Gen 21 – 35
“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” – Habakkuk 3.2
The Bible is a scrapbook! So much of Scripture is storytelling, isn’t it? I like to describe the stories with scrapbook images. Because the stories are so vivid I can just imagine the snapshots of family history taped into binders that hold all the memories of glory sightings. Glory sightings might not be a phrase you are familiar with. It generally means the places in your everyday walking around life where you see God at work. There are a lot of glory sightings in the story of Isaac & his family. But every good historical account of a family begins with the patriarch, Abraham. God made a promise to Father Abraham years ago that he would have a family tree as indescribable as dust in the wind and sand on the seashore. That’s pretty significant! Yet, it all started with one son, Abraham’s only son with his wife Sarah. God’s Covenant with Abraham was a promise that he would have descendants across the many generations to follow (Gen. 12.1-4, 13.14-16, 15.4-5, 17, 18.17-19, 22.15-18). And, so the story begins with a promise of a son, an heir – Isaac.
Time lapsed photography would should definite changes to both Abraham and Sarah as they waited for the promise of a family tree the size of the cosmos. It seems that Abraham was on a very lengthy journey prior to his having his son. And, during that time Abraham wandered the land in which his child would one day inherit. Abraham was preparing for the next generation to inhabit the land of promise with wells for watering flocks and family in addition to altars for worship. Abraham was learning people skills, and how to negotiate with others who were living in the land of promise. Abraham was discovering how to run his household by faith instead of fear by sending people away like his nephew Lot and his concubine Hagar who were not a part of the core family nucleus. God had his eye of Abraham and Sarah for 25 years prior to the conception and birth of their only son, Isaac. That’s a long time to wait for a child… 25 years! In fact they had grown old in the season of waiting. So much so that laughter became the conduit of the mystery of their faith.
Laughter is the sound of a new beginning! Our scrapbooking story begins with the announcement of a beloved son, Isaac, by none less than angels (Gen. 18.1-15). From conception to birth to circumcision to the weaning celebration all the details along the way were filled with laughter. From the promise of a son Abraham fell face down and lay on the ground with what I can only imagine is heart-warming belly laughter. I can only imagine Sarah feeling the rush of embarrassment with girly giggles when she hears the news of a soon coming child. Sarah had been barren for 90 years before she conceived (Gen. 21.2). She was certainly past the age of childbearing, and anything that smacked of youthful behavior. Yet, we hear the announcement and birth of Isaac is shrouded in laughter (Gen. 21.1-5). Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Gen. 21.6). In fact Isaac’s name means “he laughs” (Gen. 21.6-7). His father laughed at the impossibility of his wife conceiving in her old age. His mother laughed at the possibility of she and Abraham becoming parents middle age. Then Ismael laughed at his brother (Gen. 21.8-13) mocking his young life at the weaning festivities. So much laughter with so many different nuances to it… When was the last time you had a hearty laugh? Laughter is the biblical way of expressing a newness that cannot be explained. The newness is a gift from God that is unmerited. The sound of joyous laughter brings grief and sorrow to an end (Mt 5.4, Lk 6.21, Jn 16.20-24). Laughter speaks to barrenness, hopelessness, and death and says “beat it.” Laughter is the sound of surprise when the impossible becomes possible. But laughter can also be the sound of mocking when someone experiences fearfulness of their future much like young Ishmael. Laughter can turn our mourning into dancing, or set our hearts in fear and embarrassment.
Our laughter can turn quickly to disbelief when our faith in God is challenged. A significant challenge happens when God asks us point blank to give up our choices, our preferences on how our life stories will turn out. Have you been asked to surrender your most valuable possession? Has God invited you to live differently than you ever imagined? Just as Isaac approaches adulthood when he too will take the role of the head of the household, God asks Abraham to submit to the same cultural behavior as the Canaanite worshipers. At that time in history many communities in the Fertile Crescent worshiped child sacrifice. In the midst of a promise fulfilled God requires Abraham to let go of the fulfillment. Abraham take your hands off the wheel! Put your hands up and back away!
Arresting our fears and exercising our faith is key to walking with God. When we enter the second part of our story – the sacrifice of Isaac, our initial expectation would be that Abraham would negotiate with God. Based on Abraham’s cross-country record, having wondered across the promise land and settling conflict in very peculiar ways, one would assume that being tested by God would end miserably in failure. He is a smooth operator with skills at negotiating with kings and kinsmen. We might give him the very generous title of peacemaker or diplomat.
When we read about Abraham’s son Isaac, we really have to take in account the whole family system. We must wrestle with his parents -Abraham and Sarah- with their personality quarks and misbehaviors. What strikes me about Abraham is his ability to manage his life situations. Abraham knew how to handle strife in his life situations then making every effort to strategize to save his future. He was quick to eliminate conflict around him. To be sure Abraham’s personality was centered around manipulating his circumstances to avoid conflicts. As we observe the other leaders around Abraham, we could deduce that the Abraham was faced with domineering communities such as Egypt (Gen. 12.10-20). They were conquerors. And, it stands to reason why Abraham would want to avoid conflict with those kinds of people for fear of being enslaved by them. Abraham was also faced with leaders who seemed to intimidate him like Abimelek, and we see the embarrassed reaction of Abimelek when he returns Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20.8-18).
