If you don’t understand this cultural reference, it’s from the movie, The Karate Kid. The main character in the movie is a teenage boy, Daniel who has just moved to town and is getting bullied. In order to stop it, he wants to learn karate. He meets up with the manager of his apartment building, Mr. Miyage, who agrees to teach him. One requirement of this agreement is that Daniel must obey Mr. Miyage’s instructions, even if they don’t seem to have anything to do with learning karate. Daniel agrees, and the first thing Mr. Miyage does is hand Daniel a sponge and tells him to wash and wax his collection of classic cars. Mr. Miyago gives very specific instructions – one hand he’s to make wide circles to the right to put the wax on and with the other make wide circles to the left to take it off. He is also to breathe deeply, in through his nose and out through his mouth. Mr. Miyage watches him carefully, and when Daniel forgets the instructions, Mr. Miyage calls out to him, “Wax on – Wax off,” while making the required motions.
“In the weeks that follow, Miyagi gives Daniel further chores to complete with similar instructions on technique: sanding a walkway that leads around Miyagi’s backyard (landscaped to be a Japanese garden), staining the fence that surrounds his property and painting his house. With each new chore, Daniel’s frustration grows at the seeming lack of any karate training and Miyagi’s minimal praise of his work. One night, after finishing the painting of Miyagi’s house, Daniel expresses his frustration to his teacher. Miyagi tells Daniel to show him how he washed and polished the cars. … and orders Daniel to show him the motions he’d been using to do the chores. Daniel quickly realizes that the chores … were also practice for defensive moves, exercises to build muscle tone and build his reflexes. After a few minutes of practice, Miyagi suddenly yells and throws several punches and kicks at Daniel, all of which Daniel blocks easily.”1
It turns out that what Daniel had been doing for all those weeks was building muscle and stamina, yes, but also creating muscle memory. You may have heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect,” but really practice just builds muscle memory. Muscle memory is what helps us be able to ride a bike, even if we haven’t been on one in years, for example, or to play the piano or type – excuse me, keyboard without looking at your hands.
Most of us count on muscle memory to be able to perform specific actions without having to think about it. I remember when we used to go ingathering (If you don’t know what that is, ask an Adventist older than 45.) Some of us would walk from door to door while some would ride in the back of a pick-up truck that drove slowly down the streets. The folks in the truck would be singing Christmas carols. I was always amazed that one of the carolers would bring along either her knitting or crocheting (I don’t remember which), and while she sang, her hands would be busy doing her needlework – in the dark! This same person could play the piano for church and carry on a conversation with someone at the same time … still boggles my mind!
Those are all the good things about doing something over and over until you don’t have to think about it any more. But there’s also a downside about not having to think about it any more. When that happens in our worship experience, we have a problem.
At the beginning of Zechariah 7, a delegation come to Jerusalem to ask the priests a question.
“Now in the fourth year of King Darius it came to pass that the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev, when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-Melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the Lord, and to ask the priests who were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and the prophets, saying, ‘Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?’
Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, ‘Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me?”’” Zechariah 7:1-5
During all the time they had been in exile in Babylon, God’s people had fasted in the fourth month to remember when the walls of Jerusalem had been breached, in the fifth month to remember the destruction of the temple, in the seventh month for the Day of Atonement, and in the tenth month to mourn the siege against Jerusalem. The Day of Atonement was the only fast commanded by God through Moses.
Through Zechariah, God points the delegation to the purpose of their fasting. Were they just going through the motions? Were they thinking about the things the fasting was to commemorate? Or was it just one more thing to check off their To Do lists?
“According to the [New York] Times, people are paying as much as $3,484 a week to visit health spas where they go without food. One spa in Desert Hot Springs, California, is booked through October with a clientele that includes celebrities Ben Affleck and Courtney Love. Fashion designers and mortgage brokers have joined the fasting trend. Instead of stuffing themselves with steak and lobster, they subsist on apple-celery cocktails, herbal teas, laxatives, bee pollen, blended soups, and water mixed with squeezed lemons, Celtic Sea salt, and honey.
“… Fasters claim that a 4- to 30-day regimen not only helps them lose weight but has spiritual benefits, as well. ‘It used to be that people who came in to fast talked about weight loss,’ said Stephanie Paradise, owner of the New Age Health Spa in Neversink, N.Y. Now, she says, it’s about ‘detoxing the mind, body and spirit.’
“Not all of the fasters are doing it for spiritual reasons, however. Natalia Rose, a nutritional consultant, appeals to their vanity. She organizes four-day fasting weekends for women that include motivational trips to a fashionable department store, to ‘remind them what it’s all for.’”2
For the Jews, fasting wasn’t the point – remembering how God had led and taken care of them was.
Going to church every week, in and of itself, isn’t the point. Especially not if we’re just going through the motions or if we’re just going to see our friends and have social time.
Turning off the TV on Sabbath doesn’t make God happy if we sleep the day away or spend that time anxiously waiting for sundown so we can do what we really want to do.
Calling ourselves Christians doesn’t make God happy, especially if we’ve become just “cultural Christians,” who look and act like Christians, but have no real relationship with Jesus Christ. Cultural Christians are just going through the motions because that’s what their parents and friends do.
We need to make our relationship with Jesus a daily conscious choice and stop just going through the motions.