Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ February 13, 2005,
“Images of God”
Part 7 – “True Vine”
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will 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.
5“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is 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 given you. 8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
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Esther and I became homeowners again this week. Which, overall, is a great thing. We feel blessed to be able to have our own place. We really do.
But there is one aspect of apartment life I am particularly going to miss. For 5 months now I haven’t spent two seconds thinking about my lawn. Or anybody else’s lawn for that matter.
You see, for the past seven years I have been at war. It’s been me verses the Kentucky bluegrass that sort-of covered our front and back yards in Omaha. Most of the time it was a losing battle. I would fertilize, the weeds kept coming. I would reseed in the spring, the bare spots were back again by July. I would water, the sun just got hotter. The squirrels kept digging. The clover kept spreading. Some weeks I wanted to pave the whole thing over.
The day we moved out I went out to the backyard and raised the white flag. “All right,” I said, “You win. Have it your way. But I think you’re going to miss me when I’m gone.” You know things have gotten pretty bad when you find yourself trying to lay a guilt trip on your lawn.
What really made things bad for me was the fact that there were people all up and down my street who had spectacular lawns. I had to get down and touch a couple of them just to make sure they were real. Every time I’d go for a walk I’d come home with a serious case of lawn envy.
You see, the worst part of being a lawn owner for me was the fact that I knew what my lawn could be. Lest I forget there was a picture of what my lawn’s potential on the front of every bag of Scott’s fertilizer. Reality, however, was such a disappointment.
Isn’t that how it is with a lot of life? We can joke about our lawns, but it’s a lot less funny when we begin to consider how that kind of disappointment spreads to other areas of our lives.
I know, as an example, the kind of husband and father that I am meant to be. I have such a clear vision in my head of this man who leaves the stress of work at the office and comes home to his wife and children full of joy, able to be completely present with them. I see a man of patience, a man who is really able to listen, a man who is always thinking of his family’s needs before his own needs. I see a husband who takes time to surprise his wife every day with some token or word of affection. I see a father who creates moments of magic with his kids that they will never forget. This is the kind of husband and father I know I am meant to be.
And yet at the end of the day, too often reality tells a far different story. I remember how I gave more attention to the sports page than to my daughter’s art project. Once again I forgot to even acknowledge the delicious dinner my wife worked hard to prepare. The stress of my day made me snap at my son for something he didn’t really mean to do. And as I lay there in bed thinking about another day gone by, I realize that it’s not just my lawn that has failed to become what it was meant to be.
Author and Pastor John Ortberg put it this way in his book called The Life You’ve Always Wanted, “I am disappointed with myself. I am disappointed not so much with particular things I have done as with aspects of who I have become. I have a nagging sense that all is not as it should be.”
Do you know what he is talking about? Can any of you relate to that kind of disappointment? I know some of you have a sense of the kind of person you should be, the kind of wife or husband, the kind of son or daughter, the kind of parent or grandparent, the kind of boss, the kind of neighbor. But at the end of the day, reality paints such a different picture.
Now, what about those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus? We know what kind of Christians we are meant to be. We know what God expects of our lives, the kind of character he wants to see in our hearts. And is that the reality of who we really are?
Listen to this definition of a disciple I recently came across: “[A disciple is] someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.” If this definition is correct, as I believe it is, then if you are somebody who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, a Christian, then you are supposed to be capable of doing what Jesus did and being the kind of person Jesus was. Now, you want to talk about disappointment?
When the Bible talks about the kinds of qualities or characteristics that ought to be present in the life of follower of Jesus, a lot of the time it speaks in terms of fruit. One of the clearest examples of this metaphor comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In chapter 5, he said that for somebody who is truly a disciple of Jesus, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In other words, if you’re a Christian, if your heart and life belong to Christ, then these are the qualities, the kind of fruit, that will be evident in your life.
Now, let me read that list again. And let me ask you, at the end of the day are these the characteristics that describe you life? Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self Control.
Is that the kind of person you are? Maybe not. Is that the kind of person you want to become? Of course it is! In part, that’s why many of us are here today.
