TITLE: God and His Sharp Knife
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: God wields a sharp knife, but Jesus promises
blessings to those who abide in him.
SCRIPTURE: John 15:1-8
VERSES 1-8: OVERVIEW
There are four actors in this little drama. The Father is the vinegrower
(v. 1). Christ is the vine (v. 5). The disciples are branches (v. 5).
Those who do not abide in Christ are useless branches suitable only to be
pruned and thrown into the fire (v. 6).
Where is the church here? The fruitful church is the branch that the
vinegrower prunes, but the unfruitful church is the branch that the
vinegrower removes and throws into the fire
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit."
The Father is the vinegrower -- Jesus is the vine -- we are the branches. The purpose of the vineyard is to grow grapes -- not vines or branches, but grapes. A well-kept vineyard is a thing of beauty, but beauty isn't what a vineyard is about. The owner of a vineyard doesn't plant grapevines to impress the neighbors but to grow grapes.
If there are no grapes, the vinegrower has a problem. Today, a vinegrower might solve the problem with fertilizers or insecticides, but in Jesus' day vinegrowers didn't have chemical solutions. They could pull weeds and they could prune the vines.
In Jesus' parable, we are the branches that are supposed to produce grapes. Jesus says,
"(The Father) removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit."
That makes sense. I am not much of a gardener, but I know that untended plants put too much energy into branches and too little into fruit. Some branches are called "suckers," because they suck up all the plant's energy, leaving little or no energy for fruit. A good gardener cuts away the suckers so that the plant can concentrate on growing fruit.
Jesus says that God is like that gardener. God tends the vines like a gardener tends the garden. Walking through the vineyard, God sees two kinds of branches -- bad ones and good ones. As I read this passage this year, I found something that I hadn't noticed before. When God goes through the vineyard, it doesn't matter whether the branches are good or bad. In both cases, God takes a sharp knife and does some cutting.
-- Finding an unproductive branch, God removes it -- cuts it off. Those branches end up in the fire.
-- But finding a fruit-bearing branch, God cuts it too. He doesn't remove it -- doesn't cut it off. Instead, he snips away the suckers -- the parts that steal the plant's energy without producing any fruit -- leaving the good part of the branch to do its work.
That isn't what I expected to find. I thought that Jesus would say that God will destroy unproductive branches but bless fruitful branches. I wanted Jesus to reassure me that, if I am productive, I don't have to worry. I wanted Jesus to promise me that, if I am trying to be a good disciple, God will keep the knife in his pocket.
Instead, Jesus says that God will cut me with that sharp knife too, and I don't like to hear that. Jesus tells me that it is for my own good, a phrase with which I am all too familiar. When I was a child, and would get punished for doing something wrong, and my mom would explain that it was for my own good. The idea was that they were going to inflict
minor pain so that I would learn to behave -- the minor pain would help me to avoid major pain later. I understood the principle even then. That doesn't mean that I liked it -- but I did understand it.
Some of you will be offended by the thought of spanking your child. That is O.K. It is possible for spanking to get out of hand. There are other methods of discipline -- other ways to get your child's attention. Put the child in time out -- turn off the television -- withhold their allowance -- ground them -- whatever it takes to get their attention. Make small corrections to small problems now so that the child doesn't spin out of control later.
Some parents object to any discipline at all, and that is not O.K. Failure to discipline is one form of parental neglect.
So Jesus says that God will cut me with that sharp knife for my own good, and I ask, "Is that fair? I am producing fruit -- leave me alone! I deserve a pat on the back -- not a swat on the bottom!"
But it isn't really a swat on the bottom -- it is pruning -- getting rid of friends or habits or allegiances that threaten to pull me down. I don't like to do that. Sometimes I need God to nudge me a little bit to insure that I make some changes in my life.
Sometimes Christians use a different metaphor. They talk about God opening doors and closing doors. That is a good image too, and it is related to what I am saying. Christians who talk about God opening doors and closing doors believe that, when God closes one door, he opens another one. They know how painful it can be when God closes a door -- when they
don't get the job that they want -- when the girl or boy of their dreams says no -- when things don't go their way. When a pastor says its time to leave. They have experienced that sort of pain but they don't despair, because they believe that God is denying them one thing only to give them something even better. The pain of the closed door is very much like the pain of the pruning shears. Both are a sign of God's love.
