Matthew 3:1-12

I Can’t, But God Can!

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Once upon a time an unscrupulous painter wandered into town.  He found a quaint little clapboard church in need of painting and offered his services.  The folks could hardly believe his rates – all he wanted was the price of the paint, plus room and board.

What a deal!  They agreed, of course, and hastily prepared living quarters for him in the basement of the church.  In addition, they promised to bring him hot meals, morning, noon and night.  What’s more, they paid him up front for the paint.

He got started the next day.  In two weeks he was finished, and the little church looked as good as new.  The folks were so pleased they gave him a big going-away party, plus a nice bonus to boot.

In less than a month there came a huge downpour.  The winds blew, the rains fell in buckets and, by the next morning, there was a milky white film on the ground all around the little church.  When the members got there, their hearts sank.  They knew they’d been had.  But, with a little imagination and wit, at least they were able to get in the last word.  They put a message on the marquee for all to see.  It read: “Repaint and Thin No More.”

Repentance lies at the heart of the gospel lesson for today.  John cries out, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  He goes on to say, “Therefore bring forth fruit worthy of repentance!” (Matthew 3:2, 3:8)

So, what is repentance?  And what might we do to prove ourselves to be repentant sinners?  That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning.  And to get us started, here’s what Brian Stoffregen has to say:

“What is repenting? Literally the Greek (metanoeo) means, ‘to change one’s mind.’ However, given Matthew’s emphasis on ‘bearing fruit,’ his idea of ‘repentance’ probably goes back to the Hebrew shuv – ‘to change one’s ways.’ It involves more than just thinking in a different way.

Perhaps the best and simplest definition of ‘repentance’ I’ve read comes from Richard Jensen in (his book), Touched by the Spirit … (He says,) that repentance is often understood as an ‘I can’ experience: ‘I am sorry for my sins. I can do better. I can please you, God.’  So often we interpret repentance as our way of turning to God. That cannot be. Christianity is not about an individual turning to God. Christianity is about God turning to us. (p. 39)” (

Brian goes on to say that, understood in this way, repentance is an “I can’t” experience: I can’t possibly measure up to God’s expectations, but God can redeem me, if I’m willing.  In this sense, it’s about letting go and letting God – confessing our dependence on God’s grace and trusting God to shape us in his image and use us as he sees fit.

This squares with what we know about the nature of Original Sin.  Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?  God gave them all they needed for a full and abundant life, but they wanted more.  They wanted to be their own gods.  They wanted to call the shots.  They wanted to decide for themselves what was right and wrong.  So, they disobeyed God, ate the forbidden fruit and clothed themselves in their own protective devices.

It didn’t work then, it doesn’t work now.  Only as we recognize our need of God’s grace and humble ourselves are we able to receive the gifts God has in store for us.  This is what Joseph Hart said long ago:

“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Bruised and mangled by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.”

No, the call to repentance is not an admonition, “You can do better.”  It’s an invitation, “Turn from your vain striving and lean on his everlasting arms.”

This was the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees.  They thought they could be righteous by keeping the Law to the nth degree.  Yet, the more they tried, the further they got from the goal.  Perfection is like that.  The closer you get, the more illusive it becomes.  Jesus cut to the chase and said,

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

We’ve talked about this before: When you reach the limit of your own strength and ability and have nowhere else to turn, it’s often then that you come to know the true power of God’s grace and love.

As some of you know, I’ve been asked to moderate the Session of First Presbyterian Church, Texarkana while they search for a new pastor.  My first meeting with them was last month.  One of the items on the agenda was to welcome their new elders-elect.

Now, the folks in Texarkana have a long-standing tradition of asking each of the newly- elected elders to share their faith journey, and so I got there just in time to hear their testimonies.

One I’ll never forget was that of a farmer-rancher who told talked about a living through a long drought – I think it was back in the 80s.  With tears in his eyes, he talked about how helpless he felt watching his crops burn up in the heat of the sun.  His stock tanks dried up, and he worked day and night hauling water just trying to keep his cattle alive.  He stood to lose everything he’d worked for over the years.

He said he finally collapsed in his chair one night and prayed, “Lord, I just can’t do any more.  If we’re going to make it, it’s going to have to be up to you.”  He said he felt a peace come over him, as if the Lord were telling him, “Relax.  I’ve got everything under control.  Trust me.”  He said it was an experience that forever changed his life.

Well, it didn’t rain the next day, or the next.  But, eventually, it did and life went on, in time, better than before.

When you reach the limit of your own strength and ability and have nowhere else to turn, it’s then that you’re most likely to experience the true power of God’s grace and love.

This is the essence of what it means to repent – not trying to do more to please God, but letting go of your independence and trusting God to order and provide.

That’s what the Apostle Paul discovered in his own life long ago.  In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

“Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me… For when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Are you familiar with the “Valley Chart?”  This comes out of the experience of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It’s the symbol of the letter V, depicting the downward slide of an alcoholic from the first warning signs of addiction to increasing chemical dependency.

Those who work with AA say when an alcoholic hits bottom, that’s when he’s most likely to admit he’s got a problem and turn for help.  They like to point out that you don’t have to hit bottom – you can start up the other side at any time.  Yet, as often as not, they say that the first step on the road to recovery begins when the alcoholic has nowhere else to turn.

The good news is, whether it’s your first choice or your last resort, God is there to give you the help you need.  All you have to do is ask.

One of the great stories of repentance comes from the book of Jonah.  Remember how it goes?  God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, one of the leading cities of the day, and call the people of Nineveh to repentance.  Well, he didn’t want to go.  He hated the Ninevites, and he didn’t want them to repent.  He wanted them to be destroyed, so he set out for Tarshish instead.  And that’s when he got swallowed by the big fish.

Finally, he got to Nineveh and preached his little sermon, “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!”  And, lo and behold, the people of Nineveh repented.  They put on sackcloth and sat in ashes, everyone from the lowliest peasant to the king himself.  And when God saw their humility, he had mercy on them and overlooked their wickedness. (Jonah 3:5-10)

In his great sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter convicted the people of their sin, and, in response, they cried out, “What should we do?”  He said,

“Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Well, this is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: If, by repentance, we think that the promise of salvation is ours only if we do enough, we’ll be hopelessly lost.  We can never do enough to measure up to the righteousness of God.  But if we understand repentance to mean trusting God to accomplish for us what we could never, ever accomplish for ourselves, then the promise of the Spirit and all of its peace and power is ours, not as something we attain, but as a free gift of grace and love.  All we have to do is ask.

This is what the Joy Singers tried to tell us the other day.  Their anthem was based on a text by John Greenleaf Whittier.  The version I know comes from an old hymn by Charles Wesley, and it goes like this:

We need not now go up to heaven,
To bring the long-sought Savior down;
Thou art to all already given,
Thou dost even now thy banquet crown:
To every faithful soul appear,
And show thy Real Presence here! (Charles Wesley)

This is what we celebrate at Christmas, not that we’re able to reach up to God, but that, in humility and self-sacrifice, God has reached down to us in Jesus Christ and, through his death and resurrection, removed every obstacle standing in the way.

To repent is to turn to him and confess, “I can’t, but God can.”  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.