There are three basic ideas that I want you to take away from the message this evening.
The first idea is this, we sin.
I have been reading a lot about Cain and Abel recently. I have been reading about them because that is the topic of my master’s thesis. As a grad student there is nothing that we like to talk about more than our master’s thesis and there is nothing that everyone hates more than hearing a grad student talk about their master’s thesis. So I will save all the boring details for another time. The reason that I bring them up this evening is because, I think, that their story is helpful on Ash Wednesday. The story is simple and well known. If you grew up in church, you likely heard about it in Sunday School. I don’t think they have made a Veggietales about it yet. Probably something to do with it being difficult to comically portray Bob murdering Larry.
The story is basically three parts. First, the brothers, Cain and Abel bring offerings to God and for some unknown reason Cain’s is rejected. Second, God confronts Cain and tells him to rule over his sin, but instead he allows his anger to over take him and he murders his brother Abel. Third, God confronts Cain again, curses him, Cain laments, receives a “mark” from YHWH and then leaves for a life of wandering. The Cain and Abel story is a well known story. But yet, the character of Cain is, to me, most perplexing. It is common for us to think of him in terms and categories that are rather black and white. Because of his rejected sacrifice, and the murder of his brother, he has become the embodiment of evil in the world. Cain and Abel are then representatives of good and evil. Cain comes to represent all that is other, Cain is the murderer in the Netflix documentary that we binge watch. He is the terrorist and the cartel leader. He is all that is evil and dark in the world.
The longer we look at Cain the more it seems we are looking in a mirror. Try as we might to see ourselves in the character of Abel, the faithful martyr, we instead see Cain looking back at us.
The more I reflect on the character of Cain, the less sure I am about that representation. I think instead, the longer we look at Cain the more it seems we are looking in a mirror. Try as we might to see ourselves in the character of Abel, the faithful martyr, we instead see Cain looking back at us. We realize that we are Cain. His anger of rejection reflects the anger that we often hold in our hearts. The violence that he does to his brother, looks a lot like the violence we do to one another, physical and otherwise, and the violence we do to creation. The violence we do to God. The lie, or evasion, that Cain tells to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” looks a lot like the lies we tell to God and to one another.
And it also indicts us for the times that we too have failed to be our brother’s keeper. I think instead of Cain being a reflection of all that is sinful and evil, he is a reflection of humanity, of us, of which sin and evil are a part. Cain reminds us, no matter how hard we try to view ourselves through rose colored glasses, there is still a darkness that is inherent to humanity.
The status as God’s chosen people, does not provide an exemption from this darkness. Israel, at many points in their history, did things that ran contrary to the desires of God. They were given the law and consistently failed to live up to it. They worshipped in improper ways, they worshipped other Gods, they did not care for the poor and the weak. They cheated, lied, stole, and did violence to one another. To put it simply they were human. This lead to many prophets, including Joel, to confront them with this reality. Israel, like the nations around them, and like humanity throughout history, had sinned against God. We can likewise see ourselves reflected in the faces of Israel.
There are Consequences
The second idea is, there are consequences. After killing his brother Cain was cursed and told that he would forever be a wanderer on the earth. The act of rebelling against God and killing Abel had consequences. Similarly, Joel tells the Israelite people, “The day of the LORD is coming” and it is a day that is characterized by “darkness and gloom” and “clouds and thick darkness.” The people had long rebelled against God and now there were consequences to the acts that they thought would go without judgement. They lived and prospered in the promised land and lived how they wanted, flaunting the law of God. But now, Joel tells them, that is at an end. The God that they had all but forgotten about was now going to judge them for their sin. Sin is a reality for our lives. What is also a reality is that we are faced with the consequences of that sin, of the judgement of God.
The third idea is, but yet. But yet God acts. But yet God forgives. But yet God redeems. The Israelites, in Joel’s message, are presented with a choice. Joel says, “And yet, even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart.” He later says, “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?” The Israelites are faced with a choice. Will they continue in their status quo life, or will they recognize their sin, and repent? This choice that they are to make is one that will require commitment, one that will require change.
Joel makes it clear that this repentance is not just saying the right words and offering the right sacrifices. He says, “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Their displays of piety are meaningless if their hearts are not changed. They cannot simply say what they think God wants to hear and not change the way that they are living. As they chose to sin, they are now being invited to choose repentance and grace. But it must be a choice honestly made. In Joel the choice is set before them and we hoped that they would make the right decision. Unfortunately, Israel seems to not make that choice and ends up in exile in Babylon, until God finally restores them to the promised land.
Repentance is not just saying the right words and offering the right sacrifices. He says, “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Their displays of piety are meaningless if their hearts are not changed.
Ironically, Cain provides an alternate example. Cain has sinned and is faced with judgment and a curse. He speaks before God and seems to repent. He says, “my punishment is greater than I can bear.” Following this speech God acts to protect him from anyone who may seek to harm him. The punishment for his sin, the taking of a life, was to have his life taken. But yet, God acts. As a result of Cain’s speech, as a result of Cain’s choice, God acts and protects him with an act of grace.
The Lent–Easter Tension
I hate flying. It’s not the act of flying, the take off and landing. It’s not a fear of heights. It’s two things. First, the leg room. On most flights, my knees are inspecting the kidneys of the person in front of me. Second, it’s a whole process that is long and annoying. The journey is cumbersome. You have to go through security and that takes forever, and then you wait in the waiting area, and then you wait to board the plane, then you wait for take off, there is the length of the flight itself, and then you wait some more to get off the plane. I don’t want to be in the airport or on the plane, I want to be at the destination. I don’t want to take the journey, I want to just be there already.
If Easter is the destination, Ash Wednesday is the security checkpoint. Lent is the season of reflection on our humanity, which also happens a lot in an airport. Ash Wednesday is the first step on the journey of Lent to Easter. The end goal is the celebration of Easter morning, the celebration of the empty tomb and the risen messiah. But we have to reflect on what necessitated the risen messiah. Why did Jesus have to rise from the dead? Why did he have to die in the first place? Lent and Easter are a tension that characterizes our lives. We look forward to the grace, hope, and joy of Easter morning. But in tension with that celebration is Ash Wednesday and Lent. Before we can arrive at that place of grace, we have to reflect on our need for that grace. We are Cain. We are sinful Israel. We have sinned. From dust we are and to dust we will return, because of our sin.
We must start the journey toward easter with that recognition. We have sinned and that has consequences. We are faced with a choice. Will we rend our clothes, or will we rend our heart?
Listen to this sermon: