“Silent witnesses: Vine and branches”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Schiava Grossa, also known as Trollinger, also known as Black Hamburg, also known as The Great Vine, is the oldest and the largest grapevine in the world.
Though most grapevines bear grapes for some twenty to twenty-five years, this one is now two hundred and fifty years old! For it was back in 1768 when a gardener named Lancelot “Capability” Brown planted a clipping just outside of Hampton Court for his king, King George III. And in the months and years that followed, he watered it, fertilized it, and cared for it. And wonder of wonders, it’s been growing there ever since. While in the year 1800, when it was a mere thirty-two years old, its trunk was one foot around. Today it’s twelve feet around, with branches a hundred and twenty feet long, making it the absolute oldest and largest grapevine in the world.
And with a vine that big, you can just imagine the grapes! While normally it produces close to six hundred pounds each year, back in 2001 it had its best crop ever, coming in at well over eight hundred pounds. That’s a lot of grapes!
But caring for a vine like that takes a lot of work. In February when the buds first begin to break, chief vinedresser Gillian Strudwick switches on the greenhouse heating and begins to water it, adjusting the ventilation several times a day. Then when the shoots begin to grow, she pinches some of them off and ties the rest with raffia. Throughout the summer, she feeds it and waters it, and even thins the leaves so the sun can ripen the fruit. Finally in November and December, she prunes it back so it can start all over again.
By the way, if you’re interested in the job and know a thing or two about grapes and vines, Gillian would like to retire. She’s been caring for it for the past forty years.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus had something to say about vines and branches. Listen again to the words of John chapter 15: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). And He said: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4).
Before Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, before He was arrested and betrayed, before He went to the cross, He gave one last sermon to His disciples. On the night He took a basin of water and wrapped a towel around His waist to wash their feet, on the night He said, “One of you will betray Me” and “Take eat, this is My body...Take drink, this is My blood,” He also took time to talk about a vine and its branches, to teach the importance of growing spiritually and drawing strength from Him. And so He said in verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m really not the best gardener. I don’t know a lot about plants. But those of you who do will know exactly what Jesus meant when He said, “Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).
To a gardener, it’s all very simple--if you want a lot of fruit on an apple tree, you prune back the branches. If you want a beautiful rose bush, full of roses, you have to prune the bush. If you want big, juicy clusters of grapes, you prune the vines. It’s that simple.
Now pruning might be good for apples, roses and grapevines, but none of us ever likes to be pruned. We don’t like to be corrected, amended or adjusted. We want to be left alone to do what we want to do, how we want to do it, and when we want to do it. We don’t want anyone, including God, telling us what’s wrong, and neither do we want Him to fix it.
A specialist on an educational TV show once told viewers that they should talk to their plants to help them grow. He said that soothing, stroking, and even talking to them will help build their self-esteem.
Imagine yourself talking to your plant: “You’re a good plant! You look so healthy today.” Now imagine talking to the plant while you’re pruning it: “This is for your own good. You’ll thank me for this later! Whack!” And if the plant could talk back, it would probably say, “Don’t you love me? Don’t you care for me?”
And that’s exactly what we sometimes say to God when He prunes us: “Don’t You love me? Don’t you care for me?”
Take, for example, a man who had a long list of illnesses. And after seeing one doctor after another, each prescribed one drug after another. Still, nothing seemed to help.
Till one day he heard of a doctor who could cure just about anything, so he made an appointment.
And at that appointment, after poking and prodding him, she finally said, “You’re a very sick man. But you won’t get well again unless you follow my advice. This is what I want you to do--I want you to lose forty, no, make that fifty pounds, walk five miles a day, get eight hours of sleep, and eat more green leafy vegetables.”
But when the man begged instead for more medicine, she said, “You don’t need a change in your medicine. You need a change in your life!”
Or think of a woman who, after running up some gambling debts, “borrowed” money from the place where she worked. At least, that’s what she called it. When the company found out about it, they escorted her out to her car.
