Sermon: Convict Number One

14 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Village Tragedy and Other Sermons, by Rev. Clovis G. Chappell, D.D. (published 1921).

Genesis 4:9

“Where is thy brother?” This is God’s second question. His first question is: “Where art thou?” “A man’s first business,” one has said, “is to save his own soul.” That may sound selfish, but it is not selfish. This is true from the fact that a man must know the way into the light before he brings his brother there. Andrew must find Jesus himself and come to know Him before he introduces Simon.

But God’s second question is: “Where is thy brother?” You know of whom He asked this question. He asked it of Cain. Everybody is acquainted with Cain. He has a branded brow. He is Convict Number One. He is the world’s first murderer. His face is the first that looks out upon us from the walls of the world’s great Rogues’ Gallery. It is a hard, sinister face. Its eyes are cold and cruel. The hands are gnarled and blood-stained. Poor, murderous Cain — we would know him anywhere. No criminal dressed in stripes was ever more conspicuous than is Convict Number One.

And because we know Cain as a murderer, and only as a murderer, we wonder why a preacher should speak of him before a decent and self-respecting congregation. We feel no kinship with him. We like to think of him as made of altogether different clay from ourselves. We like to think thus of all who go horribly and wretchedly wrong. We love to think of them as monstrosities. We like to think of them as made up of the slime and ooze of things, but in so thinking we are wrong, altogether wrong.

Cain is a blood brother to ourselves. If we do not realize this it is because we do not know the real Cain — and most of us do not truly know him. We only got one view of him. We saw only one picture, and that picture was of a man with a club in his hand pounding the head of his brother. But let me remind you that you cannot form an adequate conception of the whole man by simply getting one view of his face.

Not long ago a family from Tennessee was touring the north in an auto. There was the father and mother and two daughters. The daughters, I am told, were extremely beautiful. But a train wrecked the car one day and ground those lovely daughters almost into fragments. Suppose you had seen the ghastly remains, and as you came away I would ask, “Were they pretty?” And you would have shuddered and said, “Ah no, they were ghastly.” But you only saw them after the wreck.

I buried a white haired old grandmother. I had never seen her before. Her cheeks were sunken and her eyes were deep and hollow. Her hands were cold and clawlike. There was little of beauty there. But I got only the last look. If you want to know the facts about the woman ask the man who lived with her and loved her. Let him tell you how she looked that distant day “when love’s morning had its dawn.” Let him tell you something of her beauty when her face was crowned with the sweet radiance of motherhood.

And Cain — he has a brutal face. But it was not always so. I doubt if there was ever a happier mother than was Eve. Cain was the first baby that ever came into this world. His coming was the signal for “the bursting of a thousand sunrises on the morning hills of his mother’s heart.” What did she name him? Not “murderer.” Eve could never have imagined such a name. And do you blame her? Who could have? Was ever a little body more tender and warm and nestling? Was ever a hand more soft and dimpling? Would the time ever come when that face would be flushed with anger and hate? Would the time ever come when that little hand would be big and knotty and cruel? She could not think so.

What, I say, then did she name him? She named him Cain, a name which signifies, “I have gotten a man from the Lord.” Why did she so name him? Because he was so wonderful. He was so beautiful. There was such a breath of Heaven about him. There were such marks of divinity upon him. She could not conceive of his having been given by anyone other than the infinite God. So winsome was he that the same hands that fashioned the lovely stars and painted the rose’s cheek must have made him also.

“I have gotten a man from the Lord” — that was what she said when she held him fast. That was what she named him, for he was a child of hope. God had told her that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head. He had told her that final victory was not to be with Wrong, but with Right. And she was coming even then to believe that —

Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.

She even believed that Cain was the Christ Child. And we cannot blame her. Christlike possibilities he had within him, just as really as he had the possibilities of murder within him.

So Cain was once a baby as sweet and innocent and as pure as your baby and mine. But there came a time as he grew older that sin entered into his life. Cain became a wrong-doer, not from necessity — he became one from choice. He became so brutally and viciously wrong that he actually stained himself with his brother’s blood. But mark you, he did not descend to that awful depth at once. He did not spring into that abysm of shame like a man leaping from a cliff top. He descended into it step at a time.

The first view we get of Cain, the wrong-doer, Cain, the sinner, is at the altar of sacrifice. The world’s first quarrel was beside an altar. And a man reveals himself ever by his religion. He reveals himself by his conception of God. For “men are like the gods they serve.” And we see the wickedness of this man as we watch him at his worship.

For mark you, Cain was religious. Every man is. Man is incurably religious. Now, a man’s religion may save him or it may damn him. It may make him good. It may only intensify his wickedness. A man may be devoutly religious and horribly devilish all at the same time. There are few more religious men than the Mohammedan. He is religious in the midst of his murder and of his adultery. So Cain was religious.

