“A green thumb.” All of us know what the expression means. It describes someone who is very good at raising plants – someone who is able to make them thrive and produce great flowers and fruit. In England they use a similar expression – “green fingers.”
We all know what it means. What is interesting is that there is disagreement about the source of this expression. Some say that it originated in England during the reign of Henry I who is reported to have loved fresh peas and kept a group of servants removing peas from the pods. In doing so their fingers were stained greened. A more likely explanation is that it originated in the fact that the clay pots used by gardeners became encrusted with algae and this stained fingers green. And it may be that while “green thumb” describes the same thing as “green fingers,” it has a completely separate derivation. Those who raised tobacco would remove the flowers from the plants so that the leaves would grow in size and weight. Colonial era farmers often did so using their thumb which became green in the process.
We may not be sure how the expression “green thumb” came to be, but we do know for sure what it means. And we can say for sure that in our text tonight, our Lord Jesus does not have one. Jesus encounters a fig tree that has no fruit. In reaction to this, he causes the fig tree immediately to wither and die. At first glance, it’s a really odd event. But when we see its connection with what Jesus has just done and said in the temple its meaning becomes clear. And it is a word that we need to hear during Lent.
The events of our text take place on the day that Jesus entered into Jerusalem. After riding into Jerusalem to the cheers of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!,” we learn that Jesus makes his way to the temple. There he drives out all of those who are involved in buying and selling – the money changers who exchanged money into the form used in the temple, as well as those selling animals to be sacrificed. As he did so, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
Now it’s not the buying and selling of animals that is the problem. After all, the sacrifices had been commanded by God as part of the Torah he gave to Israel. If you are going to have animal sacrifices, you need animals that are suitable for sacrificing. And if you are going to have people come from all over Israel to sacrifice, they will need to be able to buy animals.
Instead, when Jesus uses the phrase “den of robbers” he provides the clue we need to understand what is happening. In the sixth century B.C. the prophet Jeremiah had announced that the temple was going to be destroyed because of Judah’s unfaithfulness. In doing so, he described the temple as a “den of robbers.”
In both cases, people were going through all of the motions of what they were “supposed to do.” But spiritually, their attitude was all wrong – especially that of the religious leaders. In Jesus’ day they were focused on what they did and their expectations of how God should work, rather than looking in faith to the reign of God that was present in Christ.
Those who had no illusions about their own need were drawn to Jesus all during his ministry. And it was no different here in the precincts of the temple itself. We learn in our text that the blind and lame came to Jesus and he healed them. These wondrous deeds were accompanied by the cry of children who said, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as they echoed Jesus’ entry into the city. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that Jesus did, and heard the children crying out in the temple they were indignant. Their reaction demonstrates what was wrong at the temple.
Jesus withdrew outside the city to Bethany for the night. We learn that the next morning as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. He saw a fig tree there along the road. He went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves, at a time when it should have had fruit. So he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
It seems like a strange action. Yet the background for understanding it is provided by the Old Testament and the events in the temple of the previous day. The prophet Hosea described Israel as fruit on a fig tree, and Jeremiah and Micah both compared Israel to a barren fig tree. When Jesus causes the barren fig tree to whither, it is an action prophecy of judgment against Israel that has rejected its true king and proven to be unfruitful. They are going through the motions and doing what they are “supposed to do.” But they are not looking in humble faith for what God is doing in Jesus Christ.
Our text tonight is a warning to us. It is easy for us just to go through the motions of being Christians. It is possible to be doing what we are “supposed to do” – to go to church – and yet have this be disconnected from what happens in our life the rest of the week. It is possible to fence God off in that hour or two on Sunday morning while we claim the rest of the time in the week for ourselves.
The need for self-examination and repentance in our life never ceases. In reality we are probably not capable of doing it at the same intensity all of the time. And that is why the season of Lent is a blessing in our lives and the life of the Church. For a period of time, we are called to focus upon our lives and God’s Word. We are called to examine ourselves and confess the sin that is present. We are called to repent and turn in faith to Christ who provides forgiveness and strength to turn away from sin.
In our text tonight we see Jesus in the temple during Holy Week. This combination of place and time provides the assurance that in repentance and faith we find the forgiveness of our Lord. The temple was of course the place where the sacrifices commanded by God took place – sacrifices that would find their fulfillment in the death of Jesus Christ that was about to take place on Friday of that very week.
The sacrifices were about God’s forgiveness. And in particular, the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement removed the sin that stood as a barrier between God and his people. It removed the sin that cut them off from fellowship with him. Jesus Christ offered himself as the sacrifice for all – the sacrifice for you. He provided himself as the ransom in your place by which you have received forgiveness and eternal life. And in his resurrection from the dead he has begun the life that will be yours on the Last Day.
During Lent we have the opportunity to examine our lives and recognize those ways in which we are just going through the motions. And at the same time, the season of Lent leads us back to the source that enables us to live as what Christ has made us to be.
Lent leads us back to our baptism, for it leads us to the first service of the resurrection - the Vigil of Easter. It leads us back to a faith filled remembrance of what God has done for us through water and the word. It leads us to the source of our Christian life, for through baptism the Spirit has joined you to the saving death of Jesus. And through baptism the Spirit has begun the work of Christ within you. It is the risen Lord through his Spirit who provides strength to live in faith – to live out the faith in the world instead of just going through the motions.