Isaac: The On-Time, Late Arrival

(This is a manuscript summary of the sermon delivered yesterday to begin this new series, serving as a review for any who might like that, or for those who could not attend.)

He was born in January of 1706 as the 15th of 17 children in his family. What chance would such a child have 313 years ago of going far in life?

His father wanted his son to become a preacher (something my own dad thought was best to happen in someone else’s family), so he sent him to grammar school when he was eight years old. He stayed in school until he was age ten, doing well in writing, but poorly in arithmetic. He then left school to work with his father in their candle shop. The only additional education he ever attained came from his own reading.

Because reading was the boy’s favorite pastime, his father decided on the trade of printing and sent his son to learn this in his older brother’s printing shop. As an adult, he would eventually set up his own printing business. He also served as a postmaster and eventually got into politics.

In the political realm of the era of the American Revolution, he stands alone as the only person to have signed all four of the documents that helped to create the United States: the Declaration of Independence (1776); the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778); the Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States (1782); and the Constitution (1787). In addition, he helped to write parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

He was a foreign ambassador for 12 years, and he is credited for having discovered the Gulf Stream. He founded a major university and a college, a hospital, the Philosophical Society of America, and was the first postmaster general of the U.S.

You might know his face from one of the many hundred-dollar bills in your pocket. I’m talking about Benjamin Franklin.

Not bad for the 15th child in the family!

Though “rags to richer / pauper to prince” types of stories are popular and well-known, still, they are particularly interesting because it is so far from the common experience of the human condition. Such stories are beyond normal EXPECTATIONS.

Expectations: Surpassing Humble Beginnings … this is the title of our 5-week December / Christmas season sermon series.

We begin with Isaac: The On-time, Late Arrival.  And of course, we are talking about the time of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. You remember the story of Abraham – whose name means “Father of Many.”  Yes, this is the guy who obeyed God and left his life in the original cradle of civilization to travel to an undefined place, doing so with a promise that God would make his name great and prosper him with a lineage as numerous as the stars of the sky. But then, years would go by. And when he’d walk into the local Home Depot and the clerk would see his name on the credit card, he would be asked, “Oh, so how many children do you have?”  And he would have to answer, “Ah … none.”

Abraham would be 100 years old, with Sarah age 90 before Isaac was at last born. Even given the longer life-spans recorded in Genesis, this was very late in life. So, he was late from the perspective of Sarah and Abraham, but on-time in the plan of God.

Isaac’s name literally meant “one who laughs.”  This was referencing the laughter of both Abraham and Sarah that God would actually still provide a birth-son at that late moment of their lives. It was 13 years earlier that they took matters into their own power by the provision of Sarah’s Egyptian slave Hagar and the birth of Ishmael, whom Abraham loved and longed to see stand before God as his offspring of promise. But this was not to be.

And so Isaac began to grow in the household of Abraham – a nomad, yet one with some wealth … though still without any land possessions. What could be so special about this child’s birth, two millennia before the time of Christ?

The biblical account of the life of Isaac has far less recorded than his famous father, as well as his most famous son, Jacob. But we do get some pictures of what he was like. And perhaps the most famous story of Isaac was when he was yet a boy. Let’s quickly read through this story – from Genesis 22 …

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Let’s make a variety of points about this passage:

  • We tend to think of Isaac as something like a 5-year-old, when there is reason to believe he is actually much older and not just an immature, oblivious child about what is happening.
  • Abraham’s faith is evident in the statement to the servants that both he AND Isaac will return. And we see the reason for this in Hebrews 11:19 where it says that Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.
  • There is every reason to understand that Mt. Moriah is where the city of Jerusalem would later be, and the very place God led Abraham and Isaac that day was to be later known as Golgotha – the precise location of the crucifixion of Christ.
  • There are elements in the story that we understand to be typology – by definition, something in the Old Testament that is a symbol or prefiguring of something to be more perfectly accomplished in the New Testament.
    • Abraham is a type of God the Father who is willing to sacrifice his only son whom he loves (John 3:16).
    • The ram is a type of the idea of substitution – of Christ taking our place in receiving judgment.
    • But ISAAC – he is a type of the obedience of Christ to the Father to be the willing sacrifice for sin. And this credits actively to the account of Isaac, not passively or unknowingly.

