“The Growth From A Healthy Pruning

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – April 15, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 22:25-31; John 15:1-8

    Jesus had a unique way of using labels that had universal application to everyone in the world. Many of the labels we use today define people.  In England, it is the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  Here it is the PLP and the OBA.  In the States the labels are Republicans and Democrats.  Politics, by its nature, is adversarial.  

    This morning we are going to be dealing with a label Jesus used to describe what happens to us while we are growing up.  He illustrated his label with an agricultural necessity. Regarding his own understanding of God, he said,

My Father is like a gardener who breaks off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and he prunes every branch in me that does bear fruit, so that they will be clean in order to bear even more fruit.  (John 15:2)

    In this passage, Jesus was describing how he grew up spiritually. Some believers place him high on a pedestal. They even worship him.  Christians can be praising Jesus so much that they become blind to the real life-issues that he faced which often mirror our own. We do not know what Jesus thought about himself prior to his baptism other than that he was a carpenter and was the son of Mary and Joseph.

    Think about this:  How would we process the dreams of our youth if all of the sudden we had to become the sole economic and emotional support to our mother, our brothers and sisters?

    An early tradition indicated that Jesus' father was killed in a derrick accident while working on Herod's palace at Masada.  As the oldest son, there was little else he could do under the Hebrew law but to continue to work in his father's carpentry shop in order to support his family.

    Year after year passed where nothing extraordinary happened.  This went on until Jesus was thirty.  The pruning came with his having to accept peacefully his circumstances.  These years helped him to acquire infinite patience with how his life was unfolding. Try to imagine that after this he had only three more years left to live.  During those three years, Jesus' influence on the world is beyond anyone's comprehension.  

    Working alone most of the time allowed Jesus' mind to ask questions about his experience.

Is everything that happens to us God's will?  Is it really God's will that we Jews behave in the same manner with the same exclusive rights to God's love of us as we have for centuries?  Every year we recite our history during Passover in the same way as our ancestors did sixteen hundred and eighty years ago.  The Law demands obedience. What happens if we begin to think for ourselves?

          During this time Jesus began to hear from others that his cousin John was attracting large crowds with his preaching.  Further, they told Jesus that John was baptizing people in the Jordan River.  Even Sadducees and Pharisees were paying attention to his convincing message that everybody needs to change their thinking if they ever hope to grow up.  (Matthew 3:7)   

    One day Jesus felt an obligation to hear John's message for himself.   His journey took some planning.  Such a trek from Galilee to where John was preaching was a five to six-day walk.  When Jesus arrived and began listening, he resonated with John's charismatic presentation for new ways of thinking.  John was saying that people can take charge of their lives and decide to change.                 

    Jesus realized that he also needed to change.  Like everyone else, he was stuck in the same stale, frozen state of mind with his faith.  He needed to change his habits, his attitudes and especially his understanding about the nature of God's spirit.  He walked toward his cousin, entered the river and was baptized.  He was completely unaware of what was about to happen to him.

    During his baptism, Jesus had a God-experience.  He had just heard what he felt and believed was the voice of God communicating, "You are my son." He had no idea where to place such an experience.  Jesus came out of the river and walked into the wilderness for over a month to sort out his thoughts and emotions. 

    Jesus would never have responded this way had he known what future generations of believers would be saying and believing about him.  Once Jesus focused on what he felt was a calling, the pruning of his beliefs, habits, and thinking began to happen in earnest.  His earliest activities were awkward at best.

    He began addressing every aspect of life that had been troubling him.   He found himself preaching to people in a way that was initially pleasing to them.  However, when his words began to remind them of a time when God ignored the Jews by sending the prophet Elijah to the Samaritans and the prophet Elisha to an Assyrian general, suddenly his listeners turned violent. They seized Jesus, dragged him out of the synagogue, and had planned to throw him off a cliff. (Luke 4:29)

    People began to listen to his message with skepticism because his teaching was different from anything they had ever heard.  Once Jesus discovered his healing touch, more people began to gather mostly out of curiosity to watch his miracles. (John 6:26)   On numerous occasions, Jesus felt like he was preaching to dead-wood because people could not absorb anything that he was saying.  (Matthew 13:58)

    There are scores of experiences that could have discouraged Jesus from engaging in his ministry, but he understood that he was just being pruned. His spiritual formation was being molded and shaped by his responses to his awkward beginning.

    With each disappointment, each failure, and each misstep, Jesus was learning to improve his teaching style.  Since people were not understanding what he was teaching, he decided to become a storyteller.  He placed his message about the loving nature of God in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Likewise, Jesus buried his constant theme of love-one-another, regardless of his listeners' ethnicity, into the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  

    He began to take his message to those who could not read or write, to women who found themselves on the wrong side of decency, to tax collectors, and others that his society had cast aside.

