Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 8/28/2022. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Trinity10 Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s lessons. To read the Bible texts for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, click here.
Adam and Eve had great expectations for the first generation of their children. After all, you’d think that once you’ve fallen from grace, marred the image of God in mankind, and been expelled from Eden, that things could only get better. This is proof they were not yet Lutherans. We know better. We know things could be worse. And we are waiting for them to become worse. But that’s not a trope about pious pessimism. It’s the recognition that Scripture shows us again and again how sin begets sin.
But Adam and Eve don’t have that much of the Bible yet. Most of what they have is the promise from God that they are going to be delivered. Having received the promise of the Messiah in Genesis 3:16, many commentators, including Luther, have understood the Hebrew surrounding Cain’s name to mean that Eve considered Cain to be the promised Messiah. As far as they know, their optimism is quite reasonable.
This might be why Abel has the name he does. הֶבֶל (hevel). While it technically means “breath” or “vapor” it’s also the word Solomon uses for vanity, futility, and meaninglessness. That is to say: once you have the Messiah, what is the point of anything else? But God does not work according to our expectations.
There was no real difference between Cain’s sacrifice and Abel’s. Throughout the Old Testament, God looks with favor upon both grain offerings and animal offerings. Ideas abound as to why God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s, but we don’t really need those. Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because it was offered “By faith…” This is what Hebrews 11:4 says:
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.
This implies that Cain’s sacrifice was not offered by faith. So, why bother? As far as we can tell, God hasn’t yet commanded offerings of any kind whatsoever. And so, if the offering does not come by faith, and if it does not come by reluctant obedience to an all-powerful God, the list of available motivations is slim. Outside of the faith which trust in God and His Word, there is unfaith, which trusts in the self. Cain, then, desired to be righteous in himself.
Cain is like those folks in the Gospel who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. He is like that Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. Up until the murdering, there’s no reason to think Cain was a bad guy. People who genuinely want to justify themselves can put on a pretty good show.
The Law of God, what He requires, what He expects, is good and wise. It is good for you. But there is no hope for your salvation in it.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Romans 3:19-20
That every mouth be stopped. Cain’s mouth. The Pharisee’s mouth. Your mouth.
You can live an outwardly virtuous life that is in harmony with God’s commandments. And you should. Furthermore, you can fast twice a week, and you can give a faithful tithe of everything that comes into your hands. And you can. In fact, every one of those things are quite good for you and your neighbor. But you cannot justify yourself before God on account of these things.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:9
Abel was righteous on account of faith. His life and death are a testament to that. His blood still speaks. But not only because he was faithful. His blood still speaks because his death points us to the death by which we are justified.
Abel is a picture of Christ, a foreshadowing of the atonement in time and space. He is a shepherd who gently cares for those within his care. He is a righteous victim, pleasing to God, killed in anger by his kinsmen. His blood cries out to God. But Abel can only be a shadow of the One to come. His blood is cause for judgment. It saves no one. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, the truly innocent and righteous Paschal Victim has been crucified for you. In anger, men put him to death; and His blood cries out to God, but not for judgment. His blood cries out to God as atonement, as ransom, as an appeal to the Father on your behalf.
By His wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24b
In Jesus, God has been merciful to you, a sinner. Thus, you are those who plead to God for mercy on account of Christ. Whether you are one of the 87,000 newly minted tax collectors, a homemaker, a student, a consultant, or professor, you may lift up your eyes to the God of all grace, and ask for the mercy God promises. And you may go home justified before God, because you are, on account of Jesus and His sacrificial death for you.
But what then? What about when you get home? How shall you live as one who is justified by grace through faith?
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10
There is no pitting justification against sanctification. There is no battle between being forgiven and living forgiven. To which, you might say, “Of course not. Why would there be?”
But it is easier and more common than you might imagine. Even in Luther’s own day, there rose many who were so pharisaical about grace that they thought the Law had no place in the life of a Christian.
Furthermore, some even thought that good works were a temptation, i.e. if one were to be engaged in good works, he might be tempted to think he was saved by them. Thus, they concluded it might be best to avoid good works altogether.
For you who would not be so crass, there is the serious temptation to cheapen the grace of God – to take God’s grace as a license for laziness or a lack of zeal.
But God has prepared good works for you to do. You don’t have to look hard to find them.
They are waiting for you there in your daily callings as Christians, parents, children, students, and citizens. Your good works are not for God, who has no need of them. The good works in which you should walk are for those people who God puts before you in your life, with whom you should walk.