I Am the Vine

I Am...  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  32:37
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Vineyards have a long history as a metaphor in the Bible for God’s people.  Jesus takes this symbol to a new meaning for a new generation.

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John 15:1–8 NIV
“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.
There were a few changes that developed in all the years that I led church groups on backpacking trips in the mountains. When I started out leading trips in the 90s, cell phones were still giant boxes that were built into cars, and very few people had them. But as the years went along, cell phones became more and more portable, and more and more people started carrying them. But it still has no use when hiking in the mountains of Colorado. The backwoods trails of Colorado have no cellular service. There is no wifi. There is not even electricity at any stops anywhere along those hiking trails. A cell phone is useless out there. There is no way to make a call. You cannot send any texts. You cannot check your Facebook or post to Instagram or glance at email. I suppose about the only thing you could do is play candy crush until the battery dies. A cell phone is pretty much dead weight to carry around when backpacking in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. There is no reason to even bring one. And I would have to tell hikers that they might as well leave it locked up in the trailer parked at the ranger station trailhead.
That’s because cell phones are only useful if they are connected. It has to be connected to a signal to do any good. It needs wifi to stream large amounts of data. It needs a power outlet to keep the battery charged. A cell phone needs connection to these things in order to do that a cell phone is meant to do. Otherwise it is rather worthless.
The people who lived in Israel during the time of Jesus would have understood this same idea about grape vines. Vineyards were a common sight for them. Most villages had vineyards and most people understood a thing or two about what it meant to grow grapes. Jesus tells a story here in John 15 that resonates well. This story would have been just as common and ordinary to their everyday life as cell phones are common and ordinary to us. In fact, maybe we need to dig a little further into the story to peel back some of the meaning that slips right past us who live 2000 years later.

Farmers, Crops, and Gardens

Stories about farmers and crops and gardens are nothing new for the people of Israel. In fact, when Jesus tells this little story about vines to his disciples here, it would have brought those other stories to mind as well. That’s important background information. Consider Isaiah 5. In the prophecy of Isaiah there is a section of verses in chapter 5 called the Song of the Vineyard. The meaning of that story is clear because Isaiah explains it. It foreshadows the Babylonian exile for the tribe of Judah. Isaiah 5:7 says this:
Isaiah 5:7 NIV
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
It is important to see this story from Isaiah 5 as the backdrop for what Jesus says in John 15 because there are both similarities and differences. There is a connection to the old covenant and a fulfilment provided in the new covenant of Jesus. Trace this along with me through these two stories. Isaiah 5 is the vineyard of the Old Testament covenant which God made with Abraham. John 15 is the vineyard of the New Testament covenant which God makes to all people through Jesus. Scripture teaches us that the old covenant is not abolished by Jesus, rather it is fulfilled by Jesus within the new covenant God makes.
In Both Isaiah 5 and in John 15, God is the one who is the gardener. God is the one who plants and tends for the garden. He is the farmer who provides for the health of the crops so that they might produce a harvest. That part of the covenant does not change from one story to the next—from the Old Testament covenant to the New Testament covenant.
The crop needs just a little attention. Both Isaiah 5 and John 15 give explanation of the good fruit. But we need to spend a moment connecting the fruit of the covenant in the Isaiah story with the fruit of the covenant in the John 15 story.
The Old Testament version of the story explains the meaning of the crop in very specific terms. The disciples already knew from their knowledge of Isaiah 5 exactly what kind of good fruit Jesus was talking about. Isaiah 5:7 says that the Father looked for justice and righteousness as the harvest of his covenant. But when he looked, all he saw was bloodshed and cries of distress.
Let’s take it back a little bit further. In Genesis 12, God made his covenant with Abraham with these words of the promise: I will bless you, and you will be a blessing; all people on earth will be blessed through you. This is the crop for which the father was looking. This is the good fruit he expects to find within his vineyard. Justice and righteousness are the expected outcome of God’s blessing given to his people. Those to whom much has been given and those who have been placed in positions of privilege have been given a great responsibility by the heavenly Father—that we have been blessed to be a blessing unto other people. This is the good fruit of the vineyard. God made a covenant promise with Abraham that the entire world might know and flourish with the overflow of God’s blessing given to Abraham and his descendants. And when God comes in the time of Isaiah looking for the harvest of his blessing among all people, we read that all the Father finds is bloodshed and cries of distress.
This is a blessing of good fruit that shows up in a real tangible expression between real life people. It shows up in the way we carry relationships between one another. Jesus draws this out. He brings this familiar story of the Isaiah forward and reapplies it in this new covenant setting here in John 15. I only read a few verses here today about the vine, but let me quickly glance ahead at the words of Jesus immediately following in which Jesus makes an makes an explanation of good fruit.
John 15:9–17 NIV
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
Isaiah 5 talks about fruit that shows up in justice and righteousness towards other people. John 15 connects a deep and genuine and active love for one another as the backbone of this good fruit. It is rather specific when there are so many other things that we might think the Father is looking to find as the good fruit of his vineyard. What about strong and enduring faith? What about personal piety and moral behavior? What about following the rules and keeping the commandments? What about living a religious life? Those are all good things; but those are not the things that the Bible draws to the front as the kind of fruit for which the Father is looking. Good fruit shows up in how we love other people. It shows up with justice and righteousness.
Let’s move on to the garden. This is where the story takes its sharpest turn from Isaiah 5 to John 15. And this is also where the new covenant in Jesus takes a grand leap forward in fulfilling the old covenant. And this is where we find the new covenant pulling a different focus. In Isaiah five the garden is very specifically located in the promise God made to Abraham about land. The garden is the promised land of Canaan. The promise that God made with Abraham in Genesis is always tied with the land. The piece of the promise that the Israelites are receiving in the book of Exodus is a restoration of the land. The Babylonian captivity foretold in Isaiah is a loss of the land because the people of Israel lost their end of the promise to provide justice and righteousness. In Isaiah’s version of the vineyard, the Jewish people are the vines and the land of Canaan is the garden in which God plants the nurtures the vines. In the way Jesus retells the story in John 15, there is now only one vine, and that vine is Jesus, and now the people of God are all branches grafted into and growing from that one vine. And the garden is now a spiritual place located in the promise of the Holy Spirit rather than a physical place located in the promise of a land.
Stephen refers to this in Acts 7. In the speech that Stephen gives to the Jewish religious council, he speaks about the promise of God being located in the Holy Spirit rather than in any physical location such as the tabernacle or the temple. Stephen argues that this is a promise which has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ as the one who opens the way as the Righteous One so that all people may now have access to the Father through him. The Jewish religious council is so offended by this testimony of Stephen that they immediately drag him out of the city and execute him, making Stephen one of the very first martyrs of the Christian faith. All because Stephen dared to suggest that the covenant of God was no longer located in a garden that is a specific physical place open to only a few, but rather has become a covenant located in a garden that is a spiritual place open to all who come to Jesus.

