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By Paul E. Scates
Most people are familiar with the first part of the Biblical story about Cain and Abel, the first two offspring of Adam and Eve. Cain, the first man born of woman, was a tiller of the ground; Abel was a keeper of flocks. G-d 'found favorī with Abelīs offering of the best of his flocks, but rejected Cainīs offering of the fruit of the ground. In anger, Cain murdered his brother. When G-d then inquired after Abel, Cain lied, saying he did not know where his brother was, demanding of G-d, 'Am I my brotherīs keeper?ī But Abelīs blood 'cried out [to G-d] from the ground,ī and G-d cursed Cain for his sin, that the land would no longer yield its produce to him, and condemned him to be 'a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.ī After crying that his punishment was too great, that someone would kill him in his wandering, G-d 'appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.ī
But thatīs not all there is to know about Cain, or even the most important part. Immediately after G-d condemns him to be a wanderer on the earth, the Bible tells us that Cain 'went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden,ī where he built a city. Though he received G-dīs protection, even after killing his brother, Cain continued to defy G-d. In his book, The Meaning of the City, French Christian writer and sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote that in building the city, Cain was willfully rejecting the provision of G-d, creating instead a place where he could escape from Him, a place not created by G-d, but by man, thus not subject to G-dīs authority. This was, and is, a foolish idea, for even after Adam and Eveīs expulsion from the Garden, they were still in G-dīs presence, and under His authority, as Cain and Abel were later. Even after his condemnation to wander the earth, Cain still had G-dīs protection...yet he insisted on building his own place, his own 'world,ī where he would not have to deal with G-d.
Here, then, is the prototype man-petulant, a murderer, liar and whiner; unrepentant and defiant; determined to do things his way, to get away from the authority of G-d. In the brief genealogy given for Cain, his descendent Lamech committed the first bigamy, then brags of his own power and strength in killing two people, thus continuing Cainīs legacy of defiance against G-d. Mentioned only three more times in the entire Bible, in each place Cainīs name symbolizes the rejection of G-dīs authority in favor of manīs sovereignty and control. In contrast Seth, the son born to Adam and Eve after Abel was killed, fathered Enosh, and 'then men began to call upon the name of the Lord.ī
As Christmas draws near this year, my thoughts turn to the condition of Christīs Church, which He left on earth to spread His gospel of love. And what I see everywhere is cause for sorrow. From glitzy televangelists to the smallest independent churches, there is ample evidence of the same rejection of G-dīs authority, that same elevation of 'selfī over G-d, for which Cain is remembered. And it is, after all, the same choice Adam and Eve made in the Garden; Cain was simply being true to his heritage. Would that the Church today be as true to hers.
Week after week, people claiming the name of the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas dutifully fill the pews and sanctuaries. They sing the songs chosen by the music minister, listen to the prayers; some even pray themselves. They listen to the sermons-almost all less than thirty minutes-give their tithes and offerings, sit through the invitation, then file out. Some will return Sunday evening; not many. And a few will even come out for mid-week service; again, not many. The services go off without a hitch, timed exquisitely so the congregation wonīt be late to a favorite restaurant, or the TV ball game. One gets the impression that if Jesus Himself walked down the aisle, he would be shunted off to the 'counselorsī so as not to interrupt the flow of the service.
During the past five years at the church I attend, less than twenty people have professed their faith in Christ. Conversations and even church statistics tell me this is not unusual, but the norm. That means that the Holy Spirit of G-d is almost entirely absent from His Church in America today. Otherwise, the fruit of all that singing-praying-preaching would be hundreds of lives changed by the power of G-d, in my church alone.
The fact that man is the center of todayīs Church is appallingly evident in its lack of power. Peterīs first sermon, in the power of the Holy Spirit, saw thousands come to faith in Christ in one day; such is the power of our G-d. Has He removed it from us? He didnīt remove Himself from Adam and Eve, even after expelling them from the Garden He created for them. He didn īt even remove Himself from Cain after he murdered Abel, for unlike man, G-d is faithful.
No, the absence of G-dīs power from His Church is not G-dīs choice; itīs the result of manīs rejection of G-dīs authority, and making the same choice Cain made. We have 'built a cityī within G-dīs Church, a city of man, where we donīt have to deal with G-d, and where man is in control. The pitiful weakness of the Church is evidence enough, for G-d is not weak. The love G-d showed to man in the person of Jesus, the source of our salvation, is absent from His church. That love is what reaches people, what brings them to the realization of G-d and the provision He has made for us. Without it, the Church is...well, what it is today.
There are so many denominations, each with its own peculiar doctrinal emphasis-from snake-handling and speaking in tongues to elaborate rites and rituals. Todayīs Church is like a giant shopping mall; thereīs something for everyone, all you have to do is look for it. But those are manīs interpretations of 'religion;ī the love that Christ said would identify people as His disciples is almost nowhere to be found. The willing submission to the daily guidance of G-dīs Spirit-what 19th century South African minister Andrew Murray called 'absolute surrenderī-is not just the exception among professed Christians, it is practically extinct.
What has taken the place of G-d in His church? We all know the answer: itīs man. Men plan the services, with only a perfunctory nod of prayer-if that-to G-dīs Spirit. Men organize the 'ministriesī of the church, gathering food for the needy, visitation, and so on. But itīs all very neat and predictable, isnīt it? You can go from one Baptist church, for example, to a new one and immediately know the routine. Men present a very simple format of 'worshipī that anyone can understand and be comfortable with. Brief, relatively painless, since most pastors avoid stepping on toes with the honest truth about men and our self-centeredness and sin-wouldnīt want to impact the amount of offering, you know-predictable, staid; in a word, dead. Never any surprises, as if G-d were some benign, doddering grandfatherly figure we can patronize, then ignore. A young pastor from Vancouver has written a wonderful book entitled Your G-d Is Too Tame, explaining why the world just isnīt interested. And why should they take much note of a powerless G-d, whom man can 'controlī with such ease?
But G-d has chosen to display His strength through men . The next time He Himself intervenes directly in history will be a prelude to the end of time, so He now displays mercy, patience, longsuffering...there must be a stronger word for His continued endurance of the treatment He receives by His Church. Just as the Jews, His chosen people, ignored and rejected Him time and again, Christians today in the U.S. have gone 'the way of Cain.ī
Todayīs Church reflects the familiar, age-old sin of self-over-G-d that makes the Church so pathetic, and so shameful. Cain built a city to be away from G-d. Today, G-dīs own people have built a Church in which G-d is not welcome, and in which He does not abide. I used to wonder at the verse in Revelation where Jesus said, 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock.ī Jesus outside His own Church; how could that be? Now I understand.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus asks if He will find faith on the earth when He returns. Knowing our hearts, how His must be breaking, even as we claim to celebrate His birth.