Sermon Summary: Parable of the fig tree

In a sermon titled “Is God an Ax Murderer?, Pastor Lance McKinnon looks at Jesus’ well-known, but not well-understood parable of the fig tree. 

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree by James Tissot (public domain via Wkimedia Commons)
The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree by James Tissot (public domain)

Scripture reading: Luke 13:1-9 (NIV)

There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

In response to a retelling of the tragic story of Pilate murdering a group of Galileans as they were worshiping and making sacrifices, Jesus adds the equally tragic story of 18 people killed when the tower at Siloam fell. With both events in mind, Jesus challenges the common, though mistaken assumption that tragic events are always the result of sin and guilt. He tells his audience that they need to repent of presuming that the Father is adding up our sins and punishing us through random acts of violence and tragedy that come our way. He warns, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Jesus knows that if we carry this wrong-headed thinking about the Father in our hearts, the suffering and tragedy we all experience will be a weight too heavy to bear, killing us even in our worship of God.

Jesus then follows up that discussion with his well-known (but frequently misunderstood) parable of the fig tree. He does so to help his disciples think differently about what kind of God the Father is and how he deals with our sin and guilt. The owner of the vineyard in the parable is a stand-in for the erroneous viewpoint that people typically hold about God. The vinedresser is the Christ figure who helps us see how God actually deals with humanity, which is represented by the fig tree.

As with all fruit trees, under the law of Moses fig trees were protected from being cut down. They were precious and meant for the enjoyment of the owner. Note that in this parable, the fig tree was planted in a vineyard not an orchard. The Father did not “plant” us in his garden to market us or to produce fruit for his livelihood. We were created for his pleasure and enjoyment.

In Leviticus 19:23-24, we see that it was forbidden to take fruit from fruit trees for the first three years. In the fourth year the fruit would “be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord.” For the Jews hearing this parable, the act of the owner wanting to cut down the fig tree because he couldn’t find fruit on it for three years would have run counter to what the law stated. If we see God looking to cut us down when we don’t produce, we hold an image of God in our minds that contradicts his own revelation to us.

The vinedresser at this point speaks to the “man”—the mythological god we have created—and echoes what the law would have said to do: “Leave it alone for one more year.” This phrase “leave it alone” comes from the Greek aphes, carrying the meaning of forgive. It’s the same word Jesus utters from the cross in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive (aphes) them….” The vinedresser takes upon himself the fruit bearing of the fig tree by digging around it and fertilizing it with dung. It would be a smelly job of blood, sweat and tears but he gets to the root of the problem.

This parable in the hands of Jesus challenges any concept we might hold of a God whose patience runs out on us and looks to destroy us like some sort of ax murderer. Rather, he comes to us in Jesus and operates through grace; through aphes. Through the crucifixion, digging into the dirt and dung of death, Jesus has rooted out our unfruitfulness. We are called to repent of any wrong-headed notions that it is up to us to produce fruit in the fear of an axe-crazed owner bent on our destruction. We abide in the fruitfulness of our Savior who works only through aphes.

The parable ends with the vinedresser saying to the “man,” “If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then [you] cut it down.” We can trust in Jesus working through grace for our fruitfulness, or we can perish in our wrong-headed belief in a mythological god. The mythological god will cut us down every time, but the real God never will.

Kid’s Korner: Is your children’s ministry in survival or creative mode?

Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)Just about every parent or grandparent with young children or grandchildren knows about the popular video game Minecraftwhich is basically a virtual version of Lego.

What does Minecraft have to do with children’s ministry? Find out in a helpful article on the Kidologist website titled Is Your Kidmin in Survival or Creative Mode? (click here to read it).

Minecraft_Church
Minecraft Community Church in my world

From Greg: It’s not about numbers

Dear fellow ministers of Christ,

Greg and Susan Williams
Greg and Susan Williams

For the first 14 years of my life, with my family I attended the Advent Christian Church. It was such a small denomination that I only knew of one sister church, some 40 miles away. I came to realize that many of their teachings originated with the 1900s Baptist preacher William Miller (the Worldwide Church of God has a similar lineage).

Our Advent Christian pastor died in 1968. Because we were a very small church, and because my father had been serving the congregation, the mantle of leadership was passed to him. Though my dad was a student of the Bible, he had no formal training to be a pastor. As a child, I liked his preaching because he didn’t attempt to operate as a traditional pastor giving a sermon every week. Instead, he was more like a facilitator leading a Bible-based discussion. The members responded well to this style of learning and my dad’s leadership.

