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“All is well,” so says Michael W. Smith in the song that I shared at the beginning of our service. All is well! Angels and men rejoice because darkness has fallen and a new light of dawn has risen. All is well! There is peace on earth because the Christ has come – he has come in a manger, lying in a stall meant for animals in the town of Bethlehem with his mother, his father, and some shepherds from nearby who had just had a very frightening encounter with a whole host of angels in the sky. All is well! This baby Christ lying in his manger, this is our Lord, our Savior, Him whom we revere, love, adore, worship, depend on, have faith in, cast all of our hopes to. All is well! Emmanuel is born – Emmanuel! God with us! He is here. He has come. All is well!
And I love this song. Point of Grace, the contemporary Christian musical group, sings a rendition of “All is Well” on one of their holiday albums. I can listen to just this one song over and over again. Michael W. Smith says that of all of the songs he has composed over his three decades and counting in Christian music, “All Is Well” is the one he is most satisfied by. It is such a reminder, such a needed endorsement of the power of the Gospel and the truth of what transpired those two thousand years ago.
God came. After centuries of silence, He spoke. It may have been in a baby’s cry, but He spoke nonetheless. He cared enough to become one of us so to save us from ourselves. He came, and now all is well. But there’s a problem. You see, all is not well. Eyes and ears don’t have to travel very far to discover how completely things are not all well. Consider the story of A & S. I am a father of two, so the story of these strangers I only know because of the internet have struck a strong chord and illustrate just how far from being all well our world has strayed.
A designs web sites and maintains a few blogs, which is how I know their story. I began following the writings of A in seminary, but actually stopped keeping up with them quite a while ago. On a whim, I checked in to see what was going on with the two of them a few months ago. It turns out that A & S, now married for four years, were expecting. In fact, they were expecting twins. When I looked, they had just found out. Levi was still months from coming, so I was able to join them in the thrill of anticipation of pregnancy and parenting. This was their first pregnancy, which made it all the more exciting.
Despite the parenthood connection, I didn’t actively keep up with A & S after that news. But on Friday I decided to see what was going on with them. And this is their story. On October 22, while we were wondering how Levi could possibly be two and a half weeks old already, A & S were visiting their ultrasound tech and learning the gender of their twins. They were 19 weeks along. “A” happily reported on a blog post that there would be two more men coming into the world. “A” writes blog posts in advance and schedules them to post. On October 25 the post was a video of two twin boys staring and laughing at each other. The entry simply said that this was their future. That same day A posted about looking forward to having months of preparation for the confusion that would come with parenthood.
Meanwhile, while those posts that had been written in advance were being automatically published online, things were afoot in the real world. On October 24, two days after finding out that they were going to have twin boys, something strange happened with the pregnancy. A & S went to the labor and delivery unit of the local hospital to see what was going on. A doctor sat down next to them. Her water had broken. They were 19 weeks and 3 days pregnant. The pregnancy was over. The babies were not mature enough to be able to live outside the womb. So she labored. She cramped. She took an epidural. Two breathing and squirming and tiny boys came into the world. And an hour later they were gone. All is not well in the world of A & S. All is not well in a world where something like this is even possible.
And this story speaks to what we already know from our own stories. From the names on our prayer list. From the wars and rumors of war that crowd the airways and the printed text of our newspapers. From the too-long list of names in every paper’s obituary section. From the empty chair at our own dinner tables during this holiday season. From a world run amok with wild weather that causes devastation. From stories of maniacs taking lives and running away with children. From able and willing, competent adults who cannot find a job to support their families. From the billions around the world who try to eke out an existence on less than a dollar’s income a day. From the tabloids and celebrity watchers who give credence to those who are famous simply for being famous.
All is well? Most certainly not. All is not well. We are struck by sickness. Death still haunts and traumatizes the living. Tragedies happen. Devastation overtakes us. Cancer eats us or our loved ones away. In the face of these things and many other daunting challenges, can we really say, “All is well?”
Today is the third Sunday of the season of advent. As I mentioned in the two previous weeks, advent is a season of waiting. Of anticipating. Of looking forward to what is coming. To the Pax Dei and the righteous and just rule of the Spirit-guided Messiah-king. And to this: that all is well. That all will be well.
When speaking of eschatology – the study of last things or end times – there is a saying that at least the professors of the schools I attended were fond of using. And it is this: Already/Not yet. The things of eschatology are already guaranteed but are not yet realized. They are already present but not yet fully in place. Christ is already king over the heavenly kingdom, but the heavenly kingdom does not yet hold full sway over the earth. They are already/not yet. So when we read Isaiah 35 in this season of Advent, we need to know that all is already well, but all is not yet well.
Isaiah 35 talks about the restoration of three different areas. The first of these is the restoration of creation. In Genesis 1 and 2, God created the world. And in this world He created the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were able to wander, eat freely from the fruits of the Garden, commune with God, and watch and care over the animals that were there. Adam even named them all. There was no fear of poisonous insects or snakes, no fear that a lion might come out and attack them on their way, no fear of an earthquake to rattle their homes, no fear of tornadoes or hurricanes or blizzards. There was simply God, His creation, and the communion between them. This was Eden. This was as God intended things to be.
Then the events of Genesis 3 changed everything. Sin entered the world and, with sin, death came, too. With death, the Garden changed. Adam and Eve were sent out to the east of the garden, and the way back was blocked to them by an angel with a flaming sword. Instead of the idyllic life of picking freely from the fruits of the Garden, Adam would have to toil and sweat over the ground to coax it to produce the food he required.
