Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller

All of my Presbyterian friends have been telling me to read two books by Tim Keller, so I finally gave in and read The Prodigal God. Tim Keller is the pastor an inner city church in New York called, Redeemer Presbyterian Church. He has a huge audience through his books and sermons. He is very well loved, especially in the Reformed Tradition. I found this book to be very insightful.

Tim Keller's whole book is about the parable of the Prodigal son (or as it should be called, the prodigal sons). He correctly grounds this parable in its context, which is that Jesus tells all three parables in Luke 15 to those who are upset that Jesus eats with sinners. He points out that both sons in this parable are lost, just in different ways. The younger son falls into the trap of "self-discovery" while the older brother falls into "moral conformity." In both cases, they are acting out of selfishness but in both cases God acts out of grace. Keller then goes on to point out that in the case of the younger son, we see that God's grace is free. In the case of the older son, God's grace is costly.

While I really liked the overall flow and argument of the whole book, I found that it was the smaller things that Keller said that really spoke to me. For instance, later on in the book he ponders on the question about who was supposed to go and search for the younger son in this parable because in the two previous parables, someone always searches for the items lost. The shepherd searches for the sheep and the lady searches for the coin. He points out that nobody goes in search for the younger son. He then says that it should have been the older brother who went out to look for him. To add insult to injury, the older son not only refuses to search, but he complains when he comes back home.

Being a "Wesleyan" in my theology I was on the look out for places where I would disagree with Keller's theology. I was impressed that most of the book focused so much on the heart of Christianity that I found myself agreeing with Keller most of the time. I agree with him that salvation begins with God's desire to save us, not our desire to repent. I also agree though, that our repentance is important after God's grace first finds us. I believe that God's grace is very costly. The only place I found myself disagreeing with him was when he said that the way we know that God is initiating salvation is when we feel convicted about our lives. While I think this is how God reaches us, I do believe that God initiates this in all persons, it is just that some people choose, in the words of Keller, to be content with "self-discovery" or "moral conformity." In the words of Milton, "Some people would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven."

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to deepen their faith and understanding. Timothy Keller is a great writer and champion of the faith.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sermon 6/7/09 “Jesus’ Last Words of Wisdom Part 5: Better to ask Permission and Forgiveness”

This weekend marks a mile stone for me. I went to Kentucky to attend the graduation of the youngest kids who were in my youth group when I left for Chattanooga back in 2003. I can't believe it is already time for them to graduate. I can still remember announcing to the youth that I was leaving after four great years of youth ministry. I remember Kelsi, who graduated this year, telling me that I would not get to see her graduate and I remember making the promise that I would be there. Leaving is never easy. Dennis Flaugher will be leaving First-Centenary after six years of being our discipleship pastor and Clair will be leaving after two years of being our student minister. I am sure they are just as sad as I was six years ago.

Throughout the Farewell Discourses, Jesus has been announcing that he will only be with them for a little will. Now, in the final section of the discourse or the final sermon, whichever way you view this material, Jesus again tells them that he is leaving. The text reads,

"A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me." 17 Then some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying to us, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" 18 They said, "What does he mean by this 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about." 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. 25 "I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father." 29 His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God." 31 Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (NRSV John 16:16-33)

Jesus makes the statement that in a little while they will no longer see him, but then in a little while they will see him again

The whole text can be divided into two parts based on the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. They ask one question and give one comment. First, in verses 17 and 18 they ask, "What does Jesus mean my saying this and what is a little while. Jesus answers the question by giving them that in a little while he will leave them, the world will be happy, and the disciples will weep and morn, but that after a "little while" their weeping will turn to joy when Jesus comes back.

There have been two lines of thought regarding how to understand this passage. Some folks have thought that this refers to the time between Jesus' death and his second coming. This would mean that we are living in the midst of the period of weeping and suffering, but we are to wait for the day of Jesus' return where our weeping will turn to joy.

I think a better understanding of this passage would be to say that the "little while" refers to the time between Jesus' death and resurrection. At Jesus' death the disciples would weep, but at his resurrection their sorrow would turn to joy. If this is the case, which I think it is, this would mean that we are living in the time of joy. It also means, as Jesus continues on that we are at the time when we can ask anything is Jesus' name and it will be given. Jesus says during the time we are in now, if we ask, he will tell us plainly.

