Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14,c] August 11, 2019
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. 4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. 5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of Heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the Earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
In the Name of Jesus.
Cain and Abel. We know the story; we know how it ends. From Cain and Abel, we learn of how we stand before God.
It’s a story of sacrifice. A story of how a man stands before God according to that sacrifice. Good or bad, accepted or not accepted, respected or disrespected, how does a person stand before God?
Cain and Abel, both children of Adam and Eve. Both born into sin. Both belonging to death by that sin. Both standing before God in sinful flesh.
That’s how one stands before God—in our sinful flesh. To say anything else would be to pretend to be not sinful.
So the first thing to learn from Cain and Abel: stand before God as who you are, as a sinner.
How, then, will the sinner stand justified at God’s face?—that’s the big question. In the account of Cain and Abel, that question is answered.
The Lord gives both Cain and Abel the gift of sacrifice. Sacrifice was instituted by the Lord. That’s the first part of the answer we need. Cain and Abel didn’t dream it up; it was instituted for the sinner by the Lord.
It was a kind gift of mercy.
By sacrifice, Cain and Abel were to know their standing before God. They were to know that God justified them, forgiving their sins, accounting them righteous.
So what is the difference between Abel’s sacrifice and Cain’s? Genesis 4:2:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the course of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
What’s the difference? One kept sheep, the other tilled the ground. So one was a rancher, the other a farmer. Fair enough. The rancher, that’s Abel, brings an animal for sacrifice. The farmer, that’s Cain, brings crops.
No great difference there. But the text says the Lord respected Abel and his offering. But the Lord did not respect Cain and his. Why?
One can imagine that if we were somehow able to go back in time and click on a YouTube video of Cain and Abel, both sacrifices would look fine.
How hard is it to build a little fire and burn an offering? Yet, Abel stood before the Lord in honor, while Cain stood in shame. What’s the difference? To our eyeballs, everything looks good, the sacrifices both look the same.
But they’re not. And here is where our Lord gives us to see how we stand before him. The letter of Hebrews sorts it out for us. Hebrews 11:4:
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
Now we see the difference between the two sacrifices. Cain and Abel both sacrificed. But Cain offered his sacrifice according to the flesh, Abel offered his according to faith.
Cain offered his sacrifice as a work he by which he thought to justify himself; Abel offered his sacrifice as the way God gave him to receive the forgiveness of his sins, that is, as the way God instituted for him to be justified.
Are we Cain or are we Abel? Is that a bit of a trick question?
The question sounds as if I can choose to be like Cain or to be like Abel. That would make it depend on my choosing, on my works. That’s my flesh.
The life of flesh is not the life of faith. The flesh is sinful. Faith is the gift from God by which we look not to our flesh and our worthiness, but to forgiveness, to justification from God. Faith looks only to Jesus.
How do we stand before God? As Cain or as Abel?
We are in sinful flesh. Cain. Cain’s chief sin? His intent to justify himself by his own work of sacrifice. That sacrifice, God will not respect.
We may everyday repent of being Cain. Of seeking to justify ourselves.
By grace, we live the life of faith. Abel. Abel’s justification was not that he brought a better sacrifice than Cain—that somehow Abel brought just the right sized lamb or that he somehow stacked the wood in the just the right manner; Abel’s justification was that he came to the Lord’s gift of sacrifice to be justified by the Lord.
Forgiven of all sin, cleansed of all guilt, covered in honor—that’s Abel as he clings in faith to the Lord’s gift of sacrifice.
You and I, are we Cain or are we Abel? Cain, according to our life of sin. Abel, according to our life of faith. And our Lord is creating and strengthening his gift of faith in us every time he comes to us in his Word of Gospel.
Sacrifice? We have no more sacrifice. That was given to Cain and Abel, to Abraham and Moses, to Israel as the Lord gathered them to the Temple. But it is not given to us for us to do.
For the sacrifice has been accomplished. The Sacrifice which gave life to all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, the final, full, complete sacrifice, it has been given, and is now brought to us as gift.
The Body and Blood sacrificed on the cross for the justification of every sinner, we don’t get it at the cross.
We’re not there, after all.
We can no more travel back to the cross than Abel could’ve travelled forward to it.
But the justification of the sinner accomplished at the cross by Jesus was delivered back to Abel in the gift of sacrifice. Though Abel didn’t know the cross, he did hear it’s Word of justification, and he had faith in that Word and by that faith he was justified.
The justification of the sinner at the cross is brought to us. Our Lord beckons us to the Body and the Blood of the cross; he brings it to us in his Sacrament.
Do we belong at the Table? We need only ask, are we sinful? If we are not sinful, then we have no need of the Sacrament. But if we are, then it is for us.
Do we belong at the Table? We need only hear our Lord’s invitation. He does not invite for no reason, but for the purpose of giving his Body and his Blood to the sinner for the forgiveness of sins.
How do we receive this Body and Blood?
Not as something we are doing, like Cain bringing a sacrifice by which he intended to justify himself. Not as a work of our own.
We receive it as the Lord gives it—the actual Body and Blood of Christ Jesus given to us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins. Our faith clings to those words, our faith clings to the Lord who speaks them.
By this faith, you are justified.
In the Name of Jesus.