Isaiah 5:1-7 New International Version (NIV)
The Song of the Vineyard
5 I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
John 15:1-17 New International Version (NIV)
The Vine and the Branches
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off 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, as I also 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 you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are 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 done for 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 keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept 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. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
This afternoon as we approach Easter week we will be looking at important teaching Jesus gave to his disciples, and gives to us, as he approaches the time of the Easter passion, the time of betrayal which will lead to his death on Good Friday. The message is that if then we remain in Jesus, we remain in his love, we stay alive, we stay healthy and we stay gloriously useful as his witnesses in the service of our Lord.
The key word is remain. Verse 4, remain in me as I also 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. Then in verse 5. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing. Verse 6. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers. Verse 7. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you. Verse 9. Now remain in my love. Verse 10. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love just as I have kept my father’s commands and remain in his love.
A passage therefore pivoting around the word remain. A word you may think is a fairly stationary, static, immobile and non-progressive word. In fact it is in this passage most dynamic, lively, life-giving and spiritual life affirming.
So where are we in John’s Gospel? Let us put the passage in context. In chapter 14 Jesus and the disciples have been in the upper room together. He had prepared his disciples for what would happen. He had explained that his leaving would be a good thing for them. They didn’t understand. It was Judas who left and went into the night. Jesus himself, after washing their feet and instituting the holy Communion feast, says that they should leave. They go to the Garden of Gethsemane, arriving in chapter 17.
No one knows where the upper room was. Some tradition is to the west of Jerusalem. There, as one looks to the south and south-east, towards the garden of the Gethsemane and the Mount of olives, there is a quite significant ravine. It’s too steep even now for a road to go straight up it. The road goes in diagonals. It’s still too steep for housing although some houses cling to the side of the hill. But it’s not too steep for agriculture. Specifically it’s ideal for vines, on the northern slopes facing the sun.
Like most skilful speakers, Jesus took from his surroundings when he spoke. The story of the good Shepherd was probably on a hillside with sheep all around. The story of the good Samaritan was probably when there was a Samaritan near the front of the crowd. I have little doubt that what Jesus said in John 15 was prompted by them walking through a vineyard from the upper room down the side of the hill, going then up the other side of the hill towards Mount of olives. The vines would have been all around. It was a natural entree to what Jesus wanted to communicate. Throughout the gospels Jesus spoke from what was around him. He took the mundane and made it profound. We aren’t called in our daily witness to instigate a conversation about theology. Our conversations with friends and family start from everyday life. We then introduce our Lord and our spiritual lives and experience into those ordinary conversations.
And as they walked, springtime with the vines starting to grow again, they would have seen some vines and branches with very little evidence of growth yet others with new growth and fruitfulness. Jesus teaches them about the importance of staying alive, staying healthy and staying good witnesses. The answer is simple. Remain in Jesus love. Remain in Jesus love and we will stay alive and stay healthy even when things get tough in whatever way. Remain in Jesus love and our Christian lives will grow in strength and confidence and love to others. Remain in Jesus love.
Jesus would have known there were vineyards between the upper room and the Mount of olives. It was not by chance that he went that way. It was not by chance that prompted him to give this teaching to us. It was not by chance that he had very much in mind our first reading, from Isaiah chapter 5. Sometimes called the Song of the Vineyard.
God tells a short story about somebody who owns a vineyard. He took a lot of time to care for it. The key in verse 7 is that the vineyard is the nation of Israel, the people of Judah. They are the vines in which he delights. God is talking about the Jewish people. The people he had rescued from slavery in Egypt, those he had protected in the wilderness and brought into a new land. Planted in a new and fertile land. Good soil. On a hillside and therefore well-drained and facing the sun. Chosen by God and loved by God. His pride and joy. God the Gardener, the owner of the vineyard, digs it over. Clears it of stones. Plants the most promising vines. Puts in a watchtower to safeguard and protect against predators, thieves and animals. Every reason to expect a good crop of grapes. He waited for the anticipated harvest. But verse 2. Nothing at all. Only yielding bad fruit. God had done all that was needed for the vineyard to take root, stay alive, grow and bear healthy fruit. He has followed, as it were, the Royal Horticultural Society guidance on creating, planting and cultivating.
God had done everything right and got nothing good in return. The people of Israel, like the vines, weren’t meant to just enjoy being in the land. It wasn’t good enough to be a good vine. It had to be alive and fruitful. They were meant to be a blessing for the whole world. Not just for themselves. By the way they lived and what they said and their righteous actions they were to be, according to another passage in Isaiah 43.10, witnesses to the world. Instead and tragically, verse 7, God looked for justice and saw only bloodshed, which is not just. He looked for righteousness and heard only cries of distress from those who were not receiving fair and righteous treatment.
