Thursday, January 19, 2012

Me and Abel - Genesis 4:1-16

Today we skip forward in our journey through Genesis.  After the creation of humans, there was the famous “Fall,” when humans first sinned.  Chapter 4 tells us, we kept falling, farther and farther. 

Old Testament Lesson: Genesis 4:1-16
1 Now Adam had sexual relations with his wife, Eve, and she became pregnant. When she gave birth to Cain, she said, “With the LORD’s help, I have produced a man!” 2 Later she gave birth to his brother and named him Abel.
   When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. 3 When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the LORD. 4 Abel also brought a gift—the best of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The LORD accepted Abel and his gift, 5 but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.
 6 “Why are you so angry?” the LORD asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? 7 You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”
 8 One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.

 9 Afterward the LORD asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”
  “I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”
 10 But the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! 11 Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. 12 No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
 13 Cain replied to the LORD, “My punishment is too great for me to bear! 14 You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me!”
 15 The LORD replied, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to kill him. 16 So Cain left the LORD’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

             For many of us this is a familiar story, but there are actually lots of places to get lost in this text.  We can easily follow a detour and miss the point.  
  • Why didn’t God accept Cain’s sacrifice?
  •  If God cares so much about Abel, why didn’t God stop Cain from killing his brother?
  • Why didn’t God kill Cain, like the Bible later teaches, a life for a life?
  •  Where did Cain go? 
  • Who were the other people Cain was afraid would kill him?  Where did they come from?
  • What was the mark that God put onto Cain?
All of these are interesting questions that scholars and Sunday school students have debated for centuries.  However, none of them lead us to the main point of the passage.
             We can even get lost in the murder.  The murder is the central event of the story, but it is not actually the point of the story.  The murder itself only takes up one line of one verse.  This is actually a story about Cain and God, sin and consequences and grace.  
And, whether we like it or not, this is a story about us.  A few passages from the New Testament can make the connections a bit clearer.

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 5:21-24
21 “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!  If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.
 23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person.  Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.

Epistle Lesson: 1 John 3:11-18
11 This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. 13 So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.
 14 If we love our Christian brothers and sisters, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. 15 Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them.
 16 We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?  18 Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.

             Murder feels so very far away.  I have never murdered anyone, and as far as I can remember, I don’t think murder has ever been a real temptation for me.  Most of you are probably not inclined to murder either.
             But try these on for size: jealousy … anger … hatred … revenge … cursing … name-calling … backbiting … gossip … unresolved conflict … selfishness … keeping our money when we should share it … ignoring someone in need.  Those are a lot closer to home.  Those shoes fit – a lot better than we would like to admit.  According to Jesus and John, we’re in the same boat as Cain.  
Tim Keller, one of my favorite preachers, always includes two lines in every sermon he preaches.  The first line goes something like this: “We are more evil than we care to admit.”  We are darker, more sinful, more wrong, more selfish than we even want to acknowledge.  As hard as it is to admit, I am Cain, and you are Cain.  This story is about us.
             Just like Cain, we avoid responsibility.  We don’t know why God didn’t accept Cain’s sacrifice, but whatever the reason, it was a problem between Cain and God – not Cain and Abel.  Instead of trying to change himself, Cain tries to change Abel.  How often do we redirect our anger from one person to another?  How often do we project our problems outward onto other people?
             Then, when God confronts him, Cain dodges responsibility again.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  We’ve been echoing Cain for thousands of years.  He started it.  We can’t feed the whole world.  It’s not actually a lie; it’s just not the whole truth.  I was only going 10 over the speed limit.  At least I’m not doing that.
             Even at the end of the story, Cain still doesn’t repent.  He just complains that the punishment is too harsh.  Isn’t that just like us?  So often, we aren’t actually sorry for doing wrong; we’re just sorry we got caught.  We aren’t actually sorry for sinning; we’re just sorry for the consequences.  We avoid responsibility to the bitter end.
             Just like Cain, sin is crouching at our door, eager to control us.  In Peter’s famous words: “Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  
The great trick of sin is that we think we can use it to get what we want.  That is the bait.  The trap is that sin ends up using us, controlling us, abusing us.  Cain ruined his own life, too.  The violator violates himself.  The oppressor is also oppressed.  Greed, revenge, backbiting, gossip, complaining, selfishness, hoarding, bitterness, lashing out, stealing, judgmentalism, porn, sex outside marriage, lying, sarcastic biting comments, lazy entertainment, overeating, drunkenness – these are rat poison, tainted bait.  They taste good for a moment, but they poison our souls.  Slowly they begin to take over who we are, and we cannot become free of them.

             Just like Cain, the consequences of our sin are more than we imagined.  As dieters say, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.”  Cain’s moment of vengeful pleasure leads to a lifetime of punishment.  
Cain, the fearless killer, becomes afraid of being killed.  Sin turns in upon itself.  The cycles of violence, deceit, and mistrust spiral downward.  We fear the return of our own actions on our head.  We sin, and then we live in fear that our sin will find us out.
Sin destroys community.  It isolates us from our family, from our friends, from our coworkers, from ourselves, from God.  We may sin because we are hurting or lonely, but in the end, sin only increases our pain and isolation.  If we ride that train to the end of the tracks, we will find eternal loneliness and eternal isolation.

             We are Cain.  And Cain is in a bad place.  But Cain is not alone, and neither are we.  God is with Cain, and God is with us.
             When Cain’s sacrifice didn’t go as planned, he was angry and depressed.  But God could see where this was headed.  God tried to redirect Cain back to the right path.  
             Life often doesn’t go as planned.  Sometimes, it’s our fault, and sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes, we need to learn a lesson or repent.  Other times, we need simply to accept the problems and move on.  But through it all, God is always working with us, trying to guide us toward health and holiness.  If we work with him, he will protect us from our own worst instincts.
             But like Cain, sometimes we ignore God’s warning calls.  We say that thing or do that thing that we know we shouldn’t.  Then, we feel another side of God – his justice.  Sin always has consequences.  Either inside us or in our relationships, every sin does its damage.  Sin always scars.
             Cain felt the pain of fear and isolation because of his sin, and he pled for a measure of mercy.  God marked Cain with a sign of protection.  God marked Cain with both guilt and grace. Although Cain deserved death for the death he caused, no one would kill him.  Cain eventually lived a long life.  He married and had children.
             God also marks us with both guilt and grace.  Christianity itself is a mark of guilt and grace.  
  • Think of the cross.  We are so guilty that we deserve death for our sins.  But God has given us grace; Jesus died so we could live.  
  • Think of baptism.  We are guilty and dirty, but God has given us grace and washed us with the blood and life of Jesus.  
  • Think of communion.  We come to the table as guilty sinners.  But we eat the grace of Christ, and we are forgiven and freed to live a new life.

             Remember that I told you one of my favorite preachers, Tim Keller, always says two lines in his sermons.  He always says that the gospel is that we are more evil than we want to admit, but that we are more loved than we dare to imagine.  We are more guilty and evil than we want anyone to know, but even so, God loves us more than any of us can dream.  

             So how do we apply this dangerous text about Cain to our lives today?  If we are all Cain, how to we move forward as fallen people in a fallen world?

             First, own the depths of your own guilt.  It doesn’t do any good for us to avoid responsibility or to lessen our feeling of guilt.  Just like, it’s wrong to play, “Holier than thou,” it’s equally wrong to play, “Guiltier than me.”  
Think of the person who has wronged you most - the single greatest personal injury you have suffered.  Think of that sin that is the most difficult for you to forgive.  Now, remember that that same sin is in you.  Maybe you haven’t murdered, or committed adultery, or molested a child.  But that same anger is in you.  That same lust is in you.  You have that same desire to use others for your own selfish ends.  We are just as guilty as those we judge most harshly.  
We are guilty, black as sin, and we have no right to ask God for anything.  What is more, we don’t have the power to change ourselves.  When was the last time your dirty dishes washed themselves?  Someone else has to do the cleaning.  We are guilty and sinful, and we can’t change ourselves.  Owning that reality is the first step.

             Second, own the depths of God’s grace.  Listen to Paul explain this in Romans 5: “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners  But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies” (5:6-8).  God loves you.  God genuinely loves you, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how many times you’ve done it.  You don’t have to hide anymore.  You don’t have to pretend.  God simply loves you, thoroughly and completely.  Accept God’s offer of grace through Jesus, and you are forgiven everything and accepted as a fully loved child of God.  Owning that reality is the second step.

             Third, own the depths of God’s Spirit in community.  Part of Cain’s problem was that he was alone.  He was alone with his sin.  Sin was crouching by his door, and he had no friends to help him heed God’s warnings.
             Peter warns us, “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  But that classic verse is set in the context of a Christian community, working together and supporting each other.  In 1 Peter 5, they are caring for each other, submitting to one another, and showing affection for each other.  That is key for gaining the Spirit’s strength to resist the devil.  We need each other.
             When we have temptation, we want to go solo.  We want to deal with it alone – or at least, just us and God.  Just pray about it.  Pray and ask God to help you.  Sometimes that works … and sometimes it doesn’t.  Somehow, in a great mystery, God wants us to depend on each other as part of our dependence on God.  We are in a battle.  We are in a battle against evil, and we can’t win this battle alone.  We need God, and we need each other.
             Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin.  So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
             And let’s do it together because: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

             I am Cain.  You are Cain.  But God loves Cain – all the Cains of this world.  We are all marked with guilt and grace.  The beautiful good news of the Gospel is that even Cain can be redeemed.

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