The second peace of this discourse is when the disciples make the comment that Jesus is finally speaking to them plainly and they now believe the things Jesus is telling them. Jesus tells them that their will be a time of persecution, but it is telling them these things so that they will have peace.

The Problem with Petitioner Prayer

I want to turn our attention to a small piece of this passage that has troubled many people. When Jesus is explaining what things will be like when he returns, he says, "On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete." This is not the first time in the Farewell discourses that Jesus has mentioned this fact. In chapter 14, you may recall that Jesus tells the disciples that because he is going to the father, they will do even greater things than he has done. He then tells the disciples, "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (NRSV John 14:13-14) The again in chapter 15, Jesus says, "You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name." (NRSV John 15:16)

I think CS Lewis sums the problem up nicely in his only book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm when he suggests that the issue is not that God does not grant every request we make of him. We know that we oftentimes ask prayers that are not in our best interest. We also realize that some of our prayers, if they were granted would mean that someone else's prayers were not granted. For instance, in this tough economy, many people are applying for jobs and praying sincerely that they get the job. Knowing that it is God's will for people to work if they can, this seems like a prayer that God would grant. However, when God answers yes to one person, it means keep looking for someone else.

Lewis goes on to say that intellectually we can understand why God does not grant every prayer request, but what is more troubling is that he promises to grant anything that is asked in Jesus name. So, why would Jesus promise us something so huge and yet not be able to follow through on it.

The Three Not so Right Answers

It seems that this question is often answered in two different ways that I believe are unhelpful. First, it is said that God already has his mind made up before we pray, so that when we pray we are really just praying to discover God's will. The purpose of prayer is not to petition God for things, but to change our own hearts to accept God's will.

I do want to say that this answer is not totally wrong. I do firmly believe that part of what God does in prayer is to help us understand his will better and to deepen our relationship with him more. The problem with this view is that it is not what Jesus tells us in these passages. He does not say pray in my name so that you will have a deeper understanding of what my will is. He does say that if we ask in his name he will give us a more clear understanding of things.

On the other side, people often say that the reason God does not answer our prayers is because the person does not pray with enough faith. To me this is even more troubling than the first answer. While I do think that there are some things that God wants to do for us, but waits until we ask him, there are many things that faithful Christians ask in prayer that are not granted.

The third "not so right answers" is what I call the Garth Brooks Solution." You may remember his song, "Unanswered Prayers." which takes place when he and his current wife run into his old high school girlfriend, whom Garth had asked God to make it so that she would marry him. This is what he says,

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers

Remember when you're talking to the man upstairs

Just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care

Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers


Again, part of this song is helpful. Sometimes we do not get the response to our prayers we wanted and we do find that God somehow takes our lives and makes something great out of it. Oftentimes we are thankful for the way our lives turned out and we are glad God did not say yes to our prayer. The reason this is not completely the solution though, is twofold. (1) I believe God response to all of our prayers so that none of those prayers go answered. (2) What happens when our unanswered prayers do not turn out so well. I guess under the "Garth Brooks Solution" some of God greatest practical jokes would be unanswered prayers. The way our life turns out does not determine the effectiveness of our prayer and whether God answers them.

What does it mean to Pray in Jesus' name?

It seems to me that to understand why Jesus would make such a claim to his disciples that he did mean that they could really ask in his name and it would be granted means two things for sure:

  1. God calls Christians to participate in the work that God is doing with our prayers. When we read the context around the John 14 passage quoted earlier, we will notice that the context is about Jesus; followers being able to do greater things than what Jesus did. Part of the way they would be able to do this was that Jesus would send someone to come along beside them, namely the Holy Spirit, but the other explanation for how this is possible is that they will be able to draw on Jesus through prayer.


    For some reason, God finds it best not to just determine everything to be the way that it is, but God wants to use his followers to accomplish his purposes in the world. Prayer in one of the key ways God wants us to do this. By praying in Jesus' name, God will give us the power to do God's will.


  2. Secondly, God has called us so that we will bear fruit in our lives. Praying in Jesus' name in John 15 is for the purposes of bearing fruit. What does it mean to "bear fruit?" It means that will love one another. Praying in Jesus' name is important because by doing so it should allow us to form the character of a person who loves others.

