The True Vine

This is the transcript of the message I shared with the Leeward Community College Campus Crusade for Christ not long ago. If you are a LCC student, looking for a college-level group of Christians to fellowship and grow with, or just curious to see what it’s about, I encourage you to check it out. The group meets Thursdays at 12:30. 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

John 15:5

My grandma and I have a little garden in our backyard. We grow tomatoes, sweet potato, chives, mint, and some other plants. But perhaps our most successful plant so far has been a hyutan, which is the Japanese version of squash.

When I first decided to take up gardening I was really enthusiastic. I envisioned us growing and eating all these different types of vegetables. But then I hit some struggles. Our first attempt at growing hyutan failed. It never caught on, and died shortly after I planted it. The eggplant my grandma had, which had previously been fruitful, had been stung by flies and shriveled. I had planted marigold, but they died too. With the struggles came discouragement. My initial enthusiasm had faded. Had I been on my own, I probably would’ve given up on gardening. But because I shared the load with my grandma, I pressed on.

After the initial struggles, the garden has flourished. As I mentioned, our squash has been doing well. It’s grown like crazy. It started off as just a tiny plant with a single leaf, but with each passing day it grew more and more, quickly turning into a large vine. Within just a couple of months, we harvested our first fruit. Just a week later we harvested our second fruit. They were huge, much bigger than I expected. Squash sold at grocery stores is about 6 inches long. Ours is about 2 feet long, weighing 8 pounds. This plant really exceeded my expectations.

To think that this ever-fruitful vine started off as just a tiny seed. Now it’s growing so well that we’re able to not only feed ourselves, but also give to our neighbors.

The same is true with our lives. We start out as seeds, and sometimes we struggle to grow into anything fruitful. But when we accept Christ as Lord of our lives, he grows us in amazing ways. He’ll give us incredible dreams, goals, and ambitions, and he’ll grow us faster and to greater heights than we thought possible, bearing much fruit for him.

As I said, the garden is flourishing, and the plants have been doing well. But you know what’s also been flourishing? Weeds.

Intermixed in between the good, edible plants are lots and lots of weeds. But even so, the vegetables have so far been okay. So you might think that a few weeds aren’t a big a deal, right? I mean, everyone has weeds in their yards, and most people don’t even have any fruit-bearing plants.

The problem is, if weeds are left unmanaged they will eventually overtake the other plants. They suck up vital nutrients from the soil, and take up space, preventing the good plants from reaching their full potential. If you really want to maximize your harvest, you need to get rid of the weeds.

This is like sin. So often we try to justify sin in our lives. We compare ourselves to other people, thinking, “Everyone sins. Mine are small compared to other people’s. It’s not like I’m committing murder or anything. I’m a decent person. I mean, I go to church every week, and I’m involved in ministry. A small sin won’t hurt anyone. No one will even notice it.”

I remember once I was doing yard work for a lady. Her entire yard was full of weeds. The yard hadn’t been touched in years. There was a tree in the corner of the yard about 12 feet tall, and I thought it looked like some kind of exotic fruit tree. But it was actually a giant weed. It had been allowed to grow for over a decade, and had grown so big that you could no longer even tell it was a weed. It didn’t produce any fruit, it wasn’t aesthetically appealing, and it didn’t have big leafy branches to provide shade or serve any of the other vital functions that trees do. It was just a giant weed taking up space in the yard, sucking nutrients out of the soil. The roots were thick, and buried deep into the earth. It took a long time and a lot of labor to get rid of it.

This is how sin works. It’s so deceptive, sneaking up on us like weeds. When we try to justify sin, it grows within us. We might think, “A tiny sin won’t hurt anyone. I won’t let it get out of control.” The thing is, it spreads without us even realizing, growing far greater than we could have foreseen. Let a few weeds grow, and more sprout up. Let a tiny sin into your life, and more take root. Without realizing it, sin grows a stronger and larger grip on us, and we grow further and further from God. Unchecked, it will grow so big that we will no longer even recognize it as sin, but instead think of it as a normal, productive part of our lives. We won’t realize the damage it’s doing in our lives, until one day we may look and find a huge 12 foot tall weed taking up space and sucking out our energy. It’ll take a lot out of us just to get it removed.

Sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

James 1:15

If we want to maximize our harvest, we need to get rid of the weeds. If we want to be fully used as servants of Christ, we need to abandon sin.

So I try to weed my garden. But the longer weeds are allowed to grow, the more difficult it is to remove them, and unfortunately it’s nearly impossible to take out the weeds without also accidentally damaging some of the good plants in the process. Likewise, the longer we allow sin to grow within us, the more difficult it is to remove, and in the process we are damaging the good, productive parts of our lives, since we’ll have to focus our efforts on removing the sin that we’ve grown so accustomed to. God is always willing to forgive us our sins, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have deal with the consequences of our actions.

