The Parable of the Foolish Branch

Text: John 15:1-17

Once upon a time there was a great Vine with a very foolish branch.  One day this foolish branch was thinking about how strong and thick he was, how green and shiny its leaves were, and how plump and juicy fruit always grew on its stems.  Seeing all this, he decided that he didn’t need the Vine anymore.  So he cut himself off from the Vine and set off on his own.

The foolish branch experienced all kinds of wild, exciting things in the days to come, and he knew that he had made a very wise decision.  After all, these were experiences he had never had before, in places he had only dreamed of visiting.  He felt sorry for all the other branches back in the vineyard, stuck firmly in place, rooted to the Vine.  Oh, if only they knew what they were missing!  A wave of superiority flooded over him as he compared his newly enlightened lifestyle with the boring, mundane life of his old friends.

However, these new experiences were taking their toll on the foolish branch, which he soon began to discover.  His delicate leaves weren’t used the abuse of gallivanting all over the countryside, and he noticed after some time that his foliage wasn’t quite as thick as it had been when he was attached to the Vine.  Many of his fine, shimmering leaves had fallen or been knocked off during his adventures outside the vineyard.  He wisely concluded that he would just have to be more careful – but this was no crisis too terrible for one such as him.

At first, the foolish branch didn’t even notice the parching thirst that came over him – he was so distracted with all the fun he was having away from the Vine.  He was not accustomed to this lack of water.  All his life it had constantly been supplied to him through a constant and invisible mystery; but that was when he had been attached to the Vine, and its distended veins allowed the sweet, life-giving liquid to flow steadily into him.  But now, his few remaining leaves lost their sheen, growing dry and brown around the edges.  The foolish branch knew that he must find a water source on his own if he was to survive, but without the strong, deep roots of the Vine, this was proving very difficult indeed.  When he finally did manage to locate a filthy little mud puddle, he was shocked to learn that the healthy veins that had connected him to the Vine were steadily closing up, as though an invisible firebrand had cauterized the place that had once secured him to life and health.  The foolish branch became worried.

As the branch trudged along, no longer reveling in the liberty and excitement of his enlightened lifestyle, he stopped to rest against the fence behind the barn.  Peering across the field, he saw something strange; the vineyard workers carried sad, dilapidated bundles of something brown and twisted.  Squinting, the foolish branch recoiled in horror as he realized what it was; it was the branches that year after year produced no fruit and had been cut off from the Vine.  When he had seen them last, they looked healthy enough; true, they had no fruit on their stems, but their leaves had been green and lustrous as his own…

He looked down at himself and almost withered on the spot.  He was no longer bearing even the slightest bit of fruit.  His leaves were wilted and dried up.  Everything about him bore a striking exactitude to the branches now being carried by the vineyard workers, to…where were they taking them?  The branch’s eyes were drawn toward a thick billowing cloud of inky black smoke on top of the hill.  His eyes continued to follow the workers as they approached the burning heap, stopped, and promptly cast the great burden into the waiting flames!  The horror, the shock of seeing it sent the foolish branch reeling.  What was he doing here?  Why did he leave the Vine in the first place?  Who did he think he was?  He was a branch, grown to produce fruit – not amble about the countryside idly enjoying the sights!  There was only one thing to do; he must produce fruit, and now!

The foolish branch thought that perhaps he could produce fruit on his own, without the Vine.  Yes!  That’s it!  The branch hunkered down where he lie and squeezed with all his might.  He pushed and grunted and heaved, but it was no good.  He suddenly came upon the terrible realization that he had no idea how to produce to a single grape.  Sure, he had produced thousands before, while still attached to the Vine, but back then it had just sort of…happened.  Now, now that he must perform this feat for himself or be destroyed, it was simply impossible.  The same life-giving waters that the Vine had poured into him had been the very source of the nutrition that produced each and every grape on his stems.  He realized now that – by himself – he had never been able to produce any fruit to begin with.

Parched, wilted, and despairing, the branch crawled its way back to the Vine.  He could see, well up the Vine, the very place where he had cut himself off from life.  The spot was healed over now.  Even if he could reach it – which he knew was impossible – there would be no way to be grafted back onto the Vine at this point.  He was as good as dead.  He lay down on the ground and waited for the inevitable – when the vineyard workers came and made their rounds, picking up the dead branches to be cast into the fire.

