Background Scripture: John 15:1-8
Quotes of the Week:
When he walks he casts a shadow of purpose.
A few years ago, Rick Warren authored a book called "Purpose Driven Life". I don't believe anyone was prepared for the impact that it would have on literally millions of people around the globe. In 2005, a Barna Group poll found that pastors named that book the most influential in their ministry. (I hope that was second to the Bible!). Also, that poll found that nearly one quarter of American adults had read that book by the middle of 2005. Isn't that amazing? What is it that would draw people to a book about purpose?
So many people feel that their lives are meaningless, insignificant and lack purpose. When you feel that you have no purpose, it is hard to motivate yourself to do almost anything. If you follow these lessons, you know that Berkley and I love to watch sports. We are avid St Louis Cardinals fans, and we like to watch other sports in season. One thing that I've noticed is that in long seasons, teams that fall further and further behind seem to lose purpose. They know that they are out of any playoff hunt, and in many cases, the attendance dwindles. Even when the players are playing for their contracts, there often seems to be some lackluster efforts when the season is a bust.
I believe that many of us can relate to these athletic teams. When we have purpose and are in the midst of an effort, many of us will throw ourselves into that role. I've been on several mission trips over the course of my life, and the things that I've been a part of on many of those trips are not the things that I would normally do. When on mission, with that purpose clearly defined, it is easy to dive in and immerse yourself into a task. Or when Berkley decides there is a new project we 'have to have' and I get to be the guy who figures out how we make her idea work. I'm not usually 'that guy', but I love doing those things for her, so I throw myself into the project wholeheartedly. She gives me a purpose and I'm happy to fulfill it. However, when you lack the sense of purpose - in a job, in relationships, in life in general, it is easy to lose heart.
We need to find purpose in our jobs so that we can find success. Many people will go to classes or seminars and training, or read books and watch videos in order to improve their chance for success in a career. Certainly, some jobs require much more training and the purpose may be much more important. While we would hope that our sports teams do well and find purpose, I believe we are hoping that our doctors and other medical specialists are very attentive to what they do.
We see the need for purpose in many areas of our lives. However, this lesson is less about helping you in your career, your marriage, your family or your hobbies. This is focused on the purpose we have given by God. Certainly it may touch each of those areas, but we can easily become sidetracked into other pursuits, clearly forgetting the true purpose that we have. I believe it is impossible to truly identify your purpose in life without being a believer. Our purpose is given from our Creator and Sustainer.
As a believer, what would you say is your purpose? Do you think you are supposed to learn more, so that you are smarter? As a child, I did the Bible Drill each year from fourth to sixth grade. I learned the books of the Bible and many verses and Key Passages. To this day, that has helped me to be able to find things a bit quicker (although having google certainly helps me find specific passages quicker). However, I don't believe my purpose in life is to get smarter. It is important, but if that was the key, I could be a student all my life and never understand everything. Do you think you are supposed to do more? If you are part of a church, you will always find areas of service that need to be filled. It may be to help with the nursery or to work with kids, or to teach a class or some other ministry of service. Serving is an important thing, but our purpose is much more than doing more in church. Perhaps you think your purpose is to get holier and quit sinning? Well, part of maturation as a believer does imply that our lives will change. However, if your intent is to not sin, you will err towards the side of legalism, which is also not your purpose. There are indeed good things that a believer will need to do, but there is a danger of compartmentalizing our faith. For some people, the commercial for what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas become 'what happens in church stays at church'.
I've heard it said before that there are stages in the life of a believer. First, we are to come to Christ. This implies that we accept Jesus as our Savior, and realize that our sin has been forgiven due to the price that has been paid. Next, we are to follow Jesus, which implies that Jesus is our Lord. I believe that we encounter this often throughout our lives and this is when our behavior is modified, as a lifelong process. Then, we are to abide in Christ. It is truly only in this phase where we can start to identify true purpose for our lives. It is at this point where we truly start to see the role of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, not by impacting what we do, but being seen by who we truly are.
Jesus said that His Father was the gardener, and the branches are intended to bear fruit. The intention is that believers are the branches. What do you think is the fruit that we are supposed to bear? Some may think of this as the deeds that we do, and that may be part of it. However, our true fruit is something that only you and God know. It involves your motives and your thoughts. As I've thought about this, I believe that the leaves on the branch may be akin to what people see, but the fruit of the branch is who people are. This similar to the recurring thought that God is more interested in who we are than what we do.
