- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://www.fpcjackson.org -

I Am the True Vine

Please turn with me in your Bible to the gospel of John, chapter 15, as we continue our Sunday night series in the upper room discourse or the farewell discourse – John chapters 13 to 17. And tonight we come to John chapter 15. Remember where we are in this story.

The disciples are huddled up in a room with Jesus, they have just celebrated the Passover feast, and Jesus has been drilling into their minds and into their imaginations that His death is at hand. This is Jesus’ last night. He is about to be arrested and taken away and crucified. And so we come tonight to the last of the “I Am” statements, the seventh “I Am” statement – this famous illustration of the vine and the branches.

And before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text. I have mentioned before that in my office I have a print of Rembrandt’s famous, the “Return of the Prodigal Son.” And I face that print when I sit down. And so I look at it almost every day and I often think about that most beloved story that Jesus ever told in Luke chapter 15 where the prodigal son, who is bankrupt in every way, he comes home. And the father, who was longing for his son, was looking for his son, and Luke chapter 15 tells us that he saw him and he ran, embraced, and kissed him. And he put a ring and a robe on him. He threw a lavish party. What a party it was! He killed the fattened calf. And so this would have been a party, probably, that would have included the entire community. It would have lasted well into the night. “For this, my child was dead, and he is alive again.” This famous story.

And I think about the younger son would have eventually gone to bed; he would have gone back to his room. Can you imagine? He would have gone back to bed knowing his true identity as a beloved son. He would have gone to bed knowing his father’s heart. “I am forgiven. I am welcomed home. I am cherished and precious in my father’s sight.” He would have known his father’s smile. Can you imagine?

And I wonder sometimes, it’s just a story, but I wonder – What about the next day? What would that have been like for him? What about the next day? What was the morning after like? Or maybe a week later? Or a month later? Or a year later?” In other words, how did he hang onto that? His father ran, embraced, and kissed him; he put a ring and a robe on him; he killed the fattened calf. He knows his father’s heart. He knows his father’s smile. How does he hang onto all of that? How does that play out in the living, in his real life? What does it look like for him to live in his father’s house? And really the question, “How does he live into and live out of that prodigal love that he experienced?”

And the good news for us tonight is that grace comes to a prodigal son, grace comes to you and says, “I will forgive you. I will wash your sin away. You will be blameless in My sight. I will make you clean.” That’s justification. That he ran, embraced, and kissed you in Jesus Christ. That’s justification. But the good news is that grace doesn’t stop there, that grace also says, “I will change you. You will learn a whole new way of living and a whole new way of being in My house.” That’s sanctification. And so the Gospel not only has the power to forgive, but it also has the power to change. And so how do we live into and live out of this great love that we experience in the Gospel? That’s what we’re considering tonight in John chapter 15. Before we read, let’s go and ask for the Lord’s help in prayer. Let’s pray.

Our great God and heavenly Father, I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts would be pleasing and acceptable to You, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is John chapter 15, verses 1 to 11, beginning in verse 1. This is God’s Word:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 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. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Amen. This is God’s Word.

And so he ran and embraced and kissed him. He is a beloved son. He knows his father’s heart. He knows his father’s smile. But what about the next day? How does that play itself out in the living? In your life, how do you live into and live out of this great love that you have experienced? Another way to say it, “Can I change? Can I really grow? Can my life be different?” And we’ll explore tonight – whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever mess you bring into this room – that there is, here in this text, a foundation for change, and fuel for change, and then we’ll see fruit of change. And so we’re going to look at those three things – foundation and fuel and fruit.

The Foundation for Change

And so first, the foundation for change. Jesus begins this section by using the ancient image of a vineyard. And this is an image that had real emotional and mental currency with the disciples because Israel was a land of vineyards and this is an image with a past. This is an image with a past. The image of a vineyard is often used in the Old Testament to describe the people of God, Israel. So consider Psalm 80, verse 8. It reads, “You brought a vine out of Egypt. You drove out the nations and planted the vine. You cleared the ground for it. It took deep root and filled the land.” This picture of God transporting this vine, Israel, into the Promised Land and causing it to flourish and causing it to grow.

