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This Sermon was written by Pastor Paul Naumann who serves our sister congregation in Tacoma, WA. It was used as a devotion this past week at Pacific Coast Pastoral Conference in Clarkston, WA.
To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen. The text that we will consider today comes from the Gospel of St. John, chapter fifteen, beginning with verse one, as follows:
"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, 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, 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, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” Thus far the holy Word.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Vine of our salvation and the source of every blessing, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
There is such a thing, of course, as a pleasant surprise. A surprise birthday party, a surprise phone call from a friend, or a surprise refund from the IRS. Many people like surprises in their lives and eagerly look forward to them. Pastors are different. Pastors, as a rule, don’t like surprises. Most of us would be happy if there were no surprises at all in our ministry. Because of course we’re all too familiar with the kind of surprises pastors usually get – the 3:00 a.m. phone call summoning us to the hospital. The whispered report about a member who has become involved in a sinful situation. A sudden and unexpected outpouring of criticism from a member whom you had no reason, previously, to think was unhappy. No. As far as most pastors are concerned, the fewer surprises the better.
If that’s the case, then there’s good news for you in our text for today. It’s a passage that describes the conditions in the vineyard of the Lord – the working environment of every believing Christian, and particularly every believing Christian pastor. You’ll be happy to learn that, when you go to work in the vineyard of the Lord, He tells you beforehand exactly what to expect. We are Easter Preachers, and for Easter preachers…
THERE ARE NO SURPRISES IN GOD’S VINEYARD
I. You can expect the pruning process.
II. You can expect no fruit without Christ.
III. You can expect much fruit with Christ.
At our Fall 2008 conference in Vernon BC, we visited the Mission Hills Winery in Kelowna. It was very interesting. What particularly fascinated me was how little has changed over the centuries in the cultivation of grapes. In modern terminology, a grape farmer – someone who takes care of a vineyard – is called a viticulturist. One of the chief jobs of a viticulturist is to prune the grapevine periodically. He does this for two reasons. Sometimes a branch isn’t bearing any fruit at all, in which case he severs it completely. Sometimes a branch is bearing fruit, but extraneous growth is robbing some of the nutrients, in which case he cleans it by removing the unhelpful growth. Vinedressers were doing it thousands of years ago, and they’re still doing it today. No surprises.
How reassuring to learn that THERE ARE NO SURPRISES IN GOD’S VINEYARD, either. Jesus makes clear, first of all, that you can expect the pruning process. That’s no surprise. He says, Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
There are two related words here, airo and kathairo, but they mean two totally different things. In English we might say it is the difference between “cut off” and “cut back”. Those branches that are completely unfruitful are the unbelievers, those who, though they may go by the name “Christian”, show by their lack of fruit that they have no connection at all to the Vine. These the vinedresser cuts off; they are destined for the oven. But what of those who are not nominal Christians, but real Christians? Those who are attached to Christ the Vine? These the vinedresser cuts back – He trims them and prunes them in order to make them more fruitful.
I was surprised one day when my wife asked for pruning shears for her birthday. That sounded like an underwhelming gift idea to me. I’d seen pruning shears hanging in the checkout line at Home Depot for a couple of bucks. But those weren’t the ones she wanted. They’re made in Taiwan. She wanted Felco pruning shears, which are made in Switzerland. Felco pruners, I quickly discovered, can cost up to $50 or more. Yet they’re very popular – why? For two reasons: they’re sharp, and they’re accurate. They make the cleanest possible cut in just the right place on a tree or a vine. That minimizes damage to the plant, lets it heal more quickly, and leads to greater fruit.
God in His love sometimes “cuts us back”. He prunes us, cleans away the extraneous material in our lives and trains us for our service to him. Sometimes this pruning and training is painful. But God knows what He’s doing. His pruning shears are sharp and very accurate. He makes the cleanest possible cut in just the right place to make you more fruitful in your life as a Christian, and your ministry as a Christian pastor. The writer to the Hebrews observes, Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. -- Hebrews 12:11.
Jesus has some wonderful words for His disciples in the middle of this message. Did you catch them, in verse three? You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. “You are already clean.” I mentioned yesterday that sheep can’t clean themselves. Well, neither can branches. They need the vinedresser. Jesus’ disciples had heard and believed the word of salvation spoken to them by their Master. Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. -- John 6:68.You too have received that saving, nutritious Gospel from Christ, your true Vine. And before you can apply that Gospel to the alarmed sinners in your parish, you should by all means appropriate its comforting message to yourself. Pastors have a lot to confess. So bring your sins and failures daily to your Lord Jesus. Confess them, forsake them, and seek your Savior’s forgiveness. Here too you will find no surprises. For as often as you ask, He will pardon. As often as you seek Him, he will bind up your hurts and pour balm into your wounds. The 103rd Psalm has perhaps the most beautiful description in the Bible of the infinite mercy of God toward sinners: He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor punished us according to our iniquities. 11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; 12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father pities his children, So the LORD pities those who fear Him. -- Psalm 103:10-13.
