John 15:1-3
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 21, 2018

Often, in order to receive something, we have to give up something else; to say Yes to something, we have to say No to a number of other things; and to add a new commitment, we have to subtract a few old ones.

For example, if you want to enjoy your favorite dessert, you have to put down the half-eaten watermelon you’re clutching and take hold of the big bowl of ice cream being offered you; if you want to get in better shape, you have to sacrifice some leisure hours for exercise, and some of those big bowls of ice cream for big bowls of broccoli; and, if you want to make a difference in your community, you have to part with some down time at home and let go of some your old freedom from the call of duty and responsibility.

Jesus appointed His followers, He said later on in this 15th chapter of John, to “bear much fruit”. In order to fulfil that purpose, He said in these verses, they must live in Him just as a grape branch must live in the vine from which it arose and draw in the vine’s vitalizing sap.

Likewise, He said here, they must submit to the painful pruning of their heavenly Father, a wise and devoted vine-grower who cuts off dead branches that waste sap and cuts back fruitful branches to stimulate their bearing even more fruit.

Jesus declared in verse 3 here that those who had heard this message had been “cleansed” by it – and the word “cleansed” is the same word as that for “pruned”.

It is out of God’s kindness, out of His caring concern to help us grow and bear fruit, that He takes a knife to us. His cutting back some things in our life and cutting other things out of our life altogether are the means by which He makes us the best we can be.

Some of us presume we know what we most need to do to contribute to the coming of God’s Kingdom. We think that the crucial thing is that we work harder and become more active in the cause of Christ.

Jesus, however, said that what we most need to do, the thing from which all the other things derive, is to live in Him just as a productive branch lives in its vine and becomes productive from the connection.

George Mueller made an amazing difference among the poor of London, but he used to say, “The primary business I must attend to every day is to fellowship with the Lord. The first concern is not how much I might serve Him, but how much my soul might be nourished by Him.”

If we really believe Jesus when, later in John 15, He told His followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” we will realize that what we must do, before all else, is cooperate with God’s cutting back on our self-reliance and just remain close and connected to Christ, conjoining and melding our lives with His. The decisive task is to make sure that we stay in position to drink in the sap of the True Vine without which no branch could ever bring forth a single grape. I think of how often I have heard those most productive in the purposes of Christ say something along the lines of what I once heard one saint say: “I’ve so much to do today I have to spend hours of it in prayer.”

I admire the International Justice Mission which carries out an urgent and vitally important work of rescuing people from sex trafficking and breaking down the systems that support it. Everyone hired by the International Justice Mission is required to make a commitment to spend the first 30 minutes of each workday in silence – for prayer, meditation on scripture and spiritual reflection. IJM also gathers staff each day for 30 minutes of shared prayer, hosts quarterly offsite spiritual retreats, and pays each employee to take an annual day off for solitude with God.

This is no waste of time. It does not detract from the fulfillment of their mission, but enables it. It makes IJM a miraculously effective organization.

Gary Haugen, IJM’s founder and CEO, believes that “prayerless striving” bears little fruit in the end but exhaustion. “I have learned,” he says, “just how crucial it is to settle my soul in the presence of Jesus every morning. Even though it is tempting to hurry into our work, we intentionally still ourselves and connect with our Maker.”

Because IJM staff members start their work after connecting with the true vine in prayer, the work they do, they do with Christ and by Christ – even while they are often are so absorbed with the task right before them that they have no conscious thought of Him at the moment. But they have been cleansed and pruned of self-reliance and self-preoccupation.

This past Tuesday the church elders, gathered for their first meeting of the year, celebrated how in 2017 worship attendance at Covenant increased by 4%, the first such increase in years. They wondered how to account for it. While noting efforts in how we worship God and love those who worship God with us, the elders concluded that the biggest reason for the increase was that a whole lot more of us were putting in a whole lot more prayer. As a result, the spiritual atmosphere of our worship has been enhanced, and God has been given more opportunity to work in it and to bless people by it.

What the elders saw about worship pertains to any area of our life in which we are seeking to fulfill our Christ-given mission to bear fruit – whether that be at church, at home, at work, at school, or in some community organization through we seek to do good.

Here’s an important truth: We are living faithlessly if we are not attempting to do things that require us to exercise faith, if we are not all in to reach a goal we know we can’t reach on our own, if we are not depending on a power we can only have by abiding in Christ.

Back in the days when our country was launching Space Shuttles, you could hear flight engineers talk of having reached a point of “negative return”. “Negative return” means that a spacecraft has flown so high and far down range that there is no longer the possibility of returning to the launch site, that the astronauts are cut off from the option of turning back. They are all in; they are irrevocably committed.

For each of us as individuals, and for all of us together as a community of Christ, God has been cutting us off from the possibilities of turning back. God has pruned us to the point where the only way open to us is the way forward, the way of no longer relying on what we once relied on, the way of relying on a power beyond our own, a power we can only take in by living in Christ like a branch in its vine. Let us pray.

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