Do you believe in the power of prayer? Do you have enough faith to pray bold prayers like Jesus teaches about tossing mountains into the sea as we read today?
This morning we are going to be talking about prayer, but it’s not just that we are to be praying or even that we are to be bold in our prayers. That is something we all know already. Rather, we are going to be looking at how we are to be praying and the perspective we are to have in our prayers. What we read today occurs the next day after the cleansing of the Temple as the disciples pass by the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before. Let’s read Mark 11:20-25.
I. Let’s look first at the sequel to Jesus and the fig tree in verses 20-21.
Last week we learned how Jesus used the fig tree as a prophetic symbol of the destruction of Jerusalem because of the disobedience of the Jewish leaders. Now the tree’s literal destruction puts an exclamation point on the Temple clearing. That the tree was withered from the roots indicates the totality of its destruction. Job 18:16 gives the example of a tree to describe the complete destruction of the wicked: “His roots dry up below and his branches wither above.” Jesus had said that no one will ever eat any fruit from that tree again. At the moment of Jesus’ words, that tree’s destruction was certain and complete. Jesus made no attempt to interpret the event but it is clear that the withering of the tree served as a vivid warning of impending judgment against God’s people.
This judgment using these terms was already talked about in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 17:9 says, “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Will it thrive? Will it not be uprooted and stripped of its fruit so that it withers? All its new growth will wither. It will not take a strong arm or many people to pull it up by the roots.” In Hosea 9:16 God speaks about his nation Israel and says, “Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit.”
The cleansing of the Temple and this withered tree were God’s warnings that this is not just for one day but soon the destruction and cleansing of Israel would be complete. Peter notices the withered tree and mentions it to Jesus. He seems a bit surprised that what Jesus had said had actually occurred. That must have been a “whoa!” moment for Peter. This is serious stuff!
The message for us is that God does take sin seriously! The nation of Israel had rejected their specific call to be the obedient nation who would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. They would be severely punished as a result and it would be demonstrated in the destruction of the Temple. They remained, and will always be, God’s chosen people, but they would suffer the consequences of their sin and abandonment of the covenant.
God is not mocked by our sin either. If we are persistent in sin, God will discipline us. God’s purposes will never be thwarted but we may not receive the blessings that God is willing and eager to pour out on us.
Stafford was reading the Sermon on the Mount at that time and the contrast between how we are to live as Christians was striking. Jesus says, “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” and “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Stafford wrote, “In comparison to the mundane, conformist wisdom of Life’s Little Instruction Book, Jesus’ words have a powerful and uncompromising majesty.” These are the things that Jesus expects from us as we live for him and if we desire to receive the blessings of life with God.
Responding to Peter’s comment on the tree, Jesus tells his disciples to have faith in God. We would have expected Jesus to talk about the tree and how it points to God’s judgment on the people. Instead Jesus talks about faith and prayer. So what is going on here? Jesus here wants his disciples to realize something in light of the coming judgment. Jesus wants them to realize what they have rather than strive to have more faith. For example, if I say to you, “You’ve got to work harder so you can get what you need to live,” you would hear that as a statement that you have to do more. However, if I said to you, “You already have the money in the bank from someone else. Realize it and use it!,” it’s an entirely different thing I’m telling you. Jesus is assuring them that they already have the faithfulness of God.
“Have faith in God” places the emphasis on the faithfulness of God toward them. This is not an exhortation to generate more faith but to realize the God we have. What Jesus is exhorting his disciples to have is a quiet confidence and to trust in the power and goodness of God who accomplishes everything even in times of judgment.
Jesus then underscores this by the bold teaching about the mountain and the sea. The Dead Sea is visible from the Mount of Olives where Jesus and his disciples were. It may well be that this is mountain Jesus has in mind with the Dead Sea below. Imagine this! It must have been very powerful to imagine the mountain you are standing on being thrown into the sea that you can see right in front of you! But there is much more to what Jesus is saying that using a mountain and the sea to make a dramatic point about faith and prayer. Many think that Jesus was using an extreme example to show the power of prayer; however, it’s much more than that.
Jesus is making a sweeping claim not only about the power of faith and prayer but about his role and the coming kingdom of God. Jesus may well have had Zechariah 14:4 in mind as well. “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, East of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.” In this day of the Messiah’s coming, the Mount of Olives will be split in two, and Jesus’ words echo that prophecy.
Moreover, the Old Testament teaches that when the Messiah comes and the Lord assumes his kingship “the whole land will be turned into a plain.” Zechariah 14:10 says, “The whole land, from Geba to Rimmon, south of Jerusalem, will become like the Arabah. But Jerusalem will be raised up high...” The prayer that Jesus has in mind is a prayer for God to establish his reign. The prayer Jesus is referring to is one of God’s kingdom to come. And Jesus is saying that God is completely ready to respond to the prayers for God’s messianic kingdom to come.
Jesus is teaching that if we pray in that way, God will use his power to do what he chooses to establish and advance his kingdom. Within that context, the person who submits to God without doubting can deal with every situation and any difficulty because with God nothing is impossible. Recall what Jesus had said earlier in Mark 10:27 about entering the kingdom: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.
So that leads us to the question: Do we believe what Jesus is saying here? God doesn’t always give us what we ask for, does he. We pray for healing but the healing we desire doesn’t come. We pray for restored relationships but there remains alienation. We pray for peace and justice but there is war and violence and hatred. We pray for mountains to be moved but they seem to stay right where they are.
But there are two things we must remember here. The setting of the kind of prayer Jesus is talking about is God’s kingdom. Jesus is saying that every individual request is heard but each request must be given within the context of the kingdom of God. And that means secondly that we must always submit to the sovereignty and kingship of God for God is doing what is best even though we can’t often understand it.
The older I get, the more I realize how much of a child I am in the presence of God in my understanding of things. A child may ask for more ice cream and her parents will say no because they know that it’s not good for her. A child doesn’t get why his or her parents say no and think it’s unreasonable and unfair because it’s perfectly obvious that they need more ice cream! God knows what is best and in our limited thinking we have to submit to him and trust that all he does is for his glory and the furthering of his kingdom.
III. Then Jesus concludes with a teaching on prayer and forgiveness in verse 25.
The transition between 24 and 25 is abrupt and a bit odd, since Jesus had been talking about faith, while this new saying speaks of forgiveness. When Jesus taught earlier about prayer, forgiving others was a very important thing to him and it may be that Jesus wanted to underscore that again here. Jesus may be emphasizing that it’s not only faith but also willingness of the Christian to forgive makes our prayer effective. If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive others. If we want our prayers to be answered, we must also forgive others.
Let’s not ever forget the importance of forgiveness. We love the thought of our sins being forgiven and God accepting us by forgiving us. But we have difficulty extending that forgiveness to others who have offended us. We want to get back at those people and we want them to pay for their offense. Or perhaps we just want to not have to deal with them again. Jesus makes it clear that we are to forgive if we are to be effective in our prayers.
That powerful forgiveness is what we are called to display toward others as well. And Jesus is teaching us here that if we pray in faith and with an attitude of forgiving others, we too will see amazing things in our lives in the kingdom. We may see the mountains of hatred, racism and violence diminish as the kingdom of God comes more and more. That is the life in the kingdom that God calls us to live. Will we embrace that?