Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
If you spend any time around me, then one of the things that becomes known very quickly is that I really like Star Wars. That may not be strong enough, I love Star Wars. My family might use the word obsessed, but that is a little strong. In general Star Wars is known for it’s super fans, and the biggest of those put my little displays of fandom to shame. For instance, Ian Martin makes his own replicas of props and set pieces found in Star Wars from scratch. Some fans go to ocean-crossing lengths. The original set used for Luke Skywalker’s home was actually built in the deserts of Tunisia, and it has been largely left to the elements for forty years. So Mark Dermul took it upon himself to raise funds to go to Tunisia to repair and restore the set so people could continue to make pilgrimages to it. One of the best known Star Wars super fans is Steve Sansweet, who is recognized as having the biggest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world. His collection of Star Wars things has over 300,000 unique items. It is not just Star Wars that has people who take being a fan to that degree. There are Disney fans, Harry Potter fans, and sports fans who take their love of something and turn it up to eleven. While, I do not reach their level-I get it. To take being a fan to the lengths that many people do requires that they truly love it, that they are deeply passionate about it, and they are excited about it over the long haul. It is easy for us to roll our eyes at the people who love their football team so much that they attend games in below freezing weather without a shirt and covered in purple body paint or who take the time to become fluent in a fictional language like Klingon. However, I think as Christians we can learn from these super fans. Their love of their thing is evident, their passion is contagious, and their devotion is radical. We can learn from the super fans, because those descriptions should also be how we are able to describe our relationship with Christ.
Throughout Lent we are going back to basics. We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God do and why we do them. Today, we are getting back to the basics of worship. In the most basic terms worship is our response to who God is and what God has done. A sentimental way to put it is that worship is how we tell God “I love you.” Worship is and should be based in love. As Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline, “Worship is our responding to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father.” Through our worship our love of God should be evident. This morning’s scripture demonstrates though that love is not the only characteristic that should define our worship. Just like the super fans our worship should have a contagious passion and a radical devotion.
Palm Sunday kicks off the beginning of Holy Week and it is a day that we mark annually. For many the story of Jesus entering the temple to the acclimation and palm branches of the crowd is a familiar one. However, there are some oddities to this story we sometimes overlook, and I am not even talking about the fact that the story begins with what is essentially grand theft donkey. The crowd that waived the palm branches and praised Jesus were not as innocent as we like to think. The two most popular Palm Sunday hymns (which we are singing today) help paint an inaccurate picture. Both of them focus on children praising Jesus on Palm Sunday creating a sweet, and innocent scene in our heads. However, that is because both Tell Me the Stories of Jesus and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna were written for Sunday school and they were songs written to help teach children the stories of Jesus. It makes sense they would include a child-centric focus. The primary group that ushered Jesus through the temple gates was not a children’s band. It was a rag-tag collection of radicals.
There were two primary groups that waved the branches and escorted Jesus into the temple on that fateful day. The first were the disciples of Jesus, and as far as the good religious people of the day were concerned they were upstarts. They were radicals who challenged and disrespected the traditions and the way things have always been. They followed the teachings of a rabbi who broke with the way the Pharisees did things. The second group that was there that day were the zealots.
Jesus chose to ride a donkey to fulfill a specific scripture about the messiah. It was thought in the first century that near one of the high holy days like Passover, the messiah might come riding a donkey and entering a specific gate into the temple. Many people had gathered by the gate, just in case this was the year when the Messiah might actually come. These people were zealots, Jews who actively wanted to see the Roman Empire overthrown and Israel become independent again. This is why people were waving branches. Palm branches were a symbol adopted by the zealots that represented Jewish sovereignty. This is also why they shouted Hosanna, roughly translated means “Please save us”, and finds its roots in Psalm 18. Like the palm branch, this is a phrase that was adapted by the zealots. It was their rallying cry, it was their political marketing slogan.
The disciples of Jesus and the zealots both worshipped that day. Both the disciples and the zealots believed Jesus to be God’s chosen one, the messiah. Waving the branches and shouting “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was their genuine, passionate response to what God had done. In the crowd at Palm Sunday we see the same behavior we see in today’s super fans. Their actions were both radical and passionate. Again, when it comes to how we worship I think we can learn from that.