    Practically speaking, praying in Jesus' name may mean that we get the opposite of what we ask for. If God wants to grant us fruit in our lives so that we love one another, then when we pray those selfish prayers, God could use those moments as a teaching moment to help us grow into the mature person God wants us to be.

  3. Finally, in the passage we read this morning, the subject matter turns to the disciples having understanding into what Jesus is telling them. Notice that they do not understand the meaning of Jesus' teaching. Jesus then tells the disciples that one day their sorrow will be turned to joy and on that day they can ask for anything in his name. He then tells them that one day they will understand him plainly and when that happens, they can ask for anything in his name.

Ask for Permission and Forgiveness

We often hear the expression, "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission." Of course we say this when we want to do something that we want to do, but we know that those responsible will not think it is a good idea. We then act on our idea and hope it works out. When it does, we look good, but when it fails we then have to ask forgiveness. I am sure all of us have been in this type of situations.

When it comes to prayer, I think it is important to ask for both permission and forgiveness. Here is what I mean. The more I think about Jesus' comments about asking in my name, the more I think about why Jesus would have said these words. As we have already said, it is not because all our requests are granted. We have suggested that it has something to do with us helping in God's work in the world and our developing the character God wants us to have.

The more I think about it, the more I think praying in Jesus' name is not about getting the thing we ask for, but getting the power necessary to be God's ambassador in the world. The details we ask for are secondary to the purpose that God wants to achieve. As Lewis suggests, it isn't about getting our request granted, it is about knowing that Jesus is listening to us where we are and responding in such a way so we can truly do the work of God in the world.

If that is true, then it is important to ask permission of God. God wants us to reveal our heart to him. God also wants to change our hearts, which may mean we have to ask for forgiveness.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sermon 5/24/09 “Jesus Last Words of Wisdom Part 3: When You Get Knocked, You Get Back Up Again”

Some may have seen the movie Fun with Dick and Jane. In the movie, Dick receives a huge promotion to Vice President. Little does he know, but the owner of the company has sold all of his stocks and the company is going bankrupt. On his fist day as Vice President, he is given the task of going on television. He is not aware that the company is going under and is made to look like a fool on national television.


Sometimes as a Christian, we can feel like God is setting us up to fail. Jesus in the third sermon in the Farewell Discourses warns us that when we follow him, we will be opposed to the world around us. This morning, as we continue to look at Jesus' last words of wisdom from John's gospel, we will go through this sermon together. Before we read the passage, I want to take a moment and describe the world that Christians had to deal with in the first century, which will explain some of the importance Jesus' words were for John.

When John was writing this gospel, Rome was still the dominate force in the lives of every Christian and Jew. In the Roman world, Caesar was held to be the supreme power and had been elevated to "god status." Roman proclaimed, "Caesar is Lord." The recorded history of Rome and Caesar were held to be the "Good News." For a Christian to make the statement, "Jesus is Lord" was to also proclaim the Caesar was not.

In order to maintain peace, Rome would sometimes exempt certain religious groups from participating in the worship of Roman gods and Caesar. The Jews were one such group that was exempt. Christians in the fist-century were considered to be a Jewish-sect, which also meant they were exempt from Caesar worship and exempt from worshipping the Roman gods.


It is important to note that Rome, while emphasizing Caesar worship, was also tolerant of other deity worship. The requirement was for people to first worship Caesar and then they could go and worship whatever god or goddess they chose.


The problem that began to arise as John was writing the fourth gospel was that Jews were turning Christians in for their failure to worship Caesar. They did this by telling authorities that they were not "Jewish" and should not be exempt from Caesar worship. As we look at this sermon by Jesus, this background will become clearer.



Jesus begins this message by saying,

18 "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world-- therefore the world hates you.


Jesus begins by using by saying that the world will hate you because it hated me. This begs the question, "Who in the world is 'The World" referring to?

The Greek word for "world" is kosmos which means generically "the created order." In John's gospel, the term kosmos seems to take on several different meanings, which can be determined through the context of the passage.

