Sermon: Assumption of the BVM
The Assumption of St. Mary the Virgin
Is 61.1-11; Gal 4.4-7; Lk 1.46-55
15 August 2012
Dcn Jeremy Boccabello
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He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.
In the face of a brutal invasion that would see the last breath of King David’s dynasty expire, Isaiah was whistling in the dark - speaking vividly about a New Kingdom – not the one greedily staring up the hill toward Jerusalem, but another – later - that would unbreak the world by turning everything upside down.
It will be like this, he said: imagine yourself getting dressed to the nines for the greatest party of your life. Like a bride putting on the wedding dress she’s dreamed of for so long – like a groom smugly slipping in the cufflinks and pulling on his dinner jacket. It will be a grand, wild party bursting with joy over a new bond that changes everything.
It will also be like - well, dirt; lifeless and supremely inedible - from which suddenly springs fresh, living, green - and tasty - new life. Somehow it will bring thriving and nourishing life out of death itself. Somehow...
Five centuries later, hopes were high for the coming of that kingdom under the clay and iron feet of the prophet Daniel’s fourth kingdom - The Romans. Some even had the audacity to hope for a power greater than Rome and a ruler greater than Augustus.
Image is critical for a ruler - being seen as good and powerful enough for the job. In a good imperial-Roman-style dictatorship this image inevitably becomes that of a divine being. The Roman treasury financed a multimedia army of writers, orators, architects and sculptors to broad-cast an image of the power and glory of Caesar everywhere.
How could Messiah compete? There was a home court advantage. The temple in Jerusalem was one of - many would say the - greatest temple of any kind in the empire. When Emperor Gaius Caligula began dressing up as a god, he became obsessed with having his image there. He built a 90 foot statue of himself and floated it to Syria, but fortunately “little boots” died before they could roll it up to Jerusalem. THAT temple might be a good backdrop for a king greater than Caesar...
When it was time for Isaiah’s King to come and give miserable people good news, and release prisoners, and make weak people strong, and replace ruins with beautiful architecture, and employ pagan enemies as the staff, and turn poverty into wealth he did not place his image in an imperial palace or even in that great temple.
He did place his image in a microscopic human Zygote in the womb of a young not-quite-yet-married Jewish woman named Mary. In doing so He gave her more honor than a thousand temples and ten thousand palaces. It is because of this honor given to her by Our Lord that we gather today to celebrate her life given for this purpose and its fitting triumphant end as she was body and soul taken into heaven.
God’s reasons for paying Mary the greatest honor of bearing the image of the Incarnate God, at least according to Mary, was this – if you’ll permit me a more direct translation of the Greek - Because “He has viewed as important the low position of his slave” This king would not rule the world like most kings by being born at the top to Royals in power. He wouldn’t even rule by claiming his crown rights and clawing his way out of obscurity to the top. Mary’s Son would rule by taking the lowest place and then turning the world upside down using nothing but himself as the fulcrum.
Mary understood why God’s choice of her made sense when she showed up at her cousin Elizabeth’s house to compare baby bumps. Elizabeth calls her blessed - made happy by God - and tells her that she is sure that God will accomplish what He has promised her. Mary responds by saying cousin - you don’t know the half of it - everyone, forever, is going to call me blessed! Then she begins telling - don’t miss this - she begins telling Elizabeth what God through her little baby bump has already done.
He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
The Son that Mary was carrying around was the societal equivalent of a slow-motion nuclear device that had already detonated - this little king currently ruling by standing upside down on her ribcage wasn’t just breaking the rules - he was ruling to break the world that makes the rules and ruling to make the rules over to his own liking. Most babies feel quite free to express their desires. This baby would see all of his fulfilled. In turning the world upside down he would redefine what it meant to be right side up.
Mary’s praise is of a God that takes that which is small, obscure and powerless and makes it great, glorious and powerful. Mary is not appreciating God for recognising that she was a heroine destined for a greatness that she deserved because she found the magic formula. She praises Him for regarding the lowliness of his handmaiden - his female slave. We acknowledge her greatness as the most pivotal player besides God himself in THE event that defines all other events, but we fail to grasp her true greatness, and more tragically risk missing our own invitation to join her in it in some measure, if we do not understand just how far down the first steps on that path lie. The price of greatness in the kingdom of God is bowing to the greatness of the King. “Be it unto me according to thy word” was a ‘Yes Sir and Amen,’ not a permission slip.
And please don’t miss how profoundly out of step Mary's life ended up being with anything she could possibly have expected or even wanted up to this day. Mary had just as many plans, dreams and hopes for her life as any girl in this city tonight teenage or otherwise. In fact she just about to realise one of them - Marry a good man, have some kids and raise them in the hope of the coming kingdom of God. The God of the Kingdom had a different plan than hers – a plan full of wonder, pain, delight, fear, shimmering eternal light and the foulest darkness. But oh what was waiting for her already piled up at the end of that path!
