotion that for a few short minutes the sacrificial system of Temple stops.
Not very long.
Jesus is just one guy, and this is a big complex system.
It was like a hiccup in the Temple courts.
The heart just skipped a beat.
But during the hiccup, Jesus says:
“Haven’t you guys ever read the Bible?
Don’t you know the words of the prophets?
Of Isaiah and Jeremiah?
“You’ve turned the Temple into some kind of den of robbers—
but it’s meant to be a house of prayer for the whole world—for all nations.”
When Jesus says “den of robbers” there’s probably one level where Jesus is angry that people are abusing the system.
That Slick Stan’s Spotless Pigeons over there
knows that the poor need to make a sacrifice and Slick Stan is overcharging them.
But that word “robber” is a loaded word— it’s the word that other first-century writers used for “revolutionaries.”
Revolutionaries were the people obsessed with overthrowing Roman rule—
with seeing Jerusalem and the entire region free and independent.
They almost always used violence—guerrilla warfare, terrorist tactics— and occasionally they actually succeeded in revolution.
Look it up on Wikipedia—
there are a handful of years scattered through classical history
where Jerusalem and parts of the region actually ARE free and independent.
Whenever it happened, the revolutionaries hailed it as “the kingdom of God.”
But it never last very long.
The violence always boomeranged back,
and caused all kinds of pain and suffering.
And I think Jesus can see this coming.
He’s upset about “robbers” like Slick Stan overcharging on doves, but he’s also concerned about a revolutionary mindset that is going to destroy everything.
“Can’t you see? This place has become a gathering of robbers and revolutionaries,
but it was always supposed to be a house of prayer for the world—
for not only Jews but Romans and Greeks and Egyptians and Cretans—
for everyone, for all nations.”
“The people of God are called to be faithfully praying for the world—
faithfully loving the world, faithfully trusting God with the world— not trying to overthrow it.
“The people of God are called to be loving their neighbors—even those Romans.
“How can you love your neighbors when your devotion to God cause you to despise them?
“How can you pray for the world when your religion makes you afraid of it and angry at it?
“This is a den of robbers—
it was meant to be house of prayer for the world.”
And then Jesus leaves the Temple (v19), and the next morning they see the fig tree.
It’s done for. It’s withered. From the roots up (v20).
The fig tree sandwiches the Temple because Mark is making sure that we don’t miss what Jesus is saying about any kind of human systems or patterns that wind up becoming resentful or self-obsessed.
If you’ve become obsessed with your own preservation and your own gain and your own standing and your own power
it doesn’t even matter if it’s justified by some belief in God
or if it’s even the Temple of the Lord,
it’s going to wither.
It can’t last.
It won’t last.
A life where we resent and fear other people—
whether it’s the Romans of the first century or your co-workers tomorrow—
a life like that is going to wither.
Just like this fig tree.
The fig tree withered in less than a day.
It took the Temple-system a little longer to wither.
In the year 70AD—just a few short decades after Jesus spoke these words—
during another one those great Jewish revolutions,
the Roman general Titus will march up Mount Zion (the mountain that Jerusalem sits on)
and is going to completely destroy the Temple.
And this is the 9-11 of the ancient Jewish world. Even worse—it’s the collapse of their entire world.
The center of the Jewish world—gone.
The sacrificial system—gone.
Withered. Just like this fig tree.
Like someone had told that mountain itself to be thrown into the heart of the sea.
And Jesus turns to his disciples—
to whoever might be following him,
to whoever wants to take him seriously—
and invites us into different kinds of lives.
Into faith-filled lives of pardon and prayer.
The point of this story-sandwich about a fig tree and the Temple—
the point is NOT that Jesus made a plant shrivel up, or that Jesus turned over some furniture in church.
The point is that Jesus is inviting us into lives that won’t wither.
He’s inviting us to become a house of prayer for the world.
Because that’s the kind of life that doesn’t wither— the life of unrelenting faith and forgiveness.
Jesus tells his disciples to continue to pray—
no matter what happens to this mountain or this Temple—
no matter how chaotic the world looks—
“have faith God” (v22).
Jesus is inviting those who want to take him seriously,
to approach God in prayer—asking him for what we need— and have such trust in our Father that (in real way) we can already know that we’ve received it (v24).
