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The Vine

When you see an eagle what do you think of? How about stars and stripes? Uncle Sam? We know these images speak of the United States of America.

When Jesus said, “I am the true vine” he was using an image that was very familiar to people in Israel.

First of all, the land was filled with vineyards as well as olive and fruit orchards where vines and branches were right before the people’s eyes. In that regard, Jesus was using a common picture taken from everyday life.

But just as an eagle or Uncle Sam is a national symbol for us, the vine was a national symbol for the entire nation of Israel.

The vine was on the coins of Jewish money. On the front of the temple in Jerusalem there was a large vine engraved in gold. One historian described it as being “as large as a man.” Everyone would see it. When you saw a vine, you thought “Israel”, the chosen people of God.

In the major prophet Isaiah we find a passage that is a “song for the vineyard.” The song is about someone who planted a vineyard and did all the right things necessary to bring it to health. The farmer protected it and saw that it would prosper. The farmer looked for a crop of grapes, but instead got bad fruit. Vines that are never tended and just run wild are very sour.

The song turns out to be a metaphor for the relationship between the Lord and his people. Isaiah says, “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel…”[1]

The Lord gave birth to the nation of Israel. He chose them and nurtured them. He provided them everything so that they would produce the type of fruit the Lord wanted. He wanted their allegiance, justice, and obedience. But instead Israel rebelled against the Lord and against his purpose for them. Isaiah’s “song for the vineyard” is about a vineyard gone bad.

In Jeremiah, the Lord speaks against Israel: “I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?”[2]

In another prophet, Hosea, the Lord speaks of Israel as a spreading vine that brought forth fruit, but as the fruit increased, and as the people became more prosperous they moved farther and farther from the Lord.[3]

Psalm 80 sings of how Israel was a vine the Lord brought out of Egypt. But he left it to be destroyed when Israel turned against the Lord. In Psalm 80 the people cry out for God to restore the people and for a new start. “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the branch you have raised up for yourself.”[4]

The thing was every reference to this vine in the Hebrew Scriptures was negative. It was always about how Israel had been a vine that did not produce fruit but was wild and rebellious. The vine was not true to the Lord.

So, when Jesus said that he was the true vine he was making a startling claim. He was claiming to be and embody everything Israel had not been. He was the new and real Israel. He was saying that he would fulfill God’s purpose for Israel. He was calling his followers to be joined to him and become the people who would bear the fruit that God was looking for.

In fact, notice how many of the “I am” pictures that Jesus uses are unmistakable images from Israel’s history and worship.

“I am the bread of life”, would take any Jewish person back to God providing bread in the wilderness for his people through Moses.

“I am the light of the world” would remind people of the great pillar of light which God led his people by day and night through the wilderness.

“I am the good shepherd.” Think Psalm 23. And Ezekiel had prophesied of God coming himself to shepherd his people.

And now, “I am the true vine.” The Greek word for true means “real”, “genuine.” Jesus is the true vine because there was a vine that was not genuine.

Jesus says that while he is the vine, we are the branches, and that we are to remain in him. The word ‘remain” is a favorite of John’s. It appears eleven times in Jesus’ “I am the vine” message. A form of this word appears 67 times in the Gospel of John. The word sometimes reads “abide” depending on the Bible translation you are using. “Abide” and “remain” mean to continue with, persevere, last, stick with, make your home with.

One biblical scholar said the word can also mean “loyalty.” Jesus is loyal to us. He asks us to be loyal to him. Jesus says, “stick with me.”[5]

Jesus’ image of vine and branches seems very relational to me. We have to stick to him, remain connected to him, in order to be the fruit-bearing disciples he wants us to be.

There is a relationship to be entered. This relationship is to be nurtured and enjoyed.

How does this happen? One of the surprising ways is through the pruning/cutting back from the Father, who is the gardener of the vine. The word for “cut back” also carries the meaning of “cleanse.” The Father cuts us back in order to stimulate more fruit in our lives.

At first, it doesn’t seem to make sense to cut back fruitful branches and vines of a plant or tree. It appears counterproductive. But those who know will tell us that actually, pruning is good for the plants. It stimulates more growth.

We used to have a number of shrubs in our front yard that were covered with bright yellow flowers. About two or three times a year Nancy would go out and cut these shrubs back to where they look quite bare. And you know what? Those things would grow right back and seemingly bigger than before.

Same with the lavender bushes. Same with a large rose bush. Nancy would cut these back and they would grow back more than before. (By the way, I don’t want you to think I don’t do any yard work. I do my share. I get out there at halftime between games.)

The reason you plant grape vines is to get good grapes. But you have to cut back the branches periodically. If you don’t ever prune them they are going to grow wild. You are going to get bad fruit.

Here is the lesson of faith: We have experiences of being cut back at times. God says “no” to what we wanted. We become less. It often hurts and is painful. But the loving hand of our Father sometimes cuts us back because he wants to stimulate the growth of faith, the growth of love, the growth of trust in him. He wants to allow other fruit to grow in our lives. He doesn’t prune us to hurt us, although at times it does seem painful. He does it to help us grow and to bear more fruit that brings glory to him.

