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Jul 07, 2019

What you must master

Passage: Genesis 4:1-16

Preacher: John Huizinga

Series: Faith's Longing For Better

Category: Faith's Longing for Better

Keywords: faith, sin, offering, abel, cain, unfair


Our summer teaching and application series is: ‘By Faith . . . Longing For Better.’ It’s about all the great old Sunday School stories that are highlighted in Hebrews 11. These stories are the foundation of Christian faith and living. Perhaps we haven’t heard them in a while. And perhaps we have some ‘grown-up’ questions about them these days. So let’s welcome in Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham hiking with Isaac up to sacrifice, Jacob wrestling with God by the river, the baby Moses, and the people of Israel at the Red Sea. Each of these stories are still our stories. They are about our identity and belonging in faith. They orient us toward the reality of grace and the love of God. They still speak the living word of God to us in our roles, relationships and responsibilities. Our first story is Cain and Abel. It’s the story of the first human murder. As Cain deals with his anger and pain, the Lord speaks to him, “. . . sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Here is humanity’s calling: to master sin instead of being mastered by it. And here is humanity’s great failing, which God alone will accomplish and defeat for us in Christ.


What do we do with

all those old Sunday School stories

that begin the Bible?

Questions abound, are these historical accounts?

Some want these stories to say more than they do

and prove the age of the earth

or cast doubt on scientific understanding.

Others dismiss these accounts by asking questions

that aren’t the Bible’s focus or concern like,

where did Cain get his wife?

or who could attack Cain if there were no other people at the time?

Forgetting that the Genesis account is a proclamation

how God formed and called people

into a saving faith-relationship with the Lord,

not an explanation of everything that ever happened

nor an accounting of every human that ever lived.

Scientists, archeologists and Biblical scholars

try to square the evidence from nature

with what’s written in Genesis,

with most assuming it can’t be done,

favoring either science

or taking Genesis at face value.

For many Bible readers,

all this controversy may have kept you

from reading these stories again.


But those first Christians

were asking the same question,

what do we do with all those old stories

that begin the Torah?

In Hebrews 11 the preacher guides them.

He doesn’t dismiss these stories as fanciful fiction. Nor label them for another time.

Nor reduce them to moral fables.

But gives them to us again

as foundations for faith in Jesus Christ.

Heb 11 –

4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering

than Cain did.

By faith he was commended as righteous,

when God spoke well of his offerings.

And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.


Let’s put it in some context

to get at the richness of this for us:

so here is the first story about the birth of children,

about family,

about siblings,

about work,

about faith,

about human beings living in relationship to God,

about sin,

about its consequences,

about sexuality,

about the first murder,

about violence and injustice.


The Bible uses this story to establish what is foundational to human life and society:

like, human beings are made for

relationship and community,

sexual behavior belongs within

the covenant of marriage,

the Lord God sets the standard of justice,

right and wrong,

you and I are made for transcendence –

to know, trust and worship the Lord.


By mentioning these things first,

the revelation here is that

family and faith and God are foundational

to our society and how we are to live.

Family is important to God,

that means it should matter to us

as a high priority too.

So should relationship with siblings.

So should both work and faith.

As should just and right actions.

Young adults, here is your invitation from the Spirit

to take a stand against the flow of culture and

value highly marriage and family.


Are you starting to wonder

a little more about Genesis 4?

Are you opening your soul to this living Word,

getting beyond the informational questions

and yearning for transformation?

You who live with family blessings and struggles,

siblings you love and siblings you have lost,

you who still haven’t felt like you belong,

and you who doubt both

the transcendence and immanence of God?


I ask it this way because most skeptics

and most atheists object to these Bible stories

because they read them too flatly, suspiciously, closed to the thought that this might be

a human story and that like in the story,

God speaks thru it to us

to heal us and change us for the better.


Which is the first grace I’d like us to notice:

this is first of all a proclamation about God;

about the Lord who speaks to us,

about the Lord who hears the cries of those violated,

about the high honor he holds out

for the human purposes of righteousness.


Genesis 4 and the story of Cain and Abel

speaks to us who have been banished

from the garden,

who might conclude that life

has nothing to do with God,

that we are buffered from the supernatural

and left on our own as descendants of Cain.


The first revelation given here is that

we human beings are made for transcendence,

that is, made to live in communion with God,

living life for God’s glory

because the Lord is active in our lives.


No wonder there are so many objections to it.

Most likely this story comes to us

as oral tradition spoken and handed down,

kept in the memory and tradition of God’s people,

the words held in hearts and souls

by the Holy Spirit

to say the Lord is present.


Eve speaks this first.

She names Cain as the man

God has given through her.

Adam and Eve were given the promise of life

even tho sin had cursed it.

And now here was evidence

that the Lord had not forgotten,

life still comes by God.

As we continue the story we read that

Cain and Abel both bring an offering to God,

and God responds.

Cain then speaks with the Lord.

Abel’s blood cries out and God hears.

Cain is punished

but is also marked and protected by the Lord.

Get it?

