Vine Among The Trees - Ezekiel 15:1-8
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Vine Among The Trees - 08.20.2023
One of the things that I haven’t talked about that much up here is that my family gardens. We started when we were down in Flushing, and when we moved it was a priority for us to set up a new garden. We brought our little clippings, and moved them up in pots. This year, our first year, we put in a really tiny garden - just one bed to see how it would do. Now, when I say “we” I should be clear - my wife and children tend our garden. I am useless - but even that’s not 100% clear. My wife, all by herself, tends to our garden and defends it from my children. But you know, gardening is an incredible metaphor for spiritual growth. You actually see it all over the Bible, and it’s not hard to see why. I mean, look at this picture. This is a picture of our garden at home. This was early July - you remember that stretch of like two weeks where it got REALLY hot and there was no rain? Now you look at my backyard and you can see it. The grass is all yellow, except in this little radius around the garden - why? Because the grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s green where you water it. It’s like God gave us the gift of gardens in order to use nature to lay out his teachings for us. Before we move on, I do want to show the second picture - that’s the garden now. It’s harvest time. A little stinker who will not be named (*whisper* it was the dog), got into the corn a little bit, but we are reaping abundantly. You know what else I learned from my garden? That zucchini are a mutant alien vegetable specifically designed to take over the world. Like I know a lot of people are freaked out about some of this talk about UFO’s and UAP’s and aliens and stuff - we’re watching the skies, but we SHOULD be watching the gardens. Cuz that thing is freaky. Crazy mutant vegetables trying to take over everything. *laugh* God uses nature to lay out his teachings for us, and gardens are such excellent and potent examples.
You see this all over the scriptures, old testament, new testament and of course - even in our scripture lesson for today. Now, before we dive in - let me set the stage a little bit. Now the 30,000 foot view - we are watching in slow motion the destruction of Israel. They had a bunch of really terrible kings, and so God punishes them with Empires. First the Assyrians show up destroy the Northern Kingdom. Then the Babylonians show up and destroy the Southern Kingdom - and all God’s people enter a period called the “exile.” Exile is basically where you take the entire group of people and you uproot them, move them far away from home so they won’t be able to rebel against you. So all the people of Israel got relocated into the Babylonian empire. They were exiles in Babylon - a tiny group of people powerless in a country that was hostile to their beliefs. Eventually they get to come home and rebuild, but we’re not there yet. Now in the middle of all this empire conquering and exile you have the prophets. The prophets are the mouthpiece of God, giving warning to God’s people and to the leadership. Last week we talked about Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who was very dramatic and used a lot of symbols and visuals to make his point. Today we’re going to dive into Ezekiel. Now here’s the thing - Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s stories overlap. They existed at the same time, giving God’s warning to the people. The Northern kingdom has been destroyed, the southern kingdom is ABOUT to be destroyed by the Babylonians - and that’s where we get our scripture lesson for today. Let’s dive in.
Chapter 15 starts out like this, [read v.1-2]. How does a grapevine compare to a tree? Now in case you’re no good with metaphors, they clarify it down in verse 6 - WE are the grapevines, and this comparison is going to teach us something about ourselves. Think about a tree - deep roots, strong, sturdy. Vines are completely different, right? They aren’t deeply rooted and their wood isn’t sturdy - in fact, grapevines conform to the structures around them. When you plant a tree, of the most part it grows up all by itself. But if you’re going to grow a vineyard, you need something for them to grow on - right? You have to build a structure, something for them to creep up - like a scaffolding or something. I used to have a neighbor who had grapes growing all down his fence - but you need the fence for it to work. In our garden at home it’s the same with peas, we have these little pieces that fit together - to give the peas something to climb. Vines conform to the structures around them.
