“Passing the torch” is a powerful symbol and metaphor, and today leads us to think about that from all sorts of perspectives. We have just entered a new year, which is often symbolized by an old man with a long beard and walking stick passing a torch to a newborn baby. We are ordaining and installing new elders and deacons, a symbolic point at which passing the torch of church leadership becomes real. And we are considering the story of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Luke tells us even now of the impending arrest of John the Baptist, so it is clear that the torch is being passed from John to Jesus. In a larger sense the torch is being passed from the Old Testament to the New. And in an even larger sense it might even be possible to view this as God the Father passing the torch to God the Son, in the person of Jesus.
I love the way Luke frames this story. He gives the context for John the Baptist’s ministry by throwing a lot of big names around. The Emperor Tiberius was in his fifteenth year of reigning over the Roman Empire. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip was the ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis. Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene. The high priests at the Temple were Annas and Caiaphas. These were the names in the daily news, the ones people looked to for history making decisions and events.
Then Luke slips this in on us: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Not to the movers and shakers. Not to the religious authorities. Not at the palace of the Temple. The word of God came to this guy who was acting out his rebellion against his priest father’s religious establishment, no doubt embarrassing his family by dressing in camel’s hair clothing and living on a diet of locusts and honey.
Our journey through the Old Testament really should have prepared us for this, though. God calling old Abraham and Sarah to start a family at a hundred years of age, living a Bedouin lifestyle moving from place to place, always at risk. My father, their descendants would learn to affirm, was a wandering Aramaean. Moses shepherding his father in law’s flocks in the wilderness when God calls him out of the burning bush. Elijah being fed by ravens in a dry stream bed, then living with a Sidonian widow. Hosea being called to act out God’s unconditional love by marrying a prostitute. Jeremiah smashing a clay pot to demonstrate what would happen to Israel, then buying a piece of property as the Babylonian army was marching over it and taking possession. Ezekiel in Babylon seeing a vision of the glory of God riding in an other worldly chariot to abide with the exiles, then seeing it return to Jerusalem years later. God has been meeting with unlikely people in unlikely places and asking them to do unlikely things from the very beginning. Why should we be surprised by God speaking to this hermit like figure in the wilderness named John?
Called to prepare the way for the Messiah, John takes the torch of these Old Testament figures and runs with it. “Repent!” he preached. “Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Prepare for the coming of one whose sandals I am not even worthy to tie! The axe is ready to cut down every tree that is not bearing good fruit, and they will be thrown into the fire!” This is all right in line with the Old Testament prophets.
And when Jesus came to him, John baptized him and passed the torch to him. When you pass the torch you are no longer in control of it, and that’s hard. The new torch bearer may carry it differently than you did. Such was the case for John. The ministry of Jesus did not just fall in line with his ministry or that of the Old Testament prophets. It wasn’t all about trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire and judgment and condemnation. Jesus states later on that people criticized John for not eating and not drinking, for his ascetic lifestyle; and that people criticized him for eating and drinking and associating with the wrong type of people. A glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of sinners. In prison, John began wondering at the reports he was receiving and sent disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah we have been expecting, or should we keep looking for another?” This happens a lot when we pass off the torch to someone else.
As Jesus submitted himself to baptism, God was pleased and expressed his love for his Son and sent the Spirit to rest upon him. The Spirit, the torch, was his to run with now. As Hebrews says, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.”
Jesus used the torch to show us the great love his Father has for all of us. He called us to embrace the love of God and to share it with others. “A new commandment I give you,” he said, “that you love one another.” John wrote, “God loved the world so much that he sent his Son, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” The Gospel is the good news of salvation for all who will accept it. We will celebrate communion in a few minutes, the sacrament which shows us just how far Jesus was willing to go to show us the forgiving love which he and his Father have for humanity.
This morning we will also pass the torch of leadership here at Central to a new group of elders and deacons. It is a great group of folks with a wide variety of life and faith experiences, all approaching the task with humility and respect. Who knows how God might inspire them to use the torch during their time carrying it?
This month brings the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and the beginning of Donald Trump’s. Nikki Haley is the governor of South Carolina but will soon transition to the U.N. Terrence Roberts is the mayor of Anderson. Vladimir Putin leads Russia and Francis is the Pope. But in what unlikely places and to which unlikely people will the word of God come during our time?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 8, 2017
Central Presbyterian, Anderson