And the thing about this process of pruning is that you don’t always prune off what is dead. Sometimes you prune what is very much alive. You even prune what is good. But there needs to be a clearing for something even better and healthier to grow. Sometimes when God prunes our lives it seems like just the good things are being taken away. But if we are patient and learn to trust the gardener through all the seasons, we mature, and can see a deeper and greater growth. At the time things seemed painful and unpleasant, but they bring growth and health.

The genuine spirituality that Jesus speaks of is not unlimited personal development. His role is not to help me fulfill my personal potential so that I can “discover myself.” Jesus’ purpose is not to give me more and more and more. Our lives are not like reservoirs that just try to collect as much water as they possibly can. There is a body of water like that where water never goes out. Do you know what it’s called? The Dead Sea. No, we are to be like lakes that are always being renewed with water coming in and also water that is lost and goes out to keep the freshness.

The Lord’s deepest and ultimate pruning was the cross. That was not something evil on the cross. That was not something bad being killed. That was something good, beyond good. That was God’s Son. But what fruit it has brought. Our forgiveness. Our reconciliation with God. What a harvest the resurrection of Christ has given us.

Something in line with that waits on the other side of every cross that every faithful disciple of Christ goes through. The Father’s goal is always fruitfulness. It is always life. It is always more of himself.

Can we trust the gardener? Can we trust him with our lives when that cutting back happens? He knows what he is doing. He is shaping us for our good and conforming us into the image of his Son. He asks us to remain in him.

Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”[6] He said we have been chosen and appointed to go and bear much fruit.

Matthew Henry once said that just as from a vine we can look for grapes, so from a Christian we can look for certain fruit. Can someone identify you and I as a follower of Jesus, by the fruit in our life?

In Galatians Paul writes about what he calls the fruit of the Spirit. It is what grows in the lives of those who have the Spirit of Jesus flowing through them. The first fruit on that list is love. When Paul writes about the gifts of the Spirit he says that the greatest gift any Christian could have – above the gift of healing, above the gift of speaking in tongues, or prophetic insight, above the gift of faith, above the gift of serving, above the gift of preaching – the greatest gift, he says, is love. It is so consistent with Jesus. Love is the vital fruit in the Christian life hands down.

Jesus says in our passage this morning “remain in my love.” Our Lord says the way to do that is to keep the Father’s commands. And the main command is to love one another as Jesus has loved us. When we love we are hitting all that Jesus wants.

There are other fruit in the Christian life. There is joy which Jesus also mentions here in John 15. There is also peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Perhaps there are other fruit like prayerfulness, humility, mercy, gratefulness.

It’s not just about being good or moral. This isn’t about keeping some religious checklist. It’s about keeping and nurturing a relationship – a relationship with Christ. And when that happens we bear fruit, a fruit that lasts. A fruit that comes directly from Jesus. And this fruit will grow naturally in our lives if we simply remain in the vine: Jesus Christ. We live in him and let his life flow through us.

You know, orange trees don’t think about growing oranges. They just do it naturally. Oranges don’t think, “Now, I’ve got to form into an orange. Not an apple or a banana or a lemon. I need to work on making sure I turn into an orange.” As long as the branches are staying connected to the tree they get oranges. The one thing the branch has to do is just to remain.

It’s why being here on Sundays is vital. I hope you find worship strengthens your connection to Jesus and his hold on you.

It’s why daily times of prayer and reading the Scriptures are necessary. We need to hear the words of Jesus in the Gospels. Our souls are nourished when we take in the words of Scripture.

When rock-climbing instructors take people up on the cliffs and edges of the Wasatch mountains they always point out the safety instructions. They describe the rope, the carabiners and pitons that secure the climbers during each section of the climb.

The instructor will say that they have a two-thousand-pound test rope, and it will hold any of the climbers should someone fall. But if that fails there is no other back-up system. The instructor is not expecting his climbers to break or detach the rope but she must impress upon them its importance and that hard truth that if it should fail in a fall, though it won’t, there is no other hope for the climber.

Jesus invites disciples to decide how they stand with the vine. If the branches break away from the vine then there is no other vine that will give them life.[7]

Remain. Abide. Stick to the vine. God will bring the fruit. And we will be fruitful disciples if that relationship with the vine is healthy.

Prayer: Gracious God, hold onto us. And keep us holding on to you. We long to grow fruit. We long to blossom with all the things you want in your people. Help us to be patient under your hand. For you are loving, and you are making us into strong, healthy branches filled with the life of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 5:7 [2] Jeremiah 2:21 [3] Hosea 10:1 [4] Psalm 80:14 [5] Rudolph Bultmann, as quoted in Dale Bruner, Commentary on john pp. 898-99 [6] 15:8 [7] From The Book That John Wrote, Earl Palmer, pp.130-131

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