On Vines and Branches

This week, as we continue in our series, Plugged In, we’re talking about why staying plugged in matters at all. Knowing that and knowing why are two different things. We’ve talked about some of the thats and the hows, but the whys haven’t been so clear. In this passage, Jesus gives us three reasons staying plugged in matters so much. Check these out and thanks for reading and sharing!

On Vines and Branches

When we first moved into our house almost four years ago, it was a little like clearing a jungle. I’m not sure the bushes or trees or vines around the property had been trimmed and maintained…ever. Noah’s window looks out the second story on the side of the house over the air conditioning units. You couldn’t see out of his window the bushes were so tall. You could see the front of the house a little bit, but not much. And in the back, our property sits next to a great big field, but you wouldn’t have known it standing on the deck. You couldn’t see into the field behind us because the vines and trees were so thick and overgrown. Several of the wonderful folks here at the church came and helped us clean it up. It actually took two different days because there was so much. I believe Jim hauled off 14 total loads of brush from the yard and somebody finally just suggested we burn the rest of it. I think the remaining pile burned for about three days. It was a mess. But, with the help of this wonderful community, we got it cleaned up. Keeping up with it since has rightly fallen to us. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve trimmed the bushes around our house since then. It’s been at least a dozen. They’re in need of a good trimming again as we are getting into spring now. Every time I trim the bushes, I put all the scraps in a pile in the little spot of woods in the back of our yard. I put them in about the same spot every time. When I’ve cut the yard with a bag on the mower a time or two, I’ve dumped all of that in the same spot as well. When we’ve raked leaves, I’ve occasionally put those piles there too. Now, you might think from that description that I would have a small mountain of yard scraps in the back of my yard. You would be wrong though. For all the stuff I’ve dumped in that same pile, it’s never gotten any bigger. And it’s not like I’ve tried to smash it down extra hard between dumplings. I’m not putting extra weight on it to keep it compacted. Nothing like that at all. Instead, it all compacts itself fairly naturally. Why? Because once all of that foliage has been cut off from its host, it unfailingly withers up to just almost nothing. 

Let me shift gears on you just a bit. Every now and then, I’ll buy flowers for my lovely bride. Over the years we’ve been married, I’ve bought her quite a few bouquets of flowers. Do you know how many of those we still have around the house? Not a single one of them. Why? Because they all eventually died. Why? Because they weren’t connected to their plants anymore. Once you cut a flower from its plant, a clock starts ticking. Now, you can delay the timer on the clock for a little while by putting the flowers in water and putting some plant food in the water, but eventually the clock runs down and the flowers wither up and die. We’ll try to hang on to them for as long as we can, but if you leave them too long, they start to become alive again, but not in a good way. There are other, alien, things that start growing on them which will ultimately consume them if left long enough. Then the flower and the fungus will be gone. When something is not connected to its source of life, it eventually dies. It certainly doesn’t flourish. 

Well, this morning we are in the fourth part of our teaching series, Plugged In. The big idea for this journey that will ultimately take us to Easter is that we want to live lives that are plugged in to Jesus. But knowing we want to do that and knowing how or why to do it are two different things. So much of the life spent following Jesus is not a matter of what. We’re told about the what from the moment we walk in the door. But the hows and whys are something else entirely. If you are someone who would claim the Christian identity, you know that you are supposed to be living plugged in to Jesus. What I want to help us understand over the course of this series, with the apostle John as our guide, is how to do that, why it is so important, and what it looks like when we are getting it right.

We started out this journey by talking through a couple of the hows. We stay plugged in to Jesus by embracing humility and by loving one another. Both of these are examples Jesus Himself demonstrated for us and in a set of circumstances that completely blow up any of our excuses to not practice them. When Jesus knew He was about to be betrayed in such a way that would lead to His death on a Roman cross, He washed the feet of His betrayer and reminded all of the disciples that loving one another is the key to being one of His followers. 