That is a difficult lesson to learn, but it is important. All of us feel pain. We all experience crushing disappointments. It is easy to believe, when things are going wrong, that God doesn't love us -- or that God has abandoned us -- or that God just doesn't care. The truth is quite different. God is like a parent who loves enough to discipline -- like a gardener with pruning shears, always ready to trim away the errant branch. God closes doors that we hoped to find open, but only to open other doors where we will find blessings. That is important to remember when things seem to be going badly for us. It doesn't mean that God has abandoned us. It means that we need to start looking for the open door -- for the
blessings that God has in store for us.
Jesus goes on to say, "Abide in me as I abide in you." He assures us that he is with us all the time, and he calls us to acknowledge that relationship -- to walk with him -- to abide in him.
I spoke earlier about the importance of parents disciplining children, but it is even more important for parents to be present for their children. We talk about spending quality time with our children instead of quantity time, but the truth is that children need both. Children need to know that we are there for them -- physically there -- spiritually there --present in every way.
A few years ago, I saw a piece in a magazine about Nealon Greene, a highly successful quarterback for the Clemson football team. It talked about Greene's unshakable composure. Nothing rattled him. It told about him being raised in a tough neighborhood in Yonkers, New York – a neighborhood filled with crime and drugs and broken dreams. But Greene
says, "I was one of those kids who knew what he had to do. I didn't get into trouble. My mother always knew where I was." I can't imagine that Greene's mother had an easy life. I can't imagine that she had much spare time. I seriously doubt that she was able to give her children all that she wanted to give. But she did give herself. She was present for her children. Greene says, "My mother always knew where I was."
Christ is there for us like that -- always present -- always caring. He says, "Abide in me as I abide in you." He hasn't forgotten us, and he asks us not to forget him. "Abide in me as I abide in you."
What does that mean? How can we go about abiding in Jesus?
I read something about Frank Laubach recently that speaks to that. Laubach was a famous missionary a couple of generations ago. He was one of those people who really made a difference -- who really changed the world for the better. Laubach was concerned about adult literacy. He wanted to teach people how to read, in part, so they could read the Bible,
but also so that they could just enjoy better lives. He developed an "Each One Teach One" system for teaching reading that enjoyed great success worldwide. It is hard to know how many lives he changed, but it is very possible that more than a million people learned to read because of Frank Laubach. In 1984, the United States printed a commemorative stamp with Dr. Laubach's picture on it.
Laubach explained the key to his success. He said that the key was his practice of the presence of God. He practiced the presence of God by "trying to line up (his) actions with the will of God about every fifteen minutes or every half hour." Two or three or four times an hour, every day, he would stop and ask, "Is my life lined up with the will of God?" If it weren't, he would start lining it up. He truly gave himself to God, and God truly blessed him in return.
Today, we would put it this way: What would Jesus do? WWJD? People even wear bracelets with those initials -- WWJD? -- What would Jesus do? Asking that question is a way of practicing the presence of Christ – a way of abiding in his presence.
But we are tempted to think, "That's fine for a missionary. That's what we expect from a missionary, but I'm not a missionary. I am just an ordinary person. I have all sorts of pressures on my life that a missionary wouldn't understand. I don't have time to think about God all the time. I have enough trouble just keeping the alligators at bay.
But Jesus says, "Abide in me as I abide in you." He says that "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit." And then he makes this astounding promise. He says, "If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." I believe that the life of Frank Laubach is an example of the fulfillment of Jesus'
promise. I believe that, if we take the time to practice the presence of Christ, Christ will empower us to do far more than we could ever have done on our own.
Try practicing the presence of Christ this week. As often as you can remember to do so, ask yourself, "Is my life lined up with God?" If it isn't, start lining it up! As you encounter each new situation or person, ask yourself, "What would Jesus do?" -- and start doing it. Abide with Christ, and let him change your life.