New Year First Fruit

Saturday 31st December – New Year’s Eve

Vicar Matt Huckel

Jeremiah 24:1-10

1After Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the officials, the skilled workers and the artisans of Judah were carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Lord showed me two baskets of figs presented in front of the temple of the Lord. 2One basket had very good figs, like first fruits that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so rotten they could not be eaten.

3Then the Lord said to me, “What are you seeing, Jeremiah?”

“Figs,” I answered. “The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so rotten they cannot be eaten.”

4Then the word of the Lord came to me: 5“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians for their good. 6My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land; building them up and not tearing them down. I will plant them and not uproot them. 7I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will turn to me with all their heart’.

8‘But like the rotten figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the Lord, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. 9I will give them terror in all the kingdoms of the land, to become stripped down, to be a byword and a curse in all places wherever I drive them out. 10I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are completely gone from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.’http://stpetri.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/20161231_message.mp3

Tonight I will be dipping my toe into the realm of horticulture and gardening. This is not all my forte or calling in life, but I always attend to and try to maintain any garden I am responsible for. As my family moved into our house here in Nuriootpa we were confronted with a very tall slender sucker shoot of one of the front yard roses. It was too close for comfort when coming to the front door as its thorns nearly struck your face as if it was a plant like creature from the sci-fi book: ‘The day of the Triffids’. Myself armed with secateurs, it met its demise this week much to my satisfaction but I found just how deep down from the root it had shot up from. This youthful dominant and slender thing was what many rose gardeners online have discussed. When someone once complimented how good a lady’s long and healthy shoot from a rose plant was, she said: ‘Oh no it’s not, and it will eventually be so strong and so big, it will take over and the big mother rose will gradually get weaker and weaker’.  It’s all in the name: suckers; they simply suck the life and energy out of things. Keep this in the back of your mind because we’ll come back to sucker shoots later on but in our Jeremiah text we have another gardening problem: figs splitting open and going rotten.

Now the setting for this prophetic picture is the year 597 BC. Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon has carried off the cream of the crop, the high class citizens from Judah, in order to assimilate them into to Babylonian society. With them is Jeconiah the young 18 year old king who only reigned for three months, plus his officials, specialised craftsmen and 3,000 or so others. Left behind is the puppet king Zedekiah and the rest of the people of Judah; their time was limited too as in 586, Babylon had had enough of them and destroyed Jerusalem and left the land and everyone completely wasted.

When Jeremiah saw these two baskets of figs he saw these two distinct people groups. The young king Jeconiah and his officials and 3,000 Jews were the good figs. These figs had ripened early, called first fruits. Fig trees often produce two lots of figs. The figs as first fruits ripened early in May or June. These were the branches from the previous year which made figs before the leaves sprouted. The new branches of the year made the late figs around October time. Now this second batch of figs were bad and I mean very bad. What on earth had happened? The text tells us they were rotten, but how exactly? We get a clue later on in Jeremiah 29:17. The bad figs are mentioned again but this time the Hebrew actually gives us a diagnosis: split figs. Before the figs had even begun to ripen they had grown way too quickly and split open. Once open they are easy prey to bugs, ants and most of all, mould. I’ve seen the pictures. A split mouldy fig is a horrible sight!

The cause of split figs and the cure is fascinating. Simply put, split figs are caused mainly by over-indulgence. The tree has way too much water or nutrients and the figs grow so fast they split open. According to horticultural advice the cure is an anointing of olive oil on the eye of the fig early on which will hasten the ripening process before they get too big and split. I’m wondering if you are beginning to see some theological depth in this imagery: the anointing of olive oil, an ancient healing rite; note James 5:14 where it says ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord’.  Interestingly also is the issue of over indulgence. The bad fruit are a product of a tree that is a sucker of a different kind. The corrupted people of Judah took everything from the land and the poorer people to fulfil their selfish desires. They had made unions with foreign gods and sucked everything dry until they burst and became so diseased they were of no use to anyone; that is why the clean up operation was so necessary.

So how does God feel about all this? Well firstly the text expresses God’s attentiveness and loving watchful eye over the good fruit that has gone to Babylon. He has wonderful plans for their future; plans to re-plant and make everything new again. In verse 7 God says: ‘I will give to them a heart to know me, to know that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God; for they shall turn to me with all of their heart’. Being taken to Babylon must have been terrifying for the exiles, but later on in chapter 29 Jeremiah writes them a letter of encouragement telling them to be fruitful in Babylon and increase in number; these good figs carry the seeds for generations to come. Most importantly the seed that will produce Jesus; you’ll be interested to know that our young 18 year old king Jeconiah is listed in Jesus’ family tree in the Gospel of Matthew. God knows what he is doing! We do unfortunately hear what happens to the rotten figs in verses 8 to 10 but don’t think for a second that God doesn’t care about that. If you want to witness the gut wrenching grief of God, read the whole of the book of Jeremiah. It grieved him so much to see his precious people perish in the land that he gave to them.

