Sermon on Genesis 4:1-7 – “The Heart of Worship”

Sermon on Genesis 4:1-7 -

SUNDAY AM SERVICE – 5/19/2024 – Hebrews 11:1-7; Genesis 4:1-7


Authenticity is the banner of our time for what is supposed to be good. The notion is that striving for conformity to any norm outside of ourselves means that we aren’t genuine. That view results in antagonism toward every stable aspect of human society. The notion that being authentic means doing only what you want to do without checking whether what you want to do is a good thing is an incredibly quick way to chaos.

When it comes to practicing our faith, we often hear people get going through the motions over and against heart level spirituality. When I was in college, it was popular to say things like “I don’t have a religion, but I have a relationship with Christ.” I understand that the good motivation to speak that way was that we thought it made Christianity seem more personal and in touch with real life.

But now I have my reservations about it. As the world has embraced the practice of doing whatever you feel and redefining truth according to what is inside us rather than according to what God has said to us, most things in the western world have suffered.

More than that, we should realize that we don’t set the terms for our relationship with God. He does. He tells us how we to approach him, and on what basis he will welcome us. God is the one who outlines what it should look like to practice our faith. Hence, he tells us how to practice our faith in his Word, which comes to us from outside us.

My point is that we should not set the formal practice of our faith against the heart level embrace of our faith. In Genesis 4:1–16, we find the tragic story of Cain and Abel which tells us a lot about what’s going on in people’s hearts. We see that both Cain and Abel were practicing religion. The problem, however, was that Cain’s heart wasn’t invested in his outward acts of worship.

Genesis is about our communion with God, laying the foundation for all Scripture in showing how God relates to his people. In Genesis 1-2, we saw that God created us for communion with him. We were fashioned in his image so that we would know him and so that we would reflect his goodness in the world.

We often think of Genesis 1-3 as a block of Scripture that goes naturally together, since these chapters all focus directly on Adam and Eve. Yet, Genesis 1-4 really do belong together. At Genesis 5, we have our first big genealogy which kickstarts a new major section.

Genesis 4 rounds out a portrait of the problem that began in Genesis 3. In Genesis 3, beginning with Adam and Eve, sin disrupts that relationship and causes all sorts of problems. Genesis 4 shows us that this problem was not limited just to that first couple. Genesis 4 gives a picture of how the effects of sin carry on past Adam and Eve.

The main point is that our hearts should conform to the norm, not be the norm.

  1. The Sacrifice
  2. The Spiritual Component
  3. The Savior

The Sacrifice

Genesis 4, at least if we are paying attention, in some ways raises a lot of questions for contemporary readers. Like in verse 14, who are the people whom Cain fears will kill him? It seems unlikely that he means just his mom and dad. In verse 17, where did his wife come from? We don’t have record of when Adam and Eve conceived and bore her. Again in verse 17, why is Cain building a city, since cities are meant to be habitations of large amounts of people?

Clearly, more has taken place within the timeframe of Genesis 1-4 than is detailed for us in the biblical record. Although we should affirm that all people descended from Adam and Eve, Scripture has not given us an exhaustive record of everyone who lived in the early years of humanity’s existence. It also seems like, under God’s inspiration, the focus in Genesis is less on providing that sort of detailed knowledge than it is on helping us understand the world and the way we find it under curse and full of sin.

Genesis 4:1–7 begins the hard story of Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel. Both are farmers, although Abel farms livestock and Cain farms plant crops. In this opening story, there is a difference between them in that God finds Abel’s sacrifice acceptable but rejects Cain’s. That difference is the main hinge of this story, and it brings us to consider what made them different.

Let’s read verses 3–5: “In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.”

Lots of debate has circled around why God had regard for Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Some suggest that Cain’s sacrifice wasn’t acceptable because it did not include bloodshed like Abel’s. But grain offerings are prominent throughout the Old Testament.

Some highlight that verse 4 explains that Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” while Cain brought mere “the fruit of the ground.” The difference might be that Abel brought an offering the initial harvest of his flock and brought the best part of it. But maybe Cain brought just something. He didn’t work to bring the best to God.

