Second Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2019
The year 1984 saw the release of one of the most beloved movies of the decade, an Academy Award-nominated film called The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid stars Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, and it tells the story of a teenager named Daniel LaRusso who is violently bullied at his new high school. Daniel turns to his apartment’s handyman, a kind and generous Japanese immigrant named Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate, initially for self defense and eventually for competition.
However, Daniel quickly learns that his karate training is nothing like he expected. Each morning, he arrives early to Mr. Miyagi’s home for instruction, and each time, he is given a long, repetitive, boring menial chore to spend the entire day doing: wax Mr. Miyagi’s many cars, sand the floor of Mr. Miyagi’s enormous deck, paint Mr. Miyagi’s house, and paint both sides of the long fence that surrounds Mr. Miyagi’s beautiful backyard. What is worse, Daniel is forced to complete these tasks in very specific ways enforced under his teacher’s watchful eye.
After several days of this, Daniel has had enough. He yells and curses at Mr. Miyagi, turns away and announces he is quitting. He is done being Mr. Miyagi’s slave and he is done with not learning any karate at all. And yet, as he is walking away, Mr. Miyagi calls him back. He stands before Daniel and famously says to him, “Show me sand the floor,” and Daniel obeys, showing the circular motions he has learned. “Show me wax on, wax off,” and again, Daniel obeys. “Show me paint the house,” and “Show me paint the fence.” Each time, Daniel shows the motions he used for each task.
And then, in what is perhaps the most famous scene in the film, Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel what has really been going on all of this time. The chores were exercises to get him into shape and the very specific motions used to do all of those chores were all defensive karate moves designed to protect him from harm.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, a Sunday wherein we once again encounter the fiery preaching of John the Baptist. As someone who preached his first sermon almost twenty-six years ago, I can tell you that John quite likely would have had a difficult time in my seminary preaching classes. He certainly is not much of a storyteller and his illustrations consist of calling his listeners “a brood of vipers,” a barren tree that is about to be chopped down with an ax, and winnowed chaff about to be burned in a fire.
And to think, people travelled from out of town to hear this guy.
Each December, we gather together, and we hear John preach, and if we are honest, we think to ourselves, “I am glad he is not my pastor.” What makes him worse is that John’s preaching has no sense of timing. If he just thought for a moment about his audience, he would realize that it was the holiday season, that people were harried and frazzled and were just looking for a little comfort and joy for a change, not this prophetic diatribe about sin, judgement, and the end of the age.
If John’s message makes us uncomfortable, it is likely having John’s desired effect. Eating insects and wearing scratchy camel hair can do that to a man. And yet, John is completely unconcerned with our delicate sensibilities, and he certainly flies in the face of the false notion that politics has no place in preaching, evidenced by his willingness to raise his voice when King Herod Antipas divorced his wife Phasaelis to marry Herodias who divorced Herod Antipas’ brother Herod Phillip I to marry Herod Antipas.
Of course, John was executed for that sermon. Perhaps there should be a seminary preaching course on that topic, one titled “When you preach your sermon, use your head, don’t lose your head.”
We hear John’s sermon, and before long, we can feel the sun on our faces out there in the wilderness, and the dirt beneath our sandals, and the scratch and itch of the camel hair shirt, and we wonder why we made this journey in the first place.
And yet, I argue that this sermon of John’s, this morning’s text, these very words, just may be some of the most hopeful and encouraging words in the New Testament, and I will tell you why.
The late American Baptist pastor and seminary professor David L. Bartlett puts it this way: “We all discover this Advent, not only that we are cherished for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. That can be good Advent news, because if God does not care about what I do, I will begin to suspect that God does not actually care about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into Christ’s family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.” (1)
If, in fact, John the Baptist, even with all of his fiery rhetoric, truly believed that there was no potential in us, that there was nothing redeemable in our lives, and that there was no hope for our future, I seriously doubt that he would have wasted his time out there in the dangerous wilderness, eating insects, and shouting at people about how bad they are and how there was no hope for them in this world.
