Bible Reading Psalm 1:1-3
The Series themes have focused on how God has called communities and individuals to living for God and serving his mission. Today’s focus helps us see how to stay in tune with God’s call on our lives. The Psalmist writes:
Happy are those who reject the advice of evil people, who do not follow the example of sinners
or join those who have no use for God. Instead, they find joy in obeying the Law of the Lord, and
they study it day and night. They are like trees that grow beside a stream, that bear fruit at the
right time, and whose leaves do not dry up. They succeed in everything they do. (GNT)
Message Called to Abide in Him Jeremiah 17:5-8, John 15:1-8
Jeremiah may well have this Psalm in mind when he wrote this short personal confession and affirmation poem in Jeremiah 17 about the bush and the tree. By extension, it applies to all of us who are in a covenant relationship with God. In honor of last night’s banquet, (those who were there will know what I mean), I will throw this in: “What did the tree say to the flower?” “I am rooting for you!” When we are blossoming as God’s people, our only source of nourishment and strength for faithful living is God. The Old Testament often uses the phrase “the arm of the Lord” to represent God’s strength, and on that strength we always can and should rely.
This is what the Lord says: “Bad things will happen to those who put their trust in people… who depend on human strength. That is because they have stopped trusting the Lord. (Jeremiah 17:5 (ERV))
But sometimes God’s people reject his authority and relationship with God and choose to depend on human strength instead. Jeremiah’s phrase literally means “sets as his arm” (so, “sets as his strength”) Jeremiah is saying they were setting their strength on humanity instead of on God’s reliable strength). Jeremiah is making it clear that he is not talking about the proper use of human energy, but a reliance on human ability that should be reserved only for God’s empowering energy. And when this happens, God’s people suffer the consequences of their choices
They are like a bush in a desert where no one lives. It is in a hot and dry land. It is in bad soil. That bush does not know about the good things that God can give. (Jeremiah 17:6 (ERV))
and they become a lonely shrub in a parched, sunbaked, rocky, salt-soiled desert. Such shrubs don’t even notice when good refreshing rain comes. They remain dry and useless. Jeremiah may well have been reflecting on his own past experience when he felt abandoned, his spirit dried out, brittle and bitter. I think most of us who are at least my age have felt that at some point in their life. He had written a very different tree poem to God in the middle of those times.
“Why are the wicked so prosperous? Why do dishonest people succeed? [Why do all the faithless live at ease?] You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bear fruit. They always speak well of you, yet they do not really care about you.” (Jeremiah 12:1b-2 (GNT [NIV]))
In his unending pain, incurable grief, and insatiable thirst, Jeremiah eventually accuses God of appearing like a refreshing, healing stream but he isn’t. He has dried up in the summer heat. (Jeremiah 15:18) And yet it is good to throw things on the prayer table with God. It allows God to work with us. God worked with Jeremiah, assuring him he is not forsaken. He felt that way because he chose to give in to peer pressure and give up to the strength of his opponents rather than continuing to trust and lean on God alone. God calls him to turn from his fearful despair. (Jeremiah 15:19-21) Jeremiah does and is revived from his dry period and restored as God’s servant and spokesperson. He writes today’s poem reflecting on the results of his renewed trust in God’s strength.
“But those who trust in the Lord will be blessed. They know that the Lord will do what he says. They will be strong like trees planted near a stream that send out roots to the water.
(Jeremiah 17:7-8a (ERV))
When we put our confidence in God alone, then no matter what pressures and circumstances may come, we need not cower but will eagerly do what God wants. Our spirits will flourish no matter how dry and barren our surroundings, our circumstances. Psalm 1 plants us by the streams, most English translations of Jeremiah say we send out or spread out our roots toward water -- but the verb form is aggressive, actively and forcibly pushing out our roots in an intense and vigorous action toward the stream.
