“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Due to attempts to curb COVID-19 with social distancing, the chances are that most of you who are hearing this sermon are not here in the same building as me, but are listening livestream or recorded on Facebook or our parish website from your own home. Sadly, there will be few palm branches waving today, and the pews will probably still be empty on Easter. Many of you have expressed thanks for having this opportunity to hear God’s Word, but you hope that it doesn’t go on for long. And that’s an understandable, even laudable sentiment, for worship is meant to be a physical, corporate activity.
Throughout history there have been other times when God’s people found it difficult to gather for worship for a season. Because of their idolatry and failure to repent, many of the people of Judah were hauled away to Babylon. For 70 years, they longed to return to Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple. In the meanwhile, the faithful continued to hear the Word of God and sing the songs of the faith. Though some returned and rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple, many remained scattered across foreign lands. In this Diaspora, the people developed worship practices that could take place in the home and smaller local assemblies.
Though certainly a sad turn of events for those who longed to gather for worship back at home, God used the Diaspora to spread His Word to most corners of the known world. The synagogue worship that we see Jesus and His disciples participate in the New Testament developed because of the necessity and desire to worship even though far from home. Much of our modern liturgical practices are drawn from traditions that go back to this synagogue worship.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the early church remained headquartered in Jerusalem for the first few years. The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And day by day, they attended the temple together and broke bread in their homes, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Then there arose a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the apostle were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, and those who were scattered went about preaching the Word.
God indeed is able and does work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. He did in the Babylonian captivity and the Diaspora, and He will continue do so during our own “social distancing” as well. If nothing else, our recent “Lenten fast from worship” provides us with an opportunity to consider the place and importance of worship in our lives.
The word worship literally means to ascribe worth to someone or something. And this is certainly what we do when we worship God. We ascribe to Him worth. We confess that He alone is worthy to be praised. But true Christian worship does not come from us giving things to God, rather it comes from God giving to us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. This is why God came in the flesh—to give His life as a ransom for all. So Christian worship is God’s gift to us. He is the one who gives us our worship. He does this by giving us faith through His Word. So to worship God means to trust in His mercy, receiving from Him what He gives.
This is why we often call worship “Divine Service.” It is God serving us. We cannot properly worship God unless He first serves us. Therefore, we gather for worship. We gather around the Word of God, which reveals Christ our Savior and strengthens our faith in Him by His Holy Spirit. Even our hymns, psalms, and songs of praise speak of what Christ has done for us. They aren’t just us telling God how much we love Him. They are filled with the teaching of our Lord Jesus that comforts us with the forgiveness of sins bought by His very blood. To worship God means to receive from God salvation from our sins.
This has always been the nature of true worship. God’s people have always worshiped in this way. The psalms were the songs of the church, penned by David, Moses, Solomon, and certain priests in the temple as they were led by the Holy Spirit. They were written for worship and prayer. And they speak of the salvation that God reveals, delivers, and promises for the sake of Christ.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, the crowds worshiped Him. Their praises were comprised of the Word of God. In fact, the words that served as their songs of worship and praise came from Psalm 118. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” These words would have been familiar to any Israelite on his way up to Jerusalem for one of the annual feasts. Psalm 118 was one of the songs of ascent the people of Israel would sing as they ascended to Jerusalem, up to Zion, up to the temple, the house of the Lord.
Psalm 118 was the last of the so-called Hallel psalms. Hallel is Hebrew for “praise.” It is where we get the word, Halleluiah, which means “Praise the Lord.” These psalms were sung in the temple while the Passover lambs were being slain and also sung in the homes as the people ate the Passover dinner: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” This is how they worshiped—by trusting in God’s mercy that He reveals in His Word.
So when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, the crowds would have had this psalm pretty-well stuck in their heads. As they waved their palm branches and laid their cloaks on the ground, they sang “Hosanna!” the Hebrew word meaning, “Save us!” This comes from this psalm, too: “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!” They saw Jesus as the Lord, the Son of David, who came to be their King. As the Prophet Zechariah foretold, they beheld their King who brings salvation. And so they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They worshiped Jesus by receiving the salvation that He was bringing.
And how would He bring this salvation? He would bring it with humility, mounted on a donkey. He would ride in as a humble King, not with force and armies, but with peace. The Prince of Peace comes into Jerusalem to bring salvation. Salvation from what? From political unrest? From bondage to the Roman Empire? No, these things were only outward struggles. Jesus came to bring salvation from our real enemy, which proceeds from our own hearts. He came to save us from our sins.
