Posts Tagged ‘Struggle’

Humbled by the Mark of Cain

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

22nd Sunday after Pentecost C, October 24, 2010
Rev. Brian Henderson—Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
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Our starting point for this morning is this portion of our Old Testament reading: “And the Lord put a mark on Cain”. [Genesis 4:15a]

Many wonder what the mark was that God gave to Cain.  Some say that it was a tattoo, while others theorize that it was a physical affliction or deformity.  The truth is we don’t know… no one does.  Whatever it was, it was evident to everyone that Cain was evil; he was someone that you shouldn’t mess with.  This morning we’ll look at a chain of sinful events that moved God to put that mark on Cain, and hopefully we’ll understand Cain and ourselves a little better.  And as we look deeper into these sins of Cain, we must remember that they are all related to the original sin of Adam and Eve.  Remember, Adam and Eve’s sin was pride; they desired a degree of independence from God; they wanted to know as God knows.  They didn’t like mysteries; we could say that they lost their faith in God. And that was the cause or the sin that moved God to banish our first parents from paradise.  But God didn’t remove them without hope.  He gave them the promise that from the bloodline of the woman, that is from her future offspring, paradise would be restored and mankind would once again be able to relate with God through love and trust.  So through His promise of a Savior, God was still with Adam and Eve.  He didn’t leave them to fend for themselves.

In verse 1, we see that even in a fallen and sinful world, life goes on.  We see this in these Words: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.””  And here is the first of five events that led to the demise of Cain.  It is our first indication that the sin of Adam and Eve was still at work, still trying to separate sinful man from their loving Creator.

1. The first sin that led to the mark of Cain lies in the actions of the boy’s parents.  You see, Eve chose a name for her first born son that would keep her eyes and the eyes of her son not on the Creator but on the creature.  Did you notice that she didn’t say “I have gotten a son with the help of the Lord”?  Instead she said, I have gotten a “man”!  Why?  Well, she didn’t like unanswered questions.  Because she didn’t want to wait for the Lord to identify who that “Savior” would be, she decided that Cain would be “her” descendant that would destroy Satan and return her family to paradise lost.  But God never told her that; no she was telling God that “this boy IS the man who will be our Savior.  Can you imagine what kind of childhood that boy had; always being reminded that he was chosen by God to be the champion of creation?  And what about her other child Abel?  Why was there no prophecy spoken about Abel?  Scripture only says that “she bore his brother Abel.”  Poor Abel, he was only a footnote or an afterthought in his mother’s heart.

2. The second sin that led towards the mark of Cain was Cain’s own pride.  He came to believe that because he was the savior of mankind, his status was more important than his relationship with His creator.  Instead of seeing paradise restored as God’s own work of unfailing love and mercy, he saw the hope of mankind being placed on his status as the first born.  But God wouldn’t let this pride remain in Cain so he lovingly pointed it out to him.  In verse 3 we read: “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 portion.  And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” [vs. 3-5a]

Why did God receive Abel’s offering as good but then reject Cain’s offering as evil?  Was it because of what they offered?  No!  It was because of the heart of the person that made the offering.  And this has been the purpose of God’s probing into sinful men and women’s hearts ever since.  It is why God delivered the 10 Commandments through Moses and it is why those commandments are written into every person’s heart, even yours. 

This truth becomes evident in our Gospel reading.  Listen to the words of the self-righteous Pharisee “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (standing over there trying to pray to you).  I fast twice a week; I give (to you a 10th) of all that I get.” [Luke 18:11,12] Can’t you hear the pride in his words?  I, I, I!  Friends, God does not hear the prayers of a self-righteous fool and neither does He accept their service or their sacrifices to Him!  But He does hear the humble, the heart that knows it neither deserved nor earns God’s love and forgiveness.  He receives the prayers of those who humbly trust in God’s promise of mercy and forgiveness.