The first story portrays this human family

in close, daily contact and faith-relationship

with the Creator Lord and God.


The message is compelling:

you were made for

a living faith relationship with God.

Daily life,

everyday work and family issues,

your best and your worst,

life and death,

all of it is occasion

for the sovereign, providential Lord

of all grace

to be presently involved in your life.

That’s almost like a foreign language today,

isn’t it?

Do you see why this story becomes so foundational?


More so because of what happens.

The second revelation here

is that we live in communion with God

even though life is unfair and full of injustice.

Cain is the firstborn,

it looks like he follows in dad’s footsteps

working as a farmer -

the vocation Adam was given in the last chapter.

While Cain’s birth is praised,

Abel’s birth is hardly mentioned.

Listen to Genesis 4 –

Eve . . .gave birth to Cain.

She said, “With the help of the Lord

I have brought forth a man.”

but vs 2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

No great praise there.

Cain’s name means something like a man from God.

Abel’s name means something like a vapor,

a breath, here today gone tomorrow.

He winds up a shepherd,

second class to Cain in the family.



But when each brings an offering to the Lord,

the surprise is that Abel’s offering is received by God,

but Cain’s is rejected.

No reason is given.

Later, Hebrews 11 will teach that

by faith Abel offered a better sacrifice . . .

The best conclusion from that is that Abel’s sacrifice was better because God judged it so.

We make sense only by faith,

by trusting God’s judgment,

beyond our ability or explanations.


So what’s all this teaching?

What we all know,

but wonder and struggle how to accept in faith:

Life at times is unfair, and God is free,

is how Walter Brueggemann puts it.

Abel isn’t as highly regarded by mom and dad,

Cain is the family favorite.

Life is unfair.

Abel’s offering to God is accepted,

Cain’s is rejected.

Life with God at times is experienced as unfair.

It feels God is against me.

I wonder if God doesn’t care.

I fear God is punishing me.


Life looks unfair,

but the Lord doesn’t have to explain himself.

We are accountable to God,

but not the other way around.

God is God, on God’s terms, not ours.

God is free.

The Lord sets the terms of our lives and relationships.

By faith, we humans submit

to such sovereign providence.


Why faith?

Even when we can’t understand,

even when life hurts?

Because of what we learn from Cain’s response:

If pain isn’t transformed, it gets transmitted.

This is the next revelation.

Cain’s offering is rejected, and we read:

‘So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.’

We don’t just simply live in communion with God.

We live with God in our sorrows and joy,

our suffering and sacrifices,

our blessings to overcome our curse.

If our pain isn’t transformed, it gets transmitted.

If our suffering isn’t handed over to

the mercy of the suffering Savior,

it will be handed out and down to those around us.


We are meant to see ourselves in Cain here.

Cain is pained by God’s rejection.

Anger and sorrow are mixed into

his darkening heart and soul.

At that moment the Lord speaks to Cain.

It is a word of caution,

but also of belonging and identity.


So this first family and sibling and faith story

acknowledges pain and sorrow.

But more, it states that pain and sorrow

do not define life unless we let it.

Pain and sorrow are not God’s design.

The LORD seems surprised at Cain’s reaction.

As if to say, I made you better than this.

I realize to say it that way

goes beyond the theology of the passage,

but the tone sure suggests it,

enough to say here is a real human reaction,

but here also is an experience

that need not define us,

for the Lord has made us for more:

not merely to suffer, says Philippians,

but to suffer for Christ, with Jesus,

with the transforming power of the cross present.


And this, too, sounds foreign today.

We live having forgotten this story and it shows.

The language of this story

shocks our assumptions

about life’s sorrows and losses.

Genesis 4 does not shrink from implying

that the Lord had a hand in Cain’s anger and sadness.

We humans think we’re smarter

and more reasonable that that today.

So we either blame God for our pain

or we say pain is just a random experience.

Even Christians, in trying to make sense of pain

have contributed to this.

We believe, rightly,

that our sorrow is not the direct result of our sin.

Oh sure,

sometimes our choices lead to consequences,

but what we believe stands opposed and against

the nonsense of karma –

you get what you got coming to you.

What we find revealed to us is that

while sin has broken this world,

humans experience this brokenness together,

and like Job suffering can come because

life is now broken and God has his enemies.


But then what do we do with our pain?

Is God involved at all?

And if not, then why go to the Lord in prayer

asking for healing or forgiveness or mercy?

Andrew Root says it this way:

Only recently has pastoral counsel changed.

When the fifty year old asks the pastor

about the terminal diagnosis,

pastors are quick to say today

that its cause is impersonal.

It’s just the randomness of a broken cosmos.

Yet if this is so

then it becomes much harder

to trust that a personal God

can act to heal or redeem the suffering.

It may be less frightening to say

that it’s nothing personal.

But it is much harder to imagine

the miraculous intervention

or a personal Savior who makes you safe,

who treasures you, and who rescues you.

And it becomes way more difficult

to provide meaning in illness

or in any sort of suffering.


The language of our catechism

pierces thru the malaise:

all things come to us not by chance

but thru God’s fatherly hand.

