This is an old sermon that I thought was worth sharing. I preached it in the spring of my senior year of seminary at St. Matthew, Port Washington, the church where I had the privilege of being senior vicar. It was a wonderful place to worship and to learn. The sermon is undated; this was evidently before I got into the practice of labeling my sermons the date and the Sunday of the church year.
That Sunday also happened to be Mother’s Day, hence the shoehorning-in of a reference to that secular holiday toward the end of the sermon. I don’t think that the church needs to acknowledge such secular holidays too much — maybe a prayer, and that’s it. The church has its own calendar, its own ways of marking time, and such worldly additions are not much more than an imposition.
Things to watch for: God only has one tool – the pruning shears. The edge of the shears feels the same to everyone at the time, but God uses them for good for His children, while for those in the darkness, it is only a foretaste of the final cutting-off that will inevitably come.
The words I wrote about what one holds most dear being snatched away in an instant turned out to be uncomfortably prophetic, when the Lord allowed me to wait before being assigned to Zion. It worked out for the best in the end, and I learned so much during that time, but at the time it hurt like heck.
God wants us to love nothing so much as Him, but our hearts are wayward and curved in on ourselves. We persistently want what’s not good for us. It’s the true measure of God’s grace that He chose to overcome that and save us.
Even with those unneeded additions, I hope this sermon is edifying for you.
“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 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.” (John 15:1-8 niv)
The weather’s warming up, thankfully, and that means that things are starting to grow again. The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming – everything’s green! A lot of people think about putting in a garden this time of year. Not everybody is a master gardener, though. Some people have the proverbial green thumb, and others don’t. Some people have been known to kill even a cactus, which you almost have to try to do. Other people can make a garden bloom almost effortlessly.
You need to know what you’re doing to be a master gardener. You need to know when and how to prune the plants, when to feed, when to water. A lot of time and skill and attention is needed if you want your garden to give the best crops it can. When you do put in the time, though, the results are usually worth it. Today we’re going to take a look in God’s garden and see what – or who – is planted there. Jesus will help us understand our relationship with God better, using the picture of a vine and its branches. He gives us encouragement to stay connected to him, as well as giving us some wonderful promises to dwell on. Today – and always – we want to Remain in Christ, Your Vine. Even when the Father prunes you; so that you produce fruit.
Jesus begins by saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” We, of course, are the branches on the vine. God the Father is our gardener. He’s the one who cares for us constantly. He spends a lot of time and attention on us. He watches over us, always tending to us and making sure that nothing shreds our leaves or gnaws at our stems. The Father works with us over time, just like a gardener patiently weeds and fertilizes. God doesn’t get bored or impatient with us for the way we’re growing. He watches and waits and helps. He knows what he’s doing, too. His all-knowingness and his perfect love work together in harmony to give us exactly what we need, when we need it. Even when we don’t know what we should have, the Father does. He gives us only what is truly best for us. He does only those things that will help us grow the most.
Before he could even start to help us grow, first God had to save us. We were stunted, mildewed, rotten, worthless plants because of our sins. We didn’t belong to God, didn’t want anything to do with him, and he shouldn’t have wanted anything to do with us, either. But he did. He sent his Son, and Christ worked, prayed, lived, taught, died, and rose again – for you. Jesus, your risen Lord, proclaims that you are clean now – cleansed from all your sins. Your sins are all forgiven! Jesus says, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” Already – right now – without having to do anything or work at saving yourself or at earning God’s favor. Jesus pronounces you clean, and that word of forgiveness takes away all your sins and it makes you clean. Now you’re a valuable branch on a living vine. You’re not a weed anymore. You’re fit to live in God’s garden. Now the Father can work with you, now that you’re saved.
Our Gardener has only one preferred method of plant raising: snip. He’s got only one gardening tool: the pruning shears. Sooner or later, everybody feels the Gardener’s shears. “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.” For the fruit-bearing branches he cuts away the unneeded parts, the parts that don’t grow as well, while those who don’t have any fruit get cut all the way off. Either way, you’re going to get pruned. Ouch!
This is crucial to understand because it changes the way you view what happens to you in your life. Jesus is talking about you here. When God allows painful things, setbacks, tragedies to come into your life, he’s not trying to rip you off the vine; he’s pruning you! Sometimes it seems like the painful or hurtful times we undergo have no real purpose. God can snatch away in an instant what we hold most dear and leave us with nothing, it seems. We might even wonder, “What have I done that God did this to me? I wouldn’t be suffering in this way if I hadn’t made him mad somehow.” There’s only one tool, the pruning shears, and to the branches it feels the same – but one branch will grow back when spring comes, and the other is destined only for the burn pile.