No. Not at all. John the Baptist clearly believes that by the power of God in our midst, there is more to this life than mere doom and destruction. He clearly believes that indeed God does care about us, and that God cares about us enough to care about what we do because God knows what we do both reflects and directs who we will be. As Aristotle wrote around 350 BC, “virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.”
So then, the good news of today’s not-seeming-like-good-news message from John the Baptist is this: people can actually change. We can change our minds and we can change our perspectives and we can change our lives. We can indeed become more Christlike. Life can be different and life can be better.
If Aristotle is correct, that our virtues are formed by our willingness to do the right actions, then Advent (and for that matter, Lent) can be marvelous, God-given opportunities to evaluate our everyday actions, to examine how we are living our lives and expending our precious, limited time on earth. The word repentance comes from the Greek metanoia, which means “to turn one’s mind around,” and it stands to reason that if our minds are turned, then our lives, and our actions, will follow.
In The Karate Kid, Daniel could not see the purpose behind anything he was doing. It was just one, boring, menial task after another, until it wasn’t, until he learned that all that he was doing, all of those actions, were preparing his mind and body for what was to come, which included the restoration of his dignity and the glory of victory. Likewise, this life, this new life to which John calls us in this morning’s text on this Second Sunday of Advent is a life preparing us for what God has in store next, as the Christ arrives in our very midst, heaven touches earth, and things get so very, very real.
I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent with the grieving and the sick and the dying, hours in which I have lost count of the times someone has said to me in the hospital, the funeral home, or my study at church “I just don’t see how people without a church family do it, how they go through this. I just could not do it without my church, its people, and the hope they bring.”
I have been pastoring long enough to know that this kind of worldview is seldom, if ever endowed in a person readymade. Instead, it is constructed in our hearts and minds, one small, sometimes seemingly-insignificant action at a time. It will always be easier to not worship God. I know as well as you do how warm that bed can be on a dark Sunday morning. It will always be easier to pass on the evening Bible study, especially when the sun seems to go down around 4:30 in the afternoon. There will always be something else on which to spend our money. There will always be another demand upon our time. There will even always be a word that comes to mind to speak that is not a word of grace and forgiveness, that is not a word that builds up instead of tearing down.
And yet, our God knows, and this morning’s text confirms, that our God cares enough about us to care about what we do, because what we do shapes who we are and reveals whose we are. And yes, there will always be times for each of us when the demands of Christian discipleship and the offerings of the church will seem like “painting the house” or “sanding the floor” or any other menial task for which, in the present, there seems to be no obvious purpose.
And yet, in those things large and small that we simply do out of faith, and sometimes the most desperate hope, are things that God is using in your life and my life and our life together to prepare us for the weight of glory in ways God alone can see.
I once had a man in my church who served as that congregation’s lay leader. He was a kind, gentle, soft-spoken man, a loving husband and father who was a retired army Colonel. One night, in a Disciple Bible study, he told the class about his time as a young man in boot camp and how much he hated every single minute of it. This gentle, soft-spoken man told us how he would lay in his bunk at night and fantasize about all the ways he was going to one day murder his drill instructor.
“And then,” he told us, “I found myself in combat, and I realized that man I so hated was only trying to save my life.”
If John the Baptist is God’s chosen agent to get our attention, then so be it. If his fiery rhetoric shakes us out of the slumber borne of our belief that nothing in our lives can ever change, then so be it. If images of slithering snakes and chopping axes and burning chaff help prepare us for the coming of the Christ into the world and all the myriad ways that he will bless us, challenge us, and cause us to grow so that we may be God’s agents of transformation of this world that God loves enough to enter as a fragile, trembling infant in a backwater town in an occupied land, then glory to God in the highest.
Our lives can change. Our circumstances can change. God is working in our lives and situations in ways seen and unseen, expected and surprising, persistent and never giving up on us, preparing us for life with the Christ, for the weight of glory, and for all that is to come.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.