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Let us pray. Loving God, draw us closer to you through our Saviour Jesus. May we love him more sincerely, follow him with greater devotion and obey him with growing courage. We ask it in his name. Amen.
One of the little quirks of my ministry at Blythwood Road Baptist Church is that I have served here for a little more than thirteen years but have celebrated just twelve Christmas seasons with you. Some of you will remember the ice storm of 2013. The GTA was hit beginning late on December 21. There was no electricity at the church for the 22nd, a Sunday or for Christmas Eve. So, thirteen years but only twelve Christmases.
At our home in Markham the electricity stayed on, although just a couple of blocks from us homes were without power for most of a week. As far as our trees were concerned, we were most worried about the birch at the bottom of the garden. As the ice grew thicker some of the branches seemed to bend almost in half. With that sort of weight on them, we were concerned that if the wind picked up they would be gone. Fortunately, there was enough sun the last week of the year that the ice melted and the branches began again to reach skyward.
That was not the case in the neighbourhood around the church. Many branches were lost. They became useless; they could no longer grow, no longer sprout leaves, no longer live. There’s not much that can be done with a branch that is separated from the tree. Jesus tells us there’s also not much that can be done with a Christian who is separated from Christ. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but these words of Jesus are sharp and unflinching and need to be heard that way.
The first thing we need to know is that Jesus is using an image with which all of his listeners would have been familiar. There are two reasons for this. First of all, it’s an image from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Isaiah 27, God refers to Israel as a pleasant vineyard. In Isaiah 5 we are told the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel. The poet of Psalm 80 refers to the Exodus in this way: you brought a vine out of Egypt. However we should also take note that most often there is a negative note attached to this image. This is what God says about his vineyard through the prophet Jeremiah: Go up through her vine-rows and destroy, but do not make a full end; strip away her branches, for they are not the Lord’s. For the house of Israel and the house of Judah have been utterly faithless to me, says the Lord (Jeremiah 5:10).
There is a second reason why this image would be familiar to Jesus’ listeners. This reason may be more significant to you, for you might be thinking that perhaps as it is today not everyone would be familiar with what’s in the Bible. After all, I have quoted from the Psalms and two of the prophets. Perhaps like yourself, you think that the ancients also got bogged down in the laws of Leviticus and never got any further. But all who could see would know about the golden vine on one of the Temple walls in Jerusalem. Josephus, the great Jewish historian of this period tells us that this golden vine had clusters of grapes five feet tall. Be sure you heard me—it was not the whole of the vine made of gold that was five feet tall, but one of the golden clusters of grapes was as tall as a human being. That’s a whole bunch of gold. So identified was the image of the vine with Israel that after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A. D. a group of a particular rabbi’s followers called themselves a vineyard. This was no casual or accidental turn of phrase when Jesus said, “I am the true vine…”
My dad loved trees. He was a tree planter, but he wasn’t much of a tree grower. I realize that is a fine distinction but it’s an important one. When my dad planted a row of trees in the back yard at his home or along the property line at the cottage he didn’t take the long view. I suppose he may have thought that if trees crowded together into something of a hedge, so much the better.
My wife, on the other hand, understands the need to give a tree space and she knows about the need for pruning trees and shrubs. I’m not sure which house it was, likely in Cobourg, when I first saw Chris in action pruning a rose bush in the fall. I must have seen this done before but likely had never paid any attention to it. Chris hacked that plant back almost to the roots. I thought we would never see any green stem on it again, never mind any flowers. How wrong I was. That plant needed to be pruned in order to grow.
Don’t you think it’s interesting that Jesus uses this specific image? I am reminded of a tree in our front yard that we had to have cut down. But it took a couple of years at least to know if it was still a viable tree. A grape vine has one purpose; it needs to produce grapes. As many of you will know there are a number of areas in Ontario, the Niagara region, Essex county and Prince Edward County where the combination of soil conditions and the weather- moderating influence of either Lakes Erie or Ontario has made it possible to grow grapes. Those vines are not grown for their leaves or for the wood they produce; they have one purpose in life—grow grapes. If they don’t grow grapes they are useless.
