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The Journal

Where Sin Abounds - The Right Reverend Dr Michael Stead

All Souls
Dear Friends,

Introduction: An avalanche of sin. It is a pleasure to be with you this morning, to continuing your sermon series in the book of Genesis. This morning, we are looking at Genesis 4. In the preceding chapter, humanity committed just one sin, one act of disobedience, as Adam and Eve sought to be like God. You may well think – “Look, it was only one piece of fruit - what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that one act of disobedience triggered an avalanche of sin in subsequent generations. By the time we get to Gen 6, it says that man's wickedness had become so great “that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time”. Genesis 4 sits in between Gen 3 and Gen 6 to show us how humanity moved from ‘one piece of fruit’ to ‘every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’! It shows how sin took hold of Cain… and how sin takes hold of us. The chapter shows how God responds to sin, and it also gives us a hint about God’s solution to the problem. As we look at Gen 4 together today, can I encourage you to have your bible’s open + sermon outlines…

1. Sin (Gen 4:1-8). Genesis 4 is the story about Adam & Eve’s two sons – Cain and Abel. Abel was a shepherd, and Cain, a farmer, and in the course of time, they each brought some of their respective produce as an offering to the Lord. Verses 4 & 5 tell us that LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. The obvious question is – what was the difference between the two offerings? The carnivore in me wants to believe that this is a proof that God thinks meat is better than vegetables… but this cannot be the right answer, since the Lord later commands that his people present both animal and grain offerings. The difference between the two offerings is the quality of what is being offered, and the underlying motives of the offeror. See how Abel’s sacrifice is described in verse 4 – he offers “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock”. That is - the best part of the animal from the most important part of the flock – the firstborn. In contrast, verse 3 tells us that Cain merely offers “some of” the fruits of the soil. Not the firstfruits, not the choice parts. God looked with favour on Abel’s offering because it was an offering that honoured Him. God was not honoured by Cain’s offering, because it said that God was only worth the left-overs. This episode tells us something profound about true worship – God is not a desperate God, who will gratefully receive any small morsel of recognition that we deign to cast his way. Acceptable worship is worship that recognises that he is worthy of the highest honour. Imagine the Queen was come to dine at your house – you wouldn’t give her the dried up leftovers from Tuesday night’s lasagne. In the same way, when we give God second-best and third-best, we are not giving him the honour that he is due. Verse 5 tells that Cain became angry, because his offering was not acceptable to the Lord. Despite Cain’s anger, God still takes the initiative to speak with him. In verse 6 & 7, God pursues a conversation with Cain, inviting him to choose the good – God says “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” The door is still open for Cain to enjoy a proper relationship with God, despite his earlier failing and despite his anger at God. There may be people here today who are feeling angry with God. It is important for you to know that the same is true for you. God still holds the door open for you to have a right relationship with Him. Don’t be like Cain. You need to speak to God – pray to him and talk through your anger, and respond to his invitation to do what is right. God warns Cain about the consequences of acting on his anger in verse 7. “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." Cain’s anger in and of itself is not sin, but his anger is opening a door to sin. Sin is personified as a predator, poised to strike. Sin “masters” a person. It is not only the case for Cain – it is also true for us. Sin desires mastery over us. When we give in to sin, we become a slave to sin, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 7. There is a battle going on inside – What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-- this I keep on doing. (Rom 7:19). And that is what happens to Cain. He doesn’t respond to God. Instead, he harbours his anger and ultimately takes out against his brother. It is an irrational anger – Abel hasn’t done anything against Cain. All Abel has done was offer a fitting sacrifice. But the natural ties of brotherhood and affection are overtaken by resentment and perhaps jealousy. Cain lured his brother out to the fields, and attacked him, and killed him. God offered Cain the choice between turning his back on sin, or being enslaved by sin, and Cain chose to let sin become his master.

2. Judgment … and Mercy (Gen 4:9-16). As God had done with Adam and Eve in the garden, he seeks out Cain after he had sinned. He asks – verse 9 – “Where is your brother Abel?"”. Even then, Cain thinks that he can get away with sin. He says “I don’t know – Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Of course, God knows exactly what Cain has done – far from being his brother’s keeper, he has been his brother’s killer. God confronts Cain – verse 10 - Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. God’s judgment on Cain is an outworking of his justice. Because God is the arbiter of good and evil, he will not let the guilty go unpunished. There is something deeply right about his – and yet at the same time, deeply worrying. We have an innate sense of justice, so deep down we don’t want evil people to get away with it. And yet, at the same time, it should trouble us that God is a God of justice, because what happens when we don’t live up to his just standards? We live in this tension – we want the blood of the murdered that cries out to be answered, we want the cries of the raped; the cries of the abused to be heard, and their wrong avenged… but we want something more than a universe of strict vengeance… God’s judgment on Cain is a curse on his life and livelihood. Verse 12 : When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth. Cain realises that his judgment has double consequences – the farmer has been driven off the land, and – even more crucially – he is being driven away from the presence of God. He will not know rest – all his days, he will be a restless wanderer. Back in the Garden of Eden, we say a perfect relationships in three dimensions – God to human – human to human – human to environment. Sin has wreaked its havoc on all three elements of the triangle. Cain cries out “My punishment is more than I can bear.” He fears that, as a murderer cast out from the presence of God, he will be without protection – “whoever finds me will kill me". God mitigates his judgment by ensuring Cain’s protection. It is a repeat of the pattern of Genesis 3. Even after Adam and Eve had sinned, God mitigated his judgment and provided for the physical needs by clothing them. Here, God responds to Cain by promising that Cain would still be protected by God’s justice. Verse 15 "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. We are not told what this mark was, but it obviously did the job, since Cain lived to marry and found a city and sire a son. This is a pattern that we continue to see all the way through Gen 1-11 – as human sin increases, God’s mercy increases accordingly. God does not give us what our sins deserve. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Rom 5, where “Sin abounds, grace abounds all the more”.