Most often though, in the Old Testament, when this image is used by God to describe His people, it’s highlighting their failure. And so think about Isaiah chapter 5 verse 1, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill, but when I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge and it shall be devoured. I will break down its wall and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste. It shall not be pruned, and briars and thorns shall grow up. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel. And the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed. He looked for righteousness, but behold, an outcry.” And so God is saying, Isaiah chapter 5, “I loved you so much I wrote love songs for you, but you have refused My love. I loved you so much that I said, ‘Let me sing for My beloved My love song.’ I worked for your beauty. I worked for your glory and your joy and your loveliness and yet you didn’t love Me back. You refused My love song.” And so he’s saying in this text you can be a vineyard with no love, with no care, with no rain, with no pruning, with no vinedresser. In other words, God planted His people, this vine, to bear fruit, to bless the world, to bring glory to His name, to bring justice upon the earth. That was their responsibility as the vine. But we see this image of a vineyard in the Old Testament and it’s used again and again and again as a banner of failure for God’s people.

And so the disciples hear this last of the “I Am” statements of Jesus and they’re probably bracing now for another story of their failure, a story of how they disappointed the vinedresser; a story of judgment. But instead, the disciples hear this in verse 1. “I am the true vine. I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser.” And so Jesus is saying – and the disciples would have caught this – Jesus is saying, “I am the one who has lived up in every way to the love song of the vinedresser. I am the one who has brought life back into the deadness of this story. I have returned joy to the vinedresser, God Himself. I have made this vineyard alive again. This vineyard is cherished again.”

And so don’t you see, John chapter 15 verse 1, don’t you see the Gospel here? This is a Gospel image – that the Son will be to the Father what His people were not. “I am the true vine.” That Jesus Christ came to be and Jesus Christ came to do everything that we have failed to be and to do.

My four-year-old daughter, Finley, she often wears my clothes. And so if you can imagine this four-year-old little girl walking around in the t-shirt of a thirty-seven-year-old, mildly out of shape dad – that’s me – just walking around kind of swimming in and tripping over herself in this t-shirt. It’s so large on her. Clearly it doesn’t fit her. And it’s all over her! But she is only a child. She is only four-years-old. One day she will grow up, and so she will, little by little by little, she will fill in that t-shirt. She is my daughter. She is going to grow. She is going to change. She is just not there yet. She is in the process of growing into it.

And so sanctification is the process of becoming who you were declared to be in your justification. That you are blameless in His sight. That you are clean. That you are righteous before Him. Sanctification is growing into that declaration. And so His beautiful life, Jesus Christ, He says here He is the true vine. His life becomes yours. And so it is given to you like a crown. You did not earn, it’s not achieved, but it’s received by faith. And when He says, “I am the true vine,” He’s saying, “In Me, in Jesus Christ, in Me, you are the beloved of God. In Me, you are the one over whom He sings now, in whom He cherishes, for whom He works. You are the beloved of God.” And so in a sense, you are like that little child wearing that big old t-shirt, and little by little by little growing into it as you are completely known, fully forgiven. But now, free, forgiven, unburdened child, strive with all you have to grow into it. That you are doing this not to be loved, you already are loved, but to lay hold of that verdict that’s already been placed over your life.

And so what is the good news here for people who are desperate for change? What’s this foundation? Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” And so maybe you’re here and you say, “I don’t have it in me. I can’t change myself. I can’t do it.” Well yes, you’re right, because the vine is the one responsible for drawing and sustaining and maintaining life and stability and nourishment. Life is in the vine, in the true vine.

And so the branches are responsible for what, then? The branches are responsible for one thing – to abide in the vine. How does the prodigal son live into and live out of that great love that he experienced? You abide in the vine. And so in other words, do you know who is most committed to your change? Do you know who is most committed to your not being stuck in the mess of your life? Do you know who is most committed to your holiness and your faithfulness and your endurance and your beauty? Do you know who is most committed to that in this life? It is Jesus Christ, the true vine. It’s Jesus Himself. He is more committed to His relationship to you, to your sanctification, to your growth, than you are. And so your fickleness is no match for His faithfulness. The mediocrity of your life, it’s not greater than His mercy. That’s the foundation.

The Fuel for Change

Now let’s look second at the fuel for change. And there are at least two things that we see here in our text. We see our participation and we see His pruning. And so our participation in the means of His grace. And we see our pruning by a loving, not an unloving but a loving Father. And so first, our participation. Look at verse 4. “Abide in me, and I in you.” And Jesus then says over and over again, nine times by my reading in our text, He says the word, “abide.” And that’s not a word that we use very much – “abide.” Abide here is homemaking language. And so, “Make a home here. Make your home in Me. Don’t go anywhere else. This is the place where you belong. Stay put.” And “abide” has this feeling of both an invitation and a command. It has this feeling of both. One author fleshes this out well. He says, “On the one hand, ‘abide’ suggests resting, like a child leaning upon his mother’s arm, leaning into his mother’s embrace. This posture of reliance for care and even survival, like branches depend upon and abide in the vine.” And so on the one hand, utter dependency – “For apart from me, you can do nothing.” But on the other hand, abiding is a verb; it’s an action. It’s something that you must do. It’s a command from Jesus. “Abide in Me.” He says, “Isn’t this wonderful that Jesus commands us to rest in Him?” This invitation and command.

