Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I know how we have usually heard about this account. God didn’t like Cain’s sacrifice because his heart wasn’t in the right place. God loved Abel’s because he was giving with a true heart. As we usually tell it Abel brought the best of the flock, first born, giving up his best to God. Cain’s sacrifice was second best. He picked out second rate veggies to offer, giving to God only after he had picked out the best for himself. It occurs to me that this is one of those passages in scripture that we have grossly misunderstood and mis-taught. I think we can see what is really going on here much better because of the reading from Luke today, Jesus’ parable of Pharisee and the Tax collector.
“[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.” Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” ” (Luke 18:9–17, ESV)
The answer to understanding the account of Cain and Abel is right there in the first sentence. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous… Whoa! This parable is about people who do and don’t think they need Jesus! Look at it again! The Pharisee singles himself out and stands where everyone can see him, separate from everyone so as not to defile himself. He exalts himself. He holds up the good stuff he’s done. God look at me, at what I’ve done. I’m soooo much better than other folks around here. I’m not one of those ‘drop off your kids for Sunday school’ parents. I’ve never put football over church. There are no Sunday morning deer antlers in my garage. I volunteer twice a week to mow the lawn. Drop my regular check in the plate. I make sure the pastor knows he’s just what we need around here, paid my fair share for the organ, and keep a hawk like eye on the budget. God, you must be soooo happy with me. God, look at what I have for you. You must love me soooo very much. I am such a good member of the church.
The tax collector was different. In his mind he had nothing to offer God but his sin. “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! I’m a sinner, save me!”
Jesus says that the tax collector is actually the one who is forgiven. The difference is clear. The Pharisee sees good in himself that he thinks God must recognize. He offers his good works up to God in his hands. The tax collector sees nothing he does as anything God would want. Martin Luther says it like this:
Therefore we have no right to indulge in much bragging and boasting when we step before God. Even if we were members of the highest aristocracy on earth and were prone to take pride in this, before God we would still be nothing but bags of worms or bags of manure, infested with lice, maggots, stinking and foul. 
Luther has a nice earthy way of saying things doesn’t he? He’s not really saying anything other than what Isaiah said.
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. ” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)
So back to Genesis; old Cain brought his sacrifice forward, he probably fussed a great deal over it, and picking out the absolute best veggies and fruits he had. No spots and blemishes on his stuff. He waxed up the apples and polished up the grapes. He spent time, thinking that God was going to be soooo pleased with his work. I’m not just guessing here either. I get this from Cain’s reaction.
…for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
If he had done a half hearted attempt, if he had offered a second rate offering, he wouldn’t have cared if God didn’t like it. Like the student who works hard on a paper, thinking it’s the best they’ve ever done and gets a ‘D’. “I don’t deserve this.” If they do a rush job, half hearted, no effort they accept the ‘D’ as what was deserved. No, Cain held up his stuff, his heart even, to God with pride. “Look at what I’ve done for you God. Look at what I have for you! You must really love me for this.”
Abel was different. He picked out a first born spotless lamb. Slit its throat, so the blood poured out. “God, this is what I deserve. Lord, have mercy! Accept this lamb’s death instead of mine. Be merciful to me a sinner.”
The difference, they say, is positively biblical and so very relevant to us. Today we are gathered before God, just as the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, just as Cain and Abel. The question is, are you here to give stuff to God, or to receive his mercy.
This is just a bit confusing though isn’t it? After all these days “worship” is verb. The word is most often used in the context of what we do for or to God. “We are going to go to church to worship.” What do they call the emotional build up of music at the beginning of those contemporary church services? Worship time. In fact most of those songs say the same thing over and over again. 7 / 11 songs. “God we are just gonna worship you.” Seven words Eleven times. God you’ve just gotta love us because we tell you how great you are. In God’s economy of worship, that’s backwards. In fact, just look at the first page of today’s worship service in the hymnal page 184. It says “Divine Service.” Divine is another word for God. God’s Service, you could say. God serving us. God giving to us. This is what true worship is about. Just listen to a few of the words we’ve already said.
I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. (LSB 184)
Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. (LSB 186)
O Lord God, Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. (LSB 188)
Now don’t get me wrong, we do praise God for who he is and what he does. Mostly that is what our hymns are, praise. But take some time to think about them. They don’t blindly say that God is great, big, powerful, and awesome. They say why, exactly he is worthy of praise. Our hymnal is caulk full of hymns that specifically talk about Jesus Christ, his work on the cross for the forgiveness of ours sins. And here then we are on the receiving end. In God’s church, the highest form of worship is to receive the forgiveness of sins the God gives through faith in Jesus; Sent out to us in his Word; Poured over us in Holy Baptism; Poured into us in Holy Communion. Here, in fact, it is better to receive than give.
That’s Abel’s sacrifice; messy; bloody; painful; a proper response for a sinful person to take before a perfect and holy God. Not because he’s killing an animal. The author of Hebrews tells us:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. ” (Hebrews 10:1–4, ESV)
The death of the animal itself does nothing, because and animal can’t bear the sins of a person. Only a person can do that. Someone has to die for your sin. And that someone is you. But it’s worse than you think. It’s not just slitting your throat and letting your blood spill, it’s your banishment from God’s presence forever. A perfect and holy God can’t tolerate sinful human beings, bags of worms or bags of manure, infested with lice, maggots, stinking and foul. The guy who stands before God and holds up his good stuff to God saying, “Look at all the good things I’ve done for you” when they are all just a pile of sinful rubbish. That’s what hell is for. Permanent separation from God. Permanent punishment for sin. Forever and ever suffering the consequences of our pride, arrogance and selfishness.
“Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!”
That also is what Abel’s sacrifice is about, God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. No animal can bear the sin of a person. But a person can. Hebrews also says,
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. ” (Hebrews 10:11–14, ESV)
The bloody sacrifice of Abel’s lamb was a reminder to God and Abel of God’s promise to take on human sin himself. Jesus blood is poured out, shed for the forgiveness of sins. On the cross he is the single offering, worth more than all others, in fact of infinite worth, because he is God, and a God sized sacrifice. Our cries for mercy are answered in Jesus Christ. The blood of millions of bulls and goats are answered in Jesus Christ. Shed for the forgiveness of sins. But let’s be specific. Shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Abel’s sacrifice said “Accept this lamb’s death instead of mine. Be merciful to me a sinner.” Christ’s sacrifice is that for you. It is a plea to God for mercy for you a sinful person. But it isn’t just your plea, it is God’s plea. Jesus plea, “Father forgiven them…” “It is finished.” Forgiveness is yours in Jesus Christ.
You sinner, forgiven. You who would hold up your filthy rags to God to bribe him to accept you. You who are tempted to think that your good deeds are better than your neighbors. You sinner of the worst sort, forgiven. God does not want your works. He doesn’t need them. They are only offensive to him. He has already redeemed you through the blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus has done every thing you need to do in God’s eyes. So what are you to do? Serve your neighbor. Do for him. Sacrifice your life for his. Show him Jesus in your actions. Point him to his Savior and yours. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 (Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (V 22, p 133). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.)