Greetings from the metropolis of Stout and Goedenavond van Nederlands. It is always a privilege to proclaim the Gospel here in Colfax, where these walls have been saturated by the saving story of Scripture for generations. It is also good to be among you after recovering from jet lag. We were in the Netherlands last week while you gathered in Stout, so I am assuming you all were clapping uproariously and dancing in the aisles praising Jesus. No? I don’t know what happens when we are gone, but that’s what I imagine in my mind. Well, I am positive you praised Jesus and that Bob proclaimed the gospel. In this, our final Lenten Evening service of the year, we close our time listening to Jesus revealing himself through his series of statements that begin with I AM.
Jesus says, I AM. It is a statement of identity, of revelation. He says I AM and he invokes the image of Moses standing before the burning bush. I AM WHO I AM, the LORD says to Moses, and God pulls back the veil upon his character and gives his name to Moses. Now, centuries later, this God has come as the man Jesus Christ. This God has entered history and he says, seven times, I AM. Seven times, the biblical number of fullness, of completeness, signaling that in Jesus the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, that as the man Jesus Christ, God has most fully and completely told us who he is.
Five weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, I AM the Bread of life – we must feast upon Christ to be satisfied, learn to hunger and thirst for the only one who can feed our hungry souls.
We heard Jesus say, I AM the light of the world – he lights the way before, illuminating our steps and driving back the darkness
We heard him say, I AM the gate – he is the one through whom we must enter to find eternal life and shelter
And we heard him say, I AM the good shepherd, he is the one who lays down his life for his sheep.
And today, I AM the vine, the one in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit.
I invite you to turn their in your Bibles with me to John chapter 15, beginning in verse 1. John 15, beginning in verse 1. John is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. John 15, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.
Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
In the book of Nehemiah, we hear of the behavior of the people when the book of the Law was opened and read. Nehemiah 8:5-6 says, “Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen” Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.”
We all stand when a judge enter a courtroom. We all stand when the bride enters to the sanctuary. Should we not stand in honor when the sweet and strong words of our bridegroom and judge are read aloud to us. So I invite you to stand as we hear the Word of the LORD:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in my, 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.
I 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. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I need to confess an unpopular opinion tonight: I don’t really like gardening. Are there any gardeners in the room? Okay. Sorry, but I don’t like it. In fact, when my wife and I were going through pre-marital counseling, we were asked what activities we would each like to do together once we were married. My wife said gardening and I laughed out loud. Note: don’t laugh out loud when your future wife says she wants to do something together. We still got married and are still married, but its just not a good idea. But, because I love my family, I garden every year.
The image of the vine is a gardening image. Jesus has in mind a grape vine which, along with the olive tree and fig tree, were staples of the gardening life of Israel. When Jesus explains the nature of the grape vine, he isn’t saying anything every gardener already knows. Yet through this common image, Jesus reveals three things God has done and is doing for and in us.
First, We have been joined to Jesus Christ in an essential and life-giving relationship. I 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. Branches need to be attached to the vine to live. You can’t cut off a branch, stick it in the ground and expect it to live. The branches draw life from being attached to the vine. It is the vine that gives life to the branches and not branches to the vine. They are not equal partners in the venture, but branches live intimately connected to the life-giving vine, drawing nutrients from it, and dying when cut off from it.
Apart from me you can do nothing, Jesus says. We are those branches, Jesus says, and he is the vine. It is only by being attached to Jesus Christ, by being united with him in an intimate and live-giving connection, that we can do anything at all. In Christ, in relationship to Christ, we have life, but apart from him is only death. As a branch is nothing but a dead stick apart from the vine, we are nothing but dead wood apart from relationship to Jesus Christ.
The difference between the dead wood and the living branch is something some of us have experienced quite vividly. We know the difference between life as a series of breaths, as a series of duties we try to perform, as a collection of activities we participate in, and life as is found in belonging to Jesus Christ. It is like sleeping your whole life, then suddenly waking for the first time. It is being blind and never truly seeing and then the world of light suddenly dawns upon your eyes.
In the vine, in Jesus Christ, there is life. Apart from him, we can do nothing. This relationship with Jesus Christ as branch and vine is not something we can manufacture. It is not something that comes about because we tried hard enough or wanted it badly enough. It is an all-or-nothing work of God. What we are, the fruit we bear, comes from our life being found in him. All that we can do comes from the life-giving vine. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. Elsewhere, Paul uses the image of an olive tree and speaks of Christians being grafted in by God. We are cut off from the wild trees of our nature and joined by God into the life-giving vine. John also says that Those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, born not of blood or of human decision or of the will of the flesh, but of God.
Friends, this is good news. If you have been trying to live life on your own strength, if you have been working hard to try to be someone, to have value and purpose and hope, if you have been trying to live but have only found yourself breathing, there is good news. In Jesus Christ, there is life. When we are united to him, we draw our life from his life. I 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. We no longer have to try to live for ourselves or by ourselves, we live because he lives. We live nourished by the vine.