So a lot of us aren’t close to being the kinds of people God wants us to become. And maybe, we might be tempted to think, the problem is that we’re just not trying hard enough. I think that might have been the problem with my lawn. I just wasn’t putting the kind of effort that my neighbors were putting in. Maybe that’s the case with our lives as well. Maybe we’re not as loving as we know we could be because we’re not putting in enough effort.
Well, let me warn you against this kind of thinking. If you think lack of effort is the problem, why don’t you get up tomorrow morning and say to yourself, “Today I am going to love every person I meet. I am going to be totally patient and kind. I am going to filled with joy. By sheer will I’m going to be just like Jesus today. Okay, here I go!” Let me know how far you get. I usually don’t make it past breakfast.
Let me share with you one of the key truths of God’s Word. You and I do not have the power to transform ourselves into the kinds of people God intends for us to be. We cannot, by our own effort, become righteous people.
The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand this principle well. Listen to the first three steps of their twelve step recovery program.
You show up at an AA meeting tonight and you’re not going to hear somebody tell you, “So, you’ve got a drinking problem. Well, you’re just not trying hard enough to stop.” In the same way, as followers of Christ who may not be as Christ-like as we know we should be, the problem is not a lack of effort. The problem, rather, is that we’re not allowing change to come from the only one who has the power to change us.
In our passage from this morning, Jesus uses a lesson from horticulture to teach us this truth. Essentially, he wants us to think about it this way.
You are a branch. And you want to produce grapes. And you know that the gardener wants you to produce grapes. So what do you do?
Well, first, you can try to produce grapes on your own. You push. And you sweat. And you strain. And you imagine grapes in your life. You tell yourself every morning, “Today is the day that I’m going to produce grapes.” And does it work? No. No grapes.
Well, you notice one day that there are other branches around you in the garden that are producing fruit. Your neighbors are producing kiwi. A couple of rows over some branches are producing apples. Above you there are branches producing lemons. And you notice that all these fruit-producing branches have something in common. They are all connected to vines, or trunks. “Ah, that must be it,” you say. “I need to be connected to a vine.”
So the first vine you find you connect yourself to. And sure enough, in a matter of time, some of your leaves begin to turn into fruit. But something’s wrong. Grapes aren’t orange. Grapes don’t grow that big. “Hold on a second,” you say. “Those are pumpkins growing out of me! I’m not meant to produce pumpkins! I’m supposed to produce grapes. Somehow I must have got myself hooked up with a pumpkin vine!”
So this time you are more careful. You look around the garden until you are sure you have found a grape vine. And you connect yourself to that vine. And then, in a matter of time, as you stay connected to that vine, you, in fact, begin to produce grapes.
Now, Jesus knew that his hearers wouldn’t have to be farmers to understand what he was telling them. This is common sense stuff. “I am the vine,” Jesus says. “You are the branches. If you want to bear my kind of fruit, stay connected to me.”
Jesus, in fact, said, “I am the true vine.”
It’s helpful to know that one of the images for Israel, for Judaism, at that time was the vine. If you went to the temple in Jesus’ day, on the door of the temple you would see a carved image of a vine. That’s because there were many passages in the Old Testament that describe Israel as a vine. However, every one of these passages is spoken in judgment because the vine has not produced what it was meant to produce. In Jeremiah 2:21, for example, God says, “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?”
Now, if you know anything about the Jews of biblical times you know that they tried to produce the fruit of righteousness and holy living through religion, through following the law, through their own effort. But it didn’t work. It never works.
Hear this. The practice of religion has never been and never will be the right vine to produce the kind of fruit that you really want in life. You can’t get love, and peace, and righteousness out of following laws, out of just going to church, out of just trying to be a good person. It doesn’t work. You’ll have an easier time getting grapes out of pumpkin vines.
With this in mind, then, Jesus said, “I am the true vine.” You want to produce these things in your life? Connect to me. You want to learn to love? Connect to the source of all love. You want to live in peace? Connect to the source of all peace. You want to be righteous? Connect to the only one who is truly righteous. In Jesus words from verse 5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Let me put this as simply as I can possibly put it. If you are somebody who wants to become the person you know God intends for you to become, then the only way for that to happen is for you to be intimately connected to Jesus Christ. Like a branch to a vine. It’s not about the practice of religion. It’s about being in a relationship with Christ, about allowing him access to your heart and mind, about spending time with him that you may become like him.
