All across this great land of ours people young and not so young are graduating from school. And at many of these commencement exercises speakers are brought in to challenge the graduating class. The most popular topics on these occasions seem to be:
- human potential . . . . what you can do if you set your mind to it
- limitless possibilities for the determined
- confidence that the graduating class will change the world
- challenge to the graduates to be the ones to fix the problems in our world.
For the most part, all of these speeches focus on the ability of the graduates to accomplish great things. The attempt is to build the graduate up . . . to spur them on. We want them to dream big and push hard. This is why I wonder if Jesus would be a popular graduation speaker.
If seen in proper light Jesus’ remarks to his disciples in the conversation before His death could be viewed as a graduation talk. The disciples are facing an expansive future. The days of classroom study have finished. And as they face this future Jesus speaks to them. Consider His words and how He would probably phrase them to this years graduates:
We Can Accomplish Nothing of Lasting Significance On Our Own
Obviously, this would get people’s attention. What we expect to hear is how we can “do anything if we set our mind to it” and “all we have to do is believe in ourselves.” But that is not the message Jesus gives to His disciples.
[15:4,5] 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 a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
It is pretty simple, don’t you think. By ourselves (apart from Him) we can do NOTHING. And we must all remember that Nothing is not “a little something”. But what does Jesus mean? How can he say we can do nothing when it is obvious that people are achieving great things without giving any attention to Him all the time.
These words of Patrick Morley say it well: “the problem for many men is not so much that they are failing. Rather, the problem is that they are achieving their goals, but they are the wrong goals. Failure means to succeed in a way that doesn’t really matter.”(Seven Seasons of a Man’s Life p. 268)
With this insight it becomes clear that what Jesus is saying is that apart from Him we can do:
- nothing meritorious . . . we can’t do anything to help earn our salvation. Every deed we do apart from Christ is a deed seeking to glorify someone other than God (most often ourselves). Every act apart from Christ is anchored in a confidence in our ability not an awareness of our need. That which is not of faith . . . . is sin.
- nothing of any eternal significance . . .Our Scholarly achievement is empty knowledge apart from Christ. Our positions of status are meaningless titles if not submitted to Him. Our religious productions are empty rituals and worldly performances apart from a heart changed by Christ.
So Jesus can categorically say “without Me you can do nothing” (v.5) No amount of ingenious planning or restless activities or sponsoring of “spiritual” events on our own can produce this fruit. This is like trying to tie imitation fruit on living branches…“ (Roger Fredrikson Mastering the New Testament: John p.237)
Jesus us tells us that we cannot do anything without Him. However, we are also taught that we can do “incredible things” in Christ. Phil 4:13 records Paul as saying, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” In Mark 10:27 Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God all things are possible with God.” The person who is drawing life from the Savior has God’s Spirit living and moving within Him . . . .the future is an endless possibility for the child of God! When God is moving through us we can:
- overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles
- see entire communities changed
- see the hardest heart softened
- see the most hopeless situation turned around.
But these things happen not because of our techniques . . . .but because of His life working through us! So, the first thing to keep in mind is this: if you want to make a difference in the world . . . a real difference . . . .you must let Christ build His life into you.
Success Is Measured Not by What We Have, But By Who We Are Becoming.
To quote Patrick Morely again,
to be successful you must display one or more of the four killer “bees”: beauty, brains, bucks and brawn. If you don’t have one of these attributes, forget it. The emphasis is always on externals-what you have and do-rather than on who you are. (Seven Seasons, Morley p. 269)
Who do you consider to be successful? Who do you look up to? I suspect it is those people who manifest one of those “killer bees”. They are people who have amassed a fortune and made an impact (like Bill Gates). They may be people who are famous (Michael Jordan, a movie star). It may be someone (for Christians) who has a big church, is seen on television, writes a lot of books.
Do you see that all these things are surface issues? Jesus calls us to something deeper. He calls us to hunger for a godly character. Jesus says God is not looking for press clippings, attendance figures, bank accounts . . . . He is looking for “fruit”.
God’s Fruit is Christlike Character
In Galatians 5:22 we are told, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The person who is truly drawing life from the vine will be manifesting a Christlikeness in their personality.
They will be:
- open to instruction and correction rather than thinking they know it all
- soft not hard
- gentle with the hurting, not abrasive
- people who treat others with respect not as objects to be exploited
- patient not quick-tempered
- loving not manipulative
These are characteristics that are becoming so rare in our world that they stand out. Just this last week several teachers thanked me for being a friend to them this last school year . . . what surprised me was that this was seen as such a rare attitude in contrast to the vicious, judgmental, aggressive and angry attitude they received from most people. It is a sad commentary on our own community. It makes us wonder if there are some “dead branches” calling themselves Christians. I hope their comment meant that they were seeing Christ in me. I hope others see Christ in the way we treat each other . . . and in the way we treat them.
God’s Fruit is Changed Lives
Jesus said, (Luke 10:2) “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” In this case the “harvest” is lost people coming to genuine faith in Christ.
Now it is important to clarify that Jesus is not talking merely about “decisions for Christ”. We can get decisions through flashy programs, moving music, persuasive words, and good marketing . . . Jesus is talking about a genuine change of heart. If you faithfully are serving the Lord people are being drawn to Christ as Forgiver and King through your life.
Are you seeing God’s fruit manifest in your life?
The Process of Growth is Never Ending
We never “arrive” in our faith. There is never a time (before we reach Heaven) when a Christian can say, “Whew! I’ve made it and have become all God could make of me.” In the text Jesus says, EVERY branch in me that bears fruit is pruned. There are no exceptions.
God cleans us by a regular exposure to His Word.
The disciples are said to be clean because “of the word I have spoken to you.” I think this is the primary way God prunes us. A constant exposure to God’s Word should always lead to repentance, re-focusing and renewal.
The author of Hebrews tells us, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” God’s Word is constantly holding up the standard of godly living before us. As a result we see where we need to change and grow.
God’s Word is amazing! We can read the same passage again and again and each time find ourselves challenged and changed. God’s Word encourages us, rebukes us and directs us.
The great danger for believers is that we can begin to read God’s Word like we read the newspaper . . .for information and not as the revelation of truth. We can begin to take up the Bible looking for ammunition rather than instruction. We can find ourselves reading to strengthen our opinions rather than to inform our opinions. The growing Christian is constantly looking at their life through the lens of Scripture. As they read they
- are moved to repentance for sin uncovered
- challenged to love in difficult situations
- reminded of attitudes that need to be cultivated
- stimulated to follow with greater intensity
The Bible helps scrape off the dead and destructive parts of our life. The Bible keeps us bearing fruit and growing in grace and truth.
God prunes us through the sharp knife of circumstances
Once again, this is not what contemporary people want to hear. What they want to hear is that God only wants us to have pleasant circumstances in life. They want to hear that “God wants to Bless Us.” And the thing is, that He does want to bless us. The problem comes when we try to define “blessing”. To contemporary society “blessing” is synonymous with ease and enjoyment. However, God’s definition of “Blessing” is anything that moves us toward Christlikeness. So, for the Christian a painful experience can indeed be a great blessing from God.
The author of Hebrews again writes with the voice of experience,
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. (Hebrews 10:10-12)
God uses the difficult circumstances of life to awaken us, to change us, to deepen us. The purpose of trials is to develop Christlike character in our lives. A true blessing is often that which seems least blessed at first glance.
God is committed to our development as His children. He will use His Word, other people, and circumstances to move us toward Christlike Character. We may not understand at the moment but we will look back in the future and give thanks for God’s work in our lives.
As a commencement speaker Jesus has said some hard things:
- We can’t do anything significant apart from Him
- Biblical Success is not determined by what you have but by who you are becoming
- The process of growth is never ending
This is not the typical human potential nonsense we normally hear. Jesus is calling us to a firm DEPENDENCE on God in our lives. In light of this may I probe a bit further,
Where is your source of strength and confident . . . are you trusting yourself, your talents, your education, or Him? Trusting anything or anyone other than the Father is false worship – idolatry. Is there an idol or two that needs to be removed from your life? Do a personal inventory of your life and weed out those false idols in your life.
Are you submitting to the cleansing power of the Word of God? Have you stopped reading your Bible? Maybe you need to get a devotional book that will help you in a systematic study . . . but beware that your focus is the Word of God and not the comments of men. If your Bible study has gotten stale maybe you should pick up a different version of the Bible to read. Try the New Living Translation, the New American Standard Version, or the Revised Standard Version. Sometimes a different “slant” will help you see something with new clarity.
Is painful pruning going on in your life right now? When the difficult times come learn to ask (with humility and sincerity): “Lord, what do you want me to learn?”
If the Lord checked His vineyard (the church) right now . . . would you be considered:
- a dead branch?
- a branch that is weak and barely functioning?
- a branch that is bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God?
It may be that you see for the first time that though you attend a church you do not have a life-giving relationship with Christ. Realizing that fact is the most important step in the way of new life in Christ. If you will turn from your reliance on self and instead trust what Christ has done for you in dying for your sin, and rising to open for you the way to eternal life . . . you too will begin to see fruit develop in your life. I invite you to make that important step this morning.
The message of Jesus is not a popular one today. Most people would consider Him to be a radical that espouses a position unacceptable for our society. But in truth, there is no better speaker for commencement exercises or any other occasion than Jesus. What those entering and those living in the “dog eat dog” world need to hear more than anything else . . . . is the truth. I pray you have not only heard the truth but are also willing to build your life on it.