Second, we are pruned by the hand of the master gardener. Pruning is the gardening process whereby you cut off some branches for the sake of the health of the whole plant. Sometimes there are unhealthy branches – diseased, rotted, or something of the sort – that must be cut off. Other times, even when all the branches are healthy, some need to be taken off so that the remaining branches would be more fruitful. In Israel, there were two primary seasons of pruning. In the spring, before any of the branches have flowered, the gardener would, by hand, pluck off some of the branches. It was a fairly gentle process. Later in the year, when the branches had gotten stronger and harder, when the gardener needed to prune, he would have to take a knife and cut off the offending branch.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off 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.
God prunes our lives, cutting off the parts of us and cutting back others. When we come to know Christ, when we come to be grafted into the vine, we not only experience life and joy in a new way, but also struggle. Many of our forebears noticed that when we first belong to Christ, life gets harder before it gets better. Before, we could grow wherever we wanted, do whatever we wanted, desire whatever we wanted. Some of it was damaging to us, some of it simply distracted us from life in God. When God gets a hold of us and joins us to Jesus Christ, he begins to cut off those areas in our life that lead us away from him, that poison our hearts.
Sometimes the pruning is with a gentle hand, but sometimes, when places of sin in our lives have grown strong and hard, God’s pruning cuts painfully. That bitterness that swells up in your heart when they walk in the room, God begins to cut off. That indifference we feel as we pass the homeless or unemployed, our silent judgment, God cuts us to the heart. We read the Bible and find our heart drops to our feet. They way we spend our money, God begins to prune. The way we talk to our spouse and our family, God begins to prune. What we daydream about that we think is seen only in the privacy of our minds, God begins to prune.
The ancients called this pruning process mortification. Literally, the putting to death of sin in our lives. It is a painful process, not unconnected to repentance. It is one that often begins the moment we are brought onto the vine and continues throughout our lives.
I don’t know where you are being pruned right now. At times, I find myself trying so hard to remain busy so I don’t have to hear what work God seeks to do in my heart. But I urge you to see the pruning as a work of grace. God does not cut things out of our life, does not prick your heart with the conviction of the Holy Spirit out of some vindictive desire to cause us pain. Instead, like a surgeon, he cuts only to heal. Or like a gardener, he prunes only so that we may bear more fruit.
Don’t be discouraged. Pruning is a sign one is on the vine. It is only once one has been joined to Jesus Christ that the struggle begins. Before, there was not resistance to sin, no need for the struggle. Now, the pruning knife is out and it can be painful. Yet, it is for our good and for the good of Christ’s kingdom.
Third, God causes us to bear fruit. I 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. God joins us to Jesus Christ by the Spirit, he prunes our hearts and lives, all so that we can bear fruit for the glory of God. We have been speaking of the fruit that one bears by being on the vine, but what is this fruit. Later, Jesus says that this fruit is to love one another and keep God’s commandments. Paul tell us that it looks like this, But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
God causes us to bear fruit. When we belong to Jesus Christ, when we have been united to him, the true vine, our lives will begin to show evidence of it. Not only will we no longer love sin, but we will begin to love God, his righteousness, and seek to live in thankfulness. There is work involved in faithfully following Jesus, but the fruitfulness of our lives, too, is a gift from God. The branch bears fruit because it belongs to the vine, it draws its life from it.
Take courage! If you belong to Jesus Christ, you will bear fruit. It may be small or large, but it will come by the grace of God. Fruit is a sign one is on the vine. Last month, our elders and deacons were having a conversation about the people who most exemplified life in Christ in our congregation. What I noticed was that each of them bore fruit. Some of them saw their lives change quickly and profoundly, while others were worked upon for decades to become the branches they are today. Yet, the fruit of each was just as sweet and just as glorifying to God.
I want us to close with the one command we find Jesus giving us in this passage: Remain. Jesus speaks of God’s work of joining us to him, the vine – this gracious and life-giving grafting of God. Jesus speaks of God’s work of pruning our lives from unhealthy branches and God’s work of causing us to bear good fruit. But through it all is this repeated call to remain in Jesus Christ.
Everything depends on one’s relationship to Jesus Christ. Everything depends on his grace toward us, his saving work, his Spirit applying it to our lives. Yet, the call stands to remain in Jesus Christ.
To look anywhere apart from Jesus is to invite disaster. 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.
Yet, to look to Jesus is to find life. So friends, Go nowhere else for life and peace. Go nowhere else for hope and satisfaction. Go nowhere else looking for whatever we long for in the depths of our hearts.
I 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.
May we look nowhere else but Jesus. May we be found joined in living union with our Savior, Jesus Christ. May he prune us well that we might bear fruit to the glory of God.
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.