Before I die I fully intend to participate in the Olympic games, and not in table tennis either. Though we all know I could. And not as a sumo wrester or in synchronized swimming. And not as a spectator, but as a runner. I want to carry the torch in the Olympic relay. One of my classmates got to carry the torch back in 1992 and I’ve been jealous ever since. And so mark my words, before I die, I will be a torchbearer.
For those of you unfamiliar with the ritual, the Olympic Torch is ignited several months before the opening celebration and is carried around the world – thousands of runners, each with a torch, all passing one flame. One runner receives the flame, guards the flame, and then carefully passes that flame to the next runner, who must be very careful to make sure that the flame does not go out. It is considered a great honor to carry the Olympic torch and to pass the Olympic flame. Of course, the roots of the torch relay come from the ancient Greek games, where the flame was passed from runner to runner as a symbol for knowledge and life and wisdom, which the Greeks insisted be passed from one generation to the next. In other words, when it came to what was important to them – the spirit of knowledge and life and wisdom – the Greeks prided themselves on being keepers of the flame, and of course passers of the flame. The thought of letting the flame go out was scandalous. Dropping the torch? Unheard of. Because passing the flame wasn’t just considered an honor – it was a duty.
Every single one of us is here tonight because someone passed the flame of faith to us. Now, I know we’re all at different places in our faith. For some of us, the flame of faith is burning brighter than ever, and maybe for some, keeping the flame from going out is a daily struggle. But if we have faith, we have it because someone passed it on to us. Maybe it was our parents, or grandparents, a teacher, a friend, a priest, a pastor, a bible study leader, a camp counselor, a combo of all of these – but someone invested, someone prayed, someone loved – someone’s flame burned so brightly that they just had to pass it on to us. And it’s incredibly important that we understand that when it comes to faith, this passing of the flame has been God’s design from the beginning. Abraham passed the flame to Isaac who then passed it on to Jacob who then passed it on to Joseph. Moses passed the flame to Joshua. Eli passed it to Samuel. Jesus passed it to the apostles. From the very beginning, God intended his people to be torchbearers – to get the flame, to guard the flame, and finally, to pass the flame. In every generation God asks His people, “Who loves my knowledge and my life and my wisdom so much that they’re willing to pass the flame?” You see, God doesn’t give us the flame of faith for our sake alone. That would be like receiving the Olympic torch and then running home to keep the flame burning in our room. No, God gives us the flame of faith to pass it. God wants to make us torchbearers.
Now, last week we heard part of Elijah’s story, and I say part of his story because after the showdown at Carmel Elijah basically has a nervous breakdown – the stress of being a prophet is just too great and Elijah begins to pray. And for a piece of candy, does anyone know what Elijah’s prayer is? That God will kill him. That’s his prayer, and God answers Elijah’s prayer – thankfully not by giving Elijah what he wants, but by giving him what he needs – someone to share the burden, someone to take his place. In other words, God sees that Elijah is burnt out and so He tells him that it’s time to pass the torch on to someone else. And that someone else is named Elisha.
Elijah … found Elisha in a field where there were twelve pairs of yoked oxen at work plowing; Elisha was in charge of the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak over him. Elisha deserted the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, "Please! Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye—then I'll follow you." "Go ahead," said Elijah, "but, mind you, don't forget what I've just done to you." So Elisha left; he took his yoke of oxen and butchered them. He made a fire with the plow and tackle and then boiled the meat—a true farewell meal for the family. Then he left and followed Elijah, becoming his right-hand man. (1 Kings 19: 19-21, The Message)
And so Elijah, who’s looking for a successor, sees Elisha plowing in the field, walks right up to him, takes off his cloak, and then places it around Elisha’s shoulders. And this gesture, which is foreign to us, would have been very clear to Elisha. When Elijah took off his cloak and put it on Elisha, that one act said more than any combination of words ever could, because in a visible and highly symbolic way Elijah is telling Elisha, “I’m inviting you to follow me and to learn from me. I want to spend time with you and teach you. I want to pass the flame on to you. Elisha, I want your flame to burn brighter and brighter so that one day you can lead God’s people as their prophet without me being at your side.” What an amazing invitation!