Again, Jesus knew exactly what he was saying. The Lord tells us that a branch of the vine that does not bear fruit is only good for being thrown on the fire. Someone might say, “There you are Bill, there’s a use for that wood. When a winter storm cuts power lines and houses go from chilly to downright cold, many people would be glad for anything they could burn in their fireplace.” Maybe, maybe not. William Barclay tells us in his commentary that there were certain times of the year when it was stipulated that God’s people were to bring an offering of wood that could be used for the fires of the Jerusalem Temple altars. Makes sense—if you have a fire to burn a sacrifice you need wood to fuel the fire. But Barclay goes on to say it was also decreed the wood of discarded grape vines was not to be brought. It was too soft; it would burn, of course, but not produce the sort of sustained heat needed for the Temple sacrifices.
What then is the meaning that Jesus wants us to take from this image of the vine and its branches? There are three ideas I want to suggest that you chew on as part of our desire to be more faithful and effective disciples of our Lord. Notice again verse one of our text: “I am the true vine.” We must, I think, be struck by either the power or the presumption of this claim. Jesus is in the city of Jerusalem at this time. Palm Sunday has already happened. (Chapter 12) We need to understand that everything that is said and done now happens in the shadow of the Temple, thought to contain in what was the called The Most Holy Place, the dwelling of God of earth. Near to a building, the outside of which was decorated with clusters of golden grapes almost as tall as me, Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” In me, says Jesus, God is doing something that will re-create the people of God as God has always intended them to be.
I am reminded of one of the great quotes of C. S. Lewis: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”Now that you put this teaching of Jesus about being the true vine into its proper context you may think it is preposterous—that, of course, is your choice. But there can be no doubt that Jesus intended this to be a sharp and defining moment of his ministry. The vine as a spiritual reality is what God intends to do on earth. Jesus is the true vine. I believe the church cannot claim anything less about the one who is our Lord and Saviour.
The second thing I would like us to think about is the idea of the fruitless branch. Again I am aware how sharp and perhaps even mean-spirited this distinction sounds, but I believe I am being true to what the gospel is saying. In his massive and highly regarded commentary on John’s gospel the Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown says this: “For John love and keeping the commandments are so much a part of the life coming from faith that one who does not behave in a virtuous manner does not have life at all. Life is committed life. Therefore, a branch that does not bear fruit is not simply a living, unproductive branch, but a dead branch (Brown, John, 675).
I am reminded of a story I heard years ago told by Reg Bibby, that insightful watcher of religious life in Canada. Bibby was asked to do a study of Canada’s largest Anglican diocese, here in Toronto. The report produced was called…Anglitrends. One of the church members interviewed was in perfect health, there was no earthly reason for her not to attend her church, but she simply hadn’t bothered with it for years. When asked what she would think if the church removed her name from the roll of members, she said: “Well, that would be their loss, then, wouldn’t it!” I’m not sure of that. This image from John’s gospel says there is no intermediate stage; the branches of this spiritual vine are either living or dead. Every Christian should desire to be one of the living branches, fully connected to the true vine, to our Saviour Jesus.
There’s one more matter: in verse seven, we are told what it means to abide in Jesus, to be connected to the true vine. It has something to do with the words of Jesus abiding in us. Let me try something out on you. Most of you know me well enough by now to know that I may be way off on this, but it seems to me an idea worth tossing around a bit. I fussed with this a little more than usual, Jesus tying together abiding in him with his words abiding in us. You see faith is so much more than words. I believe in the resurrected Jesus, the victorious Lord of history as a reality, a personal reality in my life. But as I thought about it, I also thought that there is a danger in that thought, the danger that I will think only of this mysterious, spiritual union between God and me and that if there is that union, if I continue to abide in that spiritual reality all will be right with my world. But with only that I could also be the sort that has a holy disregard for the rest of the world and seemingly not care should that world slip closer and closer into a sort of hell on earth.
What is the antidote for such a spiritual infection? Nothing less than this, that the words of Jesus abide in me. So let this be the last thing I share with you, one of those play on words only apparent in the original. Jesus says, Abide in me. That word abide or remain can also be translated dwell. It is the verb form of the noun in 14:2; In my Father’s house are many dwelling places (emphasis added). Here is a promise of heaven on earth, a promise of eternal life not just in the far off some day, but also in the now of your walk with Jesus. When we dwell with Jesus today we are getting ready for the dwelling place of tomorrow.