. . . So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it." . . .
Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 8/23/20
The Choice We Must Face
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The story of Cain and Abel is one of the more familiar accounts in the Bible. I think I have heard it preached about more often than any other Old Testament text. Usually, the sermon focuses on the question Cain asks the Lord, "Am I my brother's keeper?" I have never heard that question analyzed in a sermon for its sarcasm or its open disrespect for God. It is always answered in the light of social ministry commitments that we should have toward those among us who are in need. The answer to Cain's question is invariably "YES!"
But Cain's question actually insults his brother – the brother whose sacrifice was pleasing to God while Cain's own was not. "Am I my brother's keeper?" The question also dismisses God as though He were a household servant of no importance. It is like those times when we dismiss someone who asks us where a neighbor or troublesome relative has gone by saying "It is not my day to watch him". Most significantly, however, these words are a part of Cain's answer to the challenge of evil which God encouraged him to resist and master. Cain, as we all know, failed to master the temptation. But the challenge of the temptation stands before every one of us daily. It is, in the words of our sermon title today, the choice we must face.
Cain was angry. He was angry with God and angry with his brother. He had just experienced the most colossal put down. He had been snubbed by God. The Bible doesn't tell us why God preferred Abel's offering. It hints at it a little, I think. Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground - of his labors, but Abel brought of the firstlings – the first born of his flocks – and he brought of the fat portions – the very best of the best! There is a stewardship message in here somewhere – – – about giving God the first and the best rather than the left-overs and "what you can spare at the end of the month," but I am not going to go there. You are all grown-ups, and mostly long-term Christians, and if you haven't figured that out yet, you probably won't learn it today anyhow. Besides, some of you might think that I am trying to pick your pockets and that all I am interested in about you is your money.
Cain's offering reflected his heart. He gave the offering out of a sense of duty, I imagine, rather than it being the gift of love for God and heart-felt thanksgiving for God's goodness to him, as Abel appeared to have done. He gave it the perfunctory ‘umph', and then he got irritated when it was received by God as perfunctory and not as the open-hearted gift of the true child of God. You see, God knows! He can tell straight off. And Cain got angry - not jealous. The Bible tells us he was angry! He was angry at God for seeing the truth and not pretending that Cain was something he didn't even really care to be, and angry at Abel for being holy, and being perceived by God as holy. Abel was the first "goody-two-shoes". And he paid an awful price for his brother's anger.
Cain was like those people who want to call themselves "Christian" but don't want to take the time or expend the effort to actually be Christian. This is the man or woman who doesn't bother with Church, but is "just as good a Christian as you are." Or, he was like those people who belong to a church that no longer preaches the Word of God clearly or faithfully, and yet they get really irritated by us, and our focus on the truth, and our practice of closed communion. They know they should be where the Word is preached in all its truth and purity, but they don't bother. It seems to be easier to just despise those who cling to God's Word and call them "Holier-than-thou," than it is to actually do what they know they ought to do.
The choice that Cain faced was the choice of wallowing in his anger and feeling sorry for himself and continuing to stand in the path of temptation, or to see his sin as sin, resist the temptations, and put to death the deeds of the body, as St. Paul describes it in Romans 8:13. "Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.'"
God asked Cain the question even though He knew the answer. He wanted Cain to think about it, and to take control of himself and exercise some self-discipline, and do what it right. What He said to Cain, in effect, was, "If you do what is right and good and holy, you will be accepted too. I haven't rejected you completely. I just made the point that what Abel did was done the way it ought to be done, and from the right heart and attitude. So do what is holy and good and I will accept you, too. But if you sit and stew, sin is lying in wait to take you down and destroy you. The devil as marked you as a target and is stalking you like prey! You must take control and master this temptation!"