  • The first usage of kosmos "seems to be the definition of "created order. An example of this is found in John 3:16-17 and 19

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

  • Secondly, the word kosmos is begins to be used in a negative way as the gospel of John progresses. You begin to have a distinction between those in the world who follow Jesus and those who do not. In our text, kosmos represents those who are opposed to Jesus.


This distinction is important because oftentimes we fail to use the fist meaning of the word kosmos and "world" takes on only a negative characteristic. If we are true to the gospel of John, we have to recognize that God loves the world and send Jesus to redeem it. John does not espouse a type of dualism where this world is bad and the spiritual world is good. When John refers world in this context, he means the people who are in opposition to God.

Jesus goes on to suggest that this hatred that the world has of the disciples is due to the fact that the world first hated him.

20 Remember the word that I said to you, 'Servants are not greater than their master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, 'They hated me without a cause.' 26 "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Jesus tells the disciples to not take the persecution personally because they are persecuting them because they are opposed to him and to God. The fundamental problem as Jesus sees it is that they are hate and are opposed to God. Jesus then tells them that the problem they have with him is that he has come and pointed out there sinfulness.

Jesus ends this short message with a summer of sorts. He says,

"I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2 They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3 And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4 But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. "I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.

Jesus warns his disciples that one day they will be "thrown out of synagogues." This means that the Jews will no longer recognize them as Jewish. As a result, Jesus warns them that they will be killed. To make matters worse Jesus says they will do this thinking they are being true to God.

When John's readers (or listeners) hear this message, they will be in the midst of witnessing these events in their own lives. They would have lived through the horrors of Nero burning Christians as light posts in the city of Rome in order to provide light for the Romans.

Postmodern Dilemma

In 21st century America, Christians reading these words penned by John and doing so in relative comfort. We are not being killed because we proclaim Jesus to be Lord. In our culture, people are saying that we are living in the "Postmodern" world. Nobody is quite sure exactly what this means, but there are some trends that tend to go with "Postmodernism."

Postmodernism is named so because it follows the "modern period." Modernism was really the heart of rationalism. We approached things from a "scientific perspective." The way to solve all problems, including religion, was to set up a hypothesis and then gives proofs to validate it. We used these same approaches to prove that God existed and to validate our theology.

Trends in post-modernism seems to be backing away from the scientific method. Post-modernism places old truth claims into question and is able to find truth in multiple positions. Tolerance seems to be the key phrase for post-moderns. It places an emphasis on diversity of though.

Postmodernism does pose several dilemmas for Christianity. Christianity claims that there are some truths that are eternal. In other words, to be a Christian means that we believe there are some things that are true and there are other things that are false. Postmodernism's view of truth being relative to the individual causes some conflicts between Christianity and the current culture.

The question for us to sort out is this: How can we take Jesus' message to those in 1st century and apply the principles to our postmodern world view in the 21st century?

  • Being a modern or postmodern is still to live in a world that can be opposed to the values that Jesus teaches us.


In talking with many Christians it seems that postmodernism is either the solution to all of the world's problems in that it promotes tolerant and diversity of belief or it is seen as the enemy to what God wants. Those who believe it is the enemy would like to see us go back to the modern world view where truth was clearly defined and defended. I want to suggest that both positions miss the mark. Jesus is clear that whether we are modern or postmodern, if we follow Jesus we will in some ways be opposed to the current worldview. The truth is that following Jesus means that there are some things that are true. It also means, as we have already seen in these sermons, that Jesus commands us to love each other.


  • Following Jesus means that we believe some things are true, no matter what postmodernism tells us.


Jesus is very clear that the reason people hated him was that he showed them the sinfulness of their ways. In other words, things were happening that were opposed to what God wanted to happen. Jesus opposed what God opposed and people did not like that. This is a pretty simple truth, but a hard one to grasp. People, including myself, do not want to be wrong and shown that we are wrong. That does not fly well.

  • Following Jesus is costly

Jesus makes no apologies in saying that choosing to follow him is costly. It was costly in the 1st century and it is costly now. It means that we may not get everything that we want. It may mean that we work because we feel called to do so, not because we will make the most money. It will mean that we stay in a marriage that is hard because it is the right thing to do. It will mean we take the time out for our families, even if it costs us a promotion. It will mean that we put the needs of others before out own. It will mean that we take steps of faith, even if we can't explain it rationally. It will mean that we give up liberties in out own lives so that others can experience grace. It will mean that will sell all we have and move to the mission field. Following Jesus is never easy and he makes no apology for it.

