Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 22, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 4
I was mad at the world, and I needed somebody to intervene. My parents said I could watch the movie, but now Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb said that their boys weren't allowed to watch the movie, and so what do my parents do? They change their mind, and they say that I'm not allowed to watch the movie now. Way to go, Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb! They're not really our aunt and uncle. We just call them Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb. Charlie and my dad got to know each other in the military. They were stationed at the same base in North Dakota, and they became friends-friends like brothers, and our two families hung out. We did everything together. We went on vacations together, celebrated holidays together, and we just started calling them Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb.
Now, Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb, they had a lot in common with my parents, but they had some different parenting techniques. Part of it was practical. See, my family, we just had two kids, but they had four kids in their family, and so some of their decisions were economical. When we went on that long road trip as two families, we stopped at McDonald's to get lunch, and Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb said that their kids could only get hamburgers, not cheeseburgers. They didn't want to spring the extra cash for the cheese. Now, as a parent of four, I can understand the rationale of this now, but then it frustrated me to no end, because we usually got cheeseburgers, and now we can't have cheeseburgers because Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb's kids might get jealous, so we had to have lousy hamburgers, and it was the same thing with the movie.
I was almost 13, and I usually get to watch PG-13 movies, but Uncle Charlie and Aunt Barb, they say, "No, you have to be all the way 13 to watch a PG-13 movie." And so what do my parents do? What do they do? They change their minds. And I am just crazy, because we keep bowing to this totalitarian, patriarchal ideology, and I'm just mad. I'm mad at the world, and I need an intervention because I am ready to start raising some Cain.
Cain. This is a name from one of the most well-known Biblical narratives. I'm sure you've heard of the story, but when is the last time that you've listened to the whole thing? It is a story about a murderer, but that's not all it is. It is a story of the God who intervenes, the God who is setting the stage for a grand intervention. The narrative comes to us from Genesis 4. Adam and Eve had been driven out of the garden, Adam knew his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Cain, which means "acquired."
She said, "'I have acquired a man through the Lord,' and also she gave birth to Abel, his brother, Abel, which means 'breath.' Abel was a keeper of sheep, a shepherd of a flock, and Cain was a worker of the ground, a tiller of the soil. And then in the course of time, Cain brought forth some of the fruits of the ground as an offering to the Lord, and also Abel brought forth some of the firstborn animals of his flock, the fat portions, the best portions. And the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering, He did not look with favor. And Cain was very angry. He burned with anger and his face was downcast. And the Lord said to Cain, 'Why are you angry? Why did your face fall? If you do what is right, will not your face be lifted up? But if not, sin is crouching at the door and it desires you, but you must master it.'
"So Cain spoke to his brother Abel, and while they were out in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and he killed him. He killed him. And the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is Abel, your brother?' And Cain said, 'I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?' And the Lord said to Cain, 'What have you done? What have you done? Your brother's blood is crying out to Me from the ground, and now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened up its mouth to receive the blood of your brother from your hand. And now the ground will no longer yield to you its strength and you will be a fugitive; you will be a wanderer on the earth.' And Cain said to the Lord, 'My punishment is greater than I can bear. Look, today You are driving me away from the land, and I will be hidden from Your face, and I will be a fugitive and a wanderer. And whoever finds me, they'll kill me. They'll kill me.' And the Lord said to Cain, 'Not so. Whoever kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.' And the Lord put a mark on Cain, a sign so that no one who found him would attack him. Now Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and he dwelt in the land of Nod, the land of the wanderer, East of Eden.
And Cain knew his wife (His wife, presumably one of the other daughters of Adam mentioned in Genesis 5:4), and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. And while he was building a city, Cain, he named the city after the name of his son, Enoch. And Enoch became the father of Irad, and Irad, the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael, the father of Methushael, and Methushael, the father of Lamech. And Lamech took to himself two wives, one named Adah and the other named Zillah, and Adah gave birth to Jabal, and Jabal was the father of all those who dwelt in tents and raised livestock, and also his brother Jubal, and he was the father of all those who played the harp and the flute. And Zillah, the other wife of Lamech, she gave birth to Tubal-cain, and he was a forger of all kinds of instruments of bronze and iron, and also his sister, Naamah.
"And Lamech, their father, said to his two wives, 'Adah, Zillah, listen to my voice, wives of Lamech. Hear what I say. I killed a man for bruising me, a boy for wounding me. If Cain is avenged seven times, Lamech 70 times seven.'
"And Adam, again, knew his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Seth. Seth, which means 'given.' She said, 'The Lord has given me another seed, another offspring in the place of Abel since Cain killed him.' And Seth became the father of Enosh, and at that time, at that time, he began to call on the Name of the Lord, to proclaim the Name of the Lord."
And thus began the intervention.
I once encountered a middle-aged man who needed an intervention. He came to me from a foreign land. He had a great big scraggly silver beard and a desperate look in his eyes. And he said to me, "I had a vision. A dream. I was walking through the country, and this ravenous beast springs from the forest, and he's chasing me, and I see a well, then I jump into the well for safety. And I look above me, and there is the beast, but then I look below me, and there is a dragon, and I'm hanging from a wall in the well from a single branch between the beast and the dragon. And I look in horror, and I see two mice come from the holes in the wall of the well, and they begin to gnaw away at my branch. And I notice that it is a branch of honeysuckle, and there are two drops of honey falling from the flower. And I taste the drops, but they are no longer sweet. They do not satisfy."
And I'm thinking to myself, "This is a crazy dream and a pretty creative dream." You know, you got a beast and a dragon and a branch and two mice and honey, and I don't even know what to say to the guy. So I just kind of look at him and inviting him to share more. And he does. He says, "I will tell you the meaning of the dream that I dream. The beast is my crisis, and the dragon is death. The branch is my soul, and the two mice are two forms of knowledge, science and philosophy. And the two drops of honey, they are my family and my art, and they do not satisfy."
The name of the man is Leo. Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian author. I didn't actually meet him. He died in 1910, but I met him through a little book that he wrote called Confession. Tolstoy wrote this book just after he turned 50 years old. Now Tolstoy, think about what he'd done by now. He had written War and Peace. He had written Anna Karenina. Already he knew that he would be going down in history as one of the most profound authors that ever lived, and Tolstoy was having a midlife crisis. He truly believed at this point in his life that that was his situation, this dream that he had, this vision of a beast and a dragon and a branch and two mice and two drops of honey. He thought he was there stuck between crisis and death, clinging with his might as the best forms of human knowledge slowly gnawed away at his soul, and even his family and his art, they would no longer satisfy.
Tolstoy believed this, and at that point in his life, he saw that there were only four ways out. There was the way of ignorance or of pleasure, of weakness or of strength. Four ways out. So you could take the path of ignorance. You could remain like a child and be blind to the tragedy of life, or you could open your eyes and see the situation and take the way of pleasure. You could run to the next rush, to the next hit, to the next high, or you could take the way of weakness. You open your eyes and you know, you see what life is. You know that you're caught between crisis and death, and nothing will satisfy, but you won't let go of the branch because you're afraid—the path of weakness. And then there was the path of strength—strength, as Tolstoy described it. You see life for what it is. You see all the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us, and you put an end to it using any means available to get the job done.
Mad at the world, you destroy life. I don't know what I'm capable of doing. I don't know what I'm capable of becoming. I do know what it's like to be clinging to that branch and looking for a way out, and you know what it's like. Whatever sin is crouching even now at your door, we need someone to step in. We need an intervention. Leo Tolstoy found his intervention in an unexpected place. The Russian peasants, the workers, the farmers, they had another path that he couldn't see from where he was, and he looked, and he saw that it was the ancient faith that was carrying them.
This faith that Tolstoy had rejected as a young man, the Russian Orthodox Christian Church, for all its institutional corruption, was carrying them. They confessed that old Orthodox creed that God has sent His Son to become one of us for us, and for our salvation that He suffered as one of us. He was buried as one of us, and on the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and is seated at the right hand of God, and from there He will come to intervene. He will come with glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end. It was childlike trust in the God who makes what is good and does what is right and keeps His promises. That's what sustained them.
Someone once came to the Jewish Rabbi, confessed in that Orthodox creed, and they asked Him a question. "Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" And Jesus says, "I do not tell you seven times, but I say to you 70 times seven." Did you hear what Jesus just did there? You remember Lamech, right, from Genesis 4? Lamech escalated the violence 70 times seven, and Jesus uses that exact phrase to escalate what? To escalate mercy, to escalate forgiveness, and it is right in line with the heart of His Father, the God who intervened for Cain, the God who spoke to Cain like a concerned friend.
Now, Cain didn't listen. In some sense, that intervention failed. Cain refused. Not everyone that you talk to will listen. Some people will refuse to listen to God's Word. You and I have a terrifying power to refuse God's merciful intervention. Sin is real. Anger is corrosive. Meaninglessness spreads. Violence escalates. Decisions have consequences. Yet Jesus, even as He is being crucified, cries out, calls on the Name of the Lord: "Father, forgive them because they don't know what they're doing." He is God's ultimate intervention. He cries out for you. You can listen to Him or you can refuse Him, but He will not stop intervening.
So there I am sitting outside the house, 12-and-a-half-years old, on the steps pouting because I can't watch a PG-13 movie, and I am mad. My friend Charles comes out to console me. He's the 12-and-a-half-year-old son of Uncle Charlie, and he can tell that I'm in a bad mood, and so he tries to cheer me up, but I'm not having it. I'm not having it. "Hey Mike, you want to go ride bikes? You want to go play football?" And I'm just staring at the ground. I'm not going to answer him. He says, "You're pretty mad at your parents, huh?" I don't say a word. "You mad at my parents?"
Now that made me think. Was I really mad at them? I don't know who I was mad at. I was just, I was just mad. Sometimes when I got into these tantrums, my mom would tell me, "Michael, you're just mad at the world." And so I tried that with Charles. I said, "I'm just mad at the world." And Charles, he says, "So what, you mean you're mad at the grass and the trees? You're mad at the molecules and the atoms?" Charles, he had this way of being annoyingly technical like that, but he made me smile. He made me laugh. Sometimes you just get in your head like that and you just need a friend to step in. Just step in.
And I want you to know, would you know that Jesus is a Friend like that for you? He has stepped in. His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The blood of Abel could only condemn his brother, but the blood of Jesus cries out for you, for me, for forgiveness, and life, and salvation. He has come to bring an intervention.
So would you pray with me? Lord Jesus, when my face is downcast and my soul is bitter, when my plans are defeated and my sacrifice amounts to nothing, when anger clouds my vision and life no longer satisfies, would You step in? Would You be my intervention? Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for September 22, 2019
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and that was Dr. Michael Zeigler with a sermon based on Genesis 4. The sermon is a monologue. Our new podcast is a dialogue based on the same text. It's called "Speaking of Jesus," and here's an excerpt from this week's discussion featuring our colleagues Don, Jessica, Bea, and Micah, together with Dr. Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: What do you come to know more deeply about your Father, the God and Father of Jesus, through hearing this and kind of taking into account this whole discussion on intervention?
Don Everts: I'm struck that the thing that is sitting with me is that God knows where every trail leads. He has that sense of, even when He's talking to Cain, He said, "Man, sin is crouching. I know you see that little path, like you've taken a couple of steps down this path of bitterness and jealousy." It's almost like even in that moment, He knows about the possibility of Lamech's boast when He says, "Yeah, maybe you don't want to walk down that path." It's for really good reasons, and He knows where temptations lead. He knows where sins can blossom and what it can lead to eventually.
Mike Zeigler: What does that sound like—to have the blood cry out to you from the ground, the blood of the innocent crying out to you? I can't even imagine what suffering God bears.
J. Bordeleau: I'm so thankful that God intervenes, because He does that in our lives now, too. He did it throughout Scripture. I was thinking of how He intervened in Saul's life in the New Testament, when Saul was ... he's killing Christians, and he's violent, but He intervenes, and Jesus speaks to him to intervene.
Bea Hoppe: Another thing is that from this text is that He knows where we are coming from. We cannot fool Him, and it's good that He sees our heart, that He knows us so intimately.
Mike Zeigler: It's a tricky translation there. Some Bibles say, "If you do right, will you not be accepted?" And the Hebrew word there is, it kind of can go in a couple of different ways, but I was reading a commentator, and he noted how that verb, it just is a verb for "lift up"—lift up, and it doesn't really say what's lifted up. And so you could assume you will be lifted up into good status and thus accepted, but he's just talking about his face beforehand. Your face has fallen, and so this commentator thought that we ought to supply "Will not your face be lifted up?" So it's not that he's not accepted. I mean, he's in a bad spot, but it's not like God's cutting him off or something. And that's clear that He's talking to him. And so I think that's a better translation. "Hey, do what is right. Trust in Me. Put your heart into it, and it'll put a smile on your face" is basically what He's saying.
J. Bordeleau: Yeah. That same passage confused me when I read it ahead of time. And so I looked for other places in Scripture where they talked about Cain and Abel, and this was Hebrews 11:4. "By faith, Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith, he was commended as righteous. By faith, Abel still speaks, even though he's dead." Abel was offering out of faith. What was Cain offering out of, then? If his faith was in danger, and Abel's sacrifice was accepted through faith because Abel had faith. So still, it wasn't anything that we did, or some danger in not giving God enough offering, but that lack of faith.
Mike Zeigler: And then the Bible just talks about that in other ways as you're relating to God as your Father. When your son or daughter brings to you something, a drawing from school, and they just want to share it with you because you're mom, you're dad. That's, I think, what the writer of Hebrews is saying: faith. That's the way Abel brought forth his offering and Cain brought it forth, and something's different in that relationship, and it doesn't say what, but you could imagine manipulation or obligation or whatever it was. But it wasn't in that relating to God as a Father. Well, we've said a lot, but let's say it more clearly, maybe more simply, how is this good news? That we are convinced we read the Bible through Jesus. He's everywhere, and that's what we're about here. We're speaking of Jesus and Jesus is good news. How do you see good news even in Genesis 4?
Micah Glenn: The deepest way is it says that, especially in God's relationship with Cain, is that no matter which path you've chosen, and no matter where that path has led you in life, you're not too far gone for God's mercy. Is that He's still willing to go to the edge of the worst path that you've chosen, that you're experiencing, that you're living. And He's willing to walk down that path with you. And then when you get to the end of that path, He's still willing to help you fix it. It's not His desire that you go down that path, and it's not His desire that you suffer. In fact, I mean, this passage demonstrates how deeply God feels death in the world, that He doesn't want you to die. That, in fact, He wants you to live forever. He has done what it takes for us to experience that life.
Mark Eischer: Look for "Speaking of Jesus" on Apple and Google Podcasts, Spotify, and at the website JesusPodcast.org. Subscribe, give it a "like," and a five-star review.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Seek Where You May to Find a Way" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)