Now, there’s something we need to realize, because I think it’s the main reason we run away from our duty to be torchbearers – Elijah is asking Elisha to make an enormous sacrifice. To invite another person into a relationship with God, to pass on that flame of faith, is to ask them to sacrifice everything. To quote Jesus, “take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you have to lose it for me and for the gospel.” And that’s what Elijah is asking Elisha to do – to make an enormous sacrifice – to lose his life in order to do God’s work.
Now, we don’t know a whole lot about Elijah’s background. Maybe he grew up poor and didn’t have a lot of career options and said to himself, “Since I can’t make a profit I’ll become one.” But not Elisha. He’s a rich kid. You see, in Elisha’s day your average family owned a chicken or two. If a family had an ox, they’d be wealthy. But to have twelve teams of oxen, which for you non-math majors is twenty four total, was unheard of. Elisha’s family is freaking loaded. And what Elijah is asking Elisha to do is to walk away from his secure and wealthy lifestyle in order to follow a much riskier path of becoming a prophet, which usually meant a life of poverty, hiding, and unpopular truth-telling. And so Elisha has everything! And in essence, Elijah says, “give it up! Let me tell you about what happened on Mount Carmel, about what I saw God do. Following God might be risky, but I promise you it’s exciting. And it might mean poverty, but I promise your life will be rich. And it might mean losing your life, but I promise you, you’re going to save it.”
Now, as a side note, it would have been really easy for Elijah to look at Elisha, who had everything, and to have walked past him thinking to himself, “I doubt he’s all that interested in what I have to offer.” And I think that’s a powerful lesson for each of us. A lot of us have friends we assume aren’t interested in coming to church or talking about matters of faith, and so we don’t even try. We walk right by them. And in the process, we hide a huge piece of who we are because we just figure they’re not interested, or that they relate to God in “their own way,” whatever that means. But we should never assume that anyone is so well off that they don’t need the flame of faith that is the kingdom of God. Because once we’re captured by a vision of living and serving in the kingdom of God, we find it irresistible. And God knows that so many of the people we interact with on a day-to-day basis are just one conversation away or one invitation away from being a keeper of the flame and a bearer of the torch. God has a strong track record of choosing unlikely people to be his torch bearers.
Ok, back to our story. Elisha follows Elijah and proves to be an incredibly loyal apprentice. Elijah even gives Elisha a few chances to walk away and back out of his prophetic call, but each time Elisha responds with these words: “as surely as the Lord lives, I will not leave you.” Their journey reaches it’s climax when they arrive at the Jordan River because they both know that their time together is short and that Elisha will soon be on his own. And then Elijah does something significant. He takes off his cloak – the same one he spread over Elisha when their journey first began – and with his cloak Elijah strikes the Jordan River. And just as the water separated a long time ago for Moses and Joshua, it now separates for Elijah, and Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan River on dry ground. And then Elijah does a wonderful thing. Knowing that he’s about to leave this world he turns his full attention to Elisha, his loyal disciple. And what does Elijah do? He doesn’t give Elisha any more advice or instructions or commands or secret prophet tricks. But instead he asks Elisha a question – “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” That’s it, a question– “what can I do for you?”
Now, before we look at Elisha’s response, I want you to think of some people in your life that God may be calling you to pass the torch on to – a sibling, a friend, a classmate. Remember, God doesn’t give us the flame of faith for our sake alone. From the very beginning, God intended his people to be torchbearers. And so if we want to take seriously our duty to pass the torch of faith on to the people in our life, this is a great question to ask them. And it’s so simple and non-threatening. What can I do for you? How can I serve you? What do you need to become the person God’s calling you to be? You never know, maybe they’ll just tell you. “I need prayer. I need you to bring me to church. I need to find a Bible Study. I need to do an outreach project, but I’m just too scared to go alone.” Think of the people that God has placed in your life, the people with whom you have influence. When’s the last time you asked them that question – what can I do for you?
