This morning we continue our sermons on prayer. And in preparing this I’ve assumed that many of us would say we don’t pray enough. And I guess the no.1 reason we’d give is that we’re too busy. And to allay false guilt, can I say straight away that many of us are unavoidably busy and don’t have much room for manoeuvre in our lives right now - e.g., parents of young children or professionals snowed under at work. But even the busiest of us find time for what we think is essential. So it may be that what we’re really saying is not that we’re too busy to pray but that we think we can get by without it. And that is our danger both as individuals and as a church. We’re full of activity and plans and competent people here at JPC. But our danger is that we can think we don’t need to pray.
Well this morning’s Bible passage tackles that reason for not praying. And it also tackles another reason for not praying – namely, being disillusioned by seeing apparently no answers to our prayers. I don’t know what comes to mind for you in that department. For me, e.g., I’ve prayed for 24 years for the others in my family to come to faith, but none of them have - yet. Well this morning’s passage tackles both those areas: the problem of feeling we don’t need to pray; and the problem of apparently unanswered prayer. So would you turn in the Bible to John 15. And in the middle of this passage is a promise about prayer. Have a look down at v7. This is the Lord Jesus speaking to his disciples on the Thursday night before the Friday he died on the cross. And in v7 he says:
7 ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish [i.e., in prayer], and it will be given you.’ (v7)
Now that’s clearly a promise that God will answer prayer. But it’s a promise with a condition – ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you...’ So to understand the condition we’re going to look at the whole passage, and then we’ll home in on that promise about prayer. So,
First, THE PICTURE OF THE VINE AND THE BRANCHES (vv1-8)
Let me read from v1. The Lord Jesus says:
1 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ (Vv1-4)
So the picture is that God the Father is like a gardener. And the human race is his garden. And the thing about being a gardener is that the garden is there to serve your purposes. You plant things to get from your garden what you want. So, if you want daffodils, you plant bulbs. And God planted, or created, the human race because he wanted the fruit of lives lived to please him. But since the fall, we’ve broken relationship with God and failed to fruit. And the Lord Jesus’ whole mission was to restore that relationship through his death, to get us fruiting again. So on the night before he dies he says, v1:
1 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener... [And skip to v5:] 5 ‘I am the vine; you [that is, you if you’re trusting in Jesus] are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’ (vv1, 5)
So the picture is that Jesus is like the trunk of a vine; and that we can only bear fruit – i.e., live how God meant us to – if we come into relationship with Jesus – like a branch in a vine. That’s the picture. So,
Secondly, THE EXPLANATION OF THE PICTURE (vv9-16)
We’ve already worked out what some of the details in the picture stand for. But the next thing to ask is: what exactly is the ‘fruit’ that Jesus is talking about? Well, if vv1-8 mainly paints the picture of the vine, vv9-17 go on to explain the picture. So look down to v8. The Lord Jesus says to people trusting in him:
8 ‘This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (v8)
And then from v9 he explains what the ‘fruit’ is. He mentions two kinds of fruit, and the first is in vv8-13: the fruit of Christ-like love. Read on from v9. The Lord Jesus says:
9 ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you [and remember within 12 hours he’d be dying on the cross for them and for us, for our forgiveness. Read on:]. Now remain in my love [which doesn’t mean, ‘Do things to earn my love’ – because his love is undeserved – it’s grace. What he means is, ‘Continue to respond to my love properly.’ How do we do that? Read on, v10:]. 10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. [So, what ‘commands’ does he have in mind? Well, read on, v12:] 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (vv9-13)
So that’s the first kind of fruit the Lord Jesus is thinking of. Loving others as he’s loved us. Forgiving others; sacrificially serving others. The other kind of fruit is in vv14-16, and it’s the fruit of more people coming to trust in Jesus as we share the gospel. Look at v14:
14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. [Ie, I’ve made known to you that my Father’s business is bringing people back into relationship with him through me. So Jesus goes on, v16:] 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. [Which is the equivalent in John’s Gospel of the Great Commission in Matthew’s – ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’.] (vv14-16)
So, that’s what the fruit is. The next thing to ask is: how does it come about? Well, this is where we have to go back to the picture in vv1-8. So look back up to v5:
5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’ (v5)
I had a first go at growing tomatoes this summer, and they were a great success (in fact, if anyone has a chutney recipe perhaps they could let me have it afterwards). But one day some wretched cat must have done an ill-judged leap off the fence and landed among the tomatoes, and snapped off several promising branches. And that was the end of fruit-bearing for them. Because fruit only comes about if a branch remains in its vine.
