Read Genesis 4: 1-10 to start.
The story of Cain and Abel is a familiar account. I know I’ve mentioned Cain in many past sermons, on topics such as envy, anger, revenge and forgiveness, as well why do bad things happen to supposedly good people. I have used Cain repeatedly and thusly because he is a ready example of how things can go so tragically wrong in such a short time. It’s easy to reference him, and it’s generally applicable, because we see sinful behaviour all around us, all the time, and we see it as well when we look inside. Cain embodies our sinful nature with all the jealousy, rage, impulsiveness, and false self-righteousness that we know to be inside the very worst parts of ourselves.
In our world today, there’s no shortage of attention paid to the worst aspects of human nature. I say today, but of course this is hardly a new phenomenon. We know all manner of infamous villains from history, we know Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible, Bonnie and Clyde. We know the names of serial killers like Ted Bundy and Robert Picton, although sadly we don’t know the names of their victims. In fiction and literature, it’s often the bad guys who are most memorable, characters like Dracula, Freddy Krueger, and Darth Vader. This has long been the case, but lately it feels more blatant, more overt, more acceptable to be bad. Last year there were nine movies that made over a billion dollars at the box office, one of them, in fact the only non-Disney or Marvel connected movie to do so, was Joker, about the origin of the Batman villain. It was in fact the first R-rated movie ever to bring in more than a billion dollars.
It’s hardly only Hollywood that likes villains. What was the top song last year? Well, the Grammy awards were a few weeks ago, and the winner for Song of the Year and Record of the Year was “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, which is a dance-pop tune sung by a teenage girl who proclaims, nay celebrates, that she is a bad guy.
Even our lots of our good guys are bad guys. Batman, as mentioned a moment ago, is hardly a straightforward hero. He’s a tortured and conflicted character with a troubled past. The most iconic fiction series of our time, Star Wars, is focused on the conflict between an evil empire and the noble rebels. Of course, rebels are people who are fighting against an established order. In real life, we don’t see rebels as good guys, we think of them as dangerous and problematic, but often we celebrate them. Ever see someone wearing a Che Guevara Tshirt?
This is hardly limited to our western way of thought, either. In Iran for example, a military branch called the Revolutionary Guard makes up about 40% of that country’s armed forces, harkening back to a revolution that took place more than 40 years ago. They of course now uphold the established order, and work to prevent a new revolution, but their name suggests otherwise. In other countries similar terminology and mindsets are used, or have been in the past. We celebrate the overthrow of national governments that may have been corrupt and oppressive, but frequently substitute new ones that are often even worse. But that’s another topic for another day.
We live in a world filled with criminals and villains, and as much as we fear and complain about them, we also pay them a lot of attention. Which brings me back to the account of Cain and Abel. We’ve heard this many a time, we know that Abel did what was right and Cain did not, and that Cain murdered him for it out of envy and resentment. Much attention is paid to the result for Cain, of how God had cautioned him after the rejected sacrifice but before the murder, of how Cain complained of his punishment and was marked of God afterwards, and of course how he, in a moment of ultimate defiance and insolence, lied to the creator of the universe and questioned if he was his brother’s keeper.
We pay a lot of attention to Cain, to his attitude, to his errors, to his sins. But what about Abel? We spend much time on the villains, what about the heroes? It is the story of Cain and Abel, after all. The younger brother had a part to play, and he did it well. In his well doing, he suffered greatly for it. And while we can certainly learn from the mistakes of Cain, we would do well to learn from the righteousness of Abel.
I called Abel a hero a moment ago, and you might be questioning that description. We more commonly think of Abel as a victim. After all, he was unjustly struck down and killed by a jealous sibling. He did nothing amiss to deserve this fate, but in history’s first case of bad things happening to good people, he ended up on the wrong side of anger and hate.
So why would I call Abel a hero instead of a victim? Because our idea of heroes is badly skewed. We like our heroes to be successful and glorious. Several years ago, a presidential candidate at the time, who happens to be the current President of the United States, when asked about a now-deceased senator who had spent years as a POW during the Vietnam war, declined to call him a war hero, instead saying “I like people who weren’t captured.” And while that statement was denounced as deeply offensive at the time, the American public still elected him.