Get Back Up Again

As I was reading these words, one line kept jumping out at me. In John 16:1, Jesus tells them that he is giving them this bad news "so that they will not stumble." More than likely, Christians were loosing their faith because of the persecution. Jesus, anticipating this, tells them that he is saying these things to keep them from stumbling. Jesus knows that it will not always be easy.

I think there are two ways to handle persecution, in whatever ways it comes. We can gripe and wine about it, or we can rely on God's strength and endure it. When we get knocked down, we can get back up again.




Sermon 5/17/09 “Jesus’ Last Words of Wisdom Part 2: It is better to be Pruned than be Burned”

When Melanie and I bought our home, we were very fortunate to buy a home with good landscaping in the front yard. The previous owners had planted bushes and plants that really make the front of the house appealing.

One thing I discovered during the first and subsequent summers is that this landscaping in the front will grow automatically every year and bloom. The problem though, is that along with the bushes and plants, we have a lot of random unwanted trees that will grow up as well. We also will get quite a covering on weeds, some of which can grow quite tall.

It is amazing how fast these things grow. This summer, I weeded this area in the early summer and then I did not tend to it for a couple on months. The other day I was walking in the front door from the sidewalk and noticed that weeds and trees of overtaken the beauty of the landscape while I was "not paying attention to it."

In the second section or sermon in the "Farewell Discourses" Jesus begins his "words of wisdom" by using the analogy of a vine, its branches, and the gardener who tends the vineyard as way of showing the importance of maintaining our connection with Jesus. In Jesus' day, vines were very important and normally refer in Scripture to grapevines. Grapes were eaten fresh, made to produce wine, or made into raisins. These grapes, in some ways, were the backbone of the agricultural economy and the Jews relied heavily on its produce.

It is no wonder that many of the Old Testament writers used a vineyard and the image of vines to depict God and Israel. In Psalm 80, the psalmist refers to Israel as being the vine that God brought out of Egypt and planted. The Psalmist then prays that God would watch over the vine because it has been uprooted. Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that God planted, but then the vineyard did not produce fruit. Likewise, Jeremiah says that God planted Israel like a choice vine, but they grew wild.

In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples,

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Jesus declares, "I am the true Vine and that his father is the gardener. While the gardener remains the same, Jesus has now taken on the role of Israel. Jesus continues on with the metaphor that the disciples are the branches. If the braches are like Israel and do not bear fruit, they are cut down, but those who do bear fruit will be pruned so that they will produce more fruit.

Notice also that Jesus uses the phase "I am the vine" twice, once in verse 1 and then again in verse 5. In the first four verses, Jesus is speaking of his relationship with the Father. Beginning in verse 5 he is speaking about his relationship with the disciples. There is a nice progression in this text as it relates to the two parts:

  1. Jesus is the vine (15:1)
  2. Father is the Gardner (15:1)
  3. Disciples are the branches(15:5)
  4. The father prunes the branches that are bearing fruit and throws the branches away that are not (15:2)
  5. In order to be a branch that bears fruit, disciples must abide or remain in Jesus (15:4)
  6. If we abide in Jesus, we can ask whatever we want in Jesus name and it will be given (15:7)
  7. Jesus chose us so that we would bear fruit (15:16)
  8. Goal of bearing fruit is to love one another, which is grounded in Jesus love for us. (15:17 with context from 15:12-15)


In order to understand the words of wisdom Jesus was giving the disciples, it is important to keep in mind, that while the Gospel of John on the whole is written for "evangelism", this material is written for those who are currently Jesus' followers. He is giving them "words of wisdom" so that they will be able to better follow him. So, what does he suggest?

Me and God, More than Just Two Peas in a Pod

Josh Turner, a country music artist, has a song called, Me and God. The lyric express what I think is one of the greatest problems in the church today. It says,

There ain't nothing that can't be done
By me and God
Ain't nobody come in between me and God
One day we'll live together
Where the angels trod
Me and God

Early in the morning talking it over
Me and God
Late at night talking it over
Me and God
You could say where like two peas in a pod
Me and God

He's my Father
He's my friend
The beginning
And the end
He rules the world
With a staff and rod
We're a team
Me and God

Josh Turner is expressing that he and God are close friends. He would say that he "abides in Jesus." The problem though, is that this song makes discipleship an individual experience. It is about each person abiding in Jesus. While it is true salvation is dependant on each person making a decision to "abide", Jesus reminds us with this image that faith, in the words of Jim Wallis is "always personal, but never private."