Now you might think, aha! The teaching is that we should be trees, we should have deep roots and not conform. We should be strong and not need other structures to grow. But that’s not the teaching here. It’s important to realize - you are the grapevine, not the tree. If you try to pretend that the structures around you don’t shape you - you are lying to yourself. Human beings are squishy. We are shaped and molded by the world around us, and we need to admit that. When someone says “well yeah, I listen to this music - but it doesn’t affect me” or “well, yeah - I watch this TV show, but it doesn’t affect me” - it’s like, “come on man, we can’t be that naive.” You are a grapevine! And vines conform to the structures around them! We need to admit that things influence us, if we’re going to be smart about how we engage with the world. Ask yourself - who or what are you conforming around? What is shaping you in this life? What have you latched onto? Which voices are the most important ones in your heart? You know, there’s an setting on my phone called “Digital Wellbeing” and it tells me exactly how long I have been on my phone that day. And it breaks it down into a little pie chart, telling me exactly how much time I have spent on each app. It’s the worst thing ever, I can’t look at it. It’s too much honesty. Because when I compare how much time I spent on threads or twitter or Facebook or whatever - with how much time I spent in the word of God that morning, it’s a little embarrassing. And I know it’s different for everyone. Maybe you guys don’t do the social media thing - but you watch three hours of network news every night. And I’m not saying that’s wrong or evil or anything - but every single one of us fills our life with noise. We all have voices we are listening to, people we are shaping our lives around. First we have to realize that we are VINES, whether we like it or not, we need to admit that we are SQUISHY, we are affected by the world— we are shaping our lives, conforming to the structures around us. And then we need to make sure we are conforming and shaping ourselves around the right structures. Let Jesus Christ, the Church, the word of God be the things that shape us into the men and women God would have us be.
First God says, “consider the vines” and then he keeps going, [read v.3-5]. So first he says, “you are just like a vine” and then he starts going on and on about how USELESS vines are. It’s hurtful, to be honest. (Laugh). Actually, it does make sense though. You can’t use the wood to make stuff, and even if you try to burn it - it lasts as long as lighter fluid. And that’s the second teaching for us today. Vines grow quickly, but they are not as strong as the things that grow slowly. We live in a VERY fast paced world. Technology has been changing the world for decades, but the influence is GROWING, and sometimes it feels like it is speeding up! Did you know that there are actually pastors who use AI to write their sermons? (I am not one of them) We live in a microwave world. We want to pop it in, push a button and be ready to go in under a minute. But when something grows quickly, like a vine - it also burns quickly. It’s not useful for anything. Think about the idea of “going viral” - even just a few years ago someone who went “viral” would be the biggest thing that everyone talked about for a month. Nowadays? If you go viral before lunch we have forgotten about you by dinner. There’s no 15 minutes of fame, it’s like 15 milliseconds of fame. The world is very fast paced, but what God is trying to teach us in the scriptures this morning is that valuable things take time. Vines grow quickly, but they are not as strong. In a microwave world, we need to be slow cookers. You know what I’m talking about? We’ve got this instant pot thingy, and somedays my wife will put a big thing of pork butt in there - takes like 4 hours, but it creates the greatest carnitas I’ve ever had. Ugh, so delicious. When it comes to your personal growth and development, your spiritual journey - there’s no short cuts. Good growth takes time. Put in the time at church, put in the time in prayer, put in the time in the word of God. Quick growth is exciting, but it’s not stable, it’s not strong.
Now if you haven’t noticed, God’s a little grumpy with Israel at the moment - and he’s been using the image of a vine to throw shade at the people and it doesn’t get any better in verse 6, [read v.6]. In case there was any doubt about how the whole metaphor thing goes down - he writes it out for us. People equal vines. And since the vines are useless, I throw the vines in the fire. Now we talked about this - we know that Babylon is coming and they’re going to destroy Jerusalem. That’s the fire. But what does he mean useless? I mean, how can a vine be useful? There’s only one way a grape-vine can be useful - can’t make stuff out of it, can’t use it for fuel, it’s useless in all things except one - making grapes. Grape vines are VERY useful for making GRAPES. In fact, they are the BEST at making grapes. Nobody else makes grapes as good as a grapevine. And so here’s the third thing I want you to pull out of the text this morning - the vine is created to bear fruit. And people equal vines, so God has created you and I to bear fruit. And this is all over the Bible. In the New Testament, Jesus says in John chapter 15. Listen to this, [read v.1-8]. Over five hundred years between Ezekiel and Jesus, and yet these two passage fit like a glove - that’s amazing. Jesus says remain in me and your life will produce fruit.
