The Torch Passes: Going Vertical!
Well, I did see the torch pass once! The real Olympic torch! I was a youth pastor and Christian education director back in California in the mid eighties, and one of our youth group members, Tommy Forletta, got chosen through a lottery system to carry the Olympic torch for the 1984 L.A. Olympics. A bunch of us from church went up there to watch Tommy carry it for his designated mile. I will never forget the gleam and fire in his eyes, as he carried that fire for the great games. But the gleam and the fire weren’t just there for Tommy the carrier, the gleam and the fire were to be passed on: for the goal of the great games!
Last week, we saw another torch get passed, as John Gray Hamilton passed the torch of the love of Jesus Christ to all of us. This morning, we are going to remember that the gleam in John’s eye, the fire in him was not just for him to enjoy, but to pass to each one of us - for the greater goal of Jesus Christ. That last incredible Sunday and that wonderful reception, where we all just poured our hearts out to each other and to John; what a great encounter of all we’ve meant to each other over these seventeen years!
So much more will be said and told. Again I encourage you, by the way, not to be sheepish about expressing that! In Acts 19, when the Ephesian elders were parting from the apostle Paul, they just threw themselves on each other and wept. We saw that last Sunday and that was great. There comes a time, though, when that leader passes the torch for the sake of the greater goal. Even Moses had to do that, as we read these words in Joshua. Now John Hamilton, unlike Moses, is not dead! He is not in heaven. He’s in Pittsburgh. Or will be soon. But each generation has to pass forward and build on what’s been given to them.
So I’m giving us two questions this morning, on this first Sunday after John’s leaving for a new call. 1. What did God pass to us in that torch from John? 2. Where do we go, First Pres, from here? What did God pass to us through John? Well, there is no way one little sermon can begin to capture seventeen years of an incredible life and ministry together. But folks, let’s make sure we grab the torch this morning. What did John give to us? First, John made us laugh. Sometimes, as the Bible says: “with groans too deep for words"; with those puns of his, but I suppose people (and pastors) who live in glass houses should not throw stones. He made us laugh, and he picked on us! So now, folks, it is up to you to make comments about how shiny it gets up here (points to top of head). But there was a method behind that madness. John thought - and thinks - that Christianity is fun. That we’re not supposed to drain the life, the laughter and the love out of this thing, folks. That he gave us laughter and that craziness, looseness, and wildness because life in Jesus has a rolling delight in it! Jesus laughed! Jesus was the man of joy! He was the one that when people came to Him, He said, “That My joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete.”
John made us laugh! I think a sense of humor can get us through a lot of challenges. It has in my life, it has in yours and it will continue to! Laughter is a spiritual gift!
Connecting to that regarding what John passed to us here at First Pres, is that John was very real. John refused to be a “stuffed shirt.” When John forgot his sermon notes, or something like that, and had to go back to his seat to get them, he didn’t do what some of us pastors would do and say, “Let us pray.” (and then the pastor doesn’t pray, he goes and gets his notes while everybody has their heads bowed!) John would say, “Oops forgot my notes: must have buried them under Woody or something like that.” And then he would just go get his notes. Folks the Christian life is not a pompous, rigid, boring, “stuffed shirt”, hyper-formal experience. It’s real. We’re going to continue to live that here. Already our transition team has been talking about what we want in an interim Sr. Pastor. One of the first things we came up with is we want somebody who’s real. One of you said last week their first qualification for an interim pastor is that they will be a hugger! I think that kind of says it all.
John and I would do weddings and we would be our usual selves. We’d have fun with the bride and groom, we’d make them laugh. But we’d also reveal what the real joy of Jesus - in this case with marriage - could be about. And we’d laugh with them, joke with them, delight with them and take them deep into the living love of Jesus. What would be funny for John and me, after the wedding is that people after the wedding would look at us with a surprised look and say, “Wow that was fun.” As if they expected to be bored to death!
Folks, that Jesus Christ is fun, that Jesus Christ is alive, that Jesus Christ is full of joy and passion; folks, we don’t want that to be a “surprise” here. We want to live a real, free, and joyous life in Jesus Christ! John gave us joy. And let’s admit it: all those puppets, Woody and the rest of those characters, they were for us as well as for the kids! I know that. You know that. We don’t have to be pompous: “Oh that was just for the children.” It was for us and it was fun and there’s more joy to come. “I came to give them life”, Jesus said, and “life more abundantly” than what you or I could possibly imagine. So many churches have a reputation where joy and laughter and love go to die. May that never be true of First Pres!
