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It's gardening season right now. How many of you like to garden? You love to dig in the dirt and plant flowers or vegetables? I admire you because I am not a gardener. Cut grass. I can do that. But gardening, that's Jennifer's sweet spot.
Last year, we had a bumper crop of strawberries. I mean our strawberry patch in the front yard went crazy. This year we have none. Nothing. Zilch. And I've been blamed for killing it. In fact, there's a warrant out for my arrest. I've been accused of burying it under too many dead leaves this winter which is a real drag because we love fresh strawberries. So I'm back to cutting grass. Don't touch the strawberry patch!
But if you're a gardener, I admire you. It takes a lot of skill and patience and perseverance to do it well. You've got to know what you're doing. You've got to know what flowers love sun and which ones prefer shade. You have to know when to plant your fruit and vegetable seeds. You've got to be ready to fertilize and weed and water. You've got to stay at it every day. It takes a lot of consistent, hard work to raise a beautiful flower garden or a lush vegetable garden teeming with produce.
And one thing every serious gardener understands is the importance of pruning. Certain plants, bushes, trees, and shrubs need to be pruned back. Dead branches and sucker shoots need to be removed for a rose bush or a fruit tree to be healthy. When a plant is properly pruned it becomes more productive. More beautiful. More fruitful.
And that's what God wants each one of us to be. He wants us to be more productive. More beautiful. More fruitful. And to do that he sometimes puts the gloves on and gets out the clippers and prunes us so we can bear more fruit.
This morning we continue our series called What If with a teaching I've called "Finding Purpose in Life." If we believe, we have purpose in life. And our purpose in life is to bear fruit. That's what Jesus says. If you have a Bible in your lap or on your device please turn to John 15.
While you're turning there, let me give you a little background on the book of John. John wrote his gospel with one purpose in mind, to convince us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing in him we have life in his name. The book of John is sometimes called the gospel of belief. The word "faith" and "believe" are found almost 100 times. That's why the John is the best place to start for someone new to the Bible.
John begins his book echoing the words of Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning," to show us that the story of Jesus is the story of a new creation. And just like the first creation was completed in seven days, John uses the number seven to structure his book. The number seven in Jewish thought stands for wholeness and completion. So John records seven miracles that Jesus performs with the resurrection being number eight to mark a new beginning.
And he records seven "I Am" statements that Jesus makes. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the door. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection. I am the way, the truth, the life. And number seven is I am the vine.
John 15:1, I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.
Jesus says this the night before his crucifixion. The Passover meal has ended and Jesus says in John 14:31, Come now, let us leave. So the disciples get up, shuffle out the door, and follow their leader down the stone steps and into the quiet streets of Jerusalem. And under a brilliant full moon they wind their way across the Kidron Valley over to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus has an appointment with a traitor named Judas.
But on their way they pass a vineyard of grapes, one of many bordering the Valley of Kidron. And there Jesus stops and picks up a heavy vine with branches full of budding grapes and teaches this truth that John records for us.
John 15:1, I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.
Notice that Jesus calls himself the "true" vine, the genuine vine, the real deal. That image would have connected immediately with the disciples because the vine was the national symbol of Israel. The vine was to Israel what the bald eagle is to America. It was the symbol of their country, minted on their coins. A solid gold six-foot grapevine worth millions of dollars in today's currency hung over the door of the Temple.
In the Old Testament God called Israel his vine. He planted Israel on this earth to produce fruit, to be righteous and to uphold justice, to draw people to the one true God. But the vine failed to produce fruit.
The prophet Isaiah expresses God's grief in Isaiah 5:7, The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Israel, God's people, failed to produce fruit. Instead of being part of the solution to the violence, poverty, and injustice in the world they were part of the problem. So now Jesus arrives on the scene and says, "I am the true vine. I am the new Israel. I will succeed where Israel failed." So how does Jesus produce this fruit of justice and righteousness? He produces it through us, through those connected to the vine.
Look at verse 5, I am the vine, you are the branches. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches and he wants us to be fruitful.
I did some reading on viticulture this week which is a big Latin word for the science of grape growing. And what I discovered is that it takes a lot of time and effort to produce a good harvest of grapes. You don't just plant a vine and walk away. The vine needs lots of love and care from the gardener in order to produce fruit which tells me that God the gardener gives us the same tender love and care because he wants us to bear fruit.
He wants us to be a blessing to this world. He wants us to bless our homes and our families and our schools and our offices and our shops and our neighborhoods and strangers with the fruit of love and righteousness and justice and goodness and peace. And so he's doing everything he can to help us become fruitful. God is getting his hands dirty in your life and mine right now. He is elbow deep into it.
God is not sitting in some distant corporate office running his church like some multi-national corporation. We're not just a number to him or some widget on an assembly line. He is intimately involved with our lives every day. And his goal for us is to bear fruit, more fruit, and much fruit so that we can bless the world and bring glory to his name. Ben blessed that man with a prayer that led to healing and God getting the glory.
