August 12, 2018
Who do you think is a nicer God, the God of the Old Testament or the God of the New Testament? Which path of salvation would you prefer, that of the Old Testament or that of the New? If you find these questions ridiculous and even offensive, that’s good. The God of the Old Testament and of the New is one and the same God. And his way of salvation has been consistent from the foundation of the world. It is an ancient heresy called Marcionism, which teaches that the God of the Old Testament and of the New are two opposing gods. Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament, who created the world was cruel, ignorant and unmerciful; the God of the New Testament and the Father of Jesus, however, is merciful and loving. Although Marcion was excommunicated from the Christian Church in 144 AD his view of the gods of the Old and New Testament is still popular in 2018.
People are often shocked when they read the Old Testament at how wrathful and strict God is portrayed and often fall into the notion that the Old Testament teaches a different religion than the New Testament or even that God has changed. But God has not and cannot change and his mercy endures forever even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And when you look closely, you see that while God is strict, he is always just and merciful. The God, who destroyed all life on earth with a world-wide flood also rescued Noah and his family of eight. The God, who wiped out wicked Sodom rescued Lot and his daughters. And the God, who drowned Pharoah and his hosts in the Red Sea also rescued the nation of Israel from slavery.
A popular notion is that the God of the Old Testament demands good works in order for a person to be saved, while the God of the New Testament only requires faith. This is a false notion. And our Old Testament and Gospel lessons show us clearly that God’s way to salvation has always been by grace through faith.
Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God. Abel’s offering was accepted by God, but Cain’s was rejected. Why? Did Cain offer God a bunch of rotten vegetables while Abel offered good meat? Scripture doesn’t say that. Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. We don’t have any more details than that. And there isn’t really any reason to suspect that Cain offered inferior vegetables or held back the best of his crop.
Abel, however, sacrificed the first born of his flock and of their fat portions. This actually tells us a lot about Abel. In Leviticus chapters 3 and 4 God commands Israel through Moses that when offering a peace offering or a sin offering, that all the fat of the animal should be offered on the altar to the LORD. Leviticus 3:16 says, “All fat is the LORD’s.” And in Deuteronomy chapter 15 God commands Israel through Moses that all firstborn males of their flocks and herds should be sacrificed to the LORD. Yet, both of these commandments regarding the offering of fat and the firstborn were made thousands of years after Abel already sacrificed the fat of the firstborn of his flock to the LORD. This means that thousands of years before God commanded Israel through Moses how to offer proper sacrifices, Abel was already doing it. Well, how can this be?
It is apparent that Abel’s father Adam taught Cain and Abel how to offer right sacrifices. Adam was taught by God. So, is Cain’s sin that he did not offer the right sacrifice? No. King David writes in Psalm 51, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (vss. 16-17) God looks at the heart. It is not as if you can figure out the perfect formula for a proper sacrifice and as long as you perform it perfectly you will go to heaven, regardless of what’s on your heart. God desires a repentant heart that trusts in the LORD. God speaks in Psalm 50, “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. … Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, .... and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
It is perfectly possible that Cain offered a sacrifice in keeping with how his father Adam taught him. God commanded Israel through Moses to offer the first fruits of their fields as well. Cain could very well have offered the finest and best of his crops to the LORD. So why did God reject Cain’s offering and accept Abel’s? Hebrews 11:5 answers us, “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 through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”
God accepted Abel’s offering, not because his offering was perfectly performed, but because he saw the faith by which Abel offered his gift. Abel offered the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions, not because he thought he could appease God’s wrath and please him if he gave him a good enough present. What does God need dead sheep for? He offered God this sacrifice, because he believed in the promised Messiah, the firstborn from God, who would make atonement for Abel’s sins. By offering the most precious of his flock as a sacrifice, Abel communicated his faith in the promised Messiah, who would crush the serpent’s head, while suffering the strike upon his heal.
Cain meanwhile trusted in himself. He believed that God should accept him because of his sacrifice, not for the sake of the promised Messiah. Cain was works-righteous. Works-righteousness is the world’s oldest false religion. It teaches that you can be righteous before God based on your own works. Works-righteousness does not teach you to trust in Jesus, but in yourself. While faith in Christ produces love, works-righteousness produces hate. Cain hated his brother. Abel showed his faith by offering God a sacrifice, which communicated his faith in God’s promise. Cain showed his works-righteousness by murdering his brother in hate and jealously, because his works weren’t accepted.
Our Gospel lesson gives us a parallel story. A Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray. There is no mistaking it, the Pharisee has good works. If you were to try conclude that God didn’t accept the Pharisee, because his works weren’t quite good enough, you’d completely miss the point of the parable. The Pharisee has fine works. It is good not to be a thief or an adulterer. It is good to fast and give ten percent of what you make to the church. The Pharisee did good things. And unlike Abel, we don’t see any of the good works of the tax collector. He just beats his breast and prays for mercy. So, why does the tax collector go down to his house justified? For the same reason that God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s: faith.
