Passionate Worship

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Luke 4:14-20
Psalm 84:1-12

So I think I made a mistake when I asked a few people in the office this question (specifically a couple of women in the office)… “When you hear the word “passion”—what comes to mind?” I had been thinking about the word passion, but their answer did not come to me. One said, “Harlequin novel cover”… “Of course”, I thought… “people in love… holding hands”… to which one person said… “Well, more than that”.

I hate to confess to you and to Sharon that this is not where my mind was going when I thought of the word “passion”. I asked my brother the forester passion fruit. Of course he did!

When I thought of passion (and in my defense, I was sort of thinking in a communal way) when I thought of passion…

I thought of going with some of you to a UNC game or a State game. I love going to ball games. Especially football games. When you go into the stadium, there is energy… excitement… a buzz… expectation… there is passion.

I watch you cheer for your team… you sing your alma mater (they all sort of sound like drinking song to me)… and though I am not able to sing along with you with any of the passion with which you sing… my mind is transported on those Saturdays to walking into temple of my school: Jordan-Hare stadium…

“I was glad when they said to me, you are going to the loveliest village on the plains to watch Auburn play”… singing “War Eagle…” yelling at the refs… Now, that’s passion.

Passion… what comes to your mind…?

Watching your child play soccer or hockey or take a part in a play… you are “into it”… so passionate about it that you sacrifice time and money and energy—gladly because you love your child and want to support them. I know very few parents who are not passionate about their kids and their activities.


Passion… I think of the way some of you feel about politics on the left and right… how some of you are committed republicans or democrats.

One of you told me that you counted the political bumper stickers in our parking lot… .. You are passionate about your party and their ideas… You go to a convention or rally or march and you get revved up! No lack of passion there!


When it comes to scripture, when I hear Passion… my mind turns to the Psalmist who is passionate about God and passionate about worship…

“I was glad when they said to me, let us go into the house of the Lord…. How lovely is your dwelling place  o Lord of hosts, my soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord…my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God!” (Psalm 122)

Can you feel his passion?

  I think of Jesus… going to the synagogue (as was his custom according to Luke) to sing, read the scripture… applying it to his life… Or Jesus heading into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover worship celebration… and transforming that passover worship into a new way to understand who he is.

 Jesus worshipped and worshiped with passion. If you come to worship for no other reason, you should come because Jesus was someone who worshipped… I think Jesus, as was true for many Jews… was passionate about worship.

And some of you are passionate too… about traditional worship… contemporary worship… so passionate in fact that worship wars have erupted in many congregations… and we fight like children over who is right—which style is the one God likes most. Which tells me passion can get out of hand you know…

But what is interesting to me… as I think about it is this: We seem to be passionate ABOUT worship… but what I notice is that the Psalmist is passionate WHEN they worship…

Truth be told, Presbyterians along with most mainliners are often more passionate about worship… than passionate IN worship … have you ever noticed that?

Why is that? I’ve been thinking about that. I think you want to be.

Sometimes I see some swaying breaking through… we argue over clapping and sometimes we worry that it indicates a false understanding of worship as entertainment… and worship is not for our entertainment, it is for God… I hear that… but I also hear that for many it is a sign of expression… a culturally approved way to express yourself…

 I’ve been trying to teach you another way to express your emotion… maybe instead of clapping, can we say amen? Can I get an amen to that?

Sometimes I wonder if we have tried to take the emotion out of worship. We’re not sure God would approve if our emotions got out of hand.

If so, I say, how sad for us and how unlike the way the Psalmist and Jesus experienced worship. And believe it not, how unlike Calvin and even our Presbyterian and Reformed faith.

