Scripture:  John 15:1-8

It is not something that naturally comes up in conversations a lot, but I love nature documentaries.  I especially like the BBC ones that are narrated by David Attenborough.  I think I have watched all of the ones available on streaming services multiple times.  Across various nature documentaries there are some common focuses, so more than once I have watched episodes that at least in part focus on animals in the semi-arid region known as the Kalahari.   These documentaries will often show dusty, hot looking landscapes with dry grass, small shrubs, and the occasional tree.   So once while watching one of these documentaries, I had the thought where do those trees come from, because this landscape is a long way from a forest.  The trees tend to be far and few between, and it just does not seem like the type of environment suited for something as large and water dependent as a tree.   Since we live in an amazing time where so much knowledge is a google search away, I looked it up.   Turns out in Africa there are several different trees that live in desert environments, but the one that caught my attention was the Shepherd tree.  This tree is found in the outskirts of the Kalahari Desert, and tends to grow alone without any other trees close by.   The secret to how this tree can survive in this dry environment has to do with its roots.  The Shepherd tree has the deepest roots of any known plant.   One such tree was found to have roots that went 230 feet deep.  It is these deep roots that allow the tree to get access to water that other plants cannot reach.  It is the deep roots that make it so the shepherd tree can survive in an area that is not well suited for most other trees.  This sturdy tree is a foundational part of its ecosystem.  The fruit of the shepherd tree is vital for the survival of a number of animal species in the region.  It is amazing that this life giving fruit is possible because it is growing on a branch, connected to a bigger branch, connected to a trunk, connected to roots, which extend more than 2/3rds a football field underground.

This morning’s scripture Jesus uses an agricultural analogy.  The image that Jesus is calling forth is likely that of a grape vine.  Jesus is speaking to his twelve disciples here who mostly came from agrarian areas, so this analogy would have naturally connected with them.  Personally, I am not a farmer or gardener so I do not always just naturally connect with the agricultural metaphors found throughout the bible. I may not know a lot about gardening, but I know enough to appreciate this analogy.  In a lot of ways the image of a growing plant is a good representation of what a healthy faith should be like.  Like a healthy plant, our faith should continue to grow and this growth is expressed in fruit.   Also, like a plant connection is vital to our faith.   In a plant, specifically a vine, the branches are connected to the vine and the vine is connected to the roots which give nourishment.    Just like the Shepherd Tree needs the longest roots in the world to thrive in the desert, for our faith to grow and be vibrant we need to be connected and we need to also be deeply rooted.

In this morning’s scripture the analogy that Jesus makes clearly states that he is the vine, and we are the branches.  It is the branches that ultimately bear fruit, but Jesus points out that the parts of the plant are not so cut and dry.   The branches only bear fruit because of their connection to the vine.  It is all connected.  As Jesus states in verse 4, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.”  To remain in Jesus we have to always be close to Jesus.  I think there are two ways we can go about doing this.

First, we have to know what Jesus was all about.  Because Jesus was a teacher in the Jewish rabbinic tradition, perhaps his disciples had a better understanding about how to do that.  From the ancient Jewish book of wisdom literature, the Mishnah, there is the idea of being powdered in the dust of the rabbi.  Lois Tverberg explains this concept in her book Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus.  She wrote, “you should learn from a rabbi by covering yourself in his dust.  You should follow so closely behind him as he traveled from town to town that billows of sandy granules would cling to your clothes.”

Being covered in the dust of the rabbi would have been a familiar concept to the disciples.  To remain in Jesus requires following after Jesus.  It requires knowing what exactly it was that Jesus taught and the example that he gave to live in a way that honors God.  We have four gospels, four different accounts on the life of Jesus, and we need to know the story.  We need to know the miracles Jesus performed, the stories Jesus told, and the way that Jesus taught the scripture.  One of the questions that is worth considering this Lenten season, is how well do you know what Jesus taught?  We tend to know a lot about the stuff that is important to us, so if we claim that Jesus is important then we should know a lot about Jesus.   We should know what he taught and how we lived.  In order of us to remain in Jesus and for Jesus to remain in us, then we need to be covered in the dust of our rabbi.

This morning’s scripture does go a step beyond just knowing Jesus’ teachings and following closely enough to be covered in his dust.  Again, following after a rabbi was a familiar concept to the disciples, but this morning’s scripture is something new, it is the next step.  It is more than just following Jesus, it is knowing Christ and being part of Christ.  Remaining in Jesus and having is much more than just having a head knowledge of Jesus.  It is more than just memorizing scripture for the sake of memorizing scripture, or having a deep pool of information about the historical setting in which Jesus lived.   After all, there are plenty of atheists who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the historical Jesus.   To remain in him, we need to know him.   The second way we can be close to Jesus is seek a relationship with him.

There is a well-known quote that is often attributed to motivational speaker Jim Rohn that states “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  The idea behind this is that when we spend time with other people, those people will inevitably influence us.  The same is true with Jesus.   The more time we spend in prayer and contemplation with Jesus, the more that Jesus influences us.  The more time we spend with someone one the more we trust them, and often the people we trust the most in our lives are the people we count as our best and deepest friends.  In the same way, to remain connected to Jesus, the true vine, we need to trust him.   We need to trust that Jesus will always be there for us, will always lead us, and will remain in us no matter what.   A good example of someone who illustrated this trust was Lousia Stead.   Lousia had a big heart for God and a desire to remain in Jesus.  However, she had several set back in life.   She felt a deep conviction to share the love of God with people who did not yet know Christ, and she wanted to enter the mission field.   Unfortunately, she had several issues which often caused her to be in frail health.   Later she met the love of her life, married him, and soon gave birth to a daughter.  While her girl was still a young child, tragedy struck and Lousia’s husband died in an attempt to save a drowning child.  Full of grief and full of unanswerable questions, Louisa did what she often did.  She sought Jesus, and in the midst of dealing with the loss of her husband, Lousia wrote these words:   “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus and to take him at his word.  Just to rest upon his promise and to know thus says the Lord!  Jesus, Jesus!  How I trust Him!  How I have proved him o’er and o’er.  Jesus, Jesus, oh precious Jesus!  O for grace to trust him more.”    In the midst of life’s hardships, in the midst of life’s sorrow, in the midst of life’s pain we can trust in Jesus.   We can take him at his word.   We can trust that Jesus love us.  We can trust that he will be with us always, and we can trust that if we remain in him he will remain in us.

Following Jesus with knowing and trusting Jesus is how we stay connected to Jesus.  It is how we are the branches that stay connected to Jesus, the true vine.   However, the metaphor of this morning’s scripture goes deeper.  Much deeper.   Remember it is all connected.  This morning’s scripture comes from Jesus’ words to his disciples at the last supper.  The gospel of John records this as a long discourse that begins in chapter 13 and goes to the end of chapter 17.  As part of that discourse, not much before this morning’s scripture, In John 14:20 Jesus states, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”   Right after this morning’s scripture Jesus circles back around to this point in John 15:9-10: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept Father’s command and remain in his love.”

When we love, follow, and trust Jesus we are connected to him but that means we are also connected to God the Father.  How we are connected to God, the maker and creator of the entire universe, and how God is connected to us is a spiritual truth we struggle to wrap our minds around and we struggle to put into words.  Yet this morning’s scripture creates an image that does that.  We are the branches, Jesus is the vine.  Yet Jesus is in God the Father and the God the Father is in him.  Much like how the roots and the trunk are just an extension of one another.  Since we are connected to Jesus, that means we are all also connected to God.  It is all connected.

As this morning’s scripture states Jesus is the vine, we are the branches.  If we remain in him he will bear much fruit.  This fruit is the good news that we share in both word and deed.  It is the words we speak, the choices we make, and the actions we take that bring hope to hopeless, joy to the sorrowful, comfort to the afflicted, and light to the darkness.  This fruit is the love we show that has the possibility to transform the world.  A plant can only grow fruit when it is deeply rooted, and in the same this fruit is evident in our lives not just because we are connected to Jesus but because of Jesus we are deeply rooted in the love of God.

Just like the shepherd Tree, those roots go deep.  It is the deep roots that let a shepherd tree flourish in a harsh environment.  In the same way, when we remain in Jesus then we are able to share the love of God no matter our present circumstances.   We are able to trust in Jesus and take him at his word.  We are able to love God  and love others even when we are hurting, even when we are too busy, even when we are tired, even when we are uncertain.  When we remain in Jesus then we can bear fruit and bring life to the world around us no matter how dry and barren our environment seems because we are deeply rooted.

We can be connected to God the Father through Jesus the Son.   If we remain him, he will remain in us.  Apart from him we can do nothing that will make an eternal difference in the lives of others.  But if we remain in him, we can bear much fruit: fruit of compassion, fruit of kindness, fruit of truth, and fruit of love.   Fruit that has the power to bring life to dead places, fruit that has the power to make disciples and transform the world.  So may you remain in Christ, and in doing so find yourself deeply rooted in God.

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