Monthly Archives: March 2011

Staying Put

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  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.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  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.

“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.  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. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
John 15:1-8 (NIV)

The vine and the branches is a powerful illustration of our relationship with Jesus.  The vine is the stock of a grape plant, rooted firmly in the ground, and is the source of all nourishment for the branches.  That is a very good picture of Jesus as the source of all of our nourishment and power.  The branches are extensions of the vine, using the life-giving sap from the vine to produce fruit, which in turn is used to create seeds to make even more plants.  This is a very good picture of us as Jesus’ disciples, the producers of fruit and the means of reproduction, although we are not the source of either – that comes from the sap, the Spirit of God, which originates in the vine, Jesus Himself.

Jesus is uncompromising in His view of the purpose of the branches:  they are to produce fruit, and those that don’t are removed from the vine; they won’t be allowed to drain energy from the fruitful vines.  Those that do produce fruit will be pruned back – everything removed that would take energy away from fruit production – so that more and better fruit may be produced.

This is an essential concept for the Church today!  In the midst of all of our activities and programs, we can never lose sight of the fact that our calling and purpose is to bear fruit – new souls being brought into the kingdom.  If we are unwilling to do that, whether as congregations or as individuals, we will be removed from the vine.  This is both because of disobedience to Jesus’ clear command (Matthew 28:18-20), and because otherwise we will be a drain on those who DO want to bear fruit.  And if we ARE fruit bearers, as congregations or as individuals, we can expect God to purify and focus our lives, weaning us away from or simply removing those things form our lives and programs that will sap our energy or distract us from the business of bearing fruit.  This sounds kind of harsh to some, but if a person’s or congregation’s whole focus wants to be on bearing fruit for the kingdom, they will be more than willing to lay down anything that will get in the way of that. (Cf. Romans 12:1-2.)

But the key to producing fruit in the first place is to remain in the vine – attached in a vital, life-giving relationship.  If a branch is separated from the vine, all of the techniques or training in the world will not enable it to produce fruit; it is dead even before the leaves start withering.  On the other hand, if a branch is attached firmly to the vine, receiving it’s life-giving sap continually, the branch will naturally produce fruit, and will do so without seminars or training or encouragement; you won’t be able to stop it from producing fruit!

Remaining in Jesus means that we stay connected to Him in vital relationship that is more than an occasional “hook-up” on Sundays, or for a few minutes during our “quiet time”, but a connection that is maintained 24/7; a connection by which the Holy Spirit flows through us continually, like a pipeline, not just filling us up like a cistern.

But the closing words of this section really must be taken to heart:  “My Father is glorified by this:  that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.”  These are not two requirements, but one.  The proof that we are Jesus’ disciples, that we are in a continual relationship with Him, is the fruit that we bear.  Not testimony (words are cheap!), not experiences, but fruit that lasts!

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Blind and Deaf

But now, this is what the Lord says–
he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give men in exchange for you,
and people in exchange for your life.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth–
everyone who is called by my name
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
Lead out those who have eyes but are blind,
who have ears but are deaf.
All the nations gather together
and the peoples assemble.
Which of them foretold this
and proclaimed to us the former things?
Let them bring in their witnesses to prove they were right,
so that others may hear and say, “It is true.”
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the Lord,
and apart from me there is no savior.
I have revealed and saved and proclaimed–
I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?”
Isaiah 43:1-13 (NIV)

What an amazing passage! God calls out to His captive people to reassure and comfort them. Though they have been blind and deaf to his voice and His commands (v8), they are still His chosen people, and are now to fulfill their destiny as His witnesses. To facilitate this, He will bring them unscathed through the floods of opposition and the fires of persecution. He will redeem them and draw them together, no matter how scattered they have become. And in doing this, He will show that He is real, and that He is the ONLY God.

