Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 11)

Luke 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10; Genesis 4:1-15

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Why did the LORD have regard for Abel and his offering, but not for Cain and his offering? Abel was a shepherd, and he offered to the LORD the firstborn of his flock. Cain was a farmer, and he offered to the LORD a portion of his harvest of the fruit of the ground. Both offerings were appropriate, and both were God-pleasing in content, but the LORD had regard for Abel’s offering alone. But, why? The preacher to the Hebrews explains that it was a matter of faith and trust; he writes, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” And so, we learn that it was not the offering that was the problem, but rather it was the heart of Cain. And, what was the problem of Cain’s heart? Perhaps Cain trusted in his offering. Perhaps he trusted in the fruits of his labor. Perhaps he trusted in his own righteousness. But, whatever it was that he placed his trust in, he did not place his trust in the LORD for his righteousness. Thus, he placed his trust in himself. And, thus, the LORD had no regard for Cain’s offering.
The rest of that Old Testament account truly deals with the poisonous fruit of Cain’s self-righteousness. Cain became jealous and angry of his brother Abel, and that the LORD had regard for Abel’s offering and not his own. Further, he became angry with God. Nevertheless, the LORD said to Cain that if he did well, he would be accepted. But, He also warned him that if he did not do well, sin was crouching at the door, and that its desire was for him, and therefore he must rule over it. Now, that is a key statement. Truly, there was no outward difference between Cain and Abel. They both experienced the same temptations to sin, temptations that are common to all men, the same temptations that you and I face every day. They are the temptations of fear, greed, selfishness, jealousy, anger, judgment, and hatred. They are the temptation to self-righteousness, which is nothing other than transgression of the First Commandment, to have a god before and above the LORD – namely, yourself. All such temptations serve to drive you into yourself, and to drive a wedge between you and others. Such are the tactics of Satan, who prowls around like a lion, seeking to divide the flock and to prey upon those who become separated and stray.
You know the story all too well. Cain rose up against his brother Abel while out in the field and he murdered him. Cain had already murdered his brother in his heart, now he had murdered him physically as well. When the LORD inquired about Abel, Cain infamously answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This too is the fruit of self-righteousness – judgment, condemnation, separation – as Cain forsook his stewardship and care for his own brother, flesh of his own flesh, and blood of his own blood. Fear, greed, selfishness, jealousy, anger, judgment, and hate – these are the fruits of self-righteousness. These are the temptations we face daily which Satan uses to cause us to judge, condemn, and hate our neighbor so that we will separate from them, avoid them, and fail to love and serve them. Self-righteousness is contradictory and antithetical to love, and it receives, not God’s blessing, but His curse. To hate your neighbor, let alone your brother, is to hate God, and it is to worship your self. The only relief from this curse is to do well and be accepted, which is to say, repent of your sin, be turned from your hateful self-righteousness and idolatry back to God, in humility and selflessness, and He will accept you, just as He regarded Abel’s offering in faith and trust. He will accept you, not because of your faith, but because of the object of your faith, Jesus. Abel’s faith, so many millennia before the advent of Christ, was faith in the goodness and faithfulness of the LORD, that He would keep His promise to send a savior from the seed of a woman. Your faith is in that seed who has come, and who has been planted in the soil in death, who now is risen to new and eternal life, bearing fruit a hundredfold.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus taught a parable to illustrate this point. Once again there were two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Both men did the appropriate and pious thing to do, they went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed, giving thanks to God for many good things in his life: being one of God’s chosen, not an extortioner, unjust, an adulterer, or a tax collector. He was a good and pious man, well thought of as an outstanding example of godliness and holiness. He wasn’t perfect, but he did recognize God as having set him apart. But, there was a problem in his attitude – a problem with his faith and trust, just as there was a problem with Cain’s faith and trust. The Pharisee thanked God for setting him apart from other men. He even thanked God for making him a holy and pious man. However, the Pharisee’s faith and trust was not in God, but in what God had made of himself – God had set the Pharisee apart from other men and provided him gifts that made him pious and holy, but, instead of trusting in God the giver of the gifts, he trusted in himself and the gifts he had received. Is this a subtle distinction? Perhaps, but it is a significant and important one.
Consider the Pharisee’s attitude towards the tax collector, who also had done the appropriate and pious thing to do, going to pray in the temple. In his prayer of thanks to God, the Pharisee actually used the pious tax collector as an example of the type of person he was thankful not to be. The Pharisee viewed the tax collector much in the way that Cain viewed his brother Abel – with contempt, judgment, anger, condemnation, and hatred. His attitude rather should have been that of St. Paul’s who said, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle… But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”In contemporary parlance we might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The Pharisee boasted of his tithing to the temple. He trusted in his works, not in God. And, the Pharisee viewed the tax collector as beneath him, standing in judgment and condemnation over him, not recognizing that the same grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness that he enjoyed from the LORD was showered upon the tax collector as well.
In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector stood far off and would not even lift up his eyes, but he beat his breast and confessed his sinfulness and unworthiness of God’s grace and mercy saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector did not boast of anything at all. He did not offer anything to God but his broken and contrite heart. He trusted in God to be merciful to him. He trusted in God’s good will towards him. And Jesus concludes his parable saying that “this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other [the Pharisee]. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Next to the Lord’s Prayer, this prayer of the tax collector, and many other sinners, lepers, blind persons, and people in need of help and healing, Kyrie eleisonLord, have mercy, is the finest prayer in all of scripture. When we pray this prayer in worship, we are praying like the humble tax collector, offering nothing to the LORD, but trusting in Him and receiving from Him mercy and forgiveness. As Martin Luther said in his dying words, “We are all beggars, every one.” This prayer is a confession that all that we have, all that we are that is good, just, and godly is His gift to us, by grace, received in, and clung to, in faith in Jesus Christ. We may judge actions and deeds by the Law of the LORD – for example, tax collectors notoriously extorted the people they collected from, and this was wrong, it was stealing, and perhaps a host of other sins – however, when it comes to justification before God, no man may judge another, for we are all in the same sin-boat together. There is no difference between Pharisee and tax collector, Cain and Abel, leper, adulterer, pastor, or layman – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
One can look as this Sunday’s lessons as a study in contrasts: Cain and Abel; Pharisee and tax collector; the house of prayer that is the temple and the house of prayer that is the soul of a man. Last Sunday you heard Jesus’ words concerning the temple in Jerusalem, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers”. Today you have heard the spiritual meaning of those words. Your body is the temple of the LORD; what kind of spirit dwells in it? Is it filled with the Holy Spirit of God, the Lord and giver of life, who graciously gives to all things needful, or is it filled with your own self-righteousness? When you pray, when you give an offering, when you serve God, do you return to Him with acknowledgement and thanksgiving what you know belongs to Him and is His gift to you, or do you rob God and claim for yourself what is His, offering to Him your own works, your own gifts, your own righteousness? Is the temple of your body and soul the LORD’s house of prayer, or is it a den of robbers? As Jesus taught in His parable, there were two men who went to the temple to pray. Both men returned to their homes, but only the humble and repentant tax collector returned to his home justified.For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
The Pharisee wasn’t a bad man by human standards. Indeed, he was not an extortioner, unjust, an adulterer, or even a tax collector. And yet, in his heart, he had done all these evil things and more against God: robbing God of His glory and righteousness, betraying God’s holiness and faithfulness, stealing from God by claiming His gifts and His works as his own. Like Cain, the Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous. In so doing he exalted himself and now must take a lower place. In contrast, the humble tax collector boasted of nothing in himself except his sinfulness and unworthiness. The house and temple of his body and soul were full only of God’s Holy Spirit. As he prayed in the temple with his eyes and face cast down, already he was exalted higher than the self-righteous Pharisee. And when he died he was exalted to the host of angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven around the throne of the Lamb.
You, dear Christian, too are the house and temple of the LORD. Daily purge your soul of self-righteousness and spiritual extortion and adultery, praying day and night Kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy. And the Lord will exalt you and will make His home with you. He will settle you in a home and a family so that you are not alone. All this He has accomplished for you in the gracious visitation of His Son Jesus Christ. He is your righteousness, an alien righteousness, come from outside you, but credited to you when you receive, believe, and confess Him as Lord and God. And God is in His temple now, this House of Prayer, to fill you with all good things. Bring to Him nothing but your broken and contrite heart, and He will give you a new heart and all things beautiful and holy.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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