Beginning with the End

December 1, 2019

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Not a Silent Night

First Sunday of Advent

Beginning with the End

Acts 1:8-14

         From the carols we sing at Christmas time to the art on our Christmas cards, we are surrounded by images of the serene young Mary in clean, beautiful robes, holding the calm baby.

         We all have a picture of what that first Christmas must have been like for the young mother: perfect, starlit, holy. The reality, however, was not unlike our own lives There was joy, but it was mixed with pain and sorrow, uncertainty and adversity. This was true throughout Mary’s life, with blessings and pain intermingled.

         During this Advent season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, we will be preparing our hearts for Christmas and the time after by looking at Jesus’ life through Mary’s eyes. We are going to tell her story by starting not at the beginning but at the end. Today, we’ll start with Mary’s death and the last years of her life. Then in each succeeding week we’ll work our way backward, from the Crucifixion and Jesus’ ministry, to his discovery in the Temple as a twelve-year-old boy, to the announcement of the Savior to come, until finally we will end with the birth of Jesus.

         For this journey, I will be borrowing extensively from Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book, Not a Silent Night. Rev. Hamilton writes this, “As Mary learned, God doesn’t promise a perfect, peaceful life or a silent, holy night. She was blessed, God-favored, and grace-filled, yet her troubles did not end. That’s how life was for Mary, and that’s how life is for us. Life doesn’t go according to our plans. Sometimes it’s hard and painful and scary. Yet,” Hamilton continues, “in the messiness of life, God is at work, bringing blessing out of pain. That’s the message of Christmas.”

         Advent is a four-week period when Christians pause and say, “Let’s remember what this is all about. Let’s remember who the child is, born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Let’s remember the hope and promise that come from him. Let’s remember who he called us to be and what he called us to do. Let’s remember the mission he gave us as we seek to live as Christ-followers.”

         Folks, Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate the birth of the Savior. The word advent comes from a Latin word that means “coming.” During this four-week period we not only prepare to commemorate Christ’s first advent, his birth in Bethlehem; we also prepare for the day when Christ will return, in glory, to usher in a new heaven and earth. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

         No one was closer to Jesus than Mary. No one shaped his life more than she did. No one knew him better, nor loved him more. And no other human being paid a greater price than she did for his birth, life, and death. Mary’s own life was not blissful, peaceful, and blessed. It was challenging, painful, and at times filled with sorry.

         Now it is hard to discuss Mary’s last years, because there’s not much known about them. The Bible is virtually silent about her final years. There’s only one verse that mentions Mary by name after the resurrection of Christ and that is in our scripture today. We’re told in Acts 1:14, that following Jesus’ ascension and before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples and “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” constantly devoted themselves to prayer.

         So, if we can’t find much information about Mary’s last days in Scripture, we have to turn to other sources of information, mainly found in the traditions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Their stories are an important part of the church’s liturgical year. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Mary’s death each year on August 15. Catholics call it the Feast of the Assumption and the Orthodox Christians call it the Feast of the Dormition. “Dormitio” is the Latin word for “sleep.”

         Roman Catholics believe that Mary was taken up bodily to heaven shortly after her burial as a special way in which Mary was honored by God, as God had done with Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament. This belief began shortly before the fifth century.

         Adam Hamilton writes this: “One version of the story tells that three days before her death, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, the same angel who came to her when she was a girl of thirteen or fourteen to announce that she would give birth to the Christ. At this second appearance Gabriel looked no older than before, but Mary would have been, by some accounts in the early church, around sixty years of age. Gabriel announced to Mary that in three days she would die, and, hearing this, Mary asked to see the apostles one last time. The apostles were scattered around the world preaching the gospel, but the story has it that the Holy Spirit supernaturally gathered all of them, including Paul, around Mary’s bedside. Only Thomas was unable to be present.”

         Hamilton continues, “Mary was then laid to rest in a tomb. Thomas arrived three days later, according to the story, and when he arrived he asked to see Mary’s body. When the crypt was opened, the disciples found, much to their surprise, that Mary’s body was gone and only her burial shroud remained!”

         There is still some disagreement among Christians about where Mary died. Some believe she died in Jerusalem and was buried in a cave adjacent to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. But it is likely that Mary died in Ephesus in western Turkey. Remember, Jesus had entrusted his mother to the Apostle John and John, we know, lived out the last of his days in Ephesus.

         Protestants, like us, are more cautious than Catholics and Orthodox Christians about traditions such as these, which are not rooted in Scripture. But whether you believe the stories or not, they focus our attention on one thing that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox agree upon: the resurrection of the dead. How Mary’s death happened is not as important as the fact that as she approached death, she undoubtedly believed that when she died, she would see her son once again.

         Mary witnessed the terrible and tragic death of her son. Then she had the joy of seeing Christ resurrected from the dead. But then, forty days later, she witnessed him leaving once more in the Ascension. If Mary died around age sixty, as one tradition suggests, it meant that she lived roughly fifteen years after Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension to heaven.

         It is believed that Jesus first appeared to his mother Mary after his resurrection. That is why he was not there when Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb. This appearance of Jesus to Mary after his death would have changed everything for her. She still would have carried the grief of his suffering with her. She would have carried the sense of separation and loss that any of us would feel after the death of someone so close to us. But the Resurrection, we can be sure, changed how Mary experienced her grief: it gave her hope.

         The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “We do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Jesus’ resurrection brought hope to his mother Mary and it brings hope to us as well. Paul calls us to encourage one another with the hope that this life is not all there is. Encourage one another with the fact that you’ll see your loved ones again. Encourage one another with the prospect that the world will not always be as it is now. This is part of the promise and hope of Christmas – that the One who was born in Bethlehem will set all things right one day. Paul devotes the entire fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians to this view of the Resurrection.

         So, what do you think Mary was doing from the time Jesus ascended to heaven until her own death? Remember, it was at Jesus’ ascension that he told all present to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them. This is what we call the Great Commission. As the disciples and Mary and a few others returned to Jerusalem, they waited in the Upper Room until the Holy Spirit came upon them. And when it did on the Day of Pentecost, they launched the church, preaching the gospel, inviting people to faith, baptizing, teaching, meeting together in homes, worshiping in the Temple courts, and sharing with any who had need. Where was Mary?

         I believe she saw Christ’s commission as her continuing mission and that she devoted the rest of her life to this mission that God had given her. Jesus had told his disciples to be light to the world. He had told his followers to teach others what he had taught them. He had told them to be his witnesses. Don’t you imagine this is what Mary did during the last days of her life?

         Adam Hamilton writes in his book, Not a Silent Night, “I believe [Mary] would have continued to do the things Jesus had done – to look for people who were lost sheep and bring them back to God; to find those who were hungry and thirsty and sick and naked and in prison and care for them; to let her light so shine before others that they might see her good works and give glory to her Father in heaven; to love her neighbor and love her enemy and do the things Jesus had called all the disciples to do. Wouldn’t Mary have devoted the next fifteen years of her life to doing those things?”

         Brothers and sisters in Christ, our mission at Christmas is not to get stuff for people to open on Christmas morning. It is to be people of hope who let Jesus’ light shine through them, who act as his witnesses so that others see him in us, who offer hope and help, who pray and work so that our world looks more like the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. This is what Mary would have been doing. And this is what we are called to do.

         This year, how will you offer hope to people who don’t have it? How will you offer encouragement and joy? If your Christmas doesn’t include serving the poor in some way, you’ve missed out on part of the mission.

         I wonder if Mary celebrated the birthday of Jesus in the years following his ascension. If she did, did she look back on Christmas through the lens of Easter, with great hope that one day she would see her son again. At Christmas, we’re meant to celebrate the hope of the Resurrection and to remember Christ’s Great Commission.

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