To illustrate the various kinds of personality quarks, we are going to play a game together. It’s called “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” We are going to do this together… Ready. Set. Go. What did you choose? For the sake of this sermon you are now going to reflect on which game piece you chose. Rock dominates (rules with an iron fist). Paper manipulates (triangulates others). Scissors intimidate (cut-people down). Ouch! It is amazing how we can take a simple children’s game and make it applicable to our adult relationships. Pastor Craig Green defines this analogy of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in his book entitled “Conquering the Game of Control: Nurturing the Nature of God.” Just when we think our faith is stronger than our fears, this game reminds us that we still may be struggling with our own insecurities in life.
When you think about leadership, are you most familiar with throwing rocks at others, cutting people down, or smoothing relationship issues with negativity. Each style of leadership is reactionary based in our fears. As we assess these behaviors in Isaac’s family tree, we can better assess ourselves. At any given moment, we might be tempted to manipulate, intimidate, or dominate others to get what we want all in the context of fear. However, we must also remember that there are times we might attempt those same behaviors of manipulation, intimidation, and domination with God himself. As we read the story of how God required Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, can you imagine how Abraham’s behaviors might have been different if he had walked in fear instead of faith?
I have often wondered when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his child, the only son who could be eligible to fulfill the promise of God, if God wasn’t after something deep in Abraham’s heart. Perhaps he was testing Abraham to see whether his fear would conquer his faith. It is our good fortune that Abraham is able to conquer his personal preferences for his faithful commitment. Again, I can really identify with this situation. If I were asked to relinquish my children after having been given them as a gift from God, it would be devastating. To imagine God having given a gift only to take it away is a challenge for all of us. It makes us question: God are you just going to snatch my life away without reason or cause? It causes me to pay attention to my fears and my faithfulness.
Faith leads God’s people to acts of prayer, meditation, and blessing. Isaac found himself in the shadow of his father, the man we revere as the Father of our Faith. Being raised as the heir to his father’s household, Isaac would have observed and practiced the faith of his father. Isaac grows into a man who will grieved deeply at his mother’s death (Gen. 24.67). His father took time in his old age after Sarah’s death to arrange a marriage for Isaac. Abraham was very intentional about what kind of marriage was suitable for Isaac (Gen. 24.1-4). There would be no Canaanite women in the lineage.
Prayer will guide and guard Abraham’s servant as he seeks a wife for Isaac. The marriage to Rebekah was swathed in prayer (Gen. 24.12, 15, 45) and wrapped in blessing (Gen. 24.60). If there is included in this story a sworn oath, three recorded prayers, and a blessing how much more praying must have been done in the heart of those involved! It was while Isaac is meditating that his bride-to-be Rebekah would dismount and cover herself with a veil (Gen. 24.62-67). Moments of waiting on God would reveal the future and often leads to times of deep pondering and meditation.
Abraham died and bequeathed all his belongings to Isaac as the head of the household who would continue the lineage (Gen. 25). In the Hebrew tradition the head of the household was bequeathed a double blessing to ensure that the family name would continue. Abraham cared for the other children, but he paid special attention to Isaac as the one who would secure the family tree and the promise from God. As Isaac and Rebekah formed their family bond, Rebekah would be childless. It was through Isaac’s prayer that Rebekah would conceive and bear twins: Esau and Jacob.
After Isaac’s sons were born, the Lord revealed to Isaac the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham through his children (Gen. 26.2-6). God spoke the same commitment, “I will make you descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 26.4). Isaac followed in Abraham’s footsteps. Where he dug a well for fresh water in the land, Isaac would experience God. Where Isaac experienced God, there he would establish an altar to worship the Lord and pitch his tent (Gen. 26.15, 22, 25). Isaac experienced God; he was called by God to continue the covenant promise given to Abraham (Gen. 26.18, 25, 32-33). After a long life, Rebekah and Isaac would die and be buried (Gen. 35.29). Yet, the promise remains for us today!
The fulfillment of God’s promise is often scandalous. Having grown up in an environment of fear, I was very disappointed to discover infertility issues due to disease complications. I desired to have an emotionally healthy family. But not long after Doug and I were married, I discovered that I had a disease called endometriosis which caused severe pain as well as ruptured cysts in my abdomen cavity. At age 23 I would undergo my first surgery for ruptured cysts and the removal of scar tissue in my abdomen. At the age of 24, 10 months later, I would have the same surgery again to remove more ruptured cysts and scar tissue. At the age of 25, I began chemical therapy to undergo menopause for a year. During that time, I began a master of divinity at A.T.S., I initiated the process of prayer ministry focusing on my inner-healing and deliverance from sin issues in my family tree. Through the process of prayer counseling, I found deep healing from the abusive environment of my community setting. Through it all, Doug and I were seeking to have children with no success. I had tried surgeries, chemical therapies, and infertility specialists to assist our conception. Then initiated adoption services through Catholic Charities.