We now come to those sucker shoots I mentioned earlier. The good figs carried the seed that would replant the fig tree of Israel at the return of the exiles into the land, but when we get to the New Testament we find this fig tree has different problems. It does not produce any fruit. In Mark’s Gospel and in Luke’s we find the fig tree not producing fruit. Jesus curses it in Mark chapter 11, but in Luke chapter 13 the gardener in the parable of the fig tree patiently gives the fig tree more time to bear fruit by fertilising it once more.  John the Baptist is not so patient; in Luke chapter 3 verse 9 he has the axe ready at the root of the trees that don’t bear good fruit ready to chop. Now although the text gives the sense of individual trees being cut down the Greek word rhizo for ‘root’ is defined actually as ‘a shoot stemming from a root’. Fig trees like other trees grow sucker shoots at the bottom. When well developed they look like individual trees although they are connected to the main root. We can imagine these shoots standing proud and tall, sucking the energy from the main root of the people just like the Pharisees and teachers of the law were doing. Perhaps these were what John the Baptist had in mind when he wanted to chop them off and burn them.

As we approach New Year’s day tomorrow we might be reflecting on our own fruit production this year; the fruit of the Holy Spirit. What’s the season been like for you? I’m sure there has been a lot of variation in terms of ideal conditions but most likely sin or worry has probably either sucked the energy out of you or made you over-indulge in the wrong things causing your fruit to spoil or reduce its production.  Perhaps some of you have the opposite problem. You’ve had a bumper crop of gifts of God and you are parading them around in front of others for all to see. Many years ago a vision of a fruit tree was given to our church leaders in a local congregation in England. They were parading in a basket their best people, their pastors, the gifted and attractive looking people, whilst all the wonderful rich and less attractive ripe fruit of the ordinary people of God were left behind to over-ripen, fall off the tree, and die. Perfectly good fruit, wasted.

The great news is that with all of these problems it’s not all up to you to fix it! You are all grafted into the fruit vine of Jesus. You are nourished by his life giving nutrients. You have a gardener called God the Father who prunes away the rotten failures and the dead wood of pride and unbelief, who anoints your spiritual fruit with olive oil so it ripens into Christ’s love and service to all of the people of God, not just the easiest people or most popular ones. This is all because of Jesus, the first fruit who allowed himself to become split, broken, rotten, and diseased by the sin of the world. Like the forbidden fruit that was taken off the tree and eaten by Adam and Eve, Jesus became that bad fruit hung on a tree. On the third day of creation God created seed bearing plants and trees that bore fruit. On the third day of Jesus’ resurrection he became the fresh new seed from the dead and diseased fruit.

Our wonderful God has his eyes set on us. He watches over us with his attentive care and he assists our fruit production usually without us even knowing. This year’s season might have been quite hard for many of you but God gives us a new season and a new beginning. As you go into this New Year, let him take off the dead wood; don’t pile it up. He’ll prune you because he loves you with his whole heart. Go into 2017 with the words of Jesus found in John chapter 15 verse 16:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last (John 15:16).      Amen.

CONVERSATION STARTERS

Jeremiah 24:1-10

1After Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the officials, the skilled workers and the artisans of Judah were carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Lord showed me two baskets of figs presented in front of the temple of the Lord. 2One basket had very good figs, like first fruits that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so rotten they could not be eaten.

3Then the Lord said to me, “What are you seeing, Jeremiah?”

“Figs,” I answered. “The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so rotten they cannot be eaten.”

4Then the word of the Lord came to me: 5“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians for their good. 6My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land; building them up and not tearing them down. I will plant them and not uproot them. 7I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will turn to me with all their heart’

8‘But like the rotten figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the Lord, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. 9I will give them terror in all the kingdoms of the land, to become stripped down, to be a byword and a curse in all places wherever I drive them out. 10I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are completely gone from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.

Instruction

Just like in Jeremiah’s day God is in the business of rescuing and redeeming his people, his good fruit. But he also grieves deeply and cares when his people turn away from him and decay in their sin and rebellion. Discuss with others what this text might be saying to you about the mercy and ways of God to create new beginnings from bad situations.

Confession

Sometimes we can hide away our bad fruit and only choose to show people our good ones. Pray about how you might be more able to share the less perfect fruit in your lives with others so that God can use that vulnerability to help heal and restore you and others.

Thanksgiving

We are blessed to be in a world God does so much for us and often we are simply blessed with so much provision of his physical and spiritual blessings. Spend some time listing the blessings for this week and thanking God for even the littlest things.

Supplication

Often our spiritual fruit can be hidden from our very eyes. Perhaps you have been operating in the gifts or fruit of the Holy Spirit without you even realising. Ask God to reveal to you the gifts he’s given to you and ask him to help you walk in those gifts.

Prayer

Lord God, you are extravagant with the gifts you give us and the fruit you grow through us. Thank you that your Son became the bad fruit so that we can bear the precious good fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Help us to bring that good fruit to those around us; even to people who we might find difficult or challenging. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.

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