So she started to drink, which needless to say, didn’t help at all with her driving. Her lawyer agreed to meet with her in jail. And when he heard her story, he said, “You’ll probably have to enroll in a program and pay off the money you’ve stolen.”
In an outrage, she shot back, “I don’t want a lecture. I want a lawyer.”
No one likes to be pruned. We want to be left alone to do what we want to do, and how and when we want to do it.
Imagine for a moment, that you’re in the grocery store, walking down the cereal aisle, and the next item on your list is pancake syrup. You glance at a tiny bottle of pure maple syrup high up on the very top shelf, the one that’s marked $12. With a sigh, you reach down and grab a $2 bottle of Hungry Jack instead.
So why is maple syrup so pricy? First, you have to venture deep into the woods, then with a drill, you make small holes in the trunks of maple trees. Then you tap the tree, and hang a bucket on the side. And if conditions are just right, the sap begins to flow thin and clear, like water, with only a hint of sweetness. In one season, one tree can give you as much as twelve gallons of sap.
And as the buckets fill, you empty them into large kettles that sit over an open fire. Slowly, the sap comes to a boil. And as it boils, the water evaporates, leaving the rich, golden-brown syrup behind. Then after you strain it several times, you bottle it and grade it for quality.
So what do you get out of those thirty to forty gallons of sap? Only one measly gallon of maple syrup. That’s why it’s so expensive!
And so it is with us. When we came to Christ, like raw, unfinished sap, we could have been tossed aside as worthless. But God knew what He could make of us. He sought us and He found us, and with His skillful hands, He’s transforming us into something precious, sweet and useful. Then and only then can we be not just a cheap, bottom shelf imitation, but a pure, genuine disciple.
A nineteenth century English preacher named J. C. Ryle once said, “Trouble is the fire that burns away the dross that clings to our hearts. Trouble is the pruning-knife that Christ employs to make us fruitful in good works. The harvest of the Lord’s field is seldom ripened by sunshine only. It must go through its days of storm, wind, and rain.”
And in the words of Charles Spurgeon, “It’s the Word that prunes the Christian, it’s the truth that purges him, the Scripture made living and powerful by the Holy Spirit. Affliction is the handle of the knife...it’s the dresser that removes our soft garments and lays bare the diseased flesh, so the surgeon’s knife may cut it. Affliction makes us ready to feel the Word, but the true prune is the Word in the hand of the Great Vinedresser.”
If you’re a Christian, you will be pruned. Let me say it again. If you’re a Christian, you will be pruned.
And when God prunes, don’t think He’ll cut off only the deadwood, what’s sinful and superficial. He’ll sometimes cut off what’s alive and successful. It’s not pleasant and it’ll most likely hurt. But it’s absolutely essential to draw you closer to Him.
In the words of a poem: “I walked a mile with Pleasure; She chattered all the way. But left me none the wiser, for all she had to say. I walked a mile with Sorrow and ne’er a word said she; But oh, the things I learned from her, when Sorrow walked with me.”
To those who are tired, Jesus says, “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
To those who are burdened by sin and life’s hardships, Jesus says, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am humble and lowly in heart. And you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
To those who are lost, Jesus says, “I am the way” (John 14:6).
To those who live with guilt, He says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
To those who fear death, He says, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (I Corinthians 15:52).
To those who fear God has abandoned them, He says, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
And to those who feel God is angry with them, He says, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
And all this is possible because of the One who once promised Adam and Eve in the Garden that He wouldn’t leave them lost and dead in sin, cut off from Him forever. Instead, He would graft them back into His love through the gift of His Son.
And as He came and lived among us, He said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
In the words of the hymn: “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me. Died that I might live on high, Lived that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am His and He is mine.”
In Your great grace and mercy, dear Lord, prune us. Remove the dead, ugly branches and, as You will, remove the live ones too. And we ask You to do all this that we might, by Your grace, become green, vibrant and strong, for Jesus’ sake. Amen