The Pharisee did not have faith. He did not offer to God a broken spirit or a contrite heart. He offered his works, which he thought were so good. Yet, when you look closely, you see that like Cain’s, they were not offered in love. The Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous and treated others with contempt. He hated the tax collector and cared nothing for his soul. His hatred was the rotten fruit that proved that he did not have faith.
The tax collector, however, reveals his faith through his words and actions. By beating his breast, he reveals that he has a broken spirit and contrite heart. He confesses to God that he is a sinner. And not just a sinner, he says, “have mercy on me, the sinner.” The tax collector doesn’t accuse anyone else of sin. He acknowledges his own sins before the Lord and bids for pardon.
And the word the tax collector uses for mercy here really connects him to Abel. He doesn’t use the regular word for mercy. Instead, he says, “Be propitiated to me, the sinner.” This phrase, “be propitiated” is sacrificial language. It refers to a sacrifice. The tax collector is saying to God, “God, let this sacrifice make propitiation or satisfaction for my sins.” They are in the temple during these prayers. The Jews went to the temple to pray during the morning and evening sacrifices. During these sacrifices the priests offered lambs without blemish on the altar, and their fat portions. In the presence of this same type of sacrifice that Abel offered thousands of years previously the tax collector with a contrite heart offers quite possibly the same prayer to God as Abel did. “Be propitiated to me, the sinner.”
Yet, how does this teach that we have the same God and the same way of salvation as the Old Testament? We don’t offer sacrifices anymore. Jesus. Jesus is the answer. Jesus is the connection. Jesus, is the promised Messiah, promised to Adam and Eve in the Garden. When Abel offered sacrifices, he did so trusting in the coming Messiah, who is Christ Jesus. When the tax collector said, “Be propitiated to me the sinner” feet away from the burning fat of a sacrificed lamb upon the altar of God, he was not praying that God would be satisfied with the sacrifice of that beast, but with the sacrifice which that offering pointed to: Jesus Christ on the cross.
Every sacrifice of the Old Testament points to Christ Jesus. Adam and Abel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah and Rachel too, Moses and the faithful of Israel, they all trusted in the coming Messiah. Their sacrifices pointed to the future revealed Christ. It is Jesus and his death and resurrection, which unites the Old and the New Testament and proves that God always keeps his promises.
Cain and the Pharisee were rejected by God, because they trusted in their works. They were works-righteous, but God did not declare them righteous. Abel and the tax-collector were accepted by God and declared righteous through faith apart from their works. They humbled themselves and were exalted. And it remains the same today.
The first false religion in the world remains the greatest false religion in the world: works-righteousness. People still believe that they can earn God’s favor by being good or at least better than everybody else. Of course, to do this they have to set boundaries, so that their goodness can be obtainable. So, they love their family members or people who love them and believe they have fulfilled the law of love. They speak poorly of others behind their back, but justify themselves by saying that it is true. In many ways people declare themselves righteous before God. And in many ways we do too. We think God owes us something, because we said something nice to someone or donated to a charity or showed up to church or said a prayer. We think this way. We judge God according to our standards and are aghast that he dares to judge us according to his. This is works-righteousness. It produces only love for the self and resentment for God and your neighbor.
And works-righteousness gives no hope. You don’t know if you are good enough for God. If you break out of your dilution that you are better than everyone else, you are left with the sad realization that you are indeed a poor miserable sinner. And in the religion of works-righteousness, that is a terrifying position to be in. Yet, in the one true religion, the religion of Abel, the tax collector, and the entire Christian Church, which teaches that we are declared righteous by God through faith in Jesus Christ apart from our works, such a position is no longer terrifying. Rather, it is the only position in which you can come before God and be declared righteous. We come before our God as poor miserable sinners, we claim nothing else from ourselves, but we put our trust in Jesus Christ alone, who sacrificed himself for our sins. And God counts such faith for righteousness.
It is comforting that the God of the Old Testament is still the God we pray to today. And it is comforting that his way of salvation remains the same. Because, this means that God always keeps his promises. Brantley David Cordray was baptized today. That is a wonderful thing. Why? What benefits does such pouring of water and a few words give? “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare.” And which are these words and promises of God? “Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’”
These words and promises of God are comforting, because they remain true. If God promises it, then it stands forever. This means that when Brantley sins, when he brings shame upon himself (which remains unavoidable in our sinful condition), and when the Holy Spirit, whom he has received today in his Baptism strikes his conscience with remorse over his sins, he can say to God, “Be merciful to me, the sinner, for the sake of Christ, who is the Savior of all who trust in him both from the Old and New Testament.” And he can go down to his home confident that he is justified.
May God grant us such faith to hear and believe the promises of Christ, so that we may stand in a right relationship with God today and forever. Amen.