Look To Your Roots
Text: John 15:1-8
5 Easter, B
Most of us do not have vineyards in our back yards, but just about everyone knows at least a little bit about how things grow. I myself am no gardener, my thumbs are about as white as they get; but even I know a few things. If you want plants to grow, they have to be in good soil; they need water, sunlight, and nutrients, and you have to watch out for the root system. If you damage or tear the roots of a plant it will most likely die.
The Israelites, however, knew about roots, vines, and grapes. The vine and vineyard were common symbols in the Jewish culture. The vine was a symbol not only one of productivity but also, of the nation of Israel itself. In Isaiah 5: 1-7 the prophet paints the picture of Israel as a vineyard and God as the farmer. Unfortunately, it is not a pretty picture. Israel, the vineyard, is unfaithful. All it can produce is bad fruit. God the farmer has put all of his time and energy into His vineyard but He cannot tolerate its lack of productivity any more. Therefore, He tears down all the hedges surrounding it, abandons it – leaves it for the wild animals to devour.
Why only bad fruit? The problem had to do with the roots. But it was not as if they were suffering from a case of root rot. Their roots were actually pretty strong. Israel was (and still is) a nation dominated by a sense of ethnic and spiritual identity. Most of the Jews of Jesus day could trace back their family history by clan and tribe all the way to the patriarchs themselves. They proudly looked to their roots. But that is precisely what became part of the problem. They felt that because they had such roots they were automatically saved. Because Abraham was their great-great-great- great grandfather many generations removed; many of them felt they had the right to do whatever they wanted. Abraham had bought them freedom through their blood line. In that very attitude, however, they had lost the very things that had made their national roots so strong ... namely faith in God. Abraham had great faith in God. That is what saved him, not a blood line. Having cut themselves off from their roots, the Israelites could do nothing but produce bad fruit.
Just looking around the world today it would not be hard to say that we too have a problem with rotten fruit. Hatred, despair, wars, impatience, greed, anger, lies, lust, apathy and indifference. These are the bad fruit we struggle with. Some seem big and some seem less hurtful. We each have more problems with some than others; but we all stumble. We all struggle against bad fruit. The fruit of the flesh, and of sin. As far as vineyards go, this modern church of ours must look like a weed infested, over-run, scrawny, half dead thing with hardly a grape to be seen, or only here and there in pathetic bunches, half shriveled and completely unappetizing, even on the vine. Is this the church God called us to be? Would the disciples like Peter, John, or Philip even recognize it? Where did we go wrong?
Strangely enough, when confronted by the obvious problems around us, the world would also have us look to our roots – but only as an excuse! Look to your roots and to blame them for your present circumstances. If you have problems with this or that, look back to when you were growing up, you will find the reason there. Can’t get ahead in life? It is because of the enabling behaviours you were exposed to in your development that entrenched destructive behaviours within yourself. It is our current victim culture where no one ever actually looks for the reason, just another excuse.
God does not tolerate excuses, however. The sin is ours. The lack of trust, the lack of love and sympathy, the stench of apathy … that’s on you and me. And God won’t put up with rotten fruit or unproductive branches. They only last so long before they fall cut from the vine, to be gathered up and burned as the waste they are. God does not tolerate sin, no matter what excuse we might try to come up with. It didn’t work when Adam tried to blame Eve, and even God Himself. It won’t work now to blame the pandemic or racism or any other thing.
The fiery images Jesus used are powerful stuff. But it is not meant to be a message of despair. It is a message of greatest hope! The key is in verse three where Jesus declares to his disciples that they are already clean. The word for cleaned is the same as pruned. They have been pruned already but remain on the vine. How is that possible? Were they not sinful too? Of course they were, but hey had been cleansed through the Words that Jesus spoke to them. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God. He works to bring and strengthen faith in the hearer. It is this faith that actually grafts us to Jesus as a Farmer grafts branches of one tree to another.
Through the Holy Word and through Baptism God is continually grafting new branches to the vine of Christ, but He does not let them out of His sight once it is done. He continues to tend each of the branches every day. God the Farmer trims and prunes the productive branches to make them even more so. This is not some sort of reckless hack job that we’re talking about; blade slashing left and right with total abandonment. This is very precise. It is more like the picture of a man with a bonsai tree. Many of the best bonsai artists will take their entire lifetime to trim and shape and prune a single tree. He may wait years to make a single cut. So it is with the Father. His cuts are lovingly, and painstakingly made to remove unwanted growth that would otherwise take away the branch’s strength to produce fruit. Because fruit is what it is all about. But vines are only fruitful when they are well rooted.
Jesus is our sure root. Like a vine with its roots immovably planted in the ground, Jesus will remain firmly rooted in our lives. He will never abandon us. He provides us with stability and support in whatever weather that might befall us in this life. It is He that is faithful in providing everything we need as branches for life and growth. He draws up food and water to sustain us. The food is His Holy Word, His Own Body and His own Blood. These are given to each of us without limit or conditions, for the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the water of life in Baptism, as we are grafted into Him and all that He accomplished for us upon the cross. Through all of these is given one more gift, the gift of faith. It is this faith that enables us to produce good fruit. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within us that enables us to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruits that are pleasing to God. Look to your roots. There you will find God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all at work to strengthen, support, nourish, and sustain you in everything you do and in everything you will face. He is the vine and you are the branches … remain in Him and you will bear much fruit.