Zeal for Thy House
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Have you ever gotten hooked on something? There used to be an early childhood reading program called, “Hooked on Phonics.” The idea was, once children get the hang of sounding out words, they can read almost anything. So, you help the child sound out the first syllable of a word – ka – then the second – ta – then the third – la – then the consonant – k – you put them together, and – Voila!, you have the word: Cadillac! Baby wants a Cadillac!
Well, that may not be a good example, but you get the point – once kids figure out the system, they get hooked on phonics and they start sounding out every word, every sign, everything they see. It opens up a whole new world of discovery to them, to the point they can’t get enough of it. They’re hooked.
So, let me ask again, have you ever gotten hooked on something? Have you ever taken an interest in something and, the more you delved into it, the more you wanted to know and do, to the point that it consumed your every waking moment?
I have a friend who got interested in World War II wartime advertisements. Don’t ask me why. We were in seminary at the time, and, between classes, he’d traipse off to Half-Price Books and browse through old copies of Life Magazine. When he found one of particular interest, he’d buy the magazine and take it home. They sold for fifty cents a piece back then. In time, his interest in Life Magazine exceeded his interest in wartime advertisements. He started collecting all the back issues he could find. He was hooked. I don’t know how long it took him, but he managed to acquire at least one copy of every issue of Life from 1936 through 1946. You should see it. It’s quite a collection.
So, what’s all this got to do with the scripture lessons for today? First, let’s look at the Old Testament. The Psalmist cries out,
“Save me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck!
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.
I have come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me…
Because for your sake, I have borne reproach.
Shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my brothers,
an alien to my mother’s children.
For the zeal of your house consumes me…” (Psalms 69:1-2, 7-9)
Let’s assume the Psalmist was a devout Jew. Perhaps he was a cantor or scribe. He’s kept the kosher food laws, strictly observed the Sabbath and studied the Torah day in and day out. I picture him with a long beard, his sideburns curled into ringlets, with a phylactery on his forehead so as to keep God’s Word on his mind at all times. He stands out because of his zeal.
And because of his zeal for God, he has become the object of ridicule. And so he cries out, “Because for your sake, I have borne reproach…For the zeal of your house consumes me…”
Still he keeps the faith. He can live with the scorn. All that matters to him is to be faithful and sing God’s praise. And so, he says, “But as for me, my prayer is to you, Yahweh…”
This is where the gospel lesson for today ties in. Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was Passover. The city was crowded with faithful pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean who’d come to make a sacrifice to Yahweh and pay their yearly Temple tax.
When he got to the Temple it was a beehive of activity. Merchants were everywhere selling animals without blemish. I suppose you could fault them for making a profit, but then, they were providing a service. Pilgrims couldn’t be expected to haul a bull or a ram or even a baby lamb several hundred miles. Besides, the animals had to be spotless. Wary Temple inspectors were sure to find fault.
And what about the coins required for the Temple tax? Every country had its own currency. Moneychangers were a necessary evil, even if their rates were high.
The point is this was the accepted practice of the day. What right did Jesus, a carpenter’s son from Galilee, have upsetting the status quo? Well, he didn’t have any right. And even if he did, he should’ve taken his case before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council. But then, he wasn’t asking for permission. He was absolutely and totally devoted to God, and nothing was going to stop him. And so, John says,
“He made a whip of cords, and threw all out of the temple…
he said, ‘Take these things out of here!
Don’t make my Father’s house a marketplace!'”
It was then, as the chaos erupted, that his disciples remembered the words of the Psalmist, “Zeal for your house will eat me up.” (John 2:15-17) It was prophetic: Jesus’ zeal for God’s house would lead to the Cross.
So, what do you think? Is anything that important, that it would be worth losing your life over?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought so. He was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany, who joined the resistance effort in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plot was discovered, and he was arrested and imprisoned. In his letters from prison, Bonhoeffer expressed no regret. He said he would rather die courageously defending a noble cause than to be associated with Hitler’s great atrocities. In the end, his zeal led to his death. Only his memory and his writings survive.
Looking back on the history of this nation, you’ll find any number great patriots who were willing to devote their lives and their fortunes to the cause of freedom.
One of my most treasured Christmas gifts this year was the book, 1776, by David McCullough. It’s a brilliant historical account of George Washington and the key role he played in defeating the British and establishing the Declaration of Independence. Month after month, Washington weathered the harsh winters of New England and the criticism of British sympathizers, yet he didn’t give up. Often, he longed to go back home to Mt. Vernon, instead, he stayed the course because the cause of freedom was too great. In the end, his zeal led to the sovereignty of our nation and to his rightful place of honor as the father of our country.
The more you’re committed to Christ and his kingdom, the less the things of this world matter. The cause of peace and love and justice becomes all consuming.
That’s just the opposite of what the early Christians in Laodicea experienced. They weren’t zealous about anything. Consequently, they were the target of one of Jesus’ harshest judgments. He said,
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.
I wish you were cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold,
I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16)
With all the building renovation and expansion going on around here, it’s not hard to find folks who have a zeal for God’s house. I won’t call their names, but I’d like to recognize the members of the building committee who’ve spent countless hours with the architect, the contractor and the various workers to coordinate all the different aspects of the construction. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
I’d also like to recognize our Business Manager, Andy Pate, and what has become a new component of the Property Committee – a little subcommittee that’s overseeing the sprucing up of the office area as you come in the Carter Creek entrance. They’ve spent a lot of time and effort enhancing this area where visitors often get their first impressions of the church.
Of course, the Property Committee and the Worship Committee have been working behind the scenes forever to keep the church functional and attractive. And individuals like Jack Curry are unsung heroes when it comes to everyday maintenance. We have a lot of people around here who share a zeal for God’s house.
But it’s not simply God’s house – i.e., the church building and property – we’re called to be zealous about; more importantly, it’s the work of the church and its outreach into the community.
As the little children’s song goes,
“The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple;
The church is not a resting place,
the church is the people.”
In that regard, there are a lot of people in this congregation whose zeal for the gospel is nothing short of remarkable. For example, I know of one individual whose passion in life is to see that every family in the Bryan-College Station area has the opportunity to own a comfortable, affordable home. That’s a tall order, but she’s not going to rest until it becomes a reality.
I know of another individual who’s doing everything humanly possible to put drunk drivers off the streets. And another who wants to make sure every child who gets into the court system because of abuse or neglect or domestic violence has a caring adult on his/her side.
Want to hear about more? Let me tell you about a member of this congregation who spends one day a week distributing food at the Church Food Pantry. Or another who devotes her day off to delivering Meals on Wheels. Or another who volunteers during the week to work on Habitat houses. There’s no telling how many hundreds of hours he’s donated.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I find your footprints all over town. And it makes me proud to know that members of this congregation are out there putting their faith into action, sharing the Good News of God’s love, not only in word, but in deeds of loving kindness.
And that leads to my closing comment. It comes in the form of a question: What do you think?
When it comes to being zealous for God’s house – i.e., for Christ and his kingdom – is there such a thing as too much zeal?
I think not. I think the more zealous you are for Christ and his kingdom and the more you taste the fruits of eternal life, the more you want. You get hooked, so that the more you do, the more you want to do, until it becomes your burning passion – a fire within that can’t be quenched.
In 1898, a salesman named John Nicholson stayed at the Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin. The hotel was full, and he was asked to share his room with another man named Samuel Hill. Just before going to bed, Nicholson began reading his Bible. Hill asked if he could join in. The two men read the Bible and prayed together. They became friends. Long story short, they stayed in touch, and, in time, formed an association for traveling salesmen with the goal of placing a Bible at the front desk of every hotel in the United States. That soon grew to placing a Bible in every room of every hotel in the United States! And that grew also to placing a Bible in the hands of every man and woman in the military, every child enrolled in public school and every patient in every hospital in the country.
Well, the names of John Nicholson and Samuel Hill are long forgotten, but, to this day, their passion, their zeal, lives on in the work of the group they formed – the Gideons.
“Zeal for your house will eat me up,” the Psalmist cried. It consumed Jesus, as well. It’ll consume you and me, if we let it. But then, can you think of a better way to go?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2003 Philip W. McLarty
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.