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FIRST-PERSON: The tragedy of uselessness (part 2)

TAYLORS, S.C. (BP)–In a first-person column last week, I began looking at this great biblical passage in which our Lord Jesus shows the power of His communication skills. Sometimes we think we are communicating and then later find out that we weren’t. We would love to have even just a portion of Jesus’ skill in communicating.

Listen to this story: A state trooper pulled a car over and told the man driving that he was going 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. “I was only going 40!” the driver protested. “Not according to my radar,” the trooper said. “Yes, I was!” “No, you weren’t.” With that the man’s wife leaned toward the window and whispered, “Officer, I should warn you not to argue with my husband when he has been drinking.”

In this instance, communication certainly occurred. However, it occurred in a way other than that which was originally intended. Our Lord Jesus communicates powerfully and clearly in the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:1-9). It is one of the most powerful passages in all the Word of God.

Last week, I talked about the fact that the fig tree was placed in a purposeful location, but it failed to bring forth a purpose for which it had been planted. I talked about the fact that we, too, face the same possible failure. God has great hopes for us, yet we have failed so many times.

What are the results of such failure? The first obvious result is uselessness. This fruitless tree was a thing of no use. And that is the tragic truth about so many folks both in the church and out of it. They are guilty of no vicious or outrageous wrong-doing. They do not violate the law. They are just utterly and absolutely useless. They stand with the call of great needs ringing in their ears and never seem to hear.

What a tragic loss, both to the individual and to the group. I am convinced that perhaps the most appalling waste that afflicts us today is the complacent moral and spiritual uselessness of so many decent and capable people.

And this waste is a sin. To Jesus, the crime of crimes is to be merely useless. He says as much in His parables of judgment. Every disaster that is visited is the result not of some wrong thing done, but of some right thing left undone. The five foolish bridesmaids had the door shut in their faces, not because they had become unclean, but because they had no oil. The man of one talent was flung upon the pile of worthless things, not because he had squandered his talent, but because he had refused to invest it. This fig tree was ordered cut down, not because it was bearing fruit that was poisonous, but because it was bearing no fruit at all. The man out of whom the unclean spirit had been cast entered into slavery sevenfold worse than the one from which he had been set free. This was the case, not because he had deliberately reached forth his hand to the unclean. It was true because his hands were empty. His sin was the sin of uselessness.

What are you doing? What good is there in the church, or in the city, or in the world that owes its existence to you? What is there of value here that simply could not be here at all but for you? What contribution are you making? There was a time you dreamed of usefulness.

This tree was not only useless. It was a positive hindrance. It was in the way. “Why should it use up the soil?” was the question of the owner. Since it did not give an account of itself in terms of fruit, it was a parasite. It was taking to itself the sunshine and the rain. It was receiving the properties of the soil, the attention and care of the vine dresser, and giving absolutely nothing in return. To bear no fruit, therefore, is not only to be useless. It is to be a menace.

We all know of many church members who live in constant neglect of their privileges and obligations. Even though they stood before the altar of the church and took a solemn vow to support it, they now live indifferent or even antagonistic to the church. In an effort to justify themselves, they put on a fine show of righteous indignation that the reason they have become antagonistic is because of the evils of the church. While the church has many failings, in these instances, there is often the degeneration of a church member into a critic and then into a fault finder in order to justify uselessness.

As a denomination, I am convinced that we, too, have squandered opportunities. For several months, I have been talking about the need for a relevant, biblically based methodology to share the timeless message of Christ. Honestly, I have received criticism for this. It seems that in our world today when one talks about relevance, some people want to ascribe to it compromise or modernism. Some people truly believe that any attempt to relate to our culture is contrary to Christ’s desires.

I could not disagree more. I am convinced that if we do not begin to seek a biblically-based relevance, we will become the useless — even worthless — fig tree in this parable.

We also need to see the reality of judgment and grace. The final result of fruitlessness is that it invites disaster. “Cut it down” are the words we hear.

Listen — since fruitlessness does not result in immediate destruction, some are led to believe that no such results will ever follow. The fact that the penalty is not visited at once is due to the mercy of God. “Let it alone this year also,” pleads the vine dresser. The fact that we have been spared in spite of our uselessness does not mean that this law that is inevitable has forgotten to operate. It only means that God is doing His loving best to bring us to our possibilities. Let us not be blinded by His very mercies, as we too often are. Jesus Himself has stepped in, giving us the second chance we do desperately needed.

How, then, shall we escape this threefold tragedy — the tragedy of uselessness, the tragedy of being a menace and the tragedy of ultimate destruction? The way of escape is indicated by the plain words of Jesus, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” By repentance Jesus means more than our being convicted of sin. He means more than our being sorry for sin. The repentance that Jesus is requiring means a turning from barrenness to fruitfulness. There is more involved in this, of course, than feverish activity on our part. Certainly the first step toward usefulness is rightness with God. It is absolutely essential to be our best if we would do our best.

Everyone who looks back and evaluates his or her performance conscientiously must admit that there have been great periods of time when we were not very productive as fig trees in the vineyard of God. We have not brought forth the fruit that would be pleasing to God or of which we could be properly proud.

While some opportunities may have flown into the past and are impossible to recall, we can rejoice in the fact that we do have the present and some portion of the future.

Please join me in a prayer that God will give us another opportunity. We do not want to see God’s hand of judgment come upon us. We want His words and hand of grace to give us another opportunity to reach our world for Jesus sake.
Frank Page is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. Visit his website at www.sbc.net/PresidentsPage.

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  • Frank S. Page