What is worship? How do you worship? Well, 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. It rather comes from God giving to us salvation from our sin and eternal life. This is why God came in the flesh – to give his life as a ransom for all. Jesus says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) So true 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 rescues us from our sins. And this is what he does. This is why we gather for worship. We gather around the Word of God, which reveals Christ our Savior to us 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 – by the pens of the prophets and apostles – 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, written by David, Moses, Solomon, and certain priests in the Temple. They were written for worship. And they speak of the salvation that God reveals, delivers, and promises for the sake of Christ.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds worshipped 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. The people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blesséd is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” These words would have been familiar to any Israelite who was on his way up to Jerusalem for one of the annual feasts. During their pilgrimage the people of Israel would sing certain Psalms known as songs of ascent. This was part of their worship service. As they ascended up to Jerusalem, up to Zion, up to the Temple, the house of the Lord, they would sing these Psalms. And one of them was Psalm 118.
Psalm 118 was also 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 would have been sung in the Temple while the Passover lambs were being slain. It begins with the words that would have been sung also in the homes of the people when they ate the Passover dinner: “Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy 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. They sang “Hosanna!” Hosanna is the Hebrew word meaning, “Save now!” This comes from this Psalm, “Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity.” 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. He came to bring it, so they asked for it with the words they learned from the Psalm. And so they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” In other words, “Son of David, God in the flesh, you alone have salvation for us. Therefore, save us now, O Lord!” They worshiped him 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 physical 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 he would give himself as the sacrifice for sins. So the people confessed this from the Word of God spoken by the Psalmist. And they therefore worshiped him.
So this is how we worship. This is how the crowd in Jerusalem worshiped – by receiving from Christ, their King, salvation from their 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 become our King. This is how he would become our righteousness. This is how he would become our salvation, just as the Psalm goes, “I will praise You, for 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 chief 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, “God is the Lord, and He has given us light; bind the sacrifice with cords 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 goes, as we sing in the hymn, “patient on, grows weak and faint/To slaughter, led without complaint/That spotless life to offer. He bears the stripes, the wounds, the lies/The mockery and yet replies/”All this I gladly suffer.”
To worship is to receive this through faith. It is 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. And this is why we sing what we sing during the Service of the Sacrament. First we sing the words from Isaiah chapter 6: “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” We acknowledge Jesus, who comes to meet us with his own body and blood, as the Lord, the God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of his glory, just as St. Paul teaches (Eph 4:10), “[He] ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” He is the Son of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). And he comes to meet us poor sinners on this altar in his very body and blood that took away our sins. We therefore also sing, “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. Blesséd is he, blessed is he, blessed is he who cometh 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. 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 is what we confess. It expresses what we receive through faith and hold onto 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 now!” 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. It is when you experience the anguish of a guilty conscience, when your sins against your spouse, your children, your mother or father, or your brothers and sisters in Christ have worn you down – when your strength can no more suffice to crucify desires that entice you away from God – it is then when you find true comfort in the salvation that your King comes to bring you in this Sacrament.
And so you find your true worship. You find your true worship in the words of the Psalm. We therefore also pray and sing: “Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endureth forever.” Amen.