A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne at the Centenary celebrations
of the Dedication of Guildford Grammar School Chapel, 25 March 2014:
It is a great pleasure to be with you and mark the centenary of the dedication of your School Chapel, named after St Mary and St George. At the time your Chapel was dedicated, our young nation was still shaping its shared values and common purpose as a Commonwealth, values that would be put to the test swiftly, as the world prepared for the Great War the nations all anticipated. At this time of uncertainty and shifting values, your Chapel’s dedication spoke clearly of lasting values; values that were to be as strong as the stone from which your chapel was built. And so, on the Feast of Mary, a hundred years ago today, your Chapel was dedicated to the mother of Christ, and the soldier Patron Saint of England. The dedication of your Chapel are a lasting reminder of both your school’s deep-rooted ties with what was then still very much the Church of England—in Australia—and its self-understanding as a place where the values of service and sacrifice could be learnt.
Today’s readings (Isaiah 7.10-14, Hebrews 10.4-10, St Luke 1.26-38) speak clearly of these values: they speak of the gift of serving God through selfless giving, they encourage us to bend our wills to the will of God, and they confirm that God has made us for his service, has given us bodies, as well as hearts and minds to serve him. They tell us that in her acceptance of God’s will for herself, Mary not only let God into her life, but gave life to God; gave life to her Son Jesus, who himself would accept God’s will, and in turn would give his life as a ransom for many. Today’s readings encourage us as present-day followers of Mary’s Son, to ponder God’s words and to let them take root in our lives so that we, like Blessed Mary and the soldier Saint George, may become people who seek to do God’s will, and in so doing, may give of ourselves in the service of God.
Our first lesson, from the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 7.10-14), was spoken to the people of Judah at a time of great crisis: facing the destruction of his kingdom, Ahaz, the king of Judah forged for himself alliances with neighbouring powers in the vain hope to save his kingdom. The price for Ahaz’ alliance was his faith: in calling on his neighbours to aid him in battle, he turned his back on his own God. On the heights of Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah calls the king to task about his actions, and instructs Ahaz to demand a prophetic sign to show him the futility of his diplomacy. When the king refuses to call on God to speak through prophecy, the prophet nevertheless prophecies. His prophecy speaks of the impending destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, speaks of the endurance of the house of David, even though its current head has turned away from God, speaks of the day when the God of Israel, and not the gods of Damascus, will once again live with his people. And not only live with them as their God, but be with them, be approachable like a friend and companion, be “Immanuel”—‘God with us’; at the time when the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son (Isaiah 7.14).
It took almost three-hundred years for the prophecy of Isaiah to be fulfilled. In those three-hundred years, the city of Jerusalem and Ahaz’s kingdom had been destroyed, the people either living in exile or under occupation. The life of faith suffered much under the harsh rule of the superpowers. It was as hard to sing God’s praise in exile, as it was to celebrate the festivals that speak of God’s liberating power when living under the rule of foreign armies with foreign gods. Superpowers waxed and waned like the moons that marked the months. Assyrians gave way to Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Armenians and, ultimately, Romans who each subdued and controlled the faith of God’s people. Isaiah’s prophecy had still not been fulfilled: the people still longed for freedom to worship God, and to go about their everyday tasks unhindered. But at the turn of time, in a town in the heart of the Roman province Galilaea, a young woman, betrothed to a young man from Ahaz’ royal house of David, had a vision that would change the life of God’s people forever.
The young woman Isaiah foresaw was called Mary. Her home was in Nazareth. Her betrothed, Joseph, was born seventeen generations after Ahaz, his royal forebear, and was a master builder (Matthew 1.1-17). They were betrothed, pledged to be married, when Mary had a vision of an angel, a messenger from God. Luke’s record of Mary’s encounter names the messenger as Gabriel, one of the four archangels of God. A powerful being, ‘set over all powers’ (Enoch 40.9); the one to whom the destruction of Jerusalem was ascribed at the time of the godless rule of Ahaz (Ezekiel 9.4). It was Gabriel, the angel who ‘stands in the presence of God’ (Luke 1.19), who brought the news that God was about to save his people and liberate their faith. Having announced the coming of God’s final prophet, John, ‘the one who will make a people ready for their Lord’ (Luke 1.17), to Mary’s in-law Zechariah at the incense altar in the Jerusalem Temple, he now speaks to Mary. Gabriel greets the young woman, and reveals to her God’s plan for salvation. He calls her highly blessed because she is to bring into the world the child who will be ‘God with us’, will give life to a righteous king of David, ‘who shall reign … forever, and of [whose] kingdom there shall be no end’ (Luke 1.32-33).
