Giving God Your Best?

Text:  Luke 18:9-14

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

The spirit of Cain runs through all of us.  It is a dangerous disposition, a dangerous way of thinking and living.  Having the character traits of Cain actually leads to our damnation, the destruction of the gospel, and the condemnation of everyone around us – even death itself. 

Even though this spirit of Cain is dangerous, the unfortunate reality is that it is way too common in the church and in the lives of Christians.  It is common because it is a part of our DNA as sinners.  It is also very seductive; we can get seduced by the spirit of Cain and without evening knowing it, be on the way down the path of destruction. 

What am I talking about though?  I am talking about our Old Testament reading from this morning that speaks to us about two brothers named Cain and Abel. 

Now, “Cain, had the pedigree, the family business, the world’s kind of glory. He belonged. He was the mover and the shaker, the big top event. Nothing less than the world’s salvation was expected of him, and it looked like a distinct possibility. Abel [on the other hand didn’t have] much significance; [he was] an after-thought, a misfit. The father’s fields went to Cain, so Abel was sent out with the sheep, and we know how the Egyptians detested shepherds.”[1]

But what of this dangerous spirit of Cain that I have already mentioned?

In our Old Testament reading from Genesis we hear that the church divides into two categories or two different dispositions.  We can call this the spirit of Cain and the spirit of Abel – two different ways in approaching the Christian faith and life. 

Permit me to explain a bit more.

Cain goes the way of self-righteousness, he goes the way of trying to earn God’s approval through his own works; whereas, Abel goes the way of faith, knowing that he cannot make himself right before God by his own works. 

And so it goes.  Cain desired to be made right before God by his own works.  However, when God accepts Abel instead, Cain became jealous. His hatred for Abel was probably due in part to his own hatred of God for refusing to accept his righteousness – and so Cain kills Abel. 

We not only hear about Cain and Abel in our Old Testament reading, but we also hear about them in our Gospel reading as well.  They are not specifically addressed in our Gospel reading though, but the spirit of Cain and the spirit of Abel are present – their dispositions are captured in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

In our Gospel reading we hear about two men who went up to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee stood by himself.  He was polished and had it together.  He was not a thief or a rogue.  He was not an adulterer, but was righteous.  He fasted daily and tithed generously.  He was the upstanding citizen.  He crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s.  His life was so squeaky clean that he was confident to declare himself as righteous.  In fact, he was so righteous that he felt as if he could set himself apart from all the other lowlifes around him.  He was special; he was so special that God should’ve thanked him for all that he had done and achieved. 

The other man was a dirty filthy reject – a tax collector, the worst of the worst.  A traitor to the Israelites for he collaborated with the grubby Roman Gentles by taking tax money from Israelites and giving it to the enemy – Rome.  Unlike the Pharisee though, this wretched man knew that he was nothing.  At the temple, he beat and pounded on his chest, with his head hung low saying, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!” 

The spirit of Cain and Abel most definitely come forth in the actions, lives, and words of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector!  Indeed, the disposition of Cain lives on in the Pharisee and the disposition of Abel lives on in the Tax Collector. 

The Pharisee trusts himself, declares himself righteous, and snubs everyone around him – he is Cain.  The Tax Collector, on the other hand, comes as a sinner with empty hands and sin, not even able to lift his head – he is Abel.

Dear friends, what distinguishes the spirit of Cain from the spirit of Abel, is that Cain and the Pharisee trusted in themselves, whereas Abel and the Tax Collector did not.  You see, Abel and the Tax Collector come before the Lord as sinner, Cain and the Pharisee came before the Lord as self-righteous Saints.  Cain and the Pharisee come to give their best to God in order to be accepted.  Abel and the Tax Collector come to receive righteousness by grace, through faith, by the blood of another.  Abel and the Tax Collector’s acceptance before God was not a matter of their name, their accomplishments, or their place in the world, or even their own assessment of how faithful they were, and especially not a matter of their works and accomplishments.  The Tax Collector and Abel’s acceptance before God was determined by blood shed for them, for the remission of their sins, and the sins of the world.

So, I ask you today.  Who are you?  Are you Cain or are you Abel?  Are you the Pharisee or are you the Tax Collector? 