Pressing quickly through the life of Isaac, here are some other highlights…

  • He marries Rebekah – a wife found for him by Abraham’s servant by returning to their original homeland. He is age 40.
  • His wife is barren for 20 years, and it is only after much prayer and faith that children are born – twin sons, Esau and Jacob.
  • Even during Rebekah’s pregnancy, and at the birth, it is obvious that these boys have totally different personalities and values. Rebekah has a prophecy from God about this – that they are two nations … that the older will serve the younger. Surely Isaac knew this information.
  • Rebekah prefers Jacob, the younger; whereas Isaac is drawn more naturally to the older – a young man who loves hunting and the outdoors.
  • Jacob one day makes a devious deal with his brother Esau, where the older demonstrates that he did not have a big-picture value of his birthright and God’s plan for the family, and he agrees to sell it to the younger. Esau also marries a pair of local Canaanite women who bring great grief to the family system. Jacob was yet unmarried.
  • At a later time, Rebekah helps Jacob fool the vision-impaired Isaac, who inadvertently gives the blessing to the younger brother.
  • Due to Esau’s anger and potential retributions, a plan is made to send Jacob away to Mesopotamia, where he will be for many years. There he is to marry from their original people group.
  • As he is sent away, we see Isaac again placing a blessing upon Jacob – essentially admitting that this was to be God’s plan of blessing for the family within the larger work of God’s promises to Abraham. Isaac will die at the age of 180.
  • Another event in Isaac’s life involves a time when there was a famine in the land … most often people from that region would then head to Egypt. But God told Isaac to stay, and he did. Fearing for his life among the local people, he repeated the same mistake his father had made earlier – saying that his wife was his sister … and he likewise ended up being rebuked by a pagan king when the truth came out.
  • Conflicts arose in the land between Isaac’s substantial flocks and herdsmen and the local peoples, and Isaac moved only slightly from place to place, eventually establishing peace. And God again confirmed the Abrahamic Covenant with him.

So it is a very mixed bag of items. He appears to be a rather passive man throughout various narratives and stories, not as active as his father or sons. His marriage/family is afflicted with some dysfunction, with mom preferring one child, and dad another.

BUT, he is applauded and has his name mentioned five times in the Hebrews 11, Hall of Fame of Faith!  How can this be?  Well, the answer is in that passage. Let’s look there at the story of the family of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, though I’m going to do it a bit out of order …

Hebrews 11:17-21 … By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

But the really important answer as to why these imperfect people – often with all of their faults not hidden at all in the Scriptures – get this major endorsement about their lives, and it is in the preceding verses …

Hebrews 11:8-16 … By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Here is the answer as to why they are honored: It is because they remained faithful to the big idea of big ideas … yes, even Isaac. They were faithful with the truth that they knew and understood. We call that the Abrahamic Covenant: about how this family would be blessed in the end with great expanse and that in some way also, all the families of the earth would be blessed through them. And we of course know this to be the work of Christ on the cross to defeat mankind’s enemies of sin and death.

Isaac, even with his faults, believed this and was a steward of this truth to pass it on to his family and further generations; and it gave meaning to his daily life in a strange land. None of them would see, on this side of eternity, all the blessings promised to them. Yet they were faithful to move forward in faith, day to day.

We think they had nothing but awesome experiences of God showing up all over the place. Not so!  Yes, occasionally they had miraculous and divine encounters. However, it was most often with years in between. And remember, they had no completed Scriptures; they had no indwelling Holy Spirit.

What we learn from them is that life is a long walk in the same direction. We discern that it is not a matter of daily/weekly/monthly mountaintop-to-mountaintop experiences. The journey of life involves traversing long, relatively flat plains as you look ahead to mountains off in the distance. But when you look back (and I’m old enough now to have a lot of review-mirror experiences), you can see that there were more high points than you realized (in the moment) had happened.

These are those points times where, though it didn’t seem like much at the moment, God intervened and blessed you, saved you, protected you, provided for you, redirected you, etc.  And it adds up over time. It may not seem glorious or huge, but you can look back and testify that, “as I sought to trust God through it all, God was indeed faithful at every juncture.”

It is like when Elijah complained to God that he was not seeing results in Israel, as all seemed to be going wrong, in 1 Kings 19:11, The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.   Most of our moments from God are gentle interventions.

So let us stay faithful, day-to-day. Let us ever recall the big picture – about which we know SO MUCH!  Christ has come – as a babe, to become the perfect sacrifice for sin. He has gone back to heaven from which he promises to come again. In the meantime, we are THE CHURCH – the body of Christ – God’s program for this age!  That is huge!  No, there aren’t obvious daily miracles, but there is still a big picture that defines EVERYTHING for us – advising us how to live in an increasingly evil world. It is the main idea of our lives … the thing that informs all that we do, how we disciple our families and teach them, how we invest every moment of our lives.

Yes, we live with Expectation. This is the season of Expectation – the celebration of the coming of the Big Picture that makes all the difference for every minute of our lives.

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