Listen to the words of the tax collector who beat his breast in fear and desperation and said “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  It is to this honest and humble confession that God hears and gives His peace.  Jesus assures us of this truth when He says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house (forgiven and saved), rather than the (self-righteous Pharisee). [Vs.13,14]   

Abel in his gift to God was acknowledging that he was unworthy of forgiveness; he was saying that he was a poor sinner.  And with that type of heart he took refuge in God’s mercy; he believed that his creator was gracious, forgiving, and willing to show compassion.  And so God looked at the hearts of the two brothers and judged one justified and the other condemned.

3. The third sin of Cain that led to the mark was his choice of ignoring God’s warning about the sin in his heart. Instead of agreeing with God, he chose to become angry and jealous of his brother’s favor in with God.  And because God knew the heart of Cain, he asked him a very pointed question and then offered Words of hope and forgiveness.  He said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?” [vs. 6]  In other words, God is saying, “Snap out of it boy!  Your solution isn’t in what you do for me, but instead it’s in what I promise to do for you!  You either believe that I am your only hope or you don’t!  Your brother believes and that’s why I am pleased with Him.  Now quit looking to your own strength and turn to me in faith!”  And God ends his discussion with this warning: “Sin is crouching at the door (of your heart).  Its desire is (to own) you, but you must rule over it.”

How?  How was Cain and how are we to rule over our sin?  If we think that we have the power to rule over your own sin, then I’m afraid that we’re just as lost and confused as Cain.  The Law, or God’s demand that we do good can never be satisfied because we are sinners!  So it only stands to reason that our help must come from outside of ourselves… it has to come from God!  Why did God ask Cain and Able to bring a sacrifice to Him as part of their worship?  So that His Gospel Word of promise could be attached to it!  Why did God institute circumcision, temple worship and sacrifice?  For the same reason!  And why does God give us simple things like water, bread, and wine?  So that through His gospel Word of forgiveness and these simple things, we will know that we are forgiven, and that our salvation isn’t a result of our own work but God’s work.  Friends, God has always used simple things to remind and assure us of His forgiving love.  But for many these simple things are rejected as insufficient.  They seem to always want to add their own work to God’s promise of forgiveness.  That was the problem with Cain, and it’s what led to his next sin.

4. The fourth sin of Cain that led to the mark was refusing to allow God to help Him master his sin.  And this refusal led to his act of murder!  Cain allowed the sin in his heart to determine his sinful action.  When he refused to agree with God that He was hiding sin, he allowed that sin to own him!  And like Cain, we too fight that same battle today. Will you agree with God that you are poor sinners in need of a Savior or will you hide your sin?  If we choose deception then I’m afraid that we will follow the same path as Cain, a path that led to his next and final sin.

5. The fifth and final sin of Cain that led to his mark of shame and judgment was denial.  Why didn’t he know that the God who knew his secret sin of jealousy could also see his open sin of murder?  Because he was arrogant!  Listen: “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?  (Cain said), “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  Even now, when facing his almighty Creator there’s pride and defiance in Cain’s heart!  It’s the heart of a condemned and damned sinner.  And now he must face the judgment: “And the Lord said, “What have you done?  The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.  And now you are cursed… you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” [Vs. 9-11]

Here in these Words we learn two things.  First we learn that Abel’s blood cries out to God.  In other words, his plea for mercy and forgiveness because of his faith in God’s promise of salvation is heard by God and counted to him as righteous.  So Abel is the first saint who is welcomed back into paradise because He had faith in God’s promise of forgiveness and mercy.  Second we learn that Cain is the first person to be condemned to hell.  He no longer has God’s presence.  He can no longer seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.  But there is a third thing God would have us learn, and we hear it in the final words of our reading.  Listen: “Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear… I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Not so!  If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”  And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. [vs. 13-15]  What was the mark of Cain?  I don’t know, but I submit to you that it was something physical that carried with it the threat of God.  It was a touchstone that spoke God’s Word. Remember, God always chooses to use simple things to communicate with us.  But unlike the simple elements of water, bread, and wine that carry God’s promise of peace, this mark carried with it God’s threat of punishment to anyone who harmed Cain.  Was this mark enough to protect Cain?  No, not really.  You see eventually Cain would die and he would have to face the eternal punishment for his sin of pride.  But the sins which caused the mark of Cain did not die with Cain, no instead they were passed down to His descendants who were all killed in the flood! 

