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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning we will continue our meditation on the Book of Genesis with a sermon I have titled, “To Sin or Not to Sin? That is the question.”
An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian were viewing a painting of Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden. The Englishman mused, “Look at their reserve, their calm. They must be British.” The Frenchman disagreed, “Non, non, non. They’re naked, and oh, so beautiful. Clearly, they must be French.” The Russian emphatically cried, “Nyet! They are clearly Communist comrades. They have no clothes and no shelter. They have only an apple to eat, and believe they are living in paradise. They must be Russian.”
Christian theologians refer to that time of Adam and Eve’s frolicking innocence as “the lost paradise” before the “The Fall of Man” when they disobeyed God’s only command that they not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve had a choice, to sin or not to sin, and according to Christian tradition, it was their act of rebellion that caused the whole human race to fall from God’s grace and necessitated the need for God’s salvation.
Jewish scholars, however, are far less concerned about their choice than the choice and violence of Cain and Abel. After all, the story of eating the forbidden fruit never mentions the word sin, nor is there any contrition for their action. But sin, like a wild animal, is clearly lurking in the story of Cain and Abel. In fact, the very first time that the word sin occurs in Bible is here. In the Jewish tradition, sin is less of a human trait that is passed on from generation to generation, than a choice to sin or not to sin. And nowhere is this choice more evident and lurking at the door than in the human family.
I for one can say, that it is not easy living in the shadow of an older brother. I know that from personal experience having grown up in a household with both an older and a younger brother. From the day I was born I knew that brotherhood –was man’s oldest competition. I knew that my brother was my best friend until he told on me. My brother was my partner in crime. Until we got caught, then he did it! People would say that my brother and I looked alike. When it was a compliment, he looked like me. When it wasn’t, I looked like him. Just when I mastered the relationship, I had two sons of my own to start the learning process all over again.
Now, I can tell you that it raising sons isn’t much easier than dealing with a feuding brother. As a father, you begin parenthood wrestling with your own personal expectations for school. I remember asking my oldest son for his report card. He answered, “I don’t have it.” So I asked, “Why not?” To which he responded, “My friend just borrowed it. He wants to scare his parents.” Later in life you struggle with professional goals. I once questioned another father. “Has your son decided what he wants to be when he grows up?” He replied, “Yeh, he wants to be a garbage collector.” I stared at him. “Yes, really,” he said. “He thinks that garbage men work only on Tuesdays.” Over the years, I have grown to appreciate why some “modern” couples wait to announce their pregnancy until after their child graduates from college and becomes a partner in a successful law firm.
The story of Cain and Abel opens simply enough. The two brothers are born to Adam and Eve. Yes, they are the first two brothers born in the world, and overnight, they become the poster children of the dysfunctional families who dominate the Book of Genesis. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. We don’t know whether it was a sibling rivalry between the Cain and Abel from early childhood, or whether, one son was the favorite of his parents, the golden boy of the family. The brothers in this story were certainly different, as most brothers can be: the older brother Cain was a farmer, and the young brother Abel was a shepherd. In the course of time, the two were called to bring an offering to the Lord. Cain brought the gift of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock. With a holy nod of acceptance, Abel’s offering was received. But Cain’s offering was not. Now, instead of dropping to his knees in humility and repentance, Cain’s face fell from the weight of rejection while a fiery rage burned within him.
Most of us probably feel a bit of sympathy for Cain and his rejected sacrifice. We ourselves have felt disappointed and perhaps slightly hurt when the gift we sent to a wedding or birthday was never used or even acknowledged. We are taught to always write cards, and to “Give generously – and receive graciously,” so God’s treatment of Cain seems rather unfair. Certainly the Lord should have known the proper etiquette for declining a gift from Cain without offending the giver.
I am reminded of the limerick; “Regifting Gone Wrong” by Madeleine Begun Kane
A woman was trying to sift Through items to maybe regift.
But alas, she confused The stuff she perused. I suspect that some folks will be miffed.
