Third Sunday After Trinity June 24, 2001
540, 396, 381, 334
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. So far the Holy Word.
In the Name of Christ, the Ruler of the universe and the Ruler of our hearts, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Years ago, a confirmation student asked me an unexpected question, a question that for the moment had me completely stumped. The question was, “Why did God kill Ananias and Sapphira?” As you may recall, Ananias and his wife Sapphira were members of the Christian church in Jerusalem. Other congregation members were selling their property and giving the money to the church, so Ananias and Sapphira did the same. Only this couple secretly kept back part of the money. And when they brought the rest to the church elders, they said it was the whole amount.
“So how come God killed them?” my student asked me. “Why couldn’t they just get forgiveness?” And that’s a good question. After all, God doesn’t require us to sell everything we have and give the money to the church. Yes, they did lie to the apostles, but they could have been forgiven for that. However, Ananias and Sapphira also tried to lie to God. When they did that, they showed that there was something big missing from their hearts: FAITH. They were destroyed because of their unbelief, not because of their offering. It stands to reason: only someone who doesn’t believe in God in the first place could ever think he could get away with such a lie. Faith made the difference between the God-pleasing offerings of the other church members, and the God-defying lie of Ananias and Sapphira. And as they soon discovered, faith makes the difference between forgiveness and no forgiveness, between eternal life and eternal death!
Our text for today presents a similar case. Two offerings—one accepted and one rejected. Two people—one accepted by God and the other rejected. At the heart of the matter lies the same big difference: FAITH. Do you worry about being accepted by God? Do you ever wonder whether your offerings are truly God-pleasing or not? Are you fearful of certain sins taking control in your life? Have courage! The account of Cain and Abel holds the answer to it all! Today we’ll consider the theme—
The story of Cain and Abel is a familiar one; most of us learned it in Sunday School. Cain was a farmer, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. When it was time to bring an offering to the Lord, both of them brought some of the fruits of their labor to sacrifice as a burnt offering on the altar. Abel and his offering were accepted by God; Cain and his offering were not. This raises two questions, one we can’t answer and one we can.
In the first place, how did the Lord show that He accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s? We don’t know for sure. Some of us remember pictures in our Sunday School books that show the smoke of Abel’s offering rising up to heaven, and the smoke of Cain’s offering lingering on the ground—but that’s just an artist’s impression. Maybe the Lord simply told them. The Bible just doesn’t say. What’s clear is that God showed His approval—and His disapproval—in no uncertain terms.
A much more important question is, what was the difference between the two men and their offerings? Why was one accepted and the other rejected? The Bible answers that question for us in the New Testament book of Hebrews. This passage is essential for understanding the account of Cain and Abel. Listen carefully—it says, “BY FAITH Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.”—Heb 11:4.
In their case, as in all others, FAITH made all the difference. Abel trusted in God’s promise of a Savior from sin. His offering was the fruit of his faith, a grateful way of saying “thank you” to the God who had saved him. Because of faith, he and his offering were accepted.
On the other hand, faith was absent in the heart of Cain. You see, it really didn’t matter how big, or what quality Cain’s offering was, because WITHOUT FAITH, sin rules over a person, and nothing he does is pleasing to God!
Our text says, The LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. Cain’s offering no doubt looked good and generous. Unfortunately, looking good on the outside isn’t the test of an acceptable offering to the Lord, but rather what the motivation is behind the offering. “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”—1 Sam 16:7. And when God looked at Cain’s heart, He saw something missing—FAITH.
A couple of years ago I had a guy from White River—the town where we used to live—come up to me and offer to do some work for the church. “Whatever you’ve got that needs to be done,” he said, “painting, carpentry, whatever. I’d just like to help out.” After questioning him, I found out that he wasn’t interested in coming to church, or in taking instructions—he didn’t even really want to talk about God. He just wanted to do something for the church. Well, pretty soon it dawned on me what lay behind all this. He was taking out insurance! He didn’t really believe in God—he just wanted to have some good works under his belt in case this “heaven-and-hell” business turned out to be true after all!
What the world doesn’t understand is this: it’s FAITH that makes all the difference. The Bible says clearly that “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”—Heb 11:6. Let me repeat that: “Without faith it is IMPOSSIBLE to please God!” In other words, it doesn’t matter how nice a person one is, how much money one donates to the church, or how many good works one does. If a person hasn’t got FAITH—if he doesn’t trust in Jesus Christ as His only Savior from sin—then there isn’t a single thing he can do that will be pleasing to God!
That was Cain’s basic problem, and that’s why neither he nor his offering were acceptable in God’s sight. And that’s why God called on him to repent: And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well [—if you have faith in the promise and bring forth the true fruits of faith!], shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
Only one force can be dominant in a person’s life—either sin or righteousness. Paul says, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?”—Rom 6:16. God warned Cain that, by rejecting the His promise of forgiveness in unbelief, he was allowing himself to be ruled by sin.
The same warning goes out to us. Sin lies daily at our door, as well. It crouches there like a ferocious beast, just waiting to devour us. Every time we speak a harsh, unloving word to our spouse, every time we take the Lord’s name in vain, every time we allow lustful thoughts and deeds to invade our minds, every time we let something take precedence over God and His Word—then we’re giving that beast a little more of a grip on us. And we’re taking a terrible chance. Because somewhere along that downward spiral comes the point where we can no longer control sin. Sooner or later we’ll find that we just don’t care anymore. From that point, sin will rule over us, rather than the other way around, just as it did in the life of Cain. Faith will be extinguished. And that’s the worst tragedy of all, because FAITH makes all the difference!
There’s a new kind of movie out these days, have you noticed? In more and more modern films, the Bad Guy is the one who wins out in the end. I guess they think it’s more interesting when evil triumphs, and crime pays, and justice is not done. Well, you might think that’s what happened in this account. After all, we know that the Good Guy—Abel, the faithful servant of God—ended up being murdered by his brother. Of course, Cain didn’t get away with it. But still, it might seem like the only message in this text is a negative one: a dreadful warning to those who are without faith and ruled by sin. However, there’s a very positive message here for us, as well. Because another thing God makes crystal clear to us in this text is that, WITH FAITH, we can rule over sin, and can bring forth the God-pleasing fruits of faith!
Again, IT IS FAITH THAT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Remember the passage from Hebrews: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous.” Abel was just as much a sinner as his brother Cain; they both had inherited the sinfulness of their parents, Adam and Eve. But Abel had something that Cain did not have. He had faith, and the righteousness that comes only by faith. No doubt it was his parents who taught Abel the Good News about the coming Christ: “Yes, our lives are sinful. But God has promised to save us from our sin. In the Garden He told us that He would send His Son, the Seed of the woman, who would crush the power of the devil once and for all, and win eternal life for all of us.”
Abel put his faith in the coming Savior. He was accepted by God, and so was his offering. What about you people sitting here today? Today God invites you, too, to put your confidence in that same Savior. Only for you it’s easier! You don’t have to look ahead to a promised Savior—for you the promise has already been fulfilled! You can open up your Bible and read about the Savior who has come, who has lived and died and risen again for you! Have you broken God’s Law? No fear—God’s Word reveals that Jesus Christ took your place and kept all the Law perfectly for you. For “when the fulness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Gal 4:4-5. Do the sins of your past worry you? You can now set your conscience perfectly at ease. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, your sins have been forgiven! As Paul reminds us, “Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God…”—Eph 5:2. And the sweetest words in Scripture: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”
You see, FAITH MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. It was faith in Christ that made Abel accepted in God’s sight, and it’s your God-given faith in Christ that does the same for you.
Yes, sin still crouches at your door, tempting you to disobedience. “Unto thee shalt be his desire,” the Lord warns, “but thou shalt rule over him.” And you can! With your faith, the Holy Spirit also give you power to rule over sin in your life. For Paul says, “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”—Rom 6:14. Drink in the message of what God’s love has done for you! Come regularly to this house of the Lord to be nourished with the Good News of your salvation in Christ. Meditate on the grace of God by reading your Bible every day. Teach this blessed story to your children. Let your Godly example proclaim to others that nothing in this world is more important than the forgiveness and eternal life that is yours in Christ! Let us be like St. Paul, who said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”—Gal 2:20. Faith in Christ makes all the difference. With faith, God will enable you to control sin, rather than being controlled by sin.
Finally, faith is what will allow you to bring forth God-pleasing fruits in your life. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, because it was offered with faith. Jesus commended the poor widow, who could only afford to put two pennies in the collection plate, because it was offered with faith. Likewise, everything you give to the Lord out of love and gratitude for your Savior will be received and accepted by God. Meager as those gifts may be, the Psalmist assures us that “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His mercy.”—147:11. And our Lord Jesus reminds us that the stronger that faith-connection is between us and Him, the richer those fruits of faith will be. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said. “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit.”—John 15:5.
In his most famous poem, Robert Frost wrote, “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” On that day long ago, Cain and Abel took different roads: Cain the well-traveled road of unbelief, and Abel the narrow path of faith. Let us receive the gift God offers us today in His Word, the gift of faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. Then, in the eternal mansions of heaven, we will rejoice that—FAITH Made All the Difference! AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.