This is a strange story, isn’t? Whether we’ve grown up in church and heard it our entire lives or are new to faith and just getting exposed to it, it is a story that leaves us with more questions than answers. It doesn’t start out confusing, in the beginning it seems fairly straight forward. Adam and Eve get sent out of Eden and proceed to try to make the best out of their new life by starting a family. The kids grow up, one becomes a farmer and the other becomes a herder. Now this is one those places where the time and place we live in may make us miss something important. Farming is something we all have a concept of: you have a set area of land, you plant things there, you work to help those things grow, and then you harvest them when the time comes. Now obviously that’s making things sound a whole lot simpler than it is but that’s the basis of farming. And that’s what farming has been since people figured out that they could put seeds in the ground and food would grow thousands of years ago. Yes there have been all kinds of advances in the way people farm and the tools people use, but the basic gist of farming is the same as it has always been. Plant crops, raise crops, harvest crops, repeat. Herding is a different story. We may know people who keep herds or flocks, the folks Meghan and I rented from before we came here kept cattle and we lived right next door to said cows, but that’s not herding. When we think of people raising livestock today its somewhat similar to farming, there is a set space of land that the animals live on, there are fences to keep them there, if they can’t survive off of the land they live on we have hay or something else to feed them as a supplement, its very contained and professional and organized. That’s not how Abel would have herded. Ancient herding was nomadic, if the place you were could not sustain the herd or the flock you moved. And in most cases there wasn’t any kind of fencing or anything letting you know not to be on this land, so the herd just wandered to wherever there was food. You know what had great food? Farms. Farmers and herders did not get along. So when the original audience was reading this the first sign that the story they are about to read isn’t going to end happily is the fact that one brother was a farmer and the other was a herder.
But at first everything seems ok between the two brothers, they come together to go and offer sacrifices to God. Here’s another moment that might be strange to us, no one has told them that they need to go and make sacrifices. Generations later, when the Hebrews leave Egypt they are going to get really specific instructions about sacrifices but at this point sacrificing has never been declared necessary. Now that probably wouldn’t have been strange to ancient folks reading it, sacrifices were part of their way of life so they wouldn’t have been surprised that the folks they read about offered sacrifices. For us though, I think its important that, and I want you to tuck this in your back pocket for later, Cain and Abel know they should offer something to God without being told. Keep it, we’re coming back in a second.
They come and they make their offering, Cain offers some fruit from his fields, Abel offers the fat from some of the firstborn in his flock. God somehow indicates that Abel’s sacrifice is better, Cain gets mad, and eventually he leads his brother out into a field and kills him. That got out of hand very quickly. Again, it’s a strange story because my guess is that up until the whole cold-blooded murder thing most of us are on Cain’s side. When I was in freshman Old Testament at PC we read this story and the professor asked “so what are your first thoughts” and a guy in the back of the room goes “God seems like a real jerk.” And he’s kind of right. Based on what we have in front of us it seems like there’s an injustice going on here. The two brothers take it upon themselves to come offer sacrifices to God, without any prompting or example, they both bring something that represents their professions, and God seemingly arbitrarily decides that one is better than the other. Now the rest of the passage deals with Cain’s reaction and God’s response, I’m not going to dwell on that except to point out that even in response to what seems like pre-meditated and cold-blooded murder on the part of Cain God chooses to respond with mercy. Cain does get punished for what he’s done but he isn’t punished in kind. He’s exiled not executed, and God even goes so far as to protect Cain from those who might seek to act out more vengeance upon him.
So God’s ability to show and promote mercy is on full display here, but that’s not where we’re going to focus. I want to focus on Abel, who really is an afterthought in the text. He brings his sacrifice and gets killed, that’s all we know about Abel. And yet when we turn to Hebrews 11, to this list of people who the author says should be commended on account of their faith, he’s the first one on the list. And it’s a pretty important list, we’re going to be looking at some of the other folks this summer but people like Abraham and Noah and Moses are on this list. King David is on this list. And yet despite only showing up in a few verses of scripture Abel is right there at the start of it. In verse 4 the author says “By faith Abel brought a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous when God spoke well of his offering. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.” So despite his brief presence Abel is seen as a big figure, someone who points to what faith should look like.
To unpack that I want to return first to the idea I told you to keep handy a few minutes ago, both Abel and Cain go to worship and offer sacrifice without receiving any kind of instructions. What should that mean to us? It means that worship is an essential part of who we are. Worship is not something that is the result of our religious systems or reliant on a set of rules, the act of worship is ingrained in us, it is part of the essence of humanity. We are not being all we are created to be if we are not giving the praise and adoration that our creator is due. I think it is significant as well that Cain and Abel go to worship together. They realized that worship is not something that can be done fully by ourselves. There is a corporate component to worship that cannot be ignored or overlooked. We are only fully experiencing worship when we do so as part of a larger community that joins together. That last thing that is true about both the brothers is that they both recognize that sacrifice is a part of worship. Now sacrifice gets a bad rap in our society, and for a decent reason, what we see in scripture is evidence that at times in the history of human’s interaction with God the trappings of sacrifice were given way more importance than they needed, and the offerings themselves were given more power or credit than they should have. But that shouldn’t lead us to assume that the idea of sacrificing, of making an offer of what we have to God isn’t valid. Jesus said himself, “if anyone wants to come after me they should deny themselves and take up their cross.” That’s a call to sacrifice. That’s a call to offering up what have to the Lord. And it is not a simple call, that’s something that is asking a whole lot from us.
And that brings us to the distinction between Cain and Abel. People throughout history have bent over backwards trying to explain why Abel’s sacrifice is accepted and Cain’s is rejected. If you’ve got an afternoon to kill here during the summer google it, you’ll be entertained for a while but the consensus seems to be that it hinges on a few words in verses three and four of Genesis 4, “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” That phrase “fat portions” could also be translated as “choice portions,” “prized portions,” “some of the best portions.” Abel brought the best parts of the first born of his flock, Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil. “Some,” is not a great adjective. Particularly when its being compared to words like choice or prized, or best. The distinction between the two is this, Cain seems to have just grabbed whatever was handy, Abel offered the best of what he had to the Lord. And because of that, the author of Hebrews says, that Abel’s example still speaks, it is a reminder that what God expects from us is nothing short of our best.
God expects, and deserves, nothing short of our best. We see numerous examples of scripture where God rejects offerings made out of obligation or tradition, things that are done simply to cover all the bases or go through the motions. That kind of thing doesn’t cut it when we come before God. What we offer should be nothing short of our best. Graduation season just ended, one of my great struggles with things like graduations is figuring out who I owe a real gift to. Like at who gets a card, who gets cash, who deserves something that looks like it actually received some thought, where do people rank and what kind of gift is expected of that. Too often we treat our relationship with God that way. Too often we try to determine the minimum that is expected of us, figure out what’s enough to keep us in good standing while not costing us too much. The example of Abel shows us that true faith is giving the best of ourselves over to God. Recognizing that a part from the gifts of God we have nothing and therefore being willing to offer nothing short of the best we can. How would it change our lives if that was our focus? What would it look like if our ideas of offering and sacrifice and worship were less about how much is required or keeps us covered and more about what does my best look like right now? What could we accomplish if we were all willing to offer the best of ourselves to the kingdom?