(The following is the text of a message delivered at the Wesleyan Church of Hamburg, 26 June 2011. Astute readers will note that much of the narrative material has appeared in an earlier blog post entitled “Two Offerings.”)
The older of the two brothers stands at his altar. The burning torch is held high and brought down into the pile of dry grain, which swiftly burns with a fragrant smoke. He mutters a prayer, something like the one his father taught him, but it is distorted, its perspective warped. “Thank you, LORD,” he says, unaware of the contradiction, “that I am not like other men. You know my devotion. I give you this offering. Now bless me.”
There follows a long silence. He waits for the fire to burn out and walks away. He is neither happy nor unhappy. His duty is complete; he moves on to his next task.
Far away, on the other side of the field, the younger brother prepares his offering. His young face is contorted into a grimace of sorrow. His best lamb is dead. This is no trivial matter. This hurts. The lamb is innocent. Perhaps his brother is right. Perhaps this is all a huge waste, a needless loss.
The blood has made his hands sticky. There is blood on his tunic, blood on his face, blood squishing between his toes. He tries not to look at the lamb’s head, that benign, mournful face that followed him here without a complaint. The best parts – the fat portions – he arranges in the middle of the altar, on top of a small pile of dried sticks and brush. He sighs and lights the fire. The fat sizzles. But he cannot hear it. He has fallen face-first on the ground in front of the altar, deep in prayer.
For the first time in his life, the LORD is speaking directly to him. A quiver of joy radiates through him. His offering has been accepted. He sees – perhaps the LORD grants him a vision – that the life of the animal has substituted for his own life, the life that he owes to God because of his own sin. He sees that a more perfect sacrifice still lies in the future. With the perception of faith he places his whole trust in the LORD.
He rises, blood and mud stuck to his forehead.
His soul has found rest.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that
By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
The life of Abel occupies a scant seven verses in the biblical record of Genesis 4. He is born in verse two, and he is dead by verse 8. One might consider this as a commentary on the brevity of human life. Furthermore, in the story, Abel himself never utters a word. He has a role in the play, but no lines. Yet the author of Hebrews insists that in this brief, wordless life we find encouragement for our own faith as Christians. How is this so?
Let’s look at the text. Genesis chapter four, starting at verse 1:
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
I find a useful question to ask during any quiet time is this: “Where is Christ in this?” The whole point of the Scriptures is to testify to Jesus Christ. Everything in there – some of it obliquely – is part of that purpose.
As we consider Cain and Abel, let’s ask: Where is Christ in this story? Is there a sense of the Gospel here? Are there elements of the story that show Man as a sinner in need of a Redeemer? Are there elements of the story that show the plan of redemption?
I suspect you know the answer. I believe Christ is right in the middle of this story. I would like to focus on three differences between the brothers and their offerings, and illustrate those differences with passages from the Gospels.
First there is a difference in cost.
There are two different offerings here. Cain brings his crops, a portion of his harvest. Abel brings something else entirely: a live, bleating animal. One can imagine Cain, the older brother, already well established in his religious procedures, looking with disdain upon Abel’s messy, wasteful offering. “Get that out of here,” he says. “You are not going to waste your best lamb!” One is reminded of another scene where a “wasteful” offering is made:
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
The woman was willing to express her love for Jesus by breaking the most valuable thing she owned. Her offering was accepted. Like Abel’s.
That’s the first thing about Abel’s offering that speaks to us: It is costly.
Cain’s offering was – and here I am speculating, but bear with me – what he could afford. It didn’t cause him much discomfort. It was a religious obligation.
You may think I am going way beyond the text, but Cain’s reaction tells us something. His anger and jealous rage tells us that he was stubborn and prideful. This was not a humble man seeking to offer God his best. This was a religious man insisting that he had done enough already.
Abel’s offering was the best thing he had. The practical Cains of the world would call it excessive, wasteful, needlessly messy.
In another way, Abel’s costly offering speaks to us because as Christians we too are the beneficiaries of a costly offering, an innocent lamb sacrificed on our behalf:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
I Peter 1:18-19
The difference in cost speaks to two differing approaches to God.
How do we approach God? I fear that, even as Christians, many of us have a Cain-like attitude. We look upon our good deeds and expect God to bless us. Do we think we can appease Him with good works and therefore He might be more inclined to listen to our prayers? I warn you: We dare not approach God on the basis of our religious works, our generous giving, or our personal piety. We must come to him by the blood:
“What, after all, is your basis of approach to God? Do you come to Him on the uncertain ground of your feeling, the feeling that you may have achieved something for God today? Or is your approach based on something far more secure, namely, the fact that the Blood has been shed, and that God looks on that Blood and is satisfied? …Your approach to God is therefore always in boldness; and that boldness is yours through the Blood and never through your personal attainment. … Whether you have had a good day or a bad day, whether you have consciously sinned or not, your basis of approach is always the same—the Blood of Christ. That is the ground upon which you may enter, and there is no other.”
Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life
The costly sacrifice is the one that God accepts, the one that restores the relationship. Our works, like Cain’s offering, are inadequate.
Second, there is a difference in attitude. Abel’s offering was an act of faith, while Cain’s was an act of personal pride. Listen to this story from Luke chapter eighteen:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is the story of Cain and Abel, transported forward in time a few centuries. Look at the Pharisee: There’s nothing wrong with his fasting or his tithing; these are good, commendable acts. But, like Cain, he had no fear of God. He was not acting out of faith. He stood on his works. He felt that his religious activities were sufficient to commend him to God, and that God – imagine the arrogance! – that God should be indebted to him and repay him for his good works.
The other man, the tax collector, is like Abel. He can’t even look up to heaven, because he sees, with eyes of faith, the great gulf between himself and a perfect, holy God. He is rightly horrified by that gulf. All he can do is cry out for mercy. And like Abel, his religion is commended by God; it is accepted, while the self-serving religion of Cain and the Pharisee is rejected.
The religion of Abel is by faith:
“The sacrifice of Abel was better than the sacrifice of Cain, because Abel had faith. As to Cain, he had no faith or trust in God’s grace, but strutted about in his own fancied worth. When God refused to recognize Cain’s worth, Cain got angry at God and at Abel.”
Luther, Commentary on Galatians
In order to have such faith, it requires that one relinquish faith in oneself:
“He that has faith has renounced his own righteousness. If thou puttest one atom of trust in thyself, thou hast no faith; if thou dost place even a particle of reliance on anything else but what Christ did, thou hast no faith.”
I hope that we see this clearly, because it applies to us today. Colossians 2:6 tells us “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.” We received Christ by faith. Therefore we continue to live by faith. We may know that Christ alone atones for our sins, we may even sing songs to that effect, but do we live our Christian life in that light? Do we really “renounce our own righteousness” every day? Is your conscience clean because of Christ’s unchanging, eternal sacrifice? Or do we more often, like Cain, wonder why God doesn’t acknowledge all our good works? Do we expect some sort of repayment for our sacrifice?
The way of Cain is a hard road. Cain went through life as a bitter, angry man, having rejected and murdered the one person on earth who could have shared the gospel with him.
Third, we can see between the brothers’ offerings a difference in intent: Abel’s sacrifice was a cry to God for mercy. He was not looking to buy anything from God. Cain’s was an attempt to appease or ingratiate himself to God.
I want us to consider a brief parable from Luke chapter fourteen.
“[S]uppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”
What a predicament for the king to find himself in. One morning, he awakes, stretches, puts on his royal slippers, opens his shutters to the sunrise – and there on the distant horizon he sees what appears to be a huge army with horses and banners and chariots.
He knows that today, he has a choice to make. This is an invasion. He must protect his people. He could do the heroic thing: assemble the army, give an inspiring speech and make a fateful last stand against the invader. Surely no one would fault him for such a brave decision.
But perhaps he is a wise king. Perhaps he sees how large the opposing army is and recognizes the awful torment that he would bring upon his own people by making such a stand. In his imagination he sees battlefields strewn with his best soldiers. He sees the city under siege, their food and water cut off, people slowly starving.
He has no chance. He must ask for terms of peace.
One of the consequences of these terms is almost certainly that today is his last day as a king.
The key words in this passage? “If he is not able.”
What is this parable about? The invading king is God’s certain judgment. The king facing the awful choice is you and me. It’s every human being. We all face God’s judgment as certain losers.
We will all stand before God’s judgment seat.
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.
God is coming to invade every life. Our choice is simple: Stand and fight to the end like a foolish but brave person, holding onto our personal kingship until the bitter end. Or we can embrace the alternative: Recaognize that we are not able to oppose Him. Surrender. Give up our little kingdom and become part of his. Ask for terms of peace. God alone determines those terms. We have no negotiating power.
Now, we return to the two brothers. There is a wonderful irony in the name “Abel” for us who speak English. Because the great realization of Abel, I believe, is that he was in fact, unable.
Unable to fabricate a religious system that would attain to God’s holiness.
Unable to make himself clean by his own works.
Unable to stand before the judgment seat of God.
Like the king in the story, he assesses the situation and correctly decides that he has no chance. Abel is not able. All he can do is surrender.
When an army surrenders, they place themselves at the mercy of the victors. They lay down their arms. They might march in front of the victorious army in humiliation. All their pride, their strength, their bravery is stripped away and they face whatever fate may await them. This is what Jesus asks of those who follow him. Give up on your self-reliance. Surrender to me and beg for mercy. That is the offering that is accepted by God.
Watchman Nee tells the story of a group of men swinning in a river inChina:
“On one occasion a brother had a cramp in one leg, and I suddenly saw he was sinking fast, so I motioned to another brother, who was an expert swimmer, to hasten to his rescue. But to my astonishment he made no move. So I grew desperate and called out: ‘Don’t you see the man is drowning?’ and the other brothers, about as agitated as I was, shouted vigorously too. But our good swimmer still did not move. Calm and collected, he remained just where he was, apparently postponing the unwelcome task. Meantime the voice of the poor drowning brother grew fainter and his efforts feebler. In my heart I said: ‘I hate that man! Think of his letting a brother drown before his very eyes and not going to the rescue!’
“But when the man was actually sinking, with a few swift strokes the swimmer was at his side, and both were safely ashore. When I got an opportunity I aired my views. ‘I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do’, I said. ‘Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more.’ But the swimmer knew his business better than I did. ‘Had I gone earlier’, he said, ‘he would have clutched me so fast that both of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself.’”
Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life
That, friends, is the lesson of Abel’s life. That is the message he speaks to us today. We need to stop trying to save ourselves through religious self-effort. It’s all useless flailing. We are UNABLE. We need to rid ourselves of the last vestiges of Cain:
Cain, a selfish man, who gave only what was expected and no more;
Cain, a faithless man, who approached God as if to buy His favor;
Cain, a proud man, who believed himself able.
What shall it be, brothers and sisters? Shall we choose the way of Cain, or that of Abel?
Abel, a grateful man, who made a costly sacrifice;
Abel, a man of faith, who put his trust in God as his only hope of redemption;
Abel, a humble man, who considered his dire situation and sought God’s mercy.
Acknowledge the costly sacrifice of Christ, and that our good works can never add anything to it.
Live by faith in him, Put no confidence in your own strength.
Surrender to God. Accept his terms of peace.
Put no confidence in the flesh.