'Always' is a fighting word. "You always make me take out the trash." "Why do I always have to be the one to apologize?" "I always need to remind you." If you wish to avoid fights, always avoid always. It is a deadly word. Today, I'm going to show you just how deadly.
'Always' is lying like a coiled snake in the Collect we prayed today. This 6 letter word is hidden among 68 other words. Camouflaged by godly words like "fallen nature" and "grant us your strength," it struck so quickly, with such sharp fangs, that we hardly knew we were bitten. Actually it was worse than that. It didn't feel like we were bitten by Satan at all. It felt like we were making a godly confession of our sinful weakness.
I mean, my fallen natures is weak, isn't yours? And I can't always stand upright, can you? I'm not always like the Beatitudes admonish me to be. I'm not always poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, or a peacemaker. I don't always hunger and thirst after righteousness. Sometimes, I hunger and thirst after revenge, honor, money, sex even. And when we chanted the Introit, I heard the same thing. Sometimes, I do walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, and sit in the seat of mockers, and I don't always delight in the Law of the Lord or meditate on it day or night.
What a godly confession of sin, huh? I guess then you didn't really hear me. Saying, I don't always stand upright means sometimes I do! Sometimes I am poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and pure in heart. Sometimes I don't walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. Sometimes I delight in the Law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night.
Friend, this is the talk of Pharisees and pop psychology. "Yes, I'm not always loving, and I do sometimes lose my temper. But I can feel good about myself because sometimes I don't lose my temper and I'm not always unloving." You know what our Lutheran Confessions call such talk? "False repentance." False repentance is "partial and fragmentary." It debates what is sin and what is not sin. It spends it time weighing, distinguishing, and differentiating between what is and is not sin. False repentance bases its standing before God on what it thinks, says, or does about sin.
Contrast this with true repentance. True repentance, according to our Confessions, "does not debate what is sin and what is not sin, but it lumps everything together and says, "We are wholly and altogether sinful." It doesn't spend time weighing, distinguishing, and differentiating." True repentance knows "we are utterly lost, that from head to feet there is no good in us."
Do you see how abominable that word always is in our prayer? It weighs and distinguishes some things we do as standing upright and other things as not. Is this how you've been taught to confess your sins? No, you come in here and throw all you are in a heap, you lump everything you think, say and do together saying, "I, a poor miserable sinner." You don't say, "Sometimes I'm a poor, miserable sinner," Or, "I'm not always without sin."
Friends, that word always teaches us to weigh and sift our lives and is a monstrous mixing of Law and Gospel because it leads you either to pride or despair. Confessing that we "cannot always stand upright" will lead some of you to despair because you know the truth is you never stand upright. Is there ever a time you're truly poor in spirit, meek, merciful or pure in heart? Isn't it true that even since you've been in church today your mind has wandered to hateful thoughts, lusts, or greed? Or name one time you meditated on the Law of God day and night? You said you don't always do it, so it must mean you sometimes do? Hah! Can you meditate for even 15 minutes on God's Word? Well, then you must be behind everybody else in holy living, because while they say they don't always meditate on the Law day and night, you have to admit you never do.
When Law and Gospel are mixed it leads to despair, or even worse, it leads to pride. "Yes, Lord I don't always do what you say. I sometimes lust, curse, hate, and covet, but not always. I'm not a pornography addict, or one of those foul-mouthed people on TV. I'm not a thief or murderer who always lusts, curses, hates or covets. Not me; I just do those things sometimes."
By now some of you are asking, How did we get the word "always" in this Collect? Queen Elizabeth added it in 1558. She changed the prayer because it agrees with Protestant theology which has a percentage understanding of holiness. A person can be 51% or more holy on Christian days and 49% or less on bad days. Protestantism has a tendency to take spiritual temperatures which leads to conclusions like "I don't always" do such and so. Yes, sometimes I'm 90% bad and really screw up, but at other times I'm 95% good and really live a Christian life.
