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The Miracles of Lent: The Withering Fig Tree
Mark 11:12-14, 20-21

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lenten Vespers III—March 7, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The sermon series this year for our Lenten Vespers services is “The Miracles of Lent,” focusing on miracles that are part of the Lenten story of our Savior’s suffering and death.  So far we have looked at the miraculous darkness that enshrouded the earth for three hours while Christ hung upon the cross, and the resurrection of Lazarus, the mighty miracle that prompted Jesus’ enemies to plot to kill him.  We continue this evening with an unusual miracle our Lord performed on Monday of Holy Week:

“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’ . . .  In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.”

Mark notes that “it was not the season for figs,” and therefore the church father St. Augustine comments on this miracle, “Isn’t there something absurd about Jesus cursing a tree for not bearing fruit out of season?”  It’s true that we still might do such an irrational thing, in a hysterical burst of anger.  But, Jesus says about himself, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.”  So, this incident couldn’t have been just an outburst of anger on our Lord’s part.

The other thing that is unusual about this miracle is that it is the only negative miracle Jesus ever performed.  All his other miracles always gave a positive, blessed benefit, on behalf of those for whom they were performed.  From his first miracle turning water into wine for the wedding couple at Cana; to the feeding of the 5,000; to calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee; to the last miracle he performed before his crucifixion, when in the Garden of Gethsemane he healed the servant’s ear that had been severed by Peter.  Except for this one, unusual miracle on Monday of Holy Week, all Jesus’ other miracles were never miracles of cursing and withering, but always of healing and restoration.  As Matthew reports, “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.”

Because the miracle of the withering fig tree is so different from all our Lord’s other miracles, Augustine concluded that it must be prophetic, that our Lord performed this unusual miracle on Monday of Holy Week because it has some symbolic significance.

“Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.”  Throughout the Bible, fruit represents the works that we do in our lives, either the good fruit of good works, or the bad fruit of evil works.  As Jesus said, “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. . .  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 

So, that is first of all what this unusual miracle symbolizes.  The judgment Jesus pronounces upon the fruitless fig tree symbolizes the judgment we all deserve, because of our lack of proper good fruit in our lives, and the bad fruit that we so often bear instead.  Like the fig tree, which withers when our Lord curses it because of its lack of fruit, we all deserve to be cursed in the final judgment, cut down and thrown into the fire of hell.

But, the Good News is the withered fig tree on Monday of Holy Week also has another symbolic, prophetic significance, pointing a few days forward to the events of Good Friday at the end of that fateful week.  One of the Bible verses our Confirmation students memorize is 1st Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”  What that verse literally says in Greek, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”

The judgment Jesus pronounces upon the fig tree at the beginning of Holy Week symbolizes the judgment all of us deserve, being pronounced instead upon Jesus himself as he hangs on the cross at the end of Holy Week. The withering of the fig tree symbolizes the excruciating suffering he endured in both body and soul as he suffered and died for our salvation.  Just as he cursed the fig tree on Monday because of its lack of fruit, on Good Friday he endured the curse of the cross in our place, as punishment for of our lack of good fruit and the all the bad fruit our lives.

Peter says in Acts, “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day . . .  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”  That’s the Good News of the miracle of the withering fig tree.  Through the suffering and death of Jesus’ own withered body upon the tree of the cross your sins are all forgiven. 

His disciples probably thought back to this unusual miracle that took place on Monday of Holy Week when a few days later at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday he told them: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. . . I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit. . . this is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”


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