10 May God Won’t Fit in My Box: Cain & Abel
God Won’t Fit in My Box: Cain & Abel
May 10, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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This morning we arrive at the familiar, disturbing story of Cain and Abel. Although this story contains a murder, it is not a story about murder. I make that distinction because it’s important not to get sidetracked into focusing on the morality of killing. I’ve never murdered anyone, and I suspect that most of you haven’t either. So, if we only hear about a murder, the story doesn’t apply to us, which I think we’ll discover, is not the case at all.
This is more the story of a person, who is a murderer. But it is even more a story about God. And, it is a story about me and about you.
The opening is straightforward enough. Two brothers are born, the first brothers in the world. Brothers don’t fare very well in scripture. They seem to always be in conflict. Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. It could as easily have been sisters, of course. This is not about gender but about family relationships.
Did it ever strike you that in the Bible there is rarely only one son? There are always brothers, siblings who should love each other but end up clashing. We sometimes think it might be nice to be the only child, the only one with a claim on the Father’s affection. But the sibling is always there. We are called to worship God, and as part of our worship to share God’s love with our human family. And that’s the rub isn’t it? I can handle just me. I could love God okay, if it’s just me, but that other person, too? That human “other” sooner or later complicates my devotion to God because God loves her or him as much as God loves me.
The brothers in our story are different, as most brothers are: one a shepherd, the other a farmer. While the brothers are present in the first part of the story, they are not at the center. In fact, the story focuses on only one of the brothers. Genesis gives us a clue about what to pay attention to as things unfold. Abel’s name means “emptiness” or “vapor.” Cain and God are the characters to watch.
Both brothers bring offerings to God. Both bring what they have. They acknowledge God as the giver of both crops and livestock. They both come to worship God. God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s.
Immediately we want to ask, “why?” Why does God not accept Cain’s offering? If we’re not careful, here is where we begin to lose the story. For centuries theologians have tried to answer the question of “why.” All kinds of reasons have been offered, the most popular being that something must be wrong with Cain’s attitude in bringing his offering. But the story doesn’t say that. It gives no hint that Cain’s attitude is wrong. In fact, the story gives no reason at all for God’s action. There is only the statement that God did not accept the offering.
Why is it so important for us to know why Cain’s offering was not accepted? Why does it bother us so much? Why do we feel compelled to provide a reason when the text itself doesn’t give one? I want to suggest that we learn some important things about God and ourselves by probing our reactions to this story.
The first thing we learn is that God is God by which I mean that God alone decides what offering to accept and from whom. God is free to do whatever God chooses to do. The theological word for God’s freedom is sovereignty. God is sovereign. God does not have to operate by any standards that humans set, or in accordance with human expectations. God does not answer to us for God’s divine actions. That’s what makes God, God.
The truth is that all too often, we prefer a God we can know and understand and control, one that fits our needs and expectations—in essence, a small god that will fit in our box, not a sovereign one. This kind of god is one we can feel chummy with and know exactly how God works and what God will do. That kind of god, of course, doesn’t pose much of a threat to us or to our way of doing things. The problem is, nowhere in the Bible is God portrayed as that kind of God.
I think we want to know more about God than we can know. Not all of that desire is ill-intentioned. We want to be sure that we understand enough about God so that we don’t risk our offering being rejected. We want to understand what went wrong with Cain so that we can get it right. We want to know what we need to do to please God, so God will accept us. If we know, then we can do the proper thing, get it right and God will smile on us. We don’t want to be Cain, after all.
But before we realize it, we have slipped into an attitude that bases our relationship with God on proper actions as a condition for God’s blessing and love. We have reduced God to a mechanism that operates by push-button. We insert bringing the right sacrifice, obeying the rules, believing the right things, and getting all the religious stuff down pat, and out comes God’s acceptance. For all this to work, our box for God grows smaller and smaller.
We’re afraid to trust a God that we can’t anticipate. We want God in a box, labeled properly, so we can use God when necessary. A god that is unpredictable? We’re uncomfortable with that. We prefer a safe life in a predictable world, where we know enough about God to eliminate any risk that our offering will be rejected. Yet if all that were true, we would be god rather than God being God.
From its opening verse, Genesis reaches out, grabs us and plops us into a story where we face a God that will not be reduced to our idea of who God should be or how God should act. This is a God who made heaven and earth, who won’t conform to our expectations or fit into our boxes. Genesis invites us to recover a sense of the mystery and awesomeness of God, the otherness and holiness of God. That requires a willingness to acknowledge that we cannot define God or limit God or bind him with statements that begin with “God must” or “God will.” It means respecting God’s freedom and not building boxes for him. Acknowledging God’s sovereignty is not only the first step in dealing with God. It is also the first step in dealing with our fellow human beings.
What would you have done if you had brought your offering to worship and God had not accepted it? We all think, of course, I would not have responded like Cain. I am better than that. I can handle my brother. I am not Cain.
As we know, Cain reacts with anger. But with whom is Cain angry? It’s not with his brother Abel but with God, for refusing his offering. This is the real crux of the story: how will Cain respond to a sovereign God? How will Cain choose to live in a world that does not always work as he expects? Where he doesn’t always receive what he thinks is fair treatment? How will he deal with his brother, whom God has accepted?
