Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Organic Gardener

Texts: Colossians 1:9-23: John 15:1- 4

IF YOU TUNE IN TO radio station KDKA between 7:00 and 9:00 on a Sunday morning you’ll hear a program called The Organic Gardeners. Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser answer callers’ gardening questions, and they make a point of promoting the use of organic products and procedures to help the garden grow.

I’m only a beginner at this organic gardening thing. But if I understand it correctly, though, the principle behind it is to work with nature and not in spite of it. Even if there’s something natural you have to work against, like a deadly bug or a fungus of some kind, you use its natural enemies to oppose it, not some artificial compound that might do as much harm as good. Organic gardening means remembering that everything in your garden has its own characteristics, its own way of growing, but at the same time, you keep in mind that your garden is a system that’s all connected together. Every element influences every other element, and everything-- the soil, the plant stock, the sunlight, the watering, the fertilizer, the pest control-- work in harmony to make the garden fruitful.

In the gospel according to St. John, chapter 15, our Lord Jesus Christ refers to a very particular organic garden, the vineyard belonging to His heavenly Father. It’s in this vineyard that we His disciples are intended to grow and bear fruit.

A vineyard wasn’t a new figure of speech for the disciples. For centuries before them the prophets of God had likened Israel to a vineyard, planted by the Lord.

But Jesus makes a change to that traditional metaphor. He says, "I am the true vine." In other words, He, Jesus, is the one and only proper grape vine planted in the Father’s vineyard.

But what happened to the vines that were God’s people Israel?

Well, as we know, all sorts of problems can crop up in a garden, whether you’re going organic or keep on applying the Miracle-Gro and the Malathion. You could say that for centuries the divine Gardener had tried all sorts of cultivars and varieties in His vineyard. He’d tried people, priests, and kings. He’d tried prophets, scribes, and Pharisees. Some varieties were better than others. Some failed miserably and had to be rooted out altogether. But every rootstock was blighted by sin. No vine in His holy vineyard could ever give God the precious fruit of total obedience and joyful praise that He has a right to expect.

So in His marvellous wisdom, our God ordained that there would be but one Vine in His vineyard, one perfect and productive rootstock, and that one Vine is His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. If anyone wishes to be productive, he or she must be organically joined in as a branch to Christ, the one true Vine. You can’t bear the fruit that God desires if you’re off on your own. There is no pleasing God by your own good works or your own niceness. How can you? If you’re separate from Jesus Christ, you’re spiritually dead! To produce the luscious fruit God is looking for, you absolutely must share in the nourishment drawn up by Christ the Vine.

So if you by faith are joined to Christ the true Vine, is it now all up to you to work really hard to bear fruit and stay joined to Him? I remember being told this as a young Christian. I was taught that "fruit" equals converts, and the way you stay joined to the Vine is to bring more and more and more people to Christ. Personally. They have to commit right in front of you. Recite the Four Spiritual Laws. And if not, beware! You’re about to be cut off!

Certainly, it’s a wonderful and God-pleasing thing for us to tell others the good news about the Lord who saved us. It exalts His holy name when sinners confess His Son as their Savior and Lord. But making converts is not the only kind of fruit our God desires. And, Christian friends, we don’t stay joined to Christ the Vine by our frenzied efforts to bear fruit; no, we bear fruit by staying joined to Christ the Vine!

As Jesus says in verse 4, "Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine." Bearing fruit for God will come naturally and organically simply by our being joined to our Lord, by receiving His power, His strength, His virtue, His wisdom, His perfect ability to please His Father in heaven.

But what about where Jesus says in verse 2, "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit"? Doesn’t that sound like it’s up to us to work hard to do good works for God and stay joined?

Well, those of you who are gardeners: What have you noticed as you’ve done your pruning this spring? That the branches that aren’t popping leaves tend to be the dead ones! They’re the ones that’ve formed a hard nub of tissue between themselves and the main tree or shrub or whatever. No nutrients are getting through, and that branch withers and dies. It may look like part of the plant, but it really isn’t. It’s cut itself off from what it needs to live, and has to be pruned off for the good of the whole plant. Whereas the branches where the cells are open, the juices are getting through and you see growth.

