The Story of Cain and Abel
A sermon by Chaplain Mike, preached as if by Jeremiah the prophet.
• • •
Good morning and shalom.
My name is Jeremiah. God called me to be a prophet to the nation of Judah at one of the most important times in her history. Some call me “the weeping prophet” because it broke my heart to proclaim the bad news God gave me for my people.
Since the time of King David and Solomon, we have been a troubled nation. In the days of Solomon’s sons, we split into two nations: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. It has been all downhill since then.
A series of bad kings led both nations. They took us far from the worship of the true and living God and promoted injustice and violence throughout the land. God kept warning us through the prophets, but few listened, and judgment came upon us.
Israel fell first. When Assyria became a great military power, it destroyed Israel’s kingdom, and scattered the ten tribes to the winds. Thankfully, God spared us here in Judah. But then we had to face an even greater threat: the nation of Babylon. Many so-called prophets in Jerusalem assured the people that nothing was wrong, that God was with us, and that we had nothing to worry about. But the sky was growing dark and I feared that we would soon be overwhelmed by the Babylonian armies.
That is why God sent me to a gate in the city known as the Potsherd Gate. He instructed me to take a potter’s jar with me and say these words to the people: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster on this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. I will do this because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent” (Jer. 19:3-4). Then he told me to break this jar in front of all the people and warn them that God will shatter them like a potter’s vessel which can never again be mended.
Did you hear what God said to the people of Judah that day? They were about to be conquered and carried into exile because they had committed two great sins: (1) they had offered unacceptable worship, (2) they had filled the land with innocent blood.
If I had thought of it, I might have told them one of the old stories that day. It is one of the early stories in the Torah, and it was given to Israel as a cautionary tale right from the beginning. Here it is . . .
Adam and Eve had two sons. The firstborn was Cain, and he grew up to be a farmer. The younger son’s name was Abel, and he became a shepherd who tended flocks. Both of them understood that is our duty to bring offerings to God out of what he has blessed us with. So Cain brought some of his crops, and Abel picked out one of the firstborn of his flock, sacrificed it, and brought it all as an offering to God, including the very best portions of the meat.
God accepted Abel’s offering, but he rejected Cain’s. This made Cain very angry. His face fell and he began to sulk in rage. He was mad at God and envious of his younger brother. God saw this and spoke to Cain. “Cain, why are you angry?” God said. “You still have the chance to do what is right, and if you do, it will go well for you too. But be careful Cain. If you continue to harbor your anger and resentment, you are opening yourself up to a greater power that can take control of you and lead you to do even worse things. You must resist that, Cain, and overcome the danger that is lying in wait for you.”
Sadly, Cain didn’t take God’s warning to heart. He approached his brother Abel, took him out into the field, and killed him in a jealous rage. Cain thought no one saw, but God took notice.
So God came to Cain again. This time he asked him where Abel was. “How should I know?” replied Cain. “Am I responsible for my brother?”
“Of course you are,” said God. “And now you have polluted the land with his blood, and that blood is crying out to me for justice. So justice it will be, for you. Out you go! I am sending you into exile. You will no longer have the land to provide for you. You will no longer have your family to protect you. I sentence you to wander the wilderness alone.”
Those words cut Cain to the quick. “Lord, this terrible sin I’ve committed and the consequences are too much for me to bear! There’s no hope for me out there! I will be an easy target for anyone and everyone who wants to kill me.”
God heard Cain’s lament and his confession of sin and gave him a promise: “I won’t let that happen, Cain. I will give you a sign of my protection and you will find refuge from those who might want to do you harm. But you still must leave and wander to the east. You must live in exile.”
• • •
Do you see how this story would have been applicable to my people in Jerusalem, when I, Jeremiah, was prophesying?
The story of Cain and Abel was given to teach God’s people that unacceptable worship and shedding innocent blood will lead to exile, away from the Promised Land, away from the presence of the Lord.
That is exactly the message I tried to get across to the people here in Jerusalem!
Cain’s worship was unacceptable because it wasn’t from his heart; it wasn’t rooted in faith. He just went through the motions of worship. He brought his offerings, but he didn’t bring himself. Abel, on the other hand, made sure he brought the best of his flock, and the best part of the sacrifice. He exhibited true gratitude and devotion. He worshiped God in faith.
And then, Cain not only failed to love God with all his heart, he also failed to love his brother. His lack of faith led to a lack of love. He failed to heed God’s warnings about this, and ended up committing a horrific act of violence.
As a result, Cain was exiled. Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. Cain repented and sought God’s mercy, and God promised to protect him even while he was in exile. But he still had to face that fate.
This is the story of my people. We failed to worship God from our hearts. We kept up the appearance of worship. In our day, the temple continued to function and people still brought their gifts and offerings, but much of it was empty and meaningless. In fact, our leaders and people were attracted to other gods as well and they mixed in all kinds of false beliefs and practices with their worship of the Lord.
We also filled the land with innocent blood. Injustice ran rampant. The poor were ignored while the rich kept getting richer. The powerful people pursued their grand projects while trapling the rights of their neighbors. Violence filled our streets. When someone tried to tell the truth, the unrighteous just laughed and turned away.
God sent prophets like me to warn the people just like he warned Cain. Sin was crouching at our door and waiting to devour us. If we continued on this path, exile was certain. We would be carried away by our enemies and the life we know would be destroyed.
Do you see how the story of Cain and Abel spoke to my people many years ago? Unfortunately, they didn’t heed its message or the words of the prophets. They were carried off into Babylon and resettled there. Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was leveled. Our Promised Land was overrun by enemies. We lost our homes, our businesses, our lives, everything.
Thankfully, God also heard our cries in those terrible days. And just as he had mercy on Cain and promised him his protection, God told us he would not abandon us forever. God said he would protect us and keep us even while we wept by the rivers of Babylon. And he gave us an even better word than he gave Cain: he promised he would restore us from exile, bring us back to the land, and make a new covenant with us.
• • •
I understand that you who are here today are part of that new covenant. You are followers of Jesus the Messiah. Most of you are Gentiles and you have been grafted in to the people of God and are now heirs with us of the promises God made to Abraham and the people of Israel. The scriptures God gave us, that you now call “The Old Testament,” belong to you as well.
That means the story of Cain and Abel is for you too. It means God is still calling you to offer acceptable worship, worship that is rooted in faith, worship that comes from your hearts. It means God is still calling you to let your faith work itself out in love for your neighbor. It continues to warn you that unacceptable worship and treating your neighbors with envy, hatred, and violence are still issues you must deal with, and that God will bring just consequences upon those who act like Cain did.
One of Jesus’ disciples, the Apostle John, wrote these words:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. . . .
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
• 1 John 3:11-18, NRSV
• • •
Thank you for letting me speak to you today. I can’t say it any better than John did:
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Love God with all your heart and offer him acceptable worship.
Love one another – be your brother’s keeper.
And when we fail, as we inevitably will, cry out to God for mercy. He has put his mark on you, now and forever.
That’s the story of Cain and Abel.