LUKE13v6to10: THE BARREN FIG TREE
(A) Introduction. (Read the passages.)
Whenever we plant a fruit tree or even a runner bean we hope for fruitfulness. I am not a great gardener but I do grow runner beans. I am pleased to see the plant wind up the cane followed by a profusion of red blossom but what I await most eagerly are plump, green beans. I do not set the seed for either leaves or blossom but for beans. Jesus is the same. As the vineyard owner expected figs from his fig-tree so Jesus expects fruit from those who profess to believe in him.
(B) Christians should be fruitful.
What does it mean to be fruitful? The few verses from Romans 12 included in the passages to be read give us some idea of what it means to be fruitful.
Christians should be devoted to one another in brotherly love. I think that at the very least we should show affection and exhibit some warmth. On Sundays I stand at the door of our chapel and kiss most of the ladies as they leave. However, there are a few hard-bitten souls who won't be kissed - not even by me.
Honour one another above yourselves. We should delight in the accomplishments and achievements of our brothers and sisters. This is easier said than done. Sometimes a spirit of rivalry abounds in churches. We all like to be best - whether it is preaching sermons or making cakes. Most of us know what it is like to be damned with faint praise by our competitors! David, the secretary of Walsham le Willows chapel, told me that there used to be a lady in Hepworth who made a wonderful ginger cake. His mother begged for the recipe. She got a recipe! It wasn't for the famous Hepworth ginger cake. No-one, but no-one, was going to produce a cake like hers!
Be...patient in affliction. Last week I took Phyllis to see her sister-in-law, Jessie, and Jessie's husband, Henry. Phyllis and Jessie were soon discussing arthritis, pills and techniques for getting in and out of the bath. Henry kept saying, "Let's change the subject." It wasn't long before the side effects of anti-inflammatory drugs were getting an airing. "Let's change the subject," pleaded Henry again. Henry himself has osteoporosis and Parkinson's disease but whenever I ask him, "How are you Henry?" He replies, "I've a lot to be thankful for." He is patient in affliction and puts some of us, who fret at the smallest discomfit, to shame.
Keep your spiritual fervour. If we have a job to do in the church we should do it with enthusiasm. One lovely summer's day I travelled to Weybread - a small village on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk. I went to see birthwort - quite a rare wild flower. As I examined it there was the sound of frenzied barking from the church. Eventually a door opened and a lady looked out. She apologised for her dog, asked what I was doing and then informed me that she was removing the cobwebs - an annual chore. The friendly lady seemed quite cheerful about it. It is possible to dust with fervour - if it is for the Lord. It is even possible to cut the chapel graveyard grass with fervour although I haven't managed it yet!
Be faithful in prayer. This means we should pray regularly both in private and publicly. It amazes me that there are people who claim to be Christians who never attend a prayer meeting. This is a basic Christian activity that believers have engaged in for 2000 years. It is as fundamental to the well being of the church as eating is to the body.
Share with God's people who are in need. There remain old, poor folk who are in need of a car - to take them to church, to shop or for a little treat like a cream tea. If we have a car there are no end of ways we can share with God's people in need.
Practise hospitality. This is something any one with a home and the ability to produce a meal can do. But not all Christians are hospitable. Church secretaries in pastorless churches do not find folk queuing up to entertain the visiting speakers. Many in the West grudge sharing quality time with relative strangers!
These are some of the ways we are expected to bear fruit. The important thing about Paul's list of ways to express love for Jesus is that all can accomplish them.
So what can be done to make those who claim to be Christians more fruitful? There are a lot of so-called Christians who are like the unfruitful fig tree. They are in the right place; they attend church regularly. They may be ornamental - good looking, smartly dressed, well spoken and very respectable - but that is all they are, nothing but leaves. They are like the drones in a hive. So what can be done to make them more fruitful. The parable of Jesus suggests three possible strategies.
(C) The manager of the vineyard recognised the potential of the fruit tree.
The vineyard owner was disappointed for three years in succession and wanted to cut the useless fig-tree down. It was a waste of space! His farm manager, on the other hand, wanted to give it another chance. He knew that the fig-tree had the potential to produce figs. It wasn't an oak-tree but a fig-tree and it was in the nature of fig-trees to produce figs. It is very important to recognise the potential of all who attend church.