And so we have this call to come with nothing but empty hands but to cling tightly, to fight to cling tightly. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” This call to rest in the reality that Jesus has come near to me, yes, even me, but to fight with all that I have to make my home in nearness to Him. This reality that His presence with me is all of grace. It’s all grace. But I must pursue the means of grace to experience the fullness of this love. How does the prodigal son lean into and lean out of that great love that he experienced? Make your home here. “Abide in Me, and I in you.”

There’s a book that came out a few years ago that compares this to sailing. What makes a sailboat move? It’s not the skill. It’s not the skill of the sailor, the knowledge of the sailor; it’s not the willpower of the sailor. No, it’s the wind. It’s the wind that matters most. No wind means no sailing that day. You are completely dependent, this author says, on a power outside of you to move you forward. “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” You can’t do the most important thing, and yet there’s still something that you have to do to move forward. “Abide in Me.” You see, there are certain skills that you have to have to sail. You have to get the sail up, you have to know where you are going and which angle to point it at because the wind can be blowing and you can be stuck. The wind can be blowing but you are tossed to and fro by the waves. You can’t control the wind, but you can catch the wind. And so for you to move forward, you have to draw the sail to catch the wind, this author says. And likewise, no matter how determined we might be, we can’t move forward, we can’t manufacture change. We can’t change ourselves. We are always dependent on a power outside of us. We need the wind, but we don’t control the wind. But we catch the wind by drawing the sail.

And so how do you do that? How do you draw the sail? Verse 7 helps us. It says, “My words abide in you.” In other words, you participate in the means of His grace. His Word is the Bible, and persisting in prayer, the fellowship of His bride, the Church – these things are not about making you more precious to Him, but they are about making Him more precious to you. The means of grace. They keep His love. They keep His grace in front of you. And so the choices that you make every day affect your present enjoyment of God’s gifts and of His love for you. God has crowned you with His love, but the choices you make, the choices you make, your participation affects your experience of God’s love for you. And so only God can change us, but He will not change us, He intends to change us but He won’t change us without us. You draw the sail to catch the wind. How does the prodigal son live into and live out of that great love that he experienced? And so our participation. We draw the sail – not to make us more precious to God, but to make God more precious to us.

But second, the fuel for change is also pruning. You see this in verse 2. “Every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” And so the Father, as the master vinedresser, He is the master gardener that prunes and cares for the vine and the branches. And I want you to remember the context here. Jesus is talking to His disciples. Jesus is talking to His closest friends. Every one of them, every person at this table, would suffer greatly, and in the years to come, be exiled or martyred. And so Jesus is talking to them and He’s saying, “Pruning is coming. Pruning is coming so that you will bear more fruit.” Can you imagine Peter, years later in a prison? What do you think would sustain him? What would give him spiritual stamina? Do you think that he thought back on these words at this meal? “Every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

Yesterday I listened to an interview with pastor Tim Keller. And many of you know he has been undergoing aggressive treatment for pancreatic cancer. It’s a very lethal cancer, very difficult to treat, and he said, in the interview, he said, “I’m not battling cancer.” He said, “I am, but that’s actually not the fight.” He said, “I’m battling my sin and my unbelief.” And he said, “Oddly enough, I’ve never been happier. Pancreatic cancer – I’ve never enjoyed my days more. I’ve never enjoyed hugs more. I’ve never enjoyed walks more. I’ve never enjoyed food more.” He said the answer for why that was, was that he has gotten his heart off those things so that he can now actually enjoy them. And he went on to say that it was cancer that made so many of the truths of Christianity – the resurrection, the good providence of God, the perseverance of God’s people – it was cancer that made so many of those truths actually operational to his heart, actually real to his heart. That it was cancer that put those truths on steroids in his life. And so he said that he’s never had deeper communion with God.