A lot of times we think of sin as big things, like murder. But sin includes seemingly “smaller” things as well, such as lying, gossiping, or cheating. I remember one time my friends and I were planning on seeing a movie. We were talking about sneaking in some snacks, because food at the movie theater is ridiculously expensive. But my friend’s mom overheard us, and she told us not to sneak in food, saying it’s dishonest, and that as Christians, we shouldn’t do it. She added, “I know you guys are college students and on a tight budget, so I will give you guys money to buy snacks at the movies. Just don’t be dishonest.”

At first I thought what she said was kind of extreme, but I came to agree with it. While it may be true that movie theaters overcharge, that doesn’t make it okay to break their rules. After all, we don’t have to go to their venues. God doesn’t say it’s okay to be dishonest if people are overcharging you. He never says it’s okay to sin if someone does you wrong. God never justifies sin. He wants us to pursue righteousness at all times, even when we’re being treated unfairly, and he wants us to have faith that he will provide for us.

We live in an impure world. As long as we are here on this Earth we will, from time-to-time, sin. You could drive yourself crazy living a life trying to avoid temptation out of fear of falling. The good news is, we need not worry constantly about sinning. We don’t have to live in a bubble in an attempt to never sin, we just have to keep our eyes on the Lord. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. When we live for Jesus, we will avoid sin. God is more than willing to clean out our lives. We just have to let him change us. Give up the things we know are wrong, and listen to him when he tells us to let it go. Let God weed out the sin in your life, and learn to nip it in the bud right away whenever it does pop up. Flee from sin, and sin will flee from you.

When we have a relationship with Christ, we experience abounding love. When we’re focused on serving Jesus – the light of the world – how can we sin? Remain in the vine and keep his commands, and God will make our lives more fruitful than we ever thought possible, turning even desolate plots into flourishing gardens. Share the fruit of our lives with others, and we in turn will find true riches beyond compare.

Jesus is speaking:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also 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.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

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 my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. 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. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

John 15: 1-17

 

Where the Sky Seems Lower

This was published in the April issue of The Pearl, the monthly newsletter for the First Baptist Church of Pearl City.  If you’ve already read the printed version, this online version has pictures that were not included. 


“Expect God to do something great today,” said Aunty Adele as she briefed us of the day’s activities over breakfast. “I don’t know why, I just feel it. This morning I got up and I felt God telling me something great is going to happen today.”

Building a house in Cambodia was a great experience, one that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. We were not only doing this to show goodwill toward a Cambodian family, but also to witness to the surrounding neighborhood. A bunch of Cambodian men would stop by to help work on the house. That’s what they do in Cambodia. When someone needs help with something, all their friends, neighbors, and relatives drop by to help out a little. The Cambodian men didn’t say much, they just quietly went about their work. But Adele reminded us that God was using us to sow seeds, so even though we didn’t talk much with them, being there and working with them was an important witness.

Building that house was some of the most intense work I’ve ever done. I’ve played competitive sports for a long time, so I thought I was in good shape and used to intense workouts. But shoveling dirt in the intense humidity of Cambodia was a workout like no other.

We took a break from working, and admired the scenery around us. “The sky seems lower here,” said one of my companions. Cambodia is mostly a very flat country. The area we were in had no no elevation to be seen anywhere. Every direction we looked we saw flat fields, tall coconut trees, small houses made out of wood and grass, but no hills or mountains, creating a surreal feeling, as if the sky were indeed somehow lower in this country than in the rest of the world.

A stupa stands at the site of one of the killing fields. The stupa is filled to the top with skulls of some of the field’s victims.

Cambodia is a beautiful place. Almost everywhere you look you can see green fields which seem to stretch on endlessly. It’s a tranquil scene. But the beauty takes on a new perspective when you think about it’s haunting past. These fields, which seem so serene today, were not that long ago fields filled with terror. So much killing, torturing, raping, and pillaging occurred in these very same fields. Here so many people experienced unimaginable horror, and had their lives changed forever. Babies were taken from their mothers, family members were turned against family members, and people saw their loved ones murdered in front of them.

Cambodians taken from their homes and forced to work in brutal conditions for the Khmer Rouge.

After taking a break, we continued work on the house. In Cambodia, when it rains, it pours. The weather can be extremely bipolar: it can be sunny one minute, pouring rain the next, and sunny again a moment later. But during monsoon season, rains typically come during the mid-afternoon, and continue throughout the evening.

It was about three in the afternoon when clouds rolled in. They were some of the darkest clouds I’ve ever seen, and they were heading straight for us. It almost looked like a tornado was going to form. We knew we’d have to work fast if we wanted to beat the storm.