Because these vines were not producing good fruit, they were removed from their favoured position. Verse 5. He took away the hedge, causing the winds to blow and destroy the vines. He broke down the wall surrounding the vineyard causing animals, sheep and goats, to walk through and trample the vineyard. He made it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated. Briars and thorns would grow there instead.
The people did not act justly or righteously but God would and he does. His dealings in response to his people were just and righteous. But even as he was pronouncing sentence on Israel, people, prophets like Isaiah, were asking the obvious question. If the people of Israel would not be the witnesses to the world, who would? Who would act justly and live righteously according to God’s ways if it would not be the people of Israel? How could God’s plan to bless the world, originally through the people of Israel, still be fulfilled? Who will be your vineyard?
And with this introduction we turn to our reading in John chapter 15
It is right to say that I know very little about gardening. I garden under strict instructions from the gardener who must be obeyed. I’m a fairly good destructive Gardener. I take down the bamboo which tries to take over our entire garden. I’m good at cutting down and sweeping up. But the creativity lies with my wife. I do as I’m told. So please don’t rely on anything in the next 5 minutes as gardening advice from me.
But even if like me you are not Alan Titchmarsh, you can nevertheless understand the message in verse 1. In answer to the question posed by Isaiah namely who will be the witnesses if the Jews had let Jesus down, the answer comes: Jesus is the true vine and God the Father is the Gardener. Previously God the Father had indeed been the Gardener but Israel had been the vine. Now in the new Testament Jesus is the vine. God the Father sent Jesus the son to be his witness given the failure of the previous vineyard, Isaiah chapter 5. With this vine there would be no failure, no bad crop, no injustice and lack of righteousness. There would be fruit and fruit in all abundance. To put it theologically, Jesus would be the true Israel
So what role is there for Jesus followers if Jesus is now the true vine? Peter, James and John and other disciples, and now us. See verse 5. I am the vine and you are the branches.
Despite the failure of God’s people before, our God is not a God who believes in going it alone. He is a relationship God. He is most delighted when he can work with us. Amazingly he uses Christians, completely inadequate and imperfect people like you and I, to be his witnesses to the world about who he is, about the nature of God, about the love and sacrifice of God, about his redemption, about his goodness.
In his grotesque parody, William Milton said: and did those feet in ancient times walk on England’s mountains green. Of course they didn’t, literally. But if they did, they would not have come across vineyards. For in ancient times England was heavily forested, with many woods. And the mightiest of the trees was the English oak. And if when those feet had walked through England’s green and wooded land, he would have said, verse 5, I am the trunk and you are the branches. All those who are connected to him by faith are the branches. We are those branches. I don’t have to watch Monty Don to know that the food from the soil, the nutrients, goes through the trunk to feed the branches. Branches which connect to the trunk are healthy and will grow. If you remain in me and I in you, i.e. we stay connected, you will bear much fruit. If you don’t, you will be nothing. If you are not connected to the trunk, held in and secure, feeding and sustained, you will spiritually die. Used for timber and firewood, verse 6. At the bottom of our garden we have a small wood. Whenever the storms have come across, as they do with increasing frequency it seems, I go down and see scattered around branches, sometimes very large branches, which have fallen with the rushing wind. They have no life in them to keep them remaining with the trunk. I put them on the bonfire pile
So we have the answer to our first question. What will keep us spiritually alive? It is remaining attached to Jesus, connected to the trunk, the vine, from which all life derives. From which our life in Christ flows. Love keeps us alive. Love keeps us in Christ. Love gives us life. This love is in God the Father through Christ. This love will keep hold of us. It will keep us secure. It will keep feeding us spiritually.
It goes even further if further were possible. Verse 7. If we remain in him and his words remain in us, we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done. Faithful prayer faithfully answered.
But if we do not remain in Jesus love, do not feed on him, do not rest and rely on him, do not listen to him and follow his teaching, we will wither away and we will die. We will be no use, to him or to others. These are strong words but this is a strongly worded passage. We will spiritually die. So this is why as a church we believe so much in good Bible based teaching, Sunday by Sunday. So that we may live. This is why as a church we encourage each other in regular personal Bible readings, often with Bible reading aids such as Scripture union and many others, so that we may live. This is why as a church we believe in gathering together in smaller groups in fellowship and learning from each other and encouragement. So that we may live. This is why as a church we support each other, help each other and comfort each other. So that we may live.
But if remaining in Jesus love keeps us alive, it also keeps us healthy. The Gardener’s first job of course is to grow plants that stay alive. First tick in the box. But really his task is to grow healthy plants. That produce fruit or flowers or foliage. Being alive is not the goal although it’s essential. Jesus Love also keeps us healthy.
One of the most bizarre things about gardening, when I first came across it and had my first garden many years ago, is pruning. I naturally thought that the more the plant grew in all directions, as furiously as it could, the more the plant would be fruitful, colourful and serve its purpose. The more I left them alone to their own devices the more nature would enable them to be their best. Oh no. Not at all. You see, all those stems and branches criss-crossing away don’t let the light in. They hamper growth. They don’t extend outwards. And so it is that the best Gardener is the best pruner. Knowing exactly where to make the right cut. Which bit of which branch or stem should be cut out to encourage new growth and fruitfulness. A skill I most decidedly do not have!