That is the testimony of so many saints, and so many saints even in our congregation who have walked through things like cancer. And that’s the testimony of the ministry of pruning in the life of a Christian – that the Master vinedresser, that He comes and He prunes, and it will drive you like a nail into the heart of God. Pruning takes the truths of Christianity and puts them and makes them operational in your life. And so, God will bring things into your life, and when they show up you will think that He is against you. You will think that they are a sign to say to you that you are not His, that you are not loved, that you don’t belong. And you are afraid and scared and tired and disease and darkness and death is closing in, and you are lonely and you are lost and the wind is beating down on you and a hard rain is falling. What is God doing? But it’s a friend. You see, those trials are a friend leading you to God’s heart. Verse 2 is not a threat. It’s not a challenge to you, believer, but it’s a promise. It’s a promise to believers. “I will prune you, but I won’t leave you or forsake you. I am tending you and nourishing you. I will sustain you. I will not let you go. And you will bear more fruit.”

The Fruit of Change

And so the foundation and the fuel, and then third and last, the fruit. What will this change look like? How does the prodigal son live into and live out of this great love that he has experienced? Verse 5 comes with this promise. “Abide in Me and you will bear much fruit.” And so two things here. The first is this – the fruit is organic and it’s not mechanical. It’s inside-out growth; it’s not outside-in growth. If you think about how a plant grows, there’s a force inside of it that’s making it grow. It’s organic growth.

So maybe think about it this way. We are a real Christmas tree family in the Felker house. And so this is not taking a shot on you if you have a fake one in your attic, but we are a real Christmas tree family. And I have memories as a child of going to the tree farm in my dad’s truck and picking out the tree – to see the tree get chain-sawed, to see it get cut off at the bottom of the trunk, to put it back in the truck to take it home, to then put the tree up, put water at the base, and put lights and ornaments and decorations all over it so it’s this big and beautiful and bright Christmas tree. Now is that tree alive? No. It was dead the moment it got chain-sawed; it got cut off at the root. It got severed from its source of life. It might look beautiful, it might look bright, it might look alive for a few weeks, but it’s functionally dead. And one day it will display that. It is a dead tree.

And you see, the fruit of change in your life is relational. It is inside-out. It’s organic. You try to change yourself by yourself and through your own strength, through your own productivity, your own faithfulness, then you can look like that bright and beautiful tree – all the lights, all the decorations, all the ornaments – but not be connected to the life source, the true vine, Jesus Christ Himself.

This shows up from time to time when, as a pastor, I’ll meet with someone over coffee or over lunch and I’ll ask the question, “How are you doing spiritually? This has been a strange time. How is God at work in your life? How have you seen Him at work? How have you seen Him grow you in this particular season?” And the answers – and I’m interested to know how you would answer that question, “How are you doing spiritually?” – but often the answers that we all give can be this list of all of the things that you are doing. And so, “Well, I started to try a new memorization plan. I’m trying to memorize Scripture. I’m trying to pray more this year. I joined a new Bible study.” And you just list all of the things that you are doing but you’re not talking about how you are doing; you’re talking about what you’re doing.

And those two realities can get so tangled up in our minds because how we understand sanctification and how we understand change is just what we’re doing to build this bright and beautiful tree. But fruit, the fruit of change in the life of a believer, fruit is everything that flows out of this new life in Christ from abiding in Him. It’s how He transforms your life from within and produces in you things that never existed before.

And so what is that fruit like, that fruit of change? A good place to go would be Galatians chapter 5, the fruit of the Spirit. Do you see these things sprouting in your life? Do you see more of these things in your interior life than you did one year ago or five years ago? And so love, and joy and peace – peace, that come what may, are you settled in the goodness and the providence of God? Patience. Do you have the capacity to accept delay and trouble and suffering without breaking down? Kindness. Is there a warmth of spirit expressed in your words and deeds? Goodness and faithfulness and gentleness. Are you tender with people – to the friend, to the stranger, to the enemy? And self-control. Do you have command over your desires and your emotions or are you commanded by them? And so what about you? How would you assess your interior life? Who are you becoming? Who are you becoming in your character? Those are the characteristics, the marks of organic growth. That’s what Jesus is doing inside of us. This is a promise from the Word of God whose love is effective, who can make this guarantee – “If you abide in Me, you will bear much fruit.” That’s the first thing.

