Friends, the Bible can be difficult and uncomfortable to read sometimes, is it not? I know we barely just scraped the surface there with their kids message and for good reason but my goodness as you read the bible as a whole it can be difficult and uncomfortable to read at times especially so with the old stories of murder and genocide incest and betrayal … it can be a difficult read.
One helpful paradigm that I have heard throughout the years is to think of the Bible and particularly the Old Testament narratives as if you were reading the newspaper. A newspaper’s job is to report the news more so than it is to give commentary on it. Whether you are reading the newspaper or reading on a website or watching the news on TV often times their job is to report the news rather than to commentate on it. And that's true in many ways the Old Testament, depending on the people's actions and choices sometimes the news is good sometimes there is good news to report and sometimes well, not so much. Consider the Dillon Tribune that is put on our doorstep most Wednesday mornings. When they tell stories of murder and theft and vandalism, things like that - they are not endorsing those things they're simply reporting what happened, the good the bad and the ugly. The same is true with the Bible and definitely true of the Old Testament - sometimes there will be commentary on whether a person's actions are good or bad, but oftentimes it's simply reporting what happened and allowing us as a reader to make a judgment for ourselves. And that is especially true with Genesis 4-11. Friends, I were to write newspaper headline for chapters 4- 11, it might read something like this: It is going to get worse before it gets better. Humanity's downward spiral continues. The ripple effects of sin are seen even clear where in the span of two chapters, just two generations we moved from Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit (which now seems oh so innocent) and in comparison to today's story to now the cold and calculated murder of a brother. It's going to get worse before it gets better, and yet and yet as we have said before, even in this story even in this story little glimmers of hope shine through like rays of sunshine on a dark and dreary day.
Maybe another connection we can use with the newspaper analogy is to think of it this way: have you ever read stories of say a murder like we read in ours today and think to yourself, “How could anyone possibly do such a thing? How could anyone commit such evil? “I would never do that” and that might be what you all are feeling as well. That's how I kind of feel about today's story about Cain and Abel. It is uncomfortable and unsettling and because of it I naturally want to distance myself and detach myself from it and think I would never do such a thing, but yet I know and I think you know that that would be to let ourselves off the hook a little too easily. As I've looked at this story a little bit more closely it's by looking at the details and particulars before and after this murder scene that give us an accurate portrayal and reflection of ourselves. That within those details and particulars before and after that signature moment there are lessons for us all and ultimately a reminder of the hope that we have in Christ.
So let’s dive in. In terms of organizing this passage today, in terms of understanding this sermon, I want to think of it in terms of actions and reactions. There’s kind of this series of actions and reactions that we see in Cain in particular. His actions and reactions. And it's a good reminder that our hearts are often far from God and that sin is present in our lives not only in our actions, but also in our reactions. Right? Oftentimes we get in trouble based on the things that we say without even thinking, we’re simply reacting. So let's take a look at this story. Let's look at it with a fresh lens and see what we can learn about it and how it is a reflection of yes, even ourselves.
The first action we see is one that we covered a bit in the children's sermon. Cain and Abel both give an offering and it's a little bit confusing as we kind of teased out why God shows favor to Abel's offering and not to Cain’s. It kind of almost seems like a like a random game of eenie- meenie-miney-moe, or something like that. Yet, it's not a story that's intended to communicate that animal offerings are better than plant offerings or that God loves hunters and shepherds rather than farmers and gardeners, that is not the idea here. God must have some good reason for showing favor to Abel and his offering and yet not to Cain and his offering. In fact Hebrews 11 in the New Testament claims that Abel did indeed bring a better offering than Cain and it's likely for the reasons that we pointed out earlier - that Abel brought his best, he brought the best of what he had to offer. Cain just brought, maybe some leftovers crops.