Jesus says, "Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." There is no other way. On the other hand, if we remain in Him, we will bear much fruit. We won’t be able to help it, because we organically are part of Him.

This is what the Holy Spirit, speaking through our brother Paul, wants us to understand in the letter to the Colossians.

Paul’s prayer for the Colossians and for us is that we be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Is this some esoteric higher knowledge that you have to study long years to attain? Do you have to read strange long-lost books in mysterious ancient languages to attain this wisdom of God?

No! Paul’s prayer is that we should grasp who and what Jesus Christ is, both in His divine essence and in His relationship to us. Paul wants us to get our minds and hearts around the fact that Jesus is the one and only true Vine and we through holy faith are His branches. That understanding and honoring Jesus is the only way we can live lives worthy of the Lord and please Him, as Paul says, in every way.

The life-giving nourishment of Christ the Vine comes into branches, into disciples who are open, aware, and ready to receive the strength and virtue He gives. It involves our whole heart, mind, and will. It’s not enough to say, "I love Jesus"; you must be eager to learn more about Him, drinking in the wonder of who He is and what He has done for you. As Paul says in verse 10 onward of our Colossians passage, bearing fruit in every good work happens as we grow in the knowledge of God, as we’re strengthened with all power according to His glorious might, and as we joyfully give thanks to the Father!

You might say that this divine knowledge and strength and thankfulness are the organic fertilizer our Lord applies to make us stronger and more fruitful branches! As it says, the Lord is doing this in us so we "may have great endurance and patience." Strong, enduring branches bear strong, wholesome fruit.

Our fruitfulness in Christ is organically connected to our awareness of what the Father has done for us in joining us to the Son. For formerly we were no branches of the true Vine at all. But now God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of His Son. In Him we have redemption. In Him we have forgiveness of sins. Not by any good work or effort of our own, but through being grafted into our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

But who is this Jesus we are joined into? By Whom do we bear fruit? Is He just another way to heaven, as some people say? Is He just another great world teacher, just another voice in human history telling us how to be good and find fulfillment?

Oh, no, no! This Jesus our true Vine is unimaginably beyond that. Every time I read this passage beginning with verse 15 I think it should be accompanied by a full orchestra of thousands of instruments and millions of voices, not forgetting a few hundred pipe organs as well. Who is this Jesus who joins us organically to Himself? Christian, fall on your knees, for He is the exact image of the invisible God! He is the firstborn over all creation-- by which is meant the supreme One, the ruler, the eternal heir. Everything that exists-- stars, planets, nebulae, mountains, rivers, animals, you, me, everything down to the least element and atom-- came into being through our Lord Jesus Christ. By Him was created not only this physical universe, but the unseen, spiritual universe as well: angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, all principalities and powers-- all were created by Christ and for Christ. The Father made all things through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, for Jesus of Nazareth, our true Vine, is nothing less than eternal and ever-living God!

No other religious figure, no other being can make that claim! Not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Krishna, not Moses, not you, not me, not any other creature, human or superhuman, animal, vegetable, or mineral can be the one true Vine through whom alone we or anyone can please the one God of earth and heaven. Only Jesus Christ, Son of David and Son of Mary, only He was and is God, eternally begotten of His Father before anything was made. In Christ and in Christ alone all things hold together in one glorious organic unity.

And this Christ, this Jesus is our Head! A body is also an organism; it must be joined to its head to live. We who believe in Jesus Christ in all times and in all places, we who are the branches in Him, the one true Vine, we are His church, His body. He has made it so! Our very existence is bound up organically with His resurrection from the dead. Jesus has triumphed over death by His cross and empty tomb, and He communicates that triumphant new life to us as we remain and thrive in Him.

Jesus is our living Vine, and in and with His Father, He is also our organic Gardener. Jesus did not resort to artificial means to make us alive. No, He has reconciled us to God by the blood of his cross. And not just us, but all things, whether on earth or in heaven. By His all-sufficient death and resurrection, Jesus will make all creation, everything that is, into one harmonious, healthy, fruit-bearing organic garden.

Let’s not take this wonder for granted! It’s so easy for us to sit in church week after week, singing and praying, so easy for us to do our good things in Jesus’ name, and forget how easily it could have been otherwise! We aren’t volunteer plants that just happened to grow up in this garden called the Christian Church; no, God our gardener deliberately planted us here to be branches of His Son, the true Vine!