Underneath all that joy in John was love. I shared some of that when I spoke at his reception also. I’ve seen John love some of you back into life. That was real. Folks, I want you to take that with you and run with that and build on it. That was as real as it gets. As I said, when people were at their wits end with grief, panic, fear, or despair, John had this way of just going deeper and deeper and more humble, and more tender, all the time. Folks that is a torch that has been passed to you and me: and we’re going to live that out deeper and more radically all the time. Folks, we go to the mat, we go to the wall for each other here and we’re going to continue to do that in all kinds of further ways. That love does not leave with John. It burns brighter inside of you all the time.
There’s so much more that John’s passed to us and we’re going to be talking about that with each other, and we’re going to be building on that, folks, in all kinds of incredible ways. John told us to, he challenged us to, and we’re going to take that challenge in every way we can. So whenever John laughed with you, prayed with you, wrote a note to you, cared for you, challenged you to grow as a disciple or a leader in this church: take that torch, make it your own, uniquely, and run with it.
Run where? That’s the second thing I want to share with you this morning. Take all that blessing from John, that depth, that centeredness in Christ, that laughter and that love, run with it. The second thing is: where? Run with it in this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength.” In the next series of sermons I’m going to be sharing with you about where I sense Jesus Christ is calling us. What is next for First Presbyterian Church? I believe it’s going to be glorious! Not because of me - but because of you - and Jesus in you. Folks, our future is glorious! I’m going to try to point us again to revisit the foundations of what Jesus Christ is all about in us, through us and to the world. So we’re starting this morning with what’s most important. First things first. Jesus said this is the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” What does that mean? It means that that’s first. The second commandment, love one another, is really important, but folks, it’s second. First is, love the Lord. Because if we don’t love the Lord first of all our horizontal love falls and fails. I remember when Sherri and I were in premarital counseling over twenty-eight years ago. Our pastor told us something I’ve built on, and we’ve built on, in all kinds of ways. The pastor said, “Love Jesus more than each other! Because if you love Jesus first in your marriage, your love for one another will fall in the right place.” I remember going through a major depression in my life and getting that reversed. There was a time I put Sherri before Jesus, and it messed me up. Not that there was anything wrong with her, but because we are designed, we are built, to let the intimacy, the love, the presence, the power of Jesus Christ be our number one. And if we get that turned around, we get all messed up even in the best of marriages.
Jesus Christ has got to be first. What does that look like? Let’s break it down into “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Love Jesus with all your heart. Let Him possess your passions. What does that look like, to love something with all your heart? Well, a week from last Friday Sherri and I used my day off to go bike riding in Chicago. Not being much in the way of sports followers, sometimes, we went into Chicago about nine days ago. Big mistake. The place was swarming! They just got finished with a big honorary parade, some two million people honoring the Chicago Blackhawks for winning the Stanley Cup. You wouldn’t believe it. Ninety-nine percent of Chicago was wearing Blackhawk shirts. Chief Blackhawk was right there! We had guys coming up to us on the street waving Blackhawk flags, with no shirt on; coming up to us as total strangers and shouting, “Yea Blackhawks! Yea! Go Blackhawks!” They were just overjoyed! Total strangers just giving each other high fives. You go into the bathrooms and on the toilet paper is printed Chief Blackhawk! (Ok, that’s an exaggeration.) But that, folks, is loving something with all your heart. You couldn’t miss it.
May people never miss that you love Jesus with all your heart! May He capture your passions, fire your imagination, be the power in your life. Wow! Nobody told those Chicago folks that you “had” to love the Blackhawks or you “had” to go wave a flag. It came out of that huge passion that just overflowed from their hearts. Moses passed the torch to Joshua and in that passing, the people of God had their apathy, their half-heartedness burned out of them by forty years in the wilderness: and now, finally, they were ready to love the Lord with their whole heart. They were ready to go in to the promised land!
Jesus Christ makes my heart beat! He fills my passions. Love for Jesus Christ has cured a thousand other ills in my life. Folks, that’s where we’re going to love Him - with all of our heart passion - because that’s what its all about. Whatever we love most will determine everything else about us. I love Jesus Christ with everything in me: and I call on you to join me in that great future ahead.
Love Jesus with your soul. Folks, I guess that means with all your guts. Let Jesus into the place of your deepest pain, when your heart cracks open. Whether that is from missing John, or missing somebody else who’s not just in Pittsburg, but they have gone on to the Lord. Let Jesus into your pain. Love Him with your soul. Cry out to Him.