Now here is where the metaphor falls apart just a little bit. I don’t want you walking out of here today scratching your head and wondering, “so, does that mean Pastor JJ wants us to go plant some fruit trees or something?” But no, no, no - the fruit is what your life creates. What is your effect on the world around you? The bible says, over in Galatians, that if you are connected to God, if you are living a life with the Holy Spirit in your heart - your life will produce fruits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. They call it the fruits of the spirit for a reason. Now think about your life. Does your heart produce those things in yourself and in others - and if not… maybe your vine is conforming to the wrong structure. Grapevines are useful when they produce fruits, our lives are truly connected to God - when you see the fruit in your life.
But I want to go back to verse 2 for a second. John 15, verse 2, well verse 1 says, [read it], and then verse 2, [read v.2]. I’ve got to talk about this idea of pruning for a second. He cuts off every branch that doesn’t produce fruit - that totally makes sense. But he ALSO prunes the branches that DO produce fruit, so that they will produce even more. This is one of those teachings that we see reflected in nature and I still have a hard time believing it. Right? You’ve got this big bush and you make it smaller(?) To make it bigger?!? What? That doesn’t make any sense - but it is the truth. Let me give you an example. Our house has a rose bush out front. And one of them was a little overgrown. My wife said, “that’s getting out of control, let’s trim it back.” I thought that was a good idea. She trimmed it back. Couple weeks later the bush is GINORMOUS. We have thorny stems with roses on them reaching almost halfway up our house. They are almost brushing the bottom of the windows on the second story. It was amazing. It’s the only one we pruned, and it’s the only one that got bigger. Pruning is just one of those concepts that I just can’t get my head around, and yet it is God’s honest truth. Sometimes in life there are things we need to prune. Things we need to cut back, so that we can actually grow more.
The good news today is right there in John 15, verse 1. [read it]. God is our gardener, and that’s amazing news. He’s trying to help you cultivate a life and grow the way you’re designed to grow, to bear all the fruit your life can bear. God is your gardener. Now here’s the other side of that. If God is your gardener, tending to your life and spiritual growth - pruning, fertilizing, watering, making sure you get enough sunlight. If God is all that, and you’re struggling…maybe your life feels like you are buried in a pile of…uh, manure? Maybe that’s just God fertilizing your growth. There’s an old quote, goes back centuries - but I’ve even heard it used in music lyrics and stuff like that. But the line goes, “The world tried to bury us, but they didn’t realize we are seeds.” When you’re facing trials and struggles in your life - you’re completely overwhelmed and you have no idea what to do or where to go, consider this - they tried to bury Jesus in the ground too. If God is your gardener, you are a seed, you a vine that is designed to produce fruit - and all the piles of manure life throws at you become fertilizer for your growth. God is our gardener and that’s very good news.
Alright, so how does this matter? I mean, I think we have successfully riddled out the metaphor of Ezekiel 15 and John 15, vines, fruit, spiritual growth, life of purpose - we got it. But how does it affect our lives? What is the challenge that comes to us from the text today? Well - there’s three. First, if we know that vines conform to the structures around them and we know that we are the vines - then our first challenge is to grow around the right stuff. Pay attention to the influences and the voices in your life. They might be stronger than you realize. We need to be intentional - aim ourselves at the things that will help us grow. Prioritizing our time with God is so key. Actually, here’s a really practical tip. Take some time this week and try to map out your schedule. Just grab a piece of paper and map out your day - write down what you did and when. And if you can’t remember last week, then do it as you go this week - like, at the end of each day, write out your schedule. Take an honest look in the mirror, show yourself - where does all your time go? Here’s a really simple example - in a couple of weeks we’re going to announce a Financial Peace University class over at the Midland Campus. If you don’t know - it’s a financial class on how to manage money. My wife and I took it YEARS ago, and it was life changing. And here’s the crazy part. Before we took the class, we were really struggling - paycheck to paycheck, we never had enough money. But we got organized in our budgeting, we got on the same page. And we took an honest look at how we were spending money - we were being so wasteful and we didn’t even know! We tweaked a few things - ate out less often, put more money away. It was almost like I got a raise. I didn’t - it was the same amount of money, but suddenly there was more of it. Because we wrote it down, and we budgeted, and we could see where all of it was going. It’s the same thing with our time. Try writing it down - look at your life and see how much time you’re giving to this TV program, or that radio show, or this friend group, or that social media app. Pay attention to the voices, and how much time you are letting them speak into your life. If you’re going to grow around the right stuff, try budgeting your time for God, budget your time for growth. The first challenge is to grow around the right stuff.