But did those sins die in the flood also?  No, those sins are still with us today. Parents still neglect to teach their children about sin and God’s means of salvation, the Son of God Jesus Christ.  The truth is friends, this sin is even more condemning for us, because we no longer have just the hope of a coming savior; instead we know that our Savior has already come!  It is Jesus Christ, who is God in our flesh; a God who came to us and lived the perfect life on our behalf and died the death of Cain for us; a death we deserve to die.  But the benefits of Christ work will be shut off from us if choose to live like Cain and believe that our salvation and hope comes from our own resourcefulness.  It will be our own sinful pride that will cause us to reject God’s Savior and His completed work upon the cross at Calvary.  But, if we are like Abel and the tax collector we will see another way back to paradise.  We will see a boy born to Adam and Eve after the death of Cain and Abel.  We will see a boy named Seth who was the ancestor of Noah, the same Noah saved from the judgmental waters of the flood.  Through Seth we will see hundreds of people who are his descendants including King David who was promised that his Son, his offspring would be the Messiah, the Savior of the Word.  And then by faith we will see a simple virgin girl who was a descendant of David, Noah and Seth.  And through the off-spring of this simple girl we see God’s means of grace.  We see the Living Word of God, the Gospel attached to our human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  And because we see, we know by faith that we CAN turn to God in humility and cry out “God have mercy on me a sinner!”  And through this cry of faith God hears us and opens a way for us back to paradise.  Because of this truth, God humbles us through His Word and He turns us to another mark… the sign of the cross that was placed upon our brows and upon our chests in the waters of Holy baptism; it is a mark that has sealed us by God’s own Spirit.  And through this mark God assures us that paradise is now open to us forever!

May God continue to grant each of us the faith to believe this truth; I ask this in Jesus name… AMEN!

“Wrestling with God”

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

21st Sunday after Pentecost C, October 17, 2010
Rev. Brian Henderson—Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
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Would you agree with me that living out our Christian faith is a battle?  Sometimes when stuff happens, when life happens, it can seem as if we are actually wrestling with God.  The truth is, bad things happen in this world all the time!  Yes, there are plenty of good things too; happy endings so to speak.  Why just look at the miraculous rescue of those 33 miners in Chile.  Do you think their families are praising God for their blessings?  Sure they are, but there is one family member in Chile who might think that God is punishing her.  I am talking about the wife of the one cheating miner who discovered that her husband’s mistress would be there to meet him when he was lifted out of the dark pit of despair and into the joyful and thankful world.  How joyful and thankful do you think that wife was?

In hard times and tragedy, we might be tempted to ask ourselves something like this: “What’s wrong with my faith in God?  Maybe I don’t love Him enough.  Maybe He’s punishing me?  If God loves me as much as the Bible and the preacher say, then why is my life so hard?  Have you ever thought like this?  I think we all have had these thoughts.   At some time in life we have mistakenly learned to associate God’s grace and love with living the “easy” life; a life without struggle and pain.  And when struggle and pain come into our lives, when things don’t seem to be going our way; when our faith in God doesn’t reward us with the American dream, we begin to question whether our faith in God is sufficient, as if we are being punished for little faith.  We may even begin to wonder whether our God is the real God!  This dear friends is one way we wrestle with God!

The truth is, bad things do happen to Christians, even strong, faithful, and hardworking ones.  Sometimes we look at all of our faithful service as some magical force field that should protect us from the bad things that happen in life.  I have heard more than once, a faithful Christian parent say to me when their child gets in trouble or turns away from their faith, “I don’t understand why this is happening pastor.  I am a good parent.  I raised my child in the church, I taught them to pray, I read the Bible to them; I taught them by example through my giving of my time, talent, and money, and now this is happening!  Why?”  But friends, this is the wrong way to think about God’s love and grace.  It isn’t what you do or don’t do that brings you peace with God, instead it is what He has done and is doing for you that brings you these things.

