We are at the end of another year and as a year ends we try to evaluate the preceding year. People use different tools for this process,
- The bottom line of a financial statement, the yield per acre, the number of people who attended or were served
- Assets gained (homes, cars, other items)
- Events that took place (vacations, beating a disease, losses)
- Accomplishments achieved (weight lost, promotions gained, awards won)
These tools don’t work so well when trying to evaluate the work of a church or the growth in our spiritual lives. How do you measure spiritual growth? Do you look at how much of the Bible you’ve read? How many verses you memorized? The number of services attended? The acts of service you’ve extended? Do you try to count up the number of people you have witnessed to? They all seem to fall short of giving an accurate picture.
This morning we turn our attention to the last of the “I Am’s” of Jesus. John 15 is part of what is called “the Olivet Discourse”. These are the words we believe Jesus spoke as He and the disciples were walking to the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus was arrested. Because Jesus knew He was heading to His arrest and crucifixion these words take on added importance like the last words spoken by a dying man.
Let’s look at the text. Jesus said,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain 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. 6 If 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. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Jesus described the disciples as branches on the vine. He Himself is the True vine. This is actually quite a radical statement. Just as an eagle reminds Americans of our country, the vine reminded Jesus’ listeners of their nation, Israel. Throughout the Old Testament Israel is referred to as a vine or vineyard. During the time between the Old and New Testaments the grapevine was actually minted on coins. It was such a familiar symbol that a huge, gold grapevine decorated the gates of the temple. When Jesus said “I am the true vine” He was saying, “I am the essence of the nation of Israel; I am the personification of everything Israel was created to be.” They were bold words.
In these words Jesus told the disciples that God’s desire was for them to “bear fruit”. Admittedly that is a little abstract for us. Paul said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” [Galatians 5:22,23]. Bearing fruit is not only about what we do; it is about who we ARE.
As we look at this text we see some clues for what we need to do to be fruitful in the year ahead. Let me state these clues as Resolutions for the New Year.
RESOLUTION #1: REMEMBER MY ROLE
Jesus emphasized that HE is the Vine. He calls the Father the gardener (the One who tends the vine). Jesus told us that we CANNOT bear fruit apart from Him. He says, apart from Him we can do NOTHING.
The thing we must remember is that the only way for us to be fruitful is for the life of Christ to flow through us. We are but branches . . . we are not the vine itself. As branches, we are dependent on the Lord for our very life. If we become detached from the vine we may look healthy and competent for a little while but in a short period of time we will wither and die.
A person on kidney dialysis knows that they need the dialysis to live. After awhile, some people grow tired of this continual cleansing of their blood. They feel fine. Some decide to stop dialysis. Some actually feel better for a few days, but before long the toxins bring on a coma and then death. In the same way, if we become detached from the Lord we will wither and die.
Throughout the course of this year we need to constantly remind ourselves of this truth. He is the King; we are not. When the circumstances of life are difficult we must remember that He is the One who knows what is best; not us. When we become impatient and try to force things to happen the way we think they should, we need to remember that His timing is perfect; ours is not.
Back in the 70’s there was a popular Christian group that was one of the founders of what we call “Contemporary Christian Music”, the group was called “Love Song”. They wrote a song called “Front Seat, Back Seat” and here are the insightful lyrics,
I was runnin’ from my Master
And I tried out every new thing I could find
But my life turned into one disaster
Without the Lord I almost blew my mind
I went barrelin’ out full speed ahead
I went runnin’ every stop sing that I’d see
Thinkin’ I’d give the Lord a shortcut
But I found out He don’t need no help from me
I was sitting in the front seat
Trying really hard to be the driver
Thinking’ I was making real good time
But always winding up a late arriver
But now I’ve been trying out the back seat
And I find it is a very great relief
Now, I’m riding in the back seat
And I’m leaving all the driving to the Chief
The song is a little sappy but it understands that He is the vine and we are the branches. Our job this year is to leave the driving to the Lord.
RESOLUTION #2: WE MUST FOCUS ON REMAINING IN CHRIST
It is interesting that Jesus does not tell the disciples that their job is to produce fruit. No, their job is to remain close to the vine. It is our relationship with Him that will produce the fruit. In verses 4-7 Jesus used the word, “remain” eight times!
Have you ever lost track of your child, even for an instant, in a department store? It’s a terrifying thing. Most parents will tell you that their child was standing right beside them and they turned to look at something and an instant later when they turned back, the child was gone. Your child did not set out to get lost, they just became distracted. He/she saw something that interested them and they went to check it out. Children are easily distracted. So are believers.
We start out with eagerness but we become distracted by
- Family Activities
- Our position (even in the church)
- Social and community obligations
- Financial Obligations
- Academic pursuits
- Political involvements
The list could go on and on. Jesus reminded the disciples that they would have to make a deliberate effort to abide and follow through. In order to remain (or abide) in Christ we must develop discipline. Some of you have learned the value of discipline when it comes to money, exercise, dieting and even your work. We need that same kind of discipline when it comes to walking with Christ.
Practically, if we are going to remain in Him we need to make time to be with the Lord every day. Jesus said the disciples were already cleaned (v. 3) because of the Word spoken to them. The Bible is God speaking to us. It is the Word of God that provides the standard by which we are to measure our lives. As we allow the Word of God to search us and direct us we are “cleansed” and made fruitful. It is not just reading the Bible that is important, it is hearing it and applying it. James said we are to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.”
