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Are We Withering on the Vine?

The View from the Cross
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Lent and Easter
Jesus made pronouncement statements in John's gospel. They are commonly referred to as the "I am" statements. They are:

1. Jesus replied, "I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry again. Those who believe in me will never thirst" (John 6:35 NLT).
2. Jesus said to the people, "I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won't be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life" (John 8:12 NLT).
3. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. Wherever they go, they will find green pastures (John 10:9 NLT).
4. Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again" (John 11:25 NLT).
5. Jesus told him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me" (John 14:6 NLT).

The last is a part of our text for today, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower." In the verses for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Jesus instructs his disciples on three important relationships. First, disciples are to be related to Jesus in the right way. Second, they are to be related to the world in the same way. Finally, they are to remain faithful and help one another.

I have two plants that live in my office. One of them is better than twenty years old. The other is only a few years old. If I do not pay attention to them, they do something that makes them look sad. They droop! They almost look as if they are going to cry. When I see them looking that way I immediately pay special attention to them by getting some water and better light for them. Within a very short period of time they look almost like they did when I first set them on the windowsill years ago.

I think it is fair to say that like our plants we wither from time to time. I am speaking of course about our walk with the Lord. Most people who identify themselves as Christians have very pronounced highs and lows in their journey of faith.

Generally speaking it is because we allow our relationship with Jesus to grow old, or like our plants, we forget to get the kind of nutrition that we need to stay fresh and vital. There are so many people who join the church, sign up for boards or committees, get excited for a week or two, and then everything gets old. For others it takes longer; maybe a couple of months, maybe a year, two years, or maybe even five years. What do I mean when I say it gets old?

I mean that our spiritual energy withers. Like drooping plants our relationship with Christ that was once so vibrant and fresh and exciting becomes slow, stale, and boring… dry! The sad thing is that sometimes it's hard to see this happening because these people still come to church, they still "do ministry," they still say all the right words, they still sing the hymns with gusto, and for most people looking in from the outside, all appears to be well.

When looked at in its historical context we can discern the fruit that God desired from Israel was for the people of Israel to be more loving, to show obedience to God, and to practice righteousness and justice in how they conducted their lives. When we take that idea and transport it through Jesus, then in and through the disciples, and finally into all of us we begin to see how important it is for us to stay connected to Jesus who is the source of our Christian life.

The truth of the matter is that as human beings, it's easy to get disconnected from the vine. It's easy to let the ways of the world get hold of us and drain our obedience and the fruit that obedience to Jesus produces. That's why the advertising gurus on Madison Avenue always have to come out with new ads for new products, because we don't like seeing the same thing again and again. They know, and Jesus knew, that we like to be entertained and we are easily bored. This is why Jesus says in John 15:4, "Remain in me, and I will remain in you." If your relationship with Christ is to be fresh, if it is to be vibrant and exciting, it must remain connected to him. Otherwise we become like a branch that cannot produce fruit any longer and that branch is thrown into the fire. Every year Palestinian grape growers prune their vines. They cut off the dead wood that has no life in it and trim the living branches so that the yield will be greater. The people who first heard Jesus tell this story knew exactly what he was talking about. He says in verse 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" (RSV).

Jesus understood our human nature, he knew that we get bored easily and he also knew that when we're bored we don't do anything well!

In this passage that refers to producing fruit in our lives, Jesus is getting to the heart of what prevents us from producing good fruit as Christians. Fruitfulness is the result of the Son's life being reproduced in a disciple. The disciple's part is to remain connected to the source of life. The word "remain," a key word in John's theology, is meno, which occurs eleven times in this chapter and forty times in the entire gospel and 27 times in John's letters. So, what does it mean to "remain"? It can mean to first accept Jesus as Savior. Secondly and just as importantly it can mean to continue or persevere in believing. Third, it can also mean believing, loving obedience. Without faith, without the life of God, no real fruit can be produced.