We were on the ground shoveling dirt and moving bricks, but there were guys working on the roof of the house. They were using electric tools to weld the roof in place, so any rain would halt the project. Our schedule was tight, since we were only supposed to be in Cambodia for two weeks. Rain had already cut short some of our work days, and any further delays might keep us from being able to finish the house in time.

Racing against a storm while shoveling dirt out of Adele’s truck.

We worked as fast as we could, trying to get the day’s work done before the rain started. The clouds looked like they were ready to burst at any moment, but they somehow held up.

Finally, right as 5 o’clock hit, we finished with the day’s work. At that moment, seemingly as if God had been making the clouds wait just for us, the rain started to pour, and it poured all night.

“Adele did say to expect God to do something great today,” said one of my companions, reminding us of what we had talked about at breakfast.

In addition to working on the house, we did Vacation Bible Schools for the neighborhood kids. In doing this, we got to know some of the locals.

The Khmer Rouge took pictures of their victims before they exterminated them.

Rows upon rows of pictures are now on display at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

One of the people I became friends with was a boy named Kaiyi. If you saw him you might think he’s about 10 or 11 years old, but he’s actually 17. His growth has been severely stunted due to malnutrition. When I first met him he had a large bleeding wound on his ankle. Aunty Adele, who made me a medical assistant for the trip, had me treat it. As I bandaged it I noticed his entire leg was deeply scarred, running from his thigh all the way down to his foot. Adele told me that his family used to beat him, and finally his leg got so bad that a metal rod had to be placed in it. He has a weak immune system, which is why the wound on his leg reopened and started bleeding for no apparent reason. He also has an enlarged spleen. The doctor’s can’t remove it, since it’s already too big. If his spleen ruptures, he will die.

Another guy we became friends with was a 22-year-old named John. John was a neighbor of Kaiyi’s. When John found out about the way Kaiyi’s family was beating him, he had him come and live with him, and eventually adopted him. But one time Kaiyi missed his family and ran away to see them, and his family beat him again. This was when Adele had to explain to Kaiyi that he can’t ever go back.

John and Kaiyi.

We took the kids to Adele’s house and did a VBS in her yard. Kaiyi and I stood there listening to the women tell a Bible story. I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked up at me, smiled, grabbed my hand, and examined it, looking at how big it was compared to his. He swung my hand back and forth, and played with it the way little kids do. Then he simply held my hand, and didn’t let go until we had to leave.

The government of Cambodia does not persecute Christians. The persecution instead comes from the people themselves. Theravada Buddhism plays a huge role in the social structure of Cambodia. Almost everyone in the entire country is Buddhist, and if you’re Cambodian, that’s what’s expected of you. Everyone from your family, neighbors, friends, classmates, and coworkers practices Buddhism and expects you to do the same, for that is how it’s been ever since Buddhism first came to Cambodia some 2,000 years ago.

This is what makes it so difficult for Cambodians to accept Christ. Doing so isolates them from society as they know it. Their friends, peers, and coworkers will shun them for turning away from their long-held beliefs in favor of a foreign unseen deity. Men will have a tougher time finding jobs, since people don’t want to hire someone who turned from their traditions. Their own family will disown them, and in the case of women and children, they’ll probably be beaten.

This is something that we in America just can’t relate to. In some cases we might be criticized, made fun of, or looked down upon for being a Christian. But we won’t be entirely isolated from society the way Cambodian Christians are.

For Cambodians, to accept Christ is a giant leap of faith. It’s dangerous and lonesome, and can often seem to hinder one’s success in life. But Cambodia is a nation that desperately needs a Savior. There has been so much suffering and anguish, much more than I could describe to you in a few short articles. Cambodia is still haunted by it’s past. Recovery is slow and painful. But the Cambodians who have accepted Christ as Lord of their lives exhibit very different traits from their non-Christian counterparts. Their countenance and demeanor is different. They seem happy, and full of hope.

Cambodian Christians have so little, yet they’re satisfied. Here in America, we’re so often focused on our material things: our computers, iphones, cars, status, and money. Would we really be happy if we didn’t have those things? It seems as if because of our materialism, we do not always recognize this simple truth: that God alone is the real joy giver, and that apart from him, we are nothing.

In Cambodia, where the sky seems lower, it felt in a way as if I was closer to God. In America, with our wealth and materialism, it’s easy to be “lukewarm Christians” and get wrapped up in our own lives and forget that God is at the center of it all. But for two weeks while I was in Cambodia, the emphasis was on spreading the love of Christ to those around us, and it felt as if I was “working full-time for Him,” which is how it should always be, regardless of where we are.

When we let God work in our lives, great things happen every day. When we let go of our worldly ways and keep our eyes and hearts focused on his righteous ways, we let his light shine through us. Not only does this help others see him, but it also brings us joy like no other. It’s a joy that can never be taken from us, and it’s a joy that lasts for all eternity. o

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5: 3, 14-16