Genesis 4:1-16Romans 6:1-11

My fellow sinners, I want to tell you a story.

In front of us there are two men. They seem so far away because layers and layers of time and tradition intervene. The only record we have of their existence comes from a group of stories that tell us about the birth of the universe. No archaeologist or historian will ever be able to supply us with more information about them.
Two dim, shadowy figures are all they will ever be. Yet some things emerge vividly from this primitive tale and our imagination must supply the rest.
One man tills the ground; he thrusts his spade vigorously into the earth. Around him rise stalks of maize and wheat. He is tall and strong and bronzed from his outdoor work. There is something about his eyes that says he is not a man to be trifled with.
Have you seen farmers in little country towns, squatting in the courthouse square, a long slender weed held between their teeth? Often their eyes are nothing but narrow slits, which may be just a result of staying out in the hot sun all day, but such narrowed eyes also speak of a certain weariness with the world.
Or maybe cynicism. They have seen good seasons and they have seen bad, and they know they are more likely to see bad. Even if the season is good they may get cheated by a sharp-dealing trader from the big city. They know the score. By the way, we know the first man in our story as Cain.
Turn your attention to the other figure. He is no less strong or tanned than his brother, but how differently he uses his ability! One would say that he is graceful. Cain’s brother, Abel, is a shepherd. Around his feet mill unruly sheep. Glancing up, Abel sees that a lamb has wandered off. How tenderly he gathers up the small creature and brings it back to the flock.
If Abel were not so unquestionably masculine, we might say that his actions were motherly. However, that’s not the only contrast between Abel and his brother.
Once again the eyes tell us volumes. Abel’s eyes are full of laughter. Abel’s work, no less than Cain’s, is subject to unpredictable factors, such as weather. Yet Abel has learned to take it in stride. And when one animal in his flock is hurt, Abel seems to hurt right along with it.
You know the next part of the story. Both men offered sacrifices to the Lord of the harvest. God accepted Abel’s and rejected Cain’s. I don’t really think that Cain was insincere; I think that he offered the best that he had.
I guess what interests us most is the end of the story. Was Cain guilty of premeditated murder or not? Perhaps Cain’s invitation to Abel, “Let us go out to the field,” was like the school bully’s invitation to a weaker kid to meet him behind the gym.
I think that Cain’s passion just got the better of him when they got out to the field. Cain wasn’t satisfied with punching Abel in the nose. Cain pulled out the knife he used for whittling and killed his brother.
Who knows? Maybe Abel had gloated just a little. Cain was sick of everybody, even God, who liked Abel better. Cain wasn’t just killing Abel. He was killing all those folks who had liked Abel better, too. Cain was killing those sharp traders from the big city who had cheated him out of a fair profit. Maybe Cain was even trying to kill God who had sent the untimely snow or who had held the rain.
The murder of a brother is an unspeakable evil, but what Cain did was even worse: he tried to cover it up. “Where is Abel your brother?” asked God, and Cain replied, “I do not know.”
Cain spent the rest of his days, as he said, as “a fugitive and a wanderer, trying to hide from God, from others, and from himself what he had done. Perhaps he hoped someone would kill him and free him from that exile but God closed that avenue of escape. How often Cain must have thought of taking his own life, but the fear that something worse might follow death stayed his hand.
The story of Cain and Abel is not really the story of how sin began, it’s the story of sin’s consequences. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are the story of sin’s beginnings, spread, and results. It begins with the first couple in paradise, spreads to their children, and doesn’t stop until the entire world is infected.
I want to call your attention to sin’s two primary symptoms: death and alienation or separation. The Cain and Abel story illustrates both of them. Death is obvious; Cain slays Abel. Then Cain is separated from God, from his family, from all human contact-even from that which is most truly himself. Cain’s inner turmoil indicated that he was at war with himself.
The story of Cain and Abel is not just a pious legend; it happens every day. We are always murdering the Abel is in our lives and paying the price in the currency of emotional distress and human conflict. Very few of us actually take up weapons and do in the people we don’t like, but there are more subtle, insidious forms of murder.
Frederick Buechner has written that “of all the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.” Sometimes I really enjoy chewing over old injuries and imagining what I’d like to do to the people who inflicted them.
And then there is alienation. Scottish author George MacDonald wrote that the “one principle of hell is ‘I am my own’.” Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” He was dead wrong.
If we refuse help to others or turn away the offer of help, will God say to us in the end, “Very well, have it the way you like it”? Surely, the most unimaginable horror would be to be alone with oneself forever.
Paul sets up an interesting contrast. He bids his Roman readers to “consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” On one side we have sin; on the other God. Sin is the principle of death and alienation, but God is Life and Love. How easy it is for us to forget that sin yields death, but God offers life abundant and everlasting!
How often I have heard the old saw: “Everything that is fun is either sinful or fattening.” It is said that William Gladstone, prime minister to England’s Queen Victoria, was the most righteous man in all England – and the most boring. Martin Luther complained that the devil had all the best music — and then Luther took a dance tune and turned it into Christendom’s most popular hymn: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children from earth learn that Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who has declared it will always be winter and never Christmas. Then they discover that Narnia will be saved when Asian reappears.
“Who is Asian?” asks one little girl. “Oh, he’s the great lion,” replies her Narnian friend.
“A lion!” the little girl exclaimed, “Is he tame?”
“Oh no, he’s not tame, but he is good.”
Sin is perpetual winter without Christmas, but being alive to God means being alive to adventure, being alive to Someone who is not tame or safe but who is good.
How we long for the winter in our hearts to yield to spring. How we long for the inner and outer turmoil in our lives to cease. Sometimes a green shoot does poke up through the snow, and sometimes we do find moments of peace. But the winter is long and the struggle is fierce. How do we put together the two parts of Paul’s formula? How do we get from sin and death to being alive to God?
Let’s go back a moment to the scene with which we began. Look again at the two figures in the mists. One of them bears a striking resemblance to a more illustrious relative. Look at how Abel seeks the wandering lamb, and how he cares for lame ones who hobble along behind.
It’s in his eyes, though, that I see the resemblance most strongly. They are so full of laughter, joy, and compassion. I think that Abel must have resembled the One whom we call the Good Shepherd, whom the evangelist Luke called the Son of Adam — Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus Himself is the bridge between the death of sin and the life of God. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” And Jesus offers us this life and reconciliation even when we play Cain to His Abel. The life and reconciliation which Jesus offers means that even Cain can be forgiven and find peace, and that is a word we all need to hear.
Do you have any Abels in your life? I do. Perhaps your Abel is a colleague or parent or child or spouse. I cannot assure you that coming to terms with someone else, or with yourself, or with God will be easy. It’s a slow and arduous process, or so it has been in my life.
But it can be done — not because I say that it can be done, but because God says it can be done.
You see, Jesus resembles Abel in one more important way. Abel went to his flock and offered the best that he had. Jesus offers His best, too. Jesus offers Himself to us.

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