In the classic 80s movie The Karate Kid, a teenager named Daniel LaRusso moves to a new city with his mom, where he meets a local handyman: Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi saves Daniel from getting the snot beaten out of him by a local gang of karate-loving teenagers. Daniel watches as Miyagi single-handedly defeats the entire gang with ease, and afterward he begs Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate so he can defend himself against the bullies.
After some initial reluctance, Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel. Daniel shows up at Miyagi’s place, ready and raring to learn some kick-butt karate moves. But he’s completely taken aback when the first thing Miyagi does instead is hand him a sponge and point him toward a dusty car. Daniel spends several days doing chores around Miyagi’s place: Miyagi has him wash and wax his cars; he has him paint a fence, sand a floor, and even paint his house.
By the end of the fourth day, Daniel is understandably fed up with this so-called “training.” He feels like Mr. Miyagi has just tricked him into doing a bunch of household chores for him instead of teaching him anything. So Daniel angrily tells Miyagi that he’s done. But before he can storm off, Miyagi calls him back. And in one of the most famous scenes of the movie, Miyagi asks Daniel to show him the motions of the chores he’s been doing: “Show me wax on” “Show me wax off” “Show me sand the floor” “Show me paint the fence” Miyagi then unleashes a flurry of punches and kicks at Daniel, and he blocks every single one with these repetitive moves that he has learned.
By having Daniel repeat these motions over and over again in the chores he assigned him, Miyagi actually teaches him how to do these defensive moves he needs – through the power of muscle memory.
Muscle memory is one of the most fascinating pieces of how we learn. As humans, both our bodies and our brains are very trainable – the more we repeat a thought or an action, the more it becomes ingrained and instinctual. Muscle memory is how you learn to play a musical instrument or dance or play a sport really well. It’s how you know how to do everyday things like tie your shoes or drive a car or make your favorite recipe. You do it over and over and over again until you can do it without consciously thinking about it – until it becomes part of who you are. That way, when you see an untied shoe or a G Major 7th chord or an elderly Japanese man who’s trying to punch you, you don’t have to think about your response; you act on whatever your muscle memory has learned to do.
This is part of the gift and value of our liturgical tradition. Every year, we move through the steps and postures of the story of Christ and the stories of the church. And even though the pandemic has disrupted the muscle memory that many of us had of gathering together in person for worship, we have continued to practice the same cycles of prayer and song, of longing and lamenting and celebrating. And over time, those repetitions sink deeply into us and become part of who we are. Over time, the practices we repeat with our minds and our bodies also shape the attitudes of our hearts.
Today, we start a new liturgical cycle. The First Sunday of Advent is basically like the Christian new year. Advent is a season of hopefulness – it’s a season of expectant longing, of waiting for light in the darkness. It’s a season in which we are reminded over and over again to be watchful and alert, to “keep awake” as our gospel reading for today repeats. Especially as we move into the year of the lectionary where we focus on Mark’s gospel, we’ll be hearing a lot more of this theme. Mark’s gospel is often brief and urgent – Mark is telling a story in a hurry! – and for him, being prepared for the coming kingdom is a very real and immediate concern. Following Mark through Advent, we will be reminded again and again to keep awake and to pay attention and to wait with hope. And through practicing this over and over again, we strengthen our own muscle memory of hopefulness and expectation.
And I think that this muscle memory of hopefulness is extremely important for facing difficult times like the ones we’re living through now. My therapist even commented the week before last that she has noticed a difference in how well her clients who practice a faith of some kind are coping with this ongoing crisis, compared with those who don’t. We put our faith in a God who has the power to restore us and give us life – a God who has power over life and death itself. And that gives us hope for a promised future, however far off it may be. It gives us hope in the present moment – however tempting it may be to give in to frustration and despair. Our muscle memory of hope works its way into our hearts, and we know that this is not how the story ends. There is more than this, and we are waiting for it – just as we have practiced – we are waiting for it, with eagerness.
And by the same token, our muscle memory of hopeful expectation helps us to change the way we look at the world around us as it is now. Because while we do wait, like Mark, for the promised future of the kingdom – for Christ to come again – we know that, in the meantime, God’s not just sitting idly by, doing nothing. God is present among us, living and acting around us and through us, even in the midst of a global pandemic. God is always with us. We’re the ones who have trouble sometimes recognizing God at work, or who sometimes just don’t pay attention to God at all.
In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down – so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” O that you would come to us, God, and make our enemies shake in their little boots! Basically he speaks as though God has been absent, and he goes on to complain to God, saying, “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”
But if you keep reading, into the next chapter of Isaiah, God responds. And God basically says: What are you talking about??
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,Isaiah 65:1-2
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices…
In essence, God says back to Isaiah: I have not abandoned you; I have been trying to get through to you! Y’all are the ones who keep turning your backs on me! I’m not going to “tear open the heavens and come down” – I’m already here! Pay attention!
Our Advent practices of watchfulness and expectation help us to be attentive – to pay attention – to where God is already present. Instead of getting caught up in our own devices, instead of letting ourselves become overwhelmed by apathy or despair because of the present moment, Advent teaches us to hope – and to view our own lives with an attitude of hopefulness. Advent teaches us to slow down and to look for the good that God is already up to in the world around us – trusting that we will find it.
As we begin a new season of Advent – and a whole new liturgical year – I pray that we may all continue to strengthen our muscle memory of hopefulness. Because hope is what’s going to help us make it through the next several months and through to the end of this pandemic. Hope will help us be attentive to where God is present and active in the world around us. Hope will work its way inside our hearts and remind us that this is not how the story ends.
So wax on, wax off – and hope on, dear church.