Little did I know that my father’s experience from my childhood would give me exposure to thinking about how I should oversee our US ministry in the 21st century. The Lord prepares us in mysterious ways for the future work he has in store for us!

here is the church
Source

Another memory from my childhood is a Sunday School hand illustration of the nature of the church (pictured above). You start by clasping your hands together and intertwining your fingers, then you say out loud, “This is the church.” Then you extend your index fingers, held together, saying, “And here is the steeple.” The final step is to invert your hands making your fingers stand up, then say, “Open the door and here are the people.” I always wondered how only ten people could be the church. Yet, the illustration works. My brothers and I would assign names of church members to each of our ten fingers. This might seem a bit goofy, but in an unusual way this childhood experience prepared me to have a heart for the large number of our GCI congregations today that, due to their very small size, are designated as fellowship groups.

In 2016 we conducted seven Regional Conferences across the US. Part of our mission was to free our congregations averaging less than 15 in attendance to operate as what they actually are—small groups. In many ways, these churches look a lot like the one my dad pastored back in 1968.

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Fellowship group worship service demonstration at the Orlando Regional Conference.

At the Regional Conferences we demonstrated an approach to fellowship group worship services that takes advantage of their small size rather than fighting against it. In Ted Johnston’s article in this issue you’ll find a video showing one of those demonstrations. In Lee Berger’s article, you’ll find tips concerning the facilitator’s role in leading fellowship group discussions that substitute for traditional sermons. We encourage our fellowship groups to experiment with discussion-based worship service formats. It not only might be more fulfilling for current members, but also more attractive to visitors.

As we’ve transitioned our very small congregations to fellowship groups, a few have wondered if we’re saying they are no longer considered GCI “churches.” I want to assure them that this is definitely not what we’re saying. The church, which is the body of Christ on earth, is made up of local congregations of various sizes. Small ones are no less the church than are large ones. What counts is not the numbers but the ability of the congregation, no matter its size, to be an authentic part of the church, on mission with Jesus for the sake of the world.

Calling our very small congregations “fellowship groups” helps us to be clear in our communication both internally and externally. We get phone calls from people who have found one of our churches listed online, but when they visited, found something quite different than what they expected. In Western culture, the term “church” connotes a certain number of members that very small congregation are not able to provide. The term fellowship group not only accurately represents the nature of our very small congregations, it also provides a point of connection often more attractive than “church” for people who have had bad experiences with traditional (large) churches.

A big “thank you” to our fellowship group facilitators for their service of love. We greatly appreciate and admire what you are doing! You are very much an integral part of our ministry. We in Church Administration and Development care for you just as much as pastors of our larger churches, and we will continue to support you to the best of our ability.

Many blessings,
Greg Williams

PS: For more about fellowship groups, check out two issues of Equipper (https://www.gci.org/files/Equipper10.9.pdf and https://www.gci.org/files/Equipper10.8.pdf) and this video from GCI President Joseph Tkach:

Worship in fellowship groups

Below are the five articles in the September issue of Equipper, which focuses on conducting worship services in fellowship groups. Enjoy!   — Ted Johnston, editor

From Greg: It’s not about numbers
Drawing from his childhood, Greg Williams points out the advantages of worship in fellowship group-sized congregations.

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Here’s what it looks like: Fellowship group worship
Ted Johnston shares a video that demonstrates fellowship group worship.

Tips for facilitating discussions in fellowship groups
Lee Berger offers tips on effectively facilitating group discussions.

Sermon Summary: Parable of the fig tree
Lance McKinnon shares a sermon titled “Is God an ax murderer?”

Kid’s Korner: Is your children’s ministry in survival or creative mode?
Here’s what the video game Minecraft has to do with children’s ministry.

Tips for facilitating discussions in fellowship groups

Lee Berger, pastor of GCI’s Longview, TX, congregation, shares what he has learned about facilitating fellowship group discussions. 

Lee and Sue Berger
Lee and Sue Berger

We can all learn much by sharing in the experiences and thoughts of other people. When a group of folks gets together, we hope for a profitable, open, positive discussion—but this result does not automatically happen. I’ll bet we’ve all been involved in group interactions when feelings get hurt, arguments ensue, no one feels safe to speak up, the group leader or another person monopolizes the discussion, or there’s precious little accomplished due to lack of direction. Often, the key element for a constructive discussion is the skill of the leader—the one we refer to as the “facilitator.” A facilitator is one who lessens resistance, smooths the way, and makes the road easier.

