Archives For October 2005

Wax On, Wax Off

October 16, 2005 — Leave a comment

Isaiah 45:1-7; Titus 3:1-11
Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 10/16/2005

My brothers and I love watching movies. Once we found a move that we liked, we would wear it out. We would watch it until we could quote every line. I’m sure that many of you have a favorite movie like that. One of the movies we watched the most, and knew by heart, was The Karate Kid. If you have forgotten about that gem of the eighties, let me remind you of the basic premise.

Ralph Macchio plays the skinny new kid on the block, Danny. At a Halloween party, he is cornered by some bullies and beat up. Out of nowhere the housing complex’s elderly Japanese handyman, Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, comes to the rescue, fending off Danny’s attackers in an impressive display of martial arts. Danny persuades Mr. Miyagi to teach him martial arts for self defense.

When Danny shows up to Mr. Miyagi’s house to begin his training, he is disappointed to find that he will be spending much of his time performing menial tasks around his teacher’s house. In one of the most memorable lines ever, Mr. Miyagi instructs Danny to wax his car. “Wax on” he says, moving Danny’s hand in a clockwise circle, “wax off”, he says moving Danny’s hand counterclockwise.

Danny doesn’t understand. He had sought out Mr. Miyagi to learn martial arts, not car maintenance and home repair. Yet, all he is doing is waxing cars, sanding his house, and painting his fence. Finally Danny’s frustration boils over and he confronts the sensei. Instead of placating him, Mr. Miyagi instructs him to wax the car. As Danny reluctantly moves his hands in a clockwise then counterclockwise motion, Mr. Miyagi begins throwing kicks at him! To Danny’s surprise, he learns that the boring jobs he’d been doing were actually the rudiments of some karate blocks. “The best offense is a good defense”, Mr. Miyagi sums up.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve felt like Danny. Stuck doing something that seems to have no relevance to my life or my calling. I’m sure that you feel that way at times, too. That must have been how the Israelites felt when Cyrus, the Persian king, overthrew the Babylonians. Israel was in exile. She expected deliverance. Then Isaiah drops a bombshell on them. He says that God will overthrow the Babylonians, but at the hands of the Israelites, through a pagan Persian. It must have seemed that they were just being traded from one oppressor to another.

I’m sure that they did not agree with God’s choice of leader. After all, he didn’t even worship their God! Yet, as we heard in our first reading, God was in control. He can do whatever He wills however He wills. They need only trust him and obey. Now, as Paul Harvey would say, for the rest of the story.

God had been preparing Cyrus for years. He had allowed Cyrus political and military victories that put him in a place to bring about Persian rule. Once Cyrus was made king, he issued a decree that said that the Israelites should be allowed to return to Jerusalem, allowed to rebuild the temple, and allowed to freely worship their God. Moreover, the authorities in Palestine were to aid them in whatever way necessary. Cyrus returned to them the gold and sliver implements that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple. The book of Ezra chronicles their return to Jerusalem and construction of the temple under Cyrus.

I used to work at a busy coffee house. I was hired to be a shift manager. I knew that I would have to be brought up to speed quickly on the ins and outs of preparing the myriad of drinks. I was prepared for that. I showed up on my first day ready to work hard. I was determined to master the art of making espresso drinks quickly. My manager had a different idea.

After I clocked in, I asked him where we should start. He handed me a feather duster and told me to dust the merchandise shelves. Now, cleaning is not my thing. My wife will attest to that. It’s not that I can’t wield a vacuum, it’s just I don’t like to. I’m not a very efficient cleaner. I have always avoided cleaning duties by telling people that I’m not “called” to that sort of ministry!

However, my boss is my boss, so I took the duster and a step ladder and set about dusting the merchandise shelves. After a couple of hours, I declared the job finished and sought out my boss, eager to get trained on the espresso machine. He seemed to surprised to see me. I told him I’d finished dusting. He then told me to go back and straighten and stock the merchandise shelves. I stood there for a minute. Then I turned and went back out into the café and set about straightening up.

I was frustrated at this point. I had been hired to a supervisory position and I didn’t feel that my time was being well-utilized. Any of the other employees there could dust and stock. Why me? I looked around the café and noticed that it was relatively empty. Now would be a perfect time to learn the espresso bar. I spent the rest of my shift stocking and straightening.

Only later would I understand the importance of that first shift. At the store where I worked, almost fifty percent of our revenue was from merchandise. Looking at dollar averages, merchandise sales brought in around five dollars more per transaction than beverage sales. After that first day I was intimately acquainted with all of the items we sold. I could point customers to the item they were searching for and in some cases even tell them the price off the top of my head.

My boss had been looking at sales trends in our store over the past few months and found that beverage sales had been steadily declining – the summer months are notoriously slow for coffee shops. So, to compensate, he decided to run a series of merchandise sales. I didn’t know all that when I was dusting, but my boss did. That’s why he’s the boss.

The Apostle Paul had similar advice to pass along to the church in Crete. His protégé, Titus, was overseeing the church there. He tells Titus to make sure and spread the word that the expected attitude towards authority, whatever the source, is submission. Those can be hard words to hear. So why did Paul write them? Certainly he was referring to church authorities, right?

It seems that Paul was talking about any authority. He goes on to remind us that we were all disobedient, foolish, misled once. But, through the grace of Christ, we now see the bigger picture. We know better. We see that God is ultimately in control of history, including our present circumstances. So we are to be obedient to those who have been placed in a position over us, trusting that God has put us under that authority for a reason. That rings so counter to our culture today. We live in a “me” kind of world. “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do”.

But that runs contrary to our belief that God is in control. The Pharisees hit Jesus up with a question about submission to authorities. They asked him about paying taxes. After all, the taxation was being imposed upon them by a government that was pagan, who’s leader was worshipped as a god. Jesus’ response was consistent with what we’ve looked at so far. He pointed out that Caesar’s portrait is on the money, so he is entitled to a piece of it.

The Pharisees weren’t simply trying to get out of paying taxes. In the three gospels that contain this story, it is always preceded by a statement that the Pharisees began looking for a way to hand him over to the authorities. But, Jesus deferred to those authorities. In fact, he demonstrates for us the ultimate example of submission.

He submitted to Jewish and Roman authorities and that lead to his crucifixion. His disciples didn’t understand what was going on. If Jesus really was who he said he was, why did he not overpower the authorities and come down from the cross? But Jesus understood that it was the Father’s will that he had to be submissive to. God had prepared the political and social climate that led to Jesus’ death.

Only after the resurrection did the apostles begin to understand what had taken place. Jesus’ submission left an indelible impression on them. Most of the apostles would spend time in prison. Most of the apostles died martyr’s deaths at the hands of the Romans or the Jews. So, when we say we want to “be like Christ”, we need to understand that to mean that we are to follow his example of submission to authorities, trusting God really is in control.