Waiting and Wondering Toward Wholeness: December lectionary preview

November 9, 2022 by Larissa Kwong Abazia

Advent is a season to dwell in anticipation for the birth of the Christ child. Try as we might, we are reminded repeatedly that Christ will come no matter how prepared (or not!) we are. It is a paradoxical season in which we must anticipate the birth of Emmanuel even as we know, deep down in our hearts and very beings, that his arrival is inevitable.

Perhaps our call this Advent season is not to envision what will happen but, instead, how it will happen. This shift opens countless possibilities. The “what” of any given situation allows us to maintain a sense of control in bringing this holy season into reality. Churches hang greenery in the sanctuary, put up a Christmas tree, and collect gifts for local families in need. They want to hold Christmas pageants and eagerly seek to dress up the children and youth as angels, shepherds, and the holy family. Pastors, musicians, and worship leadership carefully craft liturgy and themes for each Sunday, building up to the culmination of Christmas Eve where many will gather around candlelight and sing Christ into our midst.

Yet the “how” invites us to consider the ways we engage in each of these activities, both inside and outside of the Church walls. How do we sing with expectation and proclaim the promises of Advent? How do we enact the salvation offered through the Triune God as we prepare a way for their arrival? How do we stay attune to what dwells deepest in our hearts as we take this journey once again?

Trust and Transformation: Isaiah 11: 1-10

I’ll be honest that I have always struggled with the reading from the prophet Isaiah on the second Sunday of Advent. It is, undoubtably, a very visual and tangible representation of the peaceable kingdom within Scripture. Imagery of a predator sitting alongside its prey, no longer enemies but cohabitating with one another, is a powerful representation of the uniting of two seemingly different species. It is unexpected and possible only by a God who can overturn the order of Creation.

Yet as a person of color, I can’t help but be skeptical. Can I trust that those who have sought to hurt me will never thirst for vengeance, power, and authority again? Like a lamb staring at a wolf’s once sharp teeth, can I believe that they won’t wake up one day hungry for meat, if even just one bite? If I were truly honest with myself, the answer is no.

Several years ago, I learned about the existence of nursing logs in forests. Deep under the canopy of tree branches and leaves, fallen trees make way for new life by birthing seedlings into saplings within the former grandeur of its trunk and limbs. Nursing logs can be found with new growth sprouting forth, resurrecting what once was broken and decomposing into nourishment for the next generation. A once towering tree now toppled to the ground suitable to make room for new life and growth to sprout.

The cycle of death to resurrection and new life is often connected with the Lent-Easter cycle; yet, we may very well need the rebirth it offers for our well-worn journeys of waiting and anticipation during Advent. While I am challenged by the dominate and submissive relationship transformed to communal life together, it continues to be a regular aspiration of a faith-filled life. I cannot give up on those who seek to use their power for ill, instead working for justice and wholeness for all within God’s creation.

Wilderness and Anticipation: Matthew 11: 2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The John the Baptist whom we hear from this morning is a far cry from the one who spoke in the wilderness demanding repentance and declaring the arrival of Messiah. Instead, he’s sitting in a dark, dank prison cell alone. The fresh air of God’s creation has now been replaced by the stifling smells of captivity. The sounds that fill his days are not of birds and crickets chirping, but of clanking chains and guttural coughs. No longer in the wilds of nature, he’s closed off from his followers and left to his own thoughts. This is a dangerous reality for John; a reality which might have led to his question to Jesus.

Remember this is the post-baptism John, the one who had seen Christ for himself and called out his name with excitement that the Messiah had come to save his generation. John saw Jesus face to face before blessing him with his own hands in the waters of the Jordan. It must have been a day full of joy.

But now, left to his own thoughts and devices in the prison cell, John tells his followers to relay just one question to Jesus. It is the most important thing on his mind right now, all wrapped up in rationalizing if he’s sitting in jail for the right reasons and the right person. Maybe he’s so caught up in despair that he’s wondering if this is how it’s meant to be. He doesn’t want to know how things are going even if the healings bring joy to others; he wants to know from Jesus’ own lips if he really is the One.

What are we waiting for? Who are we waiting for? How are we waiting?

These questions, and more, are important places for us to dwell. As the world continues to bring no shortness of danger and struggle, we cannot make it to the joy of Christmas morning without wondering what our waiting is all for. There are people in our congregations who are basking in the abundant joy about to burst forth while others are trapped in their own prisons, wondering what impact their actions could possibly have. Still others are going through the motions or hiding from the truth of what lie ahead. Uncovering the realities surrounding our waiting shapes the path ahead.

Saying Yes to the Unknown: Matthew 1: 18- 25

I wish nativity scenes could show the amount of change Mary and Joseph went through in just a short 10 months.

I wish the artists chose to show the weight that they must have felt to take on this dangerous, unexpected life handed to them by God, because I am sure their “yes” was paired with the reality of telling their families what was going to happen. I’m sure it involved family and friends confused by the decision to stay together and the whispers behind the closed doors of their neighbors who possessed their own stories of what Joseph and Mary had done.

Mary was already pregnant with a child before being able to enjoy newlywed bliss; her growing belly a reminder that her story had changed in a very public way. Joseph wondering what it would be like to look into the eyes of their newborn child as a daily reminder of a married life which was anything but normal. If they ever had moments where they woke up in the morning wondering if they could face the day, if they could face the side glances of a passersby or being ignored by those once called friends.

Mostly, I wish there was some way to artistically show the sheer weight of what it means to choose love. Choosing love doesn’t always mean getting what we hope for our lives. It doesn’t always mean our expectations are met, or the dreams which we possess will come true. Choosing to love sometimes means that we say it aloud, but the words don’t come back from the other person’s lips. It can also mean our love stories are cut short and we’re left with only memories of what once brought us happiness and joy.

For Mary and Joseph, choosing love meant taking the harder path and one they may not have chosen on their own. But their choice was to embrace God’s love story for all of Creation. The last Sunday of Advent reminds us love should be our choice as well. Preachers and worship leaders can invite people to consider the radical nature of love; a love which refuses to let go, no matter the cost.

‘Tis the Season for Giving

Advent and Christmas are seasons connected with giving and generosity, both in religious and secular realms. Church attendance for many congregations increases on Christmas Eve as visitors fill pews and provide initial financial contributions in the offering plate. Opportunities to fellowship and gather are all around: from work parties to church potlucks to family gatherings.

We know giving is expected of us in this season. How we give is just as important as what we give.

May you encourage your congregations to consider giving of themselves even when they cannot fathom what God has in store, now or in the future. May you encourage them to deeply consider why they are called to practice waiting, uncovering a deeper relationship to a God who dwells with us wherever we are. May you invite people to consider the radical call to love; a love so vulnerable and exposed it cannot be denied.

And may you experience the abundant love freely given by God who defied boundaries between the human and divine to dwell alongside you. Praise be to Emmanuel, God with us!

Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia (she/her) is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and founder of Courageous Spaces, inviting others to co-create spaces for disruption, transformation, and change.Larissa has dedicated her life and career to racial and gender justice, exploring the ways the intersections of all parts of one’s identity can be embraced and celebrated. This work brought her to denominational leadership, including service as the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) and as a current member of the General Assembly Committee on Representation. She also serves as the Transitional Head of Operations for  More Light Presbyterians and as a coach and consultant with NEXT Church.