The time of fulfilment had come: a king was to be born, who would be God’s ruler. Mary was to be his mother, her betrothed Joseph the one through whom this king would trace his lineage to David. He would be God’s king, God’s gift to humankind: ‘thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest’, the angel assures Mary (St Luke 1.31-33). He shall be the child of God, and the child of Mary, and he shall save his people from their sins. And Mary, part of God’s plan for many generations, assents to God’s will, bears the child and bears the shame of having conceived out of wedlock, bringing the Christ into the world. ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’, Mary tells the angel who stands in God’s presence (St Luke 1.38): Gabriel, the destroyer and restorer of Jerusalem. And sees the archangel depart. Mary, though young, was a strong, mature woman. Having accepted God’s will for her, she sang boldly of God’s mercy, shown to his people through all generations; sang of God’s plan to overturn the power structures that enslave, sang of the strength of God’s arm putting the mighty from their seat, exulting the humble and meek; sang of God’s generosity in filling the hungry with good things, and of God’s justice in sending the rich empty away (St Luke 1.48-53). Having accepted God’s will, she sang of God’s mercy and promise fulfilled, helping his servant Israel as pledged to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever (1.54-55).
In accepting God’s will, Mary brought God into the world to be with us, to be Immanuel, to live and die for us. In accepting God’s Word, in allowing God’s Word to become flesh, and dwell with us, she literally ‘prepared a body for Christ’, as our epistle reading puts it (Hebrews 10.5). In holding the Christ-child at the beginning of his journey of life as a new-born firstborn, in be-holding him suffering and die on the cross, in holding his lifeless body in her arms at his burial, in be-holding him risen and ascend, Mary, like no other human prepared a body for God to sanctify all people. And in doing so, she is ‘highly favoured’ and because she has done so, ‘all generations shall call her blessed’ (St Luke 1.28, 48). In giving her body, by an act of self-sacrifice, to be the first dwelling place on earth of God’s Son, she prepared a body for Jesus. A body that, by another act of self-sacrifice, was also offered to God in fulfilment of God’s will. ‘Behold, O God, I have come to do your will’, both mother and Son exclaim (Hebrews 10.7). And give their innermost selves to God, so that faith and freedom, service and sanctification might be restored to God’s people: ‘for it is through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all that we have been sanctified’ (Hebrews 10.10).
The key to sanctification, our readings assure us, is through our seeking and serving God: ‘here I am, I have come to do your will, my God’ (Hebrews 10.7). The founders of your School Chapel a hundred years ago constructed a magnificent building in stone and wood to be a living testament to this truth. In dedicating your Chapel to Blessed Mary and Saint George, they placed the values of willing service of God and neighbour at the heart of your School Community. For Mary, serving God brought much upheaval: the acceptance of the unexpected, plenty of embarrassment, much grief—‘a sword piercing her own soul’, as she was told by another prophet (St Luke 2.35)—and, above all, the self sacrificial giving of her own body to prepare a body for God’s Son to be born. For Saint George the willing service of God meant also giving his own body in service of Mary’s Son: it is highly likely that he died not in the theatre of war as a soldier, but as a martyr for his faith during the Diocletian persecution of Christians.
We may never have to give our own bodies so that others can live—even though many of those who prayed in this Chapel went to War, many giving their own bodies so that you and I might live free to worship and believe, speak and think. But like them, we also have been given bodies to serve God and others; have been given hearts and minds to learn to do God’s will. Like Mary and George, your patrons, each one of us is invited to respond to God’s call for our lives. ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will, my God’, was Christ’s prayer, and with him, that of your patron Saints, and countless generations of faithful women and men who responded to God’s invitation to know and serve him. As we give thanks for a century of faithfulness in this Chapel, may this same faithfulness may be our own gift for future generations. As we pass on the gift of faith in the God who calls each person into his service to another generation, it is my prayer for you, and for me, that in our own journeys of faith we may each be enabled to seek and discern God’s will for us; that we may each we may be given the necessary gifts of grace to pursue our calling of discipleship; and that, like Mary, we may each be given faith to believe that when we follow him ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (St Luke 1.37). Amen.