Other things changed, too. The ground would not be coaxed easily. Adam and his descendants would have to learn about weather and how to interpret it. Now the earth moaned because of the sin and death in it. It would shake. What we now call natural disasters began to appear, and their numbers would continually increase until at some point yet future they can no longer be endured. Revelation 21:1 records John’s vision on the island of Patmos. He says this: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
Sin utterly wrecked God’s creation – all of nature feels it. Romans 8:19-21 says, “19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.“ And this will happen. Restoration will come to creation. The very restoration that Isaiah describes in chapter 35, where deserts come forth with pools of water and blossoms abundantly with flora of various types, when the glory of the forests of Lebanon and the abundant produce of Carmel and Sharon shall spread beyond just those lands. In the desolate places where jackals had made their dens, reeds shall grow to full height. This is an especially striking image because just in chapter 34 Isaiah had described how God would take the abundant lands of Edom and other nations and turn them into desolate places where the jackals would take up residence. The destruction would be restored to beauty and productivity. The wilderness into which Adam had been cast will be renewed and refreshed into the state of Eden.
This is already/not yet. This restoration is assured. God has promised it. But it is not yet realized. So we wait for it. We eagerly anticipate its coming.
But there is more. When sin entered the world, with it came death. God promised Adam and Eve that should they ever eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they would surely die. Satan, masquerading as the serpent, insisted that that was not so – rather they would be like God. It turns out that both were right. Man learned more than he should ever have learned, and on that day he died. From the perspective of God, he died. Immediately the cells of Adam and Eve’s bodies started to decay and even turn against them. They became prone to sickness. Artery walls could clog or weaken, leading to heart attacks and stroke. Cells ceased to properly process all of the various minerals and proteins, leading to things like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. Some cells would forget how to properly grow and would instead grow wildly, becoming cancer that would literally eat away its host. Bones became brittle, prone to breaking. Hair turned gray. Wrinkles appeared. The strength of youth would fade with the years into weakness and weariness. And, eventually, sooner or later, the body would succumb. Breathing would stop. Heart beats would cease. Brain function would quit. Death would overtake.
You see, Adam was already dead, even if he wasn’t yet dead. Death was a certainty. It had come even if it was not yet visible. And it would manifest itself in other ways. Blindness. Deafness. Muteness. Lameness. Weakness. Feebleness. Anxiety. These are all manifestations of the health of Eden given over to the death of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
But we will be restored. With the coming of Christ, we are already, if not yet, restored. Given glorified bodies. As his followers, we are those whose “20 …citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” As Isaiah says, weak hands will gain strength, feeble knees will walk confidently, anxious hearts will become strong and fearless, the eyes of the blind will see, the ears of the deaf will hear, the tongues of the mute will speak, the lame man shall leap like a dear. No longer will cancer overwhelm. No longer will a parent grieve a terrible loss. No longer health be an issue. We will be restored. In fact, we already are, even if we do not yet see its effects. At least, those of us who are in Christ are. This we await.
God renews and indeed creates a new world to replace this dead and broken one. He grants to us the same glorified body that Jesus already has – free of death and disease and decay. These are already accomplished if not yet realized. And then there’s the final restoration. God created Adam, who sinned. The tenth generation from Adam was Noah. By the time Noah was 500 years old, God had decided to destroy his creation with a flood and start over – with Noah, his wife, their three sons, and the sons’ wives. With much shorter life spans, eleven generations removed from Noah there lived a pagan in the region of Ur of the Chaldees named Abram. God chose him to create a new people – a third set who would be designed to redeem all of humanity. This, too, failed miserably as even this specially chosen people, witness to astounding miracles, waffled and wavered, preferring the gods of their neighbors to the God who delivered them. And so, according to the gospel’s genealogy, fourteen generations from Abraham to David and fourteen generations from David to the people of Israel’s final downfall, and fourteen generations from the downfall and deportation to the son of Jacob, whose son by Mary was Jesus. And with Jesus and the church that he built on the confession of Peter, God accomplishes and begins the work of accomplishing Isaiah’s vision at the end of Isaiah 35.
“And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
One commentator says it this way: “The end of the Holy Way is Zion the Holy City. The result of supernatural protection and provision, but most of all, of redemption, is a gladness which will drive away all sadness forever. This is the apex of the eschatological vision: a day when the people of God can be set free from their own sins and the sins of others, when they can come home to their God and be fully restored to his image, when a lifelong struggle to avoid grief and pain will be ended in their being overwhelmed by gladness and joy. This is the hope of biblical faith.” This is our hope. This is our future.
Throughout this poem that constitutes the thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet is encouraging his people in one direction. The world looks bleak. Trials are hard. Death, disease, and destruction are everyone. Fear is paramount and ready to claim us. But God is faithful. God is trustworthy. He will restore. He will restore creation. He will restore our bodies to glorified bodies. He will restore his people to himself. He will do this. He has, and He will – the already/not yet conundrum. God is utterly trustworthy.
In this season of advent we wait for many things. For peace to reign. For justice and righteousness to rule. And now for restoration to finally and completely take hold. And here’s the thing, for those of us who believe – who trust Christ and have a relationship with God through the Spirit on account of Jesus’ redeeming blood – this is a certainty. It is an already/not yet. We are restored, and we are not yet realized to the restoration. From God’s perspective it is a done deal. And now we wait for its fulfillment.
So what do A & S and the rest of us who face struggles do as we encounter the lingering effects of a dying world while waiting for the fulfillment of these certain promises of restoration? Isaiah says it in verses 3 and 4: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart,” (this is all of us!) “’Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’”
You can believe this. You can trust this. In the midst of death. In the midst of cancer. In the midst of every heart-rending sinful aftermath this world can throw at us. We will be restored. In fact, we already are. We just have to look from the right perspective and wait for it with the perspective in which we live.
 Philippians 3:20-21
 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 626.