The Importance of Worship

Mark 11. 1-11

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Several years ago, on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was released and was a big hit. Almost 2,000 years after it happened, the death of Jesus was once again front page news. The movie was controversial – some loved it and others were disturbed by it. Some found great truth in its message, and others thought it reinforced a much too narrow understanding of the passion of Jesus.

The word passion comes from the Latin noun passio which means suffering and we think of Jesus’ suffering his last day of life. We now also define passion as dedicated enthusiasm. There are things for which we are passionate. It seems appropriate to use passion both ways in reference to Jesus and to his last week. As we journey together this Lenten season through the Last Week of Jesus, we walk with him toward his passion on the cross, and along the way we will seek to know the passions of Jesus – what he taught, what he lived for and what he ultimately died for.—

The Last week began on a spring Sunday in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year and the most festive time for Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands of people would journey to the temple in Jerusalem for the week. There were two processions coming into Jerusalem on that day. Approaching from the west was an imperial procession carrying Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. The governor always came to Jerusalem for Passover just case there was any trouble. Pilate’s procession was big and majestic and displayed Roman power and Roman theology. Pilate’s parade was long and fancy and loud and like the Roman rulers before him was called “son of God, lord, and savior” and he was to be worshiped.

Approaching from the East was a procession of peasants surrounding a simply dressed man riding on a young donkey. Followers and sympathizers spread their cloaks and leafy branches on the road shouting, “Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision of a kingdom, an alternative power and a true theology of God.

Both processions were headed toward the Temple, the physical center of Judaism King Herod had rebuilt the Temple to also house the central economic and political institutions for the government. Inside the Temple complex was a palace where Pilate stayed when he came to town and another living space for the High Priest Caiaphas who was appointed by Pilate and Caiaphas was deposed when Pilate was. You can imagine the implications of having a priest who answered to the Roman Governor. The Temple that was originally built to be a house of prayer and worship now also housed the records of debt and taxes for Rome and the High Priest was friendly with the government rulers.

Marcus Borg and John Crossan’s book called The Last Week, the basis for this sermon series for Lent uses the Gospel of Mark to follow Jesus through his last week of life for two reasons. Mark was the first gospel written and was the starting place for all the other gospels. And Mark is the only gospel that clearly defines each day in Jesus’ last week beginning on what we call Palm Sunday and ending with the empty tomb on Easter. He gives us the most to work with.

Many, if not most, Christians pay no attention at all to Holy Week other than Easter. Anothers acknowledges Palm Sunday, maybe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Very few of us, except devout Catholics and Orthodox Christians recognize each Holy day. And since there is so much to learn and understand about the passions of Jesus – we will spend all 6 weeks of Lent on each day of Jesus’ last week. While it is not necessary, if you would like to deepen your learning, the link to purchase the book is on our website.

The following day, Monday, the day after Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, he returned to the temple. On his way he saw and cursed a fig tree that was not bearing fruit. When he got to the temple, he saw what was happening and cursed the temple for the same reason, it was not bearing fruit. It was not bearing the fruit of the spirit, it was not bearing the fruit of justice. The temple had sold out to the Roman Empire. The people were going through the motions of worship as required by The Law, but God’s spirit was missing – God’s passion was not present.

Jesus’ message in the gospel of Mark is all about the kingdom of God and the way to that kingdom. And on Monday, Jesus did not find the kingdom or even the way to the kingdom at the Temple. Now, Jesus was not the first to criticize the temple and worship. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and Hosea did the same. For Jesus and the other prophets, worship was not the problem, it was worship void of justice and spirit that was the problem.

In Jeremiah chapter 7, God tells Jeremiah to stand in front of the temple and confront those who enter to worship. Then speaking through Jeremiah God said, “If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place….”

On Monday of his last week, with a whip in his hand and harsh words on his tongue, Jesus looked very much like a prophet from the Old Testament. We hear the words of Jeremiah echo in the background, “Has this house, which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your sight?” and Isaiah saying, “My house will be known as a house of prayer.”

