'Cain said to Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And [then], Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him […] the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.’ Genesis 4:8,15
Brothers and sisters, we continue with our series on Genesis, and we meet the two elder sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. In Cain and Abel’s story, we learn that the consequences of human sin are massive, even though they might at first appear slight. What begins as something relatively small, pretty quickly develops into a lifestyle of sin that has massive, eternal consequences. It was only a chapter ago we were learning of Eve and Adam’s seemingly harmless desire to taste some fruit; and yet here we are witnessing murder. Sin escalates quickly. Last week, if you remember, I said that it is important we consider the darker side of our humanity, but that this darker side was only one truth about us. In today’s passage, we are again confronted with sin and its devastating affects, but, hidden away at the end of our reading, is a source of great hope, a source of great comfort, that though all is falling apart, Love will yet have the final word.
Our story begins with the birth of two sons, and two sons, who grow up quite differently. Already — only very recently expelled from the Garden of Eden — human life has begun to diverge and fragment. Whereas the mark of life before the Fall was the unity and harmony of Creation, here we see that even human beings are growing apart from one another, symbolised by the different vocations of Abel and Cain. Intuitively, the two sons know that they need to make a sacrifice – an offering of some kind – to the God who made them. But even the need for this intuition is sad in itself, for whilst their parents once walked with God face-to-face, Cain and Abel’s relationship with God is so distant that the best they can do to communicate with Him is build altars and offer him presents of dead crops and dead animals. How far humanity has fallen from their personal relationship with God. Cain is a farmer, so he brings crops. Abel is a shepherd, and so he brings a lamb or two. We’re told in the second half of v4: ‘the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell’. Genesis gives us no explanation as to why God preferred one sacrifice over the other so we are forced to reach the obvious conclusion: that God prefers the sacrifice of a lamb to the sacrifice of grain because there is something inherently more appropriate about a sacrifice involving the shedding of blood than one involving no blood-shedding. The ancient Jews knew this. A lamb, slain, and its blood poured out, wins the Lord’s regard; and nothing else quite cuts the mustard. That is a truth we Christians — saved by the blood of Jesus the Lamb of God — know only too well. But notice the insufficiency of Cain’s offering is not something God holds against him. God is not angry with Cain. Cain is angry with God. And with such anger begins not only Cain’s, but an awful lot, of human sin. The journey from anger at God to sinful acts that lead to destruction, death and horror for other people is a very short journey indeed. ‘Sin is lurking at the door!’, God warns Cain in verse 7. The moment you are angry, you are already half-way to doing something very bad. What Cain discovered to his cost, is that it is a very short step from something that looks like a small sin to doing something that has terrible consequences. Gang members often speak of how easy it is to go from flying into a rage at someone to committing murder. But more ordinary folk — like you and me — make the same journey. If we are tempted to think we haven’t made those sorts of relatively short journeys ourselves, then we shouldn’t kid ourselves, and it’s also a relatively short journey from pridefully thinking: ’My hands are clean’ to washing our hands of Jesus’ love altogether. Well, Cain makes that short journey from inner emotion to full-blown sin. Sin gets the better of him, and he murders his brother. Abel’s blood cries out for justice. Just like the blood of the lamb — which Abel offered at the altar —had cried out to God, so Abel’s own blood now cries out to God, too. Here again, we see the power of spilt blood in arousing God’s judgement and His justice. As one old hymn puts it: ‘Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; But the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries’. ‘What have you done?’, cries God to Cain, with anguish and horror in His voice. But more than this we hear in God’s voice His heart breaking, as He realises that Cain —whom He loves — has broken everything now. There must be a punishment, of course, for Cain. Cain must be separated from God, just as his parents had been separated from God when they disobeyed God in the Garden. Separation from God is the punishment for human sin, for a holy God cannot abide sin. But, it is also a symmetrical punishment, in that our desiring separation from God is what prompts us to sin in the first place. So, in our punishment, what we are getting is what we really desired all along. God’s punishment is simply to let Cain have what he wanted. Cain understands that separation from God is the end of life as he knows it. He presumes that such separation means that his life is now so worthless that he will doubtless be killed.
But now we find at the end of this dark and difficult passage the light we have been hoping for, for God will not leave it at that. God will not let Cain be executed, even for the grave sin of murdering his brother! No, it is not God’s will that Cain’s evil deed should be the last word on his life or worth. And in that, we see a glimmer of what God has planned, right from the beginning, for the salvation of the world. God puts a mark upon Cain — a mark of protection — so that, in spite of all Cain’s sin, it is clear that God is not finished with him yet. The fact of God’s continuing care for Cain even after his sentence is handed down confirms that, no matter what we might do wrong, there is always more that God has to say to us. The other details of the story of Cain and Abel — the blood being spilled for a sacrifice; the centrality of a lamb’s offering upon an altar — all point to the fact that, this further work of God’s mercy would be made possible by the sacrifice of a spotless Lamb this time upon the altar of the Cross. It is that sacrifice which we celebrate afresh each Sunday. That sacrifice — of the Lamb of God whose blood was poured out for US and cried out to God for our pardon — offers eternal protection to all sinners and at every communion, we participate in this great sacrifice of Christ which atones for each and every sin. So, when come to the altar, don’t to hide the fact that you are a sinner — in heart much like Cain — even if not in deed. Come to the altar confident that all who trust in Jesus and in His sacrifice are marked with His cross, and so are safe for ever in God’s protection. And come to the altar in joy, that although ‘Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; the blood of Jesus here for our pardon cries.’ Amen. (from Fr. Mike).