People in all walks of life are held back when their potential is not recognised. It was true of Tiggy Boreham who as a boy was always put into bat last for Brockley Cricket Club until he got fed up and went to play for someone else. He developed into a fine opening batsman - for another club! It was true of Campbell Morgan. The panel who interviewed him for the Methodist ministry failed to recognise his potential and he was lost to Methodism. It was true of Saul of Tarsus. The Jerusalem Church packed him off to Tarsus where he doubtless would have stopped but for Barnabas.
The church owes much to those like Barnabas who recognise the potential of others. Barnabas travelled all the way to Tarsus to rescue Paul from a dead-end ministry. He brought Paul back to Antioch where he became a valued member of the team. Priscilla and Aquila realised that Apollos could be a great evangelist if the importance of God's grace was explained to him. So they took him on one side and explained to him the way of God more adequately. Acts18v26. Forty years ago Pastor John Skull saw my potential. No, not as a preacher - few Grace Baptists have recognised this - but as a sports organiser. He invited me to serve at Pioneer Camp where I supervised games for 20 years.
Sometimes a person needs a second chance. I can remember my father preaching a sermon on: 'The gospel of the second chance.' He had one telling illustration from his own experience. My father backed a tractor into the ditch whilst working for Harry Laflin. Whenever, in the future, Harry needed some tractor work done he would say in his thin, scratchy voice, "We can't ask Mr Reed to drive because we don't want the tractor to end up in the ditch." My father never drove one of Harry Laflin's tractors again. He was given no second chance - much to his disgust.
Alice Taylor writes of her girlhood in Ireland in her autobiography, 'To School through the fields.' She writes of Christy who worked on her parent's farm. One night, after a dance, he discovered that his bicycle tyre was flat. This was a disaster for Christy because he had promised his girl friend a lift home on the handlebars. So he filched an inner tube from another bike. For this horrendous crime he spent 6 months in jail.
On his release from prison Christy returned to work for Alice's parents. He was very quiet and subdued. On his first Sunday back at work Alice's father and mother went out for the day leaving the house, the children and the farmyard in Christy's care.
A few days later Christy visited his mother. "Christy," she asked him, "will they trust you on the farm after being in prison?" He replied, "It made no difference; they went away on Sunday and left me in complete charge." This did more than anything to restore his self-esteem. He was given a second chance.
John Mark let Paul and Barnabas down on their first missionary journey. The young cousin of Barnabas was not prepared to travel into Galatia. Paul found it hard to forgive him and refused to take him on his second missionary journey. Barnabas was determined to give John Mark a second chance even if it meant breaking with Paul. Barnabas' trust was justified and his cousin became a man Paul, himself, eventually came to rely upon.
Sadly, there are people whose potential is recognised but who remain unfruitful. I found this as a schoolteacher. I would take a badly underachieving youth to one side and tell him how well he could do if only he worked harder. I had boys of intelligence, with interest in Geography, whom I encouraged to fulfil their considerable potential. My plea frequently fell on deaf ears.
Jesus chose 12 disciples all of whom had potential. Perhaps, Judas had more than most - but he never realised it.
In my own fellowship there are some who could be such a huge help to us if only they would make a commitment to Jesus Christ, be baptised and join the church. Despite much encouragement they remain unwilling to commence fruitful Christian lives.
(D) The manager of the fig-tree decided to stir up its roots.
The manager thought if he dug around the fig-tree it might be stimulated into fruitfulness. Some times if a failing shrub is dug up and replanted it thrives. I am not an expert in fig-trees and cannot tell if stirring up the roots is likely to have much effect but the strategy of the husbandman is suggestive of two spiritual lessons:
If the roots are stirred up it threatens the trees security. Sometimes God uses adversity - disappointments, dislocations and disruptions - to make us less secure and produce fruitfulness.
Mr Will White used to be our baker before he went into farming. At 75 he had led a useful life. He was a good and decent man without being a fruitful Christian. When he was 75 his wife died. This disorientated and depressed Will. He started coming regularly to our chapel for the first time that I could remember. Within a year he was converted. He cast all his care on Jesus. Will was changed. He loved the fellowship of believers; he delighted in others; he was fervent in prayer. When I visited Will he would say, "Jesus is my friend - isn't it wonderful?" God made Will fruitful by upsetting his life and making him less secure - for a time.
(b) Roots keep a tree content.
