I hate heights. I don’t like to fly and I don’t think hanging off the side of a mountain by a string looks like fun – even when accompanied by impressive head and elbow gear. I have several friends and acquaintances that seem like otherwise perfectly normal individuals, but they insist that hanging on the side of some gargantuan cliff like a human yo-yo is a perfectly legitimate way to spend a vacation. I like them, but I think they are a few knots short of unraveling completely. I believe God made gravity, and gave us the sense not to challenge it any more than we absolutely must in order to live our lives. Flying in the modern age is necessary – hanging from cliffs for fun or sport just isn’t. I don’t think I am as much a chicken (though some would surely disagree) – I believe I just respect gravity more than some people I know. I mention this because I have one distinct memory of an experience with “sport cliff repelling” I attempted earlier in my life. We were on an adventure trip, and I remember the sick feeling of lowering myself off the side of a cliff that had a straight sixty story drop (about six hundred feet) to the bottom of a canyon. I remember terror, and attempting hopelessly to focus on the cliff in front of me in spite of the fact that there was no ground or floor immediately beneath me. I remember trying to figure out what to pray for – since I volunteered to do this and then thinking, “If I die doing this, I am really going to feel stupid entering Heaven looking like a pancake at about eight inches tall and explaining that I did this for FUN!”
When I was clinging to the cliff and thinking about how not to whimper like a baby or allow body fluids to mark my pants, I noticed something that gave me a small measure of comfort. The rope in front of me was a nylon-cotton cord that was braided together – an extremely strong bind of rope. I know it was extremely strong, not only because of my nearly superhero like perceptive abilities, and because the cord said in small letters stamped on it: “EXTREMELY STRONG”. That rope was a braided set of individual filaments. It was essentially a woven series of thin strands that has been braided together to produce extreme strength by distributing the tension over many strands equally. That thought somehow comforted me on the cliff and in a way – it still does. Braids are strong. Single strands fail, but woven into a cord – they become powerful.
That isn’t only true of ROPE, but also of PEOPLE. In a way, as a believer, I live in the strength of a braided life. What do I mean? I am not alone in facing the weight of life. I am a tiny strand, and I am weak. I fail, forget, get frustrated and can be unbelievably fickle. Alone, I am only one unremarkable and unreliable strand. Yet, the Bible says that I am not walking through life alone. I am connected, filled and woven together with the unstoppable power of my Heavenly Father Who tends carefully to my life to produce fruit. My life flows with the inner working of my Savior Who fills me inside and invites me to remain connected to that flow. He is feeding His life into me – and through me into others. Jesus flatly said so, but He used a different illustration than rope – He spoke of a VINE and BRANCHES in God’s carefully tended vineyard. He talked about how a weak little branch could experience the tending of a Loving Father, and the life-filling sap of a Gracious Lord. He had a point…
Key Principle: As a disciple of Jesus, I don’t live life on my own strength, or on my own terms. God tends, Jesus supplies, and I draw my strength from obediently following His directive word.
This passage is RICH. Because of that, I want to take each part of the braid and offer a message on it. Today, I want to talk about the FIVE WORKS OF VINEDRESSER in the life of the believer. In the next lessons, we will follow up with a look at the SEVEN WORKS OF THE VINE, and eventually we will share together the FIVE LAWS OF THE BRANCH. This is a three-part message.
Before we talk about the FIVE WORKS OF THE VINEDRESSER, let’s recall exactly what Jesus said:
John 15:1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every [branch] that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. 3 “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither [can] you unless you abide in Me. 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. 7 “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and [so] prove to be My disciples. 9 “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. 10 “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 11 “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and [that] your joy may be made full.
Jesus told a story with three players:
His Heavenly Father (the Vinedresser identified in verse 1), Jesus Himself (as the Vine identified in 15:1) and a disciple or follower (as the branches identified in 15:5).
The passage is very familiar to Bible students, but in familiar passages there is always a danger – that we won’t see the important meaning of what we recite. You see, the exciting part of the story for us, if we look carefully at the tale of the vineyard is this: Jesus explains succinctly three essential truths:
1. Our Heavenly Father is ACTIVE in our lives, fulfilling a work He long planned to do.
2. Jesus is ACTIVE at work on our behalf, flowing into our lives life that does not originate with us – but with Him, through a connection to Him.
3. We are to be ACTIVE as followers in order to live a life “woven into the braid”.
Jesus braids our weak strand with the power of God. He explained the CONNECTION in this story that we have to and with God – and what that connection provides. He explained the importance of our connection to the true source of life that produces the highest prize – the honor for our Heavenly Father. Let me set up our exploration with a mental image:
A missionary in Africa several decades ago lived in a small hut which was electrically supplied by a quiet, small generator. The little gas powered wonder supplied current for both his home and the primitive church building beside it. Late one afternoon two African men from another much more remote village visited the Pastor in his hut, and were amazed when night fell, and he simply switched the room lights on. They were wide-eyed at the electric light bulb hanging from the ceiling of his living space. One of the visitors asked the Pastor if he could have one of the bulbs. Thinking perhaps he wanted it for a sort of trinket, the Pastor obliged and gave it to him. Months passed. On his next visit to the remote village of that same man, the Pastor stopped at the hut of the man who had previously asked for the bulb. Imagine his surprise when he saw the bulb hanging from an ordinary string. The man understood the general idea of connection, but he didn’t understand empowering. Lots of believers today are like that.
Some have come today, and truly WANT to be connected to Jesus, but there are some obstacles. Some don’t understand the GOAL as Jesus taught it. Others haven’t carefully considered how disobedience may be hindering the flow of the power in their lives. They have lived mostly disconnected from God, and disappointed that the light doesn’t seem to work on their terms…
Because some may be new to the faith, and others may be interacting with the Bible today, but not yet have a committed walk with God through Jesus – we need to stop and state that true Christians have exchanged a few important values that have become common assumptions in the world around us. Let me explain: we live in a world that has taught us a song – an anthem – to live for ourselves and accumulate affirmation, comfort and satisfaction for ourselves. We hear echoes that we “only go around once” and “should go for the gusto.” We are told we should “be all that we can be” and we should “have it our way”. We are fully convinced that life is FOR us – and we should bite the apple deeply and get as much as we can for ourselves. The problem is – that isn’t the Christian Life. That is the world’s version of the SELF LIFE. There are even some wayward Christians that teach blended philosophies of that with the teachings of Jesus – in various self-focused benefit plans of prosperity theology. Yet, if you really focus on knowing Jesus from His Word, you will see a potent conflict with that kind of thinking. It is not slight – it is a deep conflict.
The Bible says the followers of Jesus acknowledge they are not their own. Their lives are not their own. Their bodies are not their own. Even their very purpose is not wrapped up in themselves. They are created for the delight of Another. Their best day is when the please HIM, and not themselves.
The Bible says that we are born disconnected from God, since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, and that we live, more or less, for our own pleasure, and our own good – until we come to Christ. We struggle to make it alone, disconnected from the power and purpose God made Adam, because of his rebellion. We lie, cheat and steal naturally – because we are fallen beings. Yet, encountering Jesus through His Word changes us. Following Jesus, and surrendering to Him hits a reset button on old assumed lifestyles. As believers, as disciples of Jesus, we come to new understandings about life. Our views change on our PURPOSE and the POWER to live daily life. We learn from the Word that our choice to walk in connective obedience to Jesus is the true source of both JOY and POWER in this life. That becomes obvious to any believer who strays from the Word of God – life dries up and joy fleets away. Since joy and power both have personal benefits – that part of the change in our thinking is not as difficult another alteration we make. Perhaps the harder part of the equation is this: our lives have changed their PURPOSE.
Before I came to Jesus, life was about ME. In the Words of Jesus, I learn that it is NOT my happiness, my pleasure, or my desires that are to be the object of my life – but the pleasing of my Heavenly Father. Jesus lived that way, and I am told to live that way. Christianity’s most fundamental purpose is bringing our Heavenly Father, our Creator and our God, the honor and glory due to Him. This is the true purpose of our lives – and that truth underlines the offense of the Gospel to the world. We cannot live for God fully and still maintain our old commitment to self-love, self-advancement and self-pleasure. Attempts to do so will frustrate us and end in a failed mission. Our purpose is a foundational truth, and the purpose is fundamentally at odds with the anthem of self we learned from the choir of voices on every side of us in the lost world.
In the few moments we have together, let’s carefully unpack the three elements of the story, and then apply the truths found in it.
FIVE WORKS OF THE VINE DRESSER
Jesus made clear there are five specific works of our Heavenly Father as the Vine dresser, because God has a JOB in our lives as disciples of Jesus:
Work #1: First, God repositions connected but under-producing branches to help them bear fruit (15:2a).