Let’s put it on the table. It is a really big deal to take the one life that you have been given it and surrender it completely to someone else. Deep down we’re all terrified at times that we’ve bet on the wrong things, or not bet on enough of them. To completely trust one Person to have absolute authority over your life seems - well - risky.
Just days after her Son was born Mary was told that because of him many would rise, and many would fall, and that her own heart would be run through with a sword. Because it was impossible for her to have Messiah who was very God of Very God formed within her and not suffer with Him when he suffered. That’s how love works.
I’m sure that Mary had had word that her son had been baptized by Elizabeth’s baby John the Baptist and then - well, nothing. Yeshua, who had always been a bit hard to follow, left her in Nazareth to deal with things for as long as it takes us to get through Lent. When he finally showed up at the door to the shop skinny as a rail from fasting he didn’t even give her time to feed him back up before he took a turn reading at Nazareth Synagogue, opened up to the beginning of the very passage we read from Isaiah this evening, and said “Today, this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone Mary had lived around her whole life was in that service staring at her Son: neighbors, customers for the business, Synagogue friends - even the relatives. Her heart was warmed with pride as he read the scroll and claimed His kingdom, but then it tasted the sword as her own people pushed and shoved and dragged her son to the nearby cliff edge of the Tell to throw him off. ‘Mary he is either crazy or possessed - in any case he’s way above himself and he is endangering our village - he should know better - the new Roman colony right down the road has been here for ten years now - it’s not named after Yeshua the Construction guy. It’s named after a real king with real power - Tiberius. Mary, you’d better think very hard about where you stand on this.’
If Gaius Caligula had placed his image in the temple it would have set off a firestorm, but it turns out that God placing his New King’s image in Mary’s Son had a similar effect. The most amazing thing about Jesus, according to my friend Father Seraphim, isn’t that he was raised from the dead or seated at the right hand of God. He says it’s the fact that Mrs. Leibowitz down the street had brackets holding up a shelf in her house and had no idea that God himself built them. If the world is rolling over, the smart ones stay close to the bottom and find something to hold on to. They buy low to sell high, not the other way around. Like Mary, they Magnify the Lord Jesus - seeing someone who appears small to others as huge, and in so doing not distorting reality but rather finding Reality Himself. I cannot predict with certainty which of the mighty powers of this day will still be in business even 20 years from now. But I can tell you with absolutely certainty whose kingdom will still be growing new life and throwing new parties 20,000 years from now.
Isaiah seemed a bit - insane - putting a big garden party on the calendar while staring down wrong end of the double-barrelled shotgun of Assyria and Babylon, but I have to say that the things that Paul is claiming for Mary’s Son in his letter to the Galatians makes even Isaiah look sane by comparison.
Paul is using some philosophical language here - which we have translated as elemental spirits of the universe - to weigh in on a question that plagued people in the ancient world. You might find it relevant as well. Dear Abby: I sometimes feel like the world and its purposes are against me - even like I don’t belong here. Can you tell me how I can overcome my fate and find my way home? Signed, Lost in the Cosmos.
Dear Lost in the Cosmos. Some people think you should try to control and own the powerful stuff in the world. They try money and education and magic and technology and looks and popularity and good old fashioned lust and even - sometimes - religion to try to get as close to the top as possible. The irony is that this inevitably leads to slavery at the bottom because stuff doesn’t work - for you - you work for stuff.
We were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe... Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods.
Paul is describing every human life outside of the kingdom of Mary’s Son and has the audacity to claim that Jesus’ birth literally turned the cosmos upside down. Those who have entered His kingdom have entered into a joyful new bond with the King of Kings that renders the greatest stuff you have ever imagined having at your command “weak and beggarly” by comparison. They have gifted into the very heart of their being by the Spirit of God’s own Son who is Mary’s own Son the ability to invoke the most powerful word a needy creature has ever dared to utter before the face of a God who needs absolutely nothing: It might have been the first word Jesus ever said, but I’ll bet it was the second: Abba - Daddy. Having the Cosmic CEO as your dad means you can cut out messing with tyrannical middle managers and go straight to him with your problems and let him draw his sword and cut the gordian knot of your fate as one who truly loves you and knows better than you. It also means you cannot possibly be more at home than you are right here, right now.
Then why does it still hurt? Mary would tell you that it is impossible to have Messiah who is Very God of Very God formed in you and not suffer when He suffers. That’s how love works. But the suffering ends and the end of the suffering is glory - body and soul delivered to the place where the top of the heap was once the bottom.
All you who are tired of staring down the wrong end of the shotgun, we have a wild party to get dressed for. All you who are tired of a world wracked with death - new life is about to burst from death itself. All you bottom feeders - hold on to something - the world is about to roll over and play alive again.
Come to this altar and say with Mary your Yes Sir and Amen to the life God is giving you in the place of the one you bargained for. Receive in your hearts by faith the presence formed in you of the last and forever king and thus receive as his humble slave more honor than a thousand temples and ten thousand palaces. Let us join Mary in a glass at the wedding feast of the lamb - she knew her boy would never let the wine run out at a wedding - but this party? Wild...