The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
I'm sure by now most of you are wondering why we've sung nothing but Christmas hymns today ["O Come All Ye Faithful" & "Joy to the World"]. Did pastor make a cut-and-paste mistake in preparing the bulletin? Did Carmalita print off the wrong bulletin? Is pastor losing it? Should we be worried that he obviously can't read a calendar or ascertain by the weather that it's obviously not Christmas? None of the above!
Now, before we go any further, let me make clear that this is not some cheesy "Christmas in July" marketing gimmick either. That may work for peddling used cars and such, but that's not how God calls us to do evangelism … faithful evangelism, that is. I know that there are some churches out there, LCMS included, who do peddle and pander the Gospel as if it's a used car. They have no problems with having "Christmas in July" type flea market/monster truck rally extravaganzas which they pass off as "worship." Oh…they're worshiping alright. You can hear it in their question-and-answer routine. "How many did you worship today, mister lame old yesteryear? Maybe you should get on board with what we're doing. We worshiped 500 people this morning at our rock'em, sock'em, ultimate fighting cage match Christmas in July worship experience." To which I always respond, "How many did we worship? We worshiped one, triune God by simply receiving His Word and His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins." People don't like that answer. There is a difference, isn't there?
Back to the Christmas hymns. If we're not doing a "Christmas in July" like everyone else, then what are we doing singing these Christmas hymns today? I know this will sound strange to you, but these hymns reminded me of our Gospel lesson for this morning. Let me explain. How many of you have heard the old cliché "Keep Christ in Christmas"? Probably too many times to count, right? I'll confess: I don't have a problem with this statement. In fact, the closer we get to Christmas every year, the more I find it working its way into my daily thoughts and conversations. I'm sure the same goes for you too. Truth be told, you'd be hard-pressed to find any Christian anywhere who would be stupid enough to disagree with this statement. Keep Christ in Christmas. Christmas isn't about all the commercialized hype and materialism. Jesus is the reason for the season. Take Christ out of Christmas and all you have left is a tree unnaturally decorated and unnaturally placed inside your home, complete with wrapped presents underneath and a pocket full of debt to boot. Nothing merry about that!
This is what our hymns point us to in no uncertain terms. These hymns joyously and boldly proclaim the joy of Christ with us; the joy of God's promised gift of salvation received and revealed in the flesh on that first Christmas morn. These hymns unashamedly profess that a Christmas without Christ is no Christmas at all. Without Christ there is nothing to celebrate; no reason to be merry.
Take a look at verse 51 in your Gospel lesson. Do you notice something very important in these words? Jesus got into the boat with those terrified and doubtful men, and when He got into the boat with them the violence and tumult of the wind and waves immediately ceased. I want you to think about that for a moment. These men had just witnessed yet another miracle from the hand of Jesus. They had just pushed away from shore a few hours earlier after Jesus had fed 5,000 men plus an untold number of women and children with just a few small loaves of bread and couple of small fish. Yet…they were in the boat without Jesus.
Understand: I'm not necessarily blaming the disciples at this point. Remember: Jesus did purposefully send them away so that He could stick around and dismiss the crowds and have a moment of quiet prayer to Himself. Like I said last week, though, not all of life's lessons are academic. Sometimes the best lessons are learned through on-the-job experience. Jesus sent those disciples away in that boat by themselves because He was going to teach them what a church without Christ would be like from His perspective; a lesson they were to take with them in their ministry as they fulfilled Christ's command to make disciples of all nations.
Folks: Do you understand how profound this lesson is? Many of these disciples were men who had made their living on the sea. If anyone had the skills and abilities and know-how to make a simple trip across the lake to the other side, it was these men. And yet…without Christ in the boat, they were no match for the wind and the waves. That little boat and those little men fought and fought against the forces that were fighting against them…and they were losing miserably. Such was their despair that when Jesus showed up in the midst of those deadly forces; in the midst of the place where you would least expect to find Jesus, they freaked out, revealing the fact that their faith had been utterly stressed and overcome by doubt and despair. "Not only is nature conspiring to kill us, but now there's a ghost coming out here to finish us off! That's it! There's no hope! All is lost!"
But Christ doesn't let the foolishness or the terror persist. He's teaching them something. He cries out through the chaos, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." And then He gets into the boat with them, and that's when the chaos immediately ceases. Christ's Word and Christ's actions—His doctrine and His practice—go together.
