October 18, 2017

Sermon: The Story of Cain & Abel

Cain and Abel, Chagall

Cain and Abel, Chagall

The Story of Cain and Abel
A sermon by Chaplain Mike, preached as if by Jeremiah the prophet.

• • •

Good morning and shalom.

My name is Jeremiah. God called me to be a prophet to the nation of Judah at one of the most important times in her history. Some call me “the weeping prophet” because it broke my heart to proclaim the bad news God gave me for my people.

Since the time of  King David and Solomon, we have been a troubled nation. In the days of Solomon’s sons, we split into two nations: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. It has been all downhill since then.

A series of bad kings led both nations. They took us far from the worship of the true and living God and promoted injustice and violence throughout the land. God kept warning us through the prophets, but few listened, and judgment came upon us.

Israel fell first. When Assyria became a great military power, it destroyed Israel’s kingdom, and scattered the ten tribes to the winds. Thankfully, God spared us here in Judah. But then we had to face an even greater threat: the nation of Babylon. Many so-called prophets in Jerusalem assured the people that nothing was wrong, that God was with us, and that we had nothing to worry about. But the sky was growing dark and I feared that we would soon be overwhelmed by the Babylonian armies.

That is why God sent me to a gate in the city known as the Potsherd Gate. He instructed me to take a potter’s jar with me and say these words to the people: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster on this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. I will do this because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent” (Jer. 19:3-4). Then he told me to break this jar in front of all the people and warn them that God will shatter them like a potter’s vessel which can never again be mended.

Did you hear what God said to the people of Judah that day? They were about to be conquered and carried into exile because they had committed two great sins: (1) they had offered unacceptable worship, (2) they had filled the land with innocent blood.

If I had thought of it, I might have told them one of the old stories that day. It is one of the early stories in the Torah, and it was given to Israel as a cautionary tale right from the beginning. Here it is . . .

Adam and Eve had two sons. The firstborn was Cain, and he grew up to be a farmer. The younger son’s name was Abel, and he became a shepherd who tended flocks. Both of them understood that is our duty to bring offerings to God out of what he has blessed us with. So Cain brought some of his crops, and Abel picked out one of the firstborn of his flock, sacrificed it, and brought it all as an offering to God, including the very best portions of the meat.

God accepted Abel’s offering, but he rejected Cain’s. This made Cain very angry. His face fell and he began to sulk in rage. He was mad at God and envious of his younger brother. God saw this and spoke to Cain. “Cain, why are you angry?” God said. “You still have the chance to do what is right, and if you do, it will go well for you too. But be careful Cain. If you continue to harbor your anger and resentment, you are opening yourself up to a greater power that can take control of you and lead you to do even worse things. You must resist that, Cain, and overcome the danger that is lying in wait for you.”

Sadly, Cain didn’t take God’s warning to heart. He approached his brother Abel, took him out into the field, and killed him in a jealous rage. Cain thought no one saw, but God took notice.

So God came to Cain again. This time he asked him where Abel was. “How should I know?” replied Cain. “Am I responsible for my brother?”

“Of course you are,” said God. “And now you have polluted the land with his blood, and that blood is crying out to me for justice. So justice it will be, for you. Out you go! I am sending you into exile. You will no longer have the land to provide for you. You will no longer have your family to protect you. I sentence you to wander the wilderness alone.”

Those words cut Cain to the quick. “Lord, this terrible sin I’ve committed and the consequences are too much for me to bear! There’s no hope for me out there! I will be an easy target for anyone and everyone who wants to kill me.”

God heard Cain’s lament and his confession of sin and gave him a promise: “I won’t let that happen, Cain. I will give you a sign of my protection and you will find refuge from those who might want to do you harm. But you still must leave and wander to the east. You must live in exile.”

• • •

Do you see how this story would have been applicable to my people in Jerusalem, when I, Jeremiah, was prophesying?

The story of Cain and Abel was given to teach God’s people that unacceptable worship and shedding innocent blood will lead to exile, away from the Promised Land, away from the presence of the Lord.

That is exactly the message I tried to get across to the people here in Jerusalem!

Cain’s worship was unacceptable because it wasn’t from his heart; it wasn’t rooted in faith. He just went through the motions of worship. He brought his offerings, but he didn’t bring himself. Abel, on the other hand, made sure he brought the best of his flock, and the best part of the sacrifice. He exhibited true gratitude and devotion. He worshiped God in faith.

And then, Cain not only failed to love God with all his heart, he also failed to love his brother. His lack of faith led to a lack of love. He failed to heed God’s warnings about this, and ended up committing a horrific act of violence.

As a result, Cain was exiled. Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. Cain repented and sought God’s mercy, and God promised to protect him even while he was in exile. But he still had to face that fate.

Jeremiah, Chagall

Jeremiah, Chagall

This is the story of my people. We failed to worship God from our hearts. We kept up the appearance of worship. In our day, the temple continued to function and people still brought their gifts and offerings, but much of it was empty and meaningless. In fact, our leaders and people were attracted to other gods as well and they mixed in all kinds of false beliefs and practices with their worship of the Lord.

We also filled the land with innocent blood. Injustice ran rampant. The poor were ignored while the rich kept getting richer. The powerful people pursued their grand projects while trapling the rights of their neighbors. Violence filled our streets. When someone tried to tell the truth, the unrighteous just laughed and turned away.

God sent prophets like me to warn the people just like he warned Cain. Sin was crouching at our door and waiting to devour us. If we continued on this path, exile was certain. We would be carried away by our enemies and the life we know would be destroyed.

Do you see how the story of Cain and Abel spoke to my people many years ago? Unfortunately, they didn’t heed its message or the words of the prophets. They were carried off into Babylon and resettled there. Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was leveled. Our Promised Land was overrun by enemies. We lost our homes, our businesses, our lives, everything.

Thankfully, God also heard our cries in those terrible days. And just as he had mercy on Cain and promised him his protection, God told us he would not abandon us forever. God said he would protect us and keep us even while we wept by the rivers of Babylon. And he gave us an even better word than he gave Cain: he promised he would restore us from exile, bring us back to the land, and make a new covenant with us.

• • •

I understand that you who are here today are part of that new covenant. You are followers of Jesus the Messiah. Most of you are Gentiles and you have been grafted in to the people of God and are now heirs with us of the promises God made to Abraham and the people of Israel. The scriptures God gave us, that you now call “The Old Testament,” belong to you as well.

That means the story of Cain and Abel is for you too. It means God is still calling you to offer acceptable worship, worship that is rooted in faith, worship that comes from your hearts. It means God is still calling you to let your faith work itself out in love for your neighbor. It continues to warn you that unacceptable worship and treating your neighbors with envy, hatred, and violence are still issues you must deal with, and that God will bring just consequences upon those who act like Cain did.

One of Jesus’ disciples, the Apostle John, wrote these words:

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. . . .

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

• 1 John 3:11-18, NRSV

• • •

Thank you for letting me speak to you today. I can’t say it any better than John did:

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Love God with all your heart and offer him acceptable worship.

Love one another – be your brother’s keeper.

And when we fail, as we inevitably will, cry out to God for mercy. He has put his mark on you, now and forever.

That’s the story of Cain and Abel.

Comments

  1. Good word. Do you think we can be living like Cain in exile? Protected from some things and even experiencing blessings and God’s grace in our lives yet sentenced to a life of wandering? If so, is it possible to return? This did not appear to be an option for Cain. Do you think a follower of Jesus that has lost their way like Cain can experience God’s mercy but still live the rest of their life in exile?

    • Hey,

      So much interesting story of Cain & Abel. I think we can not live like Cain in exile. We can just imagine it. We should respect God’s choices, rules etc.

      ~Diana

  2. Rick Ro. says:

    Thanks for this, Chap Mike. Coincidentally, I’m leading an adult Sunday school class through 1 John and this is the section we are currently studying!

  3. Faulty O-Ring says:

    Well, Jeremiah, a lot of people think the Cain and Abel story is a myth about the origins of conflict between agriculturalists and pastoralists, similar to a bunch of other origin stories in the Book of Genesis, but okay.

    So, who defines what is “unacceptable” worship? (I’m surprised that Evangelicals would have the gall to bring this up.) You might think that questions like that would be easier to answer with Yahweh hanging around talking to people in the OT, but he turns out to be surprisingly useless (hence the issues with Assyria and Babylon), but even if he did talk, it is far from clear whether his opinion ought to be accorded any special deference. After all, we can’t decide this things based solely on power, and God is not exactly known for his love of reasoning. A vegetarian might wonder whether he wasn’t sending the wrong message. (Cain: “So, you like meat offerings, eh? I’ll give you a meat offering, you bloodthirsty sob.”) The story, as presented, makes God arbitrary and capricious. Perhaps this is because no contract had been negotiated with him yet, but given his tendency to dictate the terms of such things, cultic religion is not much of a solution. And don’t even get me started on “innocent blood.” (So God is against the spilling of innocent blood, is he? Suddenly the devil is looking a lot better by comparison.)

    The central message of this little sermonette is not very far removed from the eternal cry of the TV evangelist: “Give me your money. Give me more money. I want YOU to make a VOW of FAITH….” So God is dissatisfied with our “gifts” (which he thinks he has a right to), and wants the best of what we have. Well what about what *I* want?! What does this even mean, anyway–that we’re not forking over enough tithes, or that we ought to give 100 %, and devote our lives to a fantasy?

    It’s all very well to say “be your brother’s keeper,” but most of us would do that anyway, without the need for an appeal to divine command. Unless you mean the more fictive sort of “brother,” in which case no divine command can make loving everyone equally a workable social philosophy. (If you disagree, please send me money.) Jeremiah is trying to make God’s monstrous actions into something paletable enough to derive more or less ethical-sounding conclusions from, probably so he can give God the undeserved credit for positive human values. There’s something just a little bit dishonest about the whole project.

    • I liked the post. How easy it is for me to feel just like Cain, angry that God would honor others before me.
      I thought it was a good post myself.

      • Christiane says:

        I see a correlation between Cain’s attitude and that of ‘the other son’ in the story of the Prodigal Son, who was upset with his father for not treating him as he thought he deserved . . .

    • Robert F says:

      You sound just like Wexel, who has been missing here at iMonk in recent months. We need a resident skeptic; welcome aboard, or back.

    • F.O.R., you are missing the main point, which is why I had Jeremiah tell this story. The Hebrew Bible was put together during and after the Exile, to give Israel perspective on the greatest crisis the nation had ever experienced. The story of Cain and Abel is not some little universal moral tale. It is Israel’s story in miniature. Before we jump to taking lessons from it, we must read it in that light. The fact is, Israel failed to worship God according to the covenant, and Israel failed to be her brother’s keeper. Israel went into exile. Israel was protected by God by the rivers of Babylon.

      That’s the reality this little story addresses. That’s why it was included in the Hebrew Bible. It is one of Israel’s “old stories” that captures Israel’s story.

  4. Robert F says:

    ” Cain repented….”

    I’ve never been under that impression.

    • Robert F says:

      In fact, I’ve always felt that the graciousness entered this story right at the point where God extended his protection to Cain, even though no mention is made in the text of Cain repenting. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…”

    • The word Cain uses is, “My iniquity is too great for me.” While some interpret that as a lament over the consequences of his actions, I think the word more properly applies to his sin itself.

      • Robert F says:

        The NRSV, NIV, NAB, NASB, KJV, NKJV, JB, ESV, and REB all translate that word as “punishment,” giving the strong impression that Cain is merely whining about the punishment that God has given him rather than repenting. I wonder why you prefer “iniquity” as the translation of that word? Are there precedents?

        • It’s not my preference. That is the Hebrew word. Some commentators suggest that its semantic range is broad enough to cover both. God’s merciful response suggests that that was at least a hint of true confession in Cain’s words. I would suggest that Cain was lamenting here, which is more than whining and includes sorrow for his act as well as its consequences.

          • Robert F says:

            I see what you mean, and I can understand why you would render the word that way, though the fact that so many different translators from different traditions prefer “punishment” gives me pause. They could have translated the word literally as “iniquity” or “sin,” but chose not to, and that has some weight; sometimes the literal translation is not the most accurate when the word is seen in context. But both you and they (the other translators) know more about that than me, since I know no Hebrew.

            In your understanding, lamenting then is equivalent to what Roman Catholic moral theology calls “imperfect contrition,” which is acceptable to God, though not ideal as a form of contrition.

          • I am persuaded that I should call ALL my repentance “imperfect contrition.”

          • Robert F says:

            The same here, CM, the same here.

  5. T.S.Gay says:

    Funny how Faulty O-Ring defines worship and being a brother’s keeper. The first he concludes in his third paragraph to mean tithes or devotion to fantasy. The second he thinks we are capable of doing anyway without any divine input and that implies giving God undeserved credit for a positive human value. I think I should take pause this Sunday and try to let my mind, heart get to the graciousness mentioned by Robert F.( I pray for some strength for Jeremiah’s message to penetrate to my very life because I know I am like Cain).

  6. Back when I was a dispensationalist and what Eagle calls a fundagelical, the story of Cain and Abel was used to prove that a blood sacrifice was necessary to please/appease God (“without shedding of blood is no remission”). And that Cain had brought fruit and vegetables (the work of his own hands) but Abel brought a lamb because his parents had told him how God slew animals and used their skins to make coverings for Adam and Eve’s nakedness. And “sin lieth at the door” meant that a sin-offering — a lamb, if you will — was readily available for Cain to slaughter and bring to God. And that many years later John the Baptist said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.”

    Your interpretation is good too.

    Perhaps this is another case of both/and and not either/or.

    • I don’t think the blood sacrifice interpretation holds up. Cain and Abel brought “offerings” not “sacrifices.” In the Law both crops and animals were acceptable forms of offerings.

      • Again, well said. It is amazing how much what we bring ‘to’ the Scriptures determines what we take ‘from’ them. If we are looking for ‘blood sacrifices’, that’s what we find, whether that’s the point or not.