Complacency and self-satisfaction keep many people from delivering what God wants. Jesus stirred up the Pharisees during his public ministry. They were pleased with themselves as they were and self-righteous. The Pharisees trusted to their Jewish ness and visible adherence to the Law of Moses. Jesus attacked the Pharisees not just to make them feel bad but in the hope that they would examine themselves and change.
Church attendees sometimes need a forthright sermon. Fruitless professors whose religion is merely external cannot be allowed to rest comfortably on their laurels until it is too late. Christians must be told to get their priorities right. It is more important to attend the prayer meeting than watch TV, play whist, practise football or weed the garden. I have been to many churches and preached forthrightly for the first - and last - time. Congregations do not like being stirred up any more than the Pharisees. We know what they did to Jesus! Not many visiting speakers get crucified - they just get dropped.
(E) The manager planned to give the fig-tree a liberal application of fertiliser.
The manager decided to manure the fig-tree. He knew that the productivity of plants increases if they are well fed.
Peter Webb from Stanstead, who attends our chapel, brings superb flowers for our Harvest Thanksgiving. His dahlias have blooms the size of soup bowls. I said to him, "My dahlias aren't like yours." He gave me a pitying look and replied, "I look arter mine ya know." So he does - as lovingly as a mother cares for her baby. He keeps feeding them a little of what does dahlias good.
The manager's efforts suggest that it is important for Christians to be:
It makes a difference if boys and girls at school are well taught. I was well taught at University College London and the London Institute of Education. Professor Peters, who lectured on the Philosophy of Education, got me clear on what education, training, freedom, authority and punishment were and this informed my entire career. I remain grateful to him.
Aquila and Priscilla were good teachers. They explained to Apollos the way of God more adequately. Those two godly tent makers probably had to introduce Apollos to the doctrine of salvation by grace. It made Apollos more productive. When he went on to Corinth he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. St Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan and John Wesley all became truly fruitful after they were made aware of the grace of God.
There are other Christians who need to be reminded of the value of works! They need a dose of James Epistle or the Sermon on the Mount. I think many Christians brought up in the circles that I was have a defective view of the Bible. I heard a preacher say last Sunday that no true believer in Jesus can doubt that he cast demons, evil supernatural entities under the control of Satan, out of Legion. Well I am a true believer and I doubt it! I think that Jesus miraculously healed a schizophrenic. The Bible is not a medical textbook. Jesus did not make scientific pronouncements about diseases. He came to seek and to save the lost. The Bible is about man's relationship with God - and should be used as such. It is God breathed because it has proved useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness thereby equipping the man of God for every good work. See Tim2v15to17. It is God's guide to righteous living not a psychiatrist's manual on mental disturbances.
Unfortunately it doesn't matter how well taught some children are they seem to learn nothing. The same is true of certain church attendees. Their hearts are stony. No amount of feeding does them any good. They are like the barren fig-tree. They have stood in God's vineyard for many years. They have been regularly fed week by week but these spurious professors remain as unfruitful as if they had never heard a word of truth.
Christians thrive on encouragement. When Apollos decided to leave Ephesus and go to Achaia the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. Apollos must have been heartened by the support he received.
Teachers quickly learn that pupils respond positively to praise. I have written about this many times before on this website. It is a pity when Christians are unresponsive and unappreciative. There are a few tight-mouthed believers who never part with a compliment!
During my visit to Henry and Jessie they showed me a letter from Liz. Liz had invited them both to her wedding in Bury St Edmunds. They sent Liz a present but owing to ill-health felt unable to attend. The letter was to thank them for their gift. Liz had been out of touch for several years and Henry and Jessie were not sure about her faith. In the letter she took the opportunity to tell Henry and Jessie that she was a member of an evangelical church in Bury St Edmunds and thanked them for introducing her to Jesus. Before Jessie handed me the letter she said, "John, we have had some good news." It was the best of news and encouraged those two old saints in their twilight years.
I am afraid that there remain a few tender plants in the church like Jane Austin's Lady Catherine de Bourgh - described in, 'Pride and Prejudice.' Mr Collins the vicar made such a fuss of Lady Catherine. She was highly sensitive to frost! No amount of cosseting changed her. Lady Cathering de Bourgh was incapable of generosity. Those handled with much delicacy often produce least fruit.
Judgement is coming! Finally, the unproductive and unfruitful will be cut down. The good husbandman says of the barren fig-tree, "'If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"
Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.
It is unnecessary for me to make any further comment on Jesus' grim warning.