[Genesis 4:1-15 / Ephesians 2:1-10 / Luke 18:9-14]
Ask Cain and he would tell you: the problem with God is that he’s too darned picky about worship. Cain, together with each of us, thinks that God should be happy with whatever we throw his way, provided we offer it sincerely. And yet God had the effrontery to have “regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” He accepts this and rejects that. We find it rather intolerable. Why shouldn’t He just be happy that we offered Him anything at all!
God seeks to correct Cain: “Why are you angry? 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!”
Cain did not rule over sin; sin ruled over Cain. His anger at God turned into bitter hatred toward his brother and so he betrayed and killed him – the one who had offered to God an acceptable sacrifice. Hold that thought.
And there Jesus is telling the story about the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Phariseee wants his worship accepted – especially the stuff he thinks he’s done for God that puts him miles ahead of those who are not serious about the law – folks like the tax-collector. The Pharisee stands apart. He prays, sort of. He doesn’t really ask anything. He just reminds God of what a lucky bloke God is to have such a devoted follower as he.
But the tax-collector is different. He stands far off, knowing his unworthiness to approach the All-Holy. Beating his breast, he cries out: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
What is striking is the word in the Greek for “merciful.” Not the word we are familiar with when we sing Kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy! Not eleison at all. Instead a bloody word. “God be gracious to me on account of the sacrifice.” He was not appealing for mercy on the basis of God’s attributes – that He is merciful and loving and so on. He appealed for mercy on the basis of a death, a bloody substitute for his own forfeited life. He knew he wasn’t due that mercy, but he asked for it nonetheless. God, “look upon the victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself” (Roman Canon) might be a good paraphrase.
Jesus tells us that this man went down to his home “justified” rather than the Pharisee. Once again, God is being picky about the worship He accepts. He rejects the proud man who stands before Him and presumes to offer his own doings; He accepts the humble man who stands before Him and pleads for mercy because of a bloody sacrifice.
And what was that sacrifice? Think of Him who tells the tale. Think of Jesus, who alone of all the human race stood before the Father and offered to Him deeds that were acceptable wholly – and they were so because they were all love. There was no self-interested motivation behind a single act of His life. He was the man who lived for others, who came into the flesh born of the Blessed Virgin to be their ransom. His life of love was a fragrant and acceptable sacrifice to the Father. And it was in love that He consented also to become the bloody sacrifice.
Cain killed Abel because God accepted his sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. So the brothers of Jesus, his own fellow human beings, we, consign Him to the wood of the cross. And why?
The Wisdom of Solomon describes in shocking detail the why: “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” (2:12-20)
Shocking, isn’t it? It all comes down to this: we hated Him because the light of love that shone from His life as He offered to God the Father endless worship exposed the sham of our lives and made us realize that we are all counterfeits and that none of us can dare to stand before His Father and plead for justice; we can only ask for bloody mercy.
And then we see that HE is the bloody mercy for which we plead. Our hands are stained with the blood of the Son of God. This week in our daily readings we read what happened when word was carried to David by an Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul and brought David Saul’s crown. David’s own words sound familiar: “Your blood be on your head, for your own mouth has testified against you, saying ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.” (1 Sam. 1:16) Echoes of the people crying out: “His blood be on us and on our children.” The blood of the Son of God staining humanity.
But lo! Not death, but life is offered through the deed. Not the punishment we have deserved, but instead, by His dying, the death of death. By His bloodshed, the blotting of sin. For our hatred, He gives love. For our murder, He gives life. This is the shocking news of His resurrection: PEACE! Not “now you all are really in for it.” But “believe and trust that my blood has secured your peace with my Father. You see, I AM the answer to every plea for bloody mercy. I AM the propitiation, I AM the taking away of the world’s sin – yours too.”
And so we joy with St. Paul in our Epistle that it is by grace we are saved through faith, and not even faith gets to be our doing, but the gift of God, not of works so that no one can boast. Instead of what we offer to God in our works, comes what God offers to us through His works, even His works in us, so that we get to be His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the good works He has prepared for us to walk in.
God is picky in worship. He wants the directionality clear: not your doings toward Him, but His doings toward you, to give you the life that is in His blood. Come, then, and humbly join in the worship where the Lamb of God is upon the altar and all is enlivening gift, bloody mercy given from the hand of God, and so you are alive under the blood, taken up into mercy, into love, joined to His sacrifice and made acceptable in the Beloved. Amen.