Sermon for First Lenten Service 2007
Text: Genesis 4:1-16
Rev. Paul L. Beisel
There are several places in the New Testament where Jesus speaks of Himself as being the fulfillment of the entire Scriptures. In the Sermon on the Mount He says to His disciples: “I have come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” To John the Baptizer He says: “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To the Pharisees He says: “If you believed Moses then you would believe Me, for He wrote about Me.” And on the day of His resurrection Luke says that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” Jesus “interpreted to them all things concerning Himself.”
The books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms all testify to Christ. Hidden under every pebble and stone of Old Testament Scripture is Christ and His suffering and death for sins. It is our goal during this Lenten season to upturn some of those rocks, so that we might see more clearly the divine necessity of Christ’s death. Tonight we look at the death of Abel and consider how his death is a type or shadow of the death of Christ. Luther and our other Lutheran and pre-Lutheran Church fathers were quick to look for parallels between Christ and the lives of Old Testament saints. Abel is no exception, as we shall soon see.
The first thing we learn about Abel is that he was a shepherd. “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground.” Both Cain and Abel bring offerings to the Lord, Cain from the fruit of the ground, and Abel from the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. In the eyes of men, it would appear that Abel’s offering was not superior to that of Cain. They both brought the best portion of their labor. Why then does the Lord have regard for Abel’s offering and not Cain’s? The New Testament says that the difference was faith. “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” (Hebrews 11:4).
Already here we can see in type the conflict that would eventually arise between Christ and His Israelite brothers, the Jews. For both Christ and His Cainite brothers brought also offerings to the Lord. The Jews brought their sacrifices, their tithes, and their prayers to God just as they had been commanded. And Christ, our greater Abel, also offered a Lamb, that is, He gave Himself into death for the sins of men. And yet, God regarded not the Jews and their offerings, but Christ and His offering did please the Father. By faith Christ offered a better sacrifice than that of His Israelite brothers, and thus He was commended as righteous before God and not them. God accepted His gifts, raising Him from the dead as a sign and testimony of his acceptance of Christ’s offering.
Were not the Jews rejected because they, like Cain before them, did not believe the Promise or see this promise fulfilled in Christ? Were they not rejected by the Lord because like Cain, they trusted more in themselves and their own birth-right than they did in the Lord’s Promise? Abel, on the other hand, trusting in the Promise God first gave to Adam and Eve, foresaw that God would win the victory over the Serpent not by the fruit of the ground, but by the blood of an innocent lamb.
Cain’s rejection by the Lord angered him greatly. “I am the firstborn! I deserve to be accepted by God, not this puny shepherd boy. How can this happen?” Cain was very angry, and his face fell. This is an apt description of one who has set his mind on evil. The facial features are a window into a person’s soul. Where the soul is content and happy, so is the face calm and at ease. Where there is unhappiness and anger in the soul, so also does the face reflect this in its contorted features. The brows are furled, the eyes are full of hatred, and like a dog who is ready to attack, the teeth are bared. Despite the Lord’s warnings, which Luther takes to be words from Adam himself, Cain does not relent. “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
One can certainly picture father Adam telling his son to control his anger. It was obvious to everyone that Cain was embittered by this rejection. But Cain would not be soothed. He spoke to his brother Abel. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” His anger took control of him, and he put his innocent brother Abel to death. Here again we see in type and shadow the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus. For the Lord’s rejection of the unbelieving Israelites angered them too. Their countenance also fell. Their face also reflected the attitude of their inward being. They were set on evil. They planned and schemed how they might put Jesus to death. And when they found the perfect plan they executed it. Like angry dogs, these Cainites pounced on their brother Jesus, and saw him killed. The Innocent Son of God was put to death.
Luther sees this history repeating itself in the life of the Church. He saw in this story not only an example beforehand of Christ’s death, but also of his own suffering at the hands of the Roman Church. He says:
Even then the divine promise began to work itself out, in that the serpent’s seed bit the heel of the blessed Seed (Gen. 3:15), just as we experience today. Therefore this lot should not frighten us. It should rather be a source of comfort for us to learn from experience that we are being dealt with by our adversaries in the way bloodthirsty Cain dealt with righteous Abel. We today are not the first to whom it happens that we are deprived of the name ‘church,’ that we are called heretics, and that those who pride themselves on being the true and only church and maintain their claim to this name with the sword and with every sort of cruelty. The same thing happened to righteous Abel and also to our Lord Christ, who was not a priest or a king in Jerusalem but was driven to the cross by the priests and rulers.
Others have seen similar parallels between the murder of Abel and the murder of Jesus. St. Augustine, for example, a fourth century Church Father whose theology was very influential for Luther, writes:
Abel, the younger brother, is killed by the elder brother; Christ, the head of the younger people, is killed by the elder people of the Jews. Abel dies in the field; Christ dies on Calvary.
Likewise, Johann Gerhard, a Lutheran pastor who lived in the 17th century, wrote the following comparing Abel to Christ:
A type of how Christ was to be killed you have in Abel, who was murdered by Cain, his own brother, Gen. 4, just as Christ was murdered by His own people.
When the blood of innocent Abel was shed, God the Lord cursed the earth for opening its mouth and receiving that blood, Gen. 4. Accordingly, since now the blood of the Son of God was poured out upon the earth, it therefore quaked for fear that it would be cursed anew.
As you can see, we are certainly not the first to see in Abel’s death by his brother Cain a shadow and type of Christ’s own death at the hands of his own people.
We should never be hesitant to turn over the rocks and stones of the Old Testament Scriptures to look for Christ. He Himself has said that the Scriptures testify about Him. But as we consider these parallels tonight, let us also consider how we fit into this story. Are we not also Christ’s brothers and sisters, who share with Him the eternal inheritance of heaven? During this Lenten season I would encourage you to put yourselves in the shoes of those who wrongfully shed the blood of our brother. Let us see our pride, our self-admiration and love, and our lack of fear and trust in our heavenly Father as the murder weapons. Let us ponder how Christ, the Son of God, could have been spared the cruel suffering and death of the cross had we listened to God’s Word and obeyed it and not turned our hearts away from it.
Consider also, however, that the blood of Christ speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. For Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for vengeance; but Christ’s blood cries out to His heavenly Father for mercy and pardon. The same blood that was shed on the cross has also atoned for our sins. The Risen Christ pleads for us before the throne of His heavenly Father. By your sins you were expelled from the presence of the Father as Cain was, but by faith in Christ Jesus, you have been brought back to Him. You are reconciled to God, and He is reconciled to you. His anger does not burn against you, for it burned against Jesus for you. His face is turned toward you in mercy and love, for it was turned against His Son for you. The ground was cursed for swallowing up the blood of Abel, but you are blessed by swallowing up the blood of Christ in the holy Eucharist. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.