July 10, 2016

Genesis 4:1-16

Approximately 80% of Americans have one brother or sister, so the home is where we learn to share and love.  It’s also where we learn to fight and even hate.  When you read the first stories of family in the Bible, you are confronted with this reality.

Genesis is a book about beginnings.  It is a book about the first family relationships. In these family relationships people are trying to understand themselves in relationship with God and one another.

Because so many of us have siblings, these pages have a word to speak to us.  Even if we don’t have siblings, we have cousins, co-workers, and friends with whom we seek and vie for affirmation, love, and attention.  This can create rivalries and strange emotions to bubble up inside of us.

Greg Brezina describes a scene involving three of his grandsons at a ballpark where he took them to play some baseball.  Two of the grandsons are brothers.  The other is a cousin equal in age to the older brother.

As they play, the five-year-old cannot keep up with the skills of his brother and older cousin.  In his young mind he decides that his acceptance, worth, and value as a person are somehow attached to his ability to perform as well as his older brother and cousin.

It doesn’t matter how hard the five-year-old tries; his skills that day are not going to equal his brother’s or his cousin’s. Eventually, he becomes frustrated and jealous of their abilities.  When the grandfather tries to help him bat, he protests, “You didn’t teach my brother how to bat.”

When he saw the two older grandsons running the bases, he went and ran the bases, too, but he couldn’t keep up.  Frustrated, he just stopped trying.Unknown

I know you can see him.  His head is down.  His body language is like that of Charlie Brown.  He’s dejected. His shoulders are slumped.  He goes and sits under a tree, refusing to participate any more.  http://www.cftministry.org/resources/articles/sibling_rivalry.html

Now multiply a scene like this times a hundred.  Mix in a little salt because that’s what the older siblings tend to do–they rub some salt into these wounds. Younger siblings come out swinging, angry, and mad.

Oh, it can certainly work the other way around. When it does it can be even worse because the younger ones are not supposed to get the best of the older ones.  In fact, that is what we are going to see in these Genesis stories.  When that happens, look out.  There is some real rage to follow.

Why is this? What is it within us that causes us to be this way?

My father is a middle child, the older of two sons.  He said the maddest he ever saw his younger brother Billy was one hot summer day when they cut a watermelon that their Daddy had grown and picked from the garden.

They cut it and Billy got his slice.  He had carefully picked all the seeds out of his slice and was just about to take his first bite when older brother Johnny came along and threw a handful of sand on it.  Don’t you know that called for a fight?

I have a theory that such playful expressions by brothers test out their roles of dominance within the family system.  Will there be retaliation?  Will the older brother establish dominance?  Will the younger brother demand respect? Territory is being staked out.  It’s more than just about a piece of watermelon.

When our dog Dixie had her second litter of puppies, she had more puppies than she had faucets.  At feeding time, one of those little fellows always got rooted out.  It was always the same one.

I know you’ve heard the expression, “The runt in the litter.”  Well, the runt never had enough strength to hold on long enough to get a big helping.  That’s the reason he was the runt.

I know you’ve also heard of the expression, “pecking order.”  It comes from chicks when they are hatched.  They establish a “pecking order.”  The older and stronger ones use their strength to get the first bite of food.  They will peck the head of the weaker chick and demand their helping of food. images-3

Some birds, like the black stork, have been seen throwing the youngest out of the nest.  With little brother or sister out of the picture, that’s more food for the firstborn!  (“Not in God’s Name,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, p. 90)

Am I suggesting that we have such primitive animalist tendencies within us?  You can call them what you want.  But if you go down to the nursery and watch children play, this activity is happening, even though children are not with siblings.  If you watch long enough, you will see something like this:

One child will be playing with blocks and is totally content playing with blocks until another child picks up a book and brings it to the teacher.  When the teacher begins to interact with that child, the child with the blocks gets up and is now suddenly interested in the book and wants the book.  The child isn’t interested in sharing the book.  The child wants the book for himself or herself.

This is called mimetic desire.  Moms and dads have to deal with this all the time with siblings who want what their brother or sister has.

Reese and RiverLast Easter, River and Reece Buckelew, grandchildren of Gail and Dennis Elrod, went with their parents to the local store to pick up a HoneyBaked Ham, a family tradition.  Family traditions are important.  Apparently, it’s so important to River and Reece that they literally had a tug of war over the ham to see which got to carry it out of the store to the car. One of their parents snapped a picture of them fighting over the ham which the HoneyBaked Ham people ought to use in an ad with a caption. “HoneyBaked Ham: So delicious your children will fight over it.”

