I remember like it was yesterday.
I was coming from Pennsylvania to visit my mom and dad for a week.
Less than a mile from their home, there is a big Shell Gas station.
I decided to go ahead and fill up my tank since it was running low.
While I was pumping gas, I heard a voice, “Hey, pump number two, how are you?”
The voice sounded just like Quagmire from Family Guy.
I looked around.
No one was there.
I thought to myself, “I must be really tired after nine hours on the road.”
But then I heard it again: “Hey, pump two, how are you?”
I looked around again and finally said, “Uh…good?”
The voice said, “Good! Good!”
That was it.
As I left the gas station, I was afraid I was losing my mind.
The next morning I was having breakfast with mom and in all seriousness I asked her, “Mom, does the gas pump at the Shell station talk to you?”
I was ready for her to order a drug test for me, but she surprised me with her answer, “Yes it does! One of the people who works there likes to say hello to all the customers as they pump gas.”
That’s awfully nice.
And smart from a business point of view.
Over the next few days, I wanted to hear that voice again.
I would actually get excited when my gas tank was even halfway empty, because it gave me a reason to go to the station.
I went back to the station I think four times.
Where did the voice go?
I wanted to hear the voice.
I needed to hear the voice.
We all have voices that bring us joy and happiness.
Maybe it’s the voice of a loved one,
or it could be an out-of-town friend you have not seen in a while,
Now imagine not being able to hear that voice for a very long time.
And then you begin to wonder if that voice is lost for good.
This is the dilemma the Jewish people face as our Gospel lesson begins.
The Jews believed that for 400 years, the voices of the prophets had gone silent.
And since the prophets were the voice of God, they believed that God had not spoken to them for a very long time.
And they feared that God would never speak to them again.
All that changed with John.
John fit the part of the missing prophet:
First was how he dressed for the role:
I know we giggle at his appearance, but there is a reason that Matthew tells us what he wore:
His appearance echoed that of the OT prophet Elijah.
Elijah was also a man of the wilderness.
And according to 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah wore the same kind of outfit as John.
So it’s likely that John’s clothing was to promote this image of Elijah.
So when they see John, the people see Elijah, and Israel believed that when/if Elijah would return, it would mark the return of God.
And let’s look at what John said:
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Here is why this was important.
There were few surfaced and artificially made roads back at this point in history.
The few that were made were originally built by the king and only for the use of the king.
They called it The King’s Highway.
They were to be kept in repair only as the king needed for any journey he might make.
Before the king would visit, a messenger would run ahead and tell the people to clean up the road and prepare for the king’s visit.
So John is saying, “The King is coming.”
It is also important to point out where John says this, The Wilderness.
The Wilderness had a special place in the heart of the people.
It was in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt that Israel began its existence as a people of God,
And the OT prophets would speak of the wilderness as the place of new beginnings.
So John brought back not only the voice and the appearance of the prophets, but the hope that was missing from the people.
And John talks about hope by talking about repentance.
We Lutherans, and many mainline protestant churches, have a hard time talking about Repentance.
Since I was a little child, I would watch the tv preachers scream “Repent! Or else!”
I even saw this first hand at college where we had the brickyard preachers come and not only yell “Repent!” but they would shake their fists at the same time and growl, “God loves us!”
But Repentance is not something to be afraid of.
The Greek word for repent means “to change one’s mind.”
But for John and later for Jesus, repentance is more than just changing one’s mind.
Repentance is more that just saying, “I’m sorry.”
It is a turning from a life of sin and turning to a life WITH God!
And what God wants us to do with this new life is put it into action.
Bear good fruit, which is the message that both John and Jesus share throughout the Gospel of Matthew.
Bear good fruit.
This was John’s problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees.
They were not bearing good fruit.
They thought they had it made because they were the children of Abraham.
That they had immunity from God’s judgment because of their connection with Abraham.
They thought they had it made, so why do anything about it?
So John teaches them and us that Repentance is a continual or repeated action.
It is not a door we pass through once that gets us into the kingdom.
It is an ongoing lifestyle for the people in the kingdom.
Now this new Kingdom lifestyle is not easy.
It’s hard because it makes us do something we do not like to do:
Admit we are wrong.
Last week, I said that we have become a very impatient people.
This week, I want to add that we have become very unapologetic.
We remember all the wrongs done to us,
But we never remember the wrongs we do to others.
We look for excuses for what we did.
We look for “alternative facts”
Anything that will keep us from saying those three words: “I am wrong.”
We believe admitting our wrongs is a weakness that others will use against us.
And we believe that applies with God as well.
We think God is going to hold on to our sins,
Hold them over us,
Reminding us over and over again how we failed.
But God does not do that!
Repentance has always been about the mercy that follows.
God does not stop loving us when we admit we have failed Him.
Have any of you been scared of your mom?
Like when you were young, you did something wrong and the last person you wanted to find out was mom?
I know I did.
Paul does this now.
When he does something wrong, the first thing he says, is Don’t Tell Mom!
I know when that happened to me I thought there is NO way my mom will forgive me.
I was crying, and then my mom HELD me.
She held me tight.
And I knew right then, that her love was LOUDER than any anger or disappointment.
That love, that LOUD voice of love is offered to us each and every Sunday when we confess, and then we come to God’s table and where God gives us his body and blood as SIGNS, as the HUG that says to us, “You are forgiven. Go. Start over. Live your new life with Me.”
As I was leaving my mom and dad to head back to Pennsylvania, I had to fill up my tank one more time.
So I went back to the Shell station, having given up hope that the guy, the voice would be there.
As I started to pump I heard…”Hey pump number 4 how are ya?”
I smiles and yelled, “I am great!”
And the voice said, “Alright!”
I got in the car and as I drove away I had a big smile on my face.
It’s amazing what a voice can do.
Just like John brought the voice of God back in the time of the people’s wilderness,
God’s voice is loud and clear for us today to lead us out of our wilderness, and into the Kingdom.