Saturday, September 22, 2007

Isaac: "It's All Small Stuff"

Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog, was having one of those lazy, carefree days doing nothing as he plopped his stomach on the floor in his kennel and then walked around aimlessly and restlessly, sighing in his thoughts: “I’m growing old, and I’ve never done anything. I’ve never chased a rabbit...I’ve never barked at a burglar. Cats scar me to death. I hate retrieving ducks. All I ever do is sleep.”

After pondering his options, Snoopy went back to sleep, this time with his head contentedly rested on a rock, his back on the floor, facing the blue sky, admitting to himself: “Well, I guess each of us has his own special calling.”

Unlike Abraham, Isaac lived an easy life and had it made. He was a boring guy who lived a ho-hum life and made no ripples in life. Unlike his father and his son, he did not loom large in the Bible; he was more like a small-print footnote stuck between two important dissertation and larger-than–life figures. His father, Abraham, was the father of many nations and Jacob, his son, was the father of the nation Israel. Unlike Abraham and Jacob who traveled abroad, Isaac lived a sheltered life and had never left home. His parents even ordered a bride for him, but after the death of both parents, he had a rude awakening. Curiously, he imitated his parents’ tag team lie disastrously and gambled with Rebekah’s life when he told the Philistines that she was his sister (Gen 26:1-11).

God did not let Isaac down even though He let him fail. Isaac later made up for his past inexperience, mistakes and immaturity. Slowly, he stepped out of his father’s shadow, experienced God for himself and got along impressively with his neighbors.

How should we respond to people who intimidate us? Who should we turn to when we are alone and afraid? Why is it more blessed to turn the other cheek than to fight tooth and nail when our enemies offend us?

Shut Up and Pull Out Like a Gentleman
12Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the LORD blessed him. 13The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. 14He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. 15So all the wells that his father's servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth. 16Then Abimelech said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.” 17So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. 18Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them. 19Isaac's servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. 20But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. 21Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. 22He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land.” 23From there he went up to Beersheba. (Gen 26:12-23)

When my wife and I agreed to the terms of a house several years ago, little did we know that trouble was ahead. On the day of our wedding anniversary, twenty days before moving in, our agent called and told us that the owner had faxed a note to him saying that he was canceling the sale. On top of a regular mortgage, the owner apparently owed the government $50,000.00. He also had back taxes, five liens, and bank loans that totaled more than his house’s asking price. Besides facing the liens that would prevent him from selling, he also wanted to sell with enough profit to pay off his debts and to retire.

On our agent’s advice, we dutifully went through mediation and arbitration as stipulated on the contract, but the seller did not budge, return calls or even open his door to a hand-delivered mediation letter from his broker. On the day we were supposed to move in, I drove by the house three times, staring at the house. The Sunday after the initial move-in date, when I remarked to my wife that we were supposed to move in that weekend, she replied, “Do you know this is the third time you are saying it?” I replied, “I know, but I can’t help it.”

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months, and slowly the Lord took our minds off the house. Though we stayed six months in a rented house before we bought our dream house and I still drove by the area once a week to look for new homes, we were too busy with our ministry and jobs and occupied with various things most of the time to even think about the house. I discovered that once the move-in weekend had passed, the mind did not play tricks on me again, rewinding, replay and reliving old memories.

Isaac was a gentleman. His actions were never out of character or out of range with the person he was; he did not get mad, turn bad or get even when he was pushed to the edge by the bad guys.

Isaac, at first glance, was a coward, a victim and a loser but his silence must be examined in the context of the danger he faced. He was a foreigner, his wells were plugged up by the Philistines and he was invited to leave by none other than Abimelech, the Philistines ruler (Gen 26:15). Not only had Isaac suffered hostility shown by the Philistines, who stopped up the wells that his father, Abraham, had dug up, his relocation to the Valley of Gerar was twice met with resistance from the herdsmen of Gerar, who seized the wells and water that his servants had discovered (Gen 26:20, 21). The third time, however, was a charm for the nomadic Isaac, who later discovered water in the abundance (Gen. 26:23).

Isaac appeared powerless, but he was not spineless, toothless or brainless. He ran out of water, but he did not run out of options. He would rather move willingly and than to be removed forcefully. Nobody laid a finger on him, his family, herdsmen, flocks or possessions. Abimelech was impolite, the Philistines were jealous – the first occurrence of the Hebrew word “envy” in the Bible (Gen 26:13), but no fist was thrown, no fight had ensued and no party was hurt. Feelings, sensibilities, relations were hurt, that’s all. Isaac was wronged and hindered, but he wasn’t wounded or harmed. There was always another well, another spring, another discovery elsewhere. So he moved to the outskirts, to the valley, to the frontier. He was not at the point of starvation; he had just reaped a hundredfold harvest (Gen 26:12). It was more important to be blessed by the Lord, of which Isaac was. The references to God’s clear, unmistakable blessing on Isaac (Gen 26:12-13), in a sense, were more striking than God’s blessing on Abraham. Abraham was wealthy (Gen 24:35), but Isaac was very wealthy (Gen 26:13).

