One of the side effects of being connected with several other pastors via social media, is that I get the opportunity to see a lot of articles about Christianity passed around. The vast majority of the articles tend to be related to where and how our faith is intersecting with or at odds with the current culture. In the past couple of weeks one of the articles I have seen shared around and commented on multiple times has the very alarmist headline “7.5 Million Americans have lost their religion since 2012”. This article was reporting the results of the most recent survey of American beliefs, practices and cultures. This survey found that there the number of Americans who chose not to affiliate with a religious institution has grown over the past three years. Now, 23% of Americans listed their religious affiliation as “no affiliation.” These kind of articles make it easy for us to get bent out of shape, to wring our hands, shake our heads, and regret that “things just are not like they use to be.” We can bemoan the negative or we can focus on the positive. For example, on any given Sunday morning approximately 20% of the United States population is actually in church. That sounds like a terribly low percentage (and it kind of is), but it gets better when we put actual numbers to it. 20% is somewhere around 62 million people. With the exception of watching football on Sunday afternoon, there is nothing else that you can find that many people in our country doing at the same time. Despite all of the doom and gloom, it needs to be acknowledged that intentionally gathering together in community to worship God is still one of the most popular acts in America. I realize that worship is not as popular as it once was, and it is troubling that 7.5 million souls have apparently turned their back on worshiping God in just the past three years. There is a deep conversation to be had there, but that is a conversation for another day. Today, as we come to the end of Lent, our focus is going to be on the spiritual discipline that brings us together, the spiritual discipline that we commit at least an hour to every week. This morning’s scripture that we often refer to as “the triumphal entry” challenges us to consider this discipline. To see how this scripture connects to our lives today we have to address to fundamental questions. What is worship and why do we worship?
What is worship is a question that we need to ask, because worship is a word that we have worn out, that has lost its power. Worship has become a word that means “what we do in church.” We often think of worship as singing religious songs. Even our hymnal has the subtitle “book of United Methodist worship.” Worship has to be more than a song though, there has to be more to the act than just saying words to a tune. In the Old Testament, a lot of the fire and brimstone that is threatened in the prophets is related to worship. The prophets preached to turn back and worship God and stop worshipping false prophets. The bar for worship then was shockingly low. Solomon for instance, was considered righteous in God’s eyes because he made three sacrifices a year and avoided sacrificing to other gods. Yet, worship is more than just an act. Worship is more than just what we do. This is made clear in the prophetic book of Micah. It is asked what should be offered up before the LORD, and the reply is given in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Worship is more than a song, it more than sacrifices, worship is ultimately a matter of the heart. Worship is about the motivation behind our actions, and because of that worship, true worship, is hard to properly define. A dictionary definition is “honoring with excessive adoration.” That works, but it is too clinical and I am not sure where in that definition praising someone with an “atta boy” turns into excessive adoration. St. Augustine tried to define worship by writing that “a Christian should be alleluia from head to foot.” That is to say, every part of our being and sense of self should be tied into the idea of praising God. This gets closer to understanding worship, it defines that worship is a matter of the heart, worship is less an act and more of an outward expression of something deep within us. I think if we turn to the teachings of Jesus we can find the final piece needed for a fuller definition of what is worship. In Matthew 6:21 Jesus says “For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” Our treasure are the things that we believe to have the greatest value to us. Our heart, that thing deep within us, that motivates us to actions, forms our beliefs and convictions, is influenced by what we value the most. I think if we take all of these things and put them together we get a complete definition of worship. Worship is when we are driven from the core of our being to heap praise and adoration upon that which is most valuable to us.
We all have treasures, things of immense value (not necessarily immense wealth, but immense value) in our lives. Those things that are most valuable to us, form us and shape us for where our treasure is there are heart will be also. This means that all of will worship that which we treasure the most. We will devote our time, resources, and very self to those things. Through these actions we will heap praise and adoration, we will worship, that which we treasure. Many, many people worship things that are not divine. Sometimes people worship the material, Jesus preached often about money, and its corrupting influence. There are clearly people who worship money. There are people who worship goals. They wish to succeed at something, and that driving goal becomes all consuming. In my experience, I have seen more than one teenager worship the sport the play. There are people who worship ideologies. In our partisan and polarizing political climate this seems to becoming more common. We probably all know someone who seem to idolize their political ideologies. This is one of the chief complaints that Jesus leveraged against the Pharisees time and time again. The Pharisees were more in love with the idea of following God than they were actually in love with God.
