Passing the Torch

Joel 2:23-29
O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain* for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God
and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

As the Apostle Paul was passing the torch of leadership to young Timothy, Paul was in prison awaiting a possible execution while Timothy was laboring among the church members of Ephesus, seeking to keep alive Paul’s legacy of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Notice the extremely personal letter from Paul to Timothy. Paul notes the various individuals around him. He asks that Timothy come visit him again soon. Demas is overly in love with the world and has deserted Paul. Mark is useful and is needed to stay near to Paul and assist him in his last days. Carpas has been the faithful keeper of Paul’s cloak, as well as his scrolls and special leather parchments, which perhaps were some early form of the gospels. And he warns Timothy about Alexander the coppersmith, who did great harm to Paul’s witness. Notice Paul’s assurance of the presence and activity of God, the righteous judge and Paul’s confidence in the future work of God’s spirit.

II Timothy 4:1-18
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.
To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

We have two beloved canines in our household. Chevy, our yellow lab, is just three and a half, and still has some puppy left in him. But Bitsy, our older dog, is nearly twelve. Bitsy is blind, can barely hear, and she receives three pills and two insulin shots every day. If she doesn’t receive any of those medications, she will go downhill quickly. So when we go out of town, even for one night, it is quite the ordeal to “pass the torch” of responsibility to a pet sitter. Passing the torch of sacred responsibility requires clear communication. It requires the one passing the torch to speak or write plainly and for the one receiving to listen carefully and take to heart any instructions.

You have probably experienced a variety of torch passing experiences… A young parent giving clear instructions to a babysitter before an evening out, the chairperson of the non-profit Board passing on the role to another at the turn of the year, the PTA President passing on the torch to the parent of the younger class, more seriously perhaps, the head of the family business for decades passing on leadership to the next generation.

Whenever one passes a torch of responsibility to another, one should do so carefully and with explicit instructions. The expression hails from the ancient Greek torch race, in which a lighted torch was passed from one runner to the next. The one carrying the torch held tremendous responsibility of illuminating the path ahead, and giving inspiration to all those who would follow behind them.

One of the most gut-wrenching things to watch or experience in the Olympics is when the relay runners in a track race drop the baton. This tragedy has happened to the USA track team more than once. Members of the track team trained for years and year for that one bright moment in the spotlight, only to be disqualified in the race due to a dropped baton. We have witnessed numerous dropped balls every Saturday in college football games, especially if the team is playing against Alabama! The quarterback does his or her best to protect the ball, to “pass the torch” well. Inevitably, signals get mixed, or someone gets hit by a quick defender, and the ball ends up on the ground and then in the hands of the opposing team.

I am a little biased when it comes to college football, but did you notice that Alabama, the number one ranked team, once again scored a defensive touchdown yesterday? Big defensive lineman Jonathan Allen picked up a dropped ball and ran it back for his second touchdown of the season. When a person relinquishes responsibility to another, “passes the torch,” they must do so carefully, with great intention, and when one is receiving a torch of responsibility, they must be prepared to do so.

Over a dozen members of our congregation, all alumni of mission trips to Central America, attended a special event this past Thursday evening. Decatur icon, Jerry Eickoff, was passing the torch of leadership of HOI, our Honduras Outreach mission partner, to Eduardo Chirinos, the newly appointed CEO. As with any ceremonial passing of the torch, Jerry spoke the truth in love about the current context of the organization, he gave some final instructions and warnings, he offered the hope of God’s providential care for Eduardo and HOI, and then he relinquished responsibility so that another could carry it forward.

These key points in passing the torch were very similar to what Paul did for Timothy:

  • Paul acknowledged the cultural context in which this event is happening. In coming days, Paul asserted, some would wander away from truth and follow after whatever teaching suited their desires.
  • He gave assurances to the younger follower that the older, wiser one would be just fine. “I have fought the fight, finished the race. A crown of righteousness awaits me.”
  • He gave final detailed instructions, belying some anxiety of the elder passing the torch to the younger.
  • Paul warned about potential dangers, in particular Alexander the coppersmith.
  • And Paul promised that help would be available. Paul promised that the God who had been with him and rescued him and delivered him, would do the same for young Timothy.

As the holidays or the new year approaches, are you in the process of passing some torch to another?
Are you coming to the end of some season or term in your life? Have you prepared others to take up what you have been doing? My encouragement to those who are relinquishing some sacred role to another is to speak the truth in love about the context in which this is happening, offer instructions and even warnings, if needed, provide some hope of God’s providential care, and then let it go. Allow the other to lead. As Steve Hayner used to say about delegation, “keep your nose in, but keep your hands out.”

At Dot Stephenson’s funeral last week, someone commented that she was the “glue”. Dot was the “glue” that held the family together. Nothing would please Dot more than to get everyone together. As the oldest of six children, she helped raise her siblings and she felt some responsibility for the health and life of the family. For years, she was the host of holiday gatherings. She worked hard to get everyone together, and provide wonderful meals and family fun. Dot let her family know, by her words and deeds, how important it is to gather the family, to spend time together, to persist in doing so in favorable and unfavorable times. But once she was no longer able to do so, another was needed to take up that vital role.

Perhaps you are on the other end of this “torch” transaction. As the holidays or new year approaches, perhaps you are in the process of receiving some new responsibility. Are you being prepared for some new, important role in your job, or family, or community? Perhaps there is a torch that is being handed to you. This afternoon, we will begin training our newly elected elders. As part of their service, one member of this class will come on the session in the role of assistant clerk of session. Over the course of the next two years, the current clerks in office will train them well, speak the truth in love, offer instructions and warnings, give them hope of God’s providential care, then relinquish their responsibility so that the one trained can carry it forward in their own way.

To those receiving new sacred responsibility, my encouragement is to listen, listen carefully to what your predecessor says, and also to notice what you may be able to read between the lines. With Paul and Timothy, there was much shared history; Timothy had watched Paul for years. Paul was Timothy’s mentor and model, but Timothy would not serve just like Paul. Timothy would continue Paul’s legacy of sharing the gospel and encouraging the churches, but he would do so in his own way, according to his own gifts and abilities.

One thing I love about the Old Testament prophets is the unfailing confidence that the God who has acted on behalf of the people in the past will show up once again in the future. As our reading from the prophet Joel asserts:

“Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

If you are in the position of needing to relinquish some sacred responsibility, but are anxious about letting go, or uncertain about those to whom you will pass the torch, hear this – There is both a democratic and a reliable nature to the work of God’s Holy Spirit. Paul was confident that the God who had kept and carried him all his days, even from his days of persecuting the Church, would keep and carry the one to whom he would pass the torch, the one who would face such persecution in the years to come.

If you are in the position of potentially taking up some sacred responsibility, how will you follow your predecessor in a way that is true to their model, yet uniquely your own? The promise is that God’s Holy Spirit will be with you, in times favorable and unfavorable, when facing a warm welcome or harsh persecution, when everyone’s getting along and when no one is getting along.

Finally, God’s message to Israel throughout the prophets, Paul’s message to Timothy in his personal letter, and the message for the Church today is consistent – keep on keeping on. Persevere in good times and bad. Recognize the presence and activity of God and participate in what God is doing with courage and grit. And do not be afraid. God will be with you. God will rescue you and deliver you, and one day will welcome you into the eternal kingdom, where you too will receive the crown of righteousness.

To God be the glory. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
October 23, 2016