I have a picture of myself that shows up on the computer when I’m chatting with someone online. I thought it was a pretty good picture, until someone met me for the first time who had seen the picture. He told me that I don’t look as angry as in the picture. I thought I looked fine but evidently I look a little bit angry.
Later, I mentioned to a friend that somebody else thought I looked angry. She said, “Oh no, not at all. You just look really tired.” I didn’t know which was better - looking angry or tired. It’s obviously not a great picture of myself. Or maybe that’s the way I look.
It’s like those days that you feel really good, but somebody stops you and asks you if you’re feeling okay. You say yes, and they say, “Are you sure?” And you can honestly reply, “I thought I was until I had this conversation!”
I’d much rather look alive, rested, and full of vitality. I’d rather look awake, and if possible, not all that angry.
Last year around this time, my family drove down to Boston. We rented a van and made it all the way through New York State without refilling the tank. We passed a gas station and I thought, “I’ll get gas at the next one. I can make it a bit further.”
You can guess what happened. There were no more gas stations for miles. I tried to act all cool so my family didn’t panic, but I was wondering how far we could drive in the darkness, in the middle of nowhere, with the fuel light on. It did cross my mind. Right when I was sure we were going to be stranded without gas, we finally found a gas station and pulled in. We weren’t too far from coasting in neutral, but we made it. And of course I said, “I knew we’d be okay all along.”
There’s a picture of one way of living: almost out of gas; tired; with little inner reserve or spiritual vitality. It’s the way that we feel at times.
Then there’s how we’d like to live: alive, with enough soul within us to really live, so that others look at our lives and want what we have.
Donald Miller talks about what it’s like to feel like you’re not really living the way you’re supposed to:
I could not in good conscience tell a friend about a faith that didn't excite me. I couldn't share something I wasn't experiencing. And I wasn't experiencing Christianity. It didn't do anything for me at all. It felt like math, like a system of rights and wrongs and political beliefs, but it wasn't mysterious; it wasn't God reaching out of heaven to do wonderful things in my life. And if I would have shared Christianity with somebody, it would have felt mostly like I was trying to get somebody to agree with me rather than meet God.
I can relate to that. I think most of us can.
But I also want more. I really want to live - and so do you. I resonate with the words of Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a man [or woman] fully alive.” Or, with the words of Jesus: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
The same with a church. I’ve walked into some churches and immediately sensed life. You can’t put your finger on it - it’s not necessarily the number of people or anything tangible. But you feel like the church is alive. Other times you enter a church and it just feels like it’s dead or at least asleep.
Everyone has an opinion on how to live a more vibrant life, and how to revive a church. But sometimes we don’t need an answer, or at least a direct answer. Sometimes a picture will do the job.
It was the night before his death. Jesus spent hours with his disciples, preparing them for what was about to come. He spoke and prayed, and he broke bread with them. At some point, he told them to get up and to begin walking to a garden just outside of Jerusalem.
As they walked, they probably went by the Temple, the great structure that Herod had rebuilt, the center of worship. They likely passed by a door at the front of the Temple. Around the door was a great golden vine. The vine was not only an important part of life in Israel, it was also a symbol of Israel. It appeared on some coins. The Hebrew Scriptures often used the vine as a symbol of Israel life.
Maybe Jesus and the disciples were walking by the door of the Temple when Jesus gave this picture. We’re not sure. Jesus gave his disciples a picture, using the vine, that told his followers how they would survive - in fact, do more than survive - even with him gone. It’s a picture that instructs us, individually and as a church, how to really live. It also tells us what will happen if we choose to live this way. So if you have your Bible with you, let’s look at the picture. It’s found in John 15.
Here’s the picture that Jesus gives us:
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.
So here is the picture. First, Jesus is the vine. Jesus had a habit of calling himself all kinds of things. He calls himself the bread of life, the good shepherd, the door. This time he calls himself the true vine. He’s saying that he is true Israel. He is Israel, God’s chosen people, in person.
He then says that his Father is the gardener. A gardener, a vinedresser, really only does a couple of things with vines. In the winter, he cuts off dry and withered branches, sometimes until only the stalks remain. Then, when the branches grow, he removes the smaller, shoots so that only the main fruit-bearing branches receive nourishment. Sounds easy, but there’s a bit of skill in learning how to prune a vine and its branches. This is the Father’s role: pruning. Jesus is the vine; the Father is the gardener.
Then Jesus says, “You are the branches.” We are branches attached to Jesus. Some implications come to mind right away: that we draw nourishment from Jesus; that we grow; that Jesus is the true Israel, and that through our connection to him we are too.
I am not much of a vinedresser myself. We have a couple of vines that grow in our backyard, but they don’t bear much fruit, and what fruit they do gets eaten by the birds. So I get kind of lost at this point.
Jesus unpacks this picture for us so we understand what it means for our lives. He tells us what it means, and then he tells us what happens as we live out this picture. So let’s look at what Jesus says it means, and then we’ll look at the results.
The Meaning of the Picture
It’s obvious that Jesus wasn’t just giving a horticultural lesson. He was preparing his followers for life without his physical presence. The picture that he gave means a couple things for our lives. We’ll look at the first this week, and then we’ll look at the second part of the picture next week.
We Will Be Pruned
Jesus says, “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” (John 15:2-3).
We’ve already seen that the gardener pruned the vines on two occasions: one, in the winter, to prepare for the growing season. The other time was to prune shoots that weren’t producing much growth, so that the nourishment went to the main branches. But what does Jesus mean when he says that he will prune us?