“They have nothing to fear when the days get hot. Their leaves are always green. They never worry, even in a year that has no rain. They always produce fruit. (Jeremiah 17:8b (ERV))
Even when opponents turn up the heat, even when circumstances are dry and barren, both the disobedient shrub and faithful tree remain unaffected by drought or rain. The disobedient shrub doesn’t worry because, rain or shine, it is already dried dead. And the trusting tree doesn’t worry because God’s water nourishes in season and out. (See Matthew 6:25 ff)
The tree imagery is common in Old Testament and Jewish thought, and in John, Jesus has pulled from a variety of these images and weaved it into a unique mashal (mawshawl). A mashal is an authoritative teaching that uses easily memorable comparisons, parables, proverbs, riddles, allegories and the like to give practical wisdom and reveal life’s highest values. In Hebrew thought, this wisdom centered around the life in God.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…. “I am the vine; you are the branches. (John 15:1,5 (NIV))
Jesus’ teaching on the vine is not unlike Paul’s imagery of “the church is made up of many members but together make up the body of Christ and find their source of life in the one Father, one Lord, and one Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 12) Paul stresses the variety of the many members, while Jesus’ prioritizes the connection of the many branches to himself, the vine. Relationships are so important that they keep breaking through the imagery of body and plant. It is not written as, “here is the metaphor, here is the meaning of it.” The meaning of the relationships keep popping through – so strong that some of Jesus’ gardening vocabulary describe the human relationships better than they do gardening.
- the bread
- the light
- the sheepgate
- the model shepherd
- the resurrection and the life
- the way, the truth, and the life
- the true vine
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also 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. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8 (NIV))
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…. “I am the vine; you are the branches. (John 15:1,5)
Jesus begins with us already in connection with him. He mentions the Father to show the divine kind of vine that he is, and therefore the kind of quality of life we have in him. If you aren’t in connection and want to be -- believe what God has done for you in Jesus, who by dying on the cross, demonstrates God’s forgiving love; and upon our sincere confession, takes away the penalty and guilt (but not always the consequences) of our sin (sin: falling short of God’s glory, his will). He also showed us how to turn away from that old lifestyle and to live a new lifestyle that strives to know and follow God’s will in all things at all times, trusting that as the strength of that union deepens, we will become more fruitful, we are made more and more human as humanity is meant to be.
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, …No branch can bear fruit by itself … Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me... apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; … picked up… and burned.
(John 15:2a,4b,d,5c, 6 (NIV) (emphasis added)))
In the Middle east vineyard, February and March is the time (We don’t even have the snow off of the ground yet, but this is the time) that they go through all the fields and begin to cut back all non-fruit bearing branches. They cut them back so much that when you look at the field - the stalks are about all that is left.
You need to understand that John writes in black and white dualism. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, you are, or you aren’t. You are in love with and living in the heavenly kingdom and its values, or you are in love with and living in the world and its values (that are opposed to God). There is nothing in-between. You live in love, or you live in hate. You walk in light, or you stumble along blindly in darkness. You are a productive, fruit bearing branch, or you are dead; and if you are dead you are removed so that there is room and energy for branches that will live and produce fruit. That is a grim thought, isn’t it? But this is not the emphasis of the mashal. The stress, like Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17, is that flourishing happens only if we do not rely on (or fear) human strength, but completely depend on the Lord. It is a recurring theme in John, as a matter of fact. In John 1:3, he wrote that apart from Jesus, nothing came into existence. And here, apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. This phrase played an important role as the early church developed its understanding between grace and good deeds. Paul expressed the idea in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6a, where he said, Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient…
…while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:2b,3)
So, we go back to the vineyard to find out how God does that. By August, leaves have begun to grow on the stalks. The gardener walks through and pinches off little side sprouts so that the main fruit-bearing branches get all the nourishment. Sometimes branches grow so low to the ground that they get covered in mud. The gardener, if they have the potential of being good branches, will wash them off and lift them up so that they can grow and produce properly.
This cleansing and trimming is neither a one-time thing nor an end in itself. Jesus not only prunes sin out of our life, but anything that gets in the way of bearing even more fruit (See also Hebrews 12:1). You know the old saying, “we do so much good, we can’t do the best”. (That’s not quite the saying, but it conveys the meaning). One person described this ever-increasing growth as growing in love with God which binds the Christian to Jesus and spreads life to others. This is accomplished not by what we do for God, but by what Jesus (and his word) does within and through us.
Remain in me, as I also remain in you [as a branch] must remain in the vine. (John 15:4a,b (NIV))
And God can only accomplish this greater fruit-bearing purpose in us if we are willing to respond to his work in us by remaining in him and he in us. These are the sides on one coin. There are not two relationships, this remaining is both sides of one mutual relationship. We remain in him and he in us. We remain in Jesus by trusting, obedient faith, and Jesus remains in us through love and fruitfulness. And did you notice which side is responsible for the fruit bearing? It is not us, it is him.