Abiding as a Choice

The retelling of the vineyard story carries a specific caveat as Jesus shapes it in John 15. There is a key word in this passage which rises above all other actions. It is the word remain. It comes from the Greek word meno which means to remain or to abide. In all that Jesus says in this chapter about loving one another and about bearing good fruit, the one thing that it all boils down to is a single command from Jesus to his disciples that they abide in him. The story of the vineyard is meant to convey that one single idea. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, the only way branches live to produce good fruit is to remain connected to the vine.
Jesus does not give any attention in the story to how branches are connected in the first place, he is only concerned in this story that branches stay connected, that we remain in Jesus, that we abide in him, that we choose to abide in Jesus. And it begins by the choice that Jesus makes to abide within us. There is nothing that I ever did to punch my own ticket and earn my own way to the Father. No. Jesus makes a choice to love me unconditionally and he never wavers from that choice no matter what I do. Jesus makes a choice to abide within you. He makes a choice to give himself up to be the vine that you and I could never be on our own so that we can now have a place to grow and live and produce fruit—something we could never do on our own without Jesus. Jesus makes a choice to remain in us as our source of life.
The command Jesus gives in this story, then, is a command to his followers to remain connected to him as the vine which gives life. Abide in Jesus. Don’t go looking to find your source of nourishment and life anywhere else. Don’t go trying to grow and produce fruit on your own. Don’t go trying to make your own vineyard or plant your own crop or becoming your own farm. It comes down to one single statement: because Jesus chooses to abide within you, you are able to choose to abide in him.

Fruit as the Byproduct

What, then, about the fruit? This story might run the risk of coming off as a little bit scary because if I don’t get the fruit right then I am in danger of being cut off from the vine that is Jesus. So, I better focus my attention and efforts on the kind of spiritual fruit I am producing. But hang on; that’s completely backwards. If this is the message with which we walk away from this story of vineyard, then we completely miss the point. You see, if my attention and focus from this story is all about producing the right kind of good fruit so that I will not be at risk of being cut off the vine and thrown into the fire—if that is the lesson I walk away with—then there is no room in this story for grace. There is no gospel message in a lesson like that. Because that application only leads me down a road in which the good fruit that I produce becomes my ticket in, it serves as my insurance policy and my guarantee. The Father can’t cut me off from the vine because look at all the good fruit I produce for him. There is no room for the grace of Jesus in a story that finishes with a lesson like that.
Look at the way Jesus tells the story in these eight verses in John 15. There is no command from Jesus in any of these verses for them to be producing spiritual fruit. His command is simply that his followers remain connected and abiding in him. Here’s the thing: spiritual fruit is the byproduct of remaining connected to Jesus. Spiritual fruit is the result of this story, not the goal. The goal is abiding in Jesus. Spiritual fruit is the byproduct. Jesus says in this story if you remain in him as he remains in you, then you will be a branch of the vine that produces good fruit. It will be the result. It will be the byproduct.
My focus, then, as a disciple of Jesus is not an obsession of what it is I am doing to prove I can make something happen for God. My focus as a disciple of Jesus is an obsession with abiding in Jesus, staying connected to the one who gives life. It is not a goal of proving to God that I can grow something. It is a confession that I need Jesus every hour of every day and that I can produce nothing on my own without him. And as long as you abide in Jesus as he abides within you, God will grow and produce good fruit in you. Guaranteed.
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