Nevertheless, it's in Cain’s reaction more so than the action itself that really seems to matter. The narrator here really focuses us in on not simply on the offering itself but rather Cain’s reaction to it. We’re told that Cain was angry, that his face was downcast. And this is where God comes in, not with a word of rebuke, but a word of counsel, saying, “ Cain, why are you angry? Why is your face so downcast? You see, in this first reaction Cain has a choice. This is a turning point for him. Will Cain double down on his anger, which we will eventually see lead him towards murder, where his anger and sin got the best of him or will he take this moment from God to actually change his ways and actually reflect on his own heart? The latter of course, probably should have been Cain’s reaction. If Cain was really close to God, if he wanted to please God, than he would have reflected and said, “OK, clearly my offering here was not quite right? How can I make this right? What kind of offering could I give that would be pleasing to God? But instead, rather than saying, “Hey, here's how I can change. Here's how I need to change my heart,” Cain gets angry and seems to put the anger towards God.
Friends, consider those situations where you get a bad review or students, when you get a bad test score or whether it’s subjective or objective, someone gives you bad news. Sometimes our reaction is to get angry at that person, rather than to ask ourselves, “Where do we need to change? “How might this be my fault? Maybe the doctor gives you bad news and you're tempted to get mad at the doctor when really what we need to think to ourselves is, “OK, what steps do I need to take or could I take towards greater health?
Or you all, have you ever had this moment? You are running late for something and it’s your fault and then you get behind someone who's going five miles under the speed limit, you're at the grocery store someone is a little slow in checking your groceries and you get mad at them thinking that they’re the ones who are making you late, when come on, let's be honest, you were going be late already. We’re the ones that need to change, not the other person.
Cain should have thought, “How can I offer a better offering?, but instead Cain does something different with his anger. We see God in this pivotal moment, kind of this turning point for Cain, God says,
“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
It's as if God is almost saying to Cain, “You can try this again. There are more offerings to come. You can change your heart. Don’t let sin get the best of you. And yet Cain chooses murder instead.
This week I was kind of reminded of just how personal and relevant this story about Cain is. Here you’ve got an older brother in Cain with a younger brother in Abel. I think about the relationship with my brother. I love him dearly and yet if I'm really honest with you, growing up he was a better student than me, he was a better athlete than me, he's younger and got married before I did. I love him dearly but yet I can also be honest with you in saying that sometimes but that jealousy manifested itself towards anger and though I have not taken my brother's life, I know sometimes I have said inappropriate or hurtful or damaging words towards him that have nothing to do with him, but rather is more of a reflection of my jealousy and my anger towards him. That's a little bit of the dynamic that’s playing out here. Cain is given an opportunity to choose a better way, but yet, as we see Cain chooses to take his brother's life.
Cain takes his brother’s life. It’s a cold and calculated and gruesome murder. God responds to Cain, saying “Where is your brother Abel?” And in response Cain says, “I don’t know,” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s the continuation of the downward spiral into sin. As just a chapter earlier, Adam and Eve readily confessed their sin to God, but yet Cain here is showing absolute indifference. He's even kind of defiant.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on this passage, asked this question: Why did Cain murder Abel? He answers: out of hatred for God. He says murder is an act of hatred for God, for making another who offends us, for making another who troubles us, for making another who is favored with gifts and honors that we do not have, for making another who stands in our way, who annoys us or offends us. Murder is an act of hatred for God for creating one who offends us. Now again, if we think to ourselves, “Yeah, but I have and would never commit murder” well, remember that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount connects anger with murder, saying that if you are angry towards your brother and sister you have committed murder in your heart. Now to be clear those are not one in the same, but Jesus is connecting the dots here. After all, in our anger, have we not used our words at times in deadly and poisonous ways? Have we used our words sometimes as weapons? Could it be that we have we taken our anger and hatred for God out on someone else through the words that we use?
Cain eventually gets caught in his sin. God says to him, “Hey, your brother's blood cries out from the ground” and God informs Cain of this punishment that he is going to face. That he's no longer going to be able to work as a farmer. That he is no longer going to be productive in his work and then, in addition, Cain is told that he will be a restless wanderer alienated from the rest of human society.
And to all of this, Cain’s response is “this punishment is more than I can truly bear.” And here we reach something I think that is absolutely profound about Cain's response here. Notice Cain and how he feels about his sin and evil. Cain doesn't repent, he doesn't confess, he doesn't come before God saying, “Here's what I've done, here's why what I've done is wrong.” Rather what Cain really grieves is not the sin itself and the loss of life but rather with the consequences of his sin. What Cain laments isn't that he murdered his brother but now that he will be a restless wanderer alienated from the rest of society.
We do this too sometimes. We don't grieve over our sins so much as we grieve over the consequences of it. And ultimately that's kind of selfish because then we're saying what really bothers us about our sin is how it negatively affects us rather than how it grieves the heart of God and affects our fellow neighbor that we’re called to love.
For example, consider this scenario between a parent and their kid. Imagine a parent and their kids are shopping for clothes here in Dillon (sorry that's unrealistic). Imagine a parent and their kid shopping for clothes in Bozeman (there you go that's more realistic). Imagine a parent using this rationale: imagine the parent says to their son or daughter, “Don't steal, because you might get caught.” To use that as a rationale for not stealing is to get that child to fear the consequences of their sin rather than the sin itself. That they would grieve over getting caught rather than the sin itself.
If we take this story backwards with Cain, rather than grieving the consequences of his sin, Cain should have reflected on the fact that Abel is an image bearer, with unconditional dignity and worth, made in the image of God, that God breathed life into Abel and that to take what God has breathed life into and to put it to death, that right there is the sin worth grieving.is a sin. Another way to think of it is that we as people made in the image of God reflect to the world what God is like. To commit murder is to fail to be the image bearers we have been called to be.
If in fact, the consequences of our sin is really what's troubling us, than our reasons for obedience are somewhat thin and selfish, where it’s really just about how it affects us. Instead, we need to encourage people and teach people to grieve the sin itself to confess that before God, confessing “Here is what I've done wrong, here's how I've poorly reflected you Lord, here is how I have not imaged you well. That’s what I grieve above of all.”
And we can come before God with this kind of confidence and assurance because once again here in Genesis, the Lord shows grace and mercy in midst of judgment. You’ll notice that God offers protection to Cain, protection from death, God will protect Cain from anyone seeking revenge and taking Cain’s life in the way Cain took Abel’s.
It’s an unbelievable act of mercy. Despite the judgment pronounced upon him, Cain still gets far better than he deserves. God said to Cain, “Your brother's blood cries out to me.” And for Cain Abel’s blood on the ground spoke a word of condemnation. And then years later, Jesus’s blood on the ground will be the blood of restoration, so much so that the author of Hebrews tells us that the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
God shows grace and mercy in midst of judgment. That the blood of Abel, though it shared a word of condemnation, the blood of Jesus will share a word of restoration and forgiveness.
I’ll close with this:
The senior pastor at my previous church, his name is Scott Dudley, in his previous career he taught at Stanford, and one time he was invited to speak to a group of atheists on campus about Christianity. So he went, and he talked about lots of things, one of which was grace. And one student was so frustrated by what Scott had said, and so he asked, "Let me get this straight. If my friend goes out and murders a bunch of people, but on the last day of his life, he accepts Jesus, and it's real, are you saying he goes to heaven, the same heaven as Mother Theresa?"
And Scott said, "That's exactly what I'm saying."
And the student said, "That's not fair."
And Scott said, "Nope. Not one bit."
He said, "That can't be. That can't be. Don't you think he needs to do something to make up for all the bad stuff he's done? Don't you think a price has to be paid?"
“Don’t you think a price has to be paid?”
Exactly. This atheist student had this sense that justice had to be served, that a price had to be paid, that someone had to take the fall for what this hypothetical murderer did wrong?
And of course, the story of the bible, the story of Christianity is that a price was paid as God himself, Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.
Friends, it is all so very unfair. Jesus Christ, God himself, who lived a perfect, sinless life, unfairly absorbed the wrath of God himself so that you and I could unfairly receive the amazing grace of God.