Pride or despair not salvation lurk in such thoughts. There's pride when you focus on the fact that you don't always sin and their is despair when you focus on the fact that you don't always stand upright. And this is how many of you live. You daily look inside yourself hoping to find something good, or half-way decent, something you don't have to repent of. You come away proud if you can find it or despairing if you can't.
This sure isn't the way St. Paul lived his life. Read Romans 7. There he concludes, "There is nothing good in me." This is what the Collect originally said. Instead of saying as ours does, "we cannot always stand upright," the original said, "We cannot at anytime stand upright." This is how the prayer was written in the 6th century. This is how Luther passed it down to us in his 1529 Litany. And I'm happy to say the soon to be released hymnal is closer to the original saying, "in our frailty we cannot stand upright."
Now doesn't the original agree with your day to day experience? Do you at anytime think that you can stand upright? Don't you find yourself "set among so many and great dangers," not bodily dangers but spiritual? Aren't you tempted by a spirit who claims to heals sicknesses and mend marriages? Aren't you tempted to give up the Bible and cling to what modern science says it knows? Aren't you tempted to hate some people? Aren't you tempted to sexual immorality by what you see on your TV?
Moreover, how can someone with a weak, fallen nature think they could ever stand upright? Do you know what it means to be something by nature? You're not surprised that lions eat meat, birds fly, or fish breath water, are you? Of course not, that's their nature. They do these things by nature. Well, we are by nature sinful. It's our nature after the Fall to want to hear the dirt on someone so we gossip. It's our fallen nature to prefer any body other than our spouses, so we lust. It's our nature to hate so we find it easy to be prejudice. It's our sinful nature to like what is profane, so our humor tends towards making fun of holy things. If our fallen nature is to be sinful and unclean, so there's no chance that at anytime we will be sinless and clean. No chance that we will stand upright. In short, we are 100% sinners all of the time.
Yes, that's the confession of the Christian. Everyday and in ever way, sin surrounds me. I am hopeless to stand upright. That's why the rest of the prayer, which hasn't been changed, says, "Grant us Your strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations." We don't go to our Lord for some help but all help. We don't go for some strength and some protection, but all. We don't ask to be supported some of the time in dangers but all the time. We don't ask to be helped through some temptations but to be carried through them all. This is the Christian life. The confession that you are a 100% a sinner and have nothing to protect you from judgement, nothing to enable you to stand upright. So Christ must protect you; Christ must be your strength; Christ must uphold you with His righteousness and as Paul says in the Epistle be your sanctification.
And Christ does that, and He does it 100%. He didn't just carry 50% or 75% or even 99.9% of your sins but 100%. So you can be sure He'll strengthen and protect you in 100% of the dangers you face and will carry you through 100% of the temptations. So while it's true we are 100% sinners; at the same time, we are 100% saints in Christ. If you only look inside, all you see, all you can see is a sinner, but when you look outside at Christ there you see your holiness, your protection, your strength.
Now for the kicker. God sees what you see. That's how come He can speak to you as if you're the holiest person who ever walked the earth. God can bless you as poor in spirit and pure in heart while you feel only proud in spirit and dirty in heart because He's looking at you in the blood of Christ. God can say you're blessed even though you're influenced by the counsel of the wicked, stand with sinners, and sit with mockers, because Christ never did. God can find delight in us who don't find delight in His Law, because He finds His delight in His Son.
This my friends is the full-blast Gospel. This is the Gospel wide-open. This full-strength Gospel wretches at the phrase "we cannot always stand upright," because the Gospel gives any and all glory to God in Christ. And God's glory is to forgive sinners who never deserve it, not sinners who deserve it some of the time. God's glory is to support us always not only in certain situations. God's glory is to carry us always through temptations not just the ones that we think are too big for us.
It's impossible to believe, but God is not at anytime looking for something in you worth saving or forgiving. He isn't looking for something good or even something not that bad. His only rational, His only motive, in saving and forgiving you has always been grace. You can always rely on it because grace isn't something in or about you. When it's a matter of grace it always means it's something in God and about God for sinners. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany IV (1-30-05); 3 Lessons, Collect, Introit