Advent 1 • 3 Dec 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
St Mark 13:24-37

Rev. Dr David Gill

Rejoice in Hope!

Some of you at this service, I am sure, can claim Scottish birth or ancestry. Some, I would guess, have no connection with Scotland. And some of us, part Scots and part lots of other things, are mixtures -- like many Australians, we are ethnic mongrels and proud of it.

For Scots and some ex-Scots, last Thursday had special significance. Why? Because November 30 was the feast day of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.

Andrew, formerly a Galilean fisherman, was of course one of Jesus’ disciples. Not only patron saint of Scotland, he also became the patron saint of Greece, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Sicily, Cyprus and Barbados. If that weren’t enough, he’s also patron saint of fishermen, rope-makers, singers, women wishing to become pregnant, victims of gout and people with sore throats. A busy lad, is our Andrew!

Some churches have a special way of marking St Andrew’s Day. It’s known as “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan” – the churching of the tartan. The ceremony’s origins are obscure, though I suspect we owe it to homesick 20th century Scots in the United States. It entails bringing bits of tartan (representing one’s clan, one’s heritage) to the church. These symbols of your identity are offered to God, as you seek divine blessing.

The ritual recalls the situation in Scotland in the mid-18th century. At the Battle of Culloden (1746), England’s King George had defeated Highlanders loyal to the Jacobite monarchy led by Charles Edward Stuart – popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The English moved quickly, and brutally, to bring the rebels to heel.

Among other measures, tough laws adopted by parliament in London meant that you were not permitted to wear tartan, speak Gaelic, play the bagpipes or otherwise flaunt your separatist identity. The intention seems to have been to break the spirit of the rebels, destroy their clan system and assimilate the Highlanders into the English nation.

Well, assimilation sounds great – provided you happen to be in the dominant group that’s calling the shots. As Australia’s indigenous people as well as other, newer arrivals in this country keep telling us, assimilation doesn’t sound nearly as great if it’s your culture that’s about to be destroyed, your identity that’s going to be wiped out.

The Scots, understandably, were not too thrilled about this. They resisted assimilation. Their resistance had to be covert, of course, and one of the tricks they came up with – and this may be fact, fabrication or a mixture of both – was the kirkin’ o’ the tartan. Yes, the wearing of tartan was banned – try it and you’d get six months behind bars, try it again and you’d be transported to the colonies. But those canny Scots started taking symbolic pieces of tartan, hidden on their persons, to the church, there to pray for God’s blessing on the tartans and all they represented.

The churching of the tartan was, and still is, an assertion of a particular cultural identity. That’s something Australia today not only tolerates but welcomes. Especially when it comes with an invitation to others to join in the fun. You don’t need to be Chinese to revel in Chinese New Year. In this country we’re getting good at sharing in each other’s festivals, both secular and religious, and that’s wonderful.

But back to those 18th century Scots. Yes, they were asserting their cultural identity. But with those little bits of tartan they were doing something more. Something blatantly subversive. Against the odds they were expressing hope, defiant hope.

They were saying OK, we’re in this situation, but we refuse to be bound by it. We will look beyond the here and now. We will pray, and dream, and live for a new day.

They were striving to see beyond the tragedy, to dream beyond the nightmare, to hope beyond the pain.

Today, our readings do the same. All three summon us to look beyond the here and now. They speak powerfully, tantalizingly, of hope. Hope against the odds. Defiant hope.

On this first Sunday of Advent, they set the tone as we begin our approach to a new celebration of Christ’s birth.

Advent begins not where the world thinks it begins, with tinseled nonsense and vacuous partying. It starts with the mysterious purposes of a Christ-shaped God. It asks us to remember his promise before we talk about his nativity, to await his final coming even as we await his birth.

First, from the Hebrew scriptures, we heard the message of Isaiah. It was written for people who knew only too well the reality of heartbreak, exile and destruction. We know we’re in a mess, the prophet says to God. We feel bereft, forgotten. Yet still we are yours. In spite of everything, we are yours. We long to glimpse your face.

Second, there was St Paul calling those early Christians to be faithful “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Finally, from Mark’s version of the gospel we heard the climax of Jesus’ final address to his disciples. Be ready, he says to them. Keep your eyes open for God. Maintain the defiance of faith.

Jesus’ last words become his first words to us in this new Church year. Don’t just accept the world as it is. Be awake to what’s happening. Be ready for the One who comes.

Hearing those ancient words again, we wonder. Are they true? Is this the way things really are? Beyond the chaos of here and now, can there really be that gracious Reality the ages have called … God?

Today, you have not placed any tartans before Christ’s holy table. You have, however, placed some gifts for the needy in this community. I invite you to place your hearts and lives there too. And enter into Advent praying that it may help each and every one of us awaken afresh to the hope of the ages.

The second assembly of the World Council of Churches, in 1954, had as its theme “Jesus Christ, the Hope of the World”. As it concluded, that vast gathering addressed a letter to the churches, a letter that ended with these powerful words:

“We do not know what is coming. But we do know who is coming. It is Jesus Christ, who meets us every day and will meet us at the end. Therefore we say to you: Rejoice in hope!”

Today, on this Advent Sunday, I say to you: rejoice in hope! And through the weeks ahead, prepare yourselves to mark again a great and mighty wonder that is beyond words.