The second challenge comes right out of that. If you take an honest look at your life and how you budget the voices around you - you might realize, “Oh no, I’m growing around the wrong structures.” And if God is our gardener, then the second challenge for us is to accept God’s pruning. If we are a vine that’s not producing good fruit, then there’s probably some stuff we need to cut out of our life. When you start paying attention to the voices in your life and how they are affecting your soul - you will start to realize which voices are no good for you. Here’s an easy example - if you spend hours and hours every single day, watching the news it will probably develop your heart into a cynical, angry lump. Because most news stations - the progressive ones, the conservative ones, and everything in between - most of them use outrage and scare tactics to keep people engaged. Now please don’t misunderstand me - there’s nothing wrong with watching the news. But you can’t be outraged and terrified ALL the time without it getting down into your soul. If you’re a little flower in the garden, it’s like having the summer sun scorching down on your petals ALL the time. The first challenge is to grow around the right stuff, but it’s not just about the good - you also have to cut out the bad, so get out your pruning shears. If something or someone is not helping your grow closer to God, if something is not producing the fruits of the Spirit in your life - give serious thought to trimming it back. And it may not even be as dramatic as that. Maybe the things filling your schedule aren’t bad, but you need to trim them back because you don’t have time for it all. If I’m going to do devotional time with God in the mornings, that means I have to trim back my social media scrolling in the mornings. Not that it’s bad, but I need to trim it back so other areas of my life can grow. I want to go to church on Sunday, I’ve got to trim back my Saturday evening activities. Prune one area so that another can grow.
First, you’ve got to grow around the right stuff. Then you’ve got to accept God’s pruning - trim back things you know aren’t going to help you grow. And the third and final challenge I’ve got for you today is to produce fruit! If we are holding onto Jesus, we should expect results in our life. There’s an old story about a bodybuilder who was on a TV show. And the host of the show asked, “Why do you develop those particular muscles?” The body builder simply stepped forward and flexed a series of well-defined muscles from chest to calf. The audience applauded. But the host asked again, “Okay, but what do you use all those muscles for?” Again the muscular specimen flexed his biceps and triceps sprouted to impressive proportions. “But what do you USE those muscles for?” The host insisted. The poor body builder was bewildered. He didn’t have an answer other than to display his well-developed frame. Think about all the stuff in a Christian life - Bible study, prayer, listening to Christian music, coming to church - it’s not for show. This is not a performance to show you spiritual you are to the world. All the things we do have a purpose - they are meant to strengthen our ability to build God’s kingdom. We do all these things to develop the fruit in our life. You should grow and get better at each one of them - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. If you are not MORE patient today than you were 2 years ago - your faith walk might not have any fruit. If your self control is not stronger today than the day you let Jesus into your life - you might have body builder spiritual muscles. They’re all for show but they’re not actually changing your life. “I go to church every week and read my bible for ten hours every day” - yeah, but where’s the fruit? I feel like Jerry McGuire - show me the money, show me the fruit! We need to grow around the right stuff, and sometimes we need prune back other things to grow - but the third challenge, I want you to expect fruit in your life. And if you’re spiritual walk with Jesus is not producing fruit, you might have to go back to steps 1 and 2!
Gardens are full of God’s little lessons. He uses the natural world around us to teach us eternal truths. Whether it’s in Ezekiel’s day, or the words of Jesus - there’s a lot to learn from the growth of a vineyard. Let me leave you with this final point. Human beings grow by striving, working, stretching. I mean, think about it - why are not all our prayers answered magically and instantly? Why does every convert to Christianity have to travel the same tedious path of spiritual discipline? Learning how to pray, how to read the Bible, how to worship? How to be generous? How to grow a servant’s heart? How come there’s no short-cuts? Why do we have to be slow-cooker people in a microwave world? There’s an old philosopher named Kierkegaard and he once said, “Christians remind me of schoolboys who want to look up the answers to their math problems in the back of the book rather than work through them. We yearn for shortcuts. But shortcuts usually lead away from growth, not towards it.” Real growth doesn’t come from shortcuts, and God is your gardener - he has planned real growth for your life. Let’s pray.