In our Old Testament reading this morning [Genesis 32:22-30] we join Jacob wrestling with a strange man who he latter discovers to be God Himself.  Oh they wrestled all night long!  Finally the sun began to shine and the God-man said to Jacob, “Let me go (man), for (its morning already).  But Jacob said, (I’m not letting lose) unless you bless me!”  You see, even Jacob thought like we do sometimes.  He figured that since He fought with God all night long there had to be a reward in it for Him.  Now why would God bless a deceitful man like Jacob?  Yes, I said deceitful.  He was called a liar at birth.  His very name means deceitful.  Think back now… how did Jacob get the blessing of His father Isaac?  He got it by deceiving his father and pretending to be Esau, his older brother.  And yet God was still with him; He still loved him!  And God told him to leave the country of his father Abraham and go out into parts unknown, to a strange country, where God would bless him.  And God did bless him!  He gave him a beautiful family and made him rich beyond belief.  He had more things than he knew what to do with.  He had angels attending to him and God Himself speaking to him in dreams.  And when it was time to go back to the land of his father and come to terms with his brother, the same brother he stole the birthright from, he fell back to his deceitful ways.  He sent all of this things and his family ahead of him as a gift to his brother Esau, hoping to spare his own life.  He was avoiding the time of reckoning that he knew he had to face; he was trying to avoid the struggle that waited for him on the other side of the river.

And now, he was left alone.  Stripped of all of his stuff and all of his family.  He must have felt that he had lost everything as he sat there alone on the bank of the river.  But he wasn’t alone; God was with Him; God proved this to Him by coming to him in a struggle.  And as Jacob and the God-man wrestled, God proved to Him that He was still with Him and He that still loved him, even though he didn’t deserve that love.  God’s blessing of love became apparent to Jacob after hours of struggle and a dislocated hip, but it came nonetheless.  And during a break in the wrestling action, God asked Jacob a simple question: “What is your name?”  And in a moment of honesty, Jacob answers, “(I am) Jacob (the deceiver).  And in answer to that confession of sin, God pronounced the absolution with these Words: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, (which means) you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”

This morning friends, God is asking each of us, “Who are you?”  And like Jacob, we must answer, “I am a deceiver; I am a sinner in need of a savior!”    Just as Jacob was left stripped of all of his earthly riches, we too must be striped of anything the world calls good, and we must turn to God alone and receive only what He gives to us.  And what does He give us?  He gives us the absolution; He gives us forgiveness of sins and salvation.  This gift of salvation doesn’t find its source not in our efforts but in the will and heart of God and the work of His only Son, the God-man Jesus Christ, who died for you!

How can we know this is true?  Well, we must have faith that God is for us!  Ok, but believe me when I tell you that all of the other religions will claim the same thing.  Let’s look at this truth in a more familiar context.

Many people love to quote that salvation and God’s blessings come when we have faith, and they’re right.  They like to point out that God’s love is simply a gift that we neither earned nor deserved, and that’s also right!  But they forget that this faith doesn’t come naturally but supernaturally.  They forget that it isn’t something that you just inherit from your parents, if that were the case, then only children raised in a Christian home would become Christians.  No, there must be something more if we are to truly be able to have and hold onto our faith in God!  And there is something more.  It’s not just something it is the only thing that gives you faith, grace, and Jesus; it is of course the Holy Word of God!

In our epistle reading [2 Timothy 3:14-4:5], St. Paul is in the middle of perhaps the greatest struggle of his life.  He is rotting away in a Roman prison, and soon his life will be ended by execution.  At the bottom of a dark, wet, and smelly pit he is still rejoicing in his blessing of grace and love from God.  There in a place where others would find only despair and fear Paul has found joy and hope, and he wants his young assistant Timothy to be assured of that same joy and hope that he has.  Yes his hope is in God’s grace and Jesus Christ.  Yes, he had great faith that God would complete the work of grace and faith within Him, but how did He know about God’s grace and how did he receive faith?  Through God’s Holy Word; through the Holy Scriptures!  Listen to what he tells Timothy: “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”  Where did Timothy learn about God’s love and grace; how did he receive faith to believe that Jesus was HIS savior?  It wasn’t something his mother or grandmother gave to him; instead it was God’s own Word that taught him these truths.  It was God’s Word alone and the presence of the Holy Spirit that was able to make him wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ!