The word "remain" or "abide" is mentioned eleven times in the first 11 verses. The Greek word for "abide" is meno which literally means "to stay somewhere or remain." Jesus is literally saying that the disciples must remain in him. Each disciple is challenged to "abide" in Jesus and as a result will bear fruit.

The concept of the Vine and the branches means also that we are all committing to Jesus together. We are not the isolated branch on the Vine. When we commit to following Jesus, we are committing to be a part of the body of Christ, the church. We are one of many branches on that remains connected to the vine. Michael Slaughter says in best it his book, Spiritual Entrepreneurs

When I accepted Jesus as Lord of my life, I was born into his Body (The Vine), the Church. You cannot commit your life to Jesus and not become an active part of the Body. The Church is the living presence of Christ in the world. To be committed to Christ is to be connected and functioning with his people.

After all, the goal which Jesus says in verse 17 that he hopes people will achieve is that "they love one another." While we like to think that it is just "me and God, this text opens our eyes to see that abiding in Jesus is about a community of faith.

Weeding our Spiritual Garden

In the apocrypha, which is the section of the Bible that Catholics still use and Protestants have stop using, there is book called Sirach. It is written by a Jewish teacher nicknamed Ben Sira in about 180BC. Ben Sira wrote down his teachings in a time when Jerusalem was becoming Hellenized. In other words, Greek teaching and culture was on the increase and many Jews began to abandon their own faith in exchange for Modern Greek thought.

Ben Sira taught that the wisdom of God as found in the Jewish teachings was still superior to the Greek influence Jerusalem was experiencing. In this book, he compares God's wisdom to a Vine. He says,

Like the vine I (Wisdom) bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit. Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than honeycomb. (Grapes could be used to make a very sweet honey when boiled down) Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who work with me will not sin.

Imagine for a moment, that Jesus has these verses in mind as he gave this sermon. If he is the vine or the source of wisdom, he is asking his disciples to abide in him, the source of wisdom so that we can be filled and satisfied. The question he is addressing is this: How can his disciples remain faithful to him? The answer: Abide in me, the source of knowledge. Jesus is then the source of our nourishment.

In the book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald compares our spiritual lives to a garden. He says,

This garden is the place where the Spirit of God comes to make self-disclosure, to share wisdom, to give affirmation or rebuke, to provide encouragement, and to give direction and guidance. When this garden is in proper order, it is a quite place, and there is absence of busyness, of defiling noise and confusion.

The garden is the place where God shares his wisdom with us. Just like abiding in Jesus allows us to be nourished, coming to the garden gives us the opportunity to experience God's guidance and direction. When this happens, we grow fruit.

While this is true, MacDonald also points out that when we neglect the garden, we find our lives to be "overrun" and lacking in spiritual nourishment. When we neglect to "abide" in the vine who supplies our nourishment we will find that we will grow tired and dried up. We then become dead and we are uprooted and useless.

Pruned, Not Burned

Last spring we noticed that two of our dogwood trees stop blooming. It was pretty sad and depressing to see no flowers. We did notice though, that a few branches in one remained green, it just did not have any flowers in it. One of the trees was so undernourished, that I was able to actually pull it up out of the ground.

We decided to try and save the second tree with the green leaves and no flowers. During the fall, my dad and I climbed up this tree with an electric chain saw and cut out all the dead branches. The tree looked so funny (it still does) as we cut about 75% of the branches out. However, this last spring, the few branches that were left not only turned green, but were covered in white flowers. They were actually better looking than the other three dogwoods. It made me wonder what would have happened if we had cut the branches out sooner, before so many of them died.