If you trust in yourself and are constantly taking inventory of your accomplishments, if you see yourself better than those around you and think God is lucky to have you in his church, if you pat yourself on the back for every good work you do thinking that you are earning brownie points before God… well you are Cain, you are the Pharisee. You have deceived yourself and are trapped in an awful delusion.  Therefore, repent of this damning delusion.  Yes, repent, for the only thing that you can give to Jesus is your sin – nothing more.   You cannot buy the Kingdom of God, especially since the only thing you can offer to the Lord is a treasure chest full of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds.

Dear friends, it is so easy to go the way of Cain, to be seduced into this way of thinking.  It is easy to develop a sense of security by what we do, for we can convince ourselves that if we do enough good that God will somehow owe us.  However, instead of exchanging our good works for eternal security, what happens is that our halos get too tight and we then develop a sense of arrogance, thinking we are better than everybody else.  Once arrogance sets in we begin to deceive ourselves by trusting in ourselves and distancing ourselves from the Gospel, the Gospel which is for sinners only. 

The Tax Collector and Abel know a different way though.  Not one that looks for justification by being smart enough, good enough, or pious enough, but rather, a righteousness that comes from God Himself.  Consider the Tax Collector’s prayer for a moment.  He prays, while beating his chest, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!”  You see, the Tax Collector and Abel knew they were nothing before the Lord Almighty. 

And so it is necessary for you and me to lay hold of our nothingness before God this morning.  This is the reality that we are faced with in today’s sermon.  We cannot justify ourselves.  We cannot barter with God.  We cannot do anything to acquire eternal life.  Therefore, we must come face to face with the deepest reality that we are powerless and helpless – yes helpless – before the Lord.  We are beggars at the door of God’s mercy. 

Being a poor beggar may frighten us though, for this lack of control and this vulnerability exposes us for who we truly are – sinners.  However, knowing that we are Abel and the Tax Collector is not the end of ourselves, but is the essence of what it means to be alive. 

Dear Baptized Saints, to be alive in the Christian faith is to be aware of our sin, helplessness, and brokenness.  And to know that we are poor miserable sinners in thought, word, and deed is to stand in need of the Lord’s grace.   Only when we recognize the malady of our sin are we then able to see, receive, and rejoice in the Savior who comes to save and forgive sinners such as ourselves.  Indeed, being honest about our powerless and sin keeps us in touch with our neediness and the truth that we are forgiven sinners.  “There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are.”[2]

Getting honest with ourselves does not lead to despair and hopelessness, but shows us our need for a righteousness outside of ourselves.  What this means is that “to be alive is to [know our sinful condition]; to [know our sinful condition] is to stand in need of grace.”[3]  And as we stand in need of grace, the Lord does not hold back, but pours grace upon grace upon us.   It is only through grace that any of us can rest in the fact that we are justified – righteous by another person’s sacrifice for us. 

God is merciful to the Tax Collector, He is merciful to Abel and He is merciful to you and me.  Yes, the Lord justifies the ungodly; He declares sinners forgiven; He forgives sinners with tilted and bent halos - sinners such as you and me.   You who lie in the dust of sin, you who have tilted halos, you who beat your breast in sinful remorse, you who cannot lift your head because of the weight of sin are forgiven – justified – righteous for Christ’s sake.  You are righteous for Christ’s sake, for the Lord declares this to you from His Word.      

You dear Blessed Saints are the church of Abel, you are the church of the Tax Collector, for we are poor miserable sinners that gather here this day to receive the Lord’s declaration that we are forgiven.  We are here this day to receive from the body and blood of our Lord that saves only the damned, that forgives only sinners, that speaks of the one who justifies sinners and embraces sinners as His beloved Saints for all of eternity.

We come before the Lord with Abel and the Tax Collector, but we all leave this church service and go home justified, for Jesus is our righteousness, life, and hope.
In the name of Jesus: Amen.

[1] Sermon for the Montana District Pastors’ Conference (19 October A+D 2010) The Rev. Dr. John W. Sias, Pastor, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Colstrip, Montana Psalm 5; Genesis 4:1-15 (Matthew 23:35/Luke 11:51; Hebrews 11:4; 12:24); LSB 585.

[2] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books,  2005), page unknown.

[3] Ibid.

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