We can say what worship is, but what motivates us to do it. Why do we worship? This morning’s scripture points to our motivations for worship. It could be said that on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered the city, he was being worshipped. People were heaping honor and adoration upon him. One of the mysteries that we wrestle with annually is how a crowd could welcome Jesus shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and then less than week later another crowd is shouting “Crucify him!” Even if the crowd on Good Friday were different people, where was the dissenting voice? Where were those people who were worshipping on Palm Sunday, why were they so very silent at Jesus’ trial? Perhaps the reason is in why they were worshipping Jesus. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and that was a very intentional act to fulfill a prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9 “See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey.” The people who waved branches, and shouted Hosanna, also knew what this meant. This verse was long understood to refer to the coming of the messiah, and when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was declaring that is who he is. This time was a time ripe with messianic expectation, and many people had a certain expectation of what the messiah would be. They wanted a conquering king, someone who end Roman oppression, and restore Israel to a mighty and renowned kingdom. This is why they were shouting Hosanna. Hosanna means “save” and they were proclaiming salvation, not for freedom from sins but for freedom from Roman political control. This is why one of the shouts recorded is “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” They were wanting a political messiah and an earthly kingdom. Perhaps, the reason why the support for Jesus vanished between Sunday and Friday is because the people worshipping Jesus on Sunday were not worshipping Jesus at all. Rather, they were worshipping the idea of they thought the messiah could be. They were not praising Jesus for who he is, but rather they were praising who they wanted him to be. They were not honoring him because they liked him, but rather they liked what they thought he could give them.
Why do we worship God? In his book Crazy Love, Francis Chan ask the penetrating question, “Do we worship God because we love God for who he is or do we worship God because we like his stuff?” Too often, we boil down the essence of faith to salvation. Do we love and worship God for who He is or do we worship God for his stuff? Do we worship God, because God is the incredible, magnificent, Creator of the Universe who loves us or do we worship God because we care more about material blessings and eternal paradise than we do just knowing God’s love? What is our motivation for worshipping God?
Psalm 122 is one of many scriptures that accurately describes what our motivation for worshipping God should be. In the message paraphrase verse 1 has been rendered as “When they said let’s go to the house of the Lord, my heart leapt with joy.” Worship is a matter of the heart. Our motivation should come from deep within us. Psalm 122 continues a few verses down, “All God’s tribes go to worship, to give thanks to the name of God is what it means to be Israel.” To give thanks to God, is what it means to be God’s people. Our motivation for worship should be a deep outpouring from within us where we praise God, where we give adulation to God because we are thankful, and we have so much to be thankful. Let’s take out of the equation all of the rich ways that God has blessed us. Let’s take out of the equation the promise of an eternal life. Even then, we have so much to be thankful for. Worship is when we thank God for loving us, even when we are at our most unlovable, God still love us. Even when we are full of hate and vitrol, sin and evil, God still loves us. Even when we flee and run from God, when we swear we want nothing to do with him, God still loves us. God loves us so much that he sent his son, a part of himself. And this Word of Life, this Jesus one day rode into a city on a donkey to the cheering of the crowd to know that at the end of the week is bruised and torn body would be nailed to a tree. We can be thankful that he did this out of a great love for us, so that we can be reconciled and restored to know, feel, and be assured that God loves us. Are you thankful? I am so (SO) thankful for that love. In fact, my heart leaps with joy. This is why all Glory, honor, and praise belongs to my God forever and ever and ever.
Worship is a spiritual discipline, because we should not worship just when we feel like it. In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson writes, “feelings are great liars, if we worshipped only when we felt like it, there would be precious little worship.” If we worshipped when we felt like it, then perhaps we would be like the crowd, present at the beginning of the week and absent at the end. Worship of God should be a genuine outpouring of thanksgiving and adoration. This is a lesson that a church in Watford England in the 90’s. This church was growing by leaps and bounds. It was becoming a mega church in spiritually starved Europe, and it was a real trend setter in the contemporary worship movement. They had a state of the art sound system, a complete concert ready lighting rig, and a band that was of top, tier professional quality. Despite all of this, the pastor was very uneasy. He felt that too many people in the congregation had become passive observers in the service. They had ceased to be worshippers and had become an audience. So this pastor did an incredible thing, he announced they were shutting it all down, the lights, the sound system, the band, everything. They were going to fast from all of that until they learned again how to be active participants in worship not just passive consumers. There was awkward silence and attendance plummeted, but slowly, genuine singing started to come from the heart. People would offer up spontaneous prayers of praise. Slowly, over time the band, the sound system, the lights came back. Now though, for this congregation it was not just a show, it was a genuine expression from deep within their hearts. Matt Redman, a member of this congregation, wrote a song at the end of this experience. He wrote, “When the music fades, when all is stripped away, and I simply come. Longing to bring something that is worth, that will bless your heart. I am coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you Jesus.
The heart of worship is a changed heart that shouts for joy because of how great God is. We worship because we know deep in our heart that God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are truly worthy of adoration and praise. We worship because we are thankful. We worship because that is who we are, the redeemed people of God. May we praise and worship our God and our Savior Jesus Christ. Not just this day, not just this morning, but always. No matter where were we are, no matter how we feel, may we be willing to shout with joy “hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”