In his biography of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. A.D. 251-356), St. Athanasius recorded Anthony saying the following in a sermon to those who came to him in the desert:
“Why not rather get those things which we can take away with us – to wit, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall find them of themselves preparing for us a welcome there in the land of the meek-hearted.” (Life of St. Anthony of Egypt, para. 17)
While these characteristics found in Anthony’s words seem rather simple, it can often seem difficult to put them into practice. He asks those who came to first examine their own motivations and work on the character of their hearts. However, beyond focusing inwardly and allowing the Spirit to work on our own hearts, there is the temptation to judge these characteristics in the hearts of others. Too often we ignore the difficulty of pulling the plank from our own eye in an effort to help others pull the speck from theirs. Even under the guise of trying to be helpful, it is a temptation that leads to pride, self-righteousness, and even wrath.
Are you willing to take time in silence, perhaps upwards of a half-hour to an hour, to simply pray, meditate, wait on the Spirit patiently, and ask God to illuminate the desires, emotions, and nature of your own heart?
Are you willing to be humble and meek-hearted before God and others, and be slow to judge others before you honestly look at yourself for a period of time, and then ask God to forgive selfish, prideful, or arrogant attitudes?
Are you willing to receive God’s grace and forgiveness for the nature of your own heart, and then extend that grace and forgiveness to others in whose hearts there may be some specks of dirt?
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” – Galatians 5:22-26 (NRSV)
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15 (NRSV)
“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me.” – Psalm 55:1-2a
“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me.Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!I would fly away and be at rest.I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.’” – Psalm 55:4-8
“Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.But you, God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of decay; the bloodthirsty and deceitful will not live out half their days.But as for me, I trust in you.” – Psalm 55:22-23
Sitting at the stone desert circle,
the fire burns on its pillar. The smoke rising, the embers burning,
the fire is small,
yet burns with strength and eternal endurance.
I stand up from the bench on which I am sitting,
from looking intently upon God’s fire,
and look to the horizon.
Dark clouds, heavy with rain,
envelop the barren horizon.
The sky is thick and grey.
From the distance, over the expanse,
across the dirt, sand, shrubs, and rocks,
I smell the rain. Humidity presses against my skin.
Amid the empty desert, secure on God’s stone foundation,
I watch the sky grow dark.
I wait upon the impending storm to assail our position.
The fire burns bright and strong,
the Spirit’s flame distinguished against the darkening sky,
contrasted against the impending battery of rain, wind, and thunder.
The storm is upon us. Rain pummels the desert sand.
Wind beats the brush against the dirt.
Thunder breaks overhead.
Lightning flares in rage across the now blackening sky.
Water rises against the foundation. The desert, a black ocean, with waves darkened like oil,
emerging from the depths of the earth.
The wind riles the ink-like, glimmer-less water,
agitating it into madness,
enjoining it to rise, towering above us;
in the storm’s ire, charging it to crash against us.
The sky coal, the water oil,
the earth dark and outraged,
there is no light to look upon but God’s fire.
Its flame burns tall into the sky,
swelling in intensity,
point by point,
matching the storm’s ferocity, strength, and violence.
The stone foundation,
inundated in the storm,
is washed of its desert sand,
its true character and integrity revealed.
Standing upon the rock, peering to its edge,
I see the eternal abyss below,
haunting the depths of the water’s surface.
Fear enters my mind.
Possibilities emerge from its pathways. Knocked over, pushed to the edge,
my fingers clutching the lip at the edge of this rock,
mustering strength to reach up my hand for Jesus to take hold,
yet my strength finished;
losing my grasp, tumbling deep into the abyss,
forever falling, hopeless.
Water rising, crashing,
seeking to intimidate any who would stand on God’s foundation,
against the brutality of the rain, wind, thunder, and lightning.
I look to the center of the rock,
to the radiant ferocity of its blinding flame,
the illumination of its brilliant pillar of fire. The storm, in all its indignation,
unable to affect God’s signal in the darkness,
Saturated though I am,
my skin and clothes deluged with the storm’s rain, wind, and waves,
compelled to kneel in reverence and awe,
I look towards the blinding fire’s vivid light before me.
Its tower rising above the clouds,
God sees into the light, beyond the tempest’s edge.
Like Peter, focused on Jesus standing before him,
in the darkest of nights, terrified,
stepping out of the boat,
battered by the squall’s wind, waves, and rain.
Stepping in faith, during the storm. Overcoming the abyss to where God is calling. Walking into the waves, understanding the pit that lies beneath.
Focused on Christ. Knowing his fire is upon you. Lighting the way before you. To see Christ and look to him alone, despite the distraction around you.
Jesus, let your fire fill me. Let the brilliance of your Spirit strengthen me, to step into the darkness of the storm.
