Kept for Eternity
Sermon 1737 Genesis 4.2-16 March 21, 2021
Cain and Abel. It is the original bad boy family feud story. Even the casual reader of the Bible comes to the conclusion, “That didn’t take long.” First we had the story of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and in the very next chapter we have the first murder, one brother slaying his other brother. When sin rules a person’s heart, it doesn’t take long at all.
They say life is a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy to those who think. I don’t know. I know what happened in that field so many, many years ago was tragic, almost more than Adam and Eve could bear, but the believer in me moves me to look for how God worked good through it all. Even though Cain refuses to be his brother’s keeper, by God’s grace, Abel, like every believer, is
Kept for Eternity
1. The faithful rest in hope.
2. The spirit returns to God.
“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast (2-5).”
Something very wrong is going on here. Cain and Abel are both worshipping the LORD. Their human reason has led them to believe they should give something back to the LORD for all he has given them. Abel, a shepherd, brings fat pieces from slaughtered firstborn of the flock. Cain, a farmer, brings some vegetables. God receives Abel’s offering favorably, but somehow shows that he does not look favorably upon Cain’s offering. No, it wasn’t that Abel offered fat and Cain vegetables. The mention of firstborn is not overly significant. The key is to whom they are offering the sacrifices.
The LORD. Capital L capital O capital R capital D. The LORD. We all know this is that special name for God. He is the God who promises to forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin through the Promised Savior. He is the God who brings that promise to fulfillment, no matter what. And he is that Promise made flesh, Jesus Christ, our Savior. Beautiful Savior, Good Shepherd, Friend of sinners. That’s the clue.
At the end of Holy Week, Jesus delivered a speech, Seven Woes, condemning the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He says the blood of all the righteous will be upon them, starting with “the blood of righteous Abel” (Matthew 23.35). Abel is righteous. The best commentary on the Old Testament, the book of Hebrews, also mentions Abel. “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead (Hebrews 11.4).”
Abel was a believer in the LORD. He believed God would send a Savior to take care of his sins and the sins of all mankind. His sacrifice was a way of showing the LORD his thanks for when the LORD would send Jesus, the Savior, into the world. And that means Cain was not a believer. As the story unfolds, Cain’s unbelief shows.
But did Cain not offer a sacrifice to the LORD? Yes, but there are different reasons people are religious. There are only two ways to heaven, one true, one false. Faith in The Promise is the true way. Faith in your own works and deeds is the other way, the false way. Cain was doing what he was supposed to be doing in order to be a good person and earn his way to heaven. I am sure there are many Americans just like Cain right now. They are doing the right thing—filing their taxes. But they are not doing it out of thanks for the gift of government the LORD has given us. They are doing it to keep Uncle Sam happy. With every sacrifice, Cain must have been thinking, “This will shut him up for a while.” How can God give the impression he was good with that type of a relationship? Somehow God shows he is not happy with Cain’s sacrifice. Cain is furious. As always, the law works wrath. When unbelievers find they are not measuring up to God’s expectations (his law) they get angry at God instead of repenting of their own evil ways.
God doesn’t change his playbook. As he came looking for Adam and Eve, he comes to Cain. “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it (6-7).”
The LORD gives Cain a chance to vent, confess, if you will. Cain keeps his mouth shut, as if he can conceal his evil from the LORD who can read his thoughts like commuters can read billboards. The LORD warns Cain. Give in to evil and it will eat you alive, like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. But this big cat isn’t on the prowl. This big cat has parked in front of your door, waiting for you to come out. You must master it.
The LORD talking to Cain is a promise in and of itself. The LORD will help him. The LORD has already helped him with The Promise. Repent and believe the good news.
It is breath wasted. Immediately Cain takes Abel into the fields and cuts him down. There is another meeting with the LORD.
“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother, Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper (9)?’” The answer is “Yes.” Throughout the Bible the answer is “Yes.” Murderous King Saul’s son, Jonathan watches out for David. The whole book of Genesis can be viewed as mankind wrestling with this problem. Adam didn’t look after Eve. Abraham leaves Sarah in the lurch, as well as Hagar and Ishmael. Don’t get me started with Jacob and his four wives. The sad tale of Genesis only ends when we have one person, Joseph, who freely, without reason, really does watch out for others, be they Egyptians or the Children of Israel. Cain doesn’t look after Abel.
The LORD takes the gloves off. “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth (10-12).”
Kept for eternity. The faithful rest in hope. We saw Cain’s unbelief in comparison to Abel’s faith. We can see Abel’s rest in comparison to Cain’s restlessness. The ground receives Abel. It will not receive Cain. Cain will be a wanderer. The ground will not even give Cain enough rest to grow food for himself. Everything Cain touches will die. But Abel, faithful Abel, rests in hope.
It’s been long enough and what we all are feeling should be put into words. One day these weary bodies of ours will rest. Even the body of our Lord Jesus Christ rested in the grave. “Asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep, from which none ever wakes to weep,” goes one of our beloved (if little used) hymns. God forbid we ever be murdered, but we have to admit our sins will cause our earthly end. I guess you could say, we murdered ourselves. Our sins testify against us. That is why we, like Abel, will die.
But the faith Abel had in the LORD, that is the same faith we have. As he looked forward to the LORD fulfilling his promise of sins forgiven, eternal life won, so we look back to the LORD’s promise fulfilled by Jesus dying on the cross for all our sins and rising on Easter Sunday, triumphant over death and the devil. There is a different end for the faithful, even in this world. My body, your body, will rest in hope. People will go away from the funeral thinking it was wonderful! That’s because the preacher had great material to work with, the LORD who never forgets his Promise and a faithful believer who never let go of The Promise. For the rest of his life on earth, Cain will not know that rest. He will live as a wanderer in a restless land. He will never learn his lesson. He will try to establish his own roots by building a city, but he won’t be able to settle within its walls. The only lesson he taught his descendants was the LORD exists, oh yes he does, but the LORD is your enemy. Yet the ground receives Abel’s blood as he preaches a sermon to every generation of the family of man he was cut off from. With the LORD you are kept for eternity.
Kept for eternity. The faithful rest in hope, the spirit returns to God.
Now here’s the part of the story the Genesis account doesn’t tell us. The Holy Spirit knew we would read the rest of the book. In fact, there is no eyewitness account of this anywhere in the Bible. The Holy Spirit knew we would take his word and the word of Jesus for it. The spirit returns to God.
The day Abel’s spirit left his pierced and battered body, it went to heaven. That’s what Jesus indicates in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The beggar Lazarus dies and “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side (Luke 16.22).” That’s the picture of heaven in Jesus’ day. When the repentant thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23.43).” The day we die, that’s the day our spirit, our soul, enters heaven. Abel is there now. I will be as soon as I draw my last breath. So will you.
Ah, but we live in such a sinful world, it gets us to think the only things that are real are the material things. Body, flesh and blood--that we can see. That is real. But the spirit? A lot of times it gets thrown into the odds and ends drawer, you know, the one by where your landline used to be. The soul is right in there with legacy and remembrances. It’s as if, once we die, we are gone for good and the best we can do is that people will think fondly of us for a few years.
We are soul and body. Why is it that, after we lose a portion of our body, it is still us? We haven’t been diminished. Little boys discover that after a few haircuts. The barber doesn’t kill him. The barber simply keeps him from looking like a little pony! It doesn’t work that way for the girls. After a trim or a real hacking, they feel like a new person! Same thing goes for losing teeth. We get a visit from the tooth fairy, not a burial in the backyard for that baby tooth. Even if we lost a limb, or an organ, an appendix, a gall bladder, an arm or leg, it is still us. And if we had to surgically lose those appendages, it is probably a better us now than we were before with diseased limbs or failing organs. We must be more than atoms and chemicals and electric impulses sloshing around.
Even when we lose a step, it is still us. We feel young. We still like those jokes. We still appreciate beauty. And when we do something that we shouldn’t do, because we always did it before, like cleaning out the leaves from the gutters, and we ache like the dickens afterwards, why did we cause ourselves such pain? We didn’t know any better. We didn’t act our age. That’s because our soul within us doesn’t age. It isn’t made of matter. We are more than body. We are spirit.
Even unbelievers harbor that hope. The Roman orator Cicero said, “I will not totally die.” The bodies of Vikings warriors were sent to Valhalla on burning long boats launched into the sea. Unbelieving Americans today copy Christianity by having services for the dead, a celebration of life.
Death is the separation of spirit from the body. The spirit, returns to God.
Oh, there are more than a few lessons in the story of Cain and Abel. In eleven years of Sunday School, the children will learn of Cain and Abel at least three times. In preschool and Kindergarten, it is just the facts. In the lower grades it is God’s love toward Cain and how, unlike Cain, believers show that love towards others. In the upper grades we go more into how we are our brother’s keeper, just as Jesus is there for us. But this is one sermon for one day. And if we have spent so much time on Cain, it is only because these things were written as a warning for us, that we might not become like him.
Let our worship of the LORD come from thankful hearts. Fix our eyes on Jesus, our Promised Savior, and we will have more than enough reasons to praise God and rejoice over his free gift of forgiveness of sins and a heaven waiting for us. For those to whom death is not quite so hypothetical, take comfort in a LORD who watches over both body and soul, who will keep our body until the great day of awakening, the Resurrection from the dead, even as he comforts and thrills our souls in heaven every moment before the Last Day for earth arrives. And rest assured, every impenitent sin will be punished, every drop of innocent blood avenged, be it in the courts and events of this life or in the fires of hell in the next.
Kept for Eternity
1. The faithful rest in hope.
2. The spirit returns to God.
By faith Abel still speaks. That is the key. Cain and Abel is not a tragedy, though it is tragic. The story of Cain and Abel is not a call for social justice, though it is instructive for our better angels. The account of Cain and Abel is not a psychological case study, though it gives insight into the workings of the sinful human nature. Faith is the key. The LORD is the key. We see the full impact of the story of Cain and Abel and its abiding hold on us. Faith in the LORD leads us in a path of peace and inner contentment here on earth. The unbelieving world cannot steal that from us. Faith in the LORD gives us the victory, no matter how terrible the battle, no matter how unfair the contest. When everything here looks lost, we are kept for eternity.