What make something radical is that it goes above and beyond normal expectations. That is what makes the super-fans radical in their fandom. Not every Star Wars fan would finance an international trip just to restore a dilapidated movie set like Mark Dermul did. The disciples of Jesus were radicals because they followed what the establishment considered a fringe rabbi. The crowd on Palm Sunday were radical because they were the ones waiting to welcome Jesus. There were a lot of people in first century Israel awaiting the Messiah, but only the most radical gathered at the gate in hopeful anticipation. If worship is our response to who God is and what God has done; and if radical actions are those that go above and beyond normal expectations, then what would radical worship look like today?
In considering what might be considered radical worship, I do not want us to get stuck on context. For instance, in the context of a traditional worship service hootin’, hollarin’ and dancing in the aisle would be considered radical. Yet, in the context of a charismatic church that would be normal and bowing in quiet reverence would be considered radical. Worship can be radical in any context. There are lots of ways that the way we personally worship can be radical, that is above and beyond expectations. I do want to offer up one idea for what radical worship could look like today. The way we can worship radically is to show up and worship together. When polling is done and people are asked how often they attend a Sunday morning worship service, somewhere around 40% of respondents say they attend regularly. However, a study that tracked actual attendance numbers at thousands of churches, used a statistical model to show that on any given Sunday less than 18% of the American population is at a church worship service. The idea of regular church attendance has changed dramatically, and Church leadership author Carey Nieuwhof points out that even engaged and committed church members attend less Sunday’s a year than they used to. Today, attending just monthly is considered by many to be a regular attender. That is the standard for “regular”, which means gathering with the community of faith to praise and worship God more often is now radical.
Now please hear me on this, my intention in sharing this is not to make you feel guilty. I get it. Health issues can make getting out difficult, work schedules can be inflexible, life is busy and there are a lot of balls to juggle. Just because you are unable to worship with us 50 out of 52 Sundays a year does not mean you are less of a Christian than someone who can. The testimony of scripture is clear that worship is best experienced as a communal event. One of the ways that we can worship radically, that we can go above and beyond is that we gather with other Christians to worship the living God and Jesus, the light of the world as often as we can. How often we can, is different for each person. For some of us as often as we can is every single week, and for others as often as we can is only monthly. The point is not how many times in a given year we gather for worship, the point is that we do it as often as we can. When we can, we do not make excuses, we do not treat worshipping God as just one options among many that we will do if it is convenient for us in the moment. In a culture of unlimited choice where only 17% show up weekly, worshipping as often as we can is radical worship.
More importantly than being radical the way that we worship God should be passionate. Passionate worship is somewhat hard to define, and it is easier to define by what it is not. In his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase writes, “Without passion worship becomes dry, routine, boring, and predictable, keeping the form while lacking the spirit. Insufficient planning by leaders, apathy of worshipers . ..contribute to an experience that people approach with a sense of obligation rather than joy.” Passionate worship is worship that is full of joy. When it comes to the super fans, the way they show their passion is through their investment and excitement. The super fans have fully bought into what they love, and they are always excited about it. These same two elements of investment and excitement are seen in this morning’s scripture. The people spread their own clothes on the ground for Jesus to ride over, and the excitement in the shouts of Hosanna is so tangible it practically jumps off the page.
We are invested in worship when we show up, not just physically but when we are fully present. We are invested when we put our phones or mental to-do list away and engage in the act of responding to who God is and what God has done. Even if we are unfamiliar with a song, or it is not our preferred style we still sing, as John Wesley instructed, “with a great courage. [Do not sing] as if you were half dead or half asleep.” We worship with excitement when we are excited to worship God. That challenges us to ask ourselves, are you excited to worship God? My follow up question is how could you not be? It is through worship we get to respond to God’s goodness and faithfulness. It is through worship that we explore the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. It is through worship we get to celebrate that our sins are forgiven, and it is through worship that we get to proclaim the miraculous truth: Our God is greater than all, yet still knows us each by name. Friends, again I ask, how do you not find that exciting? When we are invested in the act of worshipping and we are excited to be doing it then our worship will always be passionate.
Worship is our response to who God is and What God has done. I cannot speak for you, but when I consider all that God has done for me and all that I understand God to be, I have a whole lot of reasons to worship. Super fans take their love for whatever they are fans are to the next level. In the same way we take our worship to the next level. Through how we worship may our love of God be evident, may passion be contagious, and may our devotion be radical. May we be as invested and excited as those worshippers who greeted Jesus with shouts of Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”