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God Won’t Fit in My Box:
Cain and Abel

Genesis 4:1-16

Dennis Bratcher

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks around our house playing with boxes. I got tired of things stuffed into closets and not being able to find anything. So I got the bright idea that we needed to reorganize everything in the house---and the carport, and the storage shed, and the garden shed.

I went downtown and bought several bundles of cardboard boxes and we went to work. We pulled stuff out and re-packed stuff for two solid weeks. Heavy file boxes to stack school supplies in, shallow boxes for my Hot Wheels collection, larger boxes for the insulator collection, medium boxes for the advertising collection, any kind of boxes for the garage sale stuff.

After two weeks our living room is still two feet high in stuff from the carport, and the storage shed, and the garden shed, and the closets. And there’s no end in sight. And I still can’t find anything.

But it was a good idea. It’ll come together. For my sake, it had better come together, soon! I got hints from the powers that be yesterday that certain limits were being reached!

Maybe it’s my ancestry, but I like things organized. Tied up in neat little packages, each row all the same size so they will stack well, with labels on them so you know what you have. Inventory control. Know what you’ve got, know how many you have, know what its for, know where it is. No problems. No surprises. A box for everything.

This morning, I want to re-tell you a story. It’s a story from Scripture. A simple story just sixteen verses long. It’s one with which you are familiar. You’ve heard it dozens of times. But you probably didn’t know it had anything to do with boxes!

The story is in Genesis 4:1-16, the story of Cain and Abel.

1  Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD."  2  And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.  3  In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground,  4  and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6  The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

8  Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

9  Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" 10  And the LORD said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth."

13  Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14  Behold, you have driven me this day away from the ground; and from your face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me." 15  Then the LORD said to him, "Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.

16  Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Although this story contains a murder, it is not a story about murder. We have to be careful not to be sidetracked into focusing on the morality of murder. I’ve never murdered anyone, and I suspect that most of you haven’t either. So if we only hear about a murder, the story doesn't apply to me or to you, and we might as well go home now.

This is more the story of a person, who is a murderer.  But it is even more than that, really. Finally, this is a story about God. In fact, that’s what most of the Bible is: the story of God. And whether I like it or not, it is a story about me. And whether you like it or not, it’s about you.

The Title of the message is: God Won’t Fit in My Box. Like all good sermons, the message this morning has three points.  The outline has just five words.

1.  God (1-5a)
2.  Me (5b-8)
3.  God and Me (9-16)

1. God (1-5a)

A. Brothers

1  Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD."  2  And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.

The story opens simply enough. Two brothers are born. The first brothers born in the world.  Brothers. It could as easily have been sisters. All through the Bible there are stories about brothers, siblings, members of the same family. Brothers don’t fare very well in Scripture. They seem always to be in conflict, especially in Genesis. Shem and Ham. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. 

It was deeply troubling to the ancient Israelites that those closest to us, or those who should be the closest, are often the very ones who cause us the most difficulty and bring us the most pain. For the Israelites the idea of “brothers” became a way to talk about the problems we all face in getting along with each other in God’s world. We all have a brother. And we all are a brother. So even today we speak of the “brotherhood” of human beings, to talk about relationships with each other.

We don’t do it much anymore, but when I was younger, we used to refer to other members of the church as “Brother Taylor” or “Sister Guy.”  Brothers and Sisters. Family.

If brothers worship God, why can’t there be more brotherhood? Why can’t brothers get along with each other?  Why can’t neighbors get along? Friends? Strangers? People different from each other? The writer has skillfully opened the whole range of interpersonal relationships here by recounting this incident about brothers.

Did it ever strike you that in the Bible there is rarely only one son. There are always brothers. I don’t think it is any accident that when Jesus begins telling the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, he begins the story by saying, “A certain man had two sons . . ..”  Brothers. Brothers who should love each other, but end up in conflict.

It would nice to be the only son, the only one to share the Father’s affection. But the brother is always there. We are called to worship God, and share His love with the brother. I think I could handle just me. I think I could love God OK. But him too? The brother sooner or later complicates my devotion to God, because God loves Him as much a He loves me. And if I am not careful, I begin to suspect that the Father loves him or her more than He loves me.

The brothers in our story are different, as most brothers are: one a shepherd, one a farmer. In this part of the country, especially with my own frontier heritage, and in the social climate of our country now, it would be easy to shift this story into an account about the struggle of social classes. But that’s not how the story goes.

While the brothers are there in the first part of the story, they are not at the center. In fact, the whole story focuses on only one person who is a brother. It is interesting that the narrator of the story gives us a clue about how to track the story. Abel’s name means “emptiness” or “vapor.” Cain, and God, are the characters to watch.

B. Worship

3  In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4  and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5a  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

Both brothers bring offerings to God. Both bring what they have. They acknowledge God as the giver of both crops and livestock. They both come to worship God. God accepts Abel’s offering. But not Cain’s.

Immediately I want to ask, “Why?” Why does God not accept Cain’s offering? Here if we’re not careful, we will begin to lose the story. From the time of John Calvin, theologians have tried to answer this question of why. All kinds of reasons have been offered. The most popular one is that something was wrong with Cain's attitude in bringing his offering. After all, he does get into trouble later.

But notice that the story gives no hint of Cain’s attitude as the reason. In fact the story gives no reason at all for God’s action. There is only the statement that God did not accept the offering.

I have a great deal of confidence in the biblical writers. If there was some problem with Cain that was the reason for God rejecting his offering, and it was important or the point of the story, I think the writer would have told us what is was. But he doesn’t. We are only left with the fact of God’s rejection of Cain’s offering. The simple fact is, Cain did not create the problem; God did.

Why is it so important for us to know why Cain’s offering was not accepted? Why does it bother us so much? Why are we compelled to provide a reason when the story itself doesn’t give us one?

Here is where we begin to learn something about God, and about ourselves. The first thing we learn is that God is God. That may seem like such an obvious statement. But think about it. God, and God alone, decides what offering he accepts, and whose. He is God. He is free to do what he wants.

The theological word here is sovereignty. God is sovereign. He does not have to operate by any standards that humans have set for him, or in accordance with human expectations. He does not have to answer to human beings for his actions. He is God!

I’m not sure in our modern culture if we really grasp the significance of that. I fear that too often, especially today in our popular religious culture, we have opted for a small God. One that we can know. One that we can get chummy with. One that we can understand so well that we know exactly what he will do.

We like God like that. We would really rather have a small God. If we can understand God, and know everything about Him, if we can casually chat with Him like we chat with a co-worker over a cup of coffee, then He is not much of a threat to us.

The problem is, nowhere in the Bible is God portrayed as that kind of God.

I even think this is why some people would rather talk more about Jesus than about God. Without realizing the theological problems and inconsistencies involved with the attitude, somehow Jesus seems more personable, more likable than God.

Stay with me here. I want to come back later and talk about personal relationship with God, and as a Christian we would certainly want to talk about Jesus. But first, I want us to hear what this story is saying about God and maybe recover something important about our understanding of Him

I think we want to know more about God than we can know. We want to be sure that we understand enough about God so that we will never have to risk our offering being rejected. We want to understand what went wrong with Cain, so we can be sure that we get it right. We want to know exactly what we have to do to make God happy. If we know, then we can do the proper thing, get it right, and God will smile on us. We certainly don’t want to be Cain.

And before we have even realized it, we have slipped into an attitude toward God that bases our relationship with Him on proper actions as a condition of His blessing. We have reduced God to a mechanism that operates by push-button. So we worry about bringing the right sacrifice, obeying the rules properly, pronouncing all the shibboleths correctly, believing all the right things, getting all the religious stuff down pat.

We assume that the quality of our worship or the kind of our sacrifices, or the length of our prayers, or the amount of our tithe, or the number of our trips to the altar will cause God to be happy with us. We push the right buttons and out comes God’s acceptance.

We are afraid to trust a God that we cannot anticipate. We want God in a box, all labeled properly so we can use Him when necessary. And we are afraid to admit that we really don’t have God in a box. We want to be able to control God. If we do this thing, then God must respond with that. And so our box for God grows smaller and smaller.

The stark reality of this story is that God is God. We can’t make a box big enough for Him. He refuses to be controlled by us. As one biblical scholar said, God is a wild God, one that will not be tamed by us. He is the kind of God represented by the Lion Aslan in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan is not a tame lion.

I don’t know about you, but I am a little uncomfortable with a God that I do not always know exactly what He will do. I would be much happier with a predictable God. A God who ran a world that always worked in certain ways. If I could have a predictable God than I could live a safe life in a predictable world. Everything would always happen like I expected. There would be no surprises. I would not need much faith, because I would pretty much know the ropes.

I would know enough about God to eliminate any risk that my offering would be rejected. I would never have to worry about the brother. Yet if all that were true, I would be God and not Him.

Do you see that the story has reached out and grabbed us and jerked us right into the middle of it? We are faced here with a God that will not be reduced to our idea of what He should be or how he should act. We are faced with a sovereign God who does not bow to human beings. Here is God who is not all light. Here is a side of God that is partly hidden, shadowy, and unknown. Here is a dark side of God that I want to know, that I want to control, but can’t.

I admit that I don’t understand why God did not accept Cain’s offering. Just like I don’t understand why God runs the world the way He does. Why does God allow thousands of innocent people to die in Bosnia? Why does God allow good Christian people to die from cancer? Why does God allow babies to be born with horrible birth defects.

This is a God I do not understand, a God I cannot control, a God that sometimes I am not too happy with! This is a God bigger than any box I can build for Him. He is beyond my capacity to understand. He just won’t fit in my box.

I think we would do well to recover a sense of the mystery and awesomeness of God, starting with a willingness to acknowledge that we cannot define God, or limit Him, or bind him with statements like “God must” or “God will.” A recovered sense of the otherness and holiness of God might let us have a bigger God. And maybe we would stop trying to build boxes for him.

I think that is part of the point of this story: acknowledging the freedom and sovereignty of God is the first step in dealing with our brother.

2. Me (5b-8)

What would I have done if I had brought my offering to worship God and he had not accepted it? Of course, I would not have responded like Cain. I am better than that. I can handle my brother. I’m not Cain.

A. Anger

5b  So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6  The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." 8  Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

Cain reacts with anger. We need to track the story carefully here. The way it is told, it is obvious that Cain is angry, not with Abel his brother, but with God for not accepting his offering. After all, it is God that has caused this problem. Cain has come face to face with God whom He cannot control. And he doesn’t like it.

It’s important to note what happens next. We might expect God, who on the surface seems to be acting rather arbitrarily here, to respond angrily to Cain’s anger. If He is the kind of God who can simply decide not to accept Cain’s offering, then we might expect some harsh response. But here we learn more about God.

God doesn’t even seem to be upset by Cain’s anger. Here is something I think we have to take seriously in the story. The issue, you see, is not Cain’s offering or Cain’s attitude in bringing it. The real issue of the story now emerges for the first time. How will Cain respond to a sovereign God? How will he choose to live in a world that does not always work like he thinks it should? How will he deal with the brother, whom God has accepted?

The sovereign God, who cannot be boxed into human expectations, gently prods Cain with questions, as a Father would question a son. “Why are you angry?” “Why are you depressed?” There is no hostility in the questions. I suspect God knew why Cain was angry. Here is the sovereign God prodding Cain to confront his anger. And to confront the cause of his anger.

B. Response

Then God offers the only condition for acceptance of Cain given in the story.

7a  If you do well, will you not be accepted?

God does not come back to Cain and demand the right kind of sacrifice. In fact, God doesn’t demand anything here. He only calls, gently, for Cain to act responsibly. In the story, we don’t yet know exactly what that means. But we find out quickly enough.

It is not for God’s sake that He calls Cain to do well. It is for the sake of the brother. God is not worried about correct sacrifices. But he is deeply concerned with how Cain will live in a world that he doesn’t think is fair. He is concerned with how Cain will deal with his brother. Dealing with God is problem enough. But having to live in God’s world on God’s terms, all the while having to deal with the brother as well, seems more than Cain can manage. And yet God calls Cain, in very positive terms, to respond well.

And then a warning is given, and a command, the only command God gives Cain in the story.

7b And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

What will Cain do with his anger at a God he cannot control, and cannot fully know? How will Cain deal with his brother?

Note here that Cain’s anger is not portrayed as sin. But it is equally clear that unless Cain deals with his anger before God, it will become sin. It is pictured here in a graphic metaphor as a ravenous beast waiting to pounce on Cain. There is no hint here of demons or the devil. There is only Cain, and his anger. If he does not respond appropriately to his brother, and to God, his anger will eat him alive.

Then, especially for us Wesleyans, is one of the most positive aspects of the story. Cain is called, in fact commanded, to master his anger. The implication here is that Cain actually has the capacity to chose a different course of action than the one he takes. He is not locked into a destructive, predetermined course of action. He has the freedom to make a choice.

He is not condemned to sin because of his anger. He can choose to deal with his brother in positive ways. In our Wesleyan heritage, in theological terms, we call this God’s prevenient grace, God giving human beings the capability to choose to turn away from sinful actions.

Cain does not heed the warning. He decides. Cain is angry at God. But he can’t get his hands on God. So he turns on his brother. Here we learn something about ourselves. We can never get along with our brother until first we choose to get along with God.

3. God and Me (9-16)

A. Questions

9  Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" 10  And the LORD said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground.

God again comes to question Cain. “Cain, where is your brother?” Cain lies: “I don’t know.” The Hebrew uses an interesting word play here. Cain asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The word translated “keeper” really means “shepherd.” People “keep” sheep, not other people. Cain is right. He is not his brother’s shepherd.

But several places in Scripture, God is described as the keeper of Israel, God is the shepherd of human beings. To Cain’s question, we are used to answering, “Yes, we are our brother’s keeper.” But the answer is really “No.” We do not keep our brother like a shepherd keeps sheep.

Catch the irony here. Cain stands before the only One in the Universe who is the keeper of brothers, and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper.” We must hear the unspoken answer from God as he says, “No, you’re not. But I am.” 

I’m glad that I am not Cain. I would hate to stand in Cain’s place with my brother’s blood on my hands as God asks, “Where is your brother?”

Remember, God has not called Cain to proper worship. He has not commanded him to keep a list of rules, or to offer acceptable sacrifice to God. He has only been asked to do well, not to let the growling anger at God within him erupt into a consuming rage. But Cain has chosen to let that anger consume his brother.

And now God questions Cain for the second time. But the questions are not about Cain and his sinfulness or righteousness. He does not ask Cain if he has brought another offering or if he has offered his evening prayers. God asks about Cain’s brother. Where is he, Cain? How have you dealt with your brother? Have you done well with your brother, Cain?

The truth is, Cain’s action against his brother has been an action against God. And echoing in the back of our minds comes the New Testament version of this truth, applied both positively and negatively in Matthew: “If you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.”

If I were God, I would have killed Cain on the spot. That’s what should happen to brother-killers. In fact, the Mosaic law would later mandate just such a punishment for murder. This God, who is free and sovereign, surely would not tolerate someone like Cain in His world. God is much too holy, and pure, and just, to allow such an obscene travesty of his creation. If God is absolutely just, he must kill Cain. There is my box and I want God in it!

B. Consequences

11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12  When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." 13  Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14  Behold, you have driven me this day away from the ground; and from your face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me." 15  Then the LORD said to him, "Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.

16  Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

God does punish Cain. Cain must leave. Alone. He is banished from the fellowship of other brothers. He must live his life East of Eden, alienated from God and his brothers. But it is an alienation that he himself has caused. It is a crushing consequence. Someday he may return. We do not know. But at least Cain, the brother-killer, lives.

He carries the scar of his sin, marked by God. We do not know what the mark was, only that it proclaims Cain’s guilt. But did you hear the story? The mark does more that. It also marks Cain as protected by God. The very mark of guilt becomes a sign of God’s grace. Cain’s mark represents that fragile yet astounding tension God’s holds between guilt and grace.

It is not fair that Cain should live, much less that he should be protected by God. The brother is violated and Cain should pay. I confess that I don’t understand why God let Cain live. Much less do I understand why God still cares enough for Cain to protect him. Just like I don’t understand why God didn’t accept Cain’s offering. Why does God allow any sinner to live? Why does God not run the world better, so that every violation of a brother would bring punishment?

This is a God I do not understand, and a God I cannot control! This is a God bigger than any box I can build for Him. He is beyond my capacity to understand. He will not fit in my box. God is not bound to some external sense of justice. He is merciful beyond my expectations, and even beyond my capacity to define mercy.

While that dark side of God’s sovereignty that we cannot see may frighten us, that very sovereignty is the only hope that any of us have! He is God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, as Hosea says (Hos 11). And because He is God, He has a divine capacity for grace and mercy!

4. Conclusion

As the truth of that soaks in, something slowly begins to dawn on me. This story sounds all too familiar. I have been there. I have stood where Cain stands. I have faced a God whom I did not fully understand. A God whom I could not control. A God whom I saw as unfair and demanding. A God whom I could not make fit in my box. And I became angry.

What have I done to my brother? How many times have I allowed my simmering anger at God to spill over onto my brother? How many times have I been called to live with my brother in harmony and do well, and yet have struck out at him?

I want to be --the other brother. I want to cry out to God that I am the brother who has been wronged. I want God to take vengeance on my brother who has wronged me. I want to be Abel. But I am not the other brother. I don’t want to be, but I am Cain!

Yet, Cain lives. Scarred by sin, yet the recipient of God’s grace. And I hear the call again:

7 If you do well, will you not be accepted?

And I begin to understand. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said that only the one who loses his life would really find it. When he talks about becoming the servant of others.  When he talks about taking up crosses and following him. When he talks of caring for other brothers by meeting their needs.

Maybe that is why all through the book of Acts the early Christians called each other “brother.”

Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he called the Philippians to put other people’s interests ahead of self-interest.

Maybe that’s what John meant when he identified love for one another as the mark of true Christians. It was John who wrote:

4:20  If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. 4:21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.

I will always be Cain.  But the good news is that I can come home. By God’s grace I can master the sin crouching at the door.

I still do not understand God. I do not always know what he will do or why. Sometimes I fear him. But I think I will give up building boxes for Him. Because really the box that I build for God, becomes a box for me. It only isolates me from my brother.

I trust God, precisely because he won’t fit in my box. I have discovered that my box for God can never encompass the depth and height and breadth of His mercy and grace. And since I don’t have to worry so much about building boxes, and I don’t have to worry so much about finding an acceptable offering for God, I have time and energy for my brother.

I love God. And I find that I love him most, and understand Him best, by loving my brother.

Psalm 133:

133:1 How very good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!

133:2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon  the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the  collar of his robes.

133:3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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