THERE ARE NO SURPRISES IN GOD’S VINEYARD. The second thing that shouldn’t surprise anybody is that you can expect no fruit without Christ.Jesus says, 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. …Without Me, you can do nothing.”
I said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that you can’t accomplish anything in the church without Christ. But it’s amazing how many church leaders how many church leaders keep losing sight of that fact. It’s amazing how many church leaders – even among confessional Lutherans – are drawn to social engineering and the methods of the so-called “Church Growth Movement.” They draw their inspiration not from the Word of God but from the fads of popular culture. They cater not to the real needs of souls lost in sin, but to the “felt needs” of people who don’t want to be confronted with their sin.
Jesus snaps us back to reality. Without Me, you can do nothing. “Ouden” means nothing at all – not the least little bit. That’s what you can accomplish without Christ. Without that life-giving connection to Christ the Vine, and to His efficacious Word, you can do absolutely nothing. Can a branch severed from the vine, lying dead and shriveled on the ground, bear a fine cluster of grapes? I doubt it. But it’s even less likely that you could ever accomplish anything worthwhile for the kingdom of God apart from your Lord Jesus Christ and His Word. Again, who are the Easter believers? Who are the true followers of the risen Christ? Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. -- John 8:31.
THERE ARE NO SURPRISES IN GOD’S VINEYARD. While it is undeniably true that you can expect no fruit without Christ,we can be truly joyful in the fact that the converse is also true: you can expect much fruit with Christ.I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit
Sometimes it is the old vines that are the most fruitful. In Hampton Court, near London, there is a grape vine that was planted in 1769, seven years before the Declaration of Independence. The Great Vine, as it is referred to , is now 12’ around at the base, and it’s longest branch is over 120’. As old as it is, it continues to bear abundant fruit, in one recent year yielding nearly half a ton of grapes. Asked the secret of its great fruitfulness, the head gardener at Hampton Court Palace attributed it to careful pruning over the years, as well as a healthy flow of nutrients from the the branches to the vine.
Precisely the same thing is true of Christians, of course, and that’s why Jesus used this crystal-clear metaphor. On our own we are nothing. If we should become detached from our True Vine, Jesus Christ, we cannot even live, much less flourish and bear fruit. But what happens when you maintain that attachment to Him, continually strengthening and cultivating your connection to Jesus Christ? What happens when you delve into God’s Word, read and study it daily and are constant in prayer for yourself and your members? What happens when you present this life-giving Word faithfully week by week from your pulpit? Then stand back, my brothers, and prepare for a bountiful harvest, for there will be abundant fruit! For the power to bear fruit comes not from you but from God. The Lord says, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. -- Isaiah 55:11
This is what we expect, for this is what God has promised. THERE ARE NO SURPRISES IN GOD’S VINEYARD. But what a joy for cracked clay pots such as ourselves to bear this precious treasure of the Gospel! What a privilege for us actually to be branches connected to the true vine of Christ! Yes, flawed and imperfect branches that we are, and in constant need of pruning and correction, yet we are connected to the True Vine, the Fount of eternal Life. What a blessed privilege! I had this driven home to me recently when the Lord very deliberately pruned away an extraneous secular job that I had held onto for many years. I was surprised by the joy and freedom I experienced when I could finally give myself wholly to the Lord's work. I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. What happens when you strengthen your connection to the vine? No surprise – you become more fruitful. It was many centuries ago that the Apostle Paul told the young pastor Timothy,Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. 16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. -- 1 Timothy 4:15-16. Cultivate that all-important connection to the Vine, and you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
Hudson Taylor once said, “The branch of the vine does not worry, and toil, and rush here to seek for sunshine, and there to find rain. No; it rests in union and communion with the vine; At just the right time, and in the right way, there is the right fruit found on it. Let us so abide in the Lord Jesus.” Yes, as Easter Preachers let us abide in our True Vine and take advantage of the life-giving nutrients He offers us daily, in His Word. Here in God’s vineyard THERE ARE NO SURPRISES. We expect the painful but necessary pruning process. We certainly expect no fruit apart from Christ. But with Christ, as branches attached to His life-giving Vine, we expect and receive much fruit! God grant it, both in our lives and our ministries, AMEN.
-Pastor Paul G. Naumann