The Kingdom is Now
TREES THAT DON’T GROW
Recap: Last week, Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that for 7 years had not produced any fruit. The owner of the tree was pretty frustrated with that, as you can imagine, and ordered his employee to cut it down. The employee was compassionate, and said let me dig around it a little, throw some fertilizer down, and see if that helps.
The parable really can go two directions. I didn’t have time to go both ways last week, so we took it one direction looking at how God, like a master gardener, tills and prunes us (as in we are the fig tree) so that we bear spiritual fruit for the kingdom of heaven. But this morning, we’re going to take this parable the other direction, and zoom out a little bit to get an even broader picture of what Jesus is after when he talks about the fig tree.
One of the prophets of the Old Testament named Micah sets this up for us in Micah chapter 7. Here’s what he writes in verse 1 about the nation of Israel, God’s people:
How sad for me! For I am like one who — when the summer fruit has been gathered after the gleaning of the grape harvest — finds no grape cluster to eat, no early fig, which I crave. 2 Faithful people have vanished from the land; there is no one upright among the people. All of them wait in ambush to shed blood; they hunt each other with a net. 3 Both hands are good at accomplishing evil: the official and the judge demand a bribe; when the powerful man communicates his evil desire, they plot it together. 4 The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is worse than a hedge of thorns. The day of your watchmen, the day of your punishment, is coming; at this time their panic is here.
This is a fairly bleak picture of what has happened to this nation that God chose and led out of Egypt and did amazing things for. He is describing the Israelites. They are like a fig tree or a grapevine that has nothing on it.
When I mow our yard, along one of the fence rows is a patch of black raspberries, which I really like. So as I’m mowing there, I’ll stop and grab a handful and eat them… unless there aren’t any there! Then it’s annoying. A little sad. I’m craving those things, and they aren’t there. That’s how God is feeling about Israel. He was looking for fruit, looking for worship, good works, looking for some sign of growth and holiness – if you read the rest of Micah 7, he’s looking for a shepherd to lead the flock, looking for compassion – but instead he finds no one is upright. They are all hostile to each other, selfish, evil, crooked, and conspiring. They are more like thistles than they are grapevines. The most upright person among them is just a patch of thorns, hurting others instead of providing for them. Punishment is on the way.
This is the much larger picture that Jesus is pointing to in Luke 13:6, where he mentions both a fig tree and a vineyard. Going this direction, the fig tree is Israel's leaders, where Jesus is saying you’ve had all this time to produce the fruit of righteousness and holiness and repentance, and yet there’s no fruit there. They refuse to acknowledge God, turn away from idols, and no matter how much pruning God did, they refuse to listen. It is time for Israel as God’s people to be cut down. Cut off.
But in mercy and grace, Jesus comes along and says let me dig around and fertilize that tree a bit more before we cut it down. Everywhere Jesus goes, he’s warning the Pharisees and the religious leaders that represent Israel, that they need to repent because the time is short! Whether a building falls on their heads when they aren’t ready for it, or it’s the return of the Lord, they are going to have to give an account for their fruitlessness at any minute! As he gives warning after warning after warning, Jesus is digging around the tree and fertilizing it.
Then, Luke records a story of what happened next to help us see if the fig tree that is Israel is responding to Jesus’ warnings or not.
13:10 As he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, 11 a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for over eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called out to her, “Woman, you are free of your disability.” 13 Then he laid his hands on her, and instantly she was restored and began to glorify God.
This week, I was playing basketball in Kalona, and I had just come off the bench and subbed into the game. The first play that I was on the court, we were playing defense, and I reached for the ball as someone went by me, and instantly pain shot through the middle of my back. I tried another trip or two up and down the floor, but my back was tightening up. Waking up that next morning was like waking up to a set of knives in the middle of my back.
But as I laid there in pain , I couldn’t help but think of this woman. Jodi prayed for me that next morning, I got up and walked around, and today it feels almost normal, praise God. I was in serious pain for maybe 18 hours. For 18 years she lived her life bent over, probably in pain. Couldn’t stand up straight. Physically couldn’t look anyone in the eye. She no doubt lived with some shame because other people (including herself) would have said her physical condition was a punishment for her sin. So there’s the shame and the pain, but also the inability to play with children or grandchildren if she had any. Inability to have a normal relationship with her husband if she had one. Difficulty making food, making friends, getting around her own house.