Toward evening, he heard steps approaching.  The footsteps stopped just next to where he lay.  He felt himself being slowly lifted from the ground, saw the bundle of brown, twisted, fruitless branches a few yards away, and waited to be tossed atop the pile.  But something happened then that he wasn’t expecting.  As gentle hands turned him over, he found himself looking at no mere worker; it was the face of the very Gardener Himself.  The Gardener just looked at him; looked at him for a long while with a very sad, compassionate look on his face.  He then nodded to himself, took a knife out of his pocket, and trimmed away the crusted surface where the branch had once held onto the Vine.  What was he doing?  The foolish branch looked on apprehensively as the Gardener reached out to his own Vine, the Vine he had loved and cared for all these years, and sliced into the surface of that Vine directly where the branch had cut itself away.  The branch could have cried out for pity’s sake – don’t hurt the Vine!  It’s my fault!  I was the fool!  I deserve the fire!

The branch didn’t understand what was happening, but watched with shame and sorrow as the sap poured out of the Vine which had been wounded because of him.  The Gardener continued to work, pressing the now clean surface of the branch to the freshly-wounded Vine, grafting the branch back in its very own place.  He bound the foolish branch there with strong and gentle cloth, working with care and diligence.  The foolish branch felt life flowing back into it once more through the wound of the Vine.  In time, his leaves began to green once more and luscious fruits ripened and filled on his stems.  And the once-foolish branch never again forgot that this miracle was only possible because of the ever-sustaining Vine and the love and sacrifice of the Vine and the Gardener.


 

My friends, it is a very dangerous thing to cut ourselves off from Jesus, the true Vine.  We know that in Him, and in Him alone, is found life and salvation.  Yet we neglect His Word, always finding something “better” to do with our time than read the life-giving Scriptures.  We fail to pray, to call upon him in praise and thanksgiving, to put our every sorrow and need into His loving hands, opting instead to face the impossible in our own feeble power.  We stray from our worship habits, relishing Sunday mornings as “our own time,” and not even noticing the slow withering of our leaves and the decay of our fruits as we distance ourselves from the Church that would feed and nourish us with His Word and Sacraments, cleansing our sinful wounds through the confession and absolution of sins.

We, like the branch, are all fools.  We go our own way, looking for excitement and adventure even at the very cost of our own destruction.  We cannot produce any good work that is pleasing to God apart from Jesus, for Jesus is ultimately all that matters in this world.  We cannot even take credit for the growth of our faith, just a branch does not decide to grow itself, but starts as nothing and grows up out of the Vine, by its power and discretion.  And when we fall away, it is only through the caring, gentle hands of the Father that we are brought back to life and salvation through the True Vine, Jesus Christ, who poured out His own blood on the cross that we might live in Him and through Him.

May Jesus sustain and nourish you always through His Word, and may you always rest in the loving hands of God the Father.  Amen.

The Beautiful Beggar – Returning Thanks

“When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” (Acts 3:9-10)

His story is the story of every Christian who has received from the Lord free and abundant life.

He was crippled from birth, unable to help himself in any way.  He had to be carried daily to the temple, where he depended on the mercy of others for his daily bread.

He had no merit or worthiness in him.  He did not even ask to be healed.  But Jesus came to him through the witness of two men, and in a single day his life was changed forever.  His legs – that had never walked a step throughout his life – bore him instantly up with a strength that came not from himself, but from God.

Like this poor, crippled beggar, all of us were born spiritually lame and weak under the curse of sin.  We could not believe through our own power, being unable to take even a single step toward our Savior and the life He could offer.  If left to our own devices, we would have gone nowhere.

But God came to us, through the preaching of His Word by faithful men and women in our lives.  Through this Word and by our Baptism, our souls were filled with a strength that came from beyond ourselves.  Jesus took us by the hand and bid us rise and walk with Him – and by His grace, we were able to do just that.

Since this has been the pattern of every Christian’s life, you may think that it’s hardly the stuff heroes of the faith are made from.  But the most remarkable part of this crippled beggar’s account is yet to be seen; it is in his response to the great work that has been done in him.  He cannot contain himself – he rushes into the temple, “walking and jumping, and praising God.”  He simply must use this new God-given ability, and it seems he can only use it to glorify the Lord and testify to His goodness.

You see, we aren’t walking our way to heaven.  We don’t earn forgiveness by jumping up and down and praising God any more than a cripple can “earn” the use of his legs by running and leaping; it’s simply impossible.  Our saving faith, like the beggar’s miraculous mobility, is a free gift of God.

The crippled beggar is a hero of the faith because he shows us the appropriate response to being healed of our sin.  In faith, we run and jump and shout and praise God for the miraculous gift He has given us.  The beggar’s response draws many onlookers to him, and his thanksgiving becomes the catalyst for thousands of others coming to faith in Jesus Christ.  May God grant that our own thank offerings would bring such fruitful results!

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.  Let the redeemed of the Lord say this” (Psalm 107:1-2)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for redeeming me from all my sins and enabling me to rise and walk with You.  Give me always a thankful heart, that I may proclaim Your goodness and mercy wherever I go; through Jesus Christ, You Son, my Lord.  Amen.

The Paralytic’s Friends – Whatever it Takes

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:5)

If you’ve ever had a really close friend who was sick or injured, you know how hard it is to see them suffer.  Most of us would be willing to do almost anything for the sake of helping someone we love.  Imagine for a moment that one such person to whom you are very close is suffering from a terminally debilitating condition, and that an individual who could immediately heal them was close at hand.  What would you not dare in order to get this friend into the presence of that healer?

Now imagine that this friend of yours suffers not from a mere physical ailment or disease, but from a spiritual plague that is eating away at their very soul and threatening to cause eternal death.  Their condition worsens daily, and at any moment they could pass the threshold of physical death, where their malady would be beyond anyone’s help.  What would you not dare to get this person you love into the presence of the One who is able to heal him?

It’s strange how our hearts become overwhelmed with pity for the physical suffering of those around us, and yet we all know friends, relatives, or neighbors whose souls are in critical condition.  If any of these people were physically dying, we would be willing to carry them on foot for miles to whatever specialist was available, go to great lengths to attract the personal attention they need, and pay whatever price was demanded for their treatment.  But often, we neglect to get them the necessary spiritual treatment because we are ashamed, embarrassed, or reluctant to cause tension in our relationship with them.

The paralytic’s friends loved him very much.  They knew that only one person could heal him and restore the use of his legs.  And so, they were willing to do whatever it took to get him into Jesus’ presence, trusting in the merciful Lord to heal him.  What they didn’t realize is that Jesus came first and foremost to remove our spiritual disease of sin – a much more serious condition than even paralysis – and that they all needed His medical attention.  He then restored their bed-ridden friend’s physical capacities in order to show everyone present that He had the power and authority to remove even the most aggressive strains of humanity’s sinful disease.

If you have a friend or relative who is suffering from sickness or physical adversity, by all means bring them to the Lord in prayer for strength and healing.  But also realize that sometimes physical ailments are just what the Doctor ordered for our spiritual sickness.  Pray more so that God would use whatever adversity they are facing to bring them closer to Himself.

If you have a loved one whose spiritual health is on life-support, the best thing you can do is to take a lesson from the paralytic’s friends: Do whatever it takes to bring them into Jesus’ presence.  Then, trust in His mercy to heal and restore them.  Your job is not to work the miracle – but you can remove the barriers and bring them face to face with their risen Lord.  Only by Jesus’ grace, power, and authority will they arise and walk once more with Him.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, we bring before you all those who do not know the joy of Your forgiveness.  Bend their hearts that they may turn to You in repentance and faith, receiving redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ, You Son, our Lord.  Amen.

John the Baptist – Preparing the Way

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)

John’s mother, Elizabeth, certainly “got it” when it came to God’s plan for salvation and what the Messiah was all about.  Zechariah, her husband, shows that he also understood exactly how God saves His people and what it means to be a hero of the faith.  He proclaimed that John, his son, would prepare the way for the Lord by telling the world of God’s forgiveness of sins through His great mercy.  As John prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, he was preparing the people around him for the Way – Jesus Christ, the only Way to the Father.

John the Baptist’s ministry is summed up nicely in the Gospel of John: “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (1:7-9).  John could certainly have made a big deal out of himself, but he faithfully and humbly used all his resources to point everyone he met to the coming Messiah.  In a time when the Jews were looking for a political leader who would lead them once again to military and economic dominance, John rightly testified to the people what the work of Jesus Christ would really be – to suffer and die on their behalf, as a Lamb with blemish, for the forgiveness of their sins.

There may be no better hero of the faith than John the Baptist, because he shows us exactly what Christians ought to be doing in order to have an effective ministry.  John spends his days doing two things; preaching repentance and forgiveness, and baptizing all who come in faith.  He humbles himself before God and loudly proclaims Jesus as the only source of life and salvation.

As Christians today find themselves in spiritual deserts with parched souls around them thirsting for Living Water, they too can take up John’s mantle and “make straight the way for the Lord.”  We can prepare the hearts of our neighbors and communities to receive God’s Word by what we say and do.  We can correct in love and gentleness, calling our nation and our world to repentance and holding out to them the free forgiveness of sins won by God’s Son.  We can testify concerning the Light of the World and act as a lampstand to hold that Light up for all to see.  That is still what we are called to do as God’s heroes of the faith.

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!…I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29,34)

Prayer: Lord, help me to faithfully prepare the hearts of those around me, so that You may enter into their lives with life and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, Your Son. Amen.

Malachi – Sounding the Wake-up Call

“My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.  True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips.  He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.”  (Malachi 2:5-6)

Tell me when this starts to sound familiar:

The people of God had become lukewarm and complacent.  They felt like worship and duty to God were a burden; a task to be performed without love or joy.  They gave to Him out of obligation, but only the dregs and the leftovers.  They complained that God did not reward them for their “faithfulness” and only prospered the wicked.  They longed for God to come with fire and judgment to destroy the “sinners.”  They no longer respected God’s servants, but despised the priesthood.  They turned to pagan peoples and culture for happiness and fulfillment rather than abiding steadfastly in the One True God.  They quarreled and broke faith even with their spouses, endangering the Godly upbringing of their youth.

Many churches today are stressing the importance of “relevance” in their ministries.  That’s fine and good, but if you cannot see the relevance in the plain and simple Word of God, then something is seriously wrong.  I’m afraid that there are those who turn to other more worldly sources because they feel that Scripture is “dated” and “out-of-touch” with people today.  And yet, is there a single item in the above paragraph with which our society cannot perfectly relate?

Malachi made it quite “relevant” to the Israelites, as well as to us today: When we regard worship as a “burden” and offer to God only the leftovers, we dishonor His name and show a lack of love, trust, and devotion to Him.  When we despise God’s Word and those who proclaim it, we can’t complain when the world despises and humiliates us.  When we break faith with God and abandon His ways, how can we expect to reap the fruits of abundant life that He promises as a result of following Him in faith?  And God certainly will come to judge the sinners; so beware!  Our hypocrisy itself accuses us, for we have fallen far short of the Law’s requirements: “Now implore God to be gracious to us.  With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?” (Malachi 1:9)

The question for our churches today is, how can we make “the rest of the story” relevant as well?  Will we, like the faithful remnant in Jerusalem, turn to God in repentance and place our lives at the mercy of His promise?  “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard.  A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.  ‘They will be mine,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘in the day when I make up my treasured possession.  I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him” (Malachi 3:16-17).

Thankfully, our Heavenly Father has a Son who has served Him perfectly, living a life that fulfilled the fullness of the Law and dying on our behalf.  In compassion for Jesus Christ’s sake, God will spare us even though we have flouted His commands, neglected His worship, broken faith with each other, doubted His justice, and wished for vengeance upon the “ungodly.”  We revere His name by trusting in His mercy and placing our faith in the promise of salvation through forgiveness by His grace!

“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.  And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, forgive me for the many ways in which I fall short of honoring You.  Help me to put You first in my life by glorifying You in all that I do and by serving my neighbor.  Bring me at last to be with You forever for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

Daniel – The Repentant Leader

“The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him” (Daniel 9:9).

