Cain & Abel - Jon Fryer
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did
not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 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 master it."
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."
Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."
But the LORD said to him, "Not so; and if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the LORD's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
The First Evil
What I find interesting about this story is that it tells the story of the first evil, and the real fall of man. We’ve talked a lot about the Adam & Eve story and how they first brought sin into the world, and this story is really a continuation of that one, about how mankinds sin deepens. The story starts with two brothers, the sons of Adam & Eve, one a farmer, the other a shepherd (If any of you are into anthropology you’ll recognise an archetypal story about how cultures evolve from the conflict between the nomadic and agrarian lifestyles). Anyway, both bring their offerings to God. Abel, the shepherd, brings the fat of the firstborn of the flock, and Abel brings some of the fruit of the ground. God approves of the meat offering but not of the offering of the veggies – I take this as divine approval for my diet, but that’s not the point. Some people have said in the past that this is because God demands a blood offering – this is also not the point. In fact, God hasn’t asked for anything at this point – they have brought voluntary offerings. God approves of Abel’s offering because he brings the fat of the firstborn - that is, he brings the best and most expensive of the very best that he has, and out of his own hard work in rearing and herding and protecting the sheep. Cain in contrast brings “some of the fruits of the soil” – he brings any old stuff that he can find, and the implication is that maybe he didn’t even bother to bring something from his own crop, but just any old something he has come across – there is no reverence, no effort, nothing costly in the offering and nothing that therefore recognises who God is.
Cain gets upset at this and God says to him “Why are you angry? If you do what is right then you will be accepted too” – Lets think about that. What God is saying is that Cain’s offering is therefore not right. If its not right then it has fallen short of the expected standard. We have a word for things that fall short of the glory of God – its called sin. Cain has committed the second sin recorded in the Bible by not recognising God’s majesty. And in fact it’s a repeat of the first sin, as this was the sin of his mother and father as well – they didn’t recognise God’s majesty and therefore his right and his power and his wisdom to set rules for their own good, and they fell short of the standard of right action. They sinned against righteousness by failing to do what was right, and so does Cain.
But then Cain goes far further – he is jealous of his brother’s favour with God, and so he lures him away into the field, murders him, and hides the body in the ground. This is the first sin against another person. The first sin against family. The first premeditated crime. The first murder. The first death of a human being. Abel is the first person in all of creation to die. The scope of Cains crime is immense. It goes beyond sin – its actual evil. Adam & Eve sinned – they did not behave rightly, and if something is not right then it is wrong. This is sin. Cain’s fratricide goes further – it is a rejection of all of the bonds of love. It is not just a failure of what is right, its actually a crime against what is good, and as we no know, the opposite of good is evil. That’s why I say that this crime is the first evil perpetrated in history. From hereon in it all goes downhill from here.
What can we learn from this part of the story? I think the lesson is that sin, the failure to do right, all too often becomes evil, a crime against love. When Cain is downcast because of the rejection of his sin, God says to him “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must master it.” If you do not act rightly, sin is there lurking as a force that actively wishes to win you to your harm. It wants to own you. Its addictive, progressive, subtle, corrosive and deadly. It crouches at the door – that is, sin lurks just out of sight – you can’t see it clearly ‘cos it hides its nature from you. But nevertheless it wants you, and works to that end. How many times do we cut corners on God’s standards, often on things pretty harmless in their own right, only to find ourselves somewhere later deep in a mess in serious things, and asking ourselves ”How the hell did I get here?”. If you do not do what is right, sin draws near, and works to get you. But there is a way out – God says that sin can be mastered. How? By that act of will to do what is right – sin, these initial and often trivial crimes against right, can always be conquered by an act of will, because they are just choices – will I act this way, or that? Will I do what I know is right, or not? We’re not yet at the stages of addiction, or passion, or habit – we’re still talking here about the little things that set the tone for what happens in your life. Will I cheat, or play it straight? Will I be lazy, or put the effort in? Will I live by God’s rules (whatever they may be), or will I decide that my way is better? These little decisions over the course of time shape your mind, your emotions, your character, your reflexes, and they are your best defence or worst weakness when the more spur of the moment things come your way. Cain’s trivial sin of a sloppy offering leads him to jealousy and anger and these in turn lead him to hate and obsession and murder.
The Second Punishment & The Second Grace
God’s response is the same as his reaction to Adam and Eve. He starts with a question, rather than an accusation – “Where is your brother?”, but he knows full well what the answer is. And like his parents, Cain tries to hide from the question, although metaphorically rather than literally this time – “I don’t know. Am I my brothers keeper?”. God doesn’t bother to answer this rhetorical question, as the answer is blindingly obvious to him – yes, of course you are.
And just as with Adam and Eve, God pronounces the consequences of the crime. One things that’s interesting is that God does not curse Cain, any more than He cursed Cain’s parents. With Adam and Eve God just describes the consequences of their actions – “Cursed is the ground because of you” – it’s a description of cause and effect, not a judgement or punishment. Likewise he does not curse Cain, he just describes the consequences of the murder – “You are under a curse and driven from the ground, because of the blood it has drunk from your hand. It will therefore no longer produce crops for you, and you will wander the earth”. Could it be that God rarely if ever punishes sin – rather, He merely grudgingly allows us to suffer its consequences? A God of love surely does not send anyone to Hell; unfortunately a God of love must also let you find your own way there if that is where you truly choose to go.
Cain of course is as self obsessed and blind as we are – he sees the consequences of his action as a punishment – “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land.” And then he starts to find worse punishments for himself that God hadn’t even mentioned – “I will be hidden from your presence”. Woe is me, its so unfair, exaggerate, exaggerate, etc. But God is always merciful. “Not so” he says to Cain’s exaggeration – in effect, God says “I’ll still be here if you want me – that’s your choice”. After Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden we have no record of them ever talking to God again – is that because He wouldn’t, or because they were too embarrassed, ashamed or scared to come near him again? How often do we sin, but then rather than seek God’s mercy, we hide from him, or refuse to speak to him, saying “I’m too bad – God can’t forgive me”. Its vanity. Its false humility. Its untrue, and its another sin leading you further and further down the path away from God, who is still there saying “I’m still here – I’m not sending you away”.
And there is mercy even for Cain’s outrageous crime – just as God slew a lamb to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve ‘cos fig leaves just weren’t cutting it, so too does he find a way to mitigate Cain’s suffering – he promises him that He will be protected, and all will know better than to try and murder Cain because God’s mark is on him. 2 Samuel 14;14 says “Like water spilled on the ground life can not be recovered, so too must we die. But God does not take away life; instead he finds ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him”. God is always looking for ways to break that curse of death and find ways to bring the prodigals home – the story of the prodigal son shouldn’t be called that, ‘cos its not about the son. It should really be called the story of the running father, ‘cos its all about how there is always a welcome home in the arms of someone who runs out to meet us and longs to find ways to bring us home where we belong. God yearns for us to come home just as much as we long to be home again.
The Imperfect Offering
There is a temptation to read this story and condemn Cain. We’d never do anything like that we say. And yet we do, all the time. We are Cain and Cain is us. We turn against our brothers and sisters. We get jealous and hate. Or we indulge in mere sins, like sloppy offerings. And as Christians we are often more in danger of this than others – we think that we are doing ok, when in fact we are not. Listen to this.
We need to ask ourselves “Is what I am bringing to God pleasing and acceptable as an offering? Or am I jut kidding myself?” If I think that what God really wants is some nice singing, and a few pence, and couple of hours of my time on Sundays, then I’m kidding myself. God doesn’t mind these things, but they’re not what he wants of me. What he wants is for me is to act justly in everything I do (What everything? Even the way I spend my money?). What he wants from me is to love mercy and to show it in every opportunity (When was the last time I sat next to a homeless person and showed them they matter, rather than just throwing them some coins?) What he wants for me is to walk humbly and listen for what is right, rather than assuming that I’m ok when I’m deeply not ok.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to
pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
This is what an acceptable offering looks like, and its offensive to the world. Jesus lived this way and they hated him the way Cain hated Abel, because his way was acceptable to God and it showed up the religious peoples fancy but shallow offerings as not acceptable. When was the last time my life offended people rather than my tongue? When was the last time I was thrown out of a church because of the type of people I was bringing to meet God? When was the last time that the so-called good people thought I was evil because of how radical my love was for other?. It was a long time ago, if it was ever that way. I can have no confidence in the quality of my offering, ‘cos it doesn’t measure up, but the challenge is there not to be disheartening but as something to aspire to. When someone says “This man eats and drinks with sinners” then you know that you’re finally following God and offering your days the way Jesus did
The Second Abel
I’ve said that we can not be confident in our offerings because Jesus’ life shows up our fine robes for the filthy rags that they actually are, but fortunately for us that is not the end of the story. The Bible says that Jesus is the second Adam, that is, that his life perfects and puts right all that Adam did wrong. What it doesn’t say explicitly, but what is just as true however, is that Jesus is also the second Abel, that is, his life perfects and makes good all of Cain’s evil. Jesus’ life was a better offering than ours, so we rose up and killed him, and him in the ground, just as Cain did with Abel. But Jesus’ story doesn’t end there, and so neither does ours.
