Human Sacrifice & the Way to God

Thus far we’ve been talking about reality in the Garden. Through chapters one through three of Genesis we’ve seen that life in Eden was marked by life, bounty, and unmediated communion with God, others and the rest of creation. There was the peace and freedom that came with knowing for whom we are made and enjoying all the benefits of multiplying and filling God’s good creation.

Today we make a shift. We’re in Genesis 4, which means we’re talking about reality outside the Garden. Essentially, the old adage proves true for human beings. Outside the Garden God is “out of sight out of mind.” Humans are still dependent upon God for our life, but estranged from God, they forget. Moreover, work, and the fruit of our labor, isn’t sufficient in and of itself as a display of God’s provision or fulfillment of God’s promise. God commanded that humans tend his creation. At that point, all the bounty and fruitfulness of God’s creation was a testimony to God’s grace and provision. Now, a communication breakdown has occurred. Instead of remembering God’s grace and provision, humans are tempted to become absorbed in their work. They become masters (in their own eyes) of their domain. They find their meaning and purpose in their work. Estranged from God humans take on a survival instinct. “If it is to be it’s up to me,” we are tempted to think.

Not only does work threaten to become a distraction from God, but we’re tempted to see other people as threats as well. Other people are ok as long as they don’t threaten our work, or question the value of our effort. Outside the Garden means estrangement from God, and estrangement from God means estrangement from everything else.

Again, reality in the Garden meant unmediated, perfect communion with God and creation. Humans understood their dependency; there was a common understanding of the relationship. God was abundant giver and humans were wholly dependent upon God for life. Humans, however, reached for something “more.” God forbid them from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the punishment was death. Now, outside the Garden, in order to communicate with God it requires death. Where there was once unmediated communion, now access to God comes through sacrifice. We need help communicating with God. We’ve forgotten how to speak to him. We’ve lost our fluency in the language of dependency and freedom. Today we’ll look at Able and Cain’s sacrifices, and learn what is an acceptable sacrifice.

First, let’s look at Able’s sacrifice. Able’s is the acceptable sacrifice. He offered the first born & fat portions. In other words, he offered the best, and in doing so Able acknowledges that the best is still not God. He needs the food provided by his flocks to survive, but Able’s sacrifice acknowledges that God is actually responsible for taking care of him. In other words, Able’s sacrifice doesn’t allow him to become absorbed in his own effort. Even though Able raised the flocks, fed them, stayed up long hours to protect them, he is still dependent upon God for everything.

Able’s sacrifice recall’s the Garden reality. Notice, even in exile, estranged from God, there are ways for us to remember the truth about the world and us. There are ways of living like we’re part of another world, ways of living according to another set of rules even if the world around us doesn’t abide by them, or reinforce them as being true. What are the ways we recall God’s reality? What are the first fruits of our labor that we need to give up in order to remember our dependency and avoid the temptation to become absorbed in our work?

Able’s sacrifice is the acceptable sacrifice because it was made in humility and faith. His communicates, “God has taken care of me, and will continue, I’m sure, to be faithful. I have nothing to fear and therefore I can give back freely what was given to me.”

Cain’s is the unacceptable sacrifice, and I would like to suggest that Cain actually offers two unacceptable sacrifices. Why was Cain’s first sacrifice unacceptable? Was it because God prefers animals over plants? No. The form of the sacrifice was not the issue. Neither Able nor Cain were capable of manipulating a gracious response from God. Form is important to the degree that it exposes what’s true about us on the inside. What we do and say gets what’s on the inside out.

In thinking about this sermon, I remembered the story of the widow’s mite. Both the rich and the widow were giving the same thing, money. But Jesus says at the end of the story, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12.43-44)

Cain doesn’t give the first fruits of his harvest. Instead, he withholds. Like his parents before him, he betrays his belief that God is withholding something from him. He keeps back what he thinks belongs to him. Where Able makes his sacrifice in humility and faith, Cain makes his out of fear and pride. He is afraid God hasn’t or, at least, won’t provide for him, and in his pride he sees himself as responsible for the harvest and therefore entitled to enjoy the fruit of his labor.

Cain wallows in the estrangement begun in his parents. Notice when God didn’t accept his sacrifice verse five says, “His face fell.” He turns away angry refusing to acknowledge his sin and God’s freedom to choose whom he will choose. He brings the second unacceptable sacrifice; he kills his own brother. Suddenly, the other becomes a threat, who needs to be removed in order for Cain to be accepted.

How often do we “kill” our brother when we feel passed over? How often do we think, “They are the reason I’m not getting what I’m due. I’ve put in more time. I’m more talented.” Do you feel like you’re not being chosen? That your efforts and sacrifices of time are not being properly acknowledged? That you have gifts and experiences to bring to the table if someone would take the time to notice?

One way we “kill” our brother is with a simple phrase. When someone attempts to point out places we need to change we say, “Nobody’s perfect.” In doing so, we prevent anyone from criticizing us by highlighting their sin, relativizing ours and presenting a false unity. We present a unity that based on sin. In other words, we silence others by saying they don’t have the right to criticize us.

Like we said, though, humans will communicate with God through sacrifice – even bad ones. Notice Cain’s sacrifice communicates with God. Verse 10 says Able’s blood cries out to God from the ground. Cain goes further than his parents. They reached for the fruit of the forbidden tree estranging themselves from God. Cain goes so far as to eliminate another part of creation, indeed, his own brother. Now he is cursed. Like his parents he wanted to be like God, and he wanted to do so by taking into his hands what only God can do – give life and take life away. In a sense Cain gets what he wants. If he wants to be god, God “allows” it. He is banished from God’s presence destined to wander – no home, no family, no God. He, then, birth’s a whole civilization of those wallowing in estrangement. Lamech sings a song to his wives celebrating his murder of a young man. Cain gives birth to a whole civilization of death.

Hear the good news. God will prevail. Notice the structure of the chapter. Its bookends are displays God’s provision and human worship. Verses 1-4 show Adam and Eve celebrating the gift of a child and verses 25-26 are the celebration of God’s replacement of that child. Moreover, we see that in contrast to Cain’s civilization of death is contrasted with another line. Of Seth’s line it says, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” And that’s not all. Notice right in the middle of the chapter, in chapter 15 that God even shows grace to Cain. God, confronted with someone bent on estrangement, still marks Cain, and says to Cain’s fear of being killed by someone else, “Not so!”

Though we are often bent on estranging ourselves from God, he will not walk away from us. Even if he has to go to the point of bringing an acceptable sacrifice, himself, and we feel so threatened by his closeness with himself that we murder him, he will even use that estrangement – the moment when we don’t just kill another human, but the human, who is God – to draw near to us. That murder will be the acceptable sacrifice. That sacrifice will communicate to God on our behalf, and communion, the Garden reality, will be restored.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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