A disciple needs to be continually connected to Jesus if they intend to be the kind of strong fruit-bearing vine Jesus is looking for. It is really not that complicated. A branch without life is dead and needs to be cut off the vine so it will not hurt the other healthy parts of the plant. As usual Jesus is using language that is filled with visual effects. Those hearing what Jesus said then and now should be able to see that the burned branches are Christians who have lost their way. The burned branches represent Christians who will lose their standing with Jesus because of their willful separation from him -- like Judas! It is clear that Jesus is also saying here that a burned branch, a person without Christ, is spiritually dead.

Remember Judas was with Jesus, he sure seemed to be connected but he did not have God's life in him and because of that he separated himself from Jesus and in so doing denied himself the opportunity to come into the kingdom. It isn't that difficult to know when your relationship with Christ has grown tired and disconnected from him. It begins when you start to wither. You know you're withering when you go to church because you feel guilty if you don't go, not because you want to go; it begins when you read your Bible like it is a catalog instead of a love letter addressed to you; when your praying becomes a habit instead of an honest heart to heart with God, and when your worship is reduced to sitting in the pew and counting the minutes until you hear the benediction and can go home.

There are many things that can cause us to become weak in our relationship with Jesus. It may be that you are fading because you are too comfortable and your comfort makes you lazy and out of touch. That is what happened with the people Israel.

But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and laws. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else that is the time to be careful. Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.
-- Deuteronomy 8:11-14 NLT

God loves to bless God's people and a lot of us like to receive that blessing. But sometimes we forget the blessings God has bestowed upon us. There are a lot of people in our world who are spiritually weak because they have too much comfort -- they've been blessed with everything they need and more.

You all know that regardless of how your life seems to be going, there is always something to be thankful for. There is always a reason to look to God and be happy because you know that you are blessed. It may be something so common that you forget to be thankful. How about the air you breathe? How about the fact that you have clothes on your back and a roof over your head? Even those who find themselves in difficult circumstances can know that regardless of those circumstances your God still loves you and is always there for you. The truth is that gratitude to God needs to come from your heart because it is a part of your life, a part of your everyday living.

The truth of the matter is that sometimes people have to become uncomfortable in order to break free from being held hostage with too much of everything. Have you ever noticed that more people turn to God when there is tragedy than when everything is going well? You see, when you're uncomfortable then you realize that you need God!

Maybe that's why Jesus said in Matthew 5:3-4 (NRSV), "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

You can begin to wither when you get too comfortable with the same thing all the time. Variety just may be the spice of life. Change can be the engine that propels you into the kind of disciple Jesus wants you to be.

It's true that some habits are good but it is equally true that some habits are bad. For example it is a good habit when you have a regular devotional time with God. It is a bad habit when that's the only reason you have a regular devotional time with God. Do you meet with God out of habit or out of love?

Do you come to church out of habit? Do you say "Amen" out of habit? Do you say, "I'll pray for you!" out of habit? Do you say, "Lord, forgive me" out of habit? Do you say, "I love you Jesus," out of habit? If any of these fit you then you're withering because you're too habitual. You are not connected to the source of inspiration and hope that you need! You need to break some habits and the only way you're going to break them is if you're aware of them. When we start to do things out of habit then we start to grow distant from God.

It may just be that you are withering because you are too judgmental when you need to be more forgiving. Here is a reminder from Jesus to us all this morning.

Stop judging others and you will not be judged. For others will treat you as you treat them. Whatever measure you use in judging others, it will be used to measure how you are judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, "Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye," when you can't see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye.
-- Matthew 7:1-5 NLT

We must recognize that people who are too judgmental have a very hard time forgiving people. Generally speaking those who cannot forgive cannot see the problems that live in their own lives. In the end those who find it hard to forgive people will become bitter people and bitter people are people who have lost their spiritual connection to the vine.

The truth is that we are all fooling ourselves if we think for a minute that we can be in Christ while we are filled with indifference and apathy and hate. We cannot!

