Over the past two months, we've all gotten good at social distancing. We're not gathering in crowded places, we're staying six feet away from those who aren't in our household, and we're staying home more than normal. Social distancing keeps a physical distance between ourselves and other people to minimize the risk of passing viruses between us. Unfortunately, when we don't see each other as often and can't have as much contact with our family and friends, it's harder for us to support and encourage each other. Physical distancing can lead to more relational distance between us.
You may be feeling the distance between yourself and others because of this pandemic. You probably have distanced yourself from friends and family members in the past for other reasons. There may be people that you're glad you don't see anymore. But there are also people you wish you had kept in touch with over the years. I know one friend who wants to stay close to you. He never wants to stop talking to you. And if you've distanced yourself from him in the past, he wants to pursue you. He wants to be with you now and forever. Of course, I'm talking about the Lord, your God. And you can see how lovingly he pursues you in the Old Testament account of Cain and Abel.
Not too many of us see ourselves in the story of Cain and Abel. It's an account of a man who kills his brother. Fortunately, not too many of us have experience with that. But even though you may think of Cain and Abel as a story of violence and punishment, it's also a story about how much the Lord loves us, how much he wants us to have eternal life, and so he pursues us.
The Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 4:
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
But the Lord said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Genesis 4:1-16)
This sad story that has so much to do with death begins with optimism about life. The previous chapter, Genesis 3, tells us that the first man and woman sinned against God and brought death into the world. But the Lord promised that a Savior would be born. Trusting this promise, Adam named his wife Eve, which means "life." So in chapter 4 we hear that Life bears new life when she gives birth to her son Cain. And she confesses her faith in the Lord's promise, hoping that he might even be the promised Savior. Afterward, she bears another life, her son Abel.
These two sons grow up and carry out two important occupations. Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer. Both of them bring the fruits of their labors as sacrifices to the Lord. Abel brings a very good offering: the first and best from his flock of sheep. This offering is evidence of his faith in the Lord's promise and his thanks for all that the Lord gave to him. Cain brings an offering, too, some of the produce that he grew, although we're not told whether it is his best or not. What we do know is that Cain doesn't bring his offering because he trusts the Lord. Rather, he thinks his offering is going to earn something from the Lord. Without faith it is impossible to please God, so God is not pleased with Cain's offering. We're not told how God expresses his displeasure, but instead of being sorry for his lack of love for God, Cain gets angry with God.
Even though Cain doesn't love the Lord, the Lord does love Cain. So the Lord pursues him. The Lord speaks directly to him, asks him why he is angry. Cain doesn't have any good reason. The Lord foresees the sin that he is about to commit and warns him to resist it. The Lord wants to give Cain the ability to overcome his sin. But Cain doesn't want the Lord's help. Instead he commits premeditated murder against his own brother.
He has done a terrible thing, but the Lord doesn't stop pursuing Cain. He comes to him again and asks him where his brother is. He is not asking for information, but pursuing a confession of sins. Cain defiantly tells the Lord that he does not know where his brother is. The Lord tries to break through Cain's defiance, so he speaks a curse on him, not because he wants to hurt Cain, but because he is still pursuing a confession.
Cain feels how serious God's curse is, but still he is not sorry for what he has done. He feels sorry for himself and whines about how hard his life will be and how someone is going to take revenge on him by killing him. Since everyone on earth at this time is a relative of Abel's, that's a legitimate concern! The Lord could tell Cain that death is what he deserves, but instead the Lord protects him from further punishment by speaking a curse on anyone who would kill him and performing some sign to assure Cain of his protection. The Lord keeps showing his love to Cain. But Cain leaves his presence, and we have no reason to believe that he ever comes back to the Lord.
Though Cain walks away from the Lord at the end of the account, he had already distanced himself when he brought that unworthy sacrifice. And the distance between him and the Lord led Cain to distance himself from his brother, because Abel loved the Lord whom Cain hated. The murder that Cain committed was a terrible and disturbing sin, but it was only part of his problem, a symptom of what had happened to his relationship with the Lord.
How is your relationship with the Lord? Is it as strong as it ever has been? Or is there some distance between him and you? Do you always trust his promise to be your Savior and to provide for all your bodily needs, too? Or have some doubts crept into your heart? Do you fear, love, and trust in him above all things? Or do other people or things sometimes become higher priorities to you? Do you display your love for him by keeping all of his commands? Or does sin crouch at your door, because you refuse to overcome it by his power?
Murder is still a problem in our world. It has been a problem ever since Cain killed Abel in that very first murder. Fortunately, however, most of us can't relate to having committed that particular sin. Yet Cain's sin didn't happen suddenly. It started with the hatred in his heart. That's why the Bible says that anyone who hates another person is a murderer.
That definition of murderer includes all of us. In fact, we've even hated people for the same reasons that Cain hated Abel. Sometimes we see that someone else has something good in his or her life that we think we deserve, so we resent that person. We've even hated people for being Christians. That's what we're doing when someone calls on us to repent of a sin and we get angry, saying that we haven't done anything wrong or that they should mind their own business. We don't obey God's command to love others perfectly, because we don't love God as we should. If we ignore his call to repent, we keep distancing ourselves from him. As a shepherd, Abel pursued his sheep when they distanced themselves from him. We need a Shepherd who pursues us.
Our Lord points our sins out to you and me, because he is pursuing us. He wants us to confess our sins so that he can forgive us. He comes after us in love, so that we can have eternal life with him. Just as the Lord kept speaking to Cain to bring him back, so the Lord speaks to you in the Bible, because he never wants to let you go.
The Lord has actually been pursuing you longer than you have even been alive. Jesus came from his home in heaven to your home on earth to earn for you the eternal life that you need. He loved all people perfectly, because he loved God his Father perfectly. And he died to pay for our hatred. Because of Jesus' life and death in our place, God doesn't see murderers when he looks at us. He sees people who obey him because we love him!
But Jesus didn't stop pursuing you when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Now he sends the Holy Spirit through his gospel so that he can come to every one of us to give us eternal life. He has washed us clean and given us life in our Baptism. He has declared us to be holy and called us to eternal life in his Word that our fellow Christians speak to us. He forgives us and guarantees our eternal life in Communion. As we receive his gospel, he pursues us repeatedly, because he wants to keep us close to him. When we see how much he loves us, he empowers us to overcome our hatred and our lack of love to others and to love him in return!
Psalm 23 says, "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Goodness and love follow us, pursue us, because the one who gives goodness and love pursues us and brings us to live with him eternally. We need a Shepherd who pursues us. The Shepherd who pursues us is Jesus.