Robert Eliot said these classic words: “To avoid stress, Rule No. 1 is, don't sweat the small stuff. Rule No. 2 is, it's all small stuff.” (Quotable Quotations, 369). In the words of the Chinese, “As long as the green mountain remains, why fear there is no wood to burn.” When it is not a matter of life and death, sticks and stones, the last resort or the last straw, investing time, money and energy to change people’s minds, opinions and feelings is costly, draining and unrewarding.

The only command Isaac had received from the Lord so far was to stay in the land (Gen 26:2-3), and although he left Gerar, he did not go down to Egypt, which the Lord had forbidden. God promised the land to Abraham and Isaac, but He did not stipulate for Isaac to claim the city of Gerar, its waters or wells, where he was harassed. More importantly, Isaac was an adventurer by nature (Gen 26:23). Even if Abimelech, the Phllistines or the herdsmen of Gerar did not drive him away, plug up his wells or did anything funny, foolish or fanatical, he still would have left, which he did even after digging another well and finding uncontested water at Rehoboth (Gen 26:22-23).

In this tit-for-tat, an-eye-for-an-eye and dog eat dog world and society, Isaac was peerless as a gentleman. He left without fuss, last words or a tinge of regret. He was one of a kind and had a different philosophy altogether. The world did not need another jerk, another showdown and another casualty. Instead of thinking the well-followed Chinese tradition of “You get me the first day of the month and I’ll get you on the 15th,” think “If I don’t work in the east, then I’ll work in the west.”

Step Up and Press On As an Heir
24That night the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” 25Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well. (Gen 26:24-25)

Several years ago, Time Magazine, for a change, put a Christian figure and a new face on its cover: Franklin Graham. Franklin is the son of the world's most famous preacher, Billy Graham, whose radio broadcast was carried by 660 stations. Growing up, the younger Graham was often embarrassed and bothered by his father's well-wishers, who often said: “Dear Little William Frank, we heard that your daddy has new help for preaching God's truth. So grow up fast!”

Franklin had his turn at rebellion when he was young. Neighbors called the local sheriff one instance when they saw the younger Graham chopping down a neighbor’s tree - with 720 rounds of machinegun fire! Smoking was also a hard habit to break. To make him quit smoking, his mother attempted to sicken him of smoking by forcing him to smoke a whole packet of cigarettes. He finished all of them, vomited five or six times, but refused to give in. While he was sent to a Christian boarding school, he taunted the local police to high-speed car chases and cultivated a fascination for firearms.

The younger Graham eventually accepted the Lord at age 22, but it took him another 22 years to emerge in his own right and on his own terms to succeed his father Billy Graham at the helm of his father's ministry, after garnering respect for starting a new, breakthrough ministry - Samaritan’s Purse. Franklin Graham reflected on his turnaround and transformation, and said, “People might say: ‘Come on, you've got it made. Your father is Billy Graham! You have a perfect position before God.’” His reply, however, was, “ No I don't. No one can choose God for you. You must choose.” (“In the Name of the Father” Time 5/13/96)

Isaac’s knowledge and experience of God were initially second-hand, family-owned postdated and by default. God blessed him only after his father’s death (Gen 25:11). His father was a typical immigrant who made his mark and fortune in the new land, but unfortunately Isaac was a passive second-generation recipient who was just going along for the ride.

However, Isaac resolutely kept moving until he found God, which he did at Beersheba, the same spot where God was known to have appeared to Hagar (Gen 21:14). Now he had a direct, personal and real relationship with God. The first time God appeared, He said to Isaac: I will be with you (Gen 26:3), but this time God said to him, “I am with you” (Gen 26:24). As it has often been said, “God has no grandchildren.” God now confirmed his relationship with Isaac using the present tense. Just like his father (Gen 12:7, 8, 13:18), Isaac built an altar and called on the name of the Lord (Gen 26:25); his faith was no longer a symbolic act, a traditional ritual or a family practice.

Hebrews 11:9-10 tells us that Isaac stood tall as an heir of the same promise Abraham inherited: “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.”