Now, the question of the day then is this: How exactly do I connect in this way to Jesus? How do I abide with Jesus? How do I get my branch connected to his vine?
The answer is that there are certain practices that God instructs us to do that help us to be united to the person of Jesus. The traditional term for these practices is spiritual disciplines.
Now, a discipline has been described as “any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.” Think about physical disciples and you’ll understand. Say you want to run a marathon today. Could you? Most of us could not, no matter how much we tried, no matter how much direct effort you applied. But, if you spent the next three months running every day, eating the right kind of food, getting plenty of rest, perhaps after a time you would be able to run a marathon. Those physical disciplines, which you can do by direct effort would thus enable you to one day do something that now you cannot now do by direct effort. Follow me?
Can you live the way Christ wants you to live today by direct effort? I hope you have already agreed with me that you cannot. But there are things – spiritual disciplines – that you can do which can help you to gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modeled it.
How many of these disciplines are there? There are lots, as many as you can think of. Some of the most common we see outlined in scripture are things like solitude, and fasting, and confession, and servanthood, and worship. Perhaps the two most common disciplines that probably every follower of Jesus needs to practice are the study of scripture and prayer.
If I want to develop a close and intimate relationship with my wife, the two best things I can do are to spend lots of time listening to her and then spend lots of time honestly sharing my own heart with her. When we invest time in our lives reading, studying and meditating on scripture, we’re not doing anything more than listening carefully to God. After all, the Bible is called God’s Word. And when we invest regular time in our life in prayer, again we’re not doing anything more than listening to God and sharing the deepest parts of our hearts with him. In these things the branch is connected to the vine. And in time, as we continue in these practices, these disciplines, we begin to bear spiritual fruit, we begin to look more and more like the one we are spending so much time with.
Last week I spend some time with a friend of mine from South Carolina. And he’s got the southern accent to prove it. You hear him talk and you know he’s not from California. Well, I noticed again that when I’m around Steve for a few days I begin to talk like him. It’s crazy how it happens. I find myself referring to groups of people as ya’ll.
Steve told me what the plural of ya’ll is. Do you know this? It’s all ya’ll. And I actually found myself saying all ya’ll a couple of times last week. I couldn’t believe it. But whenever I spend a lot of time around Steve, I begin to sound like Steve.
It’s no different with Jesus. The more we spend time with him, the more we take on his accent, the more we begin to live and speak the way he lives and speaks.
Now, let me clear about something before we finish. Whatever spiritual disciplines we practice in our lives, whether they be worship, or prayer, or meditating on scripture, or fasting, we do not do these thing to earn God’s love or approval. If you hear that from me you miss the point. God loves us no matter what. His love is unconditional. He loves the branch even if it severs itself from the vine.
So, we don’t do these things to earn God’s love. We do them, rather, because they are means by which we can better receive God’s transforming grace into our lives. That’s why sometimes you hear spiritual disciplines called means of grace. It’s through them that God does wonderful things in our life.
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I met my new adversary this week. I’m the owner of a new lawn and the battle of fertilizer, and seeding, and watering, and squirrels, and the rest of it is about to begin again. I know I’d never make a good groundskeeper. But I do know enough to know that I do not have the power to make my lawn grow. Growth is totally out of my hands. But there are certain things I can do to promote that growth. And I’m going to do my best to do them. Who knows? Maybe some of my new neighbors will have lawn envy when they walk past my house some day.
Perhaps when you lay awake at night and think back over your day, or when you sit and reflect here in church on Sunday and think back over your week, you have a clear vision of what kind of person you could grow to become. God has given us access to some practices that can help promote that growth.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.” As you go out this week, don’t try to become the person Christ wants you to become. Rather, try and just be with Christ in daily life and, in doing so, he will help you to become that person.
Ortberg, John, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, c. 1997, p. 11).
Willard, Dallas, The Divine Conspiracy, (San Francisco: Harper Publishing, c. 1997, p. 262).
Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV).
A few other examples are Psalm 80:8-16 and Isaiah 5:1-7.
Ortberg, p. 47.