A hero can also be a victim, much as a villain can be a victim. Many of those who commit horrible atrocities have experienced tragedy and shocking abuse. It’s how one reacts to their misfortunes, to the failures of the past, and to their circumstances that determines if their path follows that of Cain or of Abel.
Sometimes there is little chance to react. Abel did not have a lifetime to respond to his brother’s anger, he was murdered before he had the chance. But look at what we read of Abel later in scripture, in the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. Reading from verse 1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good report. 3 Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. 4 By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.
Hebrews chapter 11, the chapter best known as the catalogue of heroes of the faith, lists Abel first, and with good reason. He was the first person that we are specifically told that he obeyed God and did as he was told without quibble or qualifier. We can’t say that of his parents, nor can we specifically say it of any of his siblings. He was the first human being to die for his faith, he was the first person to be used as an example of good and proper conduct.
We normally think of heroes as those who are conventionally successful. Even in this chapter, if we were to continue reading it, we would see others who were faithful and had tremendous achievements, people like Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses. They all did most impressive things, and went on to live long and prosperous lives. We read of prophets and judges, again, who achieved much, who saw deliverance from great trouble, who were in fact in many cases the agents of deliverance. We even see Enoch, who stood against an increasingly corrupted world, and who walked with God, and whom God took, and not through death, which is of course a great departure from what is conventional and normal.
Abel stands apart, because he was righteous, but still he suffered and he died, early and unjustly. That is not the fate we wish for ourselves, nor is it one that we would expect. I’m sure that Abel didn’t expect it either. I can’t imagine that Abel thought for a moment that his own brother would kill him. The thought is too outlandish to bear, especially between the first and second children born in this world. There was no gauge for the sinfulness of man at that time, for the possibility of rage that could be so great as to bring out the death of a brother. But yet we know that sin entered the world, and death by sin. One can only imagine the horror and revulsion that Adam and Eve experienced upon their discovery of what had happened, because they knew that while they had not done this wicked thing, it was their sin in the garden that had made this possible. The guilt and the sadness would have been overwhelming, devastating.
Abel’s righteousness stands in contrast to that, because he did what he was supposed to do. His offering was better, it was appropriate. There can be much made of the difference between the two offerings, and why Abel’s was better. The most common interpretation is that He sacrificed a lamb, of the firstlings of his flock we read, whereas Cain offered something from the produce aisle. There is no blood in a rutabaga or a head of lettuce, and without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. However, there is no mention in the passage that this was a sin offering, or how much of this Cain and Abel fully understood, so we can’t say that this definitively was the reason.
It could also have been the quality of the offering itself, Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock, from the fat thereof, that is of his first and his best. Cain, well, it says that he brought from his harvest in the course of time, and in the original Hebrew the idea is closer to the end of days. This may well have been, rather than the first fruits, instead Cain may have offered up the leftovers. The worst instead of the first, we do not know that for certain, but it is clear from the passage that Abel’s offering passed muster, while Cain’s did not.
Was it the type of offering, was it the quality, was it the attitude, was it all three? In any case, Abel’s was better, and Cain’s was refused.
Cain even had a warning and a second chance. God asked him why was he upset, and reminded him that if he did well, his offering would be accepted. Instead of doing things better, instead of trying again, well, we know what happened.
Abel did things right the first time. And it’s good that he did, because he didn’t get a second opportunity. There’s a whole different lesson in that thought, which was not my original intention to speak of today, but doing things right the first time is so often a tremendous blessing in and of itself. Not that there is shame in trying and failing, for do we all not try and fail many, many times, and do we not learn from our mistakes?
One of my children, and the pronoun is going to give it away, when she was learning to ride a bike, she fell down multiple times in the driveway, as do most people when they are learning to ride a bike. But she didn’t give up. She kept at it, and soon she was riding without training wheels and doing great. There’s something she said at that time that has stuck with me ever since. “Falling down is a part of learning.” Yes, it is. We learn when we fall down. Or at least we should learn. How sad, how tragic, when we do not, as Cain did not.
I’m not talking about difficult or lucky things that are not easily achieved. It’s better to split a piece of wood with the first swing of the axe than it is to have to work on it for a while, but persistence is it’s own valuable lesson. And likewise, it’s nifty to be able to throw a basketball through the net on the first try, but that’s not always going to happen.
But when we know the right thing to do, when it is in our easy grasp to do so, we should do that right thing, and do it the first time. It is generally far more work to do something wrong, and then to have to do it again correctly, maybe several attempts. Sometimes there is no second attempt, or the result is not going be the same, as anyone who has attempted to put a screen cover on their smartphone will attest.
Abel did it right the first time. Had he been instructed, either by his parents or by God directly, on the proper way to perform this offering? Or did he do so, as the passage in Hebrews suggests, by faith, with the thought that if he was going to present something to the Creator that it should be the best he could possibly bring?
You know what, I don’t know which was the thought process that brought Abel to bring a better, a more excellent sacrifice. Was it faithful obedience, or was it faithful respect? You are welcome to have your opinion as to which it may have been, but ultimately, both are wonderful and ideal reasons. God loves obedience, it is far better to Him than a sacrifice itself. We read that in the book of 1 Samuel, when Saul disobeyed the instructions from Samuel in order to bring contraband cattle for sacrifice, God was highly displeased. To obey is better than sacrifice.
And likewise, God loves faithful giving, and those who give cheerfully and willingly are certain to please Him. Think of the widow’s mite, I spoke about that a few weeks ago when last I preached, it was a tiny amount, but it was all she had, and Christ watched her give it and described it as being a greater gift than all the tremendous sums that the wealthy had given that day.
Abel gave of his best, and he did so faithfully, willingly, and obediently. In doing so he gave evidence of his righteousness, evidence that continues to be used until this very day. We know Abel’s name because of the contrast with Cain, yes, but also because he was righteous and did rightly. If Cain was simply a jerk who killed someone for no reason, this account would not be memorable, and we would not know the name of his victim.
As evidence of this, we don’t know the name of the man whom Lamech, Cain’s descendant, killed, which we could read about briefly at the end of Genesis chapter 4. Nor do we know the background of that story, apart from the fact that Lamech killed a young man, and professed that if Cain is to be avenged seven times, then Lamech is to be avenged seventy seven times. That story is of course another account for another day, but I mention it because it is the second murder mentioned in scripture. We have no clear idea of who the victim was or the motive, which stands in stark contrast with Cain and Abel. Sometimes a victim is only portrayed as a victim, as someone who is powerless in a situation, who is doomed from the start because of poor timing or simple misfortune. Being a victim is tragic, but it is not the same as being a hero.
In May of 2008, a 23 year old Kenyan exchange student was walking down the street in Cranbook, BC, minding his own business, listening to music through headphones, on his way to pick up his mail, when a helicopter that was out for a powerline survey had technical difficulties and crashed right on top of him. He never had a chance, and perished in the ensuing fireball, along with the pilot and two other people in the helicopter. He was a victim in this case, obviously so. He did nothing to deserve this, he was not particular wicked or righteous in this situation, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is sad, but it is what happened. It does not make him a hero, though.
Two years prior to that, in Afghanistan, Canadian captain Nichola Goddard died in a firefight with the Taliban. She was the first female Canadian combat soldier ever killed in combat. Was she a victim? Yes, but also a hero, because she died doing what she was supposed to be doing. She was on the job, spotting for the artillery, she was doing her duty, and she died because of it. It was no coincidence or freak occurrence that caused her death. It was enemy fire. It is sad, it is tragic, but it happens.
Sometimes, often in fact, we can suffer because we’ve chosen to do the right thing. That doesn’t make it fair, doesn’t make it acceptable, but doing right can bring heavy consequences at time. For Abel, it brought about his untimely death. But I don’t know that he would have changed anything had he known what was going to happen. I do know that we should not change our behaviour, change our stand for truth, change our stand for Christ, because the world around us is not happy about what we stand for.
We read earlier from the first part of Hebrews chapter 11, talking about faith and what that means. Faith requires us to trust what God has said, and to believe that it is worthwhile to follow and to obey. Without faith we would do little or nothing for God, because we cannot see God, we cannot go and see for ourselves the fulfillment of all His promises.
In Hebrews 11, after the account of Abel, we read, as I mentioned before, of many conventionally successful accounts, of people who trusted God and things went well for them. The patriarchs, the judges, Samuel and David, they all had challenging times, but they all saw great triumphs to be sure. We can think of other accounts, of those like Esther, Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were faced with grave danger, but remained faithful to God and through their obedience they were preserved from harm. The chapter continues after speaking of various individuals and talks of the faithful in general, I’ll read at verse 33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again:
We’ll pause there for a moment. That is the sort of heroic results that we know, love, and expect. That’s what we want to see and experience when we follow God. We want to experience the power of God on grand display, we want to see good overcome evil. We want to see the good guys triumph. We want the hero to live happily ever after. We want the Hollywood ending.
But the chapter does not end halfway through verse 35. It continues with quite the twist. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: 36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; 38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
Ouch. That is not what we want to see, not what we want to experience. But that’s what Abel got, isn’t it? He did not get deliverance, he was struck down and killed, not because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because he had done something wrong, but because he chose to obey God. His brother, his own brother, killed him for it out of envy and hatred. I can think of nothing more tragic or unfair. We might think that God should have intervened, should have stopped Cain from committing that murder. It’s what we would have done ourselves, given the option. But God did not do so. He let Abel suffer instead.
Do we blame God for this? There are some who would. There are some who would blame God for every wrong thing that happens in this world, who would say “Why would a loving God not stop this or that?”
Why does God choose to step in and deliver some, but not others? I’ll not pretend to have a full understanding of this, it would be presumptuous for anyone to say that they understand the mind of the creator, but I believe that God allows tragedies to happen because man has chosen to rebel against Him, and rebellion brings consequences. Sometimes those consequences fall upon the innocent, sometimes they fall upon the faithful. But sooner or later the consequences fall upon the guilty and unrepentant, and there they land heaviest of all. Those who will not repent are without hope, both in this life and the next.
How much better to turn now from sin, and turn to the saviour! We may live in a sinful world, but the penalty of sin need not touch us. The righteous faithful of Hebrews chapter 11, they experienced the triumphs and the trials that they did, and they did so without the benefit of having seen the promise of salvation fulfilled. They lived before Christ came, and while His coming was long promised, they were looking forward to it in faith. We look back, likewise with faith, but with the assurance that much of what we see foretold in scripture has already come to pass. We know that we have salvation through His blood, the price of sin is already paid for.
There are consequences though, there is damage caused by sin every single day, and so long as we are in this world it will continue to affect us.
Sin brings suffering, there’s a good reason why God detests it. No doubt you’ve heard this many times, how God hates sin and cannot abide sin in His presence. Sometimes we might have the false idea that He is being picky or particular or oversensitive about sin, but that is utterly wrong. We’re so used to sin that we don’t see how offensive and how harmful it truly is. We live in a sinful world, and so we have become accustomed to it, and we don’t see how sin brings suffering, it brings harm and death to all it touches. God doesn’t accept sin, does not turn a blind eye to sin, not simply because it offends Him, although it certainly does, but also because of how destructive it is. Sin corrupts and ruins all that it touches. The sufferings of the innocent, the persecution of the righteous, those things only happen because of sin.
In this country we have not had much cause to be concerned for persecution and suffering, we have not been the others mentioned above, the saints who were tortured, scourged, and imprisoned. The day may well be coming that we will be, and it may be coming sooner than you think. We may some day soon find ourselves in a situation not all that different from what Abel found himself in, hated and envied and attacked because our righteous actions have made someone else feel envious and angry. I’m not looking forward to such a day, but it may come. We may well each have our own Cain coming.
If that day comes, though, we know that we have a good and faithful Saviour. Come what may, we should remain faithful and true to Him. No matter the cost, it will be worth it.