We read that Cain and Abel went together to offer sacrifice and that God had respect unto Abel and his offering, but that to Cain and his offering He had no respect. That is, He accepted the offering of the one and rejected the offering of the other. Why was this true? It was not true because of any partiality on God’s part. It was not because He loved Abel and did not love Cain. Cain’s offering was rejected because Cain himself was rejected. And Cain was rejected because of his deliberate sin.

Now, what was the matter with Cain? Just this, for him there was no vital connection between religion and morality. His religion did not make for right doing and right living. He offered sacrifice. He prayed, not because he was penitent. He prayed, not because he hated sin and loved righteousness. He prayed more because he wanted protection in his sin.

A woman who has been traveling in Italy told me recently that in some of the villages there you would find “indulgences” hanging up along with onions and other vegetables. You could buy the privilege of sinning, just as you bought the privilege of eating vegetables. And though we are horrified at such mockery, there is a deal of the same spirit in a great many of us. We have criticized our Catholic friends a good many times for the fact that after having done their religious duties, they feel at liberty to do as they please. They go to mass on Sunday morning. Having done that, they can give the rest of the day to the devil.

But do we not get tinctured with the same false faith? Do we not sometimes see the dismal, sickening spectacle of people who believe that they can do almost anything they like Sunday afternoon and night, provided they have gone to church and Sunday School in the morning? It was said of Louis XI that he never sinned quite so gleefully as after he had prayed. He felt that he had in some measure purchased to himself the right to sin by having been good.

Believe me, heart, there is but one way to get our offerings accepted before the Lord. And that is when we come in a spirit of repentance, when we come really desiring to get rid of our sins. There is no more utter mockery in the sight of God than bringing to God an offering of prayer, for instance, a prayer for pardon, when we expect to commit the same old sin the next day. What a hollow mockery to fall on our knees before God and say, “Lord, I have sinned — forgive me,” when we intend to be guilty of the same thing whenever we please.

Now, suppose that when this service is over a friend of mine is standing by and I give a stretch and a yawn and smash his nose. Then I say, “Excuse me, please.” And he is gracious enough to excuse me. And then suppose I give another yawn and smash his nose again. Again I say, “Excuse me.” Then a third time I repeat the performance — what happens? By this time my friend gives up the excusing business altogether. Why? Simply because he sees that I want the fun of smashing his nose and only ask his pardon to keep him from smashing mine. And many of our sacrifices are just like that. That was the kind of sacrifice Cain offered.

There is no use in asking for pardon unless you purpose to quit your sin. There is no use in giving unless you give more than your money. Christianity means righteousness. To people who will not earnestly strive to live right, God has nothing to promise but punishment. He told the Jews in Isaiah’s day that their religious observances and their temple-treading, their very praying, was an abomination unto Him because their hands were full of blood.

Cain, then, was rejected. His rejection angered him. The fact that his brother was accepted angered him still more. Then God made to him this very reasonable appeal: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth or croucheth, like a wild beast at thy door.”

Sin — the word “sin” occurs here for the first time in the Bible. And notice the meaningful word that is used of it. It is described as crouching like a beast at the sinner’s door. “Sin croucheth at thy door, and its desires shall be unto thee.” The relation between the sinner and his sin is described, as Dr. Maclaren points out, by the same words that are used to describe the holy relationship between a man and his wife — “its desire shall be unto thee.” That is, a sin once committed seems to love the sinner with a kind of fiendish, tigerish, murderous ferocity. That is God’s picturesque way of telling us that sin seeks to repeat itself. And the man was right who said that it is easier to find one who has never sinned than to find one who has never committed the same sin twice.

Now, what was the sin of Cain? Every child can answer that. It was murder. No, that was the outcome of his sin. That was its bloody fruitage. Cain’s real sin was envy, born of pure, unadulterated selfishness. He became angry at his brother. He hated his brother. He murdered his brother, not because he had been harmed by him, but because he envied him.

So you see envy is an old sin. It is old and deadly. It comes upon the first page of human history. And there it has a murderer’s club in its hand. And it has been a murderer from that day till now. It was envy that sought to murder Joseph. It was envy that made Saul seek to murder David. It was envy that sought to feed Daniel to the lions. It was envy that made Elizabeth murder the more beautiful Mary Queen of Scots. It was envy that drove the nails into the hands and feet of Christ.

What is envy? It is not jealousy, as Dr. Clow points out. We use the words as if they meant the same. They are as far apart as night from day. Jealousy, he tells us, is a child of love. Jealousy may be an altogether right emotion. God is jealous. Jealousy is one of the pangs that Love feels when it is cheated out of its dues. I know it is at times dangerous because of its tendency to make the meat it feeds upon. But when it knows itself cheated, jealousy is right and natural.

But envy — it is a child of hate. It is never anything but devilish. It does not seek to be as successful in the race as its fortunate brother. That would be emulation. It seeks to drag its brother back. It is a fatal malady. It has been pictured as a devilish thing with wide ears for the catching of slander, with a tongue that is a serpent, with feet standing in fire as a symbol of the wretchedness that always dogs its steps.