And how does the gardener do it? How does God make us fruitful? He does it with rocks, sticks, and a knife. Those were the primary tools of a gardener in Jesus' day.
Verses 2-3, He cuts off (or lifts up) every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
That word "cut off" is the Greek word airo which also means to "lift up." In fact, it's translated "lift up" in other passages of the New Testament. Both meanings are possible and Jesus may have both meanings in mind here.
You see when a branch isn't bearing fruit, the gardener gently lifts it up and lays it on top of a rock or props it up on sticks shaped like a "Y" so that the branch can get more sunlight and begin to bear fruit. And that's what God often does for us. He'll prop us up, turn us toward the sun. He'll show up in those "random experiences" we've talked about if we have eyes to see them. But over time if we stop bearing fruit the gardener may take out the knife and do some pruning or even cut the branch off.
Look at verse 6, If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
Yikes! What does that mean? Well, as you can imagine there's lots of debate over what Jesus actually means here. Some believe that Jesus means we can "lose our salvation." Personally, I don't believe that's true. Instead, I think Jesus is speaking more about divine discipline that God brings into our lives if we stop remaining in him and cease bearing fruit.
Every writer in the New Testament has something to say about God's discipline. Sometimes it's pictured as fire. God disciplines us because he loves us. He disciplines us for our own good like a loving parent. He disciplines us so we'll bear fruit.
So if there's no fruit in our life, Jesus says, God will first lift us up, prop us up, turn us towards the sun to get our attention. But eventually he may have to get out the knife and discipline us in some way. And if we are bearing fruit, God will still get out the knife and prune us back so that we can be even more fruitful because that's what good gardeners do.
One of the main tasks of the gardener was to carefully keep the vine pruned and cleaned. The "sucker shoots" that rob the branch of nourishment needed to be cut off or else no grapes would grow. Dirt needed to be sponged off the leaves, bugs needed to be picked off by hand, dead leaves needed to be removed. Caring for the vine was a full-time job and that's how God cares for us. Pruning and cleaning are a constant process.
The struggles we face, the disappointments in life, the difficult relationships, the pain, the suffering, the heartaches, the obstacles, the things that don't go our way, are all part of this pruning process. Difficulties are not God abandoning us. They are God caring for us. The gardener is out to remove the things that are stunting our growth. And if we remain in the vine through it all and don't bale we will bear much fruit.
Look at verses 4-8, Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Eight times in four verses Jesus uses the word "remain." Do you think he's trying to tell us something? Here's the key that unlocks this whole passage for me. Our job is not to bear fruit. Jesus doesn't say over and over again "bear fruit, bear fruit, bear fruit." No. Our job is to remain in the vine and the fruit will come. Bearing fruit is the result of remaining in the vine. Remaining is what turns What If into What Is.
And what does it mean to remain. John defines it for us in 1 John 3:24, Those who obey Jesus' commands remain in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he remains in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. Remaining in Jesus is all about obeying the things he said and following the Spirit. It means pursuing our relationship with him both privately and in community with others.
I can't say it any better than Tom Wright when he says, "The urgent question, then, is this. How do we ‘remain' in him? What does it look like in practice? We must remain in the community that knows and loves him and celebrates him as its Lord. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We can't ‘go it alone.' But we must also remain as people of prayer and worship in our own intimate, private lives. We must make sure to be in touch, in tune, with Jesus, knowing him and being known by him." That's our vision by the way, to know Jesus and be known by him.
If we want to bear fruit, more fruit, much fruit, it all starts with remaining in Jesus. That's why we've gathered here this morning for worship and prayer and community and a fresh look at Jesus. That's why many of you will gather or talk with other Christ followers sometime during the week. That's why many of us will carve out time to be alone with Jesus in prayer, or in worship, or in the Scriptures. That's why we need to pay attention to the voice of the Spirit in our lives. We will not bear fruit without first remaining in him.
Without me you can do nothing, Jesus says. Not somethings. Not a few things, but nothing.
Wright says, "And, though it always hurts, we must be ready for the Father's pruning knife. The vinedresser is never closer to the vine, taking more thought over its long-term health and productivity, then when he has the knife in his hand."
This powerful image can get us through the tough times. Do you feel like you're being pruned right now? Do you feel the sharp edge of the knife? Let me assure you that the knife is in the loving hand of God the Father, our heavenly gardener. Any farmer will tell you that the test of good pruning is not the fruit the vine produces in one year. The test of good pruning is the number of years that the vine produces fruit. God wants to make us fruitful for a lifetime.
So Jesus puts down the vine. The object lesson is over. Now it's time for his disciples and for us to remain in him. And as they walk to the garden of Gethsemane on that fateful night their faith will be pruned in ways they could never imagine. Remaining in Jesus turns What If into What Is.