This suggestion makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think it gets to everything. The text’s slight suggestion that Cain was trying to shortchange God in what sacrifice he brought is letting us know ahead of time that something is off. Cain came without having things in order. But that was not the ultimate problem.

Because Cain’s reaction to God’s rejection of his offering rounds out that picture. God’s rejection does not produce a bitter heart in Cain. Cain’s bitter heart is the reason for God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice. We need to think together about why that is the case and what it means for us.

The Spiritual Component

When I was at a conference last November, I was talking to another guy who introduced himself as a “worship pastor.” Being the difficult person that I am, I said, “Me too.” Then, he asked me how I do it, so I said, “Well, I pray, I read Scripture, I preach sermons, and administer the sacraments.” The penny dropped for him then, and he came back saying that he also tries to emphasize that the whole service is truly worship.

My point is that we too often reduce worship to music. We make that mistake because we think that our most emotionally invested moments of the service are what really count as worship. We seem to think the other parts of church are for something else, but music is to make us worship.

Now, I think that flags something useful to consider in our passage. Namely, although the heart must be involved in worship, worship is not defined by when our hearts are engaged. We might ask the question, is a car a car when the engine is not turned on? Of course it is.

The same is true with worship. When we assemble as Christ’s people, the whole scope of our service from call to worship to benediction is worship. The issue is that we need to work to have our engines turned on for every section. We need to assess ourselves to see if our hearts are properly engaged the way they should be at each step of the way.

When can think about Adam and Eve as they ate the forbidden fruit. The problem was not that they lacked the right activity to get their hearts engaged. It’s that their hearts should have been fully involved in keeping to the structures of what God had told them to do. Their hearts were not in it inwardly, so they failed to do the right thing outwardly. Both the inward and outward parts are important.

In Genesis 4, we find Cain and Abel both doing what they were supposed to do outwardly. Still, their right conduct outwardly had not reached both of them at the spiritual level. Cain’s decision not to bring the best of his harvest gave initial signals that all may not be right. Even though Cain had not brought the best, he was bothered when God did not accept it.

What’s going on there? He thought God should be satisfied with whatever he wanted to bring. He thought that he should get to decide what an acceptable offering was. He thought he should keep the best for himself and that God should be happy with whatever he gets. Then he got mad when God rejected his offering.

The issue was clearly the problem. God was opposed to Cain as a person. He told him in verse 7, “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 contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”

The implication is that even though Cain had gone through the outward motion, he had not done well. But God was encouraging him that if he would engage his heart to offer a proper sacrifice in the right posture of faith and gratitude, then he would do well. When the spiritual component is missing, worship goes wrong.

The Savior

Worship is a heart issue. But our hearts don’t define worship. We might tend to think of our heart’s relationship to worship like a tailored piece of clothing. With tailored clothes, the clothing going on the outside is made according to the shape of what is inside. We can imagine that what is already in our hearts is supposed to shape what we do outwardly.

In truth, the relationship of our heart to worship is supposed to be more like a Jell-O mold. That external mold shapes what goes inside. The difference between Cain and Abel was that Abel had his heart properly shaped by the task of bringing an offering to God. Hebrews 11:4: “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.”

Cain was not shaped by the task at hand. His heart was malformed even though he was using the Jell-O mold. Abel believed that God had his purposes and was at work through worship. So, his faith made his sacrifice acceptable to God.

Why does worship work this way and why does it require faith. Because Christ is the focus and the basis of our worship. Every sacrifice throughout the Old Testament, including that one offered by Abel, was just a teaching tool – an object lesson – about Christ himself. So, going through the motions without true trust in the point of those lessons was never enough.

By faith, we are accepted before God, and our worship will be well regarded, because Christ has made us clean. He is the one who lived the perfect life that would earn our acceptance before God’s throne. He is the true lamb who died to forgive our sins. He is the one who rose from the grave and stands in heaven to reign on behalf of his people. By faith, Abel saw Christ’s day even before Jesus came in the incarnation. For all of you who trust in Christ as the Savior, God counts Jesus as your acceptable sacrifice, making you righteous in his sight. For all who trust in Christ, God regards you well.