Now when it comes to Christian fruit, that means you first have to get into the vine – you first have to come into relationship with Jesus, which is what vv1-3 are about. Look at v1:
1 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] [and the footnote at the bottom says ‘a The Greek for prunes also means cleans’;] 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (vv1-3)
Now, my ‘How to Grow Tomatoes’ guide told me to ‘clean’ my tomato plants – i.e., spot any diseased bits and cut them off – because cleaning creates the conditions for fruiting. And the fundamental condition for Christian fruiting is the ‘cleaning’ of forgiveness. That’s what Jesus means in v3 when he says to people trusting in him, ‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you [i.e., his word, or promise, of forgiveness through his death - see John 13.1-11].’ And that’s the way into this relationship with Jesus, and the way on in it: we don’t earn our way in and keep ourselves in by being good enough. We’re forgiven in, and kept in by ongoing forgiveness whenever we need it, precisely because we’re not good enough. And if you’re not sure about how that can happen to you – or whether it has - then please take a copy of the booklet Why Jesus?, which explains how to start this relationship with Jesus. They’re on the Welcome Desk near the door.
So the fundamental condition for bearing Christian fruit is that we’ve been forgiven – that we’re able to say, ‘Jesus loved me and died for me, to pay the price for all my sins.’ Only when we’ve come to trust that will we find in ourselves the desire to love others as he’s loved us, and to tell others about him. And if we find there really isn’t any desire in us like that, it may be that we’ve not yet come to trust in Jesus for ourselves. You may have been around JPC for months or even years, but perhaps deep down you realise that although you’ve been among others who are ‘in the vine’, you’re not yet actually connected to Jesus by faith yourself. Well, do please read a copy of Why Jesus?
But those of us who are already in the vine: we then need to continue in relationship with Jesus – and, again, that happens through his word. Look down to v7, where Jesus explains more of what remaining in him involves:
7 ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you...’ (v7)
It’s as if those things are two sides of the same coin: remaining in Jesus, and his word remaining in us. So, we come into relationship with Jesus by hearing and responding to his word – which for us is the Bible. And we continue in relationship with him by doing the same. So we never grow out of our need for his word of cleansing – every day we need v3 – ‘You are already clean’, ie, ‘You are forgiven by my death’ - because we sin every day. And then as forgiven people we need to grow into those words of command in vv9-16: to love as he loved us, and to go and share the gospel with others. So it’s in that context that we come to:
Thirdly, THE PROMISE ABOUT PRAYER (v7; also v16)
Have a look at v7 again:
7 ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (Vv7-8)
So, the condition of this promise about prayer is this: ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you...’ I.e., ‘If my words shape your whole way of thinking, your plans, your priorities, what you basically want in life... then ask whatever you wish and it will be given you – because in fact what you wish will be in line with what God wishes.’ So for the rest of the time let’s think through some applications of that to our praying.
Application no.1: Be God-centred when you come to pray
The essence of sin is that we think about the world as if we were the centre. And that makes us think that our plans and desires are of central importance, and that God exists to make them happen. But this picture of the vine turns that thinking upside down. Verse 1: ‘My Father is the gardener.’ And, remember, the gardener is central; what he wants out of the garden is what matters. And the bottom line is that we exist to make God’s plans and purposes happen - not the other way round.
So when we come to pray – e.g., about a job application, or a professional exam – we shouldn’t think that God is there simply to ‘rubber stamp’ and bring about the plan we have in mind. Because that may not be his plan. He may know that that job or promotion would compromise our fruit-bearing - e.g., that it might compromise our capacity to love our spouse or children; or compromise our capacity to be involved in ministry in church. We may have all sorts of plans about career progress, money, security and so on. But the gardener’s plan is that we bear fruit. Which is why we need to be God-centred in thinking what to pray for and humble enough to add, ‘If it is your will’ – which more often than not we don’t know. And some of our disillusionment about apparently unanswered prayer comes from assuming we can expect something from God – like that specific job – when in fact we can’t.
Application no.2: Let God’s Word shape what you pray for
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but what happens in many Bible study groups is this. You study a Bible passage – e.g., on using money for the Lord. You then have a time of prayer - often going round the group for prayer-requests – and none of the requests has anything to do with the passage. There are requests for people who are ill, or for children’s needs, or for wisdom over a decision (all fine things to pray about). But no-one says, ‘In the light of this passage, I really need to sort out my giving. Could you pray that I do that before we next meet?’ Or, ‘In the light of the passage, I’m convicted of spending too much on myself. Could you pray that I tackle that?’ Now it’s right to pray for those other requests. But we need to discipline ourselves to pray in response to the passage. Because, e.g., the best time to pray about money is when God’s word has just re-shaped our view of it.