Jesus returned to life and ascended into heaven. And as Hebrews 4 says, Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Every offering we bring is now more than acceptable, because it is him who brings it for us. Our weakest, most trivial, most pathetic offering is made perfect and complete because it is him who offers it. And how can this be? Because Jesus blood is better than Abel’s – Hebrews 12;24 “Jesus’ sprinkled blood speaks more graciously than Abel’s”. Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground. And what did it cry but “How long shall it be until I am avenged? How long until my murder is paid for?”. Jesus’ blood also cries out – as it says in 1 John 5, there are three things that testify on earth, the Spirit, the water and the blood. And what does Jesus blood cry out? Not “How long until I am avenged?” as does the blood of Abel. Rather, when God comes saying “Vengeance is mine and I must repay” then Jesus blood cries out on our behalf “No! Enough! This one is mine. It is finished here and now with my blood and no more must be shed. It is finished”. Just as Abel was the first man to die, then Jesus is the last – it is finished, and death has no more dominion. And in his blood we find mercy and relief from our punishment. Just as God put a mark on Cain to protect him from wrath, so Jesus puts his mark on us with his own blood, just as the blood of Passover protects the Israelites from the angel of death coming in judgement on the Egyptians.
And what is that mark? Revelation 3;12 – “I will mark him with the name of my God, and with the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem, the new vision of peace between God and men. And I will also mark him with my new name”. We will be marked as belonging to God, and as citizens of his peaceful city. And this is a cool thing. At the end, Jesus will have a new name. We don’t know what it will be, but as with all names, it will reflect his essential nature. And why does he need a new name? Because it is finished. Because Jesus means “He saves”, and all his saving work will be over and done – “It is finished”. Jesus blood puts an end to all of our curse, and all of our exile. Adam and Eve are cast out from the Garden and move to the east. Cain’s punishment is to move away further again, to the land of Nod, which is east of Eden. The story is one of exile, of moving further and farther away from God, away from home, away from the Westworld. And we can not go back – there is a cherubim with a flaming sword blocking the way back. We can not go back, but the good news that Jesus gives his disciples to spread is this: “The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near to you”. The Kingdom of Heaven, Eden, the Westworld, the Summer Kingdom, home, whatever you want to call it, has drawn near to you. You were unable to return to it, so it has drawn near to you. This is the parable of the running father writ large – you couldn’t go back, so I brought it to you. All of the curse is undone, all of the punishment is broken, all of the consequences are healed. It is finished.
The story of Cain is our story, but the story doesn’t end with him, because the story of Abel is Jesus’ story, and Jesus’ blood never fails. And what better way to bring an acceptable offering than to call to mind the legacy passed down to us, that on the night Jesus was betrayed he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, saying “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me”.
And in the same way, he took the cup and gave thanks and said “Drink this all of you. This is the blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me”.
Lord, we remember, and we praise and thank you that your blood speaks a better word on our behalf than anything we could possibly offer. As we share in these gifts of bread and wine, wash us clean of all our sins and heal us from the consequences of the actions of our unloving hearts. Finish in us the work that you began on the cross, and then, at the end of all our exiled wanderings, bring us home to the arms of the running father. In your name, the name of the one who saves, Amen.
Come, take, eat, drink and be made whole again.
Go in peace to love and to serve
And let your ears ring long with what you have heard.
Go and go far, take light deep into the dark
Believe what's true, that He accepts all, even you.
Take to the world this love, this hope and faith
Take to the world this rare relentless grace
And may the
bread on your tongue… leave a trail of crumbs
To lead the hungry back to the place where you are home.
Go in peace.
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