Jesus, the Son of David, came to lead us in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. And this path didn’t lead to the king’s palace. It doesn’t lead to Capitol Hill or to the White House. It led to the cross—to the altar of God—where Jesus would give Himself as the sacrifice for sins. So, as the people confessed this from the Word of God spoken by the psalmist, they worshiped Him. So this is how we worship—the same way the crowd in Jerusalem worshiped—by receiving from Christ, our King, salvation from our sins.
The people also shouted these words from Psalm 118: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” These were words that the priests in the temple would sing to the people who brought their sacrifices. He who comes in the name of the Lord is the one who brings the lamb for the sacrifice. So the people, trusting in their King, called Jesus the one who comes in the name of the Lord. In other words, they called Him the one who brings the Sacrifice. He was bringing Himself as the Lamb for the burnt offering. This is how He would be our King. This is how He would become our righteousness. This is how He would become our salvation, just as the psalm goes: “I thank You that You have answered me and have become my salvation.”
Jesus would become our King by being rejected by His own people, just as the psalm sings: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” He would reveal His salvation as our righteous King by giving Himself up to death, rescuing us from the wrath of God that comes against our sins. By this sacrifice He would bear the darkness of our sins in order to give us light through His Word.
Just as the psalm also sings, “The Lord is God, and He has made His light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!” Our Lord—our King—gave Himself to be bound and brought as a Lamb to the altar of His cross. He is, as we just sang in our preceding hymn, “Paschal Lamb, by God appointed, All our sins on Thee were laid; By almighty love anointed, Thou hast full atonement made. All Thy people are forgiven Through the virtue of Thy blood; Opened is the gate of heaven, Reconciled are we with God.” To worship is to receive this through faith, to cling to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, which pours from the side of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
This is why we sing the words from Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” We acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of the heavenly hosts. Heaven and earth are full of His glory, yet He deigns to meet us sinners on this altar in His very body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. So, we also sing, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.”
Many people argue that how we worship really doesn’t matter, as long as it’s done to God’s glory. They will say that it isn’t necessary for us to hold to the way our fathers in the faith have worshiped, because the style is not what matters. But they miss the point. We retain the historic liturgy of our church not simply because we like the style or that it is “our way” of giving glory to God. No, we retain the liturgy because it clearly confesses the Gospel and it connects us to Christians all around the world, throughout the centuries. This song has been sung by Christians during the Service of the Sacrament for over 1500 years. When Martin Luther reformed the liturgy, he only removed the parts that obscured or attacked the purity of the gospel. But he kept this part in because it so beautifully confesses the Gospel, and until maybe a generation ago, all Lutherans everywhere sang this song for that very reason. So to remove this song from the Service of the Sacrament is to remove the comfort that generations of Christians have received as they belted out, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest!”
But we don’t remove it. We don’t get bored by it. We keep this song in our worship, because this is how we worship: We welcome our Lord who came in the name of the Lord to give Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins, and He now invites us to eat and drink the body and blood that won for us salvation. This is a part of the liturgy that has always been sung by Lutherans, because it expresses what we receive through faith and hold on to in confidence. Our Holy Lord and God, who has come to take away our sins, comes to save us.
So remember what you are praying when you sing, “Hosanna!” You are praying, “Save us!” You are asking for His salvation right now. The sin that haunts your conscience today is the sin that Christ bore on the cross 2,000 years ago, and He comes this very hour to blot it out from your heart. Your sins against God. Your sins against your neighbor. Your neighbor’s sins against you. This is the salvation that your King comes to bring you in this Sacrament.
And for those times, like today, when you can’t gather with your brothers and sisters to receive His body and blood? The King still comes to you in His Word. Remember His promises: “I am with you always to the end of the age.” “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of you.” Your King comes to you in His Word. And by His great goodness and grace, He provides many ways to bring that Word to you.
Once again, the Church finds herself in Diaspora, scattered, this time by disease. As those early Christians did when they fled to the corners of the earth to escape persecution, let us carry our faith with us so that, even though, for a time, we may not gather in our church buildings made with hands, we may still meet with Christ, God’s dwelling place among His people. Be constant in prayer. Be constantly in your Bible, hymnal, and Catechism. Be constant in sharing the love of Christ with your neighbors, especially those who are in need. Let the Word sustain you, and through you let the Word shine upon all those you meet.
We pray that we will soon be able gather together with the Lord and His salvation. While we wait, we trust in the Lord’s timing and His good and gracious will. We therefore also pray and sing: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.