We need to let God’s word shape what we pray for. So, e.g., I was leading a Focus group one summer. And one of the students said, ‘Could you pray for my exams?’ And I said, ‘What would you like us to pray about your exams?’ And he looked at me and the group looked at me as if that was a daft question. So I said, ‘Well, thinking Biblically, what do you think we should pray? What do you think we can and can’t expect of God? E.g., can we definitely expect you to get the result you’re hoping for – or even to pass?’ And we had a really eye-opening discussion. And instead of praying, ‘Lord, please bless Joe’s exams. Amen’, we prayed for Joe to be free from anxiety (because we knew that was definitely God’s will) and we prayed for him not to become self-absorbed in exam-time but to keep being a good witness to his friends (because we knew that was definitely God’s will). We did also pray that he’d pass - although we didn’t know that that was definitely God’s will.
Application no.3: Pray for Christ-like love
That’s because, as we’ve seen, that is one of the fruits which is always God’s will. So it’s a prayer that will always be answered. So, e.g., I remember an elderly Christian couple at my last church. The wife had Alzheimer’s and was very unwell – sometimes she couldn’t recognise her husband at all (‘Who is he?’ she asked me, one time I was visiting). And people prayed for wisdom about whether she should go into a home; some people probably prayed for the Lord to take her. But whatever else we prayed, John 15 says we should have been praying for the Lord to sustain Christ-like love for her in him. And the Lord did: it was one of the most moving examples of marital love I’ve seen.
The point is: we often pray for circumstances to change, or for wisdom to change them, if it’s in our power. But whatever we pray about the circumstances, we should pray for God to be increasing Christ-like love in us, within the circumstances, whether they change or not.
Application no.4: Pray for the spread of the gospel, for people to come to faith and to be built up in faith
That’s because, as we’ve seen, that’s also one of the fruits which is always God’s will for us, so is also a prayer that will always be answered. But this is perhaps the area I find people get most disillusioned about. They say things like, ‘I’ve prayed for years for Jill to become a Christian and she hasn’t.’ So I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. We can only expect God to do what he specifically promises in the Bible. And there is no specific promise that the Lord will bring my individual friend or family member Jill to faith. There are more general promises that as we corporately share the gospel, some will always come to faith – and some will always reject the gospel. That’s the parable of the sower. We have to sow the gospel into people’s lives and pray for God to bring them to faith even though we don’t know which of them he will ultimately bring to faith. The other thing to say is that even if you’ve been praying for people for 24 years, it’s not the end of the story. And nor should I think that after 24 years it’s somehow less likely that the Lord will bring other members of my family to faith. I don’t know what the end of the story will be. And I need to keep praying for them.
Application no.5: Repent of thinking you can bear this ‘fruit’ without praying
This brings us back to that first reason for not praying – that we think we can get by without it. But v5 clearly gives the lie to that:
5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’(v5)
Jesus isn’t saying that, without praying, we can do literally absolutely nothing: it is possible, prayerlessly, to get on with an awful lot of activity. But not to bear the kind of fruit he’s been talking about. So, can you and I become more Christ-like without praying for that? No. And if we think we can, he’ll let us fail and fall – in whatever area it is for you: maybe impatience, maybe envy, maybe lack of self-control – until we admit the truth of v5. Or can we see more people come to trust in Christ without praying for that? No. I preached an evangelistic sermon at an evening Welcome service a few weeks back with 550 people there. There must have been a lot of people not yet Christians. And no-one professed faith that evening. And I’ve not heard of anyone who has done since then. Now I’m not God so I don’t know the reasons why he didn’t bring 5 or 10 or 20 to faith. But it’s at least a reminder to me and to us that Invitation Services don’t convert people; and that good music and well-prepared testimonies and even well-prepared sermons don’t convert people. Those are means that God uses. But only God converts people. Which is why we must ask him to. And if we don’t, he’ll let us get on with large amounts of activity yielding low amounts of fruit until we get the message of v5.
But let me end on the note of v8. Jesus says:
8 ‘This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (v8)
The problem when we’re prayerless is that when fruit is given, we don’t give the glory to God: it goes to us, because we thought we managed to ‘get by’ without prayer - ‘We did it.’ So let me close with a quotation from the leader of a missionary organisation of a past generation, looking back on a time of activity with little fruit. He wrote:
‘It may be that we need to examine ourselves for lack of prayer. For it may be that the Lord could not grant us more fruit because he could not trust us to give the glory for it to him, rather than take it for ourselves.’