The Lord did all of this, fulfilled to the letter, when He brought the captives back from Babylon. But He has continued to fulfill it all throughout Church history as well. He restored and drew together His blind and deaf people through Jesus and the salvation that He bought, raising them up again to be His witnesses. Over and over again He brought them through fire and flood, stronger than ever. Sadly, over and over again for nearly 2000 years, God’s people, the Church, have let the glare of the world blind their eyes, and a multitude of other voices deafen their ears to Who God truly is, and what He wants from them. In every case He has raised up prophets and witnesses to open their eyes and ears again.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that we are there again in the 21st century, at least in Europe and America. By and large, the people called Christian are walking around with eyes blinded by the world’s philosophies and ideologies, deafened by our entertainments and our desires and cravings. We can’t hear God any more – not that we really try most of the time! It takes too much time and energy, and we are so busy with other stuff. We don’t see wonderful things in the Bible – not that we really try most of the time! Quiet time to devote to intently reading the Bible is hard to fit into our active schedules, and when we do somehow find a few minutes to sit down with our Bibles, our minds won’t seem to settle down and focus, so scattered are they by all the things that we pour into them each day.

An awful lot of Christians have given up on ever being able to hear directly from God, and powerfully do what He calls us to do. They leave that up to the professionals – those who have hours and hours to sit and read and study. (If only they knew!) But now, as much as ever before, God’s people need to hear Him calling us powerfully out of the world and back into His presence; to open our ears and remove the scales from our eyes. To empower us to stand strong and walk boldly through fire and flood, and to again bear unflinching witness to the glory, majesty, love, and grace of the only true God!

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A Little Fruit, Please!

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.  This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:16-17 (NIV)

I have been told an awful lot of times that, as a child of God, I can ask God for anything, and He will give it to me.  I have been told that once I receive Jesus as my Savior, nothing more is required of me.  But verse 16 shows that both of these views are, at best incomplete, and at worst downright wrong!

Jesus tells His gathered disciples that He has chosen them for a very specific purpose:  that they should go out and bear fruit that will last.  He didn’t choose people and give His all to save them so that they will just sit there looking pretty.  Way too many Christians see salvation as a goal or an end point rather than as an induction into the army of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is the place of being reclaimed and reformed so that we can receive our assignment.  And on God’s team, we are all first-stringers; there are no bench warmers (or pew warmers!) – there are only vital roles to play.  It reminds me of what Pastor Zapata of Peru said:  “In Peru, Christians don’t expect to get something for serving Jesus; they expect to give something.  Why do you buy a shirt?  To use it.  Why did Jesus redeem you and buy you with His own blood?  To use you for His Kingdom!”

Each of us has a part to play in the work of the Kingdom.  And our primary work that we are called on to do for the Kingdom will never be something to do with the church’s buildings, grounds, or finances.  Those are good things to help with, but they are NOT the work of the Kingdom.  The work of the Kingdom always has to do with the saving and shaping people into the image of Jesus.  And every Christian’s primary assignment will be to do those two things.

Our congregation’s mission statement is:  To actively reach out to the lost, and to help God’s people develop faith that works in the real world.  That means that our whole purpose for existing is to actively reach out to the lost and bring them into the Kingdom by introducing them to Jesus and helping them to receive Him as their Lord and Savior.  And then, once they have become one of God’s people, to help them to develop faith that works in the real world by helping them to develop consistent daily disciplines, to learn to hear God’s voice, and to consistently submit themselves to the Lord in order to be molded and shaped and filled with the Holy Spirit, conformed to the image of Jesus, so that they can take up their part in changing the world for the Kingdom of Heaven.

By the way, the “fruit that will last” that Jesus is referring to is souls reclaimed for the God’s Kingdom.  I frequently ask people if they know the purpose of an apple tree.  Invariably they respond that it is to produce apples.  But that is not correct.  The purpose of an apple tree is to produce more apple trees.  The fruit, the apples, are the way in which they produce those new trees.  (This is how God designed them, according to Genesis 1:11-12.)  The thing that clouds our minds regarding the purpose of the apple tree is that we happen to enjoy consuming the fruit that the tree produces in order to reproduce.  So we think that the ultimate purpose of the tree is to produce the fruit that we enjoy consuming.  But in consuming an apple, we pretty much ensure that that particular apple will never produce another apple tree.