After many prayer counseling sessions, I was invited to attend a prayer retreat. Many of my friends were involved and knew the prayer team. That weekend I had the privilege of God’s people praying for me, and God spoke clearly that I would conceive a child. About 6 weeks later I had a planned meeting with my physician for a hysterectomy at the age of 27. At that appointment, which happened to be my husband’s birthday, I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child.
When Doug and I first married, we used to visit his grandmother in the nursing home. I remember the moment we shared the news of our delivery date with Doug’s grandmother at the nursing home. She was quick to inform me that she already knew I was pregnant. She had prayed for us to have a child, and God let her know that her prayer would be answered. My fondest memory in seminary is being in Dr. Mercer’s homiletics class – eight months pregnant – and preaching from Mary’s Song in Luke’s Gospel quite unexpectedly as the passages were chosen by alphabetical order. I have it video-taped, and watch it from time to time.
My daughter’s delivery was dramatic as we had our largest snow storm in 100 years with almost two-feet of snow on the ground in Lexington. The day of her delivery date was indeed the day of her arrival. The Sunday night before the Friday delivery date, I felt my water break and we went to the hospital. They would send me home not understanding that my water had been leaking for some time, and my daughter would have a dry birth.
That night I heard from the Lord in my prayers this text from Job, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, Or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of distress, For the day of war and battle?…” (Job 38.21-23). I had a vision of the storehouses and it began to snow on our way home from the hospital. It snowed off and on for a week until we reached the snowfall record. We were snowed in the morning that I went into labor. Doug couldn’t shovel our car out of the driveway. Our neighbor, whose name happened to be Angel, took us to the hospital. Because of the weather, only one doctor was able to make it into the hospital at the time of delivery. There was only one nurse who had to work two shifts to cover our delivery crisis. We were the only family in the hospital delivering that night!
Louisville Remembers 1998 Snow Storm: http://fox41blogs.typepad.com/wdrb_weather/2013/02/february-1998-the-forgotten-snowstorm.html
Lexington Reports 1998 Snow Fall: https://www.weather.gov/media/lmk/pdf/posters/feb98.pdf
When I shared the due date with my aunt, she burst into tears. She had been praying for us to conceive, and my due date was her birthday! Our child’s birthday also coincides with the birthday of my prayer counselor, which makes her birth all the more special! My husband named her Skylar Renee which means “scholar, born again.” There’s just something special about how her name is exactly who she is!
Then we were later surprised with another unexpected pregnancy, our son. I love that God cares so much for our family that both our children strongly favor each of us as an act of redemption to be sure. And, my husband happens to be the last male heir on both sides of his family tree. Grayson is the last male heir for the Johnson-Bailey family.
The glorious stories of God hang in the balance relying on families with the birth of their children! God’s promises begin with children and end with children. Children carry the birthright and the blessing forward into the next generation. Childrearing and parenting skills are required in old-age, and it is all a part of God’s plan. The story of our inheritance is wrapped in both history and mystery. The problem we struggle with here in Isaac’s story is the way God’s promise is fulfilled. We are challenged with the problem of faith: believing the unbelievable. The difference between God’s plan and our plan is who is in charge of the fulfillment. We feel a sense of entitlement to plan our own destiny in life. God’s plan is a gift, our plans are plotted by our own wants and desires. God’s plan is unique, because it is not based in impure motives and unproductive power struggles. When we think about how God fulfills his promise through the family system and especially children, we are left with no other recourse that to follow what God has ordained through the word of Jesus. Jesus once said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19.14).
This week I had the privilege of speaking to Maysville Police Chief. As we discussed the local community concerns, I asked him what was his biggest concern that our church might invest in for the sake of improving the community-at-large. His response was that we would have “more compassion” toward our neighbors. I also asked him what people group would he like for us to focus on to help bring about change in our community. His response was “the young children who are still impressionable, teachable, and desire to be in right relationship with authority in the community.” I added to his list my own response, and that is prayer for our community and her leaders. So in three words my focus for the next six months of ministry will be on Hospitality (Agape Love), Children (the least of these), and Prayer.
When we seek to understand the Old Testament stories, we can find the connecting answers in the New Testament. Paul explains that when we walk by faith like Abraham then we too are walking as heirs to the promise of God. “So Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you. So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.’ … He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Galatians 3.5-14). Paul’s writing in Galatians teaches us that when we welcome Christ into our hearts, we accept the gift of the promise – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3.29).
God’s promise remains that Abraham will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, sand on the beach, and dust in the wind. May God bless our children who will one day follow in the shadow of Abraham and walk by faith and not in fear. May our children have a life devoted to God in prayer, meditation and blessings. May laughter always be upon their lips in the face of their oppositions. Amen.