We want with the other person has.  A word we use to describe this is envy.  Later in life it’s much more than a ham. It’s an inheritance, an heirloom, someone’s money, a spouse, a nice home, a career, someone’s looks.

Rene Girad says that mimetic desire is not only wanting what someone has but it is also wanting to be what someone else is. (“Not in God’s Name,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, p. 88).  We envy where that person is in life, so much so that we become like that black stork in the nest; we are willing to resort to violence if necessary to take it.

Run this test if you don’t believe it.  Next time you hear of a fight between siblings try to find out whether one of them had something the other one felt entitled to.  Was it an apology, an explanation, some help, fairness, equality, an object?

Somebody has gotten knocked off the hind faucet and the sibling is mad!  Someone has been denied what she believes is rightfully hers and she is fighting for it.

If you have ever felt like going all Bruce Lee on one of your siblings, or a co-worker, or a boss, then Genesis 4 is a good chapter to read.

What we have described here is a story of one brother getting God’s approval of the offering that he brought, but the other brother did not receive that same blessing.  He sees something his brother has, and he wants it.

Last week we skipped over to the New Testament and read Hebrews 11:4 which shows us that Cain’s heart was not in a right relationship with God when he brought his offering.  We can say that Cain brought his offering begrudgingly.  God doesn’t want any offering that we bring that way.  The church might take it but God doesn’t want it.

The Psalmist wrote of God: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”  Psalms 51:17

So, it’s safe to assume that Cain divorced his offering from any change in his heart.  God did not accept it so Cain became angry.

God warned him about his anger.  He told him to make sure it did not lead to sin.  But instead of focusing on his own issues, he centered on what his brother had that he didn’t have.

As the thought of killing Abel formed in his mind, the fuel for that thought must have gone like this: “If I eliminate Abel then I don’t have to compete with him any more.”

We think like this sometimes, too.  When we undermine others by shunning, isolating, bullying, embarrassing, or abusing them, we do it because we are trying to establish dominance.

One day Cain took his brother’s life in a field no doubt thinking that with him out of the picture, he could now get what his brother had.

We may be successful in kicking someone out of his place thinking there will be more for us, only to discover that we actually end up with less because we have sacrificed fellowship with God to get it.

When we carry around anger because of the unfairness that exists in our family because a brother or a sister or coworker received more than his or her fair share,  we have likely ignored the dangers God warned Cain of regarding anger.  The result is that it often imprisons us and leaves us with bitterness and a hard heart.

We end up misplacing our anger on others and wounding people that should not be wounded.

We can do this even while we call ourselves religious and bring gifts to the Lord.  All the while God is saying, “The sacrifice I desire from you is a broken spirit.  Look deep inside and discover why you are so angry.”

Once Jesus told a story about a man that had two sons.  The younger son hated working for his father and the other one was very loyal and seemed to like his job a lot.  At least he never complained about it.

One day the younger son had all the regimented hard work he wanted and asked his father to give him his inheritance.  He wanted to leave home.

With great grief and disappointment the father gave him cash money and his son left home.  He eventually wasted all his money with riotous living and found himself in the worst job a Jewish man could have, feeding swine.  But there was a famine and he didn’t have much choice if he wanted to survive.

He finally swallowed his pride and decided to go home and ask his father to work for him as a servant, but instead his father treated him as a loving son.

The father called his servants and told them to put a robe on him, shoes on his feet and a ring on his finger.  They killed a calf and had a party.

When the older son heard about this from the field where he was working, he became very angry.  He would not go into the house to welcome his brother home.

His father went out to talk to him, but it did no good.  The brother said, “This son of yours goes off and wastes your money with prostitutes and wild living and comes home and you killed the fatted calf for him.  I’ve been faithful to you all these years.  I’ve never once disobeyed but you have never once given a party for me.”images-4

The father explained to his older son that everything he had belonged to him, but he also explained that they had to celebrate because his brother was lost but now he was found.

The father said to the his oldest, “Everything I have is yours,” but what the older son wanted was what the younger son was getting, a party, a celebration.

We could solve the problem of mimetic desire if we could live out the refrain to this simple song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.”

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace


Instead of seeing what someone else has and desiring it, instead of seeing who someone is and wanting to be that person, we should realize God wants us to see Jesus and desire to be like him.  God sent us Jesus for us to pattern our lives after. God wants us to look into his face and know that he is like the loving father, full of glory and grace.

God wants us to be like the father in this story, in our relationships with our children and with one another, offering grace to those who have wronged us and to those who who remain angry with us.

We must stop desiring what others have and replace that with a desire to have what Jesus has, his peace, love, joy, faith, and eternal life.

We must stop desiring to be who others are and desire to be who Jesus is, a servant leader, a compassionate and caring person, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.