Cain was envious. And everyone of you who has never envied anybody may throw a stone at him. I confess that thought palsies my arm. I cannot stone him. I doubt if you can. For envy is one of the commonest sins. And it is one, as has been said, that is least often confessed.

Young lady, when you made slighting remarks about that girl friend of yours, you did not tell the one to whom you were speaking that the reason you made those remarks was because you envied her. When I said stinging and mean things about my brother in the ministry who was succeeding a little better than I, I did not tell you that the secret of it was not so much that I disapproved of his methods as because I had been smitten with this devil’s leprosy of envy. Does it pain you to hear another complimented? Are you grieved when one who is working at the same task at which you work is praised? Is it a joy to you to hear your rival picked to pieces? Then beware. You have incipient murder in your heart.

Now, this man Cain — envy mastered him and he committed the fatal crime that wrecked his home and blasted his life. But even when the deed was done God did not give him up. He came with the question: “Where is thy brother?” He did not ask this of Cain because He did not know the deed he had done. God knows you and me tonight just as we are. He knew Cain. He asked him that question that Cain might come to himself, might realize his awful wretchedness and wickedness and repent. But Cain answered with an insolent lie. He only said, “Am I my brother’s keeper? Abel is nothing to me. ‘Every fellow for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ That’s my doctrine.”

And God is asking you that question: “Where is thy brother?” Where is that friend of yours? Where is your room-mate? When he began to room with you he read his Bible. He prayed. He loved God and the Church. He was clean. Where is he tonight? Has your indifference, have your worldliness and wickedness weaned him from the Church and from his mother’s God? Where is your boy? When God gave him to you he was clean. You were careless and Christless in your home. Did you teach him by your own indifferent living to ignore God and His Church? And has that boy stumbled over your ragged life and gone out into sin tonight beyond the reach of your hand and the call of your voice?

“Where is thy brother?” Do not think God is not going to ask you that question. Our lives take hold on each other, and no man can live as he pleases. You may say, “I am going to go my own way and if the other fellow is weak enough to follow, it’s no business of mine.” But when you have said that you would do well to acknowledge to yourself that you have lied, for you have. You are responsible for the life you live and for its influence upon those that you touch. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The question comes to us “streaked with murder and young with an immortality of selfishness.” The man who asked it first was a murderer and the man who asks it today is a murderer still, though he may never lift his hand against a soul. For mark you, you can be just as cruel in your selfish neglect as Cain was in his deadly blow.

Hear me, young man. If it has seemed to you a rather selfish and limited program for you to be a Christian simply to save your own soul, then remember that it does not end there. If you will be the man that you ought to be it will help every man who knows you to be the man that he ought to be. If you will live the life that you ought to live it will help to raise the moral temperature of the world. If you fail you do not fail alone. If you fail you make it harder for every man that touches you to stand. And we need all the help that we can get, every one of us. And it’s up to you to help.

What are you going to take for your standard of conduct? Will you take Cain’s standard or Christ’s standard? Cain says, “I have no responsibility as regards the other fellow.” Cain says, “I have a right to crush the weak because he is weak, and because I am able to crush him.” Cain says, “I have a right to withhold my help from the man who needs it.” God says, “Ye that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak.” He says that we are to bear one another’s burdens. And His great Apostle said that if eating meat should cause his brother to stumble, he would eat no more meat while the world stood.

I used to have two school mates named Jim and Jess. Jim and Jess were friends. Jim was strong and dominant. Years after we left school I met Jim one day and asked him about his friend. He looked sad a moment and said, “Jess is dying, dying of tuberculosis.”

“How did that come about?” I asked. Again a hesitation, and then he said, “He is dying because he tried to keep up with me.” And he told how they had dissipated together and how one night they were unable to get home and had spent the entire night in the chilling rain. “It did not hurt me,” he said, “but with Jess it was different. He was too weak. He was taken sick next day. And now,” he continued, “he is dying, dying because he tried to keep up with me.”

Now this question. The man that is being influenced by you, the man that in any measure is trying to keep up with you — which way is he traveling? What a word to say — “He died trying to keep up with me.” Many a father can say that about his boy. Many another friend can say that about his friend. God help you to say that “My friend found life, found Christ, found Heaven at last trying to keep up with me.”

I worked for men, my Lord will say,
When we meet at the end of the King’s Highway.
I walked with the beggar along the road;
I kissed the bondman stung by the goad;
I bore my part of the porter’s load, —
And what did you, my Lord will say,
As you traveled along the King’s Highway?

I made life sweet, my Lord will say,
When we meet at the end of the King’s Highway.
I smoothed the path where the thorns annoyed;
I gave the mother back her boy;
I mended the children’s broken toy, —
And what did you, my Lord will say,
As you traveled along the King’s Highway?

I showed men God, my Lord will say,
When we meet at the end of the King’s Highway.
I eased the sister’s troubled mind;
I helped the blighted to be resigned;
I showed the stars to souls gone blind, —
And what did you, my Lord will say,
As you traveled along the King’s Highway?

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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