The difference is in the attitude of the Gardener – whether he wants to cut us off, or help us grow. God only ever prunes us for our good. He uses pruning to produce more fruit in us. Branches need pruning if they’re going to grow healthy and strong and give good fruit. Little branches that will never produce fruit can sprout off the main branch. All they do is suck up the energy and food that should be used to produce fruit. The branch won’t grow as large or as strong as it could if those little branches aren’t cut away. Pruning might not be fun for the plant, but it is very necessary. Without it, the plant might not be able to hold up its own weight. The fruit might be stunted. Without pruning, it would be wasted and lost. With pruning, the branch grows healthy and produces more fruit.
The Father does the exact same thing with us. He cuts away at everything that distracts us from him. With tender patience, he strips away whatever we love more than him. He lets us feel the sharp edge of the pruning shears, but only so that we will grow – never just to cause us pain. What is God cutting away in your life? Love for family that goes beyond your love for God? Love of pleasure? Dependence on other people? Craving for worldly goods? Pride? Love of self? Reliance on anything except for him and his Word? God snips and prunes at us until, at last, we love him above all else and nothing takes his place in our hearts. He cuts away at us until we value nothing above him, because if we do not remain in his Son, if we do not remain in Christ, we have no life at all.
Jesus talks a lot about “remaining in him” in these verses. We know what “remain” means. You stay with someone; you don’t leave. You are there with them. Some people prefer the older-sounding “abide,” but it basically means stay. So how do you do that? If you want to follow all of what Jesus says and know and believe it with all your heart, you’re remaining in him. If you are content when Jesus tells you that all things are yours and that you are an heir of heaven, you’re remaining in him. If you know you can’t do a single thing to help yourself spiritually apart from Jesus and you thank him for doing it all for you, you’re remaining in him. If you rely on him for daily strength and help – if you believe that Jesus took all your sins away – if you trust that God really is pleased with you for the sake of his Son, you’re remaining in him. To sum it up, “remaining in him” equals faith!
This remaining in Christ is so crucial that Jesus connects three huge promises with it. These promises are really very comforting. They assure of things we can’t see. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Who can fully understand everything Jesus is promising here? This is one of those statements of Jesus you just want to sit and ponder. In some way, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, promises to live with each of us individually and stay with us no matter what. He’s not going anywhere. Jesus doesn’t put any conditions on this promise – he simply says, “I’ll stay.” How comforting, how reassuring, to know that Jesus is always with you, through all the ups and downs of life! “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” Wow. Anything, anything at all, Lord? If you remain in me, yes. This doesn’t mean that God can’t choose whether or not to give us something, but we don’t have to worry about asking. Nothing is too small or too big to ask Jesus for – so just ask, and it will happen for you. “If a person remains in me and I in him, that person will bear much fruit.” In many ways this might be the most precious promise of all, because of how vital our fruit is. Recall what Jesus said earlier about fruit. Branches that have it stay in the vine; they live. Branches that don’t have it are thrown away and burned – and when he speaks in that way, he’s speaking in exactly the same terms with which he describes hell. Whether we have fruit or not is the test for remaining in the vine. This is as true of plants in your yard as it is of Christians. If there is no fruit, that’s how you can tell the branch is dead. Live branches have fruit.
So what can this fruit look like? Almost anything that a Christian does or is. Paul gives us a list of qualities in Galatians 5: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That’s a good place to start. If you can truthfully say that you see those in your life, then you’re bearing fruit. A couple of other examples spring readily to mind. Today we mark the completion of the first phase of our “Praise to the Lord” remodeling project. We never would have been able to accomplish all that we have so far if we were not connected to Christ. Your willingness to give of your time, offerings, and prayers did not comes from you – it came from your Vine. The improvements from this project are fruit of your faith.
Another example: It’s Mother’s Day, and Christian mothers are a great example of fruits of faith. Mothers wouldn’t do half of what they do if they didn’t love their children. They put long hours, lots of prayers, and unbelievable amounts of hard work into raising their children to be God-fearing. These are all evidence that they are connected to Christ, their Vine. And what clearer fruit of faith could there be than a mother teaching her children to love Jesus? Mothers have a powerful influence over their children’s lives, and godly mothers want their children to be in the Vine as they are. Many of us have our mothers to thank for first hearing about Jesus. There really is nothing better a mother can do for her children. Make sure you thank God for your mother today.
We may not be master gardeners, but our God is. He gave you life in his Son, the true Vine. He knows exactly what he’s doing when he prunes us and cuts us back. He blesses us and promises that we will bear fruit, to his glory. Now remain in him, and he will remain in you – forever. Amen.