For once we all were very noxious weeds. As the Scripture says, we were alienated from God and enemies to Him in our minds because of our evil behavior. And a lot of that evil behavior was in our minds, and let’s not think it’s any less evil because we never got the chance to act on it. We were just like any other human being who ever lived on this earth: worthless to God and deserving only to be swept away and burned. But in God’s infinite mercy and grace He sent His Son to be our Gardener and our true Vine. Now through the death of Christ’s physical body we have been transformed into clean, blight-free, productive branches in Him, without blemish or accusation-- assuming, as Paul says, that we continue in our faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out to us in the gospel.

That gospel is the good news--yes, the good soil that Jesus Christ died for your sins and rose again to give you life eternal. It is the rain of having your sins washed away in His blood and the warm sunshine of the Father’s forgiveness and love shining on you for Jesus’ sake. It’s the strength and nourishment of Christ’s righteousness and obedience rising up through the root that is He alone, flowing into your whole being and making you able and eager to bear good fruit in every good work. That gospel is the good news that we can and must give up working and striving to bear fruit in our own feeble strength; that we can trust instead in Jesus Christ and the life and virtue He alone can give.

This is the gospel this church and every true church around the world joyfully proclaims to every creature under heaven. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, the One supreme over all things, the head of the church, the beginning and the end, the firstborn from among the dead. Jesus is our reconciler, our peacemaker, and our awesome Lord and God. He has joined us organically with Himself; in Him our Gardener and true Vine, we will bear much fruit; to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Finding the True Way to Life

Texts: Isaiah 30:19-22; 2 Peter 2:1-3; John 14:1-14

HAVE YOU EVER CHOSEN THE wrong path? Could that choice have led you to disaster?

I’m thinking of a time back in 1989 when I went hillwalking in south Wales. I was heading to the top of a mountain called Pen-y-Fan, which means "the topmost beacon." Which makes sense, since the range is in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

It wasn’t the best time of year to be climbing Pen-y-Fan. It was April 1st and cold and wet. The fog was so thick you could literally trip over other hikers sitting by the side of the trail eating their lunches, because you couldn’t see them in the mist.

But I was on a year abroad program and had to go home right after school was out in June. If I wanted to tackle this hill, it was Easter break or never.

Luckily, the trail was very well marked-- It was a mess of ruts. You couldn’t miss it, even in a blinding fog. Eventually I reached a spot where there was a big pile of stones-- a cairn--and I walked around a little to see if the trail went farther up. It didn’t.

There were two elderly men standing by the cairn. I asked them, "Is this it?" Meaning, "Is this the top?" In the fog, I really couldn’t tell.

They assured me it was, and headed down the trail. I stayed at the top a little longer and then started down. After a bit, I caught up with the two elderly Welshmen-- they’d stopped to put on their foul weather gear-- and we continued down together.

Then we came to a fork in the trail, two paths leading down. One of the Welshmen said to me, "All right, which way do we go now?"

I knew it was a test question. They wanted to know if I were competent to be up there by myself on this mountain.

And me, I wanted to prove I was. Which nineteen years ago meant not stopping to check my Ordnance Survey map or to think about how the trail had looked on the way up. Immediately I pointed to one of the paths and said, "That way!"

Wroooonnnngggg! Not only wrong, but worse than wrong. Those experienced local climbers told me that if I’d taken that trail, it would have led me down the back side of the mountain. Down there it was steep and rough, there were no houses or farms, and it’d take me several hours, maybe past nightfall, even to reach a road. And here I was, they pointed out, up there by myself with no flashlight and no food and no foul weather gear, wandering around in the fog with no idea which way I should go. Even worse, I’d thought I did know the way, and the way I’d chosen could have led me to injury and illness, maybe even to disaster and death.

They lectured me but good! Served me right. Those Welshmen knew what they were talking about. They’d been up and down that mountain many times. And in the end, they were able safely to lead me back down where I needed to go.

All through our lives we have to make decisions about which way to choose. If pride and over-confidence can get us in trouble when we’re out hiking or driving, think how much more disastrous it can be when we’re directing the course of our lives!

Ask almost anyone what the ultimate goal of life is, he’ll tell you it’s Personal Fulfillment. Or becoming truly Spiritual. It’s about achieving a Higher Purpose. Most people will say that higher purpose has to do with God, that individuals should strive to please God in their lives here on earth, so he’ll welcome them into heaven when they die. Our choice, then, is to decide on the best path to lead us to that happy destination.

In our reading from John 14, Jesus is speaking to our desire for happiness and heaven. The time of His death is fast approaching, when He will be taken away from His disciples. Though they will see Him again for awhile after He rises again, the time will come when He will ascend into heaven and no longer be visible to their physical eyes. Jesus wants to assure them-- and us-- that His physical absence from us has a purpose, that it’s to our benefit. He is going-- in fact, even now, He has gone-- to prepare a place in God’s heaven for all His disciples; not just for Thomas, Philip, James and John, but for all of us who believe in Him as well. Then when the time is right-- at the end of all things-- Jesus will return to guide us where we need and want to be.

In the NIV, verse 1 reads, "Trust in God; trust also in me." It can also be translated, "You trust in God; trust also in me." The disciples were already God-fearing, God-trusting, God-acknowledging Jews. The law and the prophets had taught them about God’s character and power and how He can be trusted. Now, "Trust me just as you trust God," says our Lord Jesus. Do you want to reach heaven and live forever in the presence of God? Then trust Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended to be your guide to lead you there. He’s been up and down that mountain before, and you can trust Him with your eternal life.

But that night long ago in the Upper Room, the disciples didn’t get it. And we have a hard time getting it, too.

Thomas says, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?"

Thomas, dear Thomas! Jesus just told you He was going to come back and lead you to His Father’s house! You don’t have to get the street address of heaven and punch it into your spiritual GPS system!

But you and I might’ve said the same thing in Thomas’ place. He and the other disciples didn’t yet understand that Jesus would gain admission for us into the kingdom of heaven through His suffering on the Cross. They couldn’t conceive how through His rising again Christ would lead us into eternal life.

Jesus answers Thomas and us by saying in effect, "Don’t worry about the street address of heaven! I’ll take you there!" Or as He actually says, "I am the way and the truth and the life."
Do you want ultimate fulfillment here on earth and bliss in heaven hereafter? Then trust in Jesus Christ. He is the Way: He is the very path or trail or road you walk along. He is the Truth: the reliable and trustworthy Guide who will never deceive you or let you go astray. And He is the Life: Jesus Himself is the goal we are really after. Life in Him is everlasting fulfillment and pleasure and joy. It is the only life there is!

If Jesus had stopped His answer there, we might think there could be other ways we can get to eternal life, should we decide that following Him is too costly or too hard. Our Lord will not allow us to entertain that idea for one second. He declares, "No one comes to the Father except through me." All that business about Jesus being the way, the truth, the life? Our Savior meant it. It’s like it was with me on top of that Welsh mountain in a thick fog-- one path with experienced guidance leads to life and happiness; the paths we make for ourselves bring us to misery and death.

I think most of us within these walls would happily confess that this is so. Yes, yes, Christ is the only way to the Father! He’s the only Guide to happiness and fulfilment, in this life and in the life of the world to come!

But have you ever considered how easy it is for all of us-- for any of us-- to get off that right path, to stop listening to our truthful Guide, and to totally miss the goal of life Christ would lead us to?

As I pointed out before, everyone wants to get to God. But the Man Jesus Christ, with His human flesh and His bloody cross and the glorified human body He took back with Him to heaven? Not so much. Talk to people sometime about what they mean by heaven or God. I’ll wager you they’re thinking of something entirely bodiless. Something more "spiritual" than a Deity who got His hands dirty and humbled Himself by being born with a body like our own.

It’s the same with the popular idea of "Christ." People will speak all sort of glowing things about following His teachings or walking in His footsteps of compassion, forgiveness, and love. But when it comes to trusting in His bloody death as the only way to reconcile us to God the Father-- good grief, say all we children of the world, how disgusting and unspiritual can you get? No, we fallen human creatures don’t want the crucified and risen Jesus Son of Mary to be our way, our truth, and our life! We want Him to hand us His life story as a kind of map and let us find our own way to God the Father by ourselves!