    He was not interested in teaching the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who were fixed in their beliefs and in their ways of thinking.  (Matthew 23:15) They had invested themselves in being right and had long since closed their minds to any truths beyond their own.

    Jesus' emotions frequently displayed themselves.  He allowed his emotions and frustrations to surface when he felt obliged to do so. He once scolded his listeners, "How unbelieving and wrong you people are!  How long must I stay with you? How long must I put up with you?" (Matthew 17:17) 

    To understand how Jesus understood himself, we have to take off our rose-colored glasses in order to see him as he was and not as our traditions and religious authorities have created him to be.  He invited his listeners to follow him.  Following Jesus would have been an impossible task for anyone if Jesus had divine qualities that were different from the ones that we have. 

    Jesus had to struggle as we do with remaining at peace regardless of what was happening to him or what others were saying about him.  Diamonds are formed by intense pressure and heat over an extended period of time.  This is what Jesus' own pruning was like.  He felt called to lead his people out of a wilderness, the wilderness of their own religion that had frozen his culture for centuries. 

    In today's recent generations, where instant gratification is our greatest need, people want justice, fairness, and equal rights for all people. This will never happen because angry people are shouting, protesting, and marching against politicians who cannot make this happen soon enough.

    We are being pruned by our frustrations and we do not recognize that this is exactly what Jesus was illustrating.  We cannot peacefully bloom anywhere if we lack patience and understanding.  We often want our governments to create legislation that will legally govern our societies of the very thing we are unable to create within ourselves. 

    Creation unfolds by inches that may take hundreds, even thousands of years. Think of how long it took for Jesus' message to spread from Galilee into most countries around the world. How many times did the entire population of the world die before the knowledge of Jesus became known everywhere? We live in a world with over seven billion other people struggling to achieve what each of them wants out of life. 

    As many societies continue to become melting pots for every conceivable ethnic group, their values and domestic differences are going to clash.   We quickly discover that our yellow brick road is filled with detours, by-passes, and traffic jams. 

    Our lives are filled with the unexpected losses of loved ones, car accidents, emergency surgeries, teenagers sowing their wild oats, religious zealots who kill innocent people, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes that lay waste to our landscapes with fury most people have never experienced, and retirees who fall prey to criminals and scam artists who steal their financial resources that took them a lifetime to accumulate. 

    In our total frustration we can cry out that all of these challenges and many other experiences are evil aspects of living here; but are they?  Jesus would have taught us as he did during his ministry that all of these experiences can be understood as our being pruned.  Jesus taught,

All of the things that you treasure are not permanent.  What is permanent is your ability to forgive everyone and everything in spite of the severity of the changes and the circumstances that you are required to endure.  (Matthew 6:19f)     

     We need to remind ourselves that our tough times in life are the result of the judgments that we are making about our circumstances.  Jesus chose labels that define everyone's experience.  Being pruned communicates fairly accurately what is happening to everyone. 

     There is no way to grow beyond where we are until we experience the loss of hostile attitudes, unhealthy habits, and ways of thinking that sabotage our lives.  We do not like being told that pruning is the path to growth.  Knowing that being pruned had a divine purpose that worked for Jesus' understanding for growing his spiritual nature, the same response will certainly work for us.



Loving and always present God, we thank you for giving us countless ways that love can be made visible in our lives.  We were willed into existence by your love.  We have been nurtured by our parents' love. You gave us the ability to grow in spirit even during moments when life is filled with challenges. Jesus taught us that every threatening life-issue is another way to perfect our skills of spirit. Teach us to trust you for the outcome of all things. Help us to transform the mountains we climb into vantage points for having greater vision. Help us to change the barriers to our love into stepping-stones for recognizing love’s transforming power.  Amen.



Eternal God, You have created each of us to want happiness and peace in our experiences.  Yet, often these remarkable qualities do not come to us automatically.  You gave us only the potential for such qualities.  We have realized that many of our skills of spirit come as a result of being badly pruned by mishaps, failures, mistakes in judgment, losses of every variety, and feeling ignored by others.

The loving energy that we grow after being pruned is a miracle that maturity brings to us.  We discover that the love we give away is never in short supply. Our cups are always full even during the moments we feel depleted and spent.  We never grow weary of smiling.  Laughter is so contagious that we pray that a cure is never found. 

Cause us to remember that we can be the sun during the cloudy days others experience.  We can be the nourishing presence when people are starving for validation and meaning.  We can be the compass that points toward your kingdom. We can be the people into which Jesus placed your blueprint for discovering who we are as your children.  We grow because of the many times we have been in need of what we have now learned to give away.

This morning, we thank you for creating us the way you have.  Even when we do not fully understand your methods for guiding us, we remain confident that your love surrounds us. To think that a diamond was once a lump of coal. We are glad that what you placed within us has finally outcropped and is in the process of helping us to grow up.  We thank you that we have chosen not to remain that lump of coal.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .