Two days ago one of the most talked about movies EVER premiered—Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens. How many of you have seen it? I’m trying not to covet!
One thing that if find interesting is that this seventh installment in the Star Wars saga takes place 30 years after the events of its “prequel” — Return of the Jedi—which is almost perfect timing because that film came out in 1983—32 years ago—so Harrison Ford, Mark Hamil, and Carrie Fischer will have aged just the right amount of years to reprise their original roles.
Well—the hype around this 7th film is something else. It’s been used to sell everything from candy to cars—and has been used in this way LONG before its release. I mean they have been using this film to sell products—long before the film was seen! Trailers for the film have been welcomed as if they were the film itself—and these brief scenes have had sci-fi buffs debating for months now about the answers to questions like: What part will Luke play? Does Han Solo die? Does a Wookie’s hair turn gray?
People bought tickets on line back in the spring and have sold them on e-bay for a profit. Some of those ticket holders camped out a week early in order to be assured good seats. But the TRULY shocking thing is the hype about this film even affected my non-sci-fi buff wife—who actually suggested we watch Return of the Jedi so as to be up to date for the film. Sue’s NEVER done that kind of thing before. I think she just did it because she loves me!
Now—if you are a Star Wars fan you know that the CENTRAL CHARACTER of the story is not a person—but rather a no-name entity called The Force. Good Jedis like Luke use the good side of the force and bad Jedis like Darth Vader rely on the evil side of the force. I remember in 1977 watching—AMAZED—as a young Luke Skywalker learned to use the good side of the force to destroy the original death star—when in that climactic scene the voice of Obiwan Kenobi spoke to Luke as he piloted his X-wing fighter telling him to turn off the computer aiming system and instead to, “Trust the force, Luke.” And he did. With the help of the force he hit the firing button at just the right time to release his torpedo and blow that huge destructive weapon to bits.
But with the force Luke—and other Jedis—could do much more.
- They had strength to make impossible jumps.
- They could “see” with their eyes shut.
- Their timing became perfect—allowing them to master a dangerous weapon called a light saber.
- They could compel others to do things with their “Jedi mind tricks.”
I mean, in the Star Wars universe, the force was an amazing resource to have at your disposal.
Now—of course this is all science fiction. There is no such thing as this no-name entity that you can rely on to do amazing things. Actually—I take that back—partially—because as a Christian we do have a secret Source of inner wisdom and power and direction. But it’s not impersonal—He has a name. I’m of course referring to the Spirit of Jesus Who comes to live inside our hearts when we put our faith in Him. Of course I’m not talking about mind control tricks or the ability to wield a light saber—but Jesus does indeed enable us to do things—amazing things—things we could not do on our own. In fact, Paul says we—“…can do all things through Christ Who strengthens us.” (Phil. 4:13)
That brings me to the topic of this morning’s message because another way Jesus answered questions about His identity and nature was when He said, “I am, the True Vine.” With this “I AM” statement Jesus was saying, “I am the Source of the wisdom and strength you need to live a life of purpose—and abundance—but to access it you must ABIDE in me.” Before I go any further, I’ll remind you that this is the third sermon in this year’s Advent Series. The purpose of this series is to answer a question posed by one of our most popular Christmas Carols—“What Child is This?”— “Who is Jesus?” This is a question that is on everyone’s minds—especially at this time of the year—and to prepare ourselves to answer it—we are looking at Jesus’ own answers to His identity and nature by studying His “I AM” statements which are found in John’s Gospel. Okay—let’s get started. Here’s the SETTING for this morning’s text.
Jesus and His disciples have just finished the Passover meal—the Last Supper. In John 14:31 Jesus says to them, “Come, let us leave” and they did. They exited the upper room and walked through the city of Jerusalem heading for the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gesthemane. As they did they no doubt went through the temple and passed by the door that led to the Holy of Holies. That door would have STOOD OUT because it was decorated with an impressive sculpture of a giant golden vine that wrapped all around the door frame. This vine was to remind worshipers of the nation of Israel—which the Old Testament repeatedly pictures as God’s vine or God’s vineyard. Listen to how Calmet’s Dictionary describes this special vine-covered door: “In the temple of Jerusalem, above and round the gate, seventy cubits high, which led from the porch to the holy place, a richly carved vine was extended as a border and decoration. The branches, tendrils and leaves were of finest gold; the stalks of the bunches were of the length of the human form, and the bunches hanging upon them were costly jewels. Herod first placed it there. Rich and patriotic Jews from time to time added to its embellishment. One contributed a new grape, another a leaf, and a third even a bunch of the same precious materials. This vine must have had an uncommon importance and a sacred meaning in the eyes of the Jews. With what majestic splendor must it likewise have appeared in the evening, when it was illuminated by tapers!”
Well, I think it was as Jesus and the eleven remaining disciples passed this famous vine that He stopped and gave this particular “I AM” statement. As He stood in front of this huge vine sculpture He said, “I am the TRUE Vine and My Father is the Gardener.” (John 15:1) This was a fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 1:11 where it says, “And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a Branch out of his roots.” The disciples were familiar with this prophecy and others like it so I’m sure all conversation stopped at this powerful statement—because the force of His words were, “You all know how Israel is pictured as a vine that is meant to produce refreshing fruit for this lost world. Well, I am the fulfillment of all that symbol suggests.”
Okay—with that in mind, follow along as I read our text. We’re looking at John 15:1-11, 16.
1 – “I am the True Vine, and My Father is the Gardener.
2 – He cuts off—or lifts up—every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
3 – You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
4 – Remain in Me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me.
5 – I am the Vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing.
6 – If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
7 – If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.
8 – This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.
9 – As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Now remain in My love.
10 – If you obey My commands, you will remain in My love, just as I have obeyed My Father’s commands and remain in His love.
11 – I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
16 – You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in My name.
Okay—before we go any further let’s take a few moments to explain exactly what we mean when we talk about “abiding in Christ?” In my mind, where you ABIDE is where you STAY. To use some almost-contemporary slang, “abiding” is where you “hang.” At least I THINK that’s still contemporary. Maybe some of you teens can HANG WITH ME a bit after the service and let me know if I got it right! In any case, for a Christian to be a growing Christian—a believer who enjoys the inner wisdom and power Jesus makes available he or she must constantly “hang” with or “abide” with Jesus. The NIV helps us better understand what we’re talking about by translating this phrase, not as “abide” or “hang” but as “REMAIN.” Jesus says, “REMAIN in Me.” So basically, abiding is learning to remain in the presence of Jesus throughout the day.
It’s kind of like when Sue is cooking in the kitchen and I’m chilling in my recliner. She says, “Come be with me in the kitchen.” I say, “I can’t really cook…” and she says, “I know but I just want you with me while I do…come be with me.” I consider it a compliment that after 36 years of putting up with me—Sue still wants me to hang with her!
Now—of course, if you are a Christian, you are always in the presence of Jesus. Through the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit, Jesus is WITH—or rather—WITHIN us always. The problem is that sometimes we forget to acknowledge His presence. In essence we “stay in our recliners.” We ignore Jesus’ presence. Think about it—too often because too often we begin our days in a mad rush. In this fast-paced county of ours we go through out day blazing about at breakneck speed, moving from one crisis to the next—draining ourselves of peace and joy—until finally at the end of the day we collapse in exhaustion.
Well, in this text Jesus is telling us we don’t have to live that way. We don’t have to face the crises of life on our own strength. We don’t have to solve the difficult dilemmas of life on our own brain power. We don’t have to go through anxiety or depression-filled days alone. No—we can go through every moment of every day—acknowledging Jesus’ presence and asking for His guidance and power.
