Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Genesis 4:1-15 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 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, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” 8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.
The actions of Cain and Abel have been well known to us since Sunday School days. This is not only a narrative about murder but also about acceptable sacrifice, that is, offerings that are pleasing to God. Let us ask,
How Is It That a Sacrifice Is Acceptable to God,
and What Are the God-Pleasing Sacrifices
We Today Offer to the Lord?
First of all, what does God look at to determine whether or not he accepts a sacrifice? God looks at the heart, and his judgment concerning the heart determines either his acceptance or his non-acceptance of a sacrifice. God does not look at our obedience. He does not look at how much we serve in the church. He does not look at what office we hold, or what boards we are on. He does not look at how much time we spend doing things in the church. He does not look at how much money we give, or even how often we are in church. These are human, man-made rules and standards of evaluation. They reflect only our sin-driven works righteousness. God only looks at the heart to see if one has faith in Christ.
Bur, when it comes to hearts, Cain and Abel had different hearts when they brought offerings to God (vv 1–5a). Cain brought his offering with a heart that was not right with God. God looked first at Cain—that is, his heart—and then his offering, and God rejected his offering. Cain was like many of us. He came trusting in works. He thought he was pleasing to God because he brought his offering. “Surely God will be pleased with me when he sees this wonderful thing I am doing for him,” he reasoned in himself. I am coming to worship him; I am bringing an abundant offering. I am better than those who do not come and whose offering is small.
Abel, on the other hand, brought his offering with a heart that was right with God. Again, God looked first at Abel—that is, his heart—and then at his offering, and God accepted Abel’s offering. God did not accept his offering because of how much it was. God did not accept it because of the time and work Abel had put into it. God did not accept his offering because he had done a great and wonderful work of service to God. God accepted his offering because he came in humility and faith that because of Christ his sins were forgiven. Abel trusted in Christ to make his offering pleasing to God. His offering was pleasing to God because Christ died on the cross to purify Abel from sin and to make his offering acceptable to God.
God does the same with us and our sacrifices. What are our sacrifices? What are our good works? What are our offerings? They are works of love for neighbor. Our true sacrifices that are acceptable to God are a right heart that trusts in Jesus and the love for neighbor that comes from the right heart. As we sing, “create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps 51). Good works are not works we do for God. He has no need of our works. Building great temples, adorning our church with gold and silver, serving on boards and committees are not good works. Good works are done for the neighbor and to the neighbor. They are done to help and serve people in need. On judgment day, God will say to you, “What have you done to the least of these my brethren? Did you give him drink when he was thirsty? Did you give him food when he was hungry? Did you clothe him when he was naked, or visit him when he was sick or in prison?” These are the works that faith produces and that God accepts.
So, we ask, what kind of heart is not right with God, making a sacrifice unacceptable? The same kind of heart that leads a person just to go through the motions—because he has to, because this is expected of him. Cain brought simply some of the fruit of the ground. The text does not say he took the best or the first portions or that he offered it up gladly to the Lord. More than that—this kind of heart does not love the Lord and so lacks saving faith in God. In other words, it’s the kind of heart that merely helps and serves the neighbor as a duty, an obligation, but begrudges the inconvenience, the cost, the sacrifice. Cain had this kind of heart (vv 5b–7).
Cain’s concern was not that his sacrifice was unacceptable to God. Cain was not bringing his sacrifice out of love for God or faith in the promised Savior. Rather, Cain was concerned that he was, in his opinion, “shown up” by his brother. Cain’s pride took a hit, and thus he became angry with Abel, hating him, in essence murdering him (1 Jn 3:15). It was all about Cain, not about God. So Cain’s sacrifice actually was regarded as evil by God (1 Jn 3:12; Jude 11). God warned Cain about his wrong anger, but Cain does not respond to God, rejecting God’s admonition.
When a person does not repent of sin, he can fall deeper into sin. Cain, having in his heart murdered Abel, then commits the physical act of premeditated murder (v 8). When God confronts Cain after the murder, Cain gives God an insolent answer and shows no remorse or repentance (v 9). Rather, Cain is concerned only about his own safety. We pray to the Lord to keep us from having such a heart.
What kind of heart is right with God, making a sacrifice acceptable? This is the heart of faith. All people by nature are unbelievers, enemies of God, unable to earn salvation. All people are sinful and, left to themselves, headed for hell. Faith is created—and preserved—by God, in his grace, mercy, and love. The heart of faith is the heart that believes in the triune God, and in Jesus Christ as Savior. Through faith, a person has forgiveness and everlasting life. The believer is covered with the righteousness Christ acquired for all by his holy life and his innocent suffering and death. This righteousness is bestowed by the living Christ, who arose from the dead. The heart of faith grasps him and so is right with God.
Because of Jesus, the sacrifices of believers are acceptable to God. “Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb 13:15). Abel had, and we have, this kind of heart. Abel was brought to faith by God through the Gospel of Gen 3:15. He, as his parents, believed this Gospel, looking forward to the future Savior, the God-man (Gen 4:1; Heb 11:4). Abel’s sacrifices of animals foreshadowed the coming sacrifice of the Lamb of God, whose blood would atone for the sins of the world.
God has now brought us to faith through Baptism, and he preserves us in saving faith through his Gospel Word and Holy Communion. The heart of faith leads a person to bring his best sacrifices to the Lord willingly, with sincerity, because he loves the Lord. Abel willingly, out of faith, brought “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” He brought the first and the best portions.
We, as believers, bring our best sacrifices to the Lord willingly, with sincerity, because we love the Lord and because we are grateful for the salvation he freely grants us. What are the acceptable sacrifices we today offer to the Lord, which are the best we can or as much as we are able? They are not the animal or produce offerings of Abel and Cain and later of the Israelites, which were burned on an altar. In the New Testament, such sacrifices have been brought to an end by the completed redeeming work of Jesus Christ. The sacrifices we bring to God today include monetary offerings, but not only these. We also offer the sacrifices of praise (Heb 13:15). In fact, our whole lives are offered up as sacrifices to the Lord. That is, we dedicate ourselves to God, to serving our neighbor. We, motivated and empowered by the Lord through his Word and Sacrament, serve God by showing love to others (Rom 12:1–21; Heb 13:16).
The actions of Cain and Abel show us what sacrifices are acceptable to God. Thank God that because of his saving work in our lives, we offer up such sacrifices to him. Let us, by his grace and power, continually do so! Amen.