God wants to work through you.
God has planted the people of faith to bear fruit in the world –
personally and collectively.
God desires and requires that we do our part,
that we allow ourselves to be fruitful.
Questions to ask ourselves:
- In what ways have we been fruitful? A vine provides food for others that is sweet and good. A wild vine represents sourness, bitterness and lack of good fruit.
- In what ways have we been like a wild vine and wild grapes? How have we not produced as much good fruit as we could?
- What good is in our past that we do well to remember and celebrate?
- What greatness lies in our future that compels to not be held by the past?
God wants to work through you.
You came to this place, to this day, because God wants to be a part of your life, and because God wants to work through you. One of the images that scripture uses for this idea is fruitfulness. Jesus talks about fruitfulness in the gospels. We see the fig tree in Mark 11 and the parallel passages – it has no figs on it so Jesus places a curse on it and it withers. Jesus has work to do – a gospel message so share, people to redeem and set free, a kingdom of righteousness and peace to build here in the world, in the very midst of all the chaos and heartache that surrounds us. To do this, He needs plants that will be fruitful.
And he doesn’t want just any fruit – he wants good fruit. 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Mt 7 sermon on the mount) The good fruit is sweet, refreshing, a delight to the soul. When you bite into a great Texas peach, and the juice drips down your chin and over your hands, a wide grin spreads across your face. You can’t help yourself. When you buy one that looks, smells and feels wonderful, but bite into Styrofoam or cardboard, you feel utter disappointment. Better to not eat peaches at all than to eat bad peaches. A friend of mine just moved back from central California and was bemoaning the loss of good strawberries. People who have only ever known subpar fruit are surprised when a juicy, fresh from the field, vineyard or orchard piece is handed to them. They just don’t know any better.
Paul talks about the need for us to bear fruit and grow (Rom 7:4; Eph 5:9; Col 1:10). Our faith may be an inward experience of the head and the heart. Even so, it is meant to produce outwardly so that others can see, experience, and be blessed. When we taste good grapes we don’t thank the vine, we thank the one who created the vine. In the same way our fruit, our good works, are meant to point back to the one who created us and made those good works possible. They point to God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Jesus puts it this way:
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (Jn 15)
God wants to work through you.
None of this is surprising, given the way Isaiah uses this image. And he is not alone. We find the theme repeated in in Jeremiah 2, almost verbatim. Similar passages are found in Jeremiah 8 and Ezekiel 19. God formed a people, Israel, for relationship and partnership in ministry to the world. Israel’s purpose was to proclaim, represent and demonstrate God’s faithful love. Instead, they became self-absorbed and so concerned with their own power and preservation that they utterly failed to fulfill their calling. Even so, God always kept a remnant from which to raise up a new generation. God never wants to give up on us. God always wants to redeem and restore, but can only work with us when we are willing to show up, stand up, and be filled up with God’s love and mercy.
Hear how Zechariah describes God’s intentions: Zechariah 8: 11 But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. 12 For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. 13 Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.
“You shall be a blessing” – God wants to work through you!
We find a similar message in Psalm 92: 12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; 13 planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. 14 They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, 15 proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
One of the things that got Israel into trouble was spending too much time looking backward. They tried to live as though things were still like the days of David, the days of glory. Each group with any authority tried to claim a royal or priestly heritage that gave them the right to rule. Israel certainly had days of glory, and God wanted the people to remember that God had made those things possible. It is God who gives us the ability to grow and be productive. God gives us the power to effect positive change in the world for His glory.
What the Israelites forgot is the reason why God has chosen David in the beginning – because he was humble, had a servant’s heart, was compassionate and just. David ruled through his righteousness, and Solomon through his wisdom. But each generation must live with righteousness and wisdom for themselves, not simply harken back to the days of their ancestors, or even their own previous accomplishments.
Our past matters, because it shapes our present. But our past does not define our present, nor determine our future. Our failures and sins need not separate us from receiving God’s goodness and blessings. Our past accomplishments cannot put food on the table tomorrow. Last year’s harvest is already gone. If we do not plant and tend a new harvest this year, everyone will go hungry. The grapes picked last year have already been put up in barrels. Unless we tend the vineyard continually, we will not have good wine in years to come.
Paul understood this well. In Philippians 3 he makes clear that his past is difficult to beat, but is insufficient for securing his future. The only thing that matters, Paul says, is Christ living in me today. Neither yesterday’s sin or righteousness can determine my tomorrow. What I do today matters.
I have been fortunate to do some cool things in my life. I’ve traveled to Europe, Central America, Canada, Mexico and Hawaii. I started and ran a soup kitchen that fed over 200 people each time it opened. I taught at two colleges. I have memories from those things, but none of them matter much to you today. Sure, they’re interesting, but, as the saying goes, “What have you done for me lately?”
Imagine a marriage where one spouse says to the other on their 20th wedding anniversary, “You know, I don’t really feel loved anymore. You never hold me. You never spend time with me. You never look at me or talk to me. You never tell me that you love me.” The grief stricken and dumfounded reply comes after several long moments of silence…. “But, what about those first five years? I did all of those things faithfully every single day. I still remember each day of it. Don’t you? Isn’t that enough?” “Yes,” the first replies, “I do remember, and it was wonderful, but no, it is not enough. I need all of that still, today and tomorrow and every day.”
When we put it this way, it would sound absurd if it were not so painfully common. Perhaps not quite this stark, but nonetheless real. Our relationship with God is no different. God want’s us to show up today, to communicate today, to listen and share today. And God wants us to be fruitful, today.
God wants to work through you.
Paul says “forgetting what is behind, I press onward…” Now, of course he hasn’t forgotten, because he has just told us. And he understands that those things mattered then and still matter. He is being hyperbolic to make his point. “Knowing Christ matters so much that everything else pales in comparison.” Paul values his background as a Pharisee or he would not continually reference it. That history shaped him to be the vessel that Jesus needed to carry his message. You see that shift – what you were and what you did and what you experienced made you who you are today, and that’s what God wants to use now and in the future. God honors your past also, redeeming and making it holy by working through it today. God wants us to be fruitful, today.
During our time together in the coming months we will focus on three tasks:
Honor our past. Understand our present. Live faithfully into our future.
I’m looking forward to joining with you individually and in small groups to hear your stories and help you hear each other. We want to honor the history of this congregation, as well as our individual histories. One way we will do this is by meeting in homes over the next several months. Some of you love to provide hospitality, and I hope that you will open your homes for 8-12 people to meet for coffee and desert and sharing. These will be scheduled for mornings, afternoons and evenings, and even weekends, so that everyone has an opportunity to attend at least one. You probably have other great ideas for how we can get to know one another and hear our stories so that we can honor our past.
In the weeks ahead we will say more about the other two tasks. For now, I’m just excited to be among you and to learn from you.
I am confident that, as Jesus said at the Last Supper, “you will do even greater things that what you have already seen.” (John 14:12)