Verse two begins: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away…” The term “takes away” is a translation of a Greek verb “airo” (pronounced a-hee-ro). The word CAN mean to take away, but can equally be interpreted as LIFT UP. If you were to ask a vinedresser in Israel which was the meaning, it would be obvious. When a vine is wet on the bottom because it has grown downward to the earth, it requires a PROP to keep air flowing underneath. Since the rest of the verse is about productivity, it makes very good sense that the verse should be translated in that way – and NOT “takes away”. Taking away the branch ends it from productivity. Propping it up assists productivity. Let’s say it clearly, GOD HAS THE RIGHT TO ADJUST YOUR POSITION IN LIFE TO GET YOU TO PRODUCE WELL. In my experience, it may be moving you from a position of comfort and self-assurance, to one of uncertainty but greater trust in Him, and greater fruit than you planned! Let me explain in an illustration:
Mr. Holland’s Opus is a movie about a frustrated composer in Portland, Oregon, who takes a job as a high school band teacher in the 1960s. Although diverted from his lifelong goal of achieving critical fame as a classical musician, Glenn Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) believes his school job is only temporary. At first he maintains his determination to write an opus or a concerto by composing at his piano after putting in a full day with his students. But, as family demands increase (including discovery that his infant son is deaf) and the pressures of his job multiply, Mr. Holland recognizes that his dream of leaving a lasting musical legacy is merely a dream. At the end of the movie we find the now aged Mr. Holland fighting in vain to keep his job. The board has decided to reduce the operating budget by cutting the music and drama program. No longer a reluctant band teacher, Mr. Holland now believes deeply in what he does and passionately defends the role of the arts in public education. What began as a career detour became a 35-year mission, pouring his heart into the lives of young people. Mr. Holland returned to his classroom to retrieve his belongings a few days after school let out for summer vacation. He had taught his final class. With regret and sorrow, he filled a box with artifacts that represented the tools of his trade and memories of many meaningful classes. His wife and son arrived to give him a hand. As they left the room and walked down the hall, Mr. Holland heard some noise in the auditorium. Because school was out, he opened the door to see what the commotion was. To his amazement he found a capacity crowd of former students and teaching colleagues and a banner that read “Goodbye, Mr. Holland.” Those in attendance greeted Mr. Holland with a standing ovation while a band (consisting of past and present members) played songs they learned at his hand. His wife, who was in on the surprise reception, approached the podium and made small talk until the master of ceremonies, the governor of Oregon, arrived. The governor was none other than a student who Mr. Holland helped to believe in herself during his first year of teaching. As she addressed the room of well-wishers, she spoke for the hundreds who filled the auditorium: “Mr. Holland had a profound influence in my life (on a lot of lives, I know), and yet I get the feeling that he considers a great part of his life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his, and this was going to make him famous and rich (probably both). But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure, but he’d be wrong. Because I think he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame.” Looking at her former teacher the governor gestured with a sweeping hand and continued, “Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. And we are the music of your life.” [“Mr. Holland’s Opus”: Leaving a Legacy, Citation: Mr. Holland’s Opus, (Hollywood Pictures, 1995), rated PG, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, directed by Stephen Herek; submitted by Greg Asimakoupoulos, Naperville, Illinois] (*Taken from Sermon central illustrations, author unknown.)
Holland wanted to make a difference in the world – and he did. It just didn’t happen when and where he dreamed it would. As a believer, we have to be open to that reality – God may move us and reposition us for the best fruit bearing. Don’t run to the bigger venue too quickly – you might find that God has put you in the room you are in for His purposes.
Work #2: Second, God prunes fruit bearing branches (15:2b).
Verse two finished: “…and every [branch] that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.” Beyond repositioning, God may need to take OUT OF OUR LIVES someone, something or some situation that is hindering our productivity from reaching the potential. This is different than just moving us or repositioning – this is painful pruning. Pruning is removal, and it isn’t DONE BY US. Grape vines, when left untended, will sprawl out and produce leafy canopies but will not yield much fruit. Pruning may seem counter-intuitive activity, but it will produce very healthy vine. The healthiest vine is not the one with the brightest green leaves for show, but the one that bears fruit. Many are the branches filled with leafy activity, growing that which will shade them and make them more comfortable. Few are those who are truly open to God’s cutting of their frenetic activity – that they would produce greater fruit. It may be the loss of a dearly loved friend that you cannot see is holding you back from truly giving all to the Lord. It may be the death of a spouse or the death of a business or even a dream. It is REMOVAL for the purpose of REPLACEMENT, and it isn’t done by US rejecting others or getting disillusioned. Here is the problem: Branches that are convinced that comfort is the objective, resent the pain of the Vinedresser’s pruning. Branches that know that fruit bearing is the POINT, see the pruning as an act of help and assistance. GOD HAS THE RIGHT TO TAKE PEOPLE AND SITUATIONS OUT OF MY LIFE TO SUIT HIS PLAN. If that isn’t true, someone will need to offer a better explanation to me of the Book of Ruth – because that is EXACTLY what God did to Naomi so long ago.
Because God loves us, He “prunes” us. It is not discipline – it is loving HELP. Pruning truly hurts; but God is not angry, He is at work in His vineyard. Remember it is God at work! You will never see a branch pruning another branch! Just remember, when your Father is doing this, He is very close to you, and you are in His eyes.
Work #3: Third, God removes detached and dried up branches (15:6).
John 15:6 can sound very stern if you do not look carefully at the third work of God. Jesus said: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” The work of the Father also includes organizing the removal of those branches that have dried up due to the disconnection of pruning. This image has many dimensions – and many of them are not as negative as you may at first conclude. The text offers no REASON why the branch did not abide in the Vine. In fact, there are two kinds of DISCONNECTED BRANCHES in the text – those who refuse to remain connected, and those that are pruned to allow others to bear more fruit. Let me suggest the words of Jesus can be read in either way – negative or positive.
The negative way to read the text can be illustrated by the events that happened to a teen that was a part of a church that I cared deeply for. That teen was raised in a Christian home and had parents that I knew well. They LOVED their children and worked to rear them well. Their oldest son made a profession of faith to Jesus in grade school, but by High School was not walking with God at all. He may well have known Jesus, but he wasn’t living Jesus. One Saturday night, in his Senior year, he got drunk, drove into a tree and was killed on impact, with several other teens. At the funeral held in the local school gymnasium, God used his life to touch thousands of teens with the Gospel. Sadly, the testimony that could have produced fruit was used up in one instance – and the fire that burned warmed the room, but only one time. How very sad! The branch removed itself from the flow of God’s empowering, and its life withered. In that decimated state, God used his life for a purpose – but not in a continual use of fruit bearing. The fire place was a distant cry from the fruit bowl.
There is another way – a positive way – to see the story that is an equally valid observation, however. What if the vine is disconnected by the attentive pruning of God and not due to self-disconnection? God may pull them from the Vine because they are blocking other branches from flourishing. I have seen this many times. As time passes, the great preachers of yesteryear AGE OUT. If the Lord tarries, so will I someday. Our lives are brief. While these men, some of them great, remain in their ministries, those outreaches cannot flex and change. New, younger men cannot truly shine, because they are serving UNDER the older man. As we age, we get set in our ways, but God wants to reach each generation, and it may not be done the exact same way as our fathers have done it. Each generation needs to be approached with timeless truth but ever-flexing methodology to persuade them of God’s love and their need for surrender. Branches need to be PRUNED that are connected to the Vine without hindrance, because it is time for another branch to bear fruit, and it needs the direct light of the sun. Sometimes men cast a shadow, and God ages them out and removes them to allow for the next generation. At the same time, the warmth in the fire of the farmhouse is the memory of their value – the final use of the Vine dresser for the now used up branch. Some branches don’t fall away – God moves them off the vine to bring the light on others.
Work #4: Fourth, God delights in accepting honor from the abundance of fruit (15:8).
Jesus said in John 15:8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and [so] prove to be My disciples.”
God is glorified by our fruit bearing. The more fruit, the more glory to God. The Heavenly choir increases in strength with each new soul brought to Jesus. The richness of our voices is enhanced with each point of surrender in our lives. The sweetness of the aroma of the Spirit’s work wafts Heaven when we are acting in obedience with a right heart, and searching for ways to be used of God.
One of my favorite passages of the Bible is found in the pivotal passage of Romans 12:1-2. I particularly love the second part of verse 2. Think about the passage for a moment:
“1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, [which is] your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
If you examine the end of verse two, Paul says this:
(My loose paraphrase) “Be transformed with you mind being made new, and begin the journey of searching out what you can do each day to bring delight to God, and fulfill His desires in you.” The text pushes us to thing in a new way – the way that brings delight and honor to God – and not necessarily upon us. Our focus is to be upon HIS DELIGHT.
Are you going about your week thinking NOT about how to STOP OFFENDING GOD, but how to START DELIGHTING GOD? More believers need to start the journey, and more mature believers need to get intentional about doing it! GO AHEAD, MAKE HIS DAY!
Work #5: Fifth, God loves His Vine (15:9, 10b).
I don’t want to leave the five works of the Vine dresser without noting the last one carefully, found in John 15:9. The work was announced in the teaching of Jesus on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was walking from the Upper Room and He said to His disciples: “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love….”
Jesus didn’t tell the men that they should seek to “tough out” a life for God out of duty. That won’t honor Him. In fact, what He truly is looking for is this: that we will move our deeply rooted love of SELF and replace it with an ever deeper love for HIM.
Look again at verse nine. God LOVED His vine, and God worked His vineyard out of LOVE. There is no love like His. He knows what is best. Stop striving, and start loving. You will find that you never out-give or out-love the endless God.
Pastor Chris Jordan used an illustration to help us understand this: “Many years ago, when I worked as a volunteer at Stanford Hospital, I got to know a little girl named Liza who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. I saw him hesitate for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, ‘Yes, I’ll do it if it will save Liza.’ “As the transfusion progressed, he lay in a bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, ‘Will I start to die right away?’ “Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give her all his blood. (Originally taken from Chicken Soup for the Soul).
Look what REAL LOVE WILL DO! It will give up it’s place for another. Will you give up the throne of YOUR HEART for another – He is waiting to take His rightful place.