We don't face God's immediate approval or rejection, as Cain did. God doesn't generally deal with people that way any longer. It would be kind of cool if He did. Then we would know if we were faithful or not, or if we made the right choice in that last temptation or not. We could all tell if we were all sincere Christians or if someone was a hypocrite. We would have no need for any debate about closed communion, because we could all see who should and who should not stand the altar and receive the treasures offered there. But that is not the way it works today. We walk by faith, not by sight. We must walk in the light of God's Word, even when we cannot see its truth.
But we each face the choice that Cain faced. We face the choice of wallowing in our feelings and emotions, our needs and the temptations that the devil throws at us, or we can stand up, by the power which God gives us in Jesus Christ, and do what is right and good and holy. The Bible gives us some ideas on how to handle this temptation. It seems to suggest here that we should not allow ourselves to wallow in anger or jealousy. We should simply apply ourselves to doing what we know is right – forgiving, doing the things that God gives us to do, rather than savoring our hurts and our angers and our sense that we deserve more - or better - or faster - or greater respect - or more influence - or whatever it is that we are being eaten up by at the moment of temptation. The Bible tells us to flee from lust and temptation, and to decline to join in when sinners entice us. It tells us to turn to God in prayer in our hour of trial.
Of course, we fail. We have the same problem that Cain had. We are sinful people. We like the feeling of anger. We are titillated and tantalized by temptation. We respect ourselves, and, generally, not much else. Others need to listen to us. Others need to cater to us. You can see this tendency, which resides in every one of us, most easily in those individuals who say the cruelest things about others and expect them to take it in stride, and to consider it to be humor or somehow appropriate comments even when they know that it is not. But if anyone questions them, or says anything - even things not intended to be critical - they fall apart, they complain about being attacked, and they cry about how everyone treats them!
Sin has set its desire on us. And sin works on us, if we are not diligent and deliberately holy in what we do and say and even in what we allow ourselves to think. I have seen people who were life-long Christians, and active in their churches, suddenly stop going to church – even disavow the Christian faith – over some imagined hurt, or because their personal sin became an obsession and their guilt drove them away from the church. Sometimes it was anger. Sometimes they just suddenly became "too wise" for the church. Now and then it was just that they lost their faith.
Sin works on us by luring us deeper and deeper in until we cannot stand anything holy – or until we feel so ashamed of ourselves that we cannot believe that God would still forgive us. We have sinned and repented, and sinned and repented, so often with the same sin that we know that if we were God, we would not forgive us – and so we begin to doubt God's grace and forgiveness, and that is unbelief – or we decide that our sins are nothing and that we are just fine, and we don't really repent – and that is also unbelief. In one case sin has torn us from the faith, and we know it. In the other case, sin has seduced us away from the faith, and we still imagine that we are God's faithful children. We simply ignore the evidence to the contrary and make believe.
But Jesus does forgive – He has paid for all of our sins, and He has forgiven us every one. He paid the price – "the soul that sins - it shall die!" He died already - not as Abel died by the violence of Cain's sin, but willingly, for us. He bore our sins to the cross and now He forgives us. He also feeds us with His own body and blood to strengthen us for the fight, because we still must face the same choice bested Cain. Sin still has us in his sights. The Word of God to Cain is still fitting for us. If you do what is holy, you will be lifted up – and if you do not do what is holy, sin is crouching at your door, and its desire is for you - but you must master it.
Jesus has taken your sin away, and nailed it to the tree of the cross. Your sins have been forgiven! The apostle Paul writes in Romans 6, "For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace."
The choice that we must face is the choice of being content in sin and complacent in the face of temptation, or the choice of putting to death the deeds of the body and being wholly and deliberately Christian, and putting all our hope and confidence in Jesus and His salvation. Even though we do not believe in decision theology - because we know that the unregenerate man cannot choose to come to God– we do know that once you are in Christ, by His power you have the choice of living in faith or, by your own power, living in sin. Cain chose one way. We see the tragic results. By the power of God in you, choose to fight sin and temptation, and walk in the grace and love - and comfort - of God, for Christ's sake.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
Sunday, August 23, 2020
The Choice We Must Face