Well, after revealing this much to the disciples, it became clear that they really didn’t understand how to stay plugged in to Him as well as they thought they did. So, last week, we joined them to receive this incredible reminder from Jesus that He is the way to stay plugged in to Him. If we want to get to where He’s going (which is to God), He’s the way we are going to get there. If we want to get to the place He’s going, we have to go there the same way He went. As we put it then, if you want to stay plugged in to Jesus, you have to do life His way. As Jesus much more famously put it, He is the way, the truth, and the life. Nobody gets to the Father except through Him.

And all of that is well and good, but how important is this really? I mean, okay, if you’ve been around the church for very long, you “know” this is all important, but at some point, when you’ve heard about something often and long enough, familiarity begins to breed a bit of contempt. You start to just tune it out. Take the safety schpeel the flight attendants give just before takeoff. If you’ve flown much, you’ve heard that so many times, you probably completely tune it out—I certainly do. The same thing can go for calls to stay connected or plugged in to Jesus. 

The language Jesus uses in the passage we’re going to look at in just a second is that we should remain or abide in Him. But does this really matter? Furthermore, if you’re someone who is still just thinking in the direction of faith rather than being anywhere near the point of actual readiness to embrace it, that question is an even more pressing one for you. If this is something you’re somehow expected to give your life to, why does any of this matter? Why put so much emphasis and effort in this direction? Thankfully, this is a question Jesus answered for the disciples without their even having to ask it. That’s where I want to take us this morning. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to John 15 and let’s take a look at this together.

After Jesus had answered some of the guys’ questions while they were sitting around the table, it finally became time for them to clear out and move on to the next place. That next place was the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. They called it the Mount of Olives because of all the olive groves covering its hillsides, but it was a generally agricultural region. There were olive groves and vineyards aplenty as they went. Seeing these sparked an object lesson in Jesus’ mind. He was a master of taking the circumstances people were in naturally and turning them into powerful teaching moments. This is one of His more famous moments.

Look at this text with me. Jesus looked around at all the olives trees and grapevines of the vineyards that also covered the hillsides and said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.”

Now, I suspect most of you have heard those words before. You’ve probably studied them or at least heard other sermons on them. And the typical approach taken to them is to encourage people who are already following Jesus to stay plugged in to Jesus. We need to abide with Him. And I know those are important messages to hear. Jesus makes our need for abiding clear here. This is a perfect passage for that kind of emphasis. But again, kind of like we talked about last week, I don’t think that was the first thing the disciples heard when Jesus started talking. They already knew they wanted to stay connected with Him. But they were wrestling with this temptation to stay connected their own way. Jesus had told them before they left the upper room that they needed to stay connected His way, not theirs. Here, as they were walking through the Mount of Olives on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, He told why it was so important for them to do it His way instead of theirs. In other words, Jesus here answers the “why it matters” question. 

As a matter of fact, Jesus gives them three reasons staying plugged in to Him matters so much. The first reason is the one He leads with and emphasizes a couple more times. It is simply this: Your life won’t bear fruit unless you stay plugged in to Him. That’s not such a concrete idea, though. I mean, what are we? Trees? What does it mean for our lives to bear fruit? Well, Paul had written more than a generation before John was writing about the fruit of the Spirit. What He meant then was that these were the results of a life plugged into Jesus. He talked about things there like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I suspect Jesus had the same sorts of things in mind. The point is that unless your life is plugged in to Jesus, it is not going to demonstrate these kinds of things. 

Now, if you’ve been around the church for very long, you may be nodding along to that idea, but if you haven’t been, you may not be. In fact, you may be shaking your head in frustration or even disbelief. Am I really standing up here claiming that you can only have peace in your life if you are a follower of Jesus? Do I mean to say non-Christians aren’t gentle or kind? Is this to suggest unbelievers aren’t good people? No, no, and no. Because of God’s common grace and abundant goodness, everyone gets a taste of those things from time to time. What I am saying, though—because it’s what Jesus said—is that when someone is not plugged into Him and doing life His way, those kinds of things are going to be the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. 