You know, in the Star Wars films Luke is visited periodically by his mentor Obiwan. In these meetings Obiwan gives Luke counsel. He encourages him. He tells him what to do—and what not to do. But Luke can’t INITIATE these meetings. It seems as if Obiwan and Yoda can only do this a limited number of times—and THEY choose when to do so.
Well, I’m glad that’s FICTION—because the FACT is for the Christian we can do ALL things in Jesus’ presence. He wants to be a part of every moment of our days. There’s no limit. And we don’t have to wait for Him to initiate a meeting because He is always with us—always within us.
We can enjoy His guiding, comforting, empowering presence—WHENEVER we want to.
Think about that for a moment. Imagine how much different your life could be if you included Jesus in every activity of the day. Every event would become sacred. I mean, there’s nothing spiritual about washing your face or making a bed or driving to work or turning on a computer or answering a text or taking a test or playing a sport for your school. But each of these things can become sacred events that add a special depth of meaning and power and peace to our lives—when we acknowledge the fact that we perform them in the presence of Christ—enjoying His all-knowing guidance.
In January, 2008, a story made the rounds about a 15-year-old girl in Australia named Demi-Lee Brennan. Brennan became the world’s first known transplant patient to change blood types from O negative to O positive, taking on the immune system of her organ donor. At first the doctors thought someone had made a mistake, because it’s always been assumed that a change like that can’t happen. Now they say she’s a “one-in-six-billion miracle.” The blood stem cells in Brennan’s new liver invaded her body’s bone marrow, taking over her entire immune system. She now has an entirely different kind of blood—blood that welcomes life, rather than carrying death. “It’s like my second chance at life,” Brennan says.
Well, something similar happens to us when we learn to abide in Jesus. When we put our faith in Jesus, through the power of His blood shed on the cross, He takes our death and in exchange gives us life—abundant life—a life of eternal significance. In fact, He Himself comes into our hearts and SHARES LIFE with us—helping us to see things we never saw before—understand things we never understood before. Using that Star Wars parallel again you could say that Jesus is THE FORCE for good in us—and not just good but abundance. As Paul puts it, “It is Christ in you the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)
And this glory is not just in the future when our bodies die. It’s not just the glory of Heaven. You see, being saved means far more than eternal life when you die. It means an eternal caliber of life in the here and now. This is an important principle for us to grasp because abiding in Jesus’ presence—walking through life with Him—asking His input—-listening to His still small voice—this abiding is the key to REAL life—meaningful life.
Think of it this way. The key to a good marriage is communication and it’s the same in your relationship with Jesus. I mean do you want to have a dynamic spiritual life? Spend time alone communicating with Jesus. Talk to him. Learn to listen. Do it all the time. As much as possible, pray without ceasing.
By the way, the journal Psychological Science recently published a study that shows that when people think about God, their brains respond differently in a way that enables them to get through setbacks and overcome mistakes. This study is further proof of the fact that when we abide with Christ our lives work more effectively and more efficiently than ever before. In fact, that’s the focus of this message. In the time I have left I want us to talk about how we benefit from abiding in Jesus—the TRUE VINE.
(1) First, as I just said, our lives become more PRODUCTIVE.
Look at verse 5 where Jesus says, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, BEARS MUCH FRUIT.” Jesus is saying that if we learn to ABIDE IN HIM, our lives become fuller—more productive. We begin to experience the FRUIT that only comes when we tap into the power—the force—of an ongoing relationship with the Spirit of Christ. I mean, “hanging with Jesus” enables us to have more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control in our days—and because of that every part of our life “blossoms.
For example, our careers—our jobs—are more productive. We become known as the best employees—-the ones who consistently do the best work. We become the best students—the best athletes. With Jesus’ help—we can do so much more than we could do on our own.