All scripture is breathed out by God through the wind of the Holy Spirit, and able to create faith.  It is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.  This breathing of the Holy Spirit is direct and its personal.  Children can and do receive the Word of God from their parents, neighbors do receive a testimony and witness from a Christian neighbor, but faithful parents and faithful neighbors always lead others to the source, the living Word of God!

But what makes the Christian Bible the true Word of God?  In this question is another way we struggle or wrestle with God!  And during the struggle we discover that it’s God Himself who makes the Word the true Word.  It is the Holy Spirit who teaches you that this Holy Book is like no other.  It is only through this Word alone that the entire world is taught that they are a lost in sin with no hope of salvation outside of God’s grace that is theirs through Jesus Christ.  Through each and every Word of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God Spirit speaks life through direct inspiration into every sinful heart.  But each of us must read it for ourselves, and as we read we will discover through the work of the Holy Spirit that this Word alone is indeed profitable for teaching, refuting error, and restoring anyone lost in sin!  By the very faith produced by God’s Word, the true child of God believes that “All Scripture is God-breathed.  “No prophecy of Scripture comes from a sinful person’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit!”

Yes friends, we thank God that through His Holy Word, we have been taught about our Savior Jesus; we have been shown His work, His death upon the cross, and because of that work we are saved by grace through faith in that Word.  But as I stated earlier, this belief in grace can sometimes trick us into thinking that a graceful life means an easy life.  There are some within Christ’s church who think that to be saved by faith is to be delivered from not just suffering and sickness, but also deliverance into wealth and prosperity.  These unfortunate Christians are told to name and claim their blessing from God!  And when the blessings don’t come down as they desire, they are left to wonder what is wrong with their faith.

But this wasn’t the life that our Lord had in mind when he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow Him.  He made it clear that His disciples who are saved by His death and resurrection aren’t to live a life of glory now, but instead we are to follow Him and expect suffering as we carry our own cross!

In our gospel reading today [Luke 18:1-8], Jesus is encouraging us not to loose heart.  He wants us to remain faithful.  How do we remain faithful?  By staying in God’s Holy Word and by praying that God will keep us safe!  Keep asking God to protect you from the evil in this world and don’t grow weary of asking.  Even though sometimes you may feel like you’re alone in your walk of faith, even though you may feel that God is not with you, remember that He is always there with you in your struggle.  He has never left nor forsaken you!  Listen to your Savior assure you in these Words: “(Won’t) God give justice to (you His chosen child), (you) who cry (out) to Him day and night?  Will he delay long over (you)?”  Jesus says, “(No) I tell you, he will give justice to you speedily.”   

Jesus ends our gospel lesson with a question, and it is one that each of us must ask ourselves this morning:  “When the Son of Man comes, (that is Jesus), will He find faith on earth?”  That is when you take your last breath on this sinful earth will you open your eyes in heaven?  Will you still have faith the size of a mustard seed that assures you of God’s love and salvation?  If you stay in God’s means of grace, His Holy Word and Sacraments you will.

Dear friends, let me encourage you to struggle against this sinful world.  Fight your doubts and fears.  By faith, grab ahold of God’s grace through Jesus Christ!  How can you do this?  By staying in God’s Word!  Yes I know it’s hard to find time to read the Word, but that’s part of the struggle, part of the wrestling with God.  But when you open His book and begin to read, you will discover along with Jacob that God has always been with you.  And when you see this truth you will also be strengthened to believe that He will never, ever leave you!   So stay in the Word dear friends, stay in the Word.  I ask this very thing for me and you, in Jesus name…. AMEN!