The tough truth here is that the kinds of things that come naturally to a life that is plugged in to Jesus don’t come naturally to a life that isn’t. This is because we don’t have those kinds of things in us to start with. We sometimes like to talk about this or that person being a “good” person. According to what we consistently see in the Scriptures, that designation is wrong 100% of the times we make it. There aren’t good people. There are only sinful people who are redeemed, and sinful people who aren’t. Sinful people who have been made into saints by the grace of God in Christ may exhibit some good things in their lives, but they’ll be the first to tell you the goodness doesn’t come from them. It comes from God. Sinful people who aren’t redeemed by Christ may occasionally do things that are good because of God’s common grace. In fact, they may do them regularly. But the theme of their life, apart from Christ, is not going to be the fruits of repentance and righteousness. Indeed, the results of a life plugged in to Jesus are not going to be consistently demonstrated in a life that is not plugged in to Jesus. If you want your life to be fruitful in terms of the kinds of things that are indicators of the presence of God’s kingdom, the only way you are going to experience that is when you stay plugged in to Jesus. That’s why this matters so much. 

There’s more. That first reason is more of a negative one—a sort of if-you-don’t-you-won’t explanation. Jesus’ next reason staying plugged in to Him matters so much is entirely more positive. Living life plugged in to Jesus will supercharge your prayer life. Did you catch what He said? “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” Now, this is a dangerous verse. It’s dangerous because it is super easy to take it out of context and use it as an endorsement of a kind of blank check theology that will only serve to turn people off to the Gospel when the bank account for the blank check proves to be empty. This is absolutely not an endorsement of any kind of a name-it-and-claim-it theology. But Jesus isn’t lying to us here either. So, what does He mean? 

When you live your life plugged in to Jesus, as we’ve already talked about, that means you are doing life His way. Let’s say you are an employee at a store. You are a good employee and work really hard to do the job just like your boss has asked you to do it. In fact, you don’t just work really hard at it, you succeed really well at it. And, in your efforts to make sure you are being the model employee that you are, you are conscious about taking everything your boss says to heart. He’s spent a lot of time talking to you about the business and how it runs and what it needs to succeed, and so those things are on your mind pretty regularly. 

Given all of that, let’s say you go ask your boss for something. How likely are you to get it? Well, the odds are pretty good that if you are working that hard to stay tuned in to your boss and what he wants, the kinds of things you are going to ask him for are consistent with the kinds of things he already wants to do. Well, when you go and ask your boss for something he’s already inclined to do, how likely are you to get it? I’d say incredibly likely. In fact, we might go so far as to say it’s a guarantee. The same thing goes here. If you are living your life plugged into Jesus and staying tuned in to His words so that His words are the primary shaping influence in and on your life, when you go to ask Him for something, the odds are overwhelmingly favorable that you’re going to be asking for something He already wants to do. And when you ask God for things He already wants to do, the odds of getting a positive response go up a million percent. You really can ask for whatever you want then and it will be done for you. 

The converse here, though, is true as well. When you aren’t living plugged in to Him, your mind and heart are going to be all over the place. You know this is true because you’ve experienced it. And when your mind and heart are all over the place, the kinds of things you ask for aren’t nearly as likely to be consistent with what He already wants to do, and thus your prayers are going to get “nos” a whole lot more frequently. He is a loving Father who wants to give you good things. If you ask for bad ones—and when you’re not plugged in to Him, you’re a whole lot more likely to ask for bad ones (even if you don’t understand in the moment that they are bad)—He’s not going to give you those. 

Jesus gives us one more reason staying plugged in to Him matters so much. A life plugged in to Jesus is a life that is bringing glory to God. That was v. 8: “My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.” Now, why is bringing glory to God such a big deal? Because it’s what we were made for. The opening lines of the Westminster Catechism—a document that has been teaching people the basics of the Christian faith for hundreds of years—puts it like this: “What is the chief and highest end [or purpose] of man? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully enjoy him forever.” Our lives were designed to bring Him glory. This is entirely fitting as He is worthy of our glory. He is worthy of all the glory in the world because He is the greatest possible being in the world. That’s a significant part of what makes Him God. Well, this bringing glory to God thing only happens when our lives are plugged in to Jesus. 

