Passing the Torch

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 21
SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit[a] of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses.
Deuteronomy 34: 9 (NIV)


Today we come to the end of the story that we began way back in July when Jacob fled from his brother Esau after cheating him out of his birthright. You’ll remember that on the road, Jacob laid down to sleep. While he slept, he had a dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending the stairway to heaven. In that dream, God also made Jacob a promise; that God would bless his descendants and make a great nation out of them. God also promised to bless all of the world through them and that they would receive the land that Jacob way laying on as their inheritance forever.

Today is the day when Moses stands on Mount Nebo in the land of Moab and looks westward to the land that God had promised to give to Israel over 500 years earlier. He is just a few kilometers from the place where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea. He looks across to the Promised Land where God promised to lead them forty years earlier when they left Egypt. A long time has passed. The entire generation of adults who left Egypt has died and been buried in the wilderness. A new generation is going to enter the Promised Land that will eventually become known as Israel. This new generation will also require a new leader. Moses’ days are numbered. God has told him that his ministry is over and that, while he may look at the Promised Land from across the river, he will not enter it.


Today we fast forward forty years to the end of the Exodus. Much happened in the intervening period since Moses stood on Mount Sinai and spoke with God. The story that we are going to read this morning is found at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy. In this passage, the torch of leadership is passed from Moses to Joshua. It begins with Deuteronomy 34:1-4 (NIV):

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

This a pivotal time in the life of the people of Israel. Moses has led the people for forty years but his ministry is now over. He has taken the people as far as he can and it is time to pass the torch to someone else.

That’s never an easy thing. To pass the torch means to surrender control and influence. It means that those in charge must step aside and allow others to take the reins. That was true for Moses and the people of Israel. It is equally true today of the church.

The world we live in is constantly changing and the church must change along with it. That doesn’t mean that we change the message. The message of Jesus Christ is timeless. But how we communicate that message and how we operate the church has to change or the church runs the risk of becoming irrelevant and getting left behind.

The means that the church must also look for new leaders who will take over when it is time for the current leaders to step aside. I’m beginning to think about that in a very personal way. I am now past the usual retirement age of sixty-five and I know that I now have a limited shelf life. We are half-way through the first year of my three year appointment. And while we may look to re-appoint at the end of my contract, there are no guarantees. And so, what happens when I leave? Nothing lasts forever.

That’s not only true of me. It’s also true of much of our key leadership. When I arrived sixteen years ago, many of today’s key leaders were in their forties. Now many of us are collecting pension. How time flies. That means that the writing is on the wall. Not only do I have a limited shelf life, so do any of our other key leaders. The only difference is that some of us have a best before date that comes sooner than others.

The challenge for us is to ensure that we, as a church, develop leaders who will lead our church when our time is up.

As many of you know, I spent over thirty years as an Army Reserve Chaplain. My last position before retiring was as the Deputy Division Chaplain for 4th Canadian Division of the Canadian Army. That basically made me the senior ranking Reserve Chaplain in Ontario and second ranking Chaplain in all of Ontario. It was a very interesting, responsible and stressful four years. And I am so glad that I had that opportunity. But one of the very first tasks I was given when I was promoted to that position was to identify my successor.

We don’t always to a very good job of that in the church and we don’t always do a very good job of that in congregations. But the story of Moses passing the torch gives us some clues about how we can do it better and more intentionally.


We continue with the story in Deuteronomy 34:5-8 (NIV):

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.

Moses dies on Mount Nebo with God by his side. Before he dies, from the top of the mountain, he looks across the Jordan River to the city of Jericho. That is significant because Jericho is in the Promised Land. Moses sees it from Mount Nebo. He can almost taste it. But at God’s command, Moses will never enter the Promised Land. Like all of the other adults who left Egypt he refused to enter the Promised Land the first time God told them to enter it way back in Numbers 13-14. We didn’t read that passage in this series but, of all of the people of Israel, only two men had faith that God would give them victory over the giants who lived in the land that God had promised to them. Those two men were Joshua and Caleb and, of all the adults, only they, because they trusted in God the first time, would be allowed to enter the Promised Land the second time God called them to do so.

I want to note something about Moses. It says that while he was a hundred and twenty years old, his eyes were not weak and his strength was not gone. What this tell us is that Moses was not all burned out when he stepped aside. He didn’t pass the torch because he could not long carry it. He passed the torch because it was time to pass the torch. He recognized that Israel needed a new leader and that his time was done.

That reminds me of professional athletes who stay too long. They love the game and want to play forever but they can’t because age takes it toll and there’s always a batch of younger players ready to bump them off the team. Lots of players stay too long. One player who didn’t was Payton Manning. I confess that I’m not a huge Peyton Manning fan but I am impressed by the way he not only played but also ended his career. Always a better than average quarterback, he played for two teams and won two Superbowls with both of them. But it was his final year that put the icing on the cake. At the age of forty, Peyton Manning led his underdog Denver Broncos to defeat the heavily favoured Carolina Panthers in Superbowl 50.

Lots of athletes would have looked at that accomplishment and signed on for another season for a few million dollars but eighteen years behind centre had taken their toll on Payton Manning and injuries were piling up. And so after winning his fourth Superbowl he retired. Rather than letting the world watch him decline in his abilities, he left at the top of his game and passed the torch to whoever would call signals after him.

As church leaders, we need to know when it’s time to pass the torch and step aside. The truth, however, is that too many church leaders stay on too long. And when they do that, the church suffers. Better that we remember Moses who knew when it was time to pass the torch even though his eyes were not weak and his strength was not gone.


Moses has passed the torch to Joshua. It has gone from one generation to the next. That has always been the case with nations, peoples and tribes. It has also always been the case with the church.

How do we do that? How do we pass the torch and how do we do it well? Deuteronomy 34:9 (NIV) offers some clues:

Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the Lord had commanded Moses.

Within this verse are two important things that we need to consider as we prepare to pass on leadership in the Church.

The first is this: the Church needs to pass on leadership to those who are filled with the Spirit of God. Joshua was. We know he was. Why? Because he acted like he was. He alone with Caleb had the faith to follow God into the Promised Land. He and Caleb alone were willing to face the giants who lived there. He and Caleb alone had the faith to know that if God truly wanted them to enter the Promised Land and attack the giants that God would give them victory. Joshua was a man of faith. He was a man who was willing to face the giants if God commanded him to do that because he knew that God would deliver him.

We need leaders who are filled with the Spirit. The trouble is that in the past the Church has not always been so diligent in choosing its leaders, Sometimes we’ve been happy simply to get a warm body to fill a position. The Bible, however, has some interesting things to say about leaders. Listen to what it says in Titus 1:7-9 (NIV):

Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Clearly, God has high standards for the leaders of the Church. Warm bodies are not good enough. We need people who are filled with the God’s Spirit, who are above reproach, slow to anger, not violent or greedy but are good, upright, self-controlled, holy and disciplined. That sounds like a pretty long laundry list and it is. But I am also convinced that if God wants us to put those types of people in positions of leadership that God will provide those people. We need those Spirit-filled people of faith to be our leaders.

That’s the first thing we need to look for as we search for new leaders in the Church. The second thing that this story tells us is that we must also equip our leaders to lead. That’s what it means in verse 9 where it says that Moses laid his hands on Joshua. Laying on of hands is a sign that not only did Joshua have the right character and spirit, he also had all the tools and talents that he needed to do the job. And why not? Moses had been his mentor for forty years. When Moses laid hands on him, he was effectively saying, “Joshua, I have taught you all that I can teach you. I have trained you as best I can and now I give you to God to continue this journey.”

That example can teach us to do things better in the Church. Far too often we just take someone and put them in a position and expect that they will know what they are supposed to do. And then we wonder why they get frustrated and sometimes fail. Here is what the army taught me over thirty years. Yes, there are some people who are naturally better leaders than others but leadership can be learned and it can be enhanced. We can train the next generation of leaders in the church if we are willing to take the time to mentor the younger ones on how they can faithfully operate and lead the church when their time comes.

Joshua had both the faith and the training to be the new leader of the people of Israel. What that tells us in the Church is that, if we are to be faithful to God, we must both identify those who have the faith to be leaders and then we must equip them for success.


The story ends with Deuteronomy 34:10-12 (NIV) which says:

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt – to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.

This almost sounds like a throw away verse. Moses is gone. Joshua has taken over so let’s give Moses a big pat on the back for all that he did. But there is much more here than meets the eye because it speaks of a part of passing the torch that often gets missed. That is, that as we move forward into the future, we always need to honour the past and remember that what every generation of leaders does is based on the foundation that was laid by the leaders who came before.

I know ministers who bad mouth their predecessors because they didn’t do things then the same way we do things now. That might be true but it’s true that there were probably good reason for doing things differently back then. Times change and, while the message does not change, how that message is communicated and enacted may very well change and with those changes come different leadership needs and styles.

That should not be all that surprising because we see in Moses and Joshua two very different types of leaders whom God called to lead in two very different situations. Moses was the one who led Israel out of Egypt. He was raised in Pharaoh’s court and knew how to operate in that environment. No wonder that God sent him to tell Pharaoh to let the people go. Moses would have been given the best education as a child in Pharaoh’s court. No wonder God used him to establish the law, the commandments and the temple rites and rituals. His background made him good at those sorts of things.

But as the people of Israel moved out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land, they needed someone with a different skill set. The needed a military leader who had the courage and the strategic vision to defeat the giants who still inhabited the land. Joshua could not have accomplished what Moses did and Moses could not have done what Joshua is being asked to do. But God knew that and God puts people in the right places to do the things that he needs them to do. Our challenge is to recognize that reality in our ministry.

So, what kind of leaders does the church need as we step into the future? That’s a great question because I think the kind of leaders we need now is different than what was needed in the past. In the past, it was good enough for our leaders to be managers. The church was an established part of the community and led from the centre of the community. It had programmes and resources that enabled it to do what it had done for a long time.

But churches are being pushed further and further out of mainstream society – in fact, in many ways, the church has become counter-cultural. In this new era, we need people who can lead from the margins of society. That takes a different type of person. It takes more imagination and more courage. It takes an ability to do some careful analysis of what is going on around us and discover those areas of our communities where there are unmet needs that the church can fill and in filling those needs maybe touch the hearts of others for Jesus.

Being a church leader in the past was I think an easier job than it is now but we must still honour those who came before us because every generation builds on the foundation of those who went before them. The church is no different. The people of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land where they will defeat the giants that they refused to face forty years earlier. A new leader named Joshua will lead them in that task. Today we may not be defeating giants but we are standing on their shoulders. May our descendants someday look back at us and say that we were faithful in our work and in passing the torch to them.


God of Heaven and Earth, you have been our refuge in every generation.

Before the mountains were brought forth, you were there.

Before the earth and the world were formed, from age to age, you are God.

We, your human children, are frail in your sight.

For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday

a day in the past, a watch in the night.

In every age, O God, you are our refuge.

Hear our prayers, O God, for your world. There is much conflict and destruction. In the midst of pain and struggle, we need to hear your message of peace. We need the reassurance of your constant presence and your unfailing love.

Hear our prayers, O God, for our nation and our government. In spite of our prosperity, we sometimes life in tension. Give us the wisdom to see beyond race, language, gender, and colour to know that the person within is your creation deserving of respect and dignity and worthy of hearing the Gospel message.

Hear our prayers, O God, for the sick of our congregation and community. We lift them up in prayer and pray your blessings upon them and their families. Touch all of us with the power of your Holy and Healing Spirit in whatever areas we are most it the need. Soothe us, comfort us, and empower us for the ministry of Christ Jesus our Saviour.

Make us glad in spite of afflictions we may have suffered.

Show your servants your work and let your children see your glory.

Let your favour be upon us and prosper the work of our hands.

In every age, O God, you have been our refuge.

These prayers we offer in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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