I step. A valley opens in front of me. The sky clear, the pasture green,
God’s creatures grazing in its peace. The storm gone. Mountains beset the pasture before me,
framing the meadow to the east and west.
To step into the savagery of the storm,
God with you,
is to step into the valley. Knowing the fear of the pit underneath,
the anxiety of drowning,
the doubt of falling into a depth with no end,
floundering with no hope.
Yet to look at Jesus and step anyway. Yet to know the Spirit is with you and step anyway.
You feel the water give way beneath you. Despair rushes into the cracks of your soul. Yet an arm reaches out towards you,
grabbing your arm, unrelenting,
strong, and not letting go. Holding you, bringing you up.
“For he has delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.” – Psalm 54:7
Sitting in the desert, there is a clear sky above.A circle, elevated, maybe built up a few inchesfrom the sand, rocks, and shrubs, is laid with stone, constructed in the desert, built by the work of Father, Spirit, and Son.The desert is flat andfar from civilization, with sand, dirt, rocks, and shrubs for as far as the eye can see.One stone bench, set in a circle, is on the perimeter of the circular foundation, with a grey stone pillar, a couple feet in diameter, built in the center, a few feet high, with a fire burning atop, so that the fire burns at the same level as the bench.Embers glow hot at the base of the small fire, so hot they would sear and scorch the top of the stone pillar if they were not from God – the burning fire that doesn’t burn.Smoke rises, drifting towards me, as the dry desert kindling is set up in the shape of a teepee above these hot, burning, foundational embers, sending smoke rising through the gaps in the teepee of desert sticks.
Sitting, waiting for Jesus.Knowing that his Spirit is here.Learning how to sit in the Spirit’s presence.
Jesus, deliver me. Jesus, bring my heart your deliverance. Jesus, let me sit in your presence. In the desert, let me breathe in the smoke of your Spirit. Let me breathe deeply your cleansing Spirit. The Spirit that comes forth from the very fire of who you are. Jesus, put the glowing, burning embers – the inner foundations of your holy fire – on my heart. Let it burn my sins away. Let it burn through the hardness of my heart. Put the ember on my tongue, the burning coal you gave to your prophet Isaiah, and let it sear through the pride and arrogance of my actions and words. Let the coal make my heart humble. Jesus, bring healing to my life, the healing of your holiness, your holy, burning coal upon me. Deliver me. Only your love brings lasting deliverance. Give my heart the reality of your love. Make your love more than just knowledge. Make your love a reality for my heart. A bright, fire-ful, burning stone that is placed on my physical heart, piercing it with your powerful love, melting through the shell of my calloused heart, penetrating to the core of my soul, the deepest, most hidden part of my very soul. Pick up the bow you hung in the sky, once again. Take your arrow and make it a weapon of your convicting love. Put the tip in your Spirit’s river of molten fire. Aim it towards me in my fearfulness. And shoot it straight through my heart. I ask you, Jesus, to make your love that kind of reality, imprinting itself upon my soul, eternally, irreversibly. Deliver me from my troubles. Let me live in the triumph of your love.
“Why so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” – Psalm 42:11
As I pray, I focus on and imagine simply sitting in God’s presence and waiting on Jesus.Prayer is not one-sided.We must focus more on listening to God in prayer, and not so much speaking at God.When we listen, then we can speak to and with Jesus.
As I pray, the Spirit leads me to the desert: a palette mixed with red, brown, tan, and grey, dotted with rocks, shrubs, and brush among the sand and dirt. I go from sitting on a bench on the perimeter of a small stone circle built in the desert, with a fire of dried, windswept kindling resting on a grey stone pillar at the circle’s center, smoke rising, and burning embers at the fire’s base, to the setting of God’s garden. The life-giving tree of God is at its center, with vibrant shades of green and bright colors filling this palette. Breathing deeply, the air is cool, clear, and cleansing. God’s stream of cool, clear, cleansing, and life-giving water flows next to the meadow, overshadowed by the far-reaching shade of God’s tree of life.
The deer drinking from the stream,
the roaring waterfall below; it’s the river of your life, Jesus. Wash me in your water. Let the flood of your waterfall come over me. Let me stand in its water. It is your life, Jesus, flowing through the land, giving nourishment to your land and all your creatures, winding through your plains, mountains, forests, and valleys, flowing peacefully next to your tree of life, teeming with life, vibrant and abundant in every branch and leaf. I rest against its trunk, my back against its bark, my hands in the soft grass, sitting under your shade, the sky blue above, the air cool around me. Give me peace in your life, Jesus. Give me rest. Why should I be downcast, even when life has its pains and sorrows, and the world so full of sin, when I can rest in your land, wash in your waters, drink from your streams, and sit under your tree? As the deer pants for streams of water, my soul longs for you, O God. The deer pants, but finds rest, refreshment, and safety as it drinks from your streams, and so my soul that longs for you also finds refuge in you, Jesus.