Keep trusting. Keep praying.
You will receive what you need.
The difficult part of this passage is that a lot of people (especially preachers on TV) have misunderstood what Jesus is saying here. We live in a culture where we can have almost anything “On Demand” if you’ve got enough money—if you’ve got enough currency.
And people have read verses 23-24,
and thought that Jesus means that prayer works that way.
That I can get whatever I want through prayer if I’ve got enough currency—
and the currency something called “faith.”
That if we can muster up an intense degree of confidence
in God or in our prayers or in the future or something
that our prayer will be answered—
that our mountain will be moved.
But with 100% certainty, that can’t be what these words mean.
How do we know that? The crucifixion of Jesus is how we know that.
In the garden of Gethsemane just hours before Jesus dies, Jesus is praying not to have to go to the cross.
(14.36) “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
And yet—God doesn’t move that mountain for Jesus.
God doesn’t move Calvary.
The cup doesn’t pass.
Jesus bears the cross.
When Jesus is talking right here,
evidently he saying that God really does work through prayer—
God really does give us everything we need
God really is trustworthy,
God really does move mountains,
but God doesn’t move every mountain.
There are still crosses to bear.
There are still cups to drink.
A couple of years ago, my wife, Joy, had been struggling with chronic head pain.
The medications prescribed by doctors weren’t working.
The pain wasn’t responding to any kind of treatment,
and the pain wasn’t responding to any kind of prayer.
Words like this from the lips of Jesus kept haunting me.
Maybe I’m not doing it right,
maybe I’m not praying hard enough,
maybe I’m not mustering up enough faith,
maybe I’m not trusting that she’s already been healed.
My faith must be the problem.
Because otherwise, surely God would miraculously and immediately take away the relentless and often excruciating pain that my wife is enduring.
Eventually the doctors figured out what was going on, and now (thank God) Joy is pain-free most days.
But I think a misunderstanding of these words caused a lot more pain for me during that season.
Sometimes no degree of faith is going to change that situation.
It’s just a cross—
and we’ve just got to pray that God will give what is needed.
Even when it’s life from dead.
there are some mountains are that are miraculously moved
and there are some cups that don’t pass.
Jesus isn’t telling us that we will get everything we want from God. Jesus is saying that we will get everything we really need from God.
In the words of Eugene Peterson—
the way he paraphrases this passage in The Message—
we can trust that will receive “God’s everything.”
Jesus is telling us to pray—
pray with confidence that God will give you what you need.
Not just the cravings of the moment—
God I want an A on this test,
God I want this business deal to go through,
God don’t let them find out what happened—
but the deepest prayers and longings of our hearts.
The prayers that you don’t even know how to pray yet.
The longings that you don’t even know how to name yet.
The needs you don’t even know you need.
That’s what God is going to give us.
And very often it seems like cups and crosses are the only way that we become formed into the people who can receive God’s gifts.
But Jesus tells us:
Keep praying, keep trusting,
and keep forgiving everyone around you—
because that’s the kind of life that doesn’t wither.
If we will just keep praying and keep trusting and keep forgiving,
we will become what God always wanted in the world:
a house of prayer for the nations.
We come to this table each week to remember
that when talk about the life of faith and forgiveness—
we’re above all talking about Jesus.
Jesus is the One whose life does not wither.
Jesus is the one who is faithful while the rest of us are a den of robbers.
Jesus is the one who relentlessly trusts God
even when the mountain doesn’t move,
and we want to curse God and die.
Jesus is the one who extends forgiveness to us even when we cling to withering lives of resent and robbery and revolution.
Jesus is the one
[who] on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
The center of our faith is Jesus.
That Jesus has come and shared in withering
so that we could share in his resurrection.
In just a moment, you’re going to be invited to come down this center aisle, to receive a cracker, to dip in the cup, and then to return to your seat.
This table is open—
it’s open to all of us who confess our rebellion, our sinfulness, our shriveled-ness,
and who want to receive a new kind of life—the life of Jesus.
So as you come this morning,
may we confess the ways in which our lives are withering—
may we be filled with forgiveness for all people and experience forgiveness ourselves,
may we be filled with an unrelenting faith that can move mountains and endure crosses,
may we—here in this place—be a house of prayer for the world until the nations shout “Hosanna” and see the coming of the kingdom.