Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 25:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be the first child ever born? That’s Cain. Number 1. Literally. And it seems that his parents treat him that way. Eve calls him Cain, from the Hebrew word for “to get” or “acquire.” “Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man, Yahweh’” (Genesis 4:1). Eve believes the promise of Genesis 3:15; the promise that God wrapped up in the curse on the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between her offspring and yours. He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel.” Eve believes it, and she believes Cain is the fulfillment of the promise. He is, she thinks, the Man who will take the place of his father Adam and undo the curse. Abel, on the other hand, is just number 2. He is an afterthought: “In addition, she bore Abel” (4:2). His name in Hebrew even means “breath” or “vapor”; “nothingness, emptiness.” Cain is number 1.
But Cain is not the Son of God; he is the son of Adam. He even follows in Adam’s footsteps and works the ground. When some days had passed, Cain brings in the fruit of the field for an offering to Yahweh; and Abel brings in the firstborn of the flock for an offering. For reasons we are not told here, Yahweh looks favorably on the offering of Abel, but not on Cain’s. And Cain is very angry and his face falls. Yahweh warns him, “If you do well, if you look to your own sin and confess it; if you stop looking at Abel, will not your burden be lifted, your sin forgiven, and your face lifted in joy? But if not, sin is lying in wait at your door. It wants to consume you. Close the door, do not let sin in.” But Cain ignores the Word of Yahweh. He does not confess or deny his sin. And when he and Abel are in the field, Cain rises up against him like a lion out of the grass, and Cain slays Abel. While we can guess at it, here we are given no motive, no explanation; only the fact.
Just as Yahweh asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” now He says to Cain, “Where is your brother?” And Cain says, “I don’t know. I am not my brother’s keeper, am I?” And Cain is right. He is not his brother’s keeper. The problem is not that he did not keep his brother; the problem is that he tried to do exactly that. In the Scriptures, people are rarely called keepers of one another, and if they are, it is usually in the sense of guarding them from danger; Yahweh is the true keeper of men. Cain has crossed the boundary into God’s territory, and acted as if he were the keeper of his brother. He took what was God’s and not his to take: his brother’s life.
And now he follows in his father’s footsteps again: he is driven out of the land as Adam was driven out of Eden. As the land was cursed because of Adam’s sin, Cain is cursed from the land because of his sin. He is a wanderer, a fugitive, marked as a murderer. He says, “My sin is greater than can be lifted.” He goes out into the world like Judas goes out, despairing of the grace of God. And Abel? He was as his name implies: a vapor, a breath on the earth. He never said a word. He went silently to his death. It is only after his death that his blood cries out to the keeper of all men for vengeance, for justice. But God would not let the promise die with the murder of Abel by Cain. He appoints for Adam and Eve another son to take the place of Abel: Seth. And from Seth’s line would come Noah, and from Noah’s line Abraham, all the way down the generations until, finally, the promise of Genesis 3:15 was fulfilled in the Seed of the Woman, Jesus, the Messiah. But Cain’s line was cut off permanently in the Flood, just as he cut off Abel’s line in murder.
We do not know Cain’s motives, but we know our own. We rise up against our brothers and sisters in anger, jealousy, envy, judgment. We are afraid that they might get something first, something better, some blessing that we do not have. We may not commit murder so blatantly, but we slay our brothers and sisters with our thoughts and words. We murder their reputations with gossiping tongues. We spread the rumors of their sin. And if we don’t fit the mold of Cain, we fit the mold of the Pharisee in the Temple. We look at others with smugness and pride. We compare ourselves to them and we always come out number 1. We are sure of our right standing with God, sure of our spirituality, proud of our piety. We give more, serve more, do more, pray more, come to church more. And in a curious reversal of the tax collector’s humility, we are sure of our sin, confess it self-righteously; sin all the more so that grace may abound. All the time, looking at others, like Cain, like the Pharisee.
But notice the tax collector again. He does not lift his head to look around at everyone else in the Temple. He does not compare himself to others. He does not judge the Pharisee for his obvious hypocrisy and arrogance and self-righteousness. He does not comfort himself with the fact that everyone else is a sinner, too. He is not his brother’s keeper. He knows that God alone is the keeper of men, and that, before God, he has no claim, no strength, no wisdom, nothing. He sees only himself, only his own sin; “O God, let there be propitiation for me, a sinner!” Let there be a sacrifice for me! Let there be atonement for me! He knows his sin is greater than he can lift.
But he does not leave the temple in despair. He knows that there is One who can lift the burden from his back. There is a sin-bearer. It is Jesus, the one appointed to take your place and mine, the Man who takes the place of His father Adam and undoes the curse. The Chosen One enters our flesh in weakness, and dies in weakness. He lets sin rise up and conquer Him, though He is innocent. His blood speaks a greater word than the blood of Abel, because it does not cry out for justice against us. That’s the last thing we need. The justice and the vengeance for every murder, every angry thought, every self-righteous comparison of sinner to sinner, fell on Him and for it all His blood was shed. Justice and righteousness are made for us in His flesh. For all our hidden motives and outward sins, He went silently to His death, and His blood cries from the ground, not for justice, but for mercy. The blood of Christ soaked into the cursed ground, and it speaks the final word of mercy over all the children of Cain, even over you and even over me. And in His resurrection and ascension, He bestows that mercy on us, washes us clean of the fugitive mark of the sinner, and gives us the mark of His own Name. And then He opens up a place in His Church where His mercy can be found by any and by all—Cains and Abels; Pharisees and tax collectors—so that today, you will go down to your house justified.
A strange mercy! “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong; God choose the low and the despised of the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). Before the Lord, there is not everyone else; there is only you. You can only confess your sin; I can only confess mine. Our sin is greater than we can bear, but we, too, have a Sin-Bearer. We have no boast before the Lord, except the Lord Himself. We have nothing in ourselves; but we have everything in Christ and Him crucified. Crucified for all the children of Cain, covered with blood that cries out as our sacrifice. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”—Abel, Seth, Noah, Abraham, all the saints and martyrs, angels and archangels—“let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
From the Right Hand of God He reigns over us; from there He is the Keeper of Israel, who neither slumbers, nor sleeps. He is your Keeper, the shade at your right hand. He will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 121:4-5, 8). The blood of Him who keeps you does not cry out for justice against you, but it does make true justice, all things made right in the new creation. And that makes possible among us, children of the resurrection, a working toward peace and mercy and forgiveness, no matter how tentative and halting it will be in this age. But even though our justice will always be incomplete and uncertain, God’s is not. In Christ, we can say confidently with St. Paul: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/22/22