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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Since Martin Luther first posted his 95 Theses, 500 years ago, five principles have emerged which summarize the Protestant’s understanding of the Christian faith. They are five Latin phrases known as the Solaes or Slogans of the Reformation. Perhaps, you know a few. Sola Fide by “faith alone”: Sola Scriptura “by Scripture alone”: Sola Gratia “by grace alone”: Solus Christus “by Christ alone”: and the fifth, popular among musicians, Soli Deo Gloria “to the glory of God alone.”
According to Luther, salvation by faith alone is the conviction on which the church stands or falls. So it’s not surprising that he lectured often on the book of Hebrews, and in particular the chapter portraying the Old Testament heroes who lived by faith. For Luther, faith was not simply a spoken confession. Faith was an action based on trust. This morning we begin a sermon series exploring the faithful actions of the characters of the Old Testament. We begin with Abel’s sacrifice.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, for convictions of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.”
It’s not easy raising two sons. I know that from personal experience. At times, they can be the best of friends, and at other times, they are their own worst enemies. On a really bad day, you can hear the one yelling at the other, “Well, you were adopted!” And the other responding, “Well, at least they wanted me!” As a father you begin by wrestling with your personal expectations for school and their futures. I remember once asking my oldest son for his report card. He answered, “I don’t have it.” So I asked, “Why not?” To which he responded, “My friend just borrowed it. He wants to scare his parents.” Later in life you struggle with professional goals and choices. I am reminded of the question I asked another father. “Has your son decided what he wants to be when he grows up?” He replied, “Yeh, he wants to be a garbage collector.” I stared at him. “Yes, really,” he said. “He thinks that garbage men work only on Tuesdays.” Over the years, I have grown to appreciate why some “modern” couples are waiting to announce their pregnancy until after their child graduates from college and becomes a partner in a successful law firm.
The story of Cain and Abel opens simply enough. The two brothers are born to Adam and Eve. Yes, they are the first two brothers born in the world. Unfortunately, brothers never seem to fare very well in Scripture. They always seem to be in conflict, especially in the book of Genesis. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. It was troubling in the ancient world that those closest to each other, or at least those who should be the closest, were often the very ones who caused their parents the most pain. It’s just as true today. Brothers and sisters, who should love each other, often end up in conflict.
We don’t know whether there was a sibling rivalry between the Cain and Abel from early childhood, or whether, one son was the favorite of his parents, the golden boy of the family. The brothers in this story were certainly different, as most brothers can be: the older brother Cain was a farmer, and the young brother Abel was a shepherd. In the course of time, the two were called to bring an offering to the Lord. Cain brought the gift of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock. With a holy nod of acceptance, Abel’s offering was received. But Cain’s offering was not. Now, instead of dropping to his knees in humility and repentance, Cain’s face fell from the weight of rejection while a fiery rage burned within.
Most of us probably feel a bit of sympathy for Cain and his rejected sacrifice. We ourselves have felt disappointed and perhaps slightly hurt when the gift we sent to a wedding or birthday was never used or even acknowledged. We are taught to always write cards, and to “Give generously – and receive graciously,” so God’s treatment of Cain seems rather unfair. Certainly the Lord should have known the proper etiquette for declining a gift from Cain without offering the giver.
I am reminded of the limerick; “Regifting Gone Wrong” by Madeleine Begun Kane
A woman was trying to sift Through items to maybe regift.
But alas, she confused The stuff she perused. I suspect that some folks will be miffed.
A fruitcake went back to the sender, And the same thing occurred with a blender. Then a gift from her brother Got sent to her mother. Her relationships now need a mender.
So why does God accept only Abel’s sacrifice? Theologians throughout the ages have tried to answer this question. Some have suggested that it was God’s sovereign choice. God has the right to accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s with no explanation given. Others believe it was related to blood sacrifice. They believe that a blood sacrifice is the only acceptable offering God would receive. Still others suggest that the Cain’s offering was poor quality. Abel on the other hand, gave fat portions of meat that produced a savory, sweet aroma unto the Lord. And yet again, some write that it was not the offering itself, but it was the attitude with which Cain presented the fruit to the Lord. His gift was offered out of a sense of obligation, instead of reverence. This is the most popular interpretation. Something was wrong with Cain’s attitude. Unfortunately, the scripture gives no hint of Cain’s attitude as the reason. In fact, in the story all that we read is that God did not accept the offering. God showed acceptance to Abel, rather than Cain, because Abel made his offering to the Lord by faith. But what does that mean?
The story of Abel teaches us that to offer a sacrifice to God is gift of human freedom. It can be done grudgingly like Cain. “It’s mine. Why should I return it to God?” It can be done by calculatingly. You ask yourself what is really my fair share? A gift to God can be given stingily. I will give when I know what is left offer. Or you can choose the way of Abel- to give by faith. He offered a sacrifice that would be pleasing to God. Abel offered the very best he could. He presented the firstlings of the flock, and gave the fat portions of meat that produced a savory, sweet aroma unto the Lord. The offering delighted God, the creator of all things.
Now, why is God so interested in that you give your very best? God did not come back to Cain and demand the right kind of sacrifice. In fact, God didn’t demand anything at all. He only called gently, for Cain to act responsibly. It was not simply for God’s sake that he calls Cain to do well. It was for the sake of the brother. God was not concerned about correct sacrifices. He was concerned about Cain.
Yes, God was deeply concerned with how Cain would live in a world that he didn’t think was fair. He was concerned with how Cain would deal with his brother, and the evil that dwelt within him. Pride clouded Cain’s judgment, and anger ruled his heart. Instead of admitting he made a mistake, he completely denied it. The Lord saw Cain’s displeasure, and said, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at your door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” God in his great mercy tried to warn Cain of what could be done differently in the world. That is actually our message as well. If you person do not resist sin, then greater ruin can occur in your life.
Brothers and sisters often compare themselves and their life circumstances with one another. Inevitably, one is always the victim, and the other is always privileged child. We make the same the judgment about our coworkers and friends. The same was true for Cain and Abel. And so God warned Cain that his offering was not acceptable. But he was truly warning him about the desire and passion of his heart. Do not be concerned whether your gift and talents are good enough. Be your best. Offer the best that will delight God. Yes, by faith, give them unto the Lord.
Unfortunately, Cain did not heed God’s warning-and it led him to committing the greater sin. Upset at both God and his brother, Cain went out and killed Abel. Cain would have to deal with the consequences of his for the rest of his life. He was banished to the land of Nod, East of Eden far from the presence of God and family. But the Lord, would not forget him, and his hand of blessing and his mark of grace would be upon him- even in a foreign land.
A speaker once held up a fresh $20 bill in front of an audience of 200 people. He asked, “Who would like this $20 bill?” Hands went up. He said, “I am going to give this $20 to one of you but first, let me do this.” He crumpled up the $20 dollar bill. He then asked, “Who still wants it…?” Still hands were up in the air. “Well, what if I do this?” He dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked it up, now crumpled and dirty. “Anyone still want it?” Again went up in the air. “My friends, we have all acknowledged a valuable lesson. No matter what I did you still wanted the money, it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20. Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make and the circumstances that come our way. You may feel as though you are worthless. But no matter what has happened or what will happen, you will never lose your value. Dirty-clean, crumpled-finely creased, you are still priceless to those who do love you. The worth of our lives comes not in what we do or who we know, but by who we are. Cain was far away from the Lord, in the land of Nod, and would still be loved. It is true for the Cains and Abels in our own lives, and that is your promise as well.
My friends, are you like Abel offering your very best to God to delight, or are you still comparing yourself to others? Live and give, by faith. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen