A sermon preached on November 18, 2007 based upon Isaiah 65:17 – 25, entitled, “All Shall Be Well.“
The words of the prophecy we heard from the end of the book of Isaiah come after a long period of despair for the people of Israel. Many of them have been living in exile, singing sad, homesick songs by the rivers of Babylon. Nearly 50 years earlier the armies of Babylonia had invaded Jerusalem, crushing the city, ravaging vineyards and homes, and taking thousands of prisoners, forcing them to leave their homeland behind and live as captives in a faraway land.
The prophecy alludes to the heartbreak of life:
The sound of weeping, the cry of distress,
Infants dying after but a few days of life,
Adults cut down in the very midst of life.
Houses built with great anticipation of their becoming a home,
never to be allowed to actually live in them.
Vineyards planted anticipating the sweet, succulence of the grapes,
never to be allowed to taste the sweetness — the vineyards over by
Laboring in vain,
Raising “children for calamity.”
Hurt and destruction everywhere.
Time and again recently I have heard people say that for them the highlight of our worship service is when the little children come forward. What is it about children that touch our hearts so? Is it not that they are the ones who have not been hardened to all this, who expect goodness and love, and are surprised when they find something other than goodness and love. Their hearts, like their skin, are soft.
We all start out this way, but in the course of our life, we begin to harden inside. We discover what it is to hurt — we learn, as our parents tell us, time and again, “Life isn’t fair.“ We learn the lesson well. And something begins to close down inside us. Eden is left once more.
To some extent this seems inevitable, even necessary. Without some inner hardening, we wouldn’t survive in this world, where so routinely the wolves devour the lambs.
But oh, how we long for Eden, and watching the faces of the children we catch for a moment a glimpse of the lost paradise.
But alas, it seems, we cannot go there ourselves, and must settle for a few vicarious moments of experiencing that place of innocent joy through the eyes of the children. We bear the burden of knowing the so-called real world, the one that soon enough these children will also know all too well. Violence and grief, betrayal and greed, cruelty and hurt.
It is into such a context as this that the prophet has the audacity to speak a powerful word of hope.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
Don’t look back, says the Lord. There is no need to long for Eden, or even for our lost childhood. No need for nostalgia. The best is yet to come.
Julian Norwich was a nun who lived in the beginning of the 14th century, became deathly sick at the age of 30, at which point she had a series of visions that explored the sufferings of Christ, but concluded with Christ saying,
“…All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.”
That in the end, the little child has it right after all, and we must turn and become like little children to receive the kingdom of God.
I offer these words to you as a breath prayer, as you go about this often broken world: “All shall be well.”
The story that forms us as the church tells us that the second to last word is one of death, of violence seeming to win, of a man full of love and hope being nailed to a cross, like a common criminal. It is the second to last word and we take it seriously in the church, for we know it tells us much about life in this world.
But the final word isn’t the cross, it is the resurrection. The tomb is empty. Jesus is alive. And so in the end, “All shall be well.”
This past week I took my monthly turn of leading worship at the local nursing home. I read to the old folks there extended portions from the book I read to you last week, “90 Minutes in Heaven,” describing the vision Don Piper received when his heart stopped beating for an extended period of time after a car crash. The old folks loved it. You should have seen their faces.
Not always, but often enough, you will see the same light filled face on old people as they are nearing death as you see on little children, so recently born.
I heard a wise preacher once say, pay attention to the moments that move you to tears, for God is trying to say something to you. As children we often cried, but most of us, especially us men, find it hard to cry. It is that hardening of which I spoke.
I have noticed that sometimes I will be moved to tears watching a movie; in the darkness I lose myself in the story.
And yet I have noticed something about the place where my tears show up. For instance, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I do not cry as George Bailey is driven to the point of planning his own suicide on Christmas Eve — the injustice of Mr. Potter, the local robber Baron. I am prepared for this.
The tears come when the sin of this world is redeemed by unexpected grace — by the unanticipated acts of kindness expressed by the whole community chipping in to save George and the bank.
It is in this scene that I become like a little child again.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is so powerful because it tells the truth about the second to last word, which is that often life isn’t fair, and the Mr. Potters too often win, and goodness often gets a swift kick to the groin.
But the movie goes on to witness to the final word, that in the end, All will be well, that in the end, Jesus wins, and we are to hang onto this truth.
This is what the church is all about — the church that Ruth and Russ have bound themselves to this day as we have received them into membership.
All of us will have our George Bailey moments, when we are tempted to believe that the second to last word is the final word.
But together we are the Body of Christ, and so together, we will remind one another of the final word. All shall be well. And so we persevere until that day our faces do shine like the sun.