Weekend Sermon: A Tale of Two Cities
The opening chapters in Genesis omit seemingly important details, leaving one with an incomplete understanding of the situation at hand. Dr. Keller explains that ancient Biblical writers sought to convey certain truths, and, therefore, would only include facts relevant to the point of the narrative. This is true of Cain’s exile in Genesis 4: 11-26. As he explores this story, he highlights the crucial insights that the passage means to offer.
Foremost, he exposes the cause of Cain’s ruin. When Cain murders Abel, God questions him saying “Where is Abel your brother?” and “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” God is not seeking information, but rather creating an opportunity for Cain to repent of his sin. Why is this so? Dr. Keller explains that sin results when one is self-focused, rather than God- focused. Repentance, however, goes to the root of this problem by turning one’s attention to God and others once again. It is the action of removing oneself from the center that heals the hardness and pride of the heart.
However, Cain does not repent. Instead, he complains to God that his “punishment is more than he can bear.” In other words, he is sorry for the consequences of his sin, not the sin itself. This leads to his exile from the presence of God, which is the ultimate downfall of Cain.
Next, there is evidence that Cain’s city is a “culture of death.” From the line of Cain comes a civilization marked by animal husbandry, technology, and music. In these “gardening” activities, the people indeed reflect God’s image as they creatively order the surrounding materials. However, rather than a Garden of Eden through love and service, it becomes a place marked by oppression and violence. For example, one descendant of Cain called Lamech is polygamous, having two wives. Furthermore, this man boasts saying, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me—If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Their culture is now about power and exploitation. In spite of the death cultivated in this city, Dr. Keller clarifies that cities are not the issue. It is human sin alone that corrupts the city.
Finally, the scriptures point to a coming city of grace. When Cain establishes his city, he names it after himself. Without God’s presence and love, his work becomes a means of making a name for himself. However, cities are supposed to be a place where people selflessly give to one another in response to the Lord. This text shows the beginning of one such city that comes through the line of Seth, Eve’s third son. The passage states that this city is filled with a people who “call on the name of the Lord.” Thus, it is a place where people lift high the name of God. Dr. Keller explains that the Body of Christ is called to be this city of grace within the city of death. Ultimately, this power comes through the Lord Jesus Christ alone, who has poured out endless love and forgiveness and grace upon all who believe in his name.
Exactly one decade ago today, the September Eleventh terrorist attacks shocked Americans beyond belief as they watched airplanes crash into the mighty Twin Towers and Pentagon. The hearts of the people filled with grief at the aftermath of the tragedy. The Twin Towers were reduced to rubble, thousands of dearly loved individuals died, and all were crushed with heartache. In the midst of this death arose a beautiful sight and sound: millions bowing their heads in prayer, speaking words of comfort, and coming to the aid of one another. In spite of the physical deaths, New York City and the U.S. as a whole were transformed from death to life as people joined hand in hand to mourn the loss and move forward into the healing process. The pain of the losses was raw and real, but so was the love and grace that swept through, causing our divided nation to unite in unbelievable strength.
This sermon is a clear reminder that we each have a choice. We can work to build cities that celebrate God’s love for us (the lineage of Seth), or we can live in the destructive lineage of Cain. May the spirit of prayer, humility, and love characterize the world’s cities on this the tenth anniversary of America’s most stark example of “The Tale of Two Cities.”
Tim Keller is pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue of New York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. Keller has helped start more than 100 churches throughout the world. He is the author of Counterfeit Gods; The Prodigal God; The Reason for God: Belief of God in an Age of Skepticism -- named book of the year by World Magazine in 2008; and the recently released Generous Justice.