I've heard that in some vineyards, the fruitless branches are often more leafy. They look alive due to the leaves, but the leaves sap the life from the vine, reducing the fruit that can be produced. Jesus says that the branch that bears no fruit is cut off, and the branch that bears fruit is pruned, in order to become more fruitful. If you think back in your life, when has the most spiritual growth occurred? For many people, including myself, it has been when we have had to endure things that we hoped we would not have to endure. I don't believe that any of us would ask for these tragic things to come into our lives, but when they do come, it can be like a wakeup call. I want to be clear that not every tragic thing that occurs in your life is God's wake up call. There are things that happen, just because they happen. Sometimes, the gardener prunes the branches and other times storms come and damage the branches. We don't want to spiritualize everything that occurs in our lives as a sign from God.
However, when we do go through trials, what is it about them that draws us closer to God? At times, it makes us truly seek God's word. We tend to listen more intently when we hear the word of God preached. We tend to grow when we are praying intently. I've seen things happen in churches that have caused many people to go to their knees in prayer. Our prayer is that the situation that Berkley and I are currently dealing with (my ALS diagnosis), will have a similar effect. Perhaps it will cause some people to spend time on their knees before God. Others may end up taking their faith more seriously. When we truly seek God, by spending time in His word, spending time praying for our situation and for others, and fellowshipping with other believers, we can begin to produce more fruit. It can begin to change who we are.
Jesus went on to say that we are clean because of what He has done for us. In essence, we are connected to the vine because of Jesus and our role should be to remain in Him as He remains in us. Note that it does not say for us to remain in Him, so that He remains in us. I've made this analogy several times in the past as if our hand reaches up and Jesus' hand reaches down to us. He grasps our hand - the power to hold on is totally based on Jesus. If we were to grasp, our grip would decrease until we fell. There is a point where we must lift our hand to be held by Jesus, so there is some action that is required of us initially. This is when we acknowledge our own sin and its eternal consequences, and we confess Jesus Christ as Savior of our lives.
As far as bearing fruit, we cannot do that on our own. Once again, we can control our deeds and actions, but the change that is required comes from inside. That can only come as we remain in the vine, Jesus Christ.
As Jesus spoke during His time on earth, He made it clear that His secret was oneness with the Father. He said that apart from Him, He could do nothing. If Jesus was unable to operate on His own, how much more so do we need oneness with Him? Are we clear that our 'secret' is that we are united with Christ, and through Him we can do all things? Philippians 4:13 states "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me".
What happens to a branch when it is cut out of a bush or tree? In our next door neighbor's yard, a large branch in their 'sweet gumball tree' was impacted by a storm last year. For a while, it hung high above the ground with green leaves. Then its leaves died and turned brown. However, when Fall came, other leaves fell from the tree (along with those danged sweet gumballs), but the dead leaves on that branch stayed connected. In the winter, the tree was bare, except for the dangling branch with its dead leaves. Now, in the Spring, the tree is turning green with leaves again, yet that dangling branch still dangles with its dead leaves. I wonder if this is what it is like for many people that are connected to a church, but not connected to Christ. That branch is still attached, only by structure, but not by life. If only we could see ourselves as the branches in the tree, and come to realize how far apart we may be from the purpose that God has called us to, if that were the case.
The idea of bearing fruit is common in all religions, I believe. However, how you bear that fruit is widely different. For example, the Greeks used to worship wisdom, and they thought the secret to bearing fruit was knowledge. The Stoics would say that you are not to show any emotion, so the secret to bearing fruit would be controlling yourself. Many Buddhists believe that they need only see how the world truly works and their secret to bearing fruit would be to extinguish any other thinking. For Muslims, strict rule following and subordination is the secret to bearing fruit. Many modern religions of today seem to say that the secret to bearing fruit is to improve yourself.
The truth of bearing fruit is that you can't force it. You can only bear fruit in the branch by being 'healthily' connected to the vine. The vine is not church membership. The vine is not a Bible Study class or growth group. The vine is not a family situation. The vine is being connected to Jesus Christ.
There are some things that you can do to increase the fruit, but those things are of no use if you are not connected to the vine. Certainly, as we mature, our lives should become more disciplined. We should develop habits that are holy. We should pray with and for others. We should forgive one another. I often wonder how much the issue of non forgiveness impacts our fruit. We should worship together. We truly need others in our lives that can help us and encourage us. However, never mistake the group that helps you to be the vine. It is true that you need to be in the vine, and you need to be disciplined. It is as if discipline and dependence are similar to gas and a spark in an engine. One without the other is useless. Your car may look really nice in the driveway, but it will stay looking nice right where it sits.
I think that we greatly discount the power of God's word. Oh, many of us can talk about the Bible. I could probably speak for an hour (probably longer now with my slower voice) about why I believe the Bible to be true and inerrant. However, it's not what you believe about the Bible, but rather will you allow the Bible to impact your life?
I can tell you that in my life I have spent far, far more time on training and practice for things that will much, much less impact my life. When I was a kid, I used to shoot basketball until I hit 500 shots each day in the summer. Certainly, that helped in my long and illustrious career in various work leagues, rec leagues, church leagues, pickup games and the like, although I receive absolutely no money from it. I believe it did help improve my life at times, in working off steam or just staying in shape. But, it was all of that time I put into it that made it so much more enjoyable to me. In some work contexts, I have spent literally weeks pouring over some documents so that I could truly understand what was required. That was useful time and it helped my career, but my career was not my ultimate purpose.
Have you ever wondered what would happen in your life if you placed the same emphasis on the Word of God as you did on things that were much less relevant to day to day living? I have to say that I do spend a lot time in God's word, preparing for this weekly lesson and to teach other lessons, and being involved in growth groups, etc. However, we have it so easy. I can hop online and find anything that I am looking for in a short search. I admire those pastors and teachers in the past that put together a lot of what I find in 10 seconds as commentary. They didn't have the internet or the wealth of resources that we have. They spent hours upon hours, investing their lives into God's word, so that many people after them would be impacted. I do know, however, that reading through the Bible can become like reading through a text book in high school. When we are focused on reading pages 50-75, we may read them but have no earthly idea what we read. It's similar to listening to all the words that a person is saying to you, and hearing none.
Reading God's word is not the key to finding purpose, but it may be better defined as digesting God's word. We can read and study, which is good, but God gave us His word to be our spiritual food. I was reading about the organs that are used in eating. Food may smell good to your nose. It may look good with your eyes, but until you use your mouth, you cannot digest it. In a similar manner, we often use our minds and our emotions when we read the word of God, but to really be digested, we need the involvement of our spirit, our deepest part. When we simply read for the sake of reading, we do not realize the impact that can be found. For example, Hebrews 4:12 says "For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as afar as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart." Only when we truly digest God's word will we begin to comprehend what He is saying to us, and only then, can we begin to know our purpose.
Don't allow your purpose to be defined by anything else. We know that apple trees produce apples. They can't produce oranges, as hard as they may try. As you look at your own life, and who you really are, do you see fruit that is aligned to that of Jesus Christ? We know that we were created to glorify God in all we do and with all we have. We were not created to glorify God by going to church and doing those 'church-like' things.
Do you have some time set aside as quiet time? This isn't simply time to spend meditating in silence, although that can be helpful at times. Are you actively seeking God's word and His direction for your life? If you do have time set aside, ask yourself what you are like when you emerge from that time? Is it evident that you have been with God, or have you just been quiet?
One last thing, and this may be the most important thing for some who read this lesson. All of this talk about fruit is 'fruitless' if you are not connected to the vine. There is an issue of dependence that is required. You can have all the discipline in the world and may appear to be successful, but if you are do it on your own, you have missed your purpose. The way to be connected to the vine is to confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Realize that you have sinned and that there is a punishment for your sin that you cannot atone for yourself. Jesus was sent by God to fulfill sacrifice for the sin of the entire world. However, you need to understand that He is the one who sets you right with God. It isn't about how good you are. You don't get an automatic 'in' because God loves everyone. If you have not done so, consider acknowledging Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. If you have questions about what this means, feel free to contact us and we would be more than happy to talk with you, pray for you and share what God has done in our lives.
What is your purpose? Bear fruit.