That Escalated Quickly

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Sunday, July 9, 2017
Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10 & Genesis 4:1-16
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Last week we stopped where everything in creation was in great shape. The man and the woman were living in the Garden of Eden with all the plants and the animals. God would check in with them in the “cool of the evening.” They were tilling the ground and re-creating the good creation. Everything was good, and everything was in its right order.

But then chapter three comes and begins with these words, “Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made” (3:1). Engrained in our minds is the next story. The serpent finds Eve walking near the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He slithers over to her and begins to cast doubt in her mind that God’s intentions and will for her are actually good.

“Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” he asks. Eve is able to repeat back God’s command that they shouldn’t touch the tree in the middle of the garden because eating from it will bring about their death. But the serpent hisses back, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:4-5). And here we see the core of temptation: it distorts God’s good reality just enough to put people in the position of doubting God’s goodness. It’s kind of like those amazing three-dimensional sidewalk chalk drawings. They look real, but you’re in no danger of plunging into a new world. Underneath, it’s just a sidewalk.

We all know what comes next. Eve eats the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam walks right onto the scene and does the same thing. The tree does its work, and this couple who were completely comfortable with each other and in harmony with the earth, immediately felt uncomfortable in their own skin. The realized they were naked. They began hiding from the God who created them and loves them.

God finds them, interrogates them, and proceeds to tell the serpent, the woman, and the man the consequences of their disobedience. I think we typically see this as God punishing them, but the more I have studied this passage, God’s patience, forgiveness, and grace is written all over it. Yes, there are absolutely consequences for transgressing God’s Word to them, but what does God do immediately? God clothes Adam and Eve so that they are no longer ashamed of their nakedness. God also recognizes that leaving access to the other tree in the garden – the Tree of Life – is problematic for the couple. Now that they have access to this knowledge of good and evil, eating from this tree that would have led to eternal life would have made these humans god-like. But God knows that they are not capable of this. If humans become like God – eternal and all-knowing – then there will be massive consequences for the whole creation. So, God puts angels at the entrance of the Garden of Eden to keep people away from this tree that will only do them harm, sending them east of Eden.

Genesis 3 sets up the pattern for Genesis 4. There is a temptation followed by a sinful deed. God comes on the scene to question and to judge. Finally, God offers grace through protection – another expulsion to the east.

Genesis 3 gets so much attention, and it should. But Genesis 4, in my mind, actually intensifies the previous pattern, showing all of us, quite clearly, both the grave consequences of our transgressions and God’s ongoing work in saving us from ourselves. Or to put things another way, we go from something that doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal on the surface – eating fruit from a tree God commanded humans not to eat– to one brother murdering the other out of jealously within one generation. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “Well, that escalated quickly. I mean, that got out of hand really fast.”

So, let me briefly walk us through the story of Cain and Abel and then make some present-day connections for what this story means to us today.

The story begins with Adam and Eve east of Eden, where they continue the creative work of God by conceiving and bearing their sons – first Cain and later Abel. As the boys grow older, they continue their work of re-creation in different ways. Cain follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a “tiller of the soil.” Abel becomes a shepherd. Together their efforts are leading to a sustainable life for them and their parents.

One day Cain and Abel each decide to bring a portion of their labor as an offering to the Lord. This whole scene is a bit strange because, first, the Lord has never asked for such a thing to this point, and second, we really have no idea why the Lord accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. As I’ve thought about it, I suspect that this really is a heart issue for Cain.

There is a children’s author named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who is also a rabbi. She provides a really interesting take on this part of the story. Here are her words:

“One day Cain and Abel argued about whether it was better to be a farmer or a shepherd. Cain insisted that God loved the farmer best. ‘After all, God planted the first garden,’ he declared.

“Abel argued that God loved the shepherd best. ‘After all, God created the animals and watches over them,’ he insisted.

“Cain and Abel prayed to God. When Cain prayed, he brought with him a large basket of ripened vegetables. When Abel prayed, he brought his very finest sheep.

“Cain looked at his silent vegetables, shriveling up in the noon sun while Abel’s sheep bleated happily in the field. Cain was certain that God must like sheep better than vegetables. Maybe God did like the shepherd better than the farmer.

“Cain glared at his brother. That night he didn’t cover himself with Abel’s blanket, and he didn’t tell Abel his dreams. The next day he didn’t share his vegetable stew with Abel. Abel did not understand why Cain was so angry at him.

“At night, Cain thought about how everything seemed so easy for Abel. If it weren’t for his brother, he would be the favorite one. If it weren’t for Abel, he’d be happy. Just thinking about it made Cain’s face turn red like the beets he grew.

“‘I hate you, Abel,’ he called out. Hearing Cain’s words Abel turned pale like sheep’s wool.

“‘I hate you too, Cain!’ Abel shouted.