Don’t come to the temple and pretend to worship while the rest of the week your life is entrenched in injustice. The temple is not where you come to pretend you are faithful or spiritual. You cannot hide in the Temple from the pain and suffering that is all around. The temple is not a den of safety for the high priest who works with and for the Roman Governor.

The money changers were not the problem. Those who sold animals for sacrifice were not the problem. Everyone was expected to give a tithe to the temple, but since the temple did not accept Roman money, you first needed to exchange your Roman coins for Temple coins. And people needed to offer sacrifices for many reasons. If you had your first child, you offered a sacrifice, if you had sinned on purpose or on accident, you offered a sacrifice. If you just harvested a field you offered a sacrifice to the Lord. If you lived far from the temple, traveling with livestock would be difficult. So being able to purchase an animal without blemish for sacrifice once you arrived at the temple was far easier. The money changers and those who sold animals were part of making worship a nice experience. It is like having bulletins and hymnals for you. It is like providing Poinsettias and Easter Lilies for you to purchase in honor or memory of someone. It’s like providing communion bread and grape juice so you do not have to bring them. It was a temple service for worship.

Worship committees and ministries all around the U.S. and the world work together to provide a worship experience that is beautiful and fulfilling. Our worship ministry meets to talk about music and decorations, worship order and food collection, candles and communion and everything in between.

All of these things are important while at the same time none of these things are important. Worship is the reverence, love and devotion we offer God which does not include candles or paraments, bulletins or communion, hymns or preaching. The definition of worship does not include any of these things, but at the same time, all of them can allow us the space and direction to offer reverence, love and devotion to God.

The preparations for worship do not “do justice” but when done well can provide us a safe space to think about the injustices of the world and direct us to how we can overcome them.

In a worship team meeting at another church a few years ago, the chair asked everyone to consider whether or not the worship experience at their church was passionate. One woman noted that the previous Sunday the youth reader messed up the reading of the Scripture which, she said, ruined her worship that day. A man said that some musical instruments were left out on the chancel after being played which made things look messy and that bothered him. They talked about bulletins and crayons for the kids. They talked for 45 minutes about things like this. But not one comment was made about spirit. Not one comment was made in reference to justice. Nothing was said about Jesus! We can get easily distracted by the hows of worship and forget the whys.

The Jews were worshipping in FORM but not in Spirit and they were not worshipping outside of the temple. They were going through the motions, but their worship was not in their hearts and in their lives. Jesus moved the idea of worship from the Temple in Jerusalem to the Temple of his body through his death and resurrection. Jesus asks us to do the same – our worship must be IN Christ.

The temple priests thought they were following God’s will. They were trying to be faithful but they became so focused on the “HOW of worship” they lost sight of the purpose of worship, which is the reverence, love and devotion we offer God on the Sabbath and every other day as well. Jesus told the Samaritan Woman that, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” That worship does not take place in the Temple or the Sanctuary of the Church, but everywhere we go.

When there is good preparation for worship – when the sound system is ready and working, when the choir has rehearsed, when communion is set up, when there has been good work on the sermon, when the liturgist has practiced and the bulletin was printed and the room is warm and the lights are on – we can come together and feel the spirit – we can come together and learn about the way to the kingdom – we can be open to searching for the injustices in our own lives and our own hearts. When worship is done well with passion – it leads us to worship the other 6 days as well.

It is when our worship is only on Sunday and stops at Noon that Jesus gets his radical on. When we become more about the look, the presentation than the teaching and living, Jesus rides into town on a young donkey and overturns tables and chairs. When we are more about worshipping Jesus than following him, he gets dramatic and makes a statement.

Jerusalem, as the center of the Jewish faith and the temple, as the center of Jewish worship needed to be retaken and infused with justice and spirit. Worship needed to be a way of life, not only on the Sabbath. As we begin Lent, let us examine our worship – our worship here at Providence, yes – but also our worship that takes place every other hour of the week.

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