3. Gen 4:17-26.  Most of the remainder of the chapter traces the family line from Cain to Lamech. Lamech gets more attention than the rest, because he is a particularly unsavoury character – he boasts to his wives in verses 23 and 24 : "Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times." Gen 4 demonstrates the multiplication of sin. The chapter moves from Cain, who sins because be succumbed to evil desires, to Lamech, who boasts about his murders in song. Moreever, he turns the promise of God’s protection of Cain into a licence for vengeance and revenge. To be avenged 77 times really means unlimited vengeance. Genesis 4 is telling us about the kind of world that we live in – a multiplication of violence driven by escalating vengeance. For as long as I can remember, the situation between Israeli and Palestinians has been a story of ongoing violence, each side paying back – with interest – the wrongs done to their fathers and kin. In parts of Africa, there is an ongoing cycle of Muslims killing Christians for killing Muslims who killed Christians who … With ISIS in the Middle East, Muslims are slaughtering other Muslims, as well as Christians and ethnic minorities. We read all this in the newspapers, and we want to cry out – Can it ever end? Is there no alternative to a vicious cycle of justice and vengeance? Genesis 4 itself begins to give us the answer to this problem. The solution is not going to come through the godless line of Cain and his offspring, but through another line altogether – a fresh start. The last two verses of Genesis 4 tell us about the line of Seth. Verse 24 : Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, "God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him." Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD. The solution to our human problem is going to come from the godly line of Seth, through those who called on the name of the Lord. From Gen 5 onwards, the Bible is going to trace that line from Seth. It is going to tell us about some of those who called on the name of the Lord – people like Enoch, and Noah and Abraham. The ultimate solution to the human problem of vengeance lies beyond Genesis 4 – in fact, it lies beyond the book of Genesis altogether. But if we may be permitted to peek over the horizon, we will see that there is an alternative to escalating sin and violence. When Jesus was asked “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me…”, he answered “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times”.1 It is an echo of Gen 4, but in reverse! ‘Unlimited vengeance’ has become ‘unlimited forgiveness’. This person-to-person forgiveness can only come about because of an even more fundamental forgiveness between us and God. Our relationship with God is not one that is based on strict justice and judgment, but of undeserved mercy. And, because God forgives us our sins and shows us mercy when we don’t deserve it, we must therefore also show forgiveness and mercy to those who have wronged us. And, I presume because this is so against our nature, Jesus gave us a daily prayer – to remind us that we seek God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. If we ask the question – what has changed between Genesis 4 and now – why is it that God no longer responds with justice to our every sin, the answer is - to borrow a phrase from Heb 12:24 - that blood has been shed that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The blood of Abel, the first man murdered, cried out for vengeance, a cry that brought judgment on the head of his brother. The blood of Jesus cries out, not for vengeance, but for forgiveness. The judgment I deserve – the judgement you deserve – fell on him, so that he could say “Father, forgive them”. For those who will call on the name of the Lord – that is, to recognise Jesus as the Lord and put their trust in him, we have nothing to fear from God’s judgment. Calling on the name of the Lord brings us into renewed relationships – relationship with God, and relationship with one another. In this new order of things, we discover that we are in fact our brother’s keep and our sister’s keeper. The apostle Paul says in Gal 6 that we must carry each other’s burdens, that we are responsible for helping each other not get caught up in sin, and that we should be seeking to do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our Response? Genesis 4 has reminded us that there are ultimately two ways to live. The way that will not listen to God nor call on his name; where anger unchecked leads to breakdown of relationship and escalating violence and vengeance. Or the way of those who call on the name of the Lord, forgiving each other as God in Christ has forgiven us. How will we respond to God’s word today? Like Cain, will your harbour anger and bitterness, or will you close the door to sin and live a life of mercy and grace. Will you be your brother’s killer, or your brother’s keeper?

The Right Reverend Dr Michael Stead