… be even more fruitful. If you remain in me and I (and my words remain) in you, you will bear much fruit… ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourself to be my disciples. (John 15:2b,5b7-8 NIV))
It is not our job to bear fruit, but Jesus bears fruit in and through us as we remain in relationship with him. We are told simply, to cling to the vine, (or in Jeremiah and the Psalm, “cling to the water”); to remain in harmony with Jesus and his teachings.
It is only within this context that we can ask anything we want, and it will be done. Some teachers lift the phrase out of context, “ask anything you want, and it will be done for you” – no qualifications at all. They ignore that almost every other time John quotes this phrase it is qualified by asking “in Jesus name”. Here, it is not deemed necessary because if you are remaining in him, it is implied that the request is already “in his name”. And if these teachers do acknowledge the phrase, they treat it like a magical formula you tack on to the end of the prayer and if you do you will automatically get whatever you say in the prayer, like a magician says, “abraca-presto” and there it is! It doesn’t work that way. Jesus is not a signatory of God’s prayer bank that lets us say anything and receive it. It has to be in his will and by his authority – what he wants to happen.
In this text, the nature of the requests involves growth in the Christian life for the purpose of bearing fruit and bringing glory to God. We do not bear fruit in order to become a disciple (a follower of Christ and his ways). We become disciples when we are hooked to the vine. The fruit comes naturally out of that. We are already his disciples attached to the vine and Christ bears his fruit through us as he nourishes us and it changes our life. The fruit simply bears – reveals – what kind of branch we are. What kind of branch we are, if we remain connected to the vine, will be that we are striving to stay in relationship with Jesus, becoming more like him, and by continuing his mission in the world. So, through a series of questions, let’s apply to our life what the Psalmist, Jeremiah, and Jesus are teaching us so that we may thrive in this life.
1) Do we trust in our own ability to be fruitful, or do we trust in and cooperate with the Lord to work through us?
2) Do we aggressively reach for God’s water/vine? (remain in him) The Psalmist talks about meditating day and night on God and his will. How often is he in the forefront of our thoughts, how often do we reach for him in study and prayer? How often do we seek his instruction before making a decision?
3) Is our connection strong and growing? How can we increase that connection? How do I remain/sustain my relationship in Jesus and improve and increase it? If I were to ask how you do this, I know what some of the answers you give would be because they are good answers and we hear them often. Bible, prayer, church, bible studies, topical studies, music, devotional books, films, there are probably many more that you would name. But these give you an idea. There are a wide variety of things that can get us into a place where God can draw close to us and we to him. Work at it like you work at work, work at it like you work at your recreation, work at it like you work at your studies…
4) What in our life must be cut off/pruned/trimmed to make our lives more productive? As I already said, so often it is not so much that we are doing things that are wrong as we are doing good things that keep us from the best things. What do we need to get out of our way so that we can pursue God more passionately?
5) And lastly, Are my requests of God sound? A dangerous question -- some people think any request about their own lives is “selfish” and inappropriate and that is not true. The Bible is full of saints making appropriate requests about their own lives. I hinted at it with Jeremiah, though -- his complaint before God was completely --- misinformed? (saying God looked refreshing but wasn’t, and that God prospers the wicked) -- but putting it on the table allowed God to deal with him on the topic. It is never wrong to tell God how we feel or what we want -- what is wrong is to not being open to God guiding us to a new attitude, and a willingness to admit that maybe we are wrong and not God, (or others), a humble acceptance of what God may be trying to accomplish in us or in others by our lives – even though the circumstances may not be prosperous by our measure of the word. Are we grounded? He is rooting for you, you know -- to flourish.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord, it is easy for us who are sensitive to feel guilt and fear from a text like this -- to feel we are never doing enough and fearing we are about to be cut off from your grace and love. Remind us that this fear is based in human strength and often measured by cultural standards of success rather than on faithfully clinging to you and responding to you day in and day out and allowing you to grow the kind of fruit through us that you choose rather than what we imagine... Help us to find the peace the comes from leaning on and leaving in your everlasting arms the results of our life as we faithfully and diligently find the joy of trusting and obeying. Amen.
Closing Hymn # 133 Leaning on the...Arms
Closing Blessing Now as we go, may we be strengthened, comforted, and inspired to live lives worthy of God, who calls us into his kingdom and glory. Amen.