One of the popular ads for the 2011 Super Bowl was a Volkswagen commercial that pictures a child dressed in a Darth Vader costume attempting to use “the force” around the house. With the familiar Star Wars music associated with Darth Vader playing in the background, the boy marches down the hallway and then raises his hands dramatically toward a dryer in the utility room—nothing happens. Next the young Darth points his hands at the family dog lying on the floor. The dog looks up quizzically—but again nothing happens. Darth does not give up. Now in the bedroom, he raises his hands forcefully toward a doll seated on the bed. The doll stares back blankly without budging an inch. Apparently the force is not with him—-and Darth’s arms drop to his sides in frustration, and he slumps in discouragement. In the kitchen, still in costume, he now stands dejectedly at the counter with his black-helmeted head on his hand. Then his father pulls into the driveway, and Darth runs out to the car as his father walks into the house. He hasn’t given up! One more time he raises his hands and points them dramatically at the auto. He waits, hands upraised. Suddenly the car’s yellow turn signals light up and the engine starts! The startled child stumbles backward in amazement. Of course his dad played along by starting the car from the kitchen using a push-button ignition.
I thought of this add because just as the child could do nothing without the intervention of the father, so we can do nothing truly significant in life apart from God—but with His help we can do all things. I mean, no matter what your career is, abiding in Jesus will help you do more—be more productive. This is because when we abide in Christ, we put ourselves in a position for God to bless the work we do. But that’s not all—abiding in Christ will make us better parents, spouses, and friends. In fact, Jesus says you can’t be the kind of person He has called you to be—the kind of person you really YEARN to be—without ABIDING in Him. Look at verses 4 and 5 again where He says, “You cannot bear fruit unless you remain in Me. Apart from Me you can do nothing.”
You see—not ABIDING—refusing to invite Jesus into our days—our jobs—our marriages—our friendships—this is why so many of us are unproductive. It’s why we are weak and powerless. It’s why we fail to get anywhere in life.
You may remember that on February 10, 2013, a fire broke out in an engine room of the Carnival cruise ship, Triumph. The fire knocked out the ship’s power, leaving the vessel drifting in Gulf of Mexico currents. The more than 4,200 passengers and crew were left in limbo. The lost power made it impossible to operate the flush toilets, keep cool in the un-shaded waters of the deep sea, and preserve and cook all the perishable food on board. Passengers reported long lines for food, shortages of fresh water, illnesses, and widespread boredom. Many passengers slept in hallways or outside to escape the odors and heat below decks. CNN dubbed the Triumph “the cruise ship from Hell.” I remember seeing the camera views from news helicopters that circled the ship—seeing passengers waving—asking for help. The ship’s loss of power wasn’t just a tragedy for the passengers. Carnival expected to lose hundreds of millions of dollars due to this incident. And apparently, Carnival learned their lesson. In June 2013 Triumph set sail once again, but this time it was outfitted with new emergency power capabilities. Carnival knows that when the power goes out, the party is over.
Well, many of us have learned this lesson as well. Experience teaches us that we run out of spiritual gas because we fail to acknowledge Christ’s presence and power. We try to live the Christ-life on our own resources—and that is always a recipe for failure.
Plus—when we don’t bear the fruit of the Spirit of Christ—people don’t recognize us as followers of the Christ. When we don’t manifest love and joy and peace and patience and gentleness and kindness and self-control—people don’t believe we are believers. You see, your FRUIT shows—PROVES—where you’ve been abiding. It indicates where you get your strength and wisdom and insight.
And this is not something you can fake. In 1927 the director Cecil B. DeMille cast British-born actor H. B. Warner as Jesus in his famous silent film King of Kings. Warner, who 19 years later played the druggist in It’s a Wonderful Life, was kept on a short leash during the filming of King of Kings. Cecil B. DeMille was concerned that any behavior by the lead actor deemed inconsistent with the image of Christ would result in negative publicity for the film. As a result, DeMille enforced strict measures to ensure that Warner kept up a good Jesus-image (or what DeMille thought would be a good representation of Jesus). Both Warner and his co-star Dorothy Cumming (who played Mary, the mother of Jesus)—had to sign agreements that barred them for five years from appearing in film roles that might compromise their “holy” screen images.
During the filming, Warner was driven to the set with blinds drawn, and he wore a black veil as he was delivered to the set. DeMille separated Warner from the other cast members, even forcing him to eat alone every day. Warner couldn’t play cards, go to ballgames, ride in a convertible, or go swimming. Unfortunately, the regimen of rules and regulations didn’t make Warner more holy. Instead, all of the pressure to be more Christlike without having the power or forgiveness of Jesus seemed to drive Warner over the edge. During the production of King of Kings, rather than act more like Jesus, Warner merely relapsed into his addiction to alcohol.
This is because you can’t be Christ-like—you can’t bear spiritual fruit—on your own. You need Jesus IN you. This is what Jesus was referring to in verse 8 when He said, “This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.” So—to experience the BLESSINGS of the Christ-life—to be known for your love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control—you have to abide with Jesus. You have to draw your strength and world-view from time spent with our Lord. This is how to have a truly abundant—productive life.
BUT—Jesus reminds us here that if we are to reach our fullest potential when it comes to fruit-bearing, God has to PRUNE us from time to time. Jesus says He is the “Vine-dresser” and when He said this He was referring to pruning. I mean, all grape growers know the importance of pruning to increase production. Sometimes they wander among the vineyard pinching off a growing tip—so it will not grow too rapidly. Sometimes they cut off a foot or two of new growth to prevent the loss of an entire shoot. Other times they lift up a branch that is growing too close to the ground to prevent mold and allow it to grow properly. Thinning the grape clusters themselves enables the rest of the branch to bear more fruit and fruit of a better quality. To the untrained eye doing all this looks cruel and wasteful, but to the experienced eye it is the only way to grow healthy, delicious fruit.
Well, the same is true of the Christian life. God has to prune us in order for us to grow and produce fruit for His kingdom. Now—our Father’s pruning process can be painful—but it’s always beneficial. Remember David’s words in Psalm 119? He said,“Before I was afflicted, I went astray…but it was good for me to be afflicted—PRUNED—so that I might learn Your decrees.”
Sometimes the pain of pruning comes because of our sin. Other times it is simply because we are bearing fruit but God wants us to bear more. I mean, there are times He allows trials and hardships to come our way so as to deepen our reliance on Him. The fact is God’s pruning is always good for us. It always takes the sinful parts of our lives away so that what is left is more like Jesus than it used to be. As we allow Him, God pulls us away from destructive relationships. He cuts away hurtful behavior and sinful qualities like gossip and lust. In this way He sculpts us more into the image of His Son.
Do you remember C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? In the book there’s a boy named Eustace Scrub. He’s a selfish and immature spoiled brat—and as part of his “pruning” he gets turned into a dragon covered in scales. This trial humbles Eustace and helps him to mature. Being a dragon helps him to see how bad he’s been. Well, in the end Aslan—the Christ figure—uses his claw to cut the dragon skin off and what is left is a much more Godly young man. The cutting away of the dragon skin was painful—but beneficial. After the ordeal Eustace says, “The very first tear he made with his claw was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart and when he began pulling the skin off it hurt worse than anything I had ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”
James 1:2 says, “Dear brothers, is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. So let it grow, and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete.”
Remember—pruning is necessary to growth—and God loves us enough to do what is necessary for growth to happen. Plus—His hand is never closer than in those painful times of pruning!
Through this pruning, God is the PERFECTER of our faith. As Hebrews 12:5ff says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son….no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace…”
Abiding with Christ—including His times of pruning—makes our lives more productive, so if you’re going through a pruning time—thank God for it!
(2) Here’s a second benefit of abiding in Christ: our prayers are more POWERFUL.
Look at verse 7. Jesus says, “If you abide in Me, and MY WORDS in abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” Now—many people misunderstand this promise. They think Jesus was saying, the sky is the limit when it comes to our prayer requests—that we can ask for anything and get it and with this immature mindset our conversations with God become nothing more than a series of “gimmee’s”—gimmee this God—gimmee that God. And often the things we ask Him to “gimmee us” are not the kinds of things we need. Plus, this concept of prayer turns God into nothing more than a genie in a bottle.
But of course that wasn’t Jesus’ intent. He was saying, that our most meaningful prayers come from HIS WORDS abiding in our thoughts. You see, when we abide in Christ, our desires become what they should be. Our desires become HIS desires. When we pray, we ask for HIS will to be done. Let me put it this way. We talk like the people we hang with—abide with. Their words become our words. It’s kind of like being a transplanted Southerner.
I know many of you are. Uncle Sam brought you up here to “yankee land.” And now you talk more like a Yankee but when you head south to visit family—it doesn’t take many hours before “YES” becomes a two syllable word again and your drawl returns.
We talk like the people we HANG with—ABIDE with. So when we don’t abide with Christ and instead abide in the world—well, we pray like the world. We pray selfishly and materialistically.
When Christ is not the center of our lives, we want what we shouldn’t want; we don’t want what we should. When we’re not abiding in Christ, we pray for the wrong things. But abiding in Christ causes us to experience change from within. Our desires are completely overhauled. When we ABIDE in Jesus we experience an empowered prayer life as we learn to pray more deeply for the right things—blending God’s desires with our own. When HIS WORD abides in us—those same kind of WORDS come out in our prayers.
Let me put it this way. A child might ask for candy at every meal, but a grownup knows better.
And, abiding in Christ helps us to grow up such that we learn to pray rightly and then as verse 16 says, God will give us, “whatever we ask in His name.” Listen—people who pray with power—are people who abide with Christ day in and day out.
In April 2011, the staff of The International Justice Mission (or IJM), a Christian organization that works to rescue victims of slavery and sexual exploitation, heard some incredible news. In a village near Chennai, India, a local official identified as S. Kandaswamy, summoned the courage to rescue the captives in his own community. He organized a raid against a brick kiln where 143 families, a total of 522 people, had been kept as slaves. Police under his direction freed the laborers, commandeered a local high school to provide them with health care, and arrested the owner of the brick kiln. On that day hundreds of men, women, and children who had been robbed of their God-given dignity had been set free. Where did S. Kandaswamy get the courage to initiate the raid? Just a few weeks before the raid and the bold actions of this local official, one thousand staff and friends of IJM gathered in a Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom—for a weekend of prayer for IJM’s most urgent needs. They spent an agonizing, energizing night praying specifically for the end of bonded labor in the countries where it persists—countries like India. It seemed like an audacious and impossible thing to pray for—and it was, because to pray for the end of bonded labor is to pray for nothing less than an institutional revolution. And yet everyone in the room that night dared to ask God for that bonded labor might be eradicated. The Spirit came with extraordinary power, pouring out on that group of believers the willingness to ask something none of them could possibly bring about with their own resources or power. Is it only a coincidence that four weeks later, this local official—who had not acted with courage before, took up the image-bearing power granted him by his position and dared to set free 522 slaves?
We’ve covered a lot this morning and in closing I want to ask you a question. As a Christian, does abiding in Christ as I have described it appeal to you? Does it make you yearn for a more productive—ABUNDANT—life? Do you wish your prayer life could be more powerful—more like a REAL conversation between you and God Himself? Are you lonely for the blessing of kindred-spirit friendships? Well, if one or more of these questions applies to you—then I would suggest that you simply make a commitment to abide in Jesus from here on out. Bow your head where you are seated or come to the altar and pray and re-commit your life to Jesus’ lordship. He promises that if we open the door of our lives He will come in—so do that. Invite Him in to that part of your life where you tend to leave Him out—commit to ABIDE with Jesus on the job…in your marriage…wherever. If you don’t have a church home and God is leading you to join Redland, come forward and ask to become a member. We would love to have you in our church family. And—if you don’t know Jesus—invite Him into your heart and life today. We’re going to stand and sing now—and if you have a public decision to make, come and share it with me or one of the other pastors.