In the same way, the purpose of a Christian is to make more Christians.  God produces the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  These fruit are designed to help us to reproduce ourselves.  But we enjoy the fruit so much (we actually like the “peace that passes all understanding”), that the temptation is to consume it – to use it for our own gratification, and thus short circuit the actual purpose of those manifestations of the spirit – reproduction.  But if we will actually keep our main purpose in mind, to continually make new Christians, then the fruit will be able to do its job, and help to make us fruitful in the truest sense of the word.

By the way, the word “Then” in the middle of verse 16 speaks volumes.  It is only as we are about the work of the Kingdom that we are promised “whatever you ask in my name”.  I believe that God has no interest in answering self-centered prayers for our own comfort or agenda.  But He IS promising that whatever we need to be effective in the work of the Kingdom He will provide just like He did for Jesus; just like He did for the early Church.  God will ALWAYS provision His army for its task.

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Polar Pray-ers

     While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.  Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.”  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
    
Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.”
    
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.  With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 
     “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
    
At that time Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me.  But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Matthew 26:47-56 (NIV)

In this passage we see polar opposites in Peter and Jesus

Jesus, having been praying and submitting to the Father’s will for hours immediately before Judas showed up is calm and secure, knowing that He is right in the center of the God’s will.  He understands that God could deliver Him if asked Him to, but He clearly sees the bigger picture – that all of this is happening just as it is supposed to, just as it is prophesied in Scripture.  He knows that these men will end up killing His body, but that they will be helpless to do anything else to Him.  (Cf. Luke 12:4-5)  He knows that in the center of God’s will, His soul is safe forever.  There is no compromise in His heart, no looking for a way out, and no second thoughts.  He committed to this path before the mob ever showed up, and all that remains is to calmly walk the path that God has laid out for Him, secure in the fact that, when all is said and done, He will be back with the Father from whom He came.

Peter, having slept instead of praying, in spite of Jesus’ urging and warning that he must pray in order to escape the temptation that is right around the corner (Matthew 26:41), is caught by surprise at this whole turn of events.  Even though Jesus had told him and the other 11 disciples that all of this was going to happen, they had all blown it off, choosing instead to focus on Jesus’ popularity and their future in His kingdom.  Peter, who confessed that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the very Son of God (Matthew 16:16), seems to have forgotten all of that, and responds with a sword in a misguided attempt to rescue Jesus.  Peter, out of touch with God, can’t see that this is all the unfolding of the divine plan.  Instead, it seems like everything has suddenly gone very, very wrong.  And so, with Jesus’ chastisement still ringing in his ears, he runs away with the others.

To Peter’s credit, he follows Jesus and His captors at a distance, even all the way into the courtyard of the high priest.  But even there we see two diametrically opposed attitudes and actions.  Jesus doesn’t even answer His accusers’ false charges, only answering clearly when asked His identity.  Peter denies the true accusations made against him, in the process even denying knowing Jesus Himself, and falling prey to the very temptation that Jesus warned Him to prepare himself to win against through watching and praying.

Our calling, of course, is to be like Jesus, and not like Peter.  To be constant in prayer so that we know God’s plan and our part in it.  To step boldly forward to engage God’s plan as it unfolds, no matter how scary it may look, and not to fight against it.  To clearly testify to our identify as followers of Jesus, not to deny who we are and who He is out of some misguided sense of self-preservation.

Peter, through his un-Christ-like attitude and actions, ended up building a lot of guilt into his life, that later made it difficult for him to face the risen Jesus.  Lord only knows what the story would have been if he had lived up to his calling all the way through, first being faithful in prayer, and then being faithful to Jesus in the midst of his time of trial.  I personally think it would have been a LOT better!

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