Isaac’s name was mentioned in the same breath with Abraham by his grandson Joseph (Gen 48:15-16, 50:24) and afforded the same honor by God Himself (Ex 3:6, 3:16, 4:5, 6:3, 6:8, 33:1, Lev 26:42) in the Torah and Jesus in the New Testament (Matt 22:32, Lk 13:28). God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not just Abraham and Jacob.

Isaac also made a name for himself planting crops, something his father Abraham never did. Abraham loved the mountains (Gen 12:8), the oaks (Gen 18:1) and trees (Gen 23:7), but Isaac made his life in the valley. Yet Isaac’s biggest achievement was not carving a name for himself as a maverick, but inheriting and embracing God as his own, as an heir should. He was a giant the day he stepped out of his father’s shadow, stepped into his own shoes and stepped up to the promise.

Speak Up and Patch Up to Be a Peacemaker
26Meanwhile, Abimelech had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. 27Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?” 28They answered, “We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, `There ought to be a sworn agreement between us'--between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you 29that you will do us no harm, just as we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace. And now you are blessed by the LORD.” 30Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. 31Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace. 32That day Isaac's servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, “We've found water!” 33He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba. (Gen 26:26-33)

In the Academy-award winning movie Braveheart, one of the most significant developments in the training of Scotsman William Wallace, the fighter and warrior who initiated Scotland’s drive to independence, was the advice given to him by his father when he was grooming the young boy for adulthood.

Young Wallace had wanted to join his father and brother to fight against the English, but his father objected and prevented his youngest son from joining them. The young Wallace objected, “I can fight,” but his father restrained him, saying what turned out to be his last words to his son, “I know. I know you can fight. But it's our wits that make us men.”

Later, when his Uncle Argyle came to take the revenge-minded orphan Wallace with him, he caught William looking at his sword, handed the sword to him and took it back as he tapped William’s head, and said: “First, learn to use this, then I'll teach you to use this.”

Years later, when an adult William Wallace returned home, the first person who picked a fight with him was his old childhood friend - the big, burly, brutish Hamish, a fierce fighter who later became Wallace’s loyal sidekick.

Hamish tried crushing him by throwing a huge rock at Wallace, who had promised not to move as he teased Hamish: “I was wondering if you could do that when it matters, as is matters in battle. Could you crush a man with that throw?” The furious Hamish shouted, “I could crush you, like a worm,” and proceeded to throw the rock at Wallace, but he missed. William then hit Hamish in the forehead with a tiny stone he had picked from the ground. Hamish, who had crumbled to the ground, admitted defeat and said, “Aye, welcome home. Aye, you busted my head.” Wallace turned and said to his friend, “Well, you should have moved.”

Isaac was a gentleman, not a guerilla; an heir, not a heathen; a child of God and hot grandchild. More triumphantly, he was a peacemaker, not just a peacekeeper - a peace-loving man, a good neighbor, and an honorable ally.

When Abimelech came with his personal adviser and the commander of his forces to make a treaty with Isaac (Gen 26:26-27), Isaac questioned Abimelech’s strange visit, his latest motive and past treatment. Isaac was not easily deceived, intimidated or persuaded. He heard their side of the story, listened to the solution they offered and used his head as well as his heart to settle their cold war, their mutual suspicion, their past and potential conflicts. Isaac spoke up to end the conflict, secure peace and move on.

Isaac, contrary to belief, was not the type to gloss over a problem. He was not a weak man who would not speak up or stand up to bullies. When the occasion arose, he brought up Abimelech's past hostility to him and asked him why the ruler hated him so and had sent him away (Gen 26:27). Isaac, unequivocally, chose the word “hate” (v 27) in Hebrew, or “hostile” in NIV. When the air was cleared, they made peace. Making allies with the locals was not a bad thing; Abraham did it (Gen 14:13). In the end, Abimelech, with all the hurled threats and verbal abuses, had not harmed Isaac in the least bit (Gen 26:29).

To practice kindness to strangers, Isaac even invited them to a feast, instead of sending them away empty, after they had made peace. Isaac was the first peacemaker in the Bible; he was the first one to be credited with living “in peace” with his neighbors (Gen 26:29, 31). God’s blessings followed Isaac the peacemaker.

Conclusion: Life is too short to keep enemies and records. Are you at peace with God, with yourself and with others? Are you living in peace with your spouse (1 Cor 7:15), with the church family (1 Thess 5:13), and with all men (Heb 12:14)? Inherited faith need not be musty faith. As an heir of God, have you claimed God for yourself? Have you confessed God in your heart? Do you count on Him in all things you do, for all things you have, through all things you face? People will grow old but faith must be young. Do you seek and follow God’s promise, His part and path for your life?


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