“From then on, whenever Cain and Abel met in the field, they turned their faces away from each other. For weeks they could not look each other in the eye.”[1]

I like Sasso’s retelling of this story because it so clearly shows how sin starts small and grows from the heart into something so much greater when it is not stopped by the one who lets it grow. Among its many lessons, one of the major takeaways from this story is how important it is to keep resentment and bitterness from taking root in your heart.

So, before anything too dastardly has happened, the Lord shows up to talk to Cain, asking him, “Why are you angry? …If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door” (4:6-7). Interestingly, this is the first time the word “sin” shows up in the Bible, and it is God’s description of the wickedness that is at human disposal now that their eyes have been opened to knowing good and evil. God intervened, but Cain lets his resentment and anger fester in his heart.

One day, Cain calls his brother out into one of his fields and murders him. Making the cruelest cut in the soil he has ever made, Cain uses his farm tools to dig a hole to plant his brother’s body, but from this large, lifeless seed, there will be no new life for Abel or for Cain.

The Lord shows up again and inquires after Abel, to which Cain sneers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But there is nothing hidden from the Lord. He knows what Cain has done, and there are consequences for his actions. This man whose identity is wrapped up in tilling the soil will now have no rootedness in the soil anymore. He will be a “ceaseless wanderer on the earth,” according to one Bible translation.

The Hunger Games
Over the past decade the bestselling books from The Hunger Games trilogy became a massively successful movie franchise. The books depict a dystopian society called Panem where wealth and power has been centralized in The Capitol, while the outlying districts exist to produce raw materials that keep The Capitol going. Entertainment is a huge part of the life of the citizenry and the number one show is a reality series called “The Hunger Games,” where two tributes from each district are selected to play a deadly game that is televised and manipulated for the suppression of the districts and for the entertainment of the Capitol’s citizens.

Peeta Mellark is one of the tributes sent to the games, but Peeta has a pure soul that holds him together through the horrors of the games and of real life as the books go on. He is an anchor for his friend, Katniss Everdeen, who is the heroine but who finds her hands and her heart more calloused as the story goes along. In the final book of the trilogy, Peeta utters the words you have on the front of today’s bulletin: “Oh, no. It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people?” says Peeta. “It costs everything you are.”

Peeta is right. Giving sin space in your life is very dangerous. Left unattended it grows. Actually, it is from the Lord’s own mouth that we know that sin lurks. Within four chapters of the Bible we learn that sin is active and personal. We also know that it can only be a master of us if we let it be one. Cain had multiple chances to address his jealousy, but he didn’t. He let it grow. He gave it space. He let it master him, and the consequences were grave for Abel and for Cain. Cain has become so twisted after the murder that he even blames God for what has happened. The word for “keeper” throughout the Old Testament is a role that God has, not humans, as in Psalm 121:5, “The Lord is your keeper.” Cain is laying the blame for his own wickedness on God.

Haven’t we all done this on some level? We blame God for problems we have created. We wonder why God won’t just intervene and fix our messes. We cut corners in business, but blame God when it falls apart. We keep God cloistered in the church, but wonder why our prayers feel so hollow when we have no practice in seeking God regularly.

Second, as I said earlier, this is the first time “sin” is mentioned in the Bible, and what’s interesting to me is that this sin emerges from the context of worship. Cain and Abel bring sacrifices to the Lord, but Cain’s heart is not in the right place. Because he does not address his own heart, things intensify for him until he lashes out at someone he should love. Worship matters. Really, all we do matters, but what we do as a church on Sunday mornings is of vital importance in reorienting our hearts to God’s way for us. It is so important for us to make sure our hearts are open to God bending them back to God’s way through our worship. So, if you find yourself ever feeling bitter or angry in worship, you need to do the hard work of admitting that and of entrusting it to God. Sometimes we carry true grievances with us, but we can trust God with them. Sometimes we just feel slights – someone sitting where you normally sit, not liking a song, or wondering why certain items were or were not included in the prayers – but when we carry those slights into the rest of worship, we close our ears to God’s grace. Like Cain, we go our own way, and it’s a path that is destructive.

Finally, at the end of our text, God sends Cain further east, to the land of Nod. This is a wordplay in the Hebrew because “Nod” and “wandering” have a similar sound in the Hebrew. Cain’s life “settles into wandering,” which just doesn’t sound like a great existence. I wonder if his wanderlust really is just a picture of his own heart. St. Augustine is credited with having written, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,” and I wonder if Cain just never got over his lack of trust in God’s goodness for him, even though God protected him from those who would want to avenge him. This consequence of his sin is ironic because he’ll only find peace in trusting God’s way for his life. What Cain views as punishment is actually protection, just as closing off the Garden of Eden from his own parents was protection.

So many of us struggle with this too. We wander from idea to idea, from pleasure to pleasure, from place to place, seeking an ever-elusive peace. Friends, that comes only in the grace of God. It comes in trusting God. It comes in going God’s way.

From almost the first day until now, that’s been part of our struggle as humans. Perhaps the time has come for all of us to trust God more today, tomorrow, and in all the days God gives us.

[1] Sasso, Sandy Eisenberg. Cain & Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001, pp. 12-17.