Is God the cause?


Is God responsible?

No, but the Lord takes responsibility.

Our Heavenly Father gets his hands dirty

scooping up the blood and filth of life

to bring redemption.

Divine action comes,

and most often it comes thru human agents

who minister within the suffering.


That’s how we respond

so that our pain is transformed.

Out of our own brokenness,

by faith in the one who suffered for us,

we choose to minister by sharing in that pain,

and where two or three gather in his name,

Jesus is present to transform our sorrow.

Some of us have to invite those who love us

into our pain;

some of us have to accept that invitation

and love as Christ so loves us.


For if our pain isn’t transformed, it is transmitted.

Which is what we see in Cain.

He takes it out on Abel.

And only a few sentences into the human story

and the revelation of God’s creation

a brother murders his own brother.

Many times our pain is shared in our families.

And by not dealing with it in a healthy way

we force those closest to us

to deal with it in unhealthy ways.


6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “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.”


And here is a fourth revelation

that we are forgetting today to our peril.

Sin is a force to be reckoned with.

And the way to reckon with it

is by a standard of righteousness

that comes from outside ourselves,

from God above.

Now, you and I are used to this language,

but we live in a time and culture

that simply doesn’t accept this.

Most assume, especially about one’s own self,

that people are not sinful today, just sick,

and it is rude to point out and judge sick people.

Our only command is to be me.

And if I let anyone, even one divine,

tell me what is right or wrong or good or evil,

I have violated myself.

And we see the seeds of this in Cain:

“Then the Lord said to Cain,

“Where is Abel your brother?”

The question, of course, is not about

Abel’s physical location,

but is an invitation to self-awareness

and confession of wrongdoing.

Cain replies to God, “I do not know;

am I my brother’s keeper?”

Rather than a humble confession of guilt,

Cain lies and implies that God is out of line

in asking the question.

St. Basil of Caesarea summarizes

the ways Cain sins in this story,

and in his summary we see the power of sin

to multiply in our hearts and actions:

the first sin is envy at the preference of Abel;

the second is guile, whereby he said to his brother, Let us go into the field:

the third is murder, a further wickedness:

the fourth, fratricide, a still greater iniquity:

the fifth that he committed the first murder,

 and set a bad example to mankind:

the sixth wrong in that he grieved his parents:

the seventh, his lie to God.

Sin is crouching at your door, but you must master it.

See how quickly it overwhelms your passions,

thoughts, words, and actions?


When Cain murders his brother

we read the Heavenly Father saying,

The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.

We get it immediately,

Cain has committed a horrific violence,

even tho he felt justified.

There is a righteous standard of justice

that is embedded into creation and beyond

because of the Creator.

Sin is not what we decide is wrong.

The modern moral order says:

I can do anything and justify anything

because I set the standard.

But the witness of this story is that

living in such a way brings injustice and violence

and all creation suffers as a result.

But the Lord hears.

The Lord does not forget.

And God’s people may not forget either.

Hebrews 11 reminds us that,

. . . by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

Do justice and love kindness

and walk humbly with God

reminds the prophet Micah.


So what is faith?

The fifth revelation from this story is shown

by God’s question to Cain:

God questions, “Cain, where is your brother?”

Cain lies: “I don’t know.”

Cain asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The word translated “keeper”

really means “shepherd.”

In Scripture, God is described as the keeper of Israel, God is the shepherd of human beings.

Catch the irony here.

Cain stands before the Father and Lord

who is the keeper of humanity, and asks,

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We must hear the unspoken answer from God

as he says, “I am.”

And made in my image, you are, too.

So God asks, “Where is your brother?”

The concern is not about Cain

and his religious responses.

He does not ask Cain

if he has brought another offering

or if he has offered his evening prayers.

God asks about Cain’s brother.

Where is he, Cain?

How have you dealt with your brother?

Have you done well with your brother, Cain?

The truth is,

Cain’s action against his brother

has been an action against God.

Jesus reveals faith’s call to just living in Matthew:

the call to justice for us:

 “If you have done it

to one of the least of these my brothers,

you have done it unto me.”


Here is humanity’s calling:

to master sin instead of being mastered by it.

And here is humanity’s great failing,

which God alone will accomplish

and defeat for us in Christ.


Cain and Abel,

an all but dismissed and forgotten

Sunday school story.

We receive it again

and the gospel lifts our hearts and hope

to a higher longing for peace;

a better home and future,

longing for a better country, says Hebrews 11,

a heavenly one.

From this story we are revealed

these gracious truths:

  • we are made for life with the Lord God, for God is present and active in our lives
  • we live in communion with God even though life is unfair and God is free
  • If pain isn’t transformed, it gets transmitted.
  • Sin is a force to be reckoned with
  • Faith always asks about one’s brother, or sister, or neighbor


And now you are invited to wonder again

about responding to these truths

in the grace of Jesus who has redeemed us,

so that we are no longer heirs of Cain

but heirs of Christ,

heirs of what is better than anything

this world can offer.