Notice that God doesn’t seem put out by Cain’s anger. The sovereign God, who cannot be boxed into human expectations, gently prods Cain with questions, as a Father might question his son. “Why are you angry?” “Why are you depressed?” There is no hostility in the questions. God knows the answers just as God knew the answer when he questioned Adam and Even hiding in the garden. What we see here is the sovereign God prodding Cain to confront his anger and even more, to confront the root of his anger.
Then God offers the only condition for acceptance of Cain given in the story: “if you do well, will you not be accepted?” God does not come back to Cain and demand the right kind of sacrifice. In fact, God doesn’t demand anything. God only calls, gently, for Cain to act responsibly. We don’t yet know what that means, but we will find out quickly enough that it is not for God’s sake that God calls Cain to do well. It is for the sake of Cain’s brother. Obviously, God is not worried about correct sacrifices, but God is concerned with how Cain will deal with his brother in a world that doesn’t always seem fair. Dealing with God is problem enough. But having to live in God’s world, on God’s terms, all the while having to deal with the brother as well, seems more than Cain can manage. And yet, God calls Cain, in very positive terms, to respond well.
At this point a warning is given, and a command, the only command God gives Cain in the story: “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Notice that Cain’s anger is not portrayed as sin. But it is equally clear that unless Cain deals with his anger before God, it will become sin. It is pictured in a graphic metaphor as a ravenous beast waiting to pounce on Cain. If he does not respond appropriately to his brother and to God, Cain’s anger will eat him alive. Let me ask you: does that sound familiar?
From the text it is clear that Cain has a choice about how he responds to his circumstances. He is capable of choosing a different course of action than the one he ultimately takes. He is not locked into a destructive, predetermined pattern or condemned to sin because of his anger. He has freedom to choose. He is free to fall, as we saw a couple of weeks ago, but he is also free to trust God.
Cain does not heed the warning. He is angry at God, but he can’t get his hands on God. So, he turns on his brother which teaches us something profound about ourselves. We will not get along with members of our worldwide human family until first we choose to get along with God. Remember, God has not asked Cain to keep a list of rules, or even to change his offering. God asked him to do well, to not let the growling anger at what he perceived to be the unfairness of God and life to erupt into a consuming rage. By not dealing with his anger, Cain chose to let that anger consume his brother.
Now God questions Cain for a second time, but the questions are not about Cain and whether he is righteous or sinful. Nor does God ask Cain if he has brought another offering. 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? God asks because Cain’s actions against his brother have been actions against God himself.
Both Cain and God know the answer. Cain has not dealt well with his brother, and his choice has consequences. Cain must leave. Alone. He is banished and will now live his life East of Eden, alienated from God and family. But it is an alienation that he himself has caused. As he leaves, he carries the scar of his sin, marked by God. We do not know what the mark was, only that it proclaimed Cain’s guilt. But did you hear the story? The mark does more than that. It also marks Cain as protected by God. The very mark of guilt becomes a sign of God’s grace. Cain’s mark represents that fragile yet astounding tension between guilt and grace.
From a human perspective, it doesn’t seem fair that Cain should live, much less be protected by God. His brother is dead, and Cain should pay, we think. We don’t understand why God lets him live, much less why God cares enough to protect him, just like we don’t understand what the problem with Cain’s offering was in the beginning. But to those questions we need to add, why does God allow any sinner to live? Why does God not run the world better, so that every violation of a brother or sister would bring punishment?
This gracious God is a God we do not understand, one we cannot control, one that is not bound to our sense of justice. What we know is that God is merciful beyond our expectations and even beyond our capacity to define mercy.
As the truth of Cain and Abel begins to sink in, we realize that this story sounds all too familiar. We have been here. We have stood where Cain stands, facing a God we cannot fully know or understand, a God who perhaps at times, seems unfair or demanding. And we become angry. And then, we hear whispers of the question: what have you done with your sibling? How many times have you allowed your simmering anger at God to spill over onto your brothers and sisters? How often have you been called to live in harmony and do well, yet you have struck out at the human family instead?
The truth is we want to be the other brother. We want to cry out that we are the ones who have been wronged, that we are right to be angry. We want to be Abel, but we are not. We are Cain, guilty of resenting God’s sovereignty and acting poorly towards our brothers and sisters. And yet, Cain lives. Scarred by sin, yet the recipient of God’s grace, grace that Paul calls scandalous—perhaps now, we have a better inkling of why.
And still God calls to us: if you do well, will you not be accepted? Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said that only the one who loses his life will find it. When he talks about being the servant of others and taking up crosses and following him. When he speaks of caring for others by meeting their needs.
Maybe that’s what John meant when he said the true mark of a Christian is love: “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him that he who loves God should love his brother also.”
We will always be Cain. But the good news is that we can come home. By God’s grace, we can master the sin crouching at the door, receive the mercy that comes to us through Christ, and love God as we love each other.
Thanks be to God. Amen.