Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon: Genesis 4: 1-26 Serpent's Seed

Have you ever been in one of those amazing mazes? The hedges are thick and full, you can’t see over the top of them, and you try to find your way through it. There’s a fairly new one in Castlewellan Forest Park, and at our last youth weekend from Dundonald, we had a maze challenge. Sadly two of the young people got well and truly lost in it, and while most people had finished in five minutes, for this pair, it was more like thirty minutes.

That’s the thing about mazes. You see a path, it looks like it’s the right one, so you follow it, only for it to be a dead end. It looked so promising, but ultimately, it was useless. And so you have to retrace your steps and try again. Finding the path to freedom among many diverging paths. Navigating your way to the goal.

These early chapters of Genesis are a bit like a maze. You might remember that in Genesis 3, God had promised a rescuer, one who would defeat the devil by crushing the serpent’s head. And we said a fortnight ago that the hunt is on. It’s as if we have entered the maze, tracing the right family line until we come to the rescuer. But along the way, there might be a few surprises, a few disappointments, just as we find in Genesis 4.

Adam and Eve give birth to their first son, Cain, and Eve immediately presumes that he is the promised saviour: ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ But Cain will turn out as a dead end. He may be the offspring of the woman, but he is also the seed of the serpent. Cain is soon joined by his brother Abel, and it seems as if there was an intense sibling rivalry.

They each follow their own career paths - Cain a tiller of the ground and Abel a keeper of sheep. Now perhaps we should have had this reading last Sunday, at our Harvest Thanksgiving, because in verse 3, Cain and Abel bring their offerings to the Lord. Cain brings some fruit and vegetables, Abel brings some of the lambs.

On the surface, it looks well and good, but God has a different reckoning: ‘And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.’ God accepts Abel, but rejects Cain. We’re not actually told why. It may be that Abel’s sacrifice includes blood; it may be that the Lord sees the heart - we’re told in 1 John 3 that Cain’s deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous (1 Jn 3:12).

Yet even here, there is the offer of grace to Cain. God warns him that his anger is dangerous: ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’ There’s a chance to repent, to turn around, a warning about the power of sin, but Cain continues down his dead end path.

Cain takes his brother out into the field, where he sets upon him and kills him. Sin has mastered him, as he follows in the footsteps of his parents, and murders his brother. In one of the best known lines of the Bible, the Lord confronts Cain, asking where his brother is: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ The truth is that Cain should have been his brother’s keeper - rather than helping him, he hindered him, killing him out of envy and jealousy.

The Lord says that Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for justice, and so the Lord brings justice. Cain is cursed from the ground, a fugitive and wanderer. God puts the mark of Cain on him, not as a sign of an outcast, but rather as a mark of protection - whoever kills him will suffer sevenfold vengeance.

From this point onwards, humanity finds itself in a downward spiral; things only getting worse with each new generation. From Cain, through Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methushael to Lamech, the image of sinfulness spreads, the offspring of the serpent continues to succeed. If you thought Cain was bad, Lamech is in a league of nastiness.

It’s not enough that he takes two wives, he boasts of his wickedness in his little poem in verses 23-24. Talk about an over-reaction: ‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’ Charming!

The image of Adam, that ingrained sinfulness, that flaw in character is being passed and magnified to each of his descendants. When you’re confronted by someone like Lamech (thankfully not in a dark alley), the flaw seems so obvious. It’s clear that he’s a dead end in the plan of salvation.

If only Abel hadn’t been murdered by his brother Cain. Perhaps he was the rescuer? Yet we know the rest of the story - Adam and Eve have another son, Seth, through whom the line of promise is carried on. In the days of Seth and his son, people begin to call on the name of the Lord - this is the godly line, the family of faith from whom will come the Messiah, the promised one.

Yet even in this passage, we’re seeing pointers to Christ, signs along the way which help us to understand what Jesus has done. Just as Abel was murdered by his brother, so the Lord Jesus was betrayed and crucified by his own people, his nation. His own people would not receive him, but rejected him, doing away with him.

And yet, there’s a difference. Abel was murdered because of his accepted offering. Jesus was murdered as the acceptable offering. You see, it’s not that God wanted the death of all those sheep and goats as sacrifices - rather his desire was for the attitude of the one making the offering. On the outside, gifts can be given, seemingly generously, while the heart is cold and hard towards God and our neighbour. The envelope is put on the plate, the ‘silent offering’ is given, but the heart may still be held by sin.

Jesus came into the world, able to make the perfect sacrifice because his heart was pure; he perfectly loved the Lord and his neighbour. Jesus offers himself for his sinful brothers (who put him to death).

That’s why the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant, and that his sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood cries for justice, for vengeance. But the blood of Jesus cries out grace and mercy. Through his shed blood, we sinful sons of Adam and daughters of Eve can be welcomed in, our sins wiped away, made perfect and righteous in him.

Perhaps you’re lost in the maze of sinfulness today. You keep following dead ends, never making any progress, always trapped by your weakness. There is a path to freedom, the one who is the way, the truth, and the life - the offspring of Eve who has paved the way for us to rescue us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Will you call on his name today?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th October 2012.

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