It becomes a bit more scary down in verse 6, which says, “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.” Does this mean that we’re in danger of being completely cut off from Jesus if we don’t stay close enough to him?
Some argue that Jesus is talking about unfaithful Christians who are judged. They are half-hearted and fickle, and God prunes them away. Some think Jesus is referring to those who were never really Christians in the first place. An example is Judas. He looked like the other disciples, but he was a branch that didn’t bear fruit.
It seems that some are “cut off” as the first part of verse two says. I think this does refer to those who departed from the ranks of Christians, people who looked like they were disciples but never really were. When I was in high school I knew a girl who was fanatical in her devotion. She couldn’t have been more excited about God. I remember wishing that I was as committed and excited as she was. But she turned, and completely fell away. I don’t know where she is today. God does sometimes reveal and even remove people who aren’t committed to him.
God also prunes the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ. This is like when the vinedresser cuts back the small shoots so that the main branches get more nourishment. Jesus says, “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 15:2-3). He prunes the areas of our lives that make us less fruitful, so we bear more fruit for God.
There’s a wordplay in verses 2 and 3 that we miss in English. Prune in verse 2 and clean in verse 3 sound almost the same. So, according to Jesus, the pruning and the cleaning are kind of similar. This helps us understand how we’re pruned. Jesus says in verse 3, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” We are pruned and cleansed as we expose ourselves to God’s Word - more importantly, as we absorb God’s Word into our lives.
I’ve found that it takes less than 24 hours for me to get off track. That’s why I need to come back regularly to God’s Word, to absorb it into my life. Eugene Peterson has given me an image for this in his most recent work, Eat this Book, taken from a verse in Ezekiel. God prunes and cleanses us as we absorb his Word.
We talked about wanting to live, to be really alive. Jesus says that one of the ways to be alive and growing is to be pruned, and one of the best ways to be pruned is to allow the Word of God to cleanse us. I don’t know what type of habits you have with reading the Bible between Sundays, but I know it’s hard. We’re tempted to do everything but to chew on God’s Word and allow it to cleanse and shape us. But there’s no substitute.
Gandhi, the famous Hindu, once said, “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilization to pieces, turn the world upside down, and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of good literature.”
Neil Cole says:
Many Western Christians have been deluded into thinking that a verse a day keeps the devil away. For many, their entire intake of God’s Word consists of reading a daily verse off a calendar and listening to a sermon once a week. We should not wonder why the Kingdom is not growing in the West...To see the life of the Kingdom germinate, grow, and bear fruit, God’s Word must be received abundantly and it must penetrate deeply into our souls.
I believe that when we do not allow ourselves to be pruned by God’s Word, God will take action in some other way to prune us.
Clay Crosse is a Christian musician. He’s been famous for songs like I Surrender All and I Will Follow Christ. When he was a kid, he was occasionally exposed to pornography. He put it all behind him when he married at age 23. For a few years, he remained pure. But after three or four years, things began to slip. While building a career as a Christian artist and worship leader, he was fighting a secret addiction to pornography. It controlled him.
But then his voice failed. A mysterious throat ailment stopped him cold, causing his financial world to tip precariously. He was running out of options. They told him that nothing was physically wrong with his voice. The doctors gave him a clean bill of health, but his voice was still gone.
He went to a voice coach, who asked him all the questions you’d expect - and also one you wouldn’t. He looked at Clay and said, “Clay, are you a man of God?” He paused and then asked, “Do you have a daily prayer life, and do you spend time each day in the Word?” Finally he asked, “Clay, how’s your marriage? What’s your relationship like with your wife?” Then he leaned back in his chair and waited for him to answer.
Chris’s eyes never left me. He didn’t say another word; he didn’t need to. The Holy Spirit had already said enough through him. Later Chris told me God had prompted him to ask me those three questions. He knew nothing of my secret. But in that moment I thought he did.
I felt as though Chris could see right through my lies to the real me. Rather than dealing with my sin head-on, I had swept it under the rug and hoped it would take care of itself. It hadn’t. Sitting before Chris, I knew I couldn’t hide from my sin any longer...
Chris walked over to me, placed his hand on my shoulder, and began to pray. It was as though God Himself had entered the room and was speaking directly to my soul. After Chris prayed, I prayed...I came clean with God. I had known I had sin in my life, but I had chosen not to notice the incredible distance I’d kept between God and me. I felt incredible shame for the images in my head and the thoughts I entertained day in and day out. But more than that, I felt ashamed of the grief I’d caused God. I pleaded with Him to forgive me. Chris’s simple questions made me realize that the direction of my life was wrong and had been for a very long time.
Chris gave him some tips on how to rebuild his relationship with God and his wife.
Jesus said, “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.”
Pruning is never pleasant, but the Father’s loving attention is more in evidence than we are being pruned.
Do you want to understand what it means to live - really live - without the physical presence of Jesus? It starts with this realization: the Father prunes those whom he loves. He prunes, he cleans, using his Word. He loves us, and carries a sharp knife for our growth.
Some of us are experiencing the Father’s pruning this morning. I’m going to invite you to close your eyes in prayer and respond to him in those areas you know need to be cut back. Are you a man, a woman of God? Do you have a daily prayer life, and do you spend time each day in the Word? What sins have you swept under the rug, hoping they will deal with themselves? What do you need to confess to God? To others?
Minister and People
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.