You’d expect unbelievers to reject the way of Christ and Him crucified. You might even expect it from those parts of the Christian Church that deny the importance of the Holy Scriptures and traditional doctrine. The sad thing is, refusing to trust Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life has crept into churches that claim to be evangelical and Bible-believing as well.

Knowing your pastor, I can trust that she is giving you Jesus Christ in His fullness. She is pointing to Christ and Him crucified as the only path, guide, and goal of eternal life. But there are churches and preachers who maybe without even realizing it preach a Jesus who is not and never could be the one and only way to the Father.

They present Jesus as our Good Example: "Work really hard to be as good as Jesus is and God will accept you!" Or Jesus as our Great Teacher: "Follow everything He taught the best you can and you’ll be good enough for heaven!"

Or they preach the earthly gospel of Happy Homes and Financial Success and Having Your Best Life Now!!! How can you achieve all that? By using Christ as a road map, not as the way, the truth, and the life. By turning your back on sharing in Christ’s sufferings and instead seeking your ultimate goal and fulfillment in this world. By choosing to choose your own path to life instead of the path of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

These teachings are not the truth! They are No. Gospel. At. All! Any "heavenly Father" they would lead us to would be a false god, a mere idol, and not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Should we be shocked and appalled that these kinds of false paths and false Christs are being proclaimed in the Church? Appalled and saddened, yes; shocked, no.

For what does St. Peter say in his second letter? He warns that there will be false teachers among us! Throughout the history of the Church false guides have tried to convince Christians that the Jesus of Scripture is not the only Way, Truth, and Life. Some deny that He is truly God. Others deny that He is truly human. Often they preach Him as the supreme Teacher of the Law, a new and improved Moses, instead of as the Savior who breaks the power of the Law over us. They have pieced and patched and presented false Christs, Christs without demands, Christs who are not the perfect human image of the eternal God, Christs without claims to be the only way, Christs without the cross.

These false guides convince a lot of people that what they’re saying is true! How many people attend Joel Osteen’s so-called church down in Houston? How many piled into Mellon Arena to hear him up here? Teaching people to find their own ways to eternal life and fulfillment is screamingly popular! It always has been!

Don’t be shaken by any of this, our brother Peter says. It doesn’t mean that Jesus Christ has failed. It doesn’t mean that His Church and all her true members will not reach the heavenly mansions Jesus has gone to prepare for us.

It does mean that we should be on our guard. Against false teachers who preach any way to our Father in heaven other than through, by, and for Jesus Christ crucified and risen again. Against our own sinful inclination to find our own way and be our own guide. On our guard against hankering for something more exciting or "deep" or "spiritual" than the humble Son of Man who walked the roads of occupied Israel two thousand years ago and hung shamefully on a cross so we could have triumph and joy forever.

Especially, we must be on our guard against heading for the wrong destination. Did I seem to agree that our ultimate goal in human life is fulfillment on this earth and life and happiness with God hereafter? Forgive me. I was talking like the fallen human being that I am.

Brothers and sisters, our ultimate goal and purpose in life is not our own happiness and fulfillment. Not in this life, not in the life to come. Our ultimate goal and purpose in life is to sanctify the name of God. It is to glorify Him according to His infinite merit and give Him the honor, praise, and worship He deserves.

When we trust in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, we will be heading towards that ultimate goal. His whole life on this earth He lived to the praise and glory of God the Father. For when we trust in Jesus we participate and join in everything He said and did, in everything He accomplished and all that He is. To live in, through, and for Christ makes us able to glorify God as Jesus does. To walk in Jesus Christ is to have His Father-exalting power working in all we do in Jesus’ name.

But what about our own happiness and fulfillment? Oh, let not our hearts be troubled! What is blessing and fulfillment except to receive the salvation of God and give Him praise forever? What is rest and peace but to let go of our pride and over-confidence and desperate compulsion to work, work, work, and let Jesus work in us instead? Giving thankful obedience to our Father in heaven, just as Jesus always does, that brings us the eternal pleasure God created us to enjoy!

Our loving heavenly Father does not leave us blind in the fog of this life, guessing which way to go. No, He gives us Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Your Savior says to you, "This is the way; walk in it." The way is Himself, He Himself is the only truthful guide, and He Himself is the goal of eternal life and fulfillment He leads us to, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.