Then the second and last is that this fruit is a greater and not lesser, but a greater dependence on Jesus. Verse 5 says, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” It’s a statement about how your Christian life begins by grace. “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” But it’s also a statement about how your Christian life grows – by grace. “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” And most of us don’t live like this is true. Most of us, we operate like this – “If I’m really growing, if I’m really changing, then I am more self-sufficient and I need Jesus less and less and less. It may have started with Jesus, but now it’s up to me and so I have less dependence on Him.” And Jesus here says, “No. Always, apart from Me, you can’t. You can do nothing.” And so it’s all of grace all the way through.

So how does the prodigal son live into and live out of this great love that he experienced? As you grow, you have more dependence on Jesus. As you grow, you see that He is more faithful and you are more fickle and fragile. As you grow, you see that He is more beautiful and you are more broken and bruised. He is more in control, He is more gracious, He is more patient, His is more lovely, He is more trustworthy – as you grow. You see, it’s not that you are becoming worse, but you are growing in your awareness of the depths of your sin and need and you are growing in your awareness of the depths of His goodness and grace. As you grow, the reality of who God is comes into your life with weight.

In the Narnia chronicles, in the book, Prince Caspian, there are those four kids and they’ve been away from Narnia for a while and they come back and they’re looking for Aslan but they can’t find him and so they go to sleep. And then the youngest, Lucy, wakes up and she wakes up and she sees Aslan and she is exploding with excitement. She runs to him and it’s this sweet reunion. And here’s what the story says. That, “Lucy gazed up into his large, wise face. ‘Aslan, you’re bigger!’ ‘No,’ Aslan said, ‘that’s because you’re older, little one.’ And she replied, ‘It’s not because you’re bigger?’ And he said, ‘I am not, but every year you grow, you will find me bigger.’” And you see, that’s the principle. That’s sanctification. It’s not that He is actually growing, but the reality of who He is gets bigger in your life. Your need increases. Your desperation, your dependency increases. Every year you grow, you find God bigger. “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

Let me close with this. I told this story to our high school students a few weeks ago. When my son, Marshall, was four-years-old, we bought him his first bicycle. We bought him a Paw Patrol bicycle. And we lived on Laurel Street in Belhaven and we would ride up and down that street for hours. And I would hold the back seat of his bike. And so he was, I mean, four-years-old – he was young; he was nervous. He was anxious, so I would hold the back of his bike. And I don’t know if you can remember when you’re learning to ride a bike, but it’s scary, and you really can’t see behind you. You don’t know if anyone is there helping you. And so every so often he would stop and I would say the same thing to him. I would say, behind him, as I’m holding the back of that seat, “Marshall, I’m here. Marshall, I’m with you. Marshall, I’m for you. Marshall, I’m not going to let you go. Keep riding.” And so he would go on. And I would say that over and over and over again.

And every so often he would fall and, do you think that when he fell, do you think I punished him? Do you think I was angry with him? Do you think I judged his skill? Do you think I was disappointed in him? Of course not. He’s my boy and we’d get back on the bike and I would say again and again and again, “Marshall, I’m here. Marshall, I’m with you. Marshall, I’m for you. Marshall, I’m not going to let you go. Just keep riding.”

And so maybe you are here tonight and you have more than a few scrapes on your knees, you have had some hard falls, you have had a lot of failures in this life, and you’ve not seen a lot of growth and you’ve not seen a lot of change and you don’t know if you can make it and you feel like giving up and you don’t know how to begin again. Well what reminds you? What is it that reminds you? God is with you. God is for you. God is not going to leave you. God is not going to forsake you. Just keep pedaling. What is it that tells you that He is not disappointed in you when you fall? What is it that tells you those things if you’re not abiding in Jesus Christ on this race, if you’re not drawing that sail to catch the wind, then what is it that reminds you He’s with you, He’s for you, He’s not going to let you go?

You see, how do you hang onto that? He ran, embraced, and kissed you. He put a ring and a robe on you. He killed the fattened calf. “For this my child was dead, and is alive again.” How do you hang onto that? How does the prodigal son live into and live out of that great love? You keep pedaling. You keep pedaling right where you are. That’s how you begin again. You keep pedaling all the way home. “Abide in Me, and I in you,” He says. You keep pedaling, not to make yourself more precious to Him, but to make Him more precious to you. For He says, “I am with you. I am for you. I am not going to leave you or forsake you. I am not going to let you go.” And so you lay hold of the one who has already grasped hold of you.

Why? Why do you do this? Why do you keep pedaling? I think verse 11 – “So that His joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” And that’s an invitation. Let’s pray.

God of all grace, we pray that You would give us the courage to fight for this joy that’s promised here. Help us not to grow weary in coming to You with empty hands and prune us and give us change tonight. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.