To go back to the parody by Milton, this time in early summer: and did those feet in ancient times walk on England’s beloved rose beds. Because perhaps the Rose par excellence needs careful, frequent and insidious pruning for it to be its best. A rose bush left to itself, growing wild, will get entangled and be no good a rose at all. They will literally get into their own light. They need help to grow in the right direction. A gardener who cares for her roses will prune them to stop them wasting energy and going in the wrong direction and being unproductive. By pruning the shoots growing inwards, the Gardener encourages the shoots to grow outwards and towards the light. You prune a plant to help it be the best that it can be.
It seems the same is true of us Christians. Verse 2. The Gardener cuts off every branch that is not bearing fruit. He prunes the fruitful branches so that they will be even more fruitful.
I’m not going to be Prince Charles and suggest I talk to the plants and understand their nervous system. Who knows if pruning hurts the plant? But I know going to the dentist hurts but it’s best for my teeth. Having a flu jab or a blood test. Indeed anything with a needle. I don’t like them. I tend to scream the place down. I’m told it is best for me.
As some may know I have AF, arterial fibrillation, irregular heartbeat. Came on about five or six years ago. A real bore and nuisance. It makes me more susceptible to a stroke. So my heart doctor told me I had to become extra fit so that when I have a stressful situation, when a stroke could perhaps occur, the body should be better able to cope and a stroke then not take place. So on a Tuesday morning at 9:30 AM I go to see a trainer in the gym and have the most excruciatingly painful 60 minutes. It is cardiovascular, which I had no idea existed a couple of years ago. Squats, push-ups, weights and other exercises. It is agony, painful, and jolly hard work. But bit by bit my heart rate in doing the exercises is coming down. Bit by bit through the pain I know I should be able to cope better with a situation when a stroke might occur. Through pain I am becoming healthier. But I’m delighted when it’s 1030 a.m. and it’s over!
For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t suggest for a moment that push-ups and squats can be compared to the many difficult turmoils that many of us here have been through and some are still going through. It’s only an illustration.
Spiritual pruning often hurts. In fact it may hurt an awful lot. But it’s for our benefit. Let us immediately stand back and say this is a very difficult topic. It is open to all sorts of abuse and bad teaching. But for those who are spiritually alive, God is determined to prune us, to make us healthier, to make us more fruitful, to make us better disciples. To help us to be our best and true selves. To make us more like Jesus. It is for our benefit. To make us more fruitful.
In our lives each of us take decisions, do things, which are bad for us, which are unhealthy in our Christian life. If left unchecked they will cause us to lose our connectedness with Christ. To lose our remaining in Jesus love. Because God loves us, he prunes us. Because he wants us to be fruitful, he allows difficult times in our lives, pain, grief, disappointment, sadness and hardship. All things which seem completely contrary to what we would expect of a loving deity. But all things which in the sovereign wisdom and knowledge of our God are in fact long-term best for us and for his witness. The things which hurt us help us to grow and become more loving.
We need to ask God to show us parts of our lives where we aren’t being fruitful, where we are less close and less connected and remaining in Christ’s love. God does not show us our sin to cause us to despair. He shows us our weakness and our sin to open our eyes and our ways of living in order to help us to grow and be more fruitful. To help us develop as Christians. To help us to be a stronger and better witness and disciple.
If as a Christian you are finding parts of your life painful, hard and very difficult, be confident that you are remaining in Jesus love and this is part of his love for you and for you to be closer to him and more loving to him and of him. He is not putting you through this process for fun. That is not his way. Instead through the process you will be closer to God and closer to your true self as a Christian. And more fruitful.
And so as Christians, the new vine, the branches of the trunk which is Jesus, we remain in his love and stay alive in him. Through his love for us, he does prune us and there will be hard times, difficult challenges and setbacks but through this in holding firm to him and remaining in his love, we will become more fruitful, closer to him and become what he would want us to be.
This is the benefits of knowing God, of knowing his forgiveness for all that we have been and done wrong and failed, of the peace of God which gives us health and confidence and of the fruitfulness of growing into discipleship and greater love of Christ. This is what it means to be the branches of the true vine.
And finally we are his witnesses, in Hambledon, in the Surrey Hills, in south-east England, in our nation and in the world. We are alive and we are fruitful remaining in the love of the true vine in order that we might be the witnesses to him to the world. Witnesses of justice and righteousness. Witnesses of the possibility of new life, forgiveness and salvation. This is a phenomenal calling. It is our calling. Let us be his witnesses this Easter time.
By remaining in his love, we will stay alive, become fruitful and be his servants in a mission of witness to his world. Thanks be to God