‘Passing the Torch’   Rev. Jane Courtright

                         (January 22, 2023)

Before I accepted my call into ministry, I was the youth director & high school Sunday School Teacher at the 1st Congregational UCC in West Dundee, Il.  The Associate Pastor was Rev. Pam  Pendexter.  She was an inspiration & mentor to me!

Sometime after I began seminary, she and I were planning events for that church –  brainstorming and having fun with it!  I remember that Pam looked at me & said quite seriously: “I hope you realize, Jane, that I am no longer your mentor or your pastor….  From this time on we are colleagues and friends.”   And so we are!

I also recall that during those challenging years, I went to talk to an insightful counselor named Charles.  He was successful in helping me to figure out my past  AND to help me see who I am.  Several months passed, & one day as we were talking Charles found himself asking MY advice on how to approach a child he was counseling.  He looked at me, surprised, and said, “It seems that now we are colleagues.  I don’t think I can be your counselor any longer!”  I never stopped valuing their wisdom or experience or friendship.

These relationships have been rewarding for me & for them.  And that is so fortunate, because it’s not always the case.  And it has not always been the case for me!  Sometimes, when one person in a relationship becomes equal to the other, the relationship can become difficult.

I have become aware that the past few years of football have been marked by a shift in sport.  Particularly ‘in the pass on the torch’ of quarterbacks!  As the Wall Street Reporter Andrew Beaton says, “The shift in the balance represents something bigger than a figurative torch passing…  Tom Brady became the game’s greatest ever passer by mastering the textbook mechanics that had been drilled into players for decades.  And the ones assuming the mantle from him have lit that textbook on fire!

It is from the ones before that the torch is passed!

The relationship between Jesus & his cousin John the baptizer is an intriguing one. Remember that in the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ mother Mary & John’s mother Elizabeth were cousins. Jesus and John the Baptist, cousins, had had different messages, but complementary missions. The tenor & substance of their preachings were very different.  When John preached the coming Realm of God, his message was: Repent! flee from the wrath to come.  When Jesus began to preach, he also emphasized repentance, but this message was always followed by the gospel,  good tidings of the joy and freedom of the coming Realm of God.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew implies that Jesus was a disciple of John.  After all, it’s not until John is arrested and thrown in prison that Jesus begins his ministry.                                  AND he begins it using exactly the same words as John: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near!”

Remember that in the story we read last week from the gospel of John, we heard this: “John was standing with 2 of his disciples and looked at Jesus and said, “Behold the lamb of God!”                  These 2 disciples heard him say this & they followed Jesus. One was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  Andrew found his brother & brought him to Jesus.

That’s a bit different from today’s account in Matthew’s gospel! Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee when HE sees Simon & Andrew throwing their nets into the sea. Jesus says to them, “Follow me, & I will make you fishers of people.”  AND SO THEY DO!

It seems unlikely that Simon & Andrew would have walked away from the work which made a living for them and their families. Probably, they already knew Jesus!

I will never forget seeing with my own eyes the desert cave in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered just after WWII, it is said, by a shepherd boy                                                                      (probably living about the same lifestyle as Shepherds in Jesus’ time!)

Those scrolls contain evidence of a community of Jewish people having some connection to John the Baptizer. Most of these scrolls were written in the 2 centuries                                                         right before Jesus’ birth and believed to be the work of Essenes. The Essenes, though we don’t read of them in the Gospels, were one of 3 major groups of Judaism in the 1st century… along with Pharisees and Sadducees. Maybe they are not mentioned because Jesus got along with them, while he was up against many of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Or it could be that the gospel writers just assumed their readers would already know about the Essenes!

Some scholars believe that John was trained by the Essene community at Qumran. I was also fortunate to visit the remains of this community at Qumran! There I learned that the Essenes were known to practice baptism, though theirs was more like a ritual washing than total immersion like John’s.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls states this: “Community members shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of God, as it is written: “In the wilderness prepare the way of God,                               make level in the desert a highway for God.”

There are also many phrases & teachings in the Dead Sea Scrolls which match closely those of Jesus. The unusual phrase ‘the poor in spirit’ from the Sermon on the Mount,                                        which we’ll read next week, is just one of them.  At the very least, both John & Jesus were influenced by the Qumran Community…the torch was passed. And from all the gospels, it’s clear that John was the first, and that he recognized Jesus was their Messiah.  After all, he said to his disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God!”  But then, later on, in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John, there is an argument between John’s disciples & Jesus’ disciples!  John’s disciples say to John, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness; here he is, baptizing, and all the people are going to HIM now!”

This could have put John in a difficult position!  Should he just stand by & allow Jesus to take away all his followers, his disciples, or should he fight to keep his own standing as the leader? But not to worry! John reminds his disciples that HE himself is not the Christ, he’s been sent by God as a forerunner… someone to announce the coming of Christ. Then he talks to them about Jesus, and says the humble words, which many would find hard to say: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

But in Matthew’s gospel, John doesn’t seem as confident about Jesus. While he’s in prison, he sends some of his disciples who did not follow Jesus…  to ask whether or NOT he was the expected Messiah!  Seems that even John the Baptizer needs some sign that he’s making the right decision in stepping back. It can be hard to step aside…. to let someone you’ve mentored or trained or raised up to carry on. You’ve got to be sure that the person or persons are the right ones. It’s especially difficult for those who have been the leaders, to let go.  It’s right at such moments when we can remember the words of Jesus in Matthew, chapter 11, words which he speaks to the crowd at the time of John’s greatest doubt: “Truly, I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist!”

John the Baptizer says, “Behold, the lamb of God!”

Although John may feel doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, he puts his blessing on Jesus and his work.   And as we just heard, Jesus does the same for John!  Never should wisdom or experience or friendship be devalued along the way!

There may be times, God willing, when we will have to step aside, each of us, to walk with- someone we have trained, mentored, raised up…… Like our own children, like former students, like new quarterbacks, like trained employees, like new or younger members of organizations, churches.  We may find times when we learn to say, “He or she must increase, but I must decrease.


But if we can do it, we will also hear God say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”


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