19 August 2012 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, 1 Cor 15:1-10)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Two men, one is righteous, one is a murderer. In fact, he is the world’s first murderer who has just slain his only brother. Which one of these two brothers do you identify with? Are you the innocent victim who offers the Lord sacrificially “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” giving back to God from the finest and the first-fruits of your labor, a cheerful giver who prays every day for whom the Lord has regard, with whose offering the Lord is pleased? Are you really like the faithful servant Abel?
Or are you a murderer, like Cain. Of course, very few people – and perhaps none in this sanctuary – have actually illegally taken a human life. But have you wanted to? Have you been angry enough to? Have you had bitter thoughts about another person? Have you ever called anyone a fool? Have you ever gossiped about a person behind his back? If we actually believe our Lord Jesus Christ, if we truly accept His Word as truth – then we all know the painful truth of that Word.
The truth is that we are more Cain than Abel.
For we meet the Lord’s criteria for murder. And in fact, dear friends, we have been given the death penalty, like all poor, miserable sinners.
And in another case, two men are praying. One boasts of his righteousness: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
The other is a poor, miserable sinner, a “tax collector, standing far off, [who] would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’”
We know who the good guy in our Lord’s story is. We know which one we are supposed to identify with. We know that we are expected to admit that we are “poor, miserable sinners” – and it is even in our liturgy, right along with “Lord, have mercy.”
And so we say the words. But do we really repent like this tax collector? Or do we examine ourselves with rose-colored glasses. How often I hear this: “I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I pray. I read the Bible.” All of this is to convince me of how righteous someone is – especially if someone is repeatedly absent from the Divine Service and from Bible class, allowing other things to get in the way instead.
But what does our Lord say about these excuses?
Better yet, what does our Lord say about poor, miserable sinners who truly confront their sins, who repent, who change on the inside and manifest that change on the outside, who ask for absolution and receive it, who sincerely pray “Lord, have mercy” instead of just singing what’s in the book?
Our Lord says this: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And what about the murderer Cain? Did he repent? Does he have a share in God’s kingdom as one of the redeemed? Scripture is not clear, but one thing is certain: the Lord did show him mercy. The Lord treated him with grace. The Lord placed a mark upon him as a divine protection “lest any who found him should attack him.”
Dear friends, our Lord has also placed a mark on us as a divine protection lest we be attacked. And that mark is the sign of the cross. We were signed with the cross when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit, when we were delivered by Holy Baptism. The sign of the cross is our mark of Cain, a holy protection for us, the unworthy who pray: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For this, dear friends, is the Christian life. It is humbly beating our breasts and confessing our sins. We are Cain. We are the tax collector. Lord, have mercy upon us!
But there is good news, dear brothers and sisters, under this Mark of Cain, under this sinful curse of death, under this gracious redemption: “God is merciful, and He is merciful to you – by His Word declared to you from the cross, delivered to you at Baptism, spoken to you anew in Absolution, shown to you by His mercy lived out in the Christian life, the life of the redeemed sinner, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
For this confession, this repentance, this reception of the Lord’s free gift of redemption, of justification, is precisely how it is that our offerings are made acceptable before the Lord. They are not regarded by the Lord because of our goodness, but rather because of our forgiveness. And, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, forgiveness is freely given to those who pray with the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
For as St. Paul reminds us of the “gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the Word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.”
For we do not preach to you of your goodness; we do not proclaim to you the goodness of our own works. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
“Christ died for our sins.”
Dear friends, Christ died for sinners. Christ died for Cain. Christ died for the tax collector. Christ died for the murderer – whether actual blood was shed or not. Christ died for you, for me, and for the entire world. And the Lord has regard for His offering, His act of atonement as the true Keeper of Sheep, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, the One who has done well and is accepted.
We confess our sins and we confess our faith – the same faith of the apostles, the same faith delivered to us and received in faith: “Christ died for our sins.”
And with St. Paul and with the church of every time and place, we confess: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.
He is faithful Abel. And though we killed Him, though innocent, we gives us His innocent life as an offering of forgiveness, life, salvation, grace, and mercy. To Him be thanks and praise now and forevermore!
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In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.