A fruitcake went back to the sender, And the same thing occurred with a blender.
Then a gift from her brother Got sent to her mother. Her relationships now need a mender.
So why does God accept only Abel’s sacrifice? Theologians throughout the ages have tried to answer this question. Some have suggested that it was God’s sovereign choice. God has the right to accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s with no explanation given. Others believe it was related to blood sacrifice. They believe that a blood sacrifice is the only acceptable offering God would receive. Still others suggest that the Cain’s offering was poor quality. Abel on the other hand, gave fat portions of meat that produced a savory, sweet aroma unto the Lord. And yet again, some write that it was not the offering itself, but it was the attitude with which Cain presented the fruit to the Lord. His gift was offered out of a sense of obligation, instead of reverence. This is the most popular interpretation. Something was wrong with Cain’s attitude. He had a choice to make. He could choose to do well, or he could choose to let life slide and get by. God encouraged him to make the right choice. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door.”
You see, there is always a choice in life. Some of the options are life-giving and life-affirming, and some are not. Even offering a sacrifice to God can be a choice. It can be done grudgingly like Cain. “It’s mine. Why should I return it to God?” It can be done calculatingly. “What is enough? What is really my fair share?” A gift to God can be given stingily. “I will give when I know what is left offer.” Or you can choose the way of Abel- to give by faith. He offered a sacrifice freely that would be pleasing to God. Abel offered the very best he could.
Now, why was God so interested in the older brother Cain making a good choice? God knew the heart of Cain and that he was preparing to make a choice. “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?” God, you see, often comes to us to challenge us in our darkest and weakest hours. And he speaks the truth, if we dare to listen to him. He comes to us to help us make the right choice. God came to Cain encouraging him to think and act responsibly. He was concerned about Cain’s heart and his willingness to give in to the animal of sin too easily. Yes, God was deeply concerned with how Cain would live in a world that he didn’t feel was fair. God in his great mercy tried to warn Cain of the choice that could make for the better- if he would work to master sin. But that was not to be. Unfortunately, Cain could not heed God’s warning. He could not master the feelings of his heart, and prevent the lurking animal of sin from entering in. Upset at both God and his brother, Cain allowed sin to get the better of him. He went out and killed Abel. The consequences of his choice, would play out the forthe rest of his life.
Perhaps we are no different. Brothers and sisters often compare themselves and their life circumstances with one another. Inevitably, one is always the victim, and the other is always privileged child. We make the same judgment about our coworkers and friends. And so God warns us, as he warned Cain that our heart are not acceptable and that sin is lurking at our door. But my friends, there is still hope, even for those living with the consequences of their poor choices.
A speaker once held up a fresh $20 bill in front of an audience of 200 people. He asked, “Who would like this $20 bill?” Hands went up. He said, “I am going to give this $20 to one of you but first, let me do this.” He crumpled up the $20 dollar bill. He then asked, “Who still wants it…?” Still hands were up in the air. “Well, what if I do this?” He dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked it up, now crumpled and dirty. “Anyone still want it?” Again went up in the air. “My friends, we have all acknowledged a valuable lesson. No matter what I did you still wanted the money, it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20. “ Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled and ground into the dirt by the choices we make and the circumstances that come our way. You may feel as though you are worthless. But no matter what has happened or what will happen, you will never lose your value. Dirty,clean, crumpled-finely creased, you are still priceless to those who do love you. The worth of our lives comes not in what we do or who we know, but by who we are.
That is finally what Cain discovered about himself and about God’s steadfast love for him far away in the Land of Nod. It is what Adam and Eve learned in their new life when they were sent away from the Garden of Eden to the land east of Eden. Our sins may prevent us from going back to the lost paradise of frolicking innocence, and a cherubim with a fiery sword may block the way, but that does not mean that God’s loving hand cannot watch over and protect us, and guide us to a new place. To sin or not to sin, that is the question. Life is filled with choices, but beware of sin lurking at the door. We must learn to master our anger and its consequences. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.