Daniel is often honored as one of the greatest warriors of the faith in the Old Testament, and for good reason.  He faithfully served and honored God even under pagan rulers who were hostile to believers.  He turned the hearts of some of the most powerful leaders on earth toward God and paved the way for the Gospel to be spread quickly and received with faith even in foreign lands – think of the magi from the east and many, many others who would remember the God of Israel when the apostles spread the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection abroad.  He endured extreme tests of faith, even being cast into a den of ravenous lions, and was honored by God and angels as “one high esteemed.”

But more than anything else, Daniel deserves to be called a hero of the faith because of his keen understanding of the duty of spiritual warriors – to call sinners to repentance and salvation.  Daniel’s prayer in chapter nine is perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible.  Feeling the weight of sin under which God’s people are suffering, Daniel falls before God and pleads for mercy:

                “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.  We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name…[we] are covered with shame because we have sinned against you.  The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him…Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant…We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.  O Lord, listen!  O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, hear and act!  For your sake, O my God, do not delay…” (excerpts from Daniel 9:4-19; read the whole passage there!)

Daniel’s wonderful prayer echoes in our churches today.  In keeping with the true line of faith heroes, our pastors and leaders turn our hearts to God – not only for temporal relief, but especially for forgiveness and cleansing.  Daniel knew that earthly and eternal salvation rested with God alone, and that the merciful Lord will not ignore the pleas of those who fall before Him.  In fact, Gabriel even tells Daniel, “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given” (Daniel 9:23).

Like Daniel, we serve God best when we cry out to Him with contrition and repentance for ourselves and on behalf of our people.  The greatest leadership we can provide is the act of ultimate humility; to confess our sins and iniquities and place ourselves in God’s merciful hands.  When we hear the promise of forgiveness and salvation through God’s Word, we can be at peace with God.  We are strengthened in faith and enabled to rise and glorify Him through works of love:

“Again the one who looked like a man touched me and gave me strength.  ‘Do not be afraid, O man highly esteemed,’ he said.  ‘Peace!  Be strong now; be strong.’” (Daniel 10:18-19)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I praise You for Your unending mercy and love for sinners like me!  Bend the hearts of all mankind to turn to You in repentance, that they may receive strength through faith unto life everlasting; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Manasseh – Chief of Sinners

“But Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites.” (2 Chronicles 33:9)

Manasseh doesn’t sound very faithful or heroic, does he?  So why include him in a devotional series dedicated to “heroes of the faith”?  I have to admit, when one reads the account of Manasseh’s wickedness, it feels pretty dirty to put him in the company of heroes like Hezekiah and Isaiah.  But then I remember some of the other terrible sinners who God was able to forgive and redeem – Samson, Saul, Andrew Boll – and I am reminded that a faith hero is measured only by the love that God demonstrates through him.

Manasseh’s heinous sins led the entire nation into exile and slavery.  His decision to abandon God and perform terrible acts of idolatry caused him great suffering and shame.  Finally, Manasseh wakes up and realizes that his rejection of God is at the heart of all the troubles he and Judah are facing: “In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.  And when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea…Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).

Manasseh was a legendary sinner, which makes God’s restoration of him to the one true faith one of the greatest displays of His loving, redeeming power in the Old Testament.  Manasseh finally acknowledges God to be the True King, and uses the remainder of his rule to correct many of the wrongs he had earlier committed.  He is a hero of the faith because he shows us today the path to salvation: Repent, and trust in a merciful God for life and restoration.

The depth of Manasseh’s sins shows all the more the awesome power and love of a God who would go all the way to the cross for the sake of miserable sinners like you and me.  Like Manasseh, in our state of defeat and bondage we turn toward the hills, looking for a Deliverer.  What a glorious sight when we see the Son rising there, swooping down upon our enemies to bring us freedom and hope!

“Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace!” (Nahum 1:15)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the example of sinners as wretched and miserable as I am who show me the power of Your love to redeem.  Grant that I may always turn to You for deliverance from the bondage of sin.  Help me to bring the good news of peace and life to everyone around me today, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.