But Luke, the author of this book who also happens to be a medical doctor, is surprisingly careful to let us know that her bent over condition was the result of a disabling spirit. In other words, Luke understood there to be a supernatural, evil reality that is responsible for this woman’s disability. Verse 16 takes us right to the source – Satan has bound his woman for 18 years! Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t tell us how he knew that. He doesn’t give us three easy steps to discover if your disability is from Satan.
Now I imagine that some of you wondered this:
- Is every disability a result of some supernatural evil? Is every disabled person living under the control of some evil spirit? Three scriptures to consider:
- The first would be Luke 6:18, which says a huge crowd “was coming out to hear Jesus speak and to be healed of their diseases; and those tormented by unclean spirits were made well.” So in that case, you can have a disease that is not attached to evil spirits. It’s just part of life in a fallen world.
- The second scripture would be Exodus 4:11 as God is in the middle of calling Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Moses complains about having a speech impediment, and God’s reply was: “Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” So sometimes, at least, God directly claims responsibility for disabilities. Why on earth would God do that, right? We can’t imagine why God would make someone born blind.
- That’s our third scripture from John 9:1-5, where Jesus comes upon an older gentleman who had been born blind. His disciples wondered if this was a result of the man’s sin or his parents’ sin, and Jesus answered, neither. Jesus said, “This came about (this blindness came about, doesn't say how, but says “why”) so that God’s works might be displayed in him.” And then Jesus healed him and sent him on his way. So clearly, with this blind man here, and with the woman suffering for 18 years, one way God’s works are displayed is through miraculous healing.
Another way God’s works are displayed is by the salvation and experience of grace that he grants a person as he uses their disability or infirmity to allow them to see him more clearly.
For example, there is a woman you may have heard of named Joni Eareckson Tada, who at age 17 was injured in a diving accident. She’s been a quadrepalegic ever since, in a wheelchair now for 50+ years. In an article she wrote last year, she recalls the weeks that followed her accident. Fresh out of the hospital, sitting with a friend named Steve and said to him, “I always thought that God was good… But here I am a quadriplegic, sitting in a wheelchair, feeling more like his enemy than his child! Didn’t he want to stop my accident? Could he have? Was he even there? Maybe the devil was there instead” (Tada).
“That night,” she writes, “Steve leaned across the family table, and said, “God put you in that chair, Joni. I don’t know why, but if you will trust him instead of fighting him, you will find out why — if not in this life, then in the next. He let you break your neck, and perhaps I’m here to help you discover at least a few reasons why. Steve paused and then summed it up with ten words that would change my life: God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves” (Tada).
Lamentations 3:32-33 says Even if he causes suffering, he will show compassion according to the abundance of his faithful love. For he does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind.
God does not enjoy permitting or allowing affliction or suffering. But he does enjoy redeeming affliction and suffering, he does enjoy pouring out compassion and overflowing in faithful love. He does enjoy healing, whether it’s immediate like this woman in front of Jesus, or if it’s a gradual process of becoming like Jesus like it was for Joni. She now has developed a worldwide ministry to disabled people that has brought help and relief to thousands and thousands of people, bringing hope and bringing Jesus to many of them, not to mention her speaking opportunities all over the world. To her, God permitted what he hates (her suffering and now daily pain) in order to accomplish what he loves in Joni, “which is that Christ in her is the hope of glory” (Tada).
And sometimes, as we’ve seen just now in Luke 13, God permits Satan to have the ability to inflict this woman with a painful and uncomfortable life for 18 years, so that one day Jesus would come along and with just a word and a touch, release her from Satan’s grasp and from the disability.
How that all works was not a priority for Luke to explain to us. But what is a priority for Luke is the synagogue leader’s response to this whole situation: 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded by telling the crowd, “There are six days when work should be done; therefore come on those days and be healed and not on the Sabbath day.”
He’s quoting the 10 commandments, number 4. It’s exactly what the law of Moses says – there are six days to do work, and the Sabbath is for rest. In this guys mind, he was defending the 10 commandments with his righteous anger. He thought he was defending God by keeping the letter of the law. So he’s shouting, “don’t get excited about this, he just broke one of the commandments!! If any of the rest of you need to be healed, come back tomorrow!”
15 But the Lord answered him and said,“Hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you untie his ox or donkey from the feeding trough on the Sabbath and lead it to water? 16 Satan has bound this woman, a daughter of Abraham, for eighteen years — shouldn’t she be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
Jesus’ answer packs a lot of punch. If you think of Jesus only as a nice guy, you’re not reading your Bible. For Jesus to call this woman a “daughter of Abraham,” he’s basically saying she’s your sister. She’s one of you! She’s an Israelite. That doesn’t mean she’s a follower of Yahweh necessarily, but of all the people this leader should be taking care of, it would be her! But, as Jesus points out, this leader and the others like him treat their cattle and donkeys better than they’ve treated this woman! They don’t mind a tiny bit of labor to untie, feed, and water their animals.
And speaking of a tiny bit of labor, Jesus healed her with just his words, “Woman you are free of your disability.” And then he laid his hands on her and instantly she was restored and began to glorify God.
17 When he had said these things, all his adversaries were humiliated, but the whole crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things he was doing.
He wraps up this scene with two short illustrations that explain what he’s doing here.
18 He said, therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like, and what can I compare it to? 19 It’s like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” 20 Again he said, “What can I compare the kingdom of God to? 21 It’s like leaven that a woman took and mixed into fifty pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”
In both illustrations, Jesus is describing the kingdom of God by saying it’s like these two processes – gardening and bread-making.
- In gardening, the process works like this: you take a small seed, rather insignificant on its own, and you hide it in the soil. Eventually it grows to something that has such a large effect that it can’t be hidden anymore. It’s a tree now, and birds are making nests in the branches.
- In bread-making, the process looks very similar: Leaven isn’t quite the same as yeast, but it’s the same idea. Leaven is fermenting dough that you would mix with flour in order to make bread. So you take a small amount of leaven, rather insignificant on its own, and you hide it in the flour. Eventually it ferments and grows into something that has such a large effect it can’t be hidden any more. 50lbs of flour, fermented into bread, would feed 100-150 people. Her entire community will benefit from this work.
Most of the people of Israel were looking for the kingdom of God to come with a king on a horse with an army behind him, taking out the wicked Romans, and making Israel great again.Jesus is saying, that’s what the kingdom of God looks like! It is full of things that seem very insignificant on their own, but the impact in the end is huge! Do you see what he’s getting at here?
But Jesus is saying, look, it’s already here! You just witnessed it right in front of you. This bent over woman seems very insignificant to all of you… so much so that you treat your cattle better than you treat her. Healing her doesn’t seem like it’ll do much to overcome evil in the world and establish the kingdom of heaven, but look at verse 17… his adversaries were humiliated and the whole crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things he was doing.
Jesus’ healing of this one woman affected the whole crowd of thousands. His adversaries were humiliated! The woman began glorifying God, possibly for the first time, and the whole crowd just witnessed Satan being defeated and corrupt leadership being exposed.
One commentator writes this: “If people [will give themselves] over to God’s purposes, small beginnings…come to fruition. God seems to be about the business of leavening – magnifying – what seems insignificant” (Snodgrass, 235).
A couple quick illustrations of how God takes what seems insignificant and magnifies it for his glory:
Joni Eareckson, a 60+ year old quadrapilegic woman, seemingly insignificant to the rest of the world, filled by God with the power of the Holy Spirit, impacts thousands upon thousands around the world, most recently, helping with the evacuation of hundreds of disabled people in Ukraine who had been left behind as their cities came under attack.
Like I shared back on Vision Sunday, the train that used to run through Riverside had a scripture reference printed on the side of it – Jeremiah 33:3 – call to me and I will answer you and show great and incomprehensible things. Seems insignificant on its own, right? Who takes time to read the side of a train for one, and who takes the time to look up the scripture? But almost 50 years later, God is reviving that invitation to this church, so that we would bear much fruit for this city and the surrounding communities.
Several of the men from River City went to a men’s retreat last month. It was started by one guy who went to a men’s retreat in Colorado and thought, shoot, we could do that in Iowa. So he and some friends put their heads together and now, for the past 10-15 years, 100+ men have been coming to this retreat every year, meeting Jesus, being set free from whatever bondage they have been held by. The kingdom is advanced by a small step of faith.
We could be here for years with the stories we could tell about the seemingly insignificant people and seemingly insignificant actions or prayers that have brought about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
One more: There is one moment in human history that seems very insignificant: The public execution of three criminals. Happened every day in Rome. There were crucifixions all the time. It was nothing unusual. Most people would probably have walked right by the crosses on their way into Jerusalem and thought nothing of the broken and beaten bodies writhing in pain on them. Even the Roman soldiers doing their job that day didn’t see anything unusual about it. Until about halfway through, when the afternoon sky went dark and an earthquake shook the ground. The man on the middle cross gave out a loud cry, “It is finished!” And then he died.
And yet at the exact same time, access to the presence of God was granted to anyone who would believe, not just certain priests in special robes with special knowledge. At the exact same time, there was no more need for sacrificing bulls and goats and sheep and doves, because the ultimate sacrifice for sin was made – once and for all. At the exact moment that man on the middle cross died, the penalty for sin was paid for all who would believe.
It seemed like an insignificant and rushed burial – not even with enough time to properly embalm the body before the Sabbath day started. But at the same time, this burial ended up being Jesus’ being swallowed up by death and by waiting for God to act on his word, waiting for God to act on his promises, waiting for God to resurrect him. At the same time, Jesus’ body was like a seed that had been hidden in the ground; A seed that had to die before it could produce life.
The next morning seemed like just another insignificant Sunday morning. The sun came up. People went back to their work after the Sabbath rest. Crops were tended. Cattle led out to pasture. Meals were made and clothes were washed. Many were still grieving the events of the weekend, moving a little slower than usual, trying to figure out what to do next. But it was anything but insignificant. It was the day we can’t get over 2000 years later. On that morning, the Son of heaven broke through the darkness of gloom and despair and hopelessness, as Jesus rose from death proving that the cross worked! On that seemingly insignificant Sunday morning, everyone past, present, and future who would ever put their faith and trust in Christ alone for salvation, was instantly justified and made righteous, as if they’d never sinned a single time, securing once and for all their salvation.
And that seemingly insignificant weekend is like leaven fermenting the pile of flour a little bit at a time, until it comes to its full fruition when Jesus cracks the sky and come charging back as a king to rescue his bride.
And today we share in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection through a seemingly insignificant meal. A small piece of bread, and a small cup of juice. On its own, it would not sustain you for very long. Yet, in this meal, 1 Corinthians 10 tells us, we are sharing in the body and blood of Christ. If you pick up this bread and the cup today, you are saying I died with Christ.
When he was on that cross, it was my sin he carried. A random crucifixion that day was anything but insignificant to me! His blood was necessary for my forgiveness, and I am linked through this meal by the Holy Spirit, to generations of Christians from every tribe and language and race from across human history who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus for salvation. That burial was anything but insignificant, because to me it means that just because things seem dark and stagnant in my life, just because it feels like all my hopes and dreams have been dashed to pieces, just because it feels like God has turned his back on me, oooh man,,, Sunday is coming!!!!
And that Sunday morning was anything but insignificant to me, because on that morning, my Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord made me a new creation! Because what Jesus did with me that Sunday morning was not dig around the bottom of the tree and fertilize it – As Romans 11 tells us, Jesus took me and grafted me into the tree that is Jesus, so that it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! It is his life that is flowing in and through me now, and I am adopted into his family, saved from death, rescued from myself, and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb!
And this seemingly insignificant meal we eat today will come to its full fruition one day at the marriage feast of the Lamb who was slain, and for eternity he will continue to fill us and satisfy us with his very presence. At his right hand are pleasures forevermore, and in his presence there is fullness of joy.
Set the table.
Joni Eareckson Tada, Ten Words that Changed Everything About My Suffering, September 7, 2021 (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/ten-words-that-changed-everything-about-my-suffering), accessed October 21, 2022.
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans)