Sunday, March 13, 2016

Choices

We’re not done with Cain. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the conversation that God had with him. In this conversation God offers a promise and issues a warning. This will lead us to an important theme of Scripture.

Listen to Moses.
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Genesis 4.3-8
Okay, so, the first question, as usual, is, ‘What happened?’ Both men offer their worship. God accepts Abel’s worship but rejects Cain’s. Cain reacts, and God responds to that. First, He offers Cain hope.
If you do well, will you not be accepted?
The situation can change. Cain can be found acceptable to God. There is a condition that needs to be met. But if it is met life will get much better for Cain. That’s the offered promise.

But then, there is also the warning.
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.
If, however, Cain does not meet the condition then he’s going to have problems. And God graphically describes what He means. Sin will act like the wild animal that it is. Sin will pounce and consume Cain. That’s the warning. It’s important to be clear here. God is not threatening Cain. He is warning him about what his sin might do. God is actually being very gracious to Cain.

So, Cain must choose. It’s all about doing well or not doing well. He must master his sin or be consumed.

That’s what happened. Now, let’s take a closer look at some things. What would ‘doing well’ have looked like? How could Cain master his sin? God wanted Cain to repent. That’s always the first step in dealing with sin. And while it would have been acceptable for him to simply repent of his anger, it would have been better if he would repent of the source of that anger. It would have been better if Cain’s repentance had been about what was going on in his heart. But God, being as gracious as He is, would have accepted a repentance that only dealt with behavior, at least as a place to start. As a part of that repentance God would have expected Cain to present himself and his sacrifice with as much of a proper heart attitude as he could muster. If Cain had done that he would have been accepted. Everything would have been fine. As always, it’s repentance and faith that deals with sin and solves problems.

But, sadly, that isn’t what Cain did. He chose poorly. And sin pounced and consumed Cain, as God had warned. There was no repentance and faith. As a result, as Moses tells us, Cain killed his brother. And that reveals Cain’s heart. It wasn’t just that he was mad at God. There was also something going on about his brother. Maybe Cain was envious of his brother. And maybe the fact that Abel’s worship was accepted while Cain’s wasn’t was the last straw of a string of comparisons that Cain thought made him look bad. But whatever it was, Cain chose poorly and sin pounced. He failed to deal with the attitude of his heart and that failure had consequences, consequences for Abel as well as for Cain, himself.

That’s what’s going on in the text. Now, what does this have to say to us? What God said to Cain He says to us. Every day we find ourselves presented with choices. And they all boil down to this: we will either master our sins or our sins will pounce and master us. If we choose wisely there will be much that is good. But, at the same time, if we choose foolishly there will be much that is bad. These choices are ours to make. And we make them every day. And they have consequences, for good or for bad, for ourselves and for others.

There are different responses to seeing this. One possible response goes something like this. ‘Life is filled with choices, and I need to choose wisely. Okay, I got it. No problem.’ I think that you know that anyone who thinks this way has never really fought with his or her own sins. This person just doesn’t understand. For one thing, this person does not realize how subtle sin is. Remember that the real problem with Cain wasn’t the anger that could be seen. The real problem was the source of that anger in the heart, something that wasn’t seen. Choosing to rule over your sin is by no means easy.

But then, there’s the response that goes something like this. ‘Choose well? With all those choices? Are you kidding? That’s impossible. I’ll never be able to do that. There’s no hope for me.’ This person gets the difficulty of the battle with sin. And it is a battle, an everyday battle. And yet, we can be so very optimistic. After all, we believe the Gospel. Remember what the angel said to Joseph. ‘You shall call His name Jesus for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Jesus has come to rescue us from the sin that yearns to pounce and conquer. The stranglehold of sin has been broken. We can, in fact, choose to do what is right. We can choose wisely. Because of this I think that we can be so very hopeful. Jesus is our savior.

So, recognizing that we have choices to make and recognizing that making wise choices won’t be easy, what do we do? Well, there is much that you are already doing that you should just continue to do. Here I’m thinking about the various spiritual disciplines we practice. Let’s continue to give ourselves to the Word, the sacraments and prayer. We don’t do these things in the hope that we can change ourselves. That will never work. We give ourselves to these things because we know that these are the tools that the Spirit uses to change us. These are the tools that the Spirit uses to make it possible for us to choose wisely. As we give ourselves to these disciplines we are giving the Spirit more to work with. He will use those tools. As a result, we have been changed and will be changed to do better in choosing wisely.

As you know, there are times when we blow it. We choose poorly, just like Cain did. When you come to see that, remember the basics: repentance and faith. Honestly admit your sin to the Father. Ask Him to forgive you because of Jesus and to change you by the Spirit. Repentance and faith are key to making things right. But once you do that, you have an opportunity. I mentioned this last week. This is a time to ask yourself, ‘Why did I choose that way? I could have responded so much better. What was going on in my heart that I chose poorly?’ No recriminations. The point isn’t to feel guilty and atone for your sins by doing this. The point is to understand yourself, to understand yourself better so that next time you will choose more wisely. There will be times when the Spirit will make one particular sin clear. Focus on that. Trace it back to what’s going on in your heart. Deal with it by repentance and faith.

The Spirit has recently been showing me some things in my own heart. He revealed to me that one particular motivation in my heart has been pride, a sense of superiority, especially when it comes to other pastors and their churches. I did not see it - sin is subtle - but it was there. And one way that it showed was by a critical attitude toward others. I was choosing poorly - with some terrible consequences. Confronted with that I knew that I had some work to do. I had to deal with my heart. There was much to repent of. But the Spirit was very gracious and very gentle with me. He simply made it clear to me that I have no reason to think of myself as superior. The reality is that I’m just like so many other pastors who are trying to get it right. The Spirit impressed that upon me. He changed my heart. But then, I had to deal with my behavior, that critical attitude. It usually showed in my becoming very intense and very sharp with my words. And so, I am praying for self-control that would show as gentleness. I think that by the grace of the Spirit there has been some progress for which I am so grateful.

I’ve told you about what’s happening with me to give you a concrete example. The details will be different in your lives, but this much will be the same: Listen to the Spirit. He will reveal to you where you are choosing poorly so that by repentance and faith and His own gracious power there will be change.

All of this might still seem overwhelming. So, let me suggest something. It’s simple yet profound. Believe God’s promises. I have two in mind that fit here. Here’s the first.
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. Galatians 6.9
Working at becoming the person who chooses wisely is hard. There may well be times when you will feel weary of it all. And that’s so very understandable. And yet, what is the promise here? ‘In due season we will reap.’ Your hard work in this is not in vain. There will be a payoff - some of it in the here and now, with more of it in the age to come. So, don’t give up. I would encourage you to seek out the help of other saints when you’re feeling tired of it all. At the very least we can pray that the Spirit would keep you going. Don’t give up. It will be worth the effort.

Here’s the second promise I was thinking about.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1.6
How is it that any of us makes it to the end? Is it the hard work we invest in the process? Hardly. That difficult work is necessary, but it isn’t the reason we’ll make it. The only reason that we will continue this fight against our sin and ultimately succeed at it is that the Father who decided to start that work of reclaiming us won’t stop until He finishes what He started. While there will always be some who make that promise into an excuse for laziness in the fight, you know better than that. Our efforts against our sin, our efforts in working to choose wisely, are necessary. But our hope is not in those efforts. Our hope is in the God who has loved us. It is by His grace that we will make it. There will be progress. We will learn how to do better at choosing wisely. And then we’ll spend an eternity praising Him for that grace.

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