Mark Johanson, Minister of Music & Worship - November 27, 2023
“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.” -Mark 11:12-14 (NIV)
In 2015, major grocery chains around the country began a new concept at their checkout lanes. In response to comments from families with young children, they introduced “family-friendly” checkout lanes which, rather than tempting you with that last-minute candy bar or soda, they stocked them with healthier options, including dried fruits and whole-grain snacks. Moms everywhere rejoiced, because they no longer had to tell their child “no” when he or she begged for a pack of M&M’s. If we’re being honest, impulse-buy candy bars aren’t just targeting children. Often, I find myself tempted to grab that last-minute snack when I’m at the checkout, and no doubt you’ve felt the same way from time to time.
Every single one of us faces a myriad of distractions on a daily basis. Whether it’s an innocent candy bar in the checkout line, or something much more dangerous like texting and driving, distractions pull our focus away from what we really ought to be doing. Presently, I am fighting off multiple distractions that pertain to a new chapter in our family’s life: a few weeks ago, we relocated to a new home more suitable for our family’s needs. As with any move to a different home, changes and improvements are inevitable. As I scrape popcorn ceilings and remediate moisture in the laundry room, I find myself tempted to get distracted with details that aren’t important yet, not until I’ve dealt with the “brick and mortar” issues that need to come first. It’s fun to see the house come together, but right now, those things have to be put on hold.
During my undergraduate studies at Valparaiso University, I took a theology course on the Gospels. One particular passage I recall learning from that class was the account of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, found in the three Synoptic Gospels. In these different accounts, a fig tree, which has continued to not produce fruit, is cursed by Jesus, and several commentators have suggested that it refers to the paradox of Jesus’ mercy and compassion, compared with the rigors of his justice. Other commentators relate the fig tree to represent the Jewish temple; the fig tree is first cursed by Jesus, then found dead days later after Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers doing business in the temple.
However you interpret the account of the fig tree, we can all relate to a scenario when something which should have been working, wasn’t. The “squeaky wheel” analogy, which gets “the grease,” is a good visualization. When you have a wheel that squeaks, you grease it, because grease is less expensive than a new wheel. But, if the wheel keeps squeaking after you’ve greased it, and you have made reasonable attempts to put it back into service, the next best option is usually to either abandon the wheel or replace it altogether.
As a church leader, I sometimes find myself distracted by the allure of projects and tasks which rob me of my time. It’s fun to engage in projects and long-range planning ideas, but if they take my focus away from that thing which is most important for our church—corporate worship—the pet projects become more important than the fundamentals. God deserves better than that, and so do our parishioners. To put it another way, let’s not allow ourselves to become idle, unfruitful, and useless like the fig tree which did not produce fruit and was cursed to death.
Beginning this Advent season, may I encourage you to avoid the distractions—those which are especially prevalent this time of year—which keep our focus away from Jesus and his redemptive mission. If you are being distracted by less important obligations and commitments that keep you from attending Sunday worship, please consider making changes so those obligations no longer conflict with your commitment to worship. If you are being distracted by problems in your personal life that are preventing you from dwelling in the light, please consider finding ways to eliminate them, for the sake of your emotional energy. If your resources of time and wealth are being used to manifest darkness, rather than light, please consider changing the trajectory of your legacy. This Christmas, listen to Christ’s invitation to dwell in him, in the Light, as a branch of his living tree that bears fruit for the glory of the God.