The Back When Cain Was Able sermon was delayed a week by our need to address Charlotte’s State Of Emergency a week earlier.
So, according to the calendar it was the third week of Nooks & Crannies, but according to life, it was the second.
It was a passage I loved studying, a sermon I loved preparing, and a message I was eager to deliver.
Here’s the bottom line:
Grievance is the gateway to death
Gratitude is the pathway to life.
We concluded the message with an exercise involving painted plywood, silver sharpies and expressing the gratitude that Cain had erased when he murdered Abel. Here’s what it looked like:
READ Genesis 4:1-17 out loud w/ ppl standing first
Well, THAT sure opens up a lot of questions? HOW did Cain kill Abel? Why was Abel’s offering better? WHO did Cain fear was going to kill him (4:14)? (In a certain way of reading Genesis, there’s supposed to be only 4 people total & then Cain offed Abel, leaving only three.) WHERE did Cain’s wife come from (4:17)? And maybe most of all, most of all, when Cain built this city . . . DID HE BUILD THIS CITY ON ROCK & ROLL? (Starship clip) Was he knee deep in the hoopla?
We immediately go to all those questions because we want to read between the lines in the story. Guess what? Genesis’ author doesn’t want us to read BETWEEN the lines; he wants us to read the lines! And when you read the lines, you see that he (the author) is not interested in the things that first interest us. And he gets to set the agenda. We focus on what is important to him.
And what is important to him is that this story is an incredibly precise window into today – into you and me and the nooks & crannies of our family lives – more than it is a chronological telling of yesterday. Because from the beginning this story is so great – I have been preaching 26 years now & have NEVER preached on it before today. But I can tell you that digging in & studying it & appreciating it (reading the lines & not between them!) is about as much fun as I can remember having. Loved it.
Because in the nooks & crannies of this First Family, A & E have two sons, Cain & Abel. Birth order matters, people! Then and now! And the next thing we know about them – not a word about their infancy, their toddlerhood, their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phase, or even their hormone-addled adolescence – is they’re doing something religious. An offering. Why? None have been commanded yet. We don’t know. I suspect there is something deep inside us that from the beginning wants to worship. And in 1:4 we see that the Lord favors Abel’s offering but not Cain’s:
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.
Why? We don’t know! MAYBE the “fat, firstborn” but that’s conjecture. Because the offering isn’t nearly as important as Cain’s response to it. And Cain makes the critical AND NEVER ENDING assumption: favor = favorite. Since God showed Abel favor, it follows that Abel must be his favorite. He’s got a grievance from early and as we’re gonna see he’s going to nurse, nurture & protect that grievance for all it’s worth.
This pic is one of best in history of our family. Why? Riley, then 3, got this tractor one Xmas AND KICKED IT. Why? Because Taylor, then 6, had gotten a BICYCLE & he fully expected his own! No doubt in his 3 year old mind, favor = favorite. Grievance. Fortunately, he has navigated that sib rivalry better than Cain — Taylor is still ALIVE after all. Look at the rest of 4:5:
So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Love that – Sad Face. The bible’s first emoji! So God sees the whine setting in and addresses it quickly in 4:6:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?
Hey, you’ve got no legit gripe. Favor doesn’t mean favorite. Just do right and you will get yours. Which sets the stage for the rest of 4:7, the verse on which the whole thing hinges:
But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
We’ll come back to that hinge.
Because it escalates with incredible speed to the world’s first murder in 4:8:
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Again: HOW? WHERE? WHY? With a knife in the parlor? With the lampstand in the library? With the sickle in the field? Again, that stuff matters to us but it doesn’t matter to Genesis’ inspired author & we follow his agenda. It goes from worse to bad in 4:9:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain gets uppity with God! Indignant that God has the nerve to ask him a question! We may not do that with God’s questions, but we sure do it with his Scripture . . . especially when that Scripture cramps our style or undercuts the ways we think we know best. And then look at 4:10-12 and circle “ground” while you underline “blood.”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
You know what the world for “ground” was? Adamah. Huh! And I love the emphasis on blood because if you know anything about forensics, you know that blood evidence is often what determines guilt. Genesis knows that. It’s like it’s CSI East Of Eden!
But go back to 4:7 again: READ. Sin crouching. Such a vivid, personal image. And notice, that sin there hasn’t been committed. It’s like it is waiting for an attitude, for a festering sore to develop, and then it will jump in and pounce. The sin is waiting for Cain – and us – to dwell, to obsess, to magnify, and then sin will pounce and will MULTIPLY. And what is this thing sin is waiting to use? This thing looming in the nook and cranny of every household, every couple, every relationship? What Cain did! Grievance, jealousy, personalizing what’s not personal, confusing favor with favorites. Because everyone here has that choice, daily: grievance. WHINING! You can adopt that attitude with siblings, spouses, parents, work, church, the USA culture (!). Is that you? Do you spend time in the nooks & crannies of your life in grievance mode? Others’ promotion means your demotion? So true of pastors & churches!
And that incredibly quick escalation from crouching in 4:7 to murder in 4:8 makes one thing abundantly clear: Grievance is the gateway to death. Yes! Grievance is the ultimate gateway drug!!!! You harbor it, you dwell on it, you think about how you done been wronged, you imagine more ways that you have, you sing another somebody done somebody wrong song, you nurse it, and death is the result. For others and for you. That’s how the bible’s first murder happened. Set in motion forces that still exist.
Now sometimes it’s kinda benign. My kids, again. Now, when Riley signs a card for his g-parents it looks like this: AV. To make sure they see his name and that she is an afterthought. To get even, when Taylor by happenstance found herself at home last summer over the weekend of Julie’s birthday & Riley wasn’t there she said, “Oh good, let’s have a b-day party just like the good old days when there were just three of us.” Which was her birth til 3! But it goes from the benign to the brutal; from harmless to deadly: in my time I have seen eating disorders, alcoholism, and depression all stem from an attitude of grievance & jealousy. It’s a slow death but a death nonetheless. Because grievance is loud and it is easy. Complaining how the favor of others means they are favorites, harboring jealousy over what others get that you don’t is effortless.
Listen, moms and dads: your home is the incubator of an attitude. And you will cultivate either grievance or gratitude. Because kids will see it and hear it first from you. If they hear you complain, if your first reaction to things and people and politics is negative, if you present yourself as the helpless victim of forces beyond your control, if they hear you resent the success of others, don’t be surprised if they grow up the same way, only worse. Sin has done a generational pounce!!! What is the attitude in the nooks and crannies of your home? Because the stakes are unspeakably high.
Look at how Cain responds in 4:13-14:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Did you see what I saw? SEVEN personal references! I, me, mind. You know who is missing? Abel!! No remorse, no regret, just renewed and refined focus on self. He does the murder and in the way sin has pounced has made himself into victim. Makes me think of Ted Bundy or even OJ Simpson. You know what you call it? A sociopath. REF and the primary “victim” is the self. An attitude of grievance is loud, easy, and we in the USA seem to have perfected it. REF
But there is one other attitude in this marvelous story. What is it? Gratitude. Instead of ignoring blessings, celebrating them. Whatever is “better” about Abel’s offering in the early part of the story, gratitude seems to be the source. But if grievance is both loud and easy – not to mention the gateway drug for death – gratitude is easily silenced. Is that not what Cain does? He silences Abel’s thanks forever! His gratitude can no longer be experienced in the nooks and crannies of life. So: spouses, siblings, parents, co-workers, church people . . . which are you going to cultivate, grievance or gratitude? You cultivate grievance – by complaining, noticing what’s wrong, and most of all confusing favor w favorite – and the ground will become dead and infertile. Sows death. You cultivate gratitude and the ground of your home life will be fertile, lush, and green. Why? Because Grievance is the gateway to death but gratitude is the pathway to life.
Every day, in your nooks & crannies, you have that choice. Grievance or gratitude. And what I am saying is NOT a simplistic “attitude of gratitude.” Not “just be thankful.” Because the stakes are too high for clichés. Instead this is about giving voice to what was stolen from Abel. About your spouse if you’re married. IN FRONT OF THE KIDS. About your job. About your parents. About your church. Remember: grievance is both loud and easy. Gratitude doesn’t come naturally to us but it is life-giving for us. Search for it. Orient your mind and your eyes to see it. And then express. Gratitude that you feel but don’t express is like (need analogy!). Gratitude for Jesus. Good god: an awareness of what he’s done for you makes you grateful for ALL of life. That you’re so messed up the cross is what you need & so loved the cross is what you got. Ah, that bleeds into the rest of life. I want the nooks & crannies of your homes & relationships to be incubators of life, not petrie dishes of death. Grievance is the gateway to death but gratitude is the pathway to life.
And I think you’re gonna have help. Look at 4:15-17:
But the Lord said to him, “Not so[e]; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod,[f] east of Eden.
17 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.
God’s discipline IS his protection IS his grace. Cain did NOT get what he deserved – thank God none of us do! – but look what he does? Builds that city. Where did the people come from? I don’t know because Genesis doesn’t care! But you know what I do know? The sociopath of 4:13-14 has become a social butterfly! A social coordinator! Huh. I suspect that’s because somehow, somewhere, he stopped taking the gateway drug of grievance and by God’s help got infected with the gratitude germ that leads to life.
You? In your nooks and crannies, you?