Posted on August 14th, 2013
Sermon for Trinity 11, on Genesis 4:1-15 (1 Corinthians 15:1-10; Luke 18:9-14)
I returned home from vacation to discover that the storage closet in our condominium had flooded, and some items that were precious to me were damaged. I was angry and frustrated. Then I remembered: this entire world is now subject to the principle of corruption. All is vanity, everything breaks, everyone dies. My damaged things will surely be destroyed. I cannot keep them.
That’s the result of the fall, the world whose beginnings we see today in Genesis 4. The fall brought death, corruption, the return of man to the dust, a world in bondage to decay.
This principle of corruption is odious to us. Everything around us descends into madness, yet still men crave permanence, stability, security. To lose things to leaky pipes, to lose money to fluctuating markets, to lose our minds to injury or disease, to lose lives to random violence – all this we want to control. And man-made religion is a tool for such control. With religious rites man would domesticate God, taming Him, Her, or Them to achieve our goals, satisfy our wants.
This is how religion everywhere, including much of what is called Christianity, operates. Men would approach God on their own terms.
No doubt you have heard people dictate to God what He is or is not allowed to do. “I cannot believe in a God who would judge [this or that behavior],” “I cannot believe in a God who would send someone to Hell,” “I cannot believe in a God who would allow a child to die,” etc.
But we are not God, and we do not have the privilege of dictating to God what is true, what is ethical, or what makes for right worship. What makes for right worship has been hotly debated in recent decades in American Christianity, leading to what many have termed the “worship wars.” But if you think about the account of Cain and Abel that we heard today, you will realize that the worship wars have been going on since the beginning of human history. And for Cain, it really was a war. He killed his brother after a church service!
Why? We have to look very carefully to see a difference between Cain’s worship and Abel’s. They both brought a sacrifice. “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Why? They both brought a sacrifice. Does it really matter?
The only real clue is that Abel’s offering is of the firstborn, and the fat. In other words, Abel brought the best. It appears that Cain simply follows the outward custom, but Abel’s worship is pure of heart.
Now it would be easy to tell you here, “You should give more money, and then God will be pleased.” And we all could and should give more to our Lord and His Church, for God loves a cheerful giver, and He doesn’t want us to cling to our possessions, but encourages us to give generously for the preaching of the Gospel. But that is not the heart of worship. That is not the heart of right liturgy, Divine Service.
Please listen carefully to what our chief Lutheran Symbol, the Augsburg Confession, says about liturgy: “Ceremonies are needed for this reason alone, that the uneducated be taught what they need to know about Christ” (XXIV). All the ceremonies of the Mass, or Divine Service, are here to teach us about Jesus, His work, His death, and His resurrection. But most importantly, they are to teach us about this, found in the Defense, or Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “Faith is the divine service that receives the benefits offered by God.” Who does the offering? Not man but God. “Faith” means not wish or hope or feeling, but trust that God means what He says. This faith is not subjective (depending on our emotions), but objective (depending completely upon God’s Word and actions). Now, here is the main thing I want you to hear today, this is what I want you to die trusting in:
Thus the service and worship of the Gospel is to receive good things from God, while the worship of the law is to offer and present our goods to God. We cannot offer anything to God unless we have first been reconciled and reborn. The greatest possible comfort comes from this doctrine that the highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive forgiveness of sins, grace, and righteousness.
“The highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive forgiveness of sins.” That’s what worship was in the beginning, when God first sacrificed an animal and with the skins covered the shame of of our first parents, naked and sinful. So we can conclude this: Cain offered the worship of the law: he offered and presented his goods to God. But Abel was there, with his best gifts, for the worship of the Gospel, desiring to receive forgiveness of sins.
That’s why I’m here today: to come with you before our Lord’s altar and receive His forgiveness. Without that, I am nothing. But with Christ, I in Him and He in me, I have everything. And though my possessions be destroyed, though my skin be destroyed, yet I have lost nothing, if I am found in Jesus with His righteousness, and not my own.
That’s really what the worship wars are about: not a style of music or the garments of the pastor, but what is at the center: the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. So last Sunday I was at another Missouri Synod church. They had no musician, so there was an electric organ piped in from an iPad. The pastor didn’t chant, they used the Apostles’ Creed instead of the Nicene, and they even used that other lectionary. While all these things matter, in a more important sense they don’t matter, because the pastor and liturgy hammered home that highest worship: receiving the forgiveness of sins.
So where do you stand? Right now, and every day, you stand with Cain: some days angry, some days with your face fallen, coming to worship but leaving no different than before. Perhaps even like the Pharisee in the Gospel, looking around and thinking you are better than someone else who has come to this holy place.
But most of all, each one of us in this fallen world stands with Cain, as the Lord says, “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you.” Whether it is the temptation of your flesh, abusing the good gifts of God; or the temptations of the world, of pride and reputation; or the temptations of the devil to despair – sin is crouching at the door, waiting to devour you, ready to turn you to enthusiasm (God-within-ism), wanting to turn you away from patience, the cross of Jesus, the promises of God’s Word.
Every day there is sin, corruption, despair, lust, anger, always trying to consume you, destroy you. It may be a leaky pipe ruining your things, a miscommunication with your spouse, a memory of a broken relationship, anger, rage, sickness, a desire to win, a desire to quit, a desire to die. Around every corner, in every thought, with each flickering pixel, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you.
We cannot rule over it. We cannot defeat it. But with Abel, with St. Paul, with the tax collector in the temple, we stand broken at the altar, crying “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And this God, the Father who sacrificed His own Son and gives us His Spirit, leads us to the highest worship: to receive once again, undeservedly, the forgiveness of sins.
In our first reading today is Abel, the shepherd, offering a lamb. Afterward the sacrifice, Cain, in a sense, offers another. He murders his brother Abel. The liturgy of this murdered shepherd begins with the blood of a lamb, and ends with the shepherd-priest’s own blood on the ground. Our hymn says it well: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies.”
From the Apostles to the present day, the Church has gathered around the liturgy of another murdered shepherd-priest, Jesus the Good Shepherd. On Jesus is laid the sin of Adam our first father. On Jesus is laid the sin of Cain, murderer. On Jesus is laid the sin of every drunk, every addict, every adulterer, every idolater. On Jesus is laid the pain of those who lose their son or daughter, of those alone, of those humiliated, of those broken. The Church’s life is the liturgy of Jesus the murdered shepherd, the blood of Jesus which cries out not for vengeance but for pardon.
To this liturgy we come with our pain and pride, our sin and folly. In this liturgy we plead with the Father to forgive our wasted life and hear instead the dying breath of Jesus, “Father, forgive them.”
The liturgy of Abel the first martyr, the liturgy of the tax collector in today’s Gospel, and the liturgy of a 21st century Lutheran parish, all pray the same thing: “Dear Father, look not at me but on the Lamb; be merciful to me, a sinner.” In the fulness of time, we know the Lamb is Jesus. In this Communion, the blood of the murdered shepherd marks you not for vengeance but pardon, not for dissolution but deliverance, not for corruption but resurrection. Forget your pain, put away your pride, and rejoice in this highest worship and best liturgy: receiving the forgiveness of sins, for you, the worst sinner.