:Church in the circle" at Lee's church
“Church in the circle” at Lee’s church

If handled properly, small group/fellowship group gatherings can be positive, thought-provoking and life-changing experiences leading to personal growth. Let’s look at some principles that will help any discussion leader be a good facilitator:

  1. Have clear goals. Is the discussion supposed to follow up on a central theme of a speaker or a biblical passage? Are we aiming for an “ice-breaker” session where we hope the group will share and get to know each other better? Are we searching for comments or input regarding an idea or policy? Whether the discussion is formal or more casual, a good facilitator will keep in mind the overall goal(s) and lead the group toward accomplishment. In fact, it is probably a good idea for the facilitator to state the goal(s) up front so the whole group will be aware of the objective.
  2. Provide a climate of acceptance. Many people are afraid to express their opinions because they are fearful of what others might think—fearful of being ridiculed, judged or considered “dumb.” Participants need to feel secure before they will share their feelings and beliefs—even if their ideas seem to go against the “normal” grain. A good facilitator will not “put down” sincere ideas, but will control criticism, improper laughter or judgmental comments. The facilitator must be very careful to not “take sides” in issues of opinion, and the participants should be encouraged to express their true thoughts and feelings. Invite everyone to comment, ask questions to encourage wide input, but don’t force individuals to speak; this can backfire and actually decrease overall participation.
  3. Affirm all legitimate expressions from your members. Let each person know that his or her comments and contributions are appreciated and important. As people participate, encourage future comments by making a point of thanking them. Keep in mind affirmation of a comment does not necessarily mean approval of the idea expressed. Although you don’t want to squelch honest expressions, be aware that some people have a tendency to make insincere comments just for the “shock value.” Your job is to keep the discussion honest and open.
  4. Discourage members from thinking of you as the “authority.” As a facilitator, your job is to encourage input from the other group members—not to give the “right answers” to all the questions. Rather than spout off all you know about the subject in a “lecture” style, use your knowledge to ask probing questions and wisely direct the comments of the rest of the group (this is quite challenging, but greatly rewarding). When people are giving their comments, be sure they are addressing the group—not talking just to you or looking for your approval. Remember, you serve as the facilitator—a member of the group who is helping make the discussion happen.
  5. Actively listen to each person (and encourage the rest of the group to be good listeners). God gave you one mouth and two ears. Good discussion group leaders know how to listen and to encourage the rest of the group to be good listeners. Your job is not to monopolize the discussion or contribute the wisest words on each issue. Don’t feel you have to make a “summary” statement after each point. You are the facilitator; encourage others to talk.
  6. Use group dynamics to maintain discussion. Sometimes, you will have disagreements in your group, someone may come up with an “off the wall” idea, or a person’s behavior may be truly improper. As the facilitator, you should not take sides, unilaterally “correct” the person’s ideas, or immediately confront someone in an authoritative manner. It is always better if any opposing comments or corrective statements come from the group at large rather than from the leader. Give time for the group members to act; often they will see the flaw and address it. As the facilitator, you can ask leading questions to encourage a more reasoned response from the group, or you may have the “offending” party give further reasoning and explanation for their statements or actions. If handled wisely by the facilitator, the group members themselves will defuse most issues. But if someone is truly disruptive to the group, the facilitator may need to step in. If so, handle the correction as lovingly and gently as possible.
  7. Don’t allow one person (yourself included) to monopolize. Almost every group has a person or two who likes to talk and is perfectly willing to express their opinion on every question. If one person is overbearing to the point of limiting discussion by other members, find creative and positive ways to limit that person’s input while encouraging others to join in. You may, for instance, want to seat the “monopolizer” next to you so you can purposely avoid eye contact, thereby limiting acknowledgement for commenting. Or you might speak to the “monopolizer” in private, commending their passion for sharing their thoughts, and enlist their help in drawing other members into the discussion—partly by limiting their comments to allow more “empty space” for members who are more reticent to formulate their thoughts.
  8. Arrange seating to encourage discussion. Sitting in rows “theater style” is not generally conducive to discussion. Instead, have everyone sit in a circle or semi-circle or around a table. Don’t allow some to sit behind or outside of the main group; help everyone feel part of the group—not an outsider.
  9. Don’t be afraid of silence. Many discussion leaders are intimidated by silence in the group. Their first reaction is to fill the silence with a question or a comment. Learn to feel comfortable with silence. Realize there is often a message in silence as much as in talking. Discuss the silence with the group. “What does the silence mean?” Are they deeply considering a “heavy” question, was the question not clearly stated, are they embarrassed to voice their thoughts, do they feel intimidated by the group? Wait it out for at least 30 seconds; allow time for thought and response. If necessary, ask the question from a different angle or move ahead and come back to that question later.
  10. Try to keep the discussion under control. “Control” here does not mean heavy-handed, narrow-minded, straight-as-an-arrow authoritarian regulation. Remember, as the facilitator, you’re striving to encourage input from the whole group toward a positive outcome. As such, there may be times when you need to limit or re-direct conversation for the good of the group, or occasionally even lovingly admonish a member who may stray too far out of line. Be aware of the flow of the discussion. Sometimes the discussion may become sidetracked from the main issue. You will need to decide whether or not to pursue that issue and see where it leads, or whether to redirect the conversation back to the original subject. If interest is high in the digression and the direction seems profitable, you may want to stay with it. In other cases, you may say something like, “We may come back to that subject later, if we have time. Right now, let’s finish our discussion on….”
  11. Model and encourage respect. There are many ways to teach mutual respect. How about, “Only one person talks at a time”? Each person’s opinion is worthwhile and deserves to be heard. Or, “There is no such thing as a dumb question or comment.” Asking questions and sharing views is a great way to learn. “No personal put-downs” is a good rule to teach respect. If someone disagrees with or questions another’s comment, they are free to express their opinion of the comment, but not of the person who made it.
  12. Maintain confidentiality. Confidentiality is a key to a healthy discussion if the exchange involves any type of private personal information. If the points above are successfully employed, group members may feel moved to share feelings or facts of a personal nature—to open up some deep parts of their soul. It is very important that the whole group agrees to maintain personal information as totally confidential to your group. Otherwise, trust is broken, feelings are hurt and the discussion will only touch on shallow, generic subjects. Make sure everyone understands, “What is said in this room stays in this room,” and repeat this principle often. (An exception to confidentiality would be if the person speaks about causing harm to themselves or to someone else—then get help).

Small group discussion facilitators have a crucial role in creating the environment most conducive to learning, sharing and growing. It’s often in small group settings that God works miracles of spiritual formation that change people’s hearts.

_______________

Note from editor: for additional tips on facilitating small group discussions, see a previous article from Lee at https://update.gci.org/2015/08/church-in-the-circle/ and training videos on GCI’s Faithtalk Equipper website at http://faithtalkgroups.blogspot.com/.

Here’s what it looks like: Fellowship group worship

Equipper editor Ted Johnston shares a video that demonstrates a discussion-based Fellowship Group worship service. He then offers some observations.

Ted and Donna Johnston
Ted and Donna Johnston

As Greg mentions in his cover letter, at the 2016 GCI-USA Regional Conferences we addressed the whys and hows of fellowship groups. In one workshop we held a foreshortened fellowship group worship service to show how fellowship group-sized congregations can conduct worship in a way that capitalizes on their small size.

Embedded below is a video with excerpts from the demonstration at the Orlando conference (on YouTube at http://youtu.be/PKOF2i6cD5I). Following the video I offer a few observations (and I encourage you to add your own in the “leave a reply” box below).

Here is what I observed in viewing this demonstration:

  • Worship in a circle facilitates face-to-face discussion (the folks outside the inside circle in the video were workshop observers—a normal fellowship group meeting would have just the one, inner circle).
  • The inherent flexibility of the format is seen in the video in several ways: the way the group accommodated the Spanish-speaking woman, providing informal translation so the group could understand her; the way the children were involved; and the way one speaker built on the comments from the previous one (a pre-announced theme encouraged this interaction around a single topic).
  • As you saw near the end of the video, following the demonstration, one observer asked, “Who was the facilitator?” That’s a telling question, in that it pointed up the skill of the facilitator. She did not dominate—she got the discussion going and kept it moving, but stayed in the background. For helpful tips on how to be an effective discussion facilitator, see Lee Berger’s article in this issue.

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  • Given the time limitations at the conference, the demonstration didn’t show some other key worship elements:
    • Intercessory prayer: a fellowship group setting is great for providing prayer for individuals for formally and informally. For example, during the discussion time, when a need is expressed, the person can be prayed for then and there.
    • Communion: consider sharing the Lord’s Supper during each worship service—in that way the Table becomes the focus of worship and a key part of the group’s sharing.
    • Offering: because receiving an offering is a fundamental part of worship, we encourage congregations of all sizes (including fellowship groups) to incorporate the offering into the order of service (rather than having it as an ancillary to the service).
    • Fellowship: many fellowship groups have a meal as part of every service (typically after, thought it could come before). Given the small size of a fellowship group, this does not have to be a labor-intensive undertaking for anyone (the host included).