I want you to think about your life today. How many Christian congregations do you know who are boarding ship today and setting sail for worship without Christ—the whole Christ, and not just the parts that they like and that they can agree with? How many struggling Christian congregations will look around at empty pews and empty offering plates and bad publicity and all the other struggles that go along with ministry in twenty-first century America and freak out because they're getting swamped? "We're working hard! We've got the best espresso machine and donuts and paintball equipment that money can buy! We're doing everything that the luxury cruise-liner congregations are doing! Why are we still sinking?" They scratch their heads and lament the outcome, never bothering to notice that Christ Jesus—His Word and His Sacraments—is missing from their passenger manifest.
Understand: That's not to say that faithful congregations who do keep Christ in the boat will never experience these troubles. That's not what I'm saying at all. The difference is that with Christ in the boat, there is peace. That is not to be confused with happiness. A faithful congregation can experience empty pews and empty offering plates and the like, and still have peace. They can and will be unafraid because they know that Christ is right there with them.
And what about those luxury-liner congregations that forget Christ or leave the Jesus they disagree with standing on the shore? Are they big enough and strong enough to overcome and make do a different way? Let's just say that their "Titanic" thinking will catch up to them in the end, and the pronouncement from the Lord's maritime court will be just as shocking as that lone little iceberg adrift in the midst of a vast Atlantic Ocean was to another certain titanic ship that thought itself impervious to God. Remember: The lesson Christ was teaching these disciples was what the church absent of Christ would look like from His perspective; not man's perspective.
But what about us as individuals? I mean, it's easy to look down our noses at those other congregations, but what about us in our daily lives? Well…is Christ in your boat all 168 hours of the week? You see, it's easy to make a port call on Sunday mornings and pick up Jesus for an hour or so. But what about the other 167 hours of the week? Do the storms of life hit you and threaten to swamp you the other six days of the week? Absolutely! You don't have to admit it if you don't want to, but how many times have those storms hit and you look around and wonder why God has forsaken you? Maybe the problem is not that God has forsaken you, but that you have left Jesus standing on the shore while you decided to set out to sea by yourself. Let's face it: There are many times that our Lord is sitting in His boat—His Word, His Way, His Will, His Means—waiting for us to get on board for the journey, and instead we hastily and ignorantly push off to sea on our own shoddily-built, Gilligan's Island-style life-raft, leaving Christ just sitting there in His boat. When the chaotic storms hit and toss us about, we find ourselves lying helpless on our tattered raft like some castaway adrift at sea. "Lord, have mercy!" That's when our Lord once again comes to us, calling out to us, "Do not be afraid! It is I!"
And here's the thing: Our Lord picks us up and puts us in His boat with Him! In fact, when you think about it, Jesus, in His suffering and death, took our place on that shoddy, sinful deathtrap of a raft so that we could have berthing on His luxurious ship of life and mercy and forgiveness. Jesus suffered all the chaos and tumult of sin for us in our place; He sunk to the very depths of darkness and death and despair, enduring God's wrath and being completely forsaken by His own heavenly Father, all so that we could have the perpetual flat-calm of peace that is known only in Him and His love and grace.
Just look around you this very day. Your Lord and Savior is here in the midst of this holy ark that is the church, holding out to you His life-lines of Holy Word and Sacrament, calling you to turn and drop the dead ballast of this world that seeks to drown you, calling you to let go and instead cleave to Christ alone. "Take heart! It is I! Be not afraid, for I am with you always, to the very end of the age, and even in the midst of the storms of life." My fellow redeemed: This is certainly reason to be merry. This is reason to rejoice and give thanks; giving thanks with all that we say, think, and do to the glory of God.
And may this same almighty God and Father keep you ever steadfast in the one true saving faith unto life everlasting, even and especially as the storms of life rage all around you. May you, through the eyes and ears of faith, always recognize and trust in and cleave to the reality of Christ Jesus with you always. May this same Christ Jesus, through the working of the Holy Spirit in faith, be always and ever in your boat. May this Immanuel reality of Christ with us continually grant you the perpetual flat-calm joy and peace that surpasses all understanding; the flat-calm peace that is known only when Christ is kept in the boat of the church and the boat of your heart.
A very merry Christian reality to you!
To Him alone be all the glory, praise, and honor!
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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