      • petrushka1611 says:

        Chaplain Mike, thank you for pointing out that distinction. I’ve always heard “sacrifices” in concept if not in word, and the difference never once occurred to me.

        *sigh* This is why I’ve barely opened my Bible in the last few years. I grew up in a hardcore KJV-only environment, and I took the preachers seriously when they said to read your Bible every day. I went through the whole book 13 times between the ages of around 11 and my early 20s. And I’m finding that the blinders are remarkably persistent. Trying to understand the Bible outside the dispensationalist framework, and trying to read it clearly and shed as many presuppositions as I can, is unbelievably difficult.

        I did read the first twelve chapters in Isaiah a few weeks ago and was stunned to realize that God’s main concern was what we might call social justice. It was remarkable to read the verses about “come, let us reason together” in that light.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I don’t think the blood sacrifice interpretation holds up.

        But it was the ONLY interpretation taught when I was in-county in the Evangelical Circus. Wasn’t even an interpretation — it was the Plain Meaning of SCRIPTURE, Word-for-Divinely-Dictated-Word.

        Like the Book of Revelation, it wasn’t until I was in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness that I even knew there were OTHER interpretations out there.

      • Not to kick a dead horse, but what about Leviticus 17:11 (“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”) as well as what one finds in Hebrews chapter 10?

    • Chaplain Mike presented it well in the article. Cain brought “some” of his fruits and veggies (the ones that had fallen to the ground or had started to get soft?) but Abel brought the first and best of his flock, and from their fattest portions.

      I think the Ananias & Sapphira story (Acts 5) fits here too. They offered “some” of the selling price for their land, but passed it off as the whole amount. While they could have held back some to live on, their lie was what got them lugged off dead. And there are echoes of “sin crouching at the door” with them, too. Peter tells Sapphira, “The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

      And I agree with Christiane above that Cain sounds like the older son in the Prodigal parable.

  7. I spent some time reading and re-reading this powerful post. The statement, ” It continues to warn you that unacceptable worship and treating your neighbors with envy, hatred, and violence are still issues you must deal with, and that God will bring just consequences upon those who act like Cain did.” caught my attention. I find myself coming up short. I pray that I will continue to digest this for some time with understanding and obedience. Thank you.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I kept having flashbacks to radio preachers of the late Cold War, threatening Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War as God’s Just Consequences for America’s (and YOUR) Sins. Always harking back to Jeremiah for justification.
      “GOD’S JUDGMENT ON AMERICA SITS READY AND WAITING IN THE NUCLEAR MISSILE SILOS OF THE SOVIET UNION!!!!!”

  8. Robert F says:

    It’s interesting how unacceptable worship and poor treatment of neighbors are so closely linked, as if they are two sides of the same coin, and one will inevitably involves the other. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself…”

    • Robert F says:

      Although, I wonder if the Cain and Abel story is being stretched too far when we interpret it to mean that God is indirectly saying that Cain (in this case, symbolically representing Israel) is his brother’s keeper. God asks a question, and Cain attempts to deflect the query by responding with a sarcastic query of his own that puts words in God’s mouth, not because he has failed to be solicitously concerned with his brother’s well-being, but because he has murdered his brother. There is no command from God in this story to take care of the neighbor/brother, but a judgment from God for violence done against the neighbor/brother. The positive command to love your neighbor is far more than merely refraining from doing him harm.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        1 John, chapter 3, seems to support some of what you say, Robert F. After mentioning Cain in verse 12, John equates anger at a brother with murder. I think the Genesis account of Cain and Abel is less a command to be a brother’s keeper as it is to avoid being angry and resentful of a brother. And there are times when I think Cain’s problem wasn’t that he failed at being his brother’s keeper, but that he let his own attitude be swayed by his brother. In other words, he should’ve been worried more about being his OWN keeper, worried about his OWN soul and well-being, rather than harboring resentment at Abel’s relationship with God.

        In other words, how am I like Cain? Not when I fail at being my brother’s keeper, but when I let resentment of a brother creep into my life and affect my relationship with God.

        • That’s a great comment, Rick. Well put.

        • Robert F says:

          Good points, Rick. And perhaps the biggest part of being a good and loving neighbor is striving to do no harm.

          • Danielle says:

            The first rule of medicine is “do no harm.” It should perhaps be made the first rule of doing anything. That guideline would discourage a great deal of mischief…

          • Rick Ro. says:

            I’m not sure I believe the first rule of medicine is “do no harm” considering that every ad I see on TV for various drugs has so many warnings that I think the cure is often worse than the disease. And think about chemo. Basically poisoning a body to kill the cancer inside it.

            But I do like that thought in terms of fellowship and relationships!

          • Robert F says:

            “Do no harm” is one of the first articles of the Hippocratic Oath.