If we are going to be honest with ourselves we have to admit that one of the most glaring reasons people wither on the vine is because of being too indolent. You need to be full of Christ and therefore full of the Spirit and filled with the kind of energy that makes you an excited and exciting Christian.

Here is a way of understanding laziness that comes to us from Chuck Swindoll.

Let's pretend that you work for me. In fact, you are my executive assistant in a company that is growing rapidly. I'm the owner and I'm interested in expanding overseas. To pull this off, I make plans to travel abroad and stay there until a new branch office gets established. I make all the arrangements to take my family and move to Europe for six to eight months. And I leave you in charge of the busy stateside organization. I tell you that I will write you regularly and give you directions and instructions. I leave and you stay. Months pass. A flow of letters are mailed from Europe and received by you at the national headquarters. I spell out all my expectations. Finally, I return. Soon after my arrival, I drive down to the office and I am stunned. Grass and weeds have grown up high. A few windows along the street are broken. I walk into the receptionist's room. She is doing her nails, chewing gum, and listening to her favorite disco station. I look around and notice the wastebaskets are overflowing. The carpet hasn't been vacuumed for weeks, and nobody seems concerned that the owner has returned. I asked about your whereabouts and someone in the crowded lounge area points down the hall and yells, "I think he's down there." Disturbed, I move in that direction and bump into you as you are finishing a chess game with our sales manager. I ask you to step into my office, which has been temporarily turned into a television room for watching afternoon soap operas. "What in the world is going on, man?"

"What do you mean, Darren?" "Well, look at this place! Didn't you get any of my letters?" "Letters? Oh yes! Sure! I got every one of them. As a matter of fact, Darren, we have had a letter study every Friday since you left. We have even divided the personnel into small groups to discuss many of the things you wrote. Some of the things were really interesting. You will be pleased to know that a few of us have actually committed to memory some of your sentences and paragraphs. One or two memorized an entire letter or two -- great stuff in those letters." "Okay. You got my letters. You studied them and meditated on them; discussed and even memorized them. But what did you do about them?" "Do? We didn't do anything about them."
(Improving Your Serve, Chuck Swindoll)

The truth of the matter is that some of us get too sluggish to really do anything for God. If we really want to have an exciting relationship with Christ then we need to be available and we need to open ourselves to new ways of serving our Lord. Slothfulness can be a hindrance in our being an effective witness for Christ.

Having said that it may just be that you are withering not because you are too lazy but because you are too busy! Some of us get so busy that we miss out on the things God is saying to us. When our "business" interferes with our relationship with God then that relationship will suffer. If you ever seek out and find an excuse for not spending time in prayer or spending time reading the Bible or going to church then you are just too busy.

No one can follow Jesus on his or her own terms. Jesus defined through his preaching, teaching, and personal example what we need to do if we want to be his disciple. It is instructive to remember that the word "disciple" means learner. When we accept that name we do not declare ourselves to be saints. What we have said is that we go to school with Jesus. We learn from him. We start as little children, we mature and grow into adulthood, and along the way we will stumble. But we are always instructed to abide in him.

In closing listen to these words from Hebrews, "When the ground soaks up the rain that falls on it and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has the blessing of God. But if a field bears thistles and thorns, it is useless. The farmer will condemn that field and burn it" (Hebrews 6:7-8 NLT).

Are you drinking in the rain that God is showering on you and are you enjoying the blessings that God has given you? Are you enjoying the blessings that have provided you with a meaningful and exciting relationship with Christ? Or are you like a thirsty plant that is withering because you are just too comfortable and have forgotten who's providing the rain? Are you so habitual that you have forgotten how to open yourself to become fruitful soil that produces good and helpful fruit? Have you become so judgmental that the rain God provides simply runs off your back? Or have you become so lazy that your soil has turned to clay and water can no longer feed the good fruit? Is it possible that you have become so busy that the rain cannot even touch you?

Jesus is able to provide all you need to help you remain a healthy and productive part of the vine. "Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing." Amen.
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