Sometime Jesus' language is difficult, especially when he begins to say things like "when you don't bear fruit, you will be gathered up and thrown in the fire." It is especially difficult when we realize that he is not talking to those people who are not followers. He is talking to his disciples whom he has already said "have been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you." (Verse 3) Jesus is saying that it is possible for those who have been cleansed, to stop remaining in Jesus, thus meaning that they fail to produce fruit, and then for them to be uprooted and burned.

Of coarse Jesus is using metaphorical language of what would happen to branches on a vine that did not bear fruit. If we were to take this a step further, we could conclude that there is pruning and burning of things in each one of our lives that do not bear fruit. When we are faithful to remain in Jesus, the source of nourishment and strength, we are able to see the places in our lives that need pruning so that we can bear more fruit.

On the other hand, if we fail to remain in Jesus and lack nourishment and wisdom, we will fail to see the places in our lives that need to be pruned back, which causes us to wither away. When this happens, the only thing that can be done it to throw it away in hopes of saving the rest.

I think Jesus' last words of wisdom for us would be that we take a look at our own lives by abiding in his wisdom and see what things need to be pruned back so that we can bear more fruit. Maybe there are lots of dead places that need to be cut out so that we can bear fruit for God. Only when we abide in him, with prayer, study, worship, service, etc will we be able to find the nourishment we need and the wisdom to move forward in our faith.

Jesus Last Words of Wisdom Sermon Series Introduction

In December of 2008, ABC aired a story about Mother who is raising her son with his Father's wisdom. Charles King went to Iraq before his son Jordon was born and was killed six weeks after meeting his son for the first time. Charles had been preparing for something like this so he had written a journal for his son to give him guidance in his life. Although Jordan will never remember meeting him, his mother has raised him to know his father through the wisdom of this journal. In the introduction, she writes,

Before he kissed my swollen stomach and left for the war in December 2005, your father, U.S. Army First Sergeant Charles Monroe King, had been preparing for the promise of your new life and for the possible end of his own. Even before he boarded that plane headed for danger, I worried that he would be killed. So I gave him a journal. I hoped he would write a few messages, perhaps some words of encouragement to you, though you were not yet born, in case he died before you knew each other.

In the journal, he gives some sound advice like:

Be humble about your accomplishments, work harder than the man next to you, it is all right for boys to cry. Sometimes crying can release a lot of pain and stress. Never be ashamed to cry. It has nothing to do with your manhood. (Article found at: http://i.abcnews.com/WN/WoodruffReports/Story?id=6524894&page=1)

In the Gospel of John, the gospel writer seems to have done a similar thing. When reading through the gospel, when one gets to chapter 13 of John, Jesus finishes washing the disciple's feet and eating with his disciples, they left at night. After they had left, Jesus begins preparing them for his departure. Begging at verse 31 in chapter 13 Jesus delivers what is know as "The Farewell Discourses."

These discourses in John's gospel seem to be presented in the style of a Greco-Roman banquet, in which there would be a meal followed by a speech. 'The Farewell Discourses" are presented as if it was one speech, but it may have actually been a number of speeches compiled together. Ben Witherington presents the idea that these may have been speeches given each night of the Passover Festival. (Ben Witherington, John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press pg. 244) We will never know for sure if he is correct, but the idea is intriguing.

It is also possible that the original author of John had one Farewell Discourse in chapters 13-14 and a later editor added a second discourse, which included 15-17. This would make sense of John 14:31 saying "Rise, let us be on our way." This works nicely with 18:1 which says, "After Jesus has said these words, he went out with his disciples."

Whatever the case may be, these discourses Jesus is giving were done in order to prepare his disciples for his eventual death. In John 13:35, Jesus gives tells them right away that he will not be with them much longer. In a sense, Jesus is giving them his last words of wisdom to prepare them for his departure.

As I was reading through these passages in John's gospel, I found several lines of wisdom from Jesus such as,

"I am the way, the truth, and the life" John 14:6

"The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and in fact, will even do greater works than these because I go to the Father." John 14:12

"I am the vine, you are the branches, those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, apart from me you can do nothing." John 15:5

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one's friend." John 15:13

"You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy." John 16:20

"If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you." John 16:23

In going through these and other passages, I have narrowed Jesus' last words of wisdom into five themes.

"Don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk."

"It is better to be pruned than Burned."

"When you get knocked down, get up again."

"Hold hands with the Spirit"

"Ask for permission and forgiveness."