In other words, if you want to live a life that is showing the world what Jesus looks like, a life in which your prayers are being consistently and positively answered, a life that is fulfilling your ultimate purpose to the fullest degree possible, staying plugged in to Jesus is the way to go. Perhaps to put all of that a bit more succinctly, if you want a life that’s flourishing, stay plugged in to Jesus. 

That’s why this matters so much. A flourishing life is only available in Jesus. Just like all of that yard waste decomposing in my backyard and the hundreds of flowers I’ve bought over the years, if your life is disconnected from the source of life, it will not flourish. Actually, Jesus makes the point a bit more uncomfortably than that. That was v. 6: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” And if that makes you uncomfortable to think about, it’s because He meant for it to make you uncomfortable to think about. He wanted the disciples—and us—to understand just how significant staying plugged in to Him is; He wanted us to understand just how much it matters. Now, this doesn’t mean that if someone is disconnected from Jesus they are going to simply wither up and die in this life. You’ve perhaps known people who cared nothing for Jesus, but who nonetheless lived a long, productive, seemingly happy life. But Jesus is thinking on a scale a whole lot bigger than just this life. In the timescale of eternity, that same clock that eventually runs out on flowers in a vase is going to run out on us unless we are connected to our source. If you want a life that’s flourishing, stay plugged in to Jesus. 

Okay, but how? By doing just what Jesus said: abide in Him. Go to Him, stay with Him, and don’t leave Him. Fine, but how? Let me give you three ways to get you started. And these are all things you’ve heard before, but knowing that and actually doing them are not the same so the reminder is necessary. And, this may be the first time you’ve heard this before, which makes it all the more important. If you want a life that’s flourishing, stay plugged in to Jesus. And you do that first by engaging with the Scriptures. If you want to stay plugged in to Jesus, you need to be in the Scriptures every single day. Those are your basic source of nourishment. And just like regularly missing meals will not result in your body being healthy, regularly missing meals in the Scriptures will not result in your spirit being healthy. As for how to do that, stay tuned. Just after Easter, we are going to spend a few weeks talking together about that very thing. 

The second thing you can do to stay plugged in to Jesus is pray. You’re not going to stay connected to a friend unless you talk to them on occasion. And the more you talk, the more connected you will be. If you are married, going long periods without communicating—and I don’t just mean small talk—will lead to an unhealthy relationship. The same thing goes with Jesus. If all you do is throw up some small talk every now and then, you’re not going to stay very well plugged in. Invest some time and energy in developing a more robust practice of prayer so that you are well tuned in to Him. The more you talk, the more connected you will be. And the more connected you are, the more your life will flourish. If you want a life that’s flourishing, stay plugged in to Jesus. 

One last thing here and it is the very thing you are doing right now. If you want to stay plugged in to Jesus, you have to have regular community with other believers. You have to love His bride. You have to engage with His body, the church. There is simply no such thing as a solo Christian life. Folks who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who are not regularly and deeply engaged with the church are not really following Jesus. They may claim it, but their life won’t reflect it. You need this group of people for community, for encouragement, for support when the world comes calling, for accountability (the more and better someone else knows you, the harder it is to hide illicit behavior), for mutual prayer, for discipleship, and for worship. Your relationship with Jesus won’t be healthy unless you are a healthy part of a local church. If you want a life that’s flourishing, stay plugged in to Jesus. 

You were not made to flourish by yourself. Our culture may tell us the exact opposite every opportunity it has to do so, but it’s wrong. Your life will flourish most when it is connected best. Of course, when you get this right, you might think everything is going to go all nicely and smoothly for you. And it may. But it more likely may not. Come back next week as we continue this journey into staying plugged in to Jesus and we’ll talk more about that. 

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