As John Witvliet, a Calvin worship scholar at Calvin College wrote:

“The Psalms convey the whole range of human emotion, from despondent sorrow to ecstatic joy, from ravaging guilt to profound gratitude… this emotional range in the Psalms is permission-giving in worship. As Ellen Davis notes, the Psalms’ enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts that most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us’ the Psalms model not only humble gratitude but profound doubt and frustration…[1]

John Calvin called the Psalms, “An anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul”; “for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated…”[2]

And how did Calvin use these emotional Psalms—in worship. His hymnbook contained nothing but Psalms. They covered every emotion you needed to express your passion for God and your love for God…

Which then leads me to ask this question for you that I’ve asked myself for years: What is it that creates passionate worship? What would cause someone to leave home today… and to gather here as millions will across the world- more than the total number of people gathered for sporting events on any given Sunday. Even more… what might make one excited about gather to worship God… even glad to come iinto the house of the Lord? To be passionate?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that and here is what I’m thinking as I reflect upon passionate worship.

Passionate worship in any form is the fruit of a healthy relationship with God… and with others…

If you do not have something of a relationship with God and others, you simply cannot fake it. When I go to a UNC game… I do not cheer with the same gusto as I do in the Jordan-Hare temple… stadium… because I do not have the same relationship as some of you do with the Tarheels… though once Joe headed to UNC, I do have more passion.

So I am thinking that when we come here, for those who are glad to come here and like the Psalmist longs to come… that longing is a fruit of a relationship and experience of God.

And what makes worship passionate, is born out of an authentic relationship with God.

I think that is what some college students were telling me a couple of months ago.

I was invited to meet with college students at NCSU to discuss young adults and their relationship with the church. We met in small groups. Helen Anthony was there. One of the questions that interested me was the one asking :

“What would cause them to want to connect to a church… or to join a church? What type of worship is important?”

Those kind of questions.

When I pressed the discussion at my table I was surprised to hear a many college students say that they enjoyed traditional worship. Others enjoyed contemporary and other styles. But the bottom line, one student said was this: It doesn’t really matter to him which style of worship as much as that when we gather at worship  that we worship like we mean it. Key to passionate worship is being authentic—not just going through the motions.

Could it be that the key to passionate worship is not so much taste and style (traditional versus contemporary… praise songs vs 19th century hymns)… but that passionate worship is rooted in an authentic relationship with God?

That makes sense to me as I think about the most moving worship experiences. They have taken place in so many different contexts…

I grew up in very traditional worship in a gothic sanctuary and have been moved to tears singing “A Might Fortress is our God” and the “Hallelujah chorus”… I’ve been moved to deep joy at Montreat Youth Conferences singing more contemporary songs of faith and praise… loving the energy that comes from a renewal of faith… or a worship and music conference with beautiful and artful and creative worship…

Members of the Kirk have worshipped among Guatemalans with drums, electric guitars and loud speakers… with women praying vocally during the pastoral prayers… and I’ve worshipped in the middle of Zambia… following a Presbyterian form of worship… but with a singing led by the drums, not the organ…and praying that was vibrant and full of faith…

I’ve enjoyed worship on an island in Iona – where you might sing a chant… you might sing  a folk song… or you might sing a Billie Holiday jazz tune followed by ‘How can I keep from singing” [3]

And I tell you the truth, the worship was so filled with meaning and faith, I find myself longing and ready to return to that thin place.

Though different in many ways– What is common to every one of those experiences is this: the people of God… who trust God… who long for God… have come prepared for worship… come with a sense of expectation… worship is not an interruption in a schedule, rather worship is the best part of the day… because it is that part of the day when they can come to offer their whole selves – body, mind and spirit—to God… it is that part of their day—their week—when they have coming with faith that desires and longs to be in the presence of the living God.

I think Frederick Buechner said it best when he described worship this way:

“To worship God means to serve God. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done- run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs and so on.

The other way is to do things for him that you need to do: sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give up things for him, tell him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.

A Quaker meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the family service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening—unless there is an element and joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.”[4]

When the Lord observes our worship and receives our worship, may the Lord find us filled with joy and even a bit of foolishness… from time to time. I mean, what could please God more than to see his children gathering together and enjoying one another and enjoying God!


[1] The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship  p 30

[2] Ibid p 41-42

[3] Kimberly McNeill’s experience (Staff associate for Youth Ministry at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill)

[4] Wishful Thinking, p 97-98