Often, the challenge of the church is to not be the High Council, the Pharisee, the Herodian, the Sadducee, or the scribe. It’s not necessarily that anyone who’s a part of a church tries to become like one of these people. No one does. More often than not, attitudes just start to creep into our lives and hearts slowly. Then one day, after months or years, a Christian, whether an average person or leader, has an experience where he or she suddenly wakes up and realizes that they’ve adopted a religious attitude that Jesus taught against.
Just a few days before his crucifixion, Jesus encountered challenge after challenge from these same leaders of Israel. Reading between Mark 11:27 and 12:44, Jesus encountered all of these groups in a single day at the temple, one right after the other. They all confront his authority, seeking to trap him in one way or the other. In his typical way, Jesus wisely outmaneuvers each of the challenges, condemning the overall attitudes and agendas of each group.
The popular accusation that we so often see today is to call someone a Pharisee. “You’re such a Pharisee!” We see legalism, hypocrisy, and turning extra-biblical conclusions into gospel law.
Remember, though, what Jesus taught in Matthew and Luke about logs and specks in our eyes and our neighbors’ eyes? In confronting the spirit of the Pharisees, we need to be aware that we don’t become Pharisees ourselves! Grace, humility, and forgiveness are essential, as well as having an attitude of being willing to walk an extra mile with the other individual, no matter how much we disagree.
But don’t forget about the other groups. The High Council recognized Jesus’ authority, but did not want to really acknowledge it. The Sadducees and Jesus were very opposed theologically. The Herodians allied themselves with the rulers. And the scribes could be self-righteous and manipulative.
While Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees, he saw the dangers of the others. He called out members of the High Council with the parable of the tenants. He simply told the Sadducees directly that they were very wrong. And he preached publicly about the self-righteousness of the scribes. Jesus warned against pride, arrogance, condescension, and smugness. These are the very attitudes we must also watch out for in our own hearts.
Too often, in challenging the Pharisees of the church, we unintentionally adopt the spirit of the Sadducees or the scribes of the church. Without realizing it, we engage in arguments and conversations that are arrogant or condescending, masked in a falsely humble assumption that we’re simply correct. And even though we appear to be listening to another’s thoughts and opinions, we’re really only giving lip-service to them instead.
The Sadducees, scribes, and other religious leaders might’ve been more intentional in their arrogance. And unfortunately, outright arrogance can be an easy temptation to fall in to today as well.
Be careful though. Because one day you might be arguing with someone who you consider to be the “least of these” qualified to challenge you about Christianity, interpreting scripture, the ins and outs and details of Christian rituals and sacraments, or politics, philosophy, or whatever other situation or field you might be discussing, and it might just be Jesus telling you, like he did with the Sadducees, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” and “You are quite wrong.”
Contrasting all those encounters, there is one encouraging conversation that Jesus had that day at the temple that points us in the right direction. Confrontation after confrontation, Jesus goes against religious leaders trying to trap and manipulate him. Finally, though, a lone scribe comes and has a conversation with Jesus, revealing the true point of the kingdom of God: love God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). In fact, it’s the scribe who says, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
To love God with everything that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself means setting aside arrogance, condescension, and presuppositions that just assume we’re right because we’re right, even in the often subjective world of theology and the too often political world of the church.
So be humble and be willing to authentically listen and engage with others who think differently than you, even theologically and even if they are in the same theological tradition. Set aside arrogant attitudes masked with false humility. With that, the smell of self-righteousness will disappear as well. Loving God means loving your neighbor, no matter who they are, and that must be done genuinely.
Say no to the attitudes of the Pharisees, but also say no the spirits of the Sadducees and scribes. Be humble, repent, and be willing to forgive and ask forgiveness for these types of attitudes and spirits.
Love God. Therefore, love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are much more important than any other debate or attitude out there, within Christianity and outside of Christianity.
In the first few chapters of John’s Revelation, Jesus addresses the seven churches: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write….” “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write….” As well, he asks John to write messages to the churches in Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. In addressing each of these churches individually, he addresses the entire Church – what we need to watch out for, what we must be rebuked about, and what we are doing well on.
Whenever followers of Jesus read these first few chapters, the question hopefully comes up of what Jesus would say to our church today. Would it be an encouraging word? Would it be a rebuke? Would it be a warning?
Since I live in the United States, I often ask, “What would Jesus say to write to the angel of the church in North America?” That’s certainly a loaded, but important, question. I’m sure Jesus would both rebuke and encourage. But I think he would also say that we’re a confused church and that we’re wandering all over the wilderness.