Let me give you an example. Suppose you are reading about gossip. It’s great to underline the verse and maybe even memorize it. But God calls us to do more. He wants us to look at our own behavior and see if we are saying things about others that should not be shared or may not be true. We need to search our hearts and determine if we have drawn conclusions about others without ever checking things out by actually talking to the person. If we find that we are guilty, we should stop and ask God to forgive us. We then do what we need to do to make things right. That is the kind of daily exposure to God’s Word that leads to fruit-bearing.
Think about how our lives would be changed if we did this with commands about humility, forgiveness, gentleness, resentment, generosity, commitment, and love.
I encourage you to establish a regular Bible reading program this year. Here are some things you might try,
- Use a devotional book. Read the Bible reading and the comments related to it.
- Read through the New Testament a chapter a day. Read carefully…don’t’ rush.
- Print off a Bible Reading Guide from the Internet and read through the Bible in a year.
- Get involved in a Bible study group.
If you are like most people, you will start out with great energy but then you will get distracted. When you see that happening, come back and pick up where you left off.
Second, we need to keep a maintain a constant conversation with the Lord. We should sit down and pray but we also need to learn to talk with God throughout the day. When you do something foolish, confess it immediately. When you have hurt someone, ask for the strength to apologize. Discuss your decisions with the Lord. Thank God for the blessings as you recognize them. Stop and pray for people who are in need. Keep the lines of communication open.
Third, listen carefully. Listen for the whisper of God’s Spirit. Be open to God’s instruction. Do what God tells you to do in the Scriptures. Learn to ask: “What does the Bible say?” Do what He says even when you don’t want to do it. Trust His judgment.
Anyone can make resolutions. The person who grows in faith is the one who follows through. Jesus said that those who remain in Him we can “ask whatever we wish and it will be done for us.” This isn’t magic; it is common sense. If we abide with Him we will understand what God desires for us. We will then ask for what is in accordance with His will and we will see God gladly answer our prayers in staggering ways.
RESOLUTION #3: SUBMIT TO GOD’S PRUNING
Everyone who works with grapes understands that the key to fruitful vines is pruning. Pruning determines the health, the taste and the abundance of the grapes. To prune a vine a skillful hand is necessary. The owner must know how much to trim, and when to do so. Timing is everything. The owner must wait until the branch has been fruitless for a month or so and is truly dormant for the season. This way the pruning will not rob the branch of its nourishment.
The Lord teaches us to be dependent on Him and to trust His pruning in our lives. Unfortunately, the pruning process is often not very pleasant. If you were the branch that was being pruned you would probably believe that the Gardener was trying to destroy you!
In the book of Hebrews we are told that we should “endure hardship as discipline.”(Heb. 12:7) It is hard for us to understand that because God loves us He often allows hard things to come into our lives.
Little children believe that parents should give them everything they want. They believe their parents should solve all their problems and cater to all their desires. Children often get mad when we say “No” or require that they do things they do not want to do (like take a bath, brush their teeth or put money in the bank). Children want immediate gratification. As parents, we want them to learn life skills that will help them to stand on their own two feet.
Likewise, we don’t understand why God doesn’t give us everything we want. We don’t understand why He sometimes says, “no” or allows difficult things into our lives. The answer however is that God desires something more for us than what we want for ourselves. He wants us to develop roots. He wants us to be fruitful. He wants us to bring Him glory.
Sometimes God will prune us,
- To slow us down . . . and keep us from killing ourselves and those around us. How many people work too many hours and are destroying their family life? How many parents run their kids ragged thinking that this somehow proves that they are good parents?
- To turn us in another direction. Sometimes we are involved in destructive patterns and God needs to “wake us up”.
- To deepen our roots. Sometimes our lives are shallow. Sometimes pruning causes us to see life from a different perspective. We learn to value different things. If you look back at your life you will see that some of the most important lessons of life have been learned in tough times.
Max Lucado writes,
You’ve seen gardeners realign a plant, and you’ve probably seen God realign a life. The family uprooted and transferred to another city—was it so they could learn to trust God? The person so healthy, suddenly sick—was it to remind him to rely on the Gardener? The income stream dried up—was it God’s way of lifting you out of the soil of self and drawing you closer to himself? Leaders with questionable motives and morals are elected. Is it God’s way of stirring people to revival?
We all know people who face difficult times and become angry and hard. Our challenge for the year is to trust the hand that does the pruning. There will be times when we don’t understand what is going on. These are the times when faith must have deep roots. If we submit to God’s pruning and seek to learn from life’s experiences, we will become more fruitful. If we resist, we will become just a gnarled mess of weeds.
If you have ever had an infection you were probably given antibiotics and been told by the Doctor or Pharmacist that you need to take ALL of medicine. Many people start feeling better and stop taking the medicine. This is dangerous. If the bacteria has not been completely killed, it will adjust and become a stronger and more resistant bacteria. You may end up sicker than you were in the first place.
I believe Jesus is telling us the same thing as the Doctor or Pharmacist. If you want to make progress and bear fruit in your walk with God, you need to follow through. Satan and the sin nature within us will not be defeated unless we stick with it. So during this next year I encourage you to,
- Remember who is in charge (and who is not). Submit yourself to the Lord every morning.
- Instead of struggling to “produce fruit” (I’m am going to become a more loving person) work at staying close to the Lord so that He can produce fruit that will last.
- When the difficulties of life come to you, instead of fighting, try to listen and learn. Submit to the hand of the gardener.
If we will do these things there is no guarantee that others will declare our year to be “successful”. But what will happen is that we will grow closer to the Lord. We will grow spiritually. We will have a greater sense of fulfillment and intimacy with God. God’s heart will pulse more effectively in our frame. And more importantly, our Lord will be glorified, His Kingdom (the only thing that really lasts) will be advanced, and there will be a smile on His face and a “well done!” on His lips. If we do these things, it will be a very good year indeed.