Well, here’s how Elisha answered Elijah’s question – “let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” I have to admit, the first time I read this story, Elisha’s request sounded greedy, almost as if he was saying “I want to preach twice as well and work twice as many miracles.” But that’s not what’s going on here at all. You see Elisha is using what scholars call inheritance language. For example, back in Deuteronomy 21:17, God said that the heir of an Israelite family – the firstborn – is to receive a double portion of the inheritance. And so in Elisha’s world, to ask for a double portion is the same thing as asking to be someone’s heir. That’s why he uses the word inherit – let me “inherit” a double portion of your spirit. And so Elisha isn’t asking for two helpings of the Spirit. All he’s saying is this – “Elijah, I’ve followed you, I’ve watched you, and I’ve seen your devotion, the difference your life and faithfulness have made. Israel is a better place because of you and your ministry and I want to continue your legacy. I want my life to make a difference even after you’re gone. And so let me inherit your work.”
Well all of the sudden a chariot of fire and horses appear and take Elijah away into the sky. And as a side note, this only happens twice in the Bible – to Elijah and Enoch. And as a second side note, this is biblical proof that unicorns do exist. Anyway, Elijah is swept into the arms of God, and Elisha is left behind with a mission – it’s his turn to carry the torch. And so Elijah is gone and he only leaves one thing behind. Can anyone guess what that is? His cloak. And Elisha looks down and he sees his mentor’s cloak, which to him is a reminder – it’s a reminder of the torch that has been passed on to him. And so Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak and walks back to the Jordan River. He takes the cloak and rolls it up, just like he had seen Elijah do. He lifts his arm and says a prayer, just like he had seen Elijah do. And then, in what I think is the most pivotal moment of Elisha’s life, he strikes the water of the Jordan River, the waters part, and Elisha crosses on dry ground. He did it. By himself. The torch has been passed. Elijah’s spirit is now alive in Elisha and Elisha is ready for his mission – he’s ready to be a torchbearer for God.
Elisha goes on to have an extraordinary life. Like Elijah before him, he challenges the most powerful people in society with utter fearlessness. And at the end of his life we see Elisha passing that torch on to his own servants. Elisha, the rich kid, goes on to live an extraordinary life. Why? Because someone was bold enough to invest in him. To pray for him. To wrap his cloak around him. To pass the torch to him.
I’ve had countless people tell me that Christianity is one generation away from being extinct – that 100 years from now, following Jesus, putting on Jesus’ cloak, will be a thing of the past. Let me end by saying this – they’re all false prophets. People have been saying that for 2000 years, but followers of Jesus – well, they keep on passing the flame. Now, you and I have received an enormous invitation. As people who have the flame, God invites us to guard the flame and to run with the flame. But God wants us to go deeper. In every generation God asks the question – “Who loves my knowledge and my life and my wisdom so much that they’re willing to pass the flame?”
The ancient Greeks prided themselves on being passers of the flame, which wasn’t just considered an honor – it was a duty. And so my message tonight is this – it’s a duty for us too.
And so I hope that when college ends or grad school ends you’ll leave this place ready to be a torchbearer for God. Because if you’re not then what that means is that I’ve passed on the wrong kind of flame to you. Because the One we serve is the Light of the world, the Flame of the world. And He’s the One inviting us to run this race we call faith. You see, the Church is made up of thousands of runners with thousands of torches – but there’s only one flame. And if we catch the right flame, and we’re seduced by a vision of living and serving in the Kingdom of God, we come to see pretty quickly that the only way to keep our own flame burning is to pass it on to someone else.