Here’s another way to ask the question: If Jesus was on the way to a meeting of the North American church, and while on the way he saw a fruit tree, would he curse it?
It’s what he did while on the way to the temple.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. -Mark 11:12-14, NRSV
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” -Mark 11:20-21, NRSV
Would Jesus actually curse your fig tree?
It seems like a harsh question. It’s a question that many people have a hard time even asking because the idea of Jesus cursing a harmless tree goes against the popular narrative of a culturally hippy Jesus who gives everyone nice feelings of rainbows, butterflies, skittles, sunshine, and unicorns growing in our tummies, and says yes to whatever so long as whatever makes our minds happy and our hearts flutter.
Mark and the other gospels actually tell us a different story of Jesus. Jesus is one who loves unconditionally, forgives, heals, and makes people whole, but also one who challenges authority, debates with a sharp mind, grows impatient and angry, and one who strikes terror into the hearts of disciples and townspeople with his demonstrations of power. The wealthy young man man who came to Jesus even went away grieving, the Pharisees wanted him dead, and the crowds were calling for him to be crucified.
Jesus convicts and asks for hearts to change, and that can be painful.
And, yes, Jesus is also one who curses a helpless fig tree.
When he comes back the next day, it’s withered away, down to the root, and on it’s way to death.
There’s a reason, though, that Jesus curses the tree. Jesus has been known to act out parables before, such as when he healed the blind man in two stages to show that the disciples had not been understanding clearly the first time around. He is doing the same here – bringing a parable and a lesson to life.
The first day in Jerusalem, Jesus entered on a colt, went to the temple, and left. The second day, Jesus passed by the fig tree, cursed it, and went to the temple where he caused mayhem, overthrew tables, and cursed the place. Then he left. The third day, Jesus passed by the fig tree and it was withered away. He went to the temple again where members of the Sanhedrin asked him his authority. He clearly demonstrated his authority when he cursed the fig tree and it withered.
The fig tree represents the temple, the temple system, and everything that went along with it. It’s reasonable to conclude that some of the main reasons for Jesus cursing it were corruption and religious leadership that were leading the people of Israel astray, as well as the possibility that temple ministry that did not allow for gentiles to worship in the way accorded by the law.
Additionally, by Mark’s account, these events occurred only a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. More importantly, with his death and resurrection, the temple system would be obsolete and no longer the place of God. Mark 13 even records this account between Jesus and a disciple:
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Mark 13:1-2, NRSV
If the fig tree represents the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day, what would Jesus say to the fig tree of our modern Christian religious system?
This fig tree grew in the spring. The tree would have been leafy and, if it had any fruit, it wouldn’t have been edible at that time. It would not have grown good fruit until late summer. From a distance, the tree appeared healthy; but when Jesus got to it, the tree either had inedible fruit or no fruit at all.
What kind of fruit is your church growing? What kind of fruit is the church in North America growing?
Have we ended up with inedible crops of self-righteousness that say, “Look at me! Look at us!” Or do our trees produce edible crops of true righteousness from Jesus Christ and the Spirit that point back to God?
Are we more concerned about maintaining systems and fruit that look delicious on the outside, but meanwhile a worm has eaten out the inside, and when we take a bite, the fruit is actually rotten?
Have we become a church that is run either by Pharisees or Sadducees, both pointing fingers at the other, while we miss the point of what it means to be truly like Christ?
Are we a church that is singularly focused on Jesus, allowing him and his Spirit to lead and breathe life into us? Or are we too wrapped up in ourselves and our interpretations of whatever the hot topic is to realize that we are lost, wandering in about 30 different directions all over the forest, and arguing about how to hold the compass?
What is your fig tree like? Would Jesus curse it? Or would Jesus bless it?
I know we all want to Jesus to bless our tree. It’s our gut reaction to say that, of course, Jesus would bless it. And I’m sure there are some that would do all sorts of theological dancing to justify Jesus blessing our various trees, no matter that kind of inedible fruit was growing on them. Obviously no one wants Jesus to curse the tree.
But he did. And he didn’t even ask it to get better. He cursed it. And it withered away, all the way down to its roots.
These are words that need to be reflected on through prayer and time with Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus’ actions here are challenging and convicting, especially for our modern church. It’s a passage in scripture that should be taken seriously by any local church. But especially for the church in North America, this enacted parable can be a hard one to swallow.
The edible, enriching fruit of Jesus Christ is out there. Go after it. In some places, Jesus would bless the fig tree. Unfortunately, though, there are other places where Jesus would walk by the fig tree and say, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” -Mark 4:25, NRSV