Love Him with your mind. “Joshua,” the Lord said, “let your mind be filled with my Word, the Bible, the revealed word of God.” Folks these are the words of God revealed by God through human authors. This Bible is the Word of God. Let our minds focus on it as we soar into our future. The Word of God is our absolute and infallible guide. “Do not let it depart from your mouth,” the Lord told Joshua. The Word of God is the torch we have been passed at First Presbyterian Church.
Then, love Him with all your strength. Throw yourself into Him! Make those Blackhawk fans look bored and complacent by comparison. Throw your whole self in.
So how do you love God with everything? Well, our scripture in the New Testament tells us - “We love because he first loved us.” Folks, you cannot “drum up” love for somebody. I didn’t have to “drum it up” for my wife Sherri! Love comes spiritually by focusing on God. Will you choose in this season to make Jesus Christ your focus, the focus of your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength? Will you focus on Him? Will you open your heart to Him? Whether it’s wounded and grieving or happy and whole? Will you surrender yourself to Him? Will you commit yourself to Him? Folks, that’s how you fall in love: by taking in, by focusing on, the object of your affection. Let that object not be an object: Let it be a person. Let it be Jesus!
So I close with these questions. Does Jesus Christ have your heart today? He loves your heart. But you must give him all the pieces in order for Him to make it whole! Are you angry about something in your life? Are you angry about John leaving? Yes I know some of you are. Are you angry with God about that? Let him have that anger! Keep open to Jesus Christ. He can heal you: but you must give Him all the pieces. Give Him all of your heart and let Jesus be that first love that you need and that we crave. Are you getting healed here? I see healing as a great vision ahead for us at First Presbyterian Church. This is “not a museum for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.” Yes you’ve heard that many times, but we’re pressing into that reality here! Does Jesus Christ have your heart?
Does he have your soul? John Stott says, “Christ’s lovers show their love by their obedience.” Will Jesus Christ have your soul as we move into our future? Who owns you? Who controls your priorities? Who calls the shots in your life?
Do you love Him with all your mind? The hymn “Be Thou My Vision” says, “You, Lord; thou art my best thought.” Is Jesus Christ your best thought by day or by night, waking or sleeping? Are we going to look at things from a biblical perspective? Do you let the Word of God shape your mind and form your thoughts? Are you digging deeper into that? I’m going to give you a practical challenge this morning. I challenge you to dig into our church library right over there. Folks, I think sometimes that’s Rochelle’s greatest-kept secret. Get in there! Read those books. Get a hold of books like Nicky Gumble’s The Questions of Life. Dig into why Christianity is true. Folks, First Pres. will never be the place where you “check your brains at the door.” We believe that Christianity has intellectual integrity, that it’s solid; there’s reasons for why we believe what we believe. Some of those are covered here in The Questions of Life and in a thousand other books in that room across the hallway. Dig in there, folks! Let’s be a people who love God with our mind! When the Lord passed the torch from Moses to Joshua and the people, this is what God focused on, and He said, “Joshua, you ignore this Word of God and you will be in quicksand. You hold on to this and you will find the promised land.” Love God with your mind!
Someone once said, “Jesus wants a mind in us through which Christ thinks, a heart through which He loves, a body through which He moves and a life through which Jesus Christ lives." Folks, we’ve got so much going on in our midst about the “horizontal”: that second command to love one another. We love one another so well and there’s even more of that to come! But the vertical, that greatest command, we are learning to go vertical first to Jesus Christ! There is a galaxy of knowing Christ ahead of us! Together we are going to go vertical, further than we’ve ever been before, into God. As we begin this transition time we are going to be engaging in a process, as a whole congregation, called the MAPS (Mission Analysis Profile) process. The underlying question of that whole process is going to be: Why are we here? What are God’s dreams for us and where are we going from here? This is my first answer to that question: “We are going vertical like never before.” Folks, that is the torch that has been passed to us: let’s look to Jesus Christ and go after Him with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength. Let us take that torch; let the gleam in our eyes be about Jesus, and go running after Him!
Let’s pray: Lord, that’s where we run: after you - with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength. Father, as the song says, often “we’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places.” But God, now as a church, we rededicate ourselves to Jesus Christ. We’re looking for our direction to you, Lord. So God, as we’ve said a farewell to John and Melany, we grab hold of all the love that was in them for us, all the love that was in them for You - and we are going vertical, higher into you, Lord, than we’ve ever been before. We can’t wait! So give us the courage, Lord, to face that future, to enjoy it, to relish it, to press into it, with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength: now and forever. For it is in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Rev. Dr. James A. Tilley
First Presbyterian Church