David A. Davis
December 24, 2017
Zeal. It’s such a Bible word. Zeal. Who uses that word? You come upon a refreshingly happy and enthusiastic sales person this time of year. The one who is fighting off exhaustion with being happy, responding to cranky customers with being kind. The person looks you right in eye, with a smile, and says, “Thanks for coming in and have a great holiday!” No one walks away from that and says to themselves, “Wow, what zeal!”
“The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this”. Zeal? Most of the English translations of the Bible stick with the word “zeal” here in Isaiah 9:7. There are not a lot of options that show up in the Hebrew dictionary, synonyms for zeal. Maybe most translations stick with “zeal” because no one could figure out another word to use. That old “Good News” paraphrase says, “The Lord Almighty is determined to do this.” The dictionary defines zeal as “enthusiastic diligence.” Not just enthusiasm, but “enthusiasm for a person, object, or cause.” “The enthusiastic diligence of the Lord of hosts will do this.” Well, that pretty much explains it all, doesn’t it? Or drains the meaning right out of it. Zeal. There’s got to be more to it. More meaning, more theology in it. Zeal.
Cathy and I went to a performance last week of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos next door at Richardson Auditorium. The concertos were played by members of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. Interestingly, all the musicians stand while they play, except those whose instruments require otherwise. Watching and listening to a chamber group play, I am always struck by how they communicate with each other, how they have to listen to one another, how they watch one another, how connected they are. This time I was also struck by how they at times smiled at each other while they were playing. And how much some of them moved, their entire bodies into the music, working it, playing it with such… zeal. Well, except for the French horns. The French horn players didn’t move any muscles they didn’t have to. But the strings, the flutes, the oboes, even the cellists and the bassist. It was sort mesmerizing, sort of like watching a dance.
Then you realize that they weren’t just bouncing around like bobblehead dolls, even the “enthusiastic diligence” was coordinated. It matched the music. You know how Bach takes a theme or melody and works it from instrument to instrument, from the first violin, to the second, to the violas, to the cellos, the flutes, to the oboes, and back again to the violins. The visible zeal coming from those musicians did the same thing. Their stronger, more exaggerated movements followed the pattern. You could watch it in their expressions, their whole bodies, their beings (there, there, there, there). The zeal, their zeal, it’s in the notes. The zeal is in the music. The zeal comes from Bach! It’s part of the DNA of it all. Zeal. There’s more to it.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts. Light shining on those who walk in darkness. Joy rising after the night’s sorrow. Justice and righteousness kissing each other. Faithfulness rising from the ground. Righteousness looking down from the sky. Wordless comfort for those with broken hearts. Unconditional forgiveness for the lost son now home. A loving touch for the sinner the world would sooner stone. Strangers welcomed like angels. The unclean fully embraced. New life rising where there once was none. A child born for us. All of it. That’s all part of God’s zeal. The zeal is in the notes, the gospel notes. It’s in salvation’s music that tells of God’s steadfast love. The zeal is who God is. Our salvation is part of God’s DNA. All that God has done, God is doing, God will do… this. Zeal.
Zeal is more than the enthusiasm of the Lord of hosts. Zeal is God’s very being. And there is this breathtaking coordination to the “enthusiastic diligence” when it comes to the God of our salvation. For the grace of God moves through God’s people. Selfless love, there and there and there. These waves of movement. The movement of God’s healing love. A grieving heart cradled, there and there and there. A waning spirit lifted, there and there and there. The one in need cared for, there and there and there. A voice for justice cries out, there and there and there.
An enthusiastic diligence for the kingdom coordinated by the very Spirit of God. The zeal leaps right from the manger. God’s zeal, the zeal of the Child born for us, the zeal of Immanuel, the zeal of the Messiah, the zeal of the One for whom the angels sing, that zeal at work for you, in you, through you. Zeal. Zeal. The word drips with meaning. The word is fraught with salvation. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” God has done, is going, will do… this.
I know it must have happened somewhere, in some church, during some Christmas pageant, last Sunday, sometime this afternoon or maybe this evening. The pageant, as it unfolded, let’s just say there were some significant kinks. Mrs. Wasley was only in her first year as the volunteer in charge, and if we’re honest, it will probably be her last year.
Nightmare would be too strong of a word to ever use for a Christmas pageant. After all, the term “perfect Christmas pageant” is an oxymoron, a contradiction that flies in the face of the incarnation whereby God took on and made holy all of the frailty of this broken vessel of our humanity. Christmas pageants were made to have rough edges. However, his evening, as the pageant played on Mrs. Wasley was just a bit taken a back by the sharpness of those edges.
Maybe there were a few things she would have done differently. For instance, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have all the second- and third-graders be animals, especially after Billy McCleester asked if they could make animal noises, and Mrs. Wasley said, “Yes, Billy, that might be very realistic.” Or maybe somebody could have pointed out to Mrs. Wasley that it takes a bit of time to dress and move and fix the hair of the heavenly host, especially when it is made up of 32 angels who were all between two and four years old. And maybe in working with the fifth-grade narrators, Taisha and Jerod, who were actually very fine readers, Mrs. Wasley shouldn’t have suggested at the dress rehearsal that they memorize the last scripture lesson so it could have more impact.
Let’s just say it was a rough afternoon in Bethlehem. Mary had been sick all morning and the bucket next to the manger was not to feed the animals, it was for her to use. Joseph may have been a “righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace,” but he was also 13 and decided about ten days ago he wasn’t going to enjoy this pageant at all. So, Mrs Wasley knew it was going to be a struggle, but when the animals arrived behind those shepherds, any hope of heavenly peace vanished. They took over the whole chancel and elevated “lowing” to a new cacophonous art form that seemed to combine beatboxing, slam poetry, and body noises.
And the angels, well, the angel moms and dads working back stage in the fellowship hall were so intent on getting hair and halos right that they completely missed their cue so the heavenly host arrived way after the congregation had sung “Angels We Have Heard on High,” even after the narrator Taisha said four times, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host,” even after the Magi! But when they arrived, they looked good, their halos were perfect and their hair was just right.
Right near the end, right before everyone was to sing “Joy to the World” the narrators, Jerod and Taisha, fought their way to center chancel stage for the last scripture reading. It was from Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us…” They stepped on and over an abundance of sheep and cows, even some dogs and cats and one child who came as a mouse. Angel parents in the congregation were paying no attention to what the narrators where about to say, they were making up for lost googling time and rapidly wearing down their phone charge. Mary was reaching for the bucket and Joseph had rolled his eyes so many times they just about fell out of his head.
So the narrators dutifully put down their script as Mrs. Wasley had told them two hours ago. And they started to recite Isaiah 9:2-7. Aisha had the first part and she did it beautifully, though no one could hear over the barnyard noises still going on. Jerod, now determined to be heard, started with a shout. A shout loud enough that it caught some attention from the animals, the angels, and the paparazzi parents. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…” Jerod had this nailed. He ran through those names perfectly. Mrs. Wasley told him that was the most important part. “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Unfortunately, that was as far as Jerod got with trying to memorize over the mac and cheese and ham they fed the cast between the dress rehearsal and the performance. He started to trip up just after endless peace, and he sort of garbled out something about justice and righteousness. And then he stopped. He just plain stopped right there in front of God and everybody. The sanctuary was now utterly, uncomfortably, awkwardly, painfully silent. Mrs. Wasley was reaching for her script so she could give the cue. Random parents were grabbing pew Bibles to look up Isaiah 9 so they could help. The silence was deafening and seemed like it went on forever. But Jerod, much to his credit, didn’t give up. He didn’t panic. He seemed to gather himself. And with a maturity beyond his years knew that if he said something loud and with authority, most everyone would assume he was right.
And so Jerod, with enthusiastic determination and in the strongest of prophet’s voice, looked up to heaven, and with a unique conflation of scripture and a Nike commercial, Jerod boldly proclaimed and begged and pleaded, “God, just do this!”
As the silence held and before the organist could decide whether to start “Joy to the World” or not, a voice could be heard coming from a few pews back. Someone said in a stage whisper, “That might be the best Christmas prayer I’ve every heard!”
God, just do this!
Zeal. The Zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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