Listen to it:
Genesis 4:1-15; Luke 18:9-17
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be the first child ever born? That’s Cain. Number 1. Literally. And it seems that his parents treat him that way. Eve calls him Cain, from the Hebrew word for “to get” or “acquire.” “Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man, Yahweh’” (Genesis 4:1). Eve believes the promise of Genesis 3:15; the promise that God wrapped up in the curse on the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between her offspring and yours. He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel.” Eve believes it, and she believes Cain is the fulfillment of the promise. He is, she thinks, the Man who will take the place of his father Adam and undo the curse. And Abel is just number 2. He is an afterthought. “In addition, she bore Abel” (4:2). His name in Hebrew even means “breath” or “vapor”; “nothingness, emptiness.” Cain is number 1. But Cain is not the Son of God; he is the son of Adam. He even follows in his footsteps and works the ground. And when some days had passed, Cain brings in the fruit of the field for an offering to Yahweh; and Abel brings in the firstborn of the flock for an offering. For reasons we are not told here, Yahweh looks favorably on the offering of Abel, but not on Cain’s. And Cain is very angry and his face falls. Yahweh warns him, “If you do well, if you look to your own sin and confess it; if you stop looking at Abel, will not your burden be lifted, your sin forgiven, and your face lifted in joy? But if not, sin is lying in wait at your door. It wants to consume you. Close the door, do not let sin in.” But Cain does not confess his sin; he ignores the Word of Yahweh. And when he and Abel are in the field, Cain rises up against him like a lion out of the grass, and Cain slays Abel. We are given no motive, no explanation; only the fact. And just as Yahweh asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” now He says to Cain, “Where is your brother?” And Cain says, “I don’t know. I am not my brother’s keeper, am I?” And Cain is right. He is not his brother’s keeper. The problem is not that he did not keep his brother; the problem is that he tried to do exactly that. In the Scriptures, people are never called keepers of one another; Yahweh is the only keeper of men. And Cain has crossed the boundary, and acted as if he was the keeper of his brother; he took what was not his to take: his brother’s life.
And now he follows in his father’s footsteps again: he is driven out of the land as Adam was driven out of Eden. As the land was cursed because of Adam’s sin, Cain is cursed from the land because of his sin. He is a wanderer, a fugitive, marked as a murderer. He says, “My sin is greater than can be lifted.” He goes out into the world like Judas goes out, despairing of the grace of God. And Abel? He was as his name implies: a vapor, a breath on the earth. He never said a word. He went silently to his death. It is only after his death that his blood cries out to the keeper of all men for vengeance, for justice. But God would not let the promise die with the murder of Abel by Cain. He appoints for Adam and Eve another son to take the place of Abel: Seth. And from Seth’s line would come Noah, and from Noah’s line Abraham, all the way down the generations until, finally, the promise of Genesis 3:15 was fulfilled in the Seed of the Woman, Jesus, the Messiah. But Cain’s line was cut off permanently in the Flood, just as he cut off Abel’s line in murder.
We do not know Cain’s motives, but we know our own. We rise up against our brothers and sisters in anger, jealousy, envy. Afraid that they might get something first, something better, some blessing that we do not have. We may not commit murder so blatantly, but we slay our brothers and sisters with our thoughts and words. We murder their reputations with gossiping tongues. We spread the rumors of their sin. If we don’t fit the mold of Cain, we fit the mold of the Pharisee in the Temple. We look at others in smugness and pride. We compare ourselves to them and we always come out number 1. We are sure of our right standing with God, sure of our spirituality, proud of our piety. We give more, serve more, do more, pray more, come to church more. And in a curious reversal of the tax collector’s humility, we are sure of our sin, confess it self-righteously; sin all the more so that grace may abound. All the time, looking at others, like Cain, like the Pharisee.
But notice the tax collector again. He does not lift his head to look around at everyone else in the Temple. He does not compare himself to others. He does not judge the Pharisee for his obvious hypocrisy and arrogance and self-righteousness. He does not comfort himself with the fact that everyone else is a sinner, too. He is not his brother’s keeper. He knows that God alone is the keeper of men, and that, before God, he has no claim, no strength, no wisdom, nothing. He sees only himself, only his own sin; “O God, let there be propitiation for me, a sinner!” Let there be a sacrifice for me! Let there be atonement for me! He knows his sin is greater than he can lift. But he does not leave in despair. He knows that there is One who can lift the burden from his back. There is a sin-bearer. It is Jesus, the one appointed to take your place and mine. The Chosen One who enters our flesh in weakness, and dies in weakness. The one whose blood speaks a greater word than the blood of Abel, because it does not cry out for justice. That’s the last thing we need. The justice and the vengeance for every murder, every angry thought, every self-righteous comparison of sinner to sinner, fell on Him and for it all His blood was shed. For it all, He went silently to His death, and His blood cries from the ground, not for justice, but for mercy. The blood of Christ soaked into the cursed ground, and it speaks the final word of mercy over all the children of Cain, even over you and even over me.
A strange mercy! “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong; God choose the low and the despised of the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, ESV). Before the Lord, there is not everyone else; there is only you. You can only confess your sin; I can only confess mine. We have no boast before the Lord, except the Lord Himself. We have nothing in ourselves; but we have everything in Christ and Him crucified. Crucified for all the children of Cain, covered with blood that cries out as our sacrifice. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”—Abel, Seth, Noah, Abraham, all the saints and martyrs, angels and archangels—“let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). From there He reigns over us, from there He is the Keeper of Israel, who neither slumbers, nor sleeps; He is your Keeper, the shade at your right hand. He will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 121:4-5, 8). And so we can say with Paul, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/22/10