Thursday, September 4, 2014

starting small

There once was a young man who lived on the edge of the village.  His house sat alongside a forest and one day, he saw something moving in the bushes.  Was it a dog?  Was it a goat?  No, it was a lion cub.  The curious cub wandered up to the house.  Surprised, the young man approached it and touched it gently before the animal ran off.  And every afternoon afterwards, the lion cub would return to play with the young man and share his food.  As the days passed, he failed to notice that this young cub was growing into an adult lion.

One afternoon, the young man’s uncle stopped by to visit.  They sat in the shade of the house and the young man smiled, anticipating his uncle’s surprise.  Sure enough, the lion cub approached the house.  The older man jumped to his feet, reaching for a spear.  He was ready to kill the animal, until the young man stopped him, intervening to explain that the lion had become his pet.  The uncle put down the spear, warning his nephew that if he didn’t kill this lion while it was young, it would someday turn and eat him.  But the young man only laughed, disregarding the counsel. 

When I ask my Mozambican friends how this story ends, they say that the lion will return and kill both the young man and his family.

I’ve been telling that story to help explain a story found at the beginning of the Bible.  

Genesis tells us that after Adam and Eve's expulsion from the garden, they gave birth to two sons (chap. 4).  Cain, the eldest, was a gifted agriculturalist.  He seems to have possessed the world’s first green thumb!  His younger brother, Abel, on the other hand, was good with animals.  Now when I tell this story to our Mozambican friends, we notice that their parents must have thought, “This is great - we've got it made! Our two sons will produce all the food we need.  They’ll provide all our xima (stiff porridge) and matapa (beans, greens or meat to dip it in).  Things are looking up!” 

Now as good parents, Adam and Eve taught their children to give: "You boys need to take some of the bounty that God has blessed you with and give it back to him as an offering."

We picture Cain staring into his grain bin.  It seems like he’s thinking, "God doesn't really need to eat this, does he?  I can just give him the food unfit for human consumption and it won't matter a bit."  So, his offering is made up of all the rotten grain and corn that he doesn’t know what else to do with.

Abel, though, does the opposite - he chooses the best and fattest of his flock to offer to the Creator.

Not surprisingly, God was pleased with Abel's sacrifice, but expressed displeasure with Cain's.

Maybe Cain had always felt like his younger brother enjoyed showing him up.  Or maybe the trouble all started that day.  But whatever the case, God quickly points out the anger and jealousy beginning in Cain's heart, saying, "Be careful, Cain.  Sin is crouching at your door - you need to deal with it or it will devour you."

Unfortunately for everyone in the story, Cain chooses to let the sin fester.  It grows and grows until one day he tricks Abel. "Come on out to the field with me,” he says. “I need your help with something."  There in the field, Cain murders his brother.  Abel’s blood slowly soaks into the ground.

God appears again on the scene.  He asks Cain, "Where's your brother?"
In a huff, Cain replies, "Who am I supposed to be? His bodyguard?”

God tells Cain that the same ground that blessed him with abundant crops is now testifying against him.  He murdered his brother and now Cain will wander the land, unable to produce food as before.

Cain’s sin grew into a monster that ultimately destroyed him.

In teaching this text lately, I've accompanied it with the story of the lion above as well as the following two stories:

There once was a young widow.  Her husband hadn’t left her much.  But, she did receive a small, sturdy, mud-brick house.  One day as her mother is there visiting, it begins to rain.  The mother points out to her daughter that the roof has a serious leak and water is eating away at one of the corners of the house.  She suggests that her daughter ask her brother to come and fix the roof.  Laughing, the young woman disregards the counsel.  “I’ll deal with it later…We’ll get around to it before next rainy season,” she thinks.

When I ask my Mozambican friends about this tale, they say that one night during a big rainstorm the house will come crashing down on top of her.

There once was a man whose garden sat next to a river.  A specialist came to look at his progress and pointed out a small thorn bush growing nearby.  “You should remove that plant today before it begins growing unchecked.”  The man thought to himself, “Oh, that little bush is nothing.  I’ll deal with it later.” 

My Mozambican friends and I imagine how this man will return home one day in the future rubbing the scratches on his arms and legs caused by all the painful thorns. 

Those three fictional stories all have the same, simple message.  Allowing seemingly small sins to grow in our lives can have disastrous consequences.  As we saw in the story of Cain, anger and jealousy can blow up into full-blown murder.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is ready and willing to take up the spear to help us kill the lion crouching at the door.  He is willing to climb up on the roof and fix the leak before it takes down the house.  Jesus is willing to get in there with the clippers and help us take out the thorn bush.  Much of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are about dealing with sin while they are small.  He is committed to helping us in that work.

His healing, repairing work may take time…but it may just save our lives. And as we see in the story of Abel – it may just save the lives of others around us.

Like a good guest, though, Christ is waiting for our invitation.  He will not address that sin without our permission. 

Some presentations of the gospel make it seem like Jesus came to save us from Satan or from the wrath of God.  It seems to me, though, that the most basic truth is that Jesus came to save us from ourselves.  Sin and death started with small choices - eating the forbidden fruit, hating your brother.  When these small choices or small sins grow unchecked, they have serious consequences.

The Cain and Abel story doesn't stop there.  Cain wanders the earth and has children of his own.  A few generations removed from him (his great-great-great grandson) is a man named Lamech.  Lamech boasts to his wives about all his devious deeds – he murders a man for simply insulting him, multiplying the spirit of revenge found in his patriarch Cain (4:23-24).

But, Adam and Eve are said to have another son, Seth.  Seth walked with God, following the path of his deceased brother Abel.  And Seth’s great-great-great grandson was a man named Enoch.  This guy walked with God so closely, that the tradition indicates that our God just decided to take Enoch on home with him, bypassing death (5:24). 

The choice to address sin and temptation when it first begins to bud, or to let it grow unchecked in our own lives, can have great consequences.  Those consequences will not only shape our own destinies, but also the future of generations to come.

May we